Thomas Watson (poet)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For the poet and cleric of the same period, see Thomas Watson (bishop).
For other people named Thomas Watson, see Thomas Watson (disambiguation).

Thomas Watson (1555–1592) was an English lyrical poet. He wrote in both English and Latin, and was particularly admired for the compositions in Latin. His unusual 18 line sonnets were influential, though their form was not generally imitated.

Early life[edit]

Watson was the son of William Watson (d. 1559) and Anne Lee (d. 1561).[1] He was educated at Winchester College and Oxford University.[2] He then spent seven years in France and Italy before studying law in London. Though he often signed his works as "student of law", he never practised law as his true passion was literature.[3]

Watson's De remedio amoris, perhaps his earliest important composition, is lost, as is his "piece of work written in the commendation of women-kind", which was also in Latin verse. The earliest surviving work by Watson is a 1581 Latin version of Antigone (Sophocles)|Antigone dedicated to Philip Howard, 20th Earl of Arundel. It also contains an appendix of Latin allegorical poems and experiments in classical metres.

English poetry[edit]

The following year Watson appears for the first time as an English poet in verses prefixed to George Whetstone's Heptameron, and in a far more important work, as the author of the Hecatompathia or Passionate Centurie of Love, dedicated to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who had read the poems in manuscript and encouraged Watson to publish them. Also entitled Watson's Passion the work contains over 100 poems in French and Italian styles, including a number of translations. The technical peculiarity of these interesting poems is that, although they appear and profess to be sonnets, they are written in triple sets of common six-line stanza, and therefore have eighteen lines each.

He was recognized for his poetic "Methods and motifs" which occurred between 1580 and 1590. He was held in high regard by his contemporaries even though his style was very similar to his late 15th- and early 16th-century Italian predecessors Sannazaro and Strozzi. He openly drew from Petrarch and Ronsard, with what Sidney Lee describes as "drops of water from Petrarch and Ronsard's fountains." Watson seriously desired to recommend his 18-line form to future sonneteers, but it attracted no imitators in that respect, although The Oxford Companion to English Literature notes that Watson's sonnets "appear to have been studied by Shakespeare and other contemporaries."

The little we have of Watson's prose is highly euphuistic. He was a friend of John Lyly at Oxford, and both continued their literary connection in London under the patronage of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, himself an Oxford alumni.[4]

Latin poetry[edit]

As his reputation grew, Watson's name hecame associated with such literary powers as Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, Matthew Roydon and Thomas Achelley. He also gained a following of younger writers like Barnfield and Thomas Nashe, who regarded him as the best Latin poet in England. In 1585 he published his first Latin epic 'Amyntas', eleven days of a shepherd's mourning for the death of his lover, Phyllis.[5] Watson's epic was afterwards translated into English by Abraham Fraunce, without permission of the author (1587).[6] Fraunce's translation was highly criticized. "His sins of translation result generally from an excess of zeal rather than a failure to understand his author's intention." Although a relationship to Torquato Tasso's "Aminta' is often supposed, in fact there is none. In the fourth reprint of his English version in 1591 Fraunce also printed his own translation of the Tasso work, and it is this that has given rise to the confusion. In 1590 he published, in English and Latin verse, his Meliboeus, an elegy on the death of Sir Francis Walsingham.

Late work and posthumous publications[edit]

Related to music, he also wrote a laudatory poem about John Case's The Praise of Music (1586). In 1590 he authored The First Set of Italian Madrigals. This was published by Thomas Este, and mainly consisted of compositions by the influential madrigal composer Luca Marenzio, whose work had become popular in England through Musica Transalpina of 1588 (also published by Thomas Este). Following the example of the earlier publication, Watson provided the madrigals with English lyrics. He was less literal in his approach to the Italian originals than Musica Transalpina, writing as he put it, "not to the sense of the originall dittie, but after the affection of the Noate".[7] Like the earlier collection, The First Set of Italian Madrigals contains music by William Byrd, in this case two settings of an original English text, "This sweet and merry month of May", presumably by Watson.[8]

Of the remainder of Watson's career nothing is known, save that on the 26th of September 1592 he was buried in the church of St Bartholomew the Less, and that a month later his second Latin epic "Amintae Gaudia" was seen through the press by his friend"CM," possibly Marlowe. This tells the story of Amyntas' love, and eventual winning, of Phyllis, and is therefore chronologically the first part of the earlier epic. In the following year his last book, The Tears of Fancie, or Love Disdained (1593), was posthumously published under the initials T.W. This is a collection of sixty sonnets, regular in form, so far at least as to have fourteen lines each. Spenser is supposed to have alluded to the untimely death of Watson in Colin Clouts Come Home Again, when he says: "Amyntas quite is gone and lies full low, Having his Amaryllis left to moan".


He is mentioned by Francis Meres in company with Shakespeare, Peele and Marlowe among "the best for tragedie", but no dramatic work of his except the translations above mentioned is extant today. It is certain that Watson enjoyed a great reputation in his lifetime, and that he was not without a direct influence upon the youth of Shakespeare. He was the first, after the original experiment made by Wyat and Surrey, to introduce the pure imitation of Petrarch into English poetry. "He shows his inventiveness by his variety of treatment...It is the number of different ways in which he can introduce these devices in this matter than measures his success as a poet." He was well read in Italian, French and Greek literature.

In modern literature[edit]

Watson plays a prominent part in the novel A Dead Man in Deptford by Anthony Burgess, in which he is a close friend of Christopher Marlowe. In the book Watson introduces Marlowe to Sir Francis Walsingham and he also contributes to several of Marlowe's plays.


  1. ^ Alhiyari, Ibrahim, ‘Thomas Watson: New Biographical Evidence and his Translation of Antigone’, PhD dissertation, Texas State University, May 2006:
  2. ^ The Oxford Companion to English Literature 7th e., edited by Dinah Birch (Oxford: OUP, 2009), p. 1050.
  3. ^ “Watson, Thomas.” British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary. 1952.
  4. ^ Dover Wilson, John. John Lyly, Macmillan and Bowes, Cambridge, 1905.
  5. ^ Dickey, Franklin M., and Walter F. Staton, eds. Amyntas & The Lamentations of Amyntas, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. Print.
  6. ^ “Watson, Thomas.” The Cambridge Guide to English Literature. 1983. Print.
  7. ^ Thomas Watson: The first set of Italian madrigals Englished. Retrieved December 2013
  8. ^ Owens, Jessie Ann. Italian Madrigals Englished (1590). Notes. Music Library Association, Inc. 2004. Accessed via HighBeam Research 18 Dec. 2013 <> (subscription required).

External links[edit]