Austin Dobson Essay - Critical Essays

Dobson, Austin


Dobson, Austin 1840-1921

(Full name Henry Austin Dobson) English poet, essayist, and biographer.

Dobson is best known for his volumes of mannered verse as well as his biographies of eighteenth-century English literary figures. A dedicated student of eighteenth-century life and literature, and a popular and acclaimed poet in his own right, Dobson in many respects exemplified the Victorian man of letters.

Biographical Information

Dobson was born in Plymouth, England, in 1840. His parents, George Clarisse and Augusta Harris Dobson, sent Dobson to private schools and later to the Gymnase in Strasbourg. Dobson returned to London at sixteen to work as a clerk in the Board of Trade, where he remained for forty-five years. At age twenty-eight he married Frances Mary Beardmore, eventually fathering ten children. After an attempt to develop his talents as a painter, Dobson turned to poetry, with his first poem published in Temple Bar in 1864. Dobson's verse gained popular and critical support, and was published in several well-known magazines, including Anthony Trollope's St. Paul's. Dobson was also successful in his employment at the Board of Trade, where he was promoted to first-class clerk in 1874 and principal clerk in 1884; he was able to retire comfortably in 1901 and continued writing verse and biographies until his death in 1921.

Major Works

Dobson's first volume of verse was Vignettes in Rhyme and Vers de Société (1873). Other poetry collections followed-Proverbs in Porcelain (1877) and At the Sign of the Lyre (1885)-and Dobson became known for the bucolic mood of his works, which were composed in traditional poetic forms and often influenced by French poetry. Dobson was unusual for a Victorian man of letters in that he was not a university professor but a clerk in the Board of Trade; however, his devotion to literature and his belief that study of literature was paramount in the education of all people were demonstrated in his The Civil Service Handbook of English Literature (1874), which he hoped would help to educate other nonscholars about the essential literature of their homeland. But it was in the genre of biography that Dobson earned the greatest respect. His Hogarth (1879), a profile of the eighteenth-century painter and engraver William Hogarth, won the admiration of historians and academics for its precise evocation of its subject. This led to Dobson's further study of the life and art of the eighteenth century, and through his works on such luminaries as Henry Fielding, Richard Steele, Oliver Goldsmith, and Horace Walpole, Dobson became known as an authority on that period of English history. His input was sought on republications of many eighteenth-century works, and he both edited and contributed introductions to many such works.

Critical Reception

While Dobson's poetry is still considered by many to be a charming example of "vers de société," and is admired for its tightly-constructed prosody, Dobson is better remembered for his vast knowledge of the eighteenth century and his ability to capture the period in his writings. However, his penchant for arbitrarily ranking the historical figures documented in his biographies and his rejection of those he disapproved of have, in the opinion of latter-day commentators, lowered his stature as a critic and a biographer.

Principal Works

Vignettes in Rhyme and Vers de Société (poetry) 1873; revised as Vignettes in Rhyme, and Other Verses, 1880; revised as Old-World Idylls, and Other Verses, 1883; republished as Poems on Several Occasions, Vol. 1, 1889

The Civil Service Handbook of English Literature (nonfiction) 1874

Proverbs in Porcelain, and Other Verses (poetry) 1877

Hogarth (biography) 1879; enlarged as William Hogarth, 1891

Fielding (biography) 1883

At the Sign of the Lyre (poetry) 1885; republished as Poems on Several Occasions, Vol. 2, 1889

Richard Steele (biography) 1886

Life of Oliver Goldsmith (biography) 1888

Four Frenchwomen (biography) 1890

Horace Walpole: A Memoir, with an Appendix of Books Printed at the Strawberry Hill Press (biography) 1890

The Sun Dial: A Poem (poetry) 1890

The Ballade of Beau Brocade, and Other Poems of the XVIIIth Century (poetry) 1892

