Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by John Nichol
Sydney Dobell (18241874)
[Sydney Dobell was born at Cranbrook in Kent in 1824, was educated at home, and for the greater part of his life was engaged in business in Gloucestershire. His first published poem The Roman, inspired by his lifelong enthusiasm for the Italian cause, appeared in 1850; his next, Balder, was finished in 1853. In 1855 he wrote in conjunction with Alexander Smith a series of sonnets, suggested by the Crimean struggle. This volume was followed by another, of descriptive and lyrical verses, on the same theme, England in Time of War. Subsequently his health gave way, and after living for several years, the winters of which he passed abroad, more or less in the condition of an invalid, he died at Barton End House near Nailsworth, in 1874. A complete edition of his poems was published in 1875.]
THE ABOVE outline in great measure accounts for the fact that most of Dobells poetry was the product of his earlier yearsthe last eighteen of his life having been spent in forced abstinence from literary labour. The success of his first considerable work, The Roman, was rapid and unmistakable. The theme and its treatment, in accord with popular sentiment, in no less degree the flow of the lyrics, the strong sweep of the graver verse, the frequent richness of the imagery, enlisted the favour alike of the general public and of discerning critics. With defects readily condoned to the writers youth, and many minor merits, its main charm lay in the novelty of its aim. It was hailed as the product of a man of refined culture, whose sympathies went beyond the mere love of harmony in tones and numbers lisp, and crossed the silver streak to welcome the wider movements of his age. The Roman was continental in a sense that the work of none of our poets, since Byron, had been. Balder, the embodiment of the authors deepest though still somewhat chaotic thought, was less fortunate. The incomplete and painful plot was felt to be unnatural, and many of the details were disagreeable. The luxuriance of its imagery was like cloth of gold thrown over the limbs of a Frankenstein. But few contemporary English poets had scaled the heights of its finest passages. Every chapter bore witness to the authors analytic subtlety and passionate power. Few descriptions of external nature surpass the master sketches of Balder: they are drawn by the eye and pencil of one who, from a watch-tower on the hills, outgazed the stars and paid homage, like the Persian, to a hundred dawns, and
Dobells Chamouni almost rivals that of Coleridge. His springs are redolent of Shelley. The pastoral of the summer day on the hills (Scene 24) recalls the Bohemia of The Winters Tale. The music of Amys songs ripples by the terror and tumult of the tragedy with a dying fall like the sweet south. Balder is not likely to become popular in our generation: but, for all its flagrant defects, it will keep its place as a mine for poets.
In spite of manifest faults, on the side of violence or of occasional obscurity, Dobell seems to us to claim a permanent place among the English poets of this century. He belonged to the so-called Spasmodic school, with which he was especially during his residence in Edinburgh often associated, in virtue of defects shared with men otherwise indefinitely his inferiors. Of these the chief were involutions of style, recalling the conceits of Donne and others of the absurdly named Metaphysical school of the seventeenth century, a provoking excess of metaphor, and a weakness, latterly outgrown, for outré fine things. But from the graver intellectual offences of the galvanic and merely sentimental schools he was wholly free. Though unequal, his verse at its best is both strong and delicate; his imagery, though redundant, original and incisive. But the great merit of his work is that it is steeped in that higher atmosphere in which all enduring literature breathes and moves. In our age his most distinctive quality is the intensity of thought, the freshness, depth and width of sympathy only possible to the breed of noble bloods, and which endeared him to all who were privileged to enjoy the liberal education of his society.