Henry Austin Dobson was one of those indefatigable literary men with which the 19th and early 20th centuries abound. I first came across him as the man who seemed to write all the introductions to the books I was looking at and who seemed to know everyone on the literary scene of his day. The first pieces I read were his introductions to the 1903 edition of Fanny Burney’s Evelina and the 1902 version of the Old Court Suburb, Leigh Hunt’s history of Kensington. I warmed to him and his many introductions partly because as I’ve said elsewhere I am an inveterate reader of introductions (sometimes ignoring the actual text).
His day job was as a civil servant in the Board of Trade, and his career progressed successfully. But he also found time to be a prolific biographer, a poet and an all purpose man of letters. He was the leading figure in a small group of poets who were introducing the verse forms of French poets such as Francois Villon into English. His main interest was the 18th century both in his poetry – The Ballad of Beau Brocade, the Story of Rosina – and his biographies – Henry Fielding, Richard Steele, Oliver Goldsmith, Horace Walpole, Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney, Thomas Bewick, William Hogarth. Those last two indicate that he was just as interested in the artists of the 18th century as the literary figures. He was a friend and supporter of an artist we’re quite familiar with by now, Hugh Thomson. But this post, which features illustrations to two editions of Dobson’s poetry also features the work of another leading book illustrator, Bernard Partridge.
Partridge has a heavier style with a more serious tone but the subject matter is not too different. Well dressed young women moping about are still a feature which he shared with Dobson and Thomson. So, more 18th century ennui. Proverbs in Porcelain and other poems was published in 1893. It’s more of a set of short verse dramas than poems. In fact most of Dobson’s poems tell stories, which is why they are so suitable for illustrating.
“The Ballad a la Mode” has two cousins flirting with each other. The Baron reads a poem to the Countess about a maiden missing out on love.
Which is sad, but afterwards the course of true love runs smooth for the two languid aristos.
In “The cap that fits” a trio of toffs elegantly slag off some female passer by.
Hortense: Not young I think,
Armande: And faded too :-
Quite faded! Monsieur, what say you?
He tells them. Wittily, of course.
In “The secrets of the heart” the two pensive young women in the first picture, Ninette and Ninon, wonder about their future loves. Ninette remembers a sad nun from her school days. Dobson of course liked a nun as we saw in a previous post although in this time the idea/image of the nun in a full habit had more iconic force than it would today. There was something both romantic and in some cases sinister about the cloistered life.
She was so pious and so good,
With such sad eyes beneath her hood,
And such poor little feet, – all bare!
Her name was Eugenie La Fere.
She used to tell us,- moonlight nights,-
When I was at the Carmelites.
And on the title page Cupid does a bit of moping himself.
The Story of Rosina and other verses was published a couple of years later in 1895 and reunited Dobson with Hugh Thomson.
The title poem is about the painter Francois Boucher falling in love with his model, the eponymous Rosina.
There are more 18th century settings, including Thomson’s own version of moping by the window.
She then must have looked, as I
Look now, across the level rye, –
Past Church and Manor- house, and seen,
As now I see, the village green,
The bridge, and Walton’s river – she
Whose old world name was “Dorothy”.
But Thomson and Dobson also have some contemporary poetic narratives. An Autumn Idyll is one of them, although the title illustration makes a classical allusion featuring some nymphs and a satyr who look more like late Victorian teenagers.
The poem itself is about some modern inhabitants of the river.
Three men, in this case Lawrence, Frank and Jack, with a boat pulled up at a shaded landing spot.
Here, where the beech-nuts drop among the grasses,
Push the boat in, and throw the rope ashore,
Jack, hand me out the claret and the glasses;
Here let us sit. We landed here before.
Once settled, unlike Jerome’s three men, they each recite or sing about a woman.
Dark-haired is mine, with breezy ripples swining
Loose as a vine branch blowing in the morn;
Eyes like the morning, mouth for ever singing,
Blithe as a bird new risen from the corn.
Better the twilight and the cheery chatting-
Better the dim forgotten garden-seat,
Where on may lie, and watch the fingers tatting,
Lounging with Bran or Bevis at her feet.
“A dialogue withPlato” is another modern tale.
The hard working scholar is interrupted by a young lady of his acquaintance leaning in throughthe window to distract him with a question.
She succeeds in luring him out for a walk in the woods, which is something he’d far rather be doing anyway, so both of them are happy and Plato can be put aside for another day.
“Love in winter” provides Thomson with a chance to present another of his charming young women.
“Bright-eyed Bella” wrapped up against the cold.
And there’s a sundial
And a lady.
I have to say that much of Dobson’s poetry seems inconsequential in comparison with what I know of other eras of poetry, but these volumes place it in a picturesque and pleasant setting, courtesy of two masters of illustration.
There will be one more post based on a book with an introduction by Austin Dobson this year but these two artists will not be involved. It will be close to Christmas.