Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Watson, Thomas (1557?-1592)

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WATSON, THOMAS (1557?–1592), poet, seems to have been born in London about 1557. According to Anthony à Wood he spent some part of his youth at Oxford, but his college there has not been identified. There was a Thomas Watson, of a good Worcestershire family, who matriculated from St. Mary Hall on 28 May 1580, aged 19 (Oxford Univ. Reg. Oxf. Hist. Soc. ii. ii. 93), but his identity with the poet seems doubtful. At the university, according to Wood, he occupied himself, ‘not in logic and philosophy, as he ought to have done, but in the smooth and pleasant studies of poetry and romance, whereby he obtained an honourable name among the students in those faculties.’ The classics formed his chief study, and he became a classical scholar of notable attainments. But he left the university without a degree, and, migrating to London, addressed himself to the law. He is said to have joined an inn of court, and he usually describes himself in his publications as ‘Londinensis Juris Studiosus’ (or ‘I. V. Stud.’), but his connection with the legal profession seems to have been nominal. His main interests in life were literary. In his early days he was not, he tells us, ‘minded ever to have emboldened himself so far as to thrust in foot amongst our English poets.’ But he designed a series of original poems and translations in Latin verse, and closely studied Italian and French poetry. For the gratification of himself and a few sympathetic friends he turned Petrarch's sonnets into Latin, and he wrote a Latin poem called ‘De Remedio Amoris.’ Other of his early Latin verses dealt with ‘The Love Abuses of Juppiter.’ These pieces were only circulated in manuscript. None were sent to press, and they have disappeared.

In 1581 Watson visited Paris, and his aptitude for Latin verse gained him there the admiration of one Stephen Broelmann, a jurist and Latin poet of Cologne, who was also visiting Paris. In Paris, too, he seems to have met Sir Francis Walsingham, who was there on a diplomatic mission in the summer of 1581. Walsingham showed an interest in Watson's literary endeavours, and after his death Watson recalled how his ‘tunes’ delighted the ears of Sir Francis while both were sojourning on the banks of the Seine. Before Watson left France Broelmann addressed to him some Latin elegiacs, urging him to publish his Latin work. The result was Watson's first publication, a Latin translation of Sophocles' ‘Antigone.’ It was licensed by the Stationers' Company to John Wolfe on 31 July 1581 (Collier, Extracts from Reg. of Stationers' Company, ii. 149, ed. 1849). The title of the published book runs: ‘Sophoclis Antigone. Interprete Thoma Watsono, I. V. studioso. Huic adduntur pompæ quædam, ex singulis Tragœdiæ actis deriuatæ; & post eas, totidem Themata Sententiis refertissima; eodem Thoma Watsono Authore. Londini Excudebat Iohannes Wolfius, 1581.’ The dedication was addressed to Philip Howard, earl of Arundel. There are commendatory verses by Philip Harrison, Christopher Atkinson, and William Camden the antiquary. The ‘Pompæ’ at the end of the volume were allegorical descriptions of virtues and vices of Watson's own invention. The four ‘Themata’ were skilful exercises in different kinds of Latin verse such as iambics, sapphics, anapæstic dimeters, and choriambic asclepiadean metre.

Thenceforth Watson identified himself with the profession of letters, although he always affected something of his original attitude of a gentleman amateur. He became a prominent figure in the literary society of London. In John Lyly, the author of ‘Euphues,’ and in George Peele, the dramatist, he found warm admirers and devoted friends. He once supped with Nash at the Nag's Head in Cheapside, and laughed with the satirist over Gabriel Harvey's pedantries. He contributed commendatory verses to two books issued in 1582: English verses by him in ballad metre prefaced George Whetstone's ‘Heptameron,’ and a decastichon appeared in Christopher Ocklande's ‘Anglorum Prœlia.’ He still maintained close relations with Sir Francis Walsingham, and came to know his son-in-law, Sir Philip Sidney, and other members of the statesman's family; but his patrons rapidly grew in number, and ultimately included most of the men of culture at Elizabeth's court.