Eighteenth Century Vignettes. 3 vols. (essays) 1892-96

The Story of Rosina, and Other Verses (poetry) 1895

Collected Poems (poetry) 1897

Verses Read at the Dinner of the Omar Khayyám Club, on Thursday, 25th March 1897 (poetry) 1897

Carmina Votiva, and Other Occasional Verses (poetry) 1901

Side-Walk Studies (essays) 1902

Fanny Burney (Madame d'Arblay) (biography) 1903

De Librisi Prose and Verse (essays and poetry) 1908

Old Kensington Palace, and Other Papers (essays) 1910

At Prior Park, and Other Papers (essays) 1912

Poems on the War (poetry) 1915

Later Essays, 1917-1920 (essays) 1921

The Complete Poetical Works of Austin Dobson (poetry) 1923


John Addington Symonds (essay date 1885)

SOURCE: A review of At the Sign of the Lyre, in The Academy, No. 705, November 7, 1885, p. 299.

[In the following review, Symonds praises At the Sign of the Lyre, noting graceful lyricism of Dobson's poetry.]

Only a churl, or one indifferent to what is delicate in literature, could find words of censure for this collection of graceful lyrics [At the Sign of the Lyre], so exquisitely finished with accomplished art, so characteristic of their author's genius in the subtle blending of gentle pathos and light humour, so just in criticism both of manners and of letters, so marked by solid English sense amid the refinements of highly studied versification and the quaintnesses of scholarly archaisms. We hail this volume, together with its elder brother, Old-World Idylls, as one of the most perfect products of that latest Anglo-Gallic culture, to which English literature is also indebted for Mr. Lang's Ballades and Rhymes à la Mode, as well as for some of Mr. Edmund Gosse's most artistic work.

Mr. Dobson is so well known as a poet wherever English is spoken that it would be superfluous to dwell at length upon the salient features of his style. Like Caldicott and Edwin Abbey, he has lived by imagination into the spirit of the eighteenth century. Of the manners and mental atmosphere of that period he reproduces in his verse all that is fanciful, urbane, capricious, omitting its grossness and passing with a genial toleration over its darker aspects. The London of Vauxhall and Grub Street, of the Mall and the Ridotto, has become familiar to him not so much in its prosaic reality as in a vision of delightful fairyland. This volume adds a dozen highly finished masterpieces, cabinet pictures of perfect tone and execution, to the gallery of Georgian studies in which our artist excells. The most enjoyable of these, to my mind, are "The Old Sedan Chair," "Molly Trefusis," "The Book-Plate's Petition," "A Familiar Epistle," "The Dilettant," "The Squire at Vauxhall," and "A New Song of Spring Gardens." If I mistake not, these are already so well known to American and English readers that any detailed analysis of their old-world graces would be an impertinence; yet I cannot refrain from calling attention to the consummate skill with which an emptypated connoisseur of the last century is sketched in "The Dilettant."

Just then popped in a passing Beau,
Half Pertness, half Puerilio;
One of those Mushroom Growths that spring
From Grand Tours and from Tailoring;
And dealing much in terms of Art
Picked up at Sale and Auction Mart.

The fellow has at his fingers' ends all the cant phrases of a by-gone age of aesthetic affectation, which, though obsolete now, could easily be paralled by like ephemeral ineptitudes from the slang of South Kensington coteries:

That "Air of Head" is just divine;
That contour Guido, every line;
That forearm, too, has quite the Gusto
Of the third Manner of Robusto.. . .

He glibly hazards more technical criticisms:

The middle Distance, too, is placed
Quite in the best Italian Taste;
And nothing could be more effective
Than the Ordonnance and Perspective.

In short, he is a living epitome of what Mrs. Malaprop called "bigotry and virtue"; and since some incarnation of the...

(The entire section is 1483 words.)

W. E. Henley (essay date 1890)

SOURCE: "Dobson: Method and Effect," in Views and Reviews: Essays in Appreciation, David Nutt, 1890, pp. 121-3.

