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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Sydney Dobell (1824–1874)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
SYDNEY DOBELL, the son of a wine merchant, was born at Cranbrook in Kent. His parents, both persons of strong individuality, believed in home training, and not one of their eight children went either to school or to university. They belonged to the Broad Church Community founded by Sydney’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Thompson; a church intended to recall in its principles the primitive Christian ages. The parents looked upon Sydney, their eldest-born, as destined to become the apostle of this creed. He grew up in a kind of religious fervor, with his precocious mind unnaturally stimulated; a course of conduct which materially weakened his constitution, and made him a chronic invalid at the early age of thirty-three. He read whatever books came to hand, many of them far beyond his years. At the age of eight he filled his diary with theological discussions.  1
  Entering his father’s counting-house as a mere lad, he remained to the end of his life a business man of great energy. Notwithstanding his rare poetic endowments, he never seems to have entertained a single-minded purpose to be a poet and nothing more. On the contrary, he thought the ideal and the practical life perfectly compatible, and he strove to unite in himself the poet and the man of affairs. He wrote habitually until 1856, when regular literary work was forbidden by his physicians. With characteristic energy he now turned his thoughts into other channels; identified himself with the affairs of Gloucester, where he was living, looked after his business, and was one of the first to adopt the system of industrial co-operation. The last four years of his life, a period of suffering and helplessness, he spent at Barton-End House, above the Stroud valley, where he died in the spring of 1874.  2
  In the work of Dobell it is curious to find so few traces of the influences under which he grew up. He had every encouragement to become a writer of religious poetry; yet much of his work is philosophic and recondite. His delicate health is in a measure responsible for his failure to achieve the success which his natural endowments promised. All his literary work was done between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-three. ‘The Roman,’ his first long poem, appeared in 1850. Dedicated to the Italian struggle for liberty, it showed his breadth of sympathy. In ‘Balder,’ finished in 1853, Dobell is at his best both as thinker and as poet. Yet its many fine passages, its wealth of metaphor, and the exquisite songs of Amy, hardly counterbalance the remoteness of its theme, and its over-subtle analysis of morbid psychic states. It is a poem to be read in fragments, and has aptly been called a mine for poets.  3
  With Alexander Smith he published in 1855 a series of sonnets inspired by the Crimean War. This was followed in 1856 by ‘England in War Time,’ a collection of Dobell’s lyrical and descriptive poems, which possess more general human interest than any other of his books.  4
  After continuous work was interdicted, he still contributed verse and prose to the periodicals. His essays have been collected by Professor Nichol, under the title ‘Thoughts on Art, Philosophy, and Religion.’ As a poet Dobell belongs to the so-called “spasmodic school,” a school “characterized by an undercurrent of discontent with the mystery of existence, by vain effort, unrewarded struggle, skeptical unrest, and an uneasy striving after some incomprehensible end…. Poetry of this kind is marked by an excess of metaphor which darkens rather than illustrates, and by a general extravagance of language. On the other hand, it manifests freshness and originality, and a rich natural beauty.” Dobell’s descriptions of scenery are among the finest in English literature. His senses were abnormally acute, like those of a savage, a condition which intensified his appreciation of natural beauty. Possessing a vivid imagination and wide sympathies, he was often over-subtle and obscure. He strove to realize in himself his ideal of a poet, and during his years of ill-health gave himself up to promoting the welfare of his fellow-men; but of his seventeen years of inactivity he says:—“The keen perception of all that should be done, and that so bitterly cries for doing, accompanies the consciousness of all that I might but cannot do.”  5

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