William Watson (poet)

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Sir William Watson
Sir William Watson.jpg
Photo by Elliott & Fry, Ltd.
Born (1858-08-02)2 August 1858
Burley-in-Wharfedale, Yorkshire
Died 13 August 1935(1935-08-13) (aged 77)
Rottingdean, Sussex
Signature Signature of William Watson.jpg

Sir William Watson (2 August 1858 – 13 August 1935) was an English poet, popular in his time for the celebratory content, and famous for the controversial political content, of his verse. He was born in Burley, in present-day West Yorkshire.

He was a prolific poet of the 1890s, and a contributor to The Yellow Book, though without 'decadent' associations. Indeed he was very much on the traditionalist wing of English poetry. His reputation was established in 1891, with the publication of 'Wordsworth's Grave', thought by many to be his finest work. He was well equipped to write suitable effusions on public occasions, indeed better equipped than many of his contemporaries. This made him, on Tennyson's death in 1892, a strong candidate to be his eulogist, the commission resulting in his fine 'Lachrymae Musarum'. A breakdown later in 1892 and its resulting untoward behaviour led to him being passed over for the position of Poet Laureate by the then Prime Minister Lord Salisbury in favour of Alfred Austin, who was seen as a lesser poet.

He regained his standing in 1894 with the publication of 'Odes and other poems', which included the accomplished 'Vita Nuova', expressing gratitude for his recovery. He courted controversy later in the decade with a passionate attack on Turkey ('The Purple East' 1896) and then later again with intensely anti-Boer War poems. In his celebratory mode, it particularly galled him to see his own unofficial 'Ode on the Coronation of King Edward VII' and compare it with the 'feeble' performance by Austin. After Austin's death in 1913, Prime Minister Asquith seriously considered him for the laureateship, despite the fact that he had written a cruel pasquil against his socialite wife Margot Asquith ('She is not old, she is not young/ The woman with the serpent's tongue'), but because of the contentious nature of his political poems, he was again passed over, this time for Robert Bridges. Perhaps in exchange for writing a panegyric of Lloyd George, or perhaps because of his support of the Great War effort, he was awarded a knighthood in 1917.

Watson saw himself as a lifelong enemy of tyranny and friend of liberty; his breakdown led to a reported continuing sense of persecution-mania and neuroticism, and his honesty in expressing his political views cost him dearly in his professional life. After the Great War he was largely forgotten, until a number of literary men in 1935 issued a public appeal for a fund to support him in his old age; but when he died the following year, his widow Lady Watson was reported to have been obliged to seek employment in domestic service. In all he was a sad example of a writer who, though initially popularly recognised, was then neglected because of changing tastes, a misfortune all too common in the twentieth century.


  • The Prince's Quest and Other Poems shaunak (1880)
  • Epigrams of Art, Life and Nature (1884)
  • Wordsworth’s Grave and Other Poems (1890)
  • Poems (1892)
  • Lachrymae Musarum (1892)
  • Lyric Love: An Anthology (1892)
  • Eloping Angels : A Caprice (1893)
  • The Poems of William Watson (1893)
  • Excursions in Criticism: Being Some Prose Recreations Of A Rhymer (1893)
  • Odes and Other Poems (1894)
  • The Father of the Forest & Other Poems (1895)
  • The Purple East: A Series Of Sonnets On England's Desertion of Armenia (1896)
  • The Year of Shame (1897)
  • The Hope of the World and Other Poems (1898)
  • The Collected Poems of William Watson (1899)
  • Ode on the Coronation of King Edward VII (1902)
  • Selected Poems (1903)
  • For England. Poems Written During Estrangement (1904)
  • New Poems (1909)
  • Sable and Purple (1910)
  • The Heralds of the Dawn: A Play in Eight Scenes (1912)
  • The Muse in Exile (1913)
  • Pencraft. A Plea For The Older Ways (1916)
  • The Man Who Saw: and Other Poems Arising out of the War (1917)
  • Retrogression and Other Poems (1917)
  • The Superhuman Antagonists and Other Poems (1919)
  • "Ireland Unfreed. Poems and Verses written in the early months of 1921" (1921)


  • Jean Moorcroft Wilson (1981) I Was an English Poet: a Critical Biography of Sir William Watson 1858-1936
  • Kunitz, Stanley J and Howard Haycraft, Twentieth Century Authors. H.W.Wilson, 1942.

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