[In the following essay, Henley compares Dobson to Horace and eighteenth-century English poets.]

His style has distinction, elegance, urbanity, precision, an exquisite clarity. Of its kind it is as nearly as possible perfect. You think of Horace as you read; and you think of those among our own eighteenth century poets to whom Horace was an inspiration and an example. The epithet is usually so just that it seems to have come into being with the noun it qualifies; the metaphor is mostly so appropriate that it leaves you in doubt as to whether it suggested the...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

Brander Matthews (essay date 1902)

SOURCE: "Two Latter-Day Lyristis: II. Mr. Austin Dobson," in Pen and Ink, C. Scribner's Sons, 1902, pp. 109-39.

[In the following essay, Matthews provides a critical overview of Dobson's work and reputation as a poet.]

As Mr. Lang told us in his sympathetic paper on M. Théodore de Banville, some literary reputations are like the fairies in that they cannot cross running water. Others again, it seems to me, are rather like the misty genii of the Arabian Nights, which loom highest when seen from afar. Poe, for example, is more appreciated in England than at home; and Cooper is given a more lofty rank by French than by American critics. In much the same manner, we note,...

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A Song of The Four Seasons

When Spring comes laughing
By vale and hill,
By wind-flower walking
And daffodil,—
Sing stars of morning,
Sing morning skies,
Sing blue of speedwell,
And my Love's eyes.

When comes the Summer,
Full-leaved and strong,
And gay birds gossip
The orchard long,—
Sing hid, sweet honey
That no bee sips;
Sing red, red roses,
And my Love's lips.

When Autumn scatters
The leaves again,
And piled sheaves bury
The broad-wheeled...

(The entire section is 1727 words.)

The Wanderer

Love comes back to his vacant dwelling,—
The old, old Love that we knew of yore!
We see him stand by the open door,
With his great eyes sad, and his bosom swelling.

He makes as though in our arms repelling,
He fain would lie as he lay before;—
Love comes back to his vacant dwelling,—
The old, old Love that we knew of yore!

Ah, who shall help us from over-telling
That sweet forgotten, forbidden lore!
E'en as we doubt in our heart once more,
With a rush of tears to our eyelids welling,

(The entire section is 3543 words.)

Arthur Symons (essay date 1904)

SOURCE: "Austin Dobson," in Studies in Prose and Verse, E. P. Dutton & Co., 1904, pp. 224-9.

[In the following essay, Symons praises Dobson's work, but notes that his poetry employing earlier poetic forms and subjects is superior to his modern works.]

The qualities of Mr Austin Dobson's work are known, for, by an accident which sometimes comes to surprise even the most disinterested of workers, his work is popular. Many have even paid him the compliment, from their own point of view, of ranking him, as a poet, with those amiable, intelligent, often scholarly persons, such as Mr Locker-Lampson, who have made facile verses about books and wines on the afternoons when...

(The entire section is 1735 words.)

George Sampson (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: "Two for Delight," in The Bookman, Vol. 53, November, 1917, pp. 66-7.

[In the following essay, Sampson comments that A Bookman's Budget is not what the reader might expect, but he finds the volume excellent nonetheless.]

Mr. Austin Dobson and Mr. E. V. Lucas may now be described without offence as institutions. We know what to expect of them, and we ask for nothing better than to go on getting the expected. They are some of the excellent people we are sure about. We should feel horribly disconcerted if, some day, we were to drop five shillings into the Lucas slot and pull out an "Eighteenth-century Vignette," or to find ourselves receiving an "England...

(The entire section is 909 words.)

George Edward Woodberry (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: "Addison and Steele Newly Reviewed," in Studies of a Litterateur, Harcourt, Brace and Company,. 1921, pp. 113-25.

[In the following essay, Woodberry discusses Dobson 's volume of the works of Addison and Steele.]

