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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Henry Austin Dobson (1840–1921)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Esther Singleton (1865–1930)
 
IT is very pleasing to realize that Austin Dobson was recognized in America before the English fully appreciated the singular charm of his verse. Perhaps the reason why we were so quick to respond to the beauty of his delicately painted genre pictures of the eighteenth century is because that century is a “Golden Age” in our Colonial days. We like to view with Dobson that period seen through the vista of a poetic haze and divested of all that is dark, gross, and prosaic.  1
  With the poems of Austin Dobson in hand we seem to stand before a rare collection of enamels, fan-mounts, jeweled snuff-boxes, and delicate carvings in ivory and silver; and, after delighting in the beauty and finish of these artistic curios, we seem to pass into a gallery of paintings and water-colors that suggest Watteau, Fragonard, Chardin, Greuze, and Boucher. We also wander among trim box-hedges and quaint gardens of roses and bright hollyhocks; lean by sundials to watch the shadow of Time; and enjoy the sight of gay belles, painted, patched, and powdered and dressed in brocaded gowns and “gipsy-hats.” Gallant beaux appear and hand them into sedan-chairs, or meet them at “assemblies” to lead them through stately minuets to the music of Rameau, Couperin, and Arne.  2
  Just as the scent of rose-leaves, lavender, and musk rises from antique Chinese jars, so Dobson’s delicate verse reconstructs a life
        “Of fashion gone and half-forgotten ways.”
  3
  Dobson possesses all the requirements of light verse—charm, mockery, pathos, wit, and banter—and that power to reveal the strange depths of the human heart while apparently skimming the surface.  4
  No man of letters has ever lived a more exclusively literary life. His whole life is in his writings, which exhibit his personality and his taste. Born in Plymouth on January 18th, 1840, the son of a civil engineer, Henry Austin Dobson received a good education and entered the Board of Trade in London at the age of sixteen. There he remained until his retirement in 1901. Every spare moment of his life has been spent in study and in the enjoyment of the quiet pleasures of his home at Ealing, a suburb of London. At an early period he chose the eighteenth century for his special line of research and absorption and concentrated all his forces upon it.  5
  Austin Dobson soon began to experiment in the delightful old forms of French verse—the ballade, the rondeau, the villanelle, etc., and was the first poet ever to write a ballade in English verse. His name will always be associated with the group, including Swinburne, Henley, Andrew Lang, and Edmund Gosse, who made the models of Marot, Villon, and Théodore de Banville popular for a time. Of all these masters Austin Dobson is, perhaps, the most graceful in these forms and rhythms.  6
  Anthony Trollope introduced Austin Dobson to the public in his magazine St. Paul’s in 1868. Fame did not come until after 1873, when the scattered verses were collected as ‘Vignettes in Rhyme.’ In 1877 ‘Proverbs in Porcelain’ appeared. Both volumes were republished with additional poems as ‘Old World Idylls’ (1883) and ‘At the Sign of the Lyre’ (1885). In 1897 these books were issued in one volume of ‘Collected Poems,’ with additions. In 1913 this volume reached a ninth edition.  7
  Dobson’s most characteristic poems, both with regard to the choice of matter and its manipulation and to that quality so difficult to define—style—are: ‘The Ballade of Beau Brocade,’ ‘A Revolutionary Relic,’ ‘Pompadour’s Fan,’ ‘Une Marquise,’ ‘A Gentleman of the Old School,’ ‘The Old Sedan Chair,’ and ‘The Story of Rosina.’ These poems are finished products of a fastidious mind and are written with a charming touch and a grace that is French rather than English.  8
  In his biographies of noted eighteenth-century personages, such as ‘Thomas Bewick and his Pupils’ (1884); ‘Fielding’ (1883); ‘Steele’ (1886); ‘Goldsmith’ (1888); ‘Hogarth’ (1891–1897); ‘Richardson’ (1902), and ‘Fanny Burney’ (1903), his ‘Life of Horace Walpole’ (1890–1910) is the most important; for in it he has rescued Walpole from Macaulay’s malevolence and put him in proper perspective. To this list of prose writings should be added: ‘Four Frenchwomen’ (1890); ‘Eighteenth-Century Vignettes’ (three series—1892, 1894, and 1896); ‘A Paladin of Philanthropy’ (1899); ‘Side-Walk Studies’ (1902); ‘De Libris’ (1902); ‘Old Kensington Palace’ (1910); ‘At Prior Park’ (1912); and ‘Rosalba’s Journal and Other Papers’ (1915).  9
  So serious is his attitude towards art, and so large his audience, that the hope expressed in the following rondeau will certainly be realized:—

  IN after days, when grasses high
O’er-top the stone where I shall lie,
  Though ill or well the world adjust
  My slender claim to honored dust,
I shall not question nor reply.
  
I shall not see the morning sky,
I shall not hear the night-wind sigh;
  I shall be mute, as all men must,
        In after days.
  
But yet, now living, fain were I
That some one then should testify,
  Saying—He held his pen in trust
  To Art, not serving shame or lust.
Will none?—Then let my memory die
        In after days!
  10
 
 
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