Watson's earliest effort in English verse—that was published separately—was licensed for the press to Gabriel Cawood on 31 March 1582, under the title of ‘Watson's Passions, manifestinge the true frenzy of love.’ It was soon afterwards published as ‘ἙΚΑΤΟΜΠΑΘΙΑ, or Passionate Centurie of Loue, Divided into two parts: whereof, the first expresseth the Authours sufferance in Loue; the latter, his long farewell to Loue and all his tyrannie. Composed by Thomas Watson, Gentleman: and published at the request of certaine Gentlemen his very frendes’ (black letter), London, 4to [1582]. A perfect copy of the rare volume is in the British Museum; five other perfect copies are known (cf. Huth Library Cat.) At Britwell are two copies, one perfect and another imperfect. George Steevens, the former owner of the latter copy, possessed a second imperfect copy with interesting manuscript notes of early date, some by a member of the Cornwallis family. This copy John Mitford [q. v.] acquired; he described it in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1846, i. 491). In the Harleian MS. 3277 seventy-eight of the hundred poems are transcribed in a sixteenth-century hand under the title, ‘A Looking glasse for Lovers.’ Watson's ‘Ἑκατομπαθία’ was dedicated to the Earl of Oxford. John Lyly contributed a prose epistle of commendation ‘to the authour his friend,’ and among writers of laudatory verse are T. Acheley, Matthew Roydon, and George Peele. There is a preliminary quatorzain by Watson, but the poems that follow, although the author calls them sonnets, are each in eighteen lines (instead of fourteen). Each poem is termed a ‘passion,’ and is introduced by a prose note explaining its intention, and setting forth the literary source of its inspiration. Throughout the prose notes the author is referred to in the third person, but they all doubtless came from his own pen. The elaborate apparatus criticus confirms the impression given internally by the poems themselves, that they reflect no personal feeling, and are merely dexterous imitations of classical or modern French and Italian poems. The width of Watson's reading may be gathered from the fact that eight of his ‘sonnets’ are, according to his own account, renderings from Petrarch; twelve are from Serafino dell' Aquila (1466–1500); four each from Strozza, another Italian poet, and from Ronsard; three from the Italian poet Agnolo Firenzuola (1493–1548); two each from the French poet Etienne Forcadel, known as Forcatulus (1514?–1573), the Italian Girolamo Parabosco (fl. 1548), and Æneas Sylvius; while many paraphrase passages from such authors as (among the Greeks) Sophocles, Theocritus, Apollonius of Rhodes (author of the epic ‘Argonautica’); or (among the Latins) Virgil, Tibullus, Ovid, Horace, Propertius, Seneca, Pliny, Lucan, Martial, and Valerius Flaccus; or (among other modern Italians) Angelo Poliziano (1454–1494) and Baptista Mantuanus (1448–1516); or (among other modern Frenchmen) Gervasius Sepinus of Saumur, writer of Latin eclogues after the manner of Virgil and Mantuanus (Lee, Life of Shakespeare, p. 103 n. 1).

In 1585 Watson gave new proof of his appreciation of Italian literature and his aptitude for Latin verse by publishing a distant paraphrase of Tasso's pastoral ‘Aminta’ in Latin hexameters. The title ran: ‘Amyntas Thomæ Watsoni Londinensis I. V. Studiosi. Excudebat Henricus Marsh, ex assignatione Thomæ Marsh,’ 1585, 16mo. This was dedicated to the Elizabethan courtier Henry Noel, who was equally well known as a spendthrift and a musician [see under Noel, Sir Andrew]. To the same patron Watson dedicated a philosophic treatise in Latin prose on the art of memory entitled ‘Compendium Memoriæ Localis;’ of this work an imperfect copy—without colophon and ending with the first page of the fifteenth chapter—belonged to Heber, and is now in Mr. Christie-Miller's library at Britwell; no other copy has been met with. Next year Watson published a second Latin translation from the Greek, ‘Coluthus: Raptus Helenæ, Tho. Watsonæ Londinensis,’ London, 1586, 4to. This was dedicated to the Duke of Northumberland. Three years later Watson contributed a ‘Hexastichon’ to Robert Greene's romance ‘Ciceronis Amor’ (1589).

Meanwhile, in 1587, Watson had the mortification of witnessing the publication of an unauthorised English translation of his Latin version of Tasso's ‘Aminta.’ The English translator, Abraham Fraunce [q. v.], made no mention of Watson. Fraunce's work proved more popular than Watson's, and he printed it for a fourth time in 1591, together with a second original English translation by himself of the Italian poem; Fraunce's volume of 1591 bore the general title of ‘The Countess of Pembroke's Ivychurch.’ There for the first time Fraunce made, in a prefatory sentence, a tardy and incomplete acknowledgment of his debt to Watson: ‘I have somewhat altered S. Tassoes Italian and M. Watsons Latine “Amyntas” to make them both one English.’ Nash, in his preface to Greene's ‘Menaphon’ (1589), however, highly commended ‘the excellent translation of Master Thomas Watson's sugared “Amyntas”’ by ‘sweet Master France.’ In 1590 some Latin odes by Watson were prefixed to Vallans's ‘Tale of Two Swannes,’ with an English translation by Fraunce.