Addison lies under more obligations to happy fortune than any other Englishman of high literary rank. Halifax saved him from the Church and the probable oblivion of a seat on the bench of bishops, and sent him to cultivate his genius by foreign travel. When, on his return, he seemed sinking into poverty, the same warm patron introduced him to Godolphin's notice and procured for him the inspiration of "The Campaign" in the shape of a promise of office....

(The entire section is 3949 words.)

Alfred Noyes (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: "The Poems of Austin Dobson," in The Bookman (London), April, 1924, pp. 13-8.

[In the following essay, Noyes contends that Dobson's technical merit as a poet is overrated, but his ability to evoke strong emotions is admirable and often overlooked.]

It was customary, at one time, to speak of the poems of Austin Dobson as if, within a strictly limited range, they were chiefly notable for their technical perfection. They were sometimes thought to be a little "precious," or even exotic—dainties for the literary epicure, exquisitely painted butterflies, emerging from cocoons of golden silk spun by Théodore de Banville, rather than creatures of a warm and...

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Stewart Marsh Ellis (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "Austin Dobson," in Mainly Victorian, Books for Libraries Press, 1925, pp. 211-21.

[In the following essay, Ellis contrasts Dobson's life with the idyllic world he depicted in his poetry.]

You love, my Friend, with me, I think,
That Age of Lustre and of Link;
Of Chelsea China and long 's'-es,
Of Bag-wigs and of flowered Dresses;
That Age of Folly and of Cards,
Of Hackney Chairs and Hackney Bards.

In such wise did Austin Dobson depict, as in a vignette, his life-long love for the eighteenth century, or more particularly its picturesque accessories. His name...

(The entire section is 4590 words.)

Edmund Gosse (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "Austin Dobson," in Silhouettes, William Heinemann Ltd., 1925, pp. 183-90.

[In the following essay, Gosse argues that Dobson's great popularity as a poet has led to less serious critical attention to his work.]

In his sound and catholic Popular History of English Poetry, recently published through Messrs. A. M. Philpot, Mr. Earle Welby says that "Dobson, despite his popularity, is undervalued." I believe this to be as true as it is paradoxical, and I would go so far as to modify the phrase by saying "because of his popularity." Since the original publication of Dobson's early poetry exactly half a century ago, the circulation of his verse has been wider...

(The entire section is 2314 words.)

Herbert C. Lipscomb (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: "Horace and the Poetry of Austin Dodson," in Amercian Journal of Philology, Vol. L, No. 197, 1929, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Lipscomb examines the influence of the Latin poetry of Horace on Dobson's work.]

Long may you live such songs to make,
And I to listen while you wake,
With art too long disused, each tone
Of the Lesboum barbiton,
At mastery, through long finger-ache,
At length arrived.

—Lowell, On Receiving a Copy of Mr. Austin

Dobson's "Old World Idylls."

Several years ago in the...

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James Keith Robinson (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "Austin Dobson and the Rondeliers," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1, March, 1953, pp. 31-42.

[In the following essay, Robinson discusses Dobson's use of the rondeau poetic form.]

Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,
Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick.

—Edgar Lee Masters

In April, 1874, a young man from the Printed Books Department at the British Museum attended a meeting of the Pen and Pencil Club at the home of the Hon. Peter Taylor, Radical M. P. for Leicester and proprietor of the Examiner. After several readers had led Edmund Gosse to believe he...

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Further Reading


Dobson, Alban. A Bibliography of the First Editions of Published and Privately Printed Books and Pamphlets by Austin Dobson. London: The First Edition Club, 1925, 88 p.

Comprehensive bibliography that lists all of Dobson's works.

Murray, Francis Edwin. A Bibliography of Austin Dobson Attempted by Francis Edwin Murray. Derby: Frank Murray, 1900, 347 p.

Bibliography arranged by genre.


Bickley, Francis. "The Habit of Letters." The Bookman 43 (December 1912): 178-79.

Review of At Prior Park and Other Papers that considers the book...

(The entire section is 226 words.)