Edmund William Gosse (gahs) was one of the most important and influential English critics during the late Victorian and early modern periods. Gosse’s parents, Philip and Emily Gosse, were deeply religious, and he grew up in a rigidly Puritan environment. In 1866, he secured a position in the British Museum, and there he met such young writers as Richard Garnett and Arthur O’Shaughnessy. In the 1870’s, Gosse began to publish both poetry and criticism. His first significant collection of poetry, On Viol and Flute, was favorably reviewed, and such important figures as Algernon Swinburne, Walter Pater, and Andrew Lang welcomed Gosse as a young writer of promise. In 1875, Gosse married Nellie Epps, a marriage which would prove extraordinarily happy and stable. In this same year, he was appointed translator for the Board of Trade and became friends with Austin Dobson, as well as Swinburne and Pater. In 1879, Gosse published Studies in the Literature of Northern Europe. This first book of criticism established him as an authority on Scandinavian literatures and as an early champion of Henrik Ibsen.
During the next decade, Gosse became friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, Robert Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and other important writers. Between 1884 and 1889, he lectured in the United States and was Clark Lecturer at Cambridge University. His American lectures were a considerable success, and the Clark lectures helped to establish Gosse as a critic and scholar of importance. In 1885, however, Gosse’s collection of poetry Firdausi in Exile, and Other Poems received generally bad reviews. Also in 1885, Gosse’s growing reputation as an authority on English literature was damaged by John Churton Collins’s scathing attack on his From Shakespeare to Pope. Although Collins’s accusations of scholarly inaccuracy had some basis in fact, Gosse did much to reestablish himself as an authoritative and perceptive critic with his Life of William Congreve three years later.
Throughout the 1890’s, Gosse was a prolific critic, writing incisively on Browning, French Symbolism, Jacobean poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Henry Fielding. In Critical Kit-Kats, he demonstrated his mastery of a highly polished prose style and of the short critical portrait as a literary form. Gosse’s last important work of the 1890’s was his The Life and Letters of John Donne, a major study which, despite some dubious biographical interpretations of Donne’s poems, was instrumental in the establishment of Donne’s modern reputation.
Between 1900 and 1920, Gosse attained his greatest success. He was appointed librarian of the House of Lords in 1904, and he began to move in the highest social and political circles. His French Profiles solidified his reputation as England’s greatest living critic of French literature. Henrik Ibsen was a significant contribution to the English understanding of Ibsen, and the autobiographical Father and Son was quickly and generally recognized as his finest achievement. This last work is a subtle and sensitive account of the struggle between the young Edmund Gosse’s aesthetic and intellectual aspirations and his father’s powerfully dominating Puritanism. Gosse’s study of these two conflicting temperaments represents a unique and memorable chapter in the history of English autobiography.
Gosse’s last major book was The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne. Gosse’s understanding of Swinburne was based on a deep personal knowledge of the poet and a sympathetic love of his art. It is unlikely that his study of Swinburne will ever be completely superseded. Beginning in 1919, Gosse was literary essayist for the Sunday Times. In this capacity, he became the most widely read and famous critic in England. His essays for the Sunday Times were collected in three volumes: Books on the Table, More Books on the Table, and Silhouettes. In 1925, he was knighted. He died at the age of seventy-eight following an operation.
After his death,...
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