Watson was deeply interested in music, and was on terms of intimacy with the chief musicians of the day. In 1590 there appeared a book of music called ‘The first sett of Italian Madrigalls Englished, not to the sense of the original dittie, but after the affection of the Noate. By Thomas Watson, Gentleman. There are also heere inserted two excellent Madrigalls of Master William Byrd, composed after the Italian vaine, at the request of the sayd Thomas Watson,’ London, 1590 (Brit. Mus.; Huth Libr.; Britwell). The volume is divided into six parts, each with a separate title-page, headed respectively, ‘Superius,’ ‘Medius,’ ‘Tenor,’ ‘Contra-Tenor,’ ‘Bassus,’ and ‘Sextus.’ Before each part is placed a dedication in Latin elegiacs by Watson to the Earl of Essex, as well as a Latin eulogy in the same metre on the celebrated Italian composer Luca Marenzio, whose music was very largely represented in the book. The words of Watson's madrigals are somewhat halting; they have not been reprinted. Another proof of Watson's musical interests appears in a poem by him headed ‘A Gratification unto Mr. John Case for his learned Booke lately made in the prayes of Musick.’ According to Mr. W. C. Hazlitt these verses were first printed in broadside form in 1586 (in which year Dr. John Case's ‘Praise of Musicke’ was published) as ‘A Song in Commendation of the author of the Praise of Musicke. Set by W. Byrd.’ The earliest form in which they now seem accessible is in a manuscript volume transcribed by John Lilliat, formerly in Hearne's possession, now among Dr. Rawlinson's collection in the Bodleian manuscripts (Rawlinson, Poet. 148; reprinted in British Bibliographer, ii. 543, ed. 1812, and in Arber).

It was in 1590 that Watson's patron, Sir Francis Walsingham, died. He lamented his death in a Latin elegy in hexameters. This was dedicated to Sir Francis's cousin, Thomas Walsingham, under the title, ‘Melibœus Thomæ Watsoni sive, Ecloga in Obitum Honoratissimi Viri, Domini Francisci Walsinghami’ (London, 1590, 4to, Brit. Mus.) Mindful of the march that Fraunce had stolen on him in regard to his ‘Amyntas,’ Watson published an English translation of his new elegy under the title of ‘An Eglogue upon the Death of the Right Honorable Sir Francis Walsingham, late principall Secretarie to her Maiestie, and of her moste Honourable Privie Councell. Written first in latine by Thomas Watson, Gentleman, and now by himselfe translated in English. Musis mendicantibus insultat Amousia’ (London, 1590, 4to). ‘I interpret myself,’ Watson informed his readers, ‘lest Melibœus, in speaking English by another man's labour, should leese my name in his chaunge as my Amyntas did.’ The English version was dedicated to Walsingham's daughter Frances, widow of Sir Philip Sidney.

Watson seems in his last years to have been employed by William Cornwallis (son of Sir Thomas Cornwallis [q. v.], comptroller of Queen Mary's household, and uncle of Sir William Cornwallis (d. 1631?) [q. v.], author of the ‘Essayes’). Watson appears to have given tuition in literature to William Cornwallis's son, and to have been on affectionate terms with his pupil (cf. Gent. Mag. 1846, i. 491). He married the sister of another of William Cornwallis's retainers, Thomas Swift. At the close of Watson's life his brother-in-law and colleague Swift endeavoured to win the affections of their master's daughter. Watson encouraged the intrigue and induced his pupil to further it. After Watson's death the facts came to the knowledge of the lady's father, who, filled with indignation, laid them before Lord Burghley (15 March 1593). William Cornwallis charged Watson with having forged some of the encouraging letters that his son and daughter were represented to have written to Swift. Watson, Cornwallis declared, ‘could devise twenty fictions and knaveryes in a play wch was his daily practyse and his living’ (Mr. Hubert Hall in Athenæum, 23 Aug. 1880). No dramatic work by Watson survives, apart from his versions of Sophocles' ‘Antigone’ and of Tasso's pastoral drama, although Meres reckons him with Peele, Marlowe, and Shakespeare as among ‘the best for tragedie.’

The poet seems to be identical with the ‘Thomas Watson, gent, who was buried in the church of St. Bartholomew the less’ on 26 Sept. 1592 (Collier, Bibliographical Catalogue, ii. 490).

Two volumes of Watson's verse appeared posthumously. On 10 Nov. 1592 William Ponsonby obtained a license for an original pastoral poem in Latin by Watson, entitled ‘Amintæ Gaudia. Authore Thoma Watsono, Londinensi, iuris Studioso. Londini, Impensis Gulihelmi Ponsonbei, 1592.’ It was dedicated to Mary, countess of Pembroke, Sir Philip Sidney's sister, by a writer signing himself ‘C. M.’ who deeply lamented Watson's recent death. The initials have been very doubtfully interpreted as Christopher Marlowe. The poem is in hexameters, and is divided into five ‘epistolæ.’

