1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Watson, William (poet)
WATSON, WILLIAM (1858), English poet, was born on the 2nd of August 1858 at Burley-in-Wharfedale, Yorkshire, and was brought up at Liverpool, whither his father moved for business. In 1880 he published his first book The Prince's Quest, a poem showing the influence of Keats and Tennyson, but giving little indication of the author's mature style. It attracted no attention until it was republished in 1893 after Mr Watson had made a name by other work. In 1884 appeared Epigrams of Art, Life and Nature, a remarkable little volume, which already showed the change to Mr Watson's characteristic restraint and concision of manner. But it passed unnoted. Recognition came with the publication of Wordsworth's Grave in 1890; and fame with the publication of the second edition in 1891, and the appearance in the Fortnightly Review, August 1891, of an article by Grant Allen entitled “A New Poet.” Wordsworth's Grave, which marked a reversion from the current Tennysonian and Swinburnian fashion to the meditative note of Matthew Arnold, exhibited in full maturity Mr Watson's poetical qualities; his stately diction, his fastidious taste, his epigrammatic turn, his restrained yet eloquent utterance, his remarkable gift of literary criticism in poetic form. Besides Wordsworth's Grave the volume contained Ver tenebrosum (originally published in the National Review for June 1885), a series of political sonnets indicating a fervour of political conviction which was later to find still more impassioned expression; also a selection with additions from the Epigrams of 1884, and among other miscellaneous pieces his tribute to Arnold, “In Laleham Churchyard.” During the years 1890-1892 he contributed articles to the National Review, Spectator, Illustrated London News, Academy, Bookman and Atalanta, which were collected and republished in 1893 as Excursions in Criticism. In 1893 he also published Lacrymae Musaram, the poem which gave the title to the volume being a fine elegy on the death of Tennyson; and it included the poem on “Shelley's Centenary” (both of these printed privately in 1892), and “The Dream of Man,” the earliest of his philosophical poems. The same year, too, saw the publication of The Eloping Angels, a serio-comic trifle of small merit, dedicated to Grant Allen. During this year Mr Gladstone bestowed on him the Civil List pension of £200 available on the death of Tennyson. In 1894 followed Odes and Other Poems, and in 1895 The Father of the Forest, which contained also the fine “Hymn to the Sea” in English elegiacs (originally contributed to the Yellow Book), “The Tomb of Burns,” and “Apologia,” a piece of candid and just self-criticism. The volume contained also a sonnet “To the Turk in Armenia,” a prelude to the series of sonnets about Armenia contributed to the Westminster Gazette and republished in a brochure called The Purple East in 1896. These sonnets were republished with revision and considerable additions, and a preface by the bishop of Hereford, in The Year of Shame in 1897. Whatever view was taken of the poet's incursion into politics, no one doubted his passionate sincerity, or the excellence of the poetical rhetoric it inspired. In 1898 were published his Collected Poems and a volume of new poetry The Hope of the World, which opened with his three chief philosophical poems, the title piece, “The Unknown God,” and “Ode in May.” In 1902 he printed privately 50 copies of New Poems, and published his “Ode on the Coronation of King Edward VII.,” a favourable specimen of its class; and in 1903 besides a volume of Selected Poems a collection of poems contributed to various periodicals and called For England: Poems Written During Estrangement, a poetical defence of his impugned patriotism during the Boer War. In 1909 appeared an important volume of New Poems.
Mr Watson's poetry falls chiefly into the classes above indicated—critical, philosophical and political—to which may be added a further class of Horatian epistles to his friends. This classification indicates the high character and also the limitations of his poetry. It is contemplative, not dramatic, and only occasionally lyrical in impulse. In spite of the poet's plea in his “Apologia” that there is an ardour and a fire other than that of Eros or Aphrodite, ardour and fire are not conspicuous qualities of his verse. Except in his political verse there is more thought than passion. Bearing trace enough of the influence of the romantic epoch, his poetry recalls the earlier classical period in its epigrammatic phrasing and Latinized diction. By the distinction and clarity of his style and the dignity of his movement William Watson stands in the true classical tradition of great English verse, in a generation rather given over to lawlessness and experiment.
See also section on William Watson in Poets of the Younger Generation, by William Archer (1902); and for bibliography up to Aug. 1903, English Illustrated Magazine, vol. xxix. (N.S.), pp. 542 and 548. (W. P. J.)