Austin Dobson Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.