Finally there appeared a series of sixty sonnets in regular metre in English under the title of ‘The Tears of Fancie, or Love Disdained,’ London, for William Barley, 1593. John Danter obtained a license for the publication on 11 Aug. 1593. The only known copy is at Britwell, but it wants two leaves containing eight sonnets (Nos. 9–16).

Watson is represented in most of the poetical miscellanies of the end of the sixteenth century and early years of the seventeenth century. In the ‘Phœnix Nest’ (1593) there are three previously unpublished poems by ‘T. W., gent,’ of which the first is an English rendering of a passage from Watson's ‘Amyntas.’ In ‘England's Helicon’ (1600) are five poems, of which only one was new; this was superscribed ‘The nimphes meeting their May Queene, entertaine her with this dittie.’ In another poetical collection, Davison's ‘Poetical Rhapsodie,’ 1602, ten poems are quoted from the ‘Hekatompathia.’ Watson's name figures among the authors whose works are quoted in Bodenham's ‘Belvedére, or the Garden of the Muses’ (1600). ‘England's Parnassus’ (1606), gives twelve extracts from Watson, all from the ‘Ἑκατομπαθία’

Watson's verse lacks passion, but is the accomplished work of a cultivated and well-read scholar. As a Latinist he stands first among contemporaries. It is as a sonneteer that he left his chief mark on English literature. He was the first English writer of sonnets after Surrey and Wyatt. Most of his sonnets were published before those of Sir Philip Sidney, and the popularity attending Watson's sonneteering efforts was a chief cause of the extended vogue of the sonnet in England among poets and their patrons in the last decade of the sixteenth century. Watson's sonnets were closely studied by Shakespeare and other contemporaries, and, despite their frigidity and imitative quality, actively influenced the form and topic of the later sonnets of the century. All manner of praise was bestowed on Watson at his death by his fellow poets and men of letters, who reckoned him the compeer of Spenser and Sidney. Harvey in his ‘Four Letters’ (1592) highly commended his ‘studious endeavours in enriching and polishing his native tongue,’ ranking him with Spenser, Stanyhurst, Fraunce, Daniel, and Nash. In his ‘Pierce's Supererogation’ (1593) Gabriel Harvey mentions Watson as ‘a learned and gallant gentleman, a notable poet;’ Nash in his reply to Harvey in ‘Have with you to Saffron Walden’ (1596), says of Watson: ‘A man he was that I dearely lov'd and honor'd, and for all things hath left few his equalls in England.’ George Peele, in a prologue to his ‘Honour of the Garter’ (1593), refers

To Watson, worthy many Epitaphes
For his sweet Poesie for Amintas teares
And joyes so well set downe.

Spenser refers to him as a patron of the poets as well as a poet himself. In ‘Colin Clout's come home again’ (1595) Spenser, writing of Watson under the name of ‘Amyntas,’ deplores his recent death:

Amyntas, floure of shepheards pride forlorne,
He whilest he liued was the noblest swaine,
That euer piped in an oaten quill.
Both did he other, which could pipe, maintaine
And eke could pipe himselfe with passing skill.

William Clerke, in a work entitled ‘Polimanteia’ (1595), seems, when referring to Shakespeare's ‘Venus and Adonis,’ to dub Shakespeare ‘Watson's heire.’ Watson has been doubtfully identified, too, with ‘happie Menalcas,’ to whom Thomas Lodge addressed a laudatory poem in ‘A Fig for Momus’ (1595). Francis Meres, in ‘Palladis Tamia’ (1598), after honourable mention of Watson as a Latinist, treated him as the equal of Petrarch, and declared that his Latin pastorals ‘Amyntæ Gaudia’ and ‘Melibœus’ were worthy of comparison with the work of Theocritus, Virgil, Mantuanus, and Sannazarro. Professor Arber edited Watson's English poems (excluding the madrigals) in his series of English reprints in 1870. Another issue is dated 1895.

[Arber's Introduction; Brydges's British Bibliographer, iii. 1–17, Censura Literaria, iii. 33–5; Ritson's Bibliographia Poetica; Anthony à Wood's Athenæ Oxon. i. 601, ed. Bliss; the present writer's Life of William Shakespeare, 1898; Hunter's manuscript Chorus Vatum in Addit. MS. 24488, pp. 348 seq.]

S. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.277
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
35 ii 20-21 Watson, Thomas (1557?-1592): for a translation read a very distant paraphrase
37 i 7 for five 'epistolæ' read eighteen 'epistolæ.' Five of these were rendered into English verse by 'I. T. Gent' in 'An Ould facioned loue or a loue of the ould facion' 1594.