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HENRY AUSTIN DOBSON was born at Plymouth on 18 January 1840, and was the eldest son of George Clarisse Dobson. He came of a family of Civil Engineers, both his father and grandfather having followed that profession. The latter had, towards the end of the eighteenth century, settled in France and married a French lady, and it is probably from his grandmother, therefore, that Austin Dobson inherited his love of France, and, in particular, of the old French forms which he afterwards so largely adopted.
At the age of eight or nine, Austin Dobson was taken to Holyhead, where his father had been appointed resident engineer in charge of the construction of the breakwater. His education, begun at Beaumaris Grammar School, was continued at Coventry, where (as he used to recall) Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher was, for a time, one of his school-fellows. It was finally completed at Strasbourg, at that time still a part of France.
Like his father and his grandfather, Austin Dobson was intended to follow the calling of a Civil Engineer, and there was some prospect of his entering the Armstrong works. At the age of sixteen, however, he obtained a nomination, which enabled him to enter the Civil Service, as a Clerk in the Board of Trade,
where in later years he had for colleagues, among others, Cosmo Monkhouse and Edmund Gosse, a fact which prompted an American contemporary to refer to that Department as “A Nest of Singing Birds." There is evidence also that Austin Dobson had an early idea of becoming a painter. At all events for a time he attended evening schools at South Kensington, and the drawings that survive from those early days reveal considerable talent. Shortly before 1864, however, he turned his thoughts seriously towards poetry, and in that year his first poem “ A City Flower" appeared in Temple Bar and was followed a few months later by "The Sundial " in the same magazine. His next attempt was a contribution of seven poems to the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, at intervals during 1865 and 1866, but he thought it advisable to reprint only two of these when his poems came to be collected in book form. From 1868 onward he became a frequent contributor to several magazines, but particularly to St. Paul's, which had recently been launched by Mr. Anthony Trollope. Among the poems of that period may be mentioned "Une Marquise," "A Dead Letter," "The Dying of Tanneguy du Bois," The " Angiola Songs, "A Gentleman (and a Gentlewoman) of the Old School," "Before Sedan," and "Tu Quoque." On these and other poems may be said to rest, to a large extent, Austin Dobson's reputation as a "brilliant lyrical poet," to use the phrase with which a hundred of his friends greeted him on his seventieth birthday.
At this point it may be interesting to observe that Austin Dobson contributed to the Saturday Journal
during 1874 and the early part of 1875, as well as to Evening Hours, a number of poems bearing the signature "Walter Bryce." None of them, with the sole exception of "In the Belfry," was ever reprinted. In Mr. Francis Edwin Murray's invaluable Bibliography, to which reference is made in the Appendix to this volume, most of the poems shown as appearing in the Saturday Journal are unsigned poems, of which the authorship is apparent from the contents page.
In 1873, the poet's verses were, for the first time, collected in a volume entitled "Vignettes in Rhyme," while in 1877, a second volume, "Proverbs in Porcelain," was published. In 1883 appeared a third volume, "Old World Idylls," comprising most of the poems contained in the two earlier volumes, and two years later it was followed by its companion volume, "At the Sign of the Lyre"; later editions of these two volumes being provided with extra titles for binding up as " Poems on Several Occasions."
Three volumes of poems, selected from the foregoing, and illustrated, in two instances, by Hugh Thomson, and in the third by Bernard Partridge, appeared between 1892 and 1895, by which date various volumes had also been published in America where, for some fifteen years or more, Austin Dobson's poems had attracted considerable attention. It was not, however, until 1897 that the first edition of "Collected Poems 17 was published, in which were included all the poems which the poet considered worthy of reprinting in permanent form up to that date. In 1921 the ninth edition (third impression) of this volume appeared; it contains a very large
number of poems not included in the first edition of 1897. It cannot, however, be said to be complete.
It has not infrequently been observed that Austin Dobson's main flow of poetry ceased after 1885. Judging from the great mass of poems composed before that date, by which he will, perhaps, be best remembered by posterity, this is substantially true. One cannot, however, ignore the many poems belonging to the period 1885-1921, written latterly only at rare intervals, and not infrequently for some charitable object, which are represented in this volume and are to be found in the later editions of Collected Poems." His reluctance to produce verses in any quantity after about 1900 was solely due to his unwillingness to publish anything that was in his opinion not up to his earlier standard. Many poems were written even in his declining years which never appeared in print.
Austin Dobson's first prose works appeared in the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine in 1866, and were short studies of four Frenchwomen, Mlle. de Corday, Madame Roland, the Princesse de Lamballe and Madame de Genlis. Although "Four Frenchwomen," under which title these papers were published in 1890 in volume form, may be regarded as one of the writer's happiest efforts, comparatively little further prose of this kind was attempted until 1882, if we except one paper appearing in 1872 and never reprinted. In 1874, however, his first original prose work in book form appeared, under the title of "A Handbook of English Literature.”
From 1882 onwards Austin Dobson devoted himself assiduously to those eighteenth-century studies, which
were subsequently collected into the three series of Eighteenth Century Vignettes" and other volumes. During the same period, he found time to write the lives of William Hogarth (1879), Henry Fielding (1883), Thomas Bewick (1884), Richard Steele (1886), Oliver Goldsmith (1888), Horace Walpole (1890), Samuel Richardson (1902), and Fanny Burney (1903).
In 1885 Austin Dobson became a Principal in the Board of Trade, and in 1901 he retired from the Public Service. Apart from his work on the many volumes which he edited, or for which he wrote notes or introductions, his years of retirement were devoted to his eighteenth-century researches, as the result of which he produced the further volumes of eighteenthcentury essays, which are set out in detail in the Appendix. The last three or four volumes were, however, compiled with considerable effort. For some years failing eyesight had rendered writing a very slow and somewhat tedious process, and during his declining years he was also subject to severe rheumatoid arthritis in the right leg, a malady which confined him very largely to the house. He endured his disability with extraordinary patience and continued to write, although with increasing difficulty. His last volume, "Later Essays," appeared only a few months before he died.
He was laid aside for some time in the early months of 1921, but showed signs of recovery as the summer approached. Towards the end of June, however, he had a heart attack from which he never really recovered, and after a lingering illness, he passed peacefully away on the morning of 2 September 1921.