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Henry Austin Dobson Biography | Poet

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DOBSON, HENRY AUSTIN (1840–1921), English poet and man of letters, was born at Plymouth on the 18th of January 1840, being the eldest son of George Clarisse Dobson, a civil engineer, and on his grandmother’s side of French descent. When he was about eight years old the family moved to Holyhead, and his first school was at Beaumaris, in the Isle of Anglesea. He was afterwards educated at Coventry, and the Gymnase, Strassburg, whence he returned at the age of sixteen with the intention of becoming a civil engineer. He had a taste for art, and in his earlier years at the office continued to study it at South Kensington, at his leisure, but without definite ambition. In December 1856 he entered the Board of Trade, gradually rising to a principalship in the harbour department, from which he withdrew in the autumn of 1901. He married in 1868 Frances Mary, daughter of Nathaniel Beardmore of Broxbourne, Herts, and settled at Ealing. His official career was industrious though uneventful, but as poet and biographer he stands among the most distinguished of his time. The student of Mr Austin Dobson’s work will be struck at once by the fact that it contains nothing immature: there are no juvenilia to criticize or excuse. It was about 1864 that Mr Dobson first turned his attention to composition in prose and verse, and some of his earliest known pieces remain among his best. It was not until 1868 that the appearance of St Paul’s, a magazine edited by Anthony Trollope, afforded Mr Dobson an opportunity and an audience; and during the next six years he contributed to its pages some of his favourite poems, including “Tu Quoque,” “A Gentleman of the Old School,” “A Dialogue from Plato,” and “Une Marquise.” Many of his poems in their original form were illustrated—some, indeed, actually written to support illustrations. By the autumn of 1873 Mr Dobson had produced sufficient verse for a volume, and put forth his Vignettes in Rhyme, which quickly passed through three editions. During the period of their appearance in the magazine the poems had received unusual attention, George Eliot, among others, extending generous encouragement to the anonymous author. The little book at once introduced him to a larger public. The period was an interesting one for a first appearance, since the air was full of metrical experiment. Swinburne’s bold and dithyrambic excursions into classical metre had given the clue for an enlargement of the borders of English prosody; and, since it was hopeless to follow him in his own line without necessary loss of vigour, the poets of the day were looking about for fresh forms and variations. It was early in 1876 that a small body of English poets lit upon the French forms of Theodore de Banville, Marot and Villon, and determined to introduce them into English verse. Mr Austin Dobson, who had already made successful use of the triolet, was at the head of this movement, and in May 1876 he published in The Prodigals the first original ballade written in English. This he followed by English versions of the rondel, rondeau and villanelle. An article in the Cornhill Magazine by Mr Edmund Gosse, “A Plea for Certain Exotic Forms of Verse,” appearing in July 1877, simultaneously with Mr Dobson’s second volume, Proverbs in Porcelain, drew the general eye to the possibilities and achievements of the movement. The experiment was extremely fortunate in its introduction. Mr Dobson is above all things natural, spontaneous and unaffected in poetic method; and in his hands a sheaf of metrical forms, essentially artificial and laborious, was made to assume the colour and bright profusion of a natural product. An air of pensive charm, of delicate sensibility, pervades the whole of these fresh revivals; and it is perhaps this personal touch of humanity which has given something like stability to one side of a movement otherwise transitory in influence. The fashion has faded, but the flowers of Mr Dobson’s French garden remain bright and scented.

In 1883 Mr Dobson published Old-World Idylls, a volume which contains some of his most characteristic work. By this time his taste was gradually settling upon the period with which it has since become almost exclusively associated; and the spirit of the 18th century is revived in “The Ballad of Beau Brocade” and in “The Story of Rosina,” as nowhere else in modern English poetry. In “Beau Brocade,” indeed, the pictorial quality of his work, the dainty economy of eloquent touches, is at its very best: every couplet has its picture, and every picture is true and vivacious. The touch has often been likened to that of Randolph Caldecott, with which it has much in common; but Mr Dobson’s humour is not so “rollicking,” his portraiture not so broad, as that of the illustrator of “John Gilpin.” The appeal is rather to the intellect, and the touches of subdued pathos in the “Gentleman” and “Gentlewoman of the Old School” are addressed directly to the heart. We are in the 18th century, but see it through the glasses of to-day; and the soft intercepting sense of change which hangs like a haze between ourselves and the subject is altogether due to the poet’s sympathy and sensibility. At the Sign of the Lyre (1885) was the next of Mr Dobson’s separate volumes of verse, although he has added to the body of his work in a volume of Collected Poems (1897). At the Sign of the Lyre contains examples of all his various moods. The admirably fresh and breezy “Ladies of St James’s” has precisely the qualities we have traced in his other 18th-century poems; there are ballades and rondeaus, with all the earlier charm; and in “A Revolutionary Relic,” as in “The Child Musician” of the Old-World Idylls, the poet reaches a depth of true pathos which he does not often attempt, but in which, when he seeks it, he never fails. At the pole opposite to these are the light occasional verses, not untouched by the influence of Praed, but also quite individual, buoyant and happy. But the chief novelty in At the Sign of the Lyre was the series of “Fables of Literature and Art,” founded in manner upon Gay, and exquisitely finished in scholarship, taste and criticism. It is in these perhaps, more than in any other of his poems, that we see how with much felicity Mr Dobson interpenetrates the literature of fancy with the literature of judgment. After 1885 Mr Dobson was engaged principally upon critical and biographical prose, by which he has added very greatly to the general knowledge of his favourite 18th century. His biographies of Fielding (1883), Bewick (1884), Steele (1886), Goldsmith (1888), Walpole (1890) and Hogarth (1879-1898) are studies marked alike by assiduous research, sympathetic presentation and sound criticism. It is particularly noticeable that Mr Dobson in his prose has always added something, and often a great deal, to our positive knowledge of the subject in question, his work as a critic never being solely aesthetic. In Four Frenchwomen (1890), in the three series of Eighteenth-Century Vignettes (1892-1894-1896), and in The Paladin of Philanthropy (1899), which contain unquestionably his most delicate prose work, the accurate detail of each study is relieved by a charm of expression which could only be attained by a poet. In 1901 he collected his hitherto unpublished poems in a volume entitled Carmina Votiva. Possessing an exquisite talent of defined range, Mr Austin Dobson may be said in his own words to have “held his pen in trust for Art” with a service sincere and distinguished.

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