Alfred Austin: English Poet-Laureate
Written by: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition
Alfred Austin, English poet-laureate, was born at Headingley, near Leeds, on the 30th of May 1835. His father, Joseph Austin, was a merchant of the city of Leeds; his mother, a sister of Joseph Locke, M.P. for Honiton. Mr Austin was educated at Stonyhurst, Oscott, and London University, where he graduated in 1853. He was called to the bar four years later, and practised as a barrister for a short time; but in 1861, after two comparatively false starts in poetry and fiction, he made his first noteworthy appearance as a writer with a satire called The Season, which contained incisive lines, and was marked by some promise both in wit and observation. In 1870 he published a volume of criticism, The Poetry of the Period, which was again conceived in a spirit of satirical invective, and attacked Tennyson, Browning, Matthew Arnold and Swinburne in no half-hearted fashion. The book aroused some discussion at the time, but its judgments were extremely uncritical. In 1881 Mr Austin returned to verse with a tragedy, Savonarola, to which he added Soliloquies in 1882, Prince Lucifer in 1887, England’s Darling in 1896, The Conversion of Winckelmannin 1897, &c. A keen Conservative in politics, for several years he edited The National Review, and wrote leading articles for The Standard. On Tennyson’s death in 1892 it was felt that none of the then living poets, except Swinburne or William Morris, who were outside consideration on other grounds, was of sufficient distinction to succeed to the laurel crown, and for several years no new poet-laureate was nominated. In the interval the claims of one writer and another were much canvassed, but eventually, in 1896, Mr Austin was appointed. As poet-laureate, his occasional verses did not escape adverse criticism; his hasty poem in praise of the Jameson Raid in 1896 being a notable instance. The most effective characteristic of Mr Austin’s poetry, as of the best of his prose, is a genuine and intimate love of nature. His prose idylls, The Garden that I love and In Veronica’s Garden, are full of a pleasant, open-air flavour, which is also the outstanding feature of his English Lyrics. His lyrical poems are wanting in spontaneity and individuality, but many of them possess a simple, orderly charm, as of an English country lane. He has, indeed, a true love of England, sometimes not without a suspicion of insularity, but always fresh and ingenuous. A drama by him, Flodden Field, was acted at His Majesty’s theatre in 1903.