Shakespeare vs. Thomas Watson

Shadwell vs. Dryden. Swift vs. Smedley. Plath vs. Hughes. Many a rivalry has been played out in audaciously appropriative poetry. Shakespeare vs. Watson is surely one of the greatest mismatches, to be sure. A vernacular and Latin love poet, Watson seems to have enjoyed a fairly good reputation among his peers, particularly as an imitator of Petrarch. In 1582 he published a series of love sonnets, Hekatompathia, among which we find Sonnet VII: Hark you that list to hear what saint I serve:

Her yellow locks exceed the beaten gold; Her sparkling eyes in heav'n a place deserve; Her forehead high and fair of comely mold; Her words are music all of silver sound; Her wit so sharp as like can scarce be found; Each eyebrow hangs like Iris in the skies; Her Eagle's nose is straight of stately frame; On either cheek a Rose and Lily lies; Her breath is sweet perfume, or holy flame; Her lips more red than any Coral stone; Her neck more white than aged Swans that moan; Her breast transparent is, like Crystal rock; Her fingers long, fit for Apollo's Lute; Her slipper such as Momus dare not mock; Her virtues all so great as make me mute: What other parts she hath I need not say, Whose face alone is cause of my decay. However you cut it, the poem is poor: the conceits are clumsy and improbable, the prosody heavy-handed and needlessly repetitive. Shakespeare clearly read these poems as a young man. Years later, in his own sonnet sequence, we find a devastating reworking of Watson's bleary blazon: Sonnet 130. My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damask'd, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound; I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground: And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.

Deftly inverting Watson's tropes in lively lines that build to a pleasing aesthetic and intellectual resolution, Shakespeare demonstrates a canny gift for invasive imitation. Whenever students question the Bard's talent, these are the poems I plop before their eyes. It never fails.

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