Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dobell, Sydney Thompson

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DOBELL, SYDNEY THOMPSON (1824–1874), poet and critic, born 5 April 1824 at Cranbrook in Kent, was the eldest son of John Dobell, author of a remarkable pamphlet, ‘Man unfit to govern Man,’ and a daughter of Samuel Thompson, known in his day as a leader of reforming movements in the city of London. His father, a wine merchant, removed in 1836 from Kent to Cheltenham, where the poet maintained, with various degrees of activity, till his death, his connection with the business and the district. Sydney, whose precocious juvenile verses had already attracted notice, was, with results in some respects unfortunate, educated by private tutors and his own study, and never went to either school or university. To this fact he makes an interesting reference in the course of some humorous lines on Cheltenham College, which date from his eighteenth year. At home he was overworked, especially overstrained by the fervour of inherited religious zeal, and his genius, in the absence of social checks, soon showed a tendency to eccentricity of expression, from which in later life he partially, but never entirely, shook himself free. From first to last he lived more among the heights of an ideal world than the beaten paths of life. Hence the elevation and the limitations of his work. His training during this crucial period made him a varied, but prevented him from becoming a precise, scholar, a result patent alike in his prose and verse.

In 1839 he became engaged to a daughter of George Fordham of Odsey House, Cambridge; in 1844 they were married, and were never, as stated in Dobell's biography, thirty hours apart during the thirty years of their union. The early period of their wedded life was divided between residence at Cheltenham and country places among the hills. A meeting at one of these, Coxhorn House, in the valley of Charlton Kings, with Mr. Stansfield and Mr. George Dawson, is said to have originated the Society of the Friends of Italy. Previously, at Hucclecote, on the Via Arminia, he had begun ‘The Roman,’ which appeared in 1850, under the pseudonym of Sydney Yendys. Inspired by the stirring events of the time, this dramatic poem, from its intrinsic merit and its accord with a popular enthusiasm, had a rapid and decided success, and while establishing his reputation enlarged the circle of the author's friends, among whom were numbered leading writers like Tennyson and Carlyle, artists like Holman Hunt and Rossetti, prominent patriots like Mazzini and Kossuth. The poet's devotion to the cause of ‘the nationalities’—Italian, Hungarian, Spanish—never abated; it remained, as evinced by one of his latest fragments, ‘Mentana,’ a link between his adolescent radical and his mature liberal-conservative politics. Shortly afterwards Dobell's elaborate and appreciative criticism of Currer Bell in ‘The Palladium’ led to an interesting correspondence between the two authors. The August of 1850 he spent in North Wales, the following summer in Switzerland, and their mountain scenery left an impress on all his later work. ‘Balder,’ finished in 1853 at Amberley Hill, was with the general public and the majority of critics less fortunate than ‘The Roman.’ It is harder to read, as it was harder to write. The majority of readers, in search of pleasure and variety, recoiled from its violences, were intolerant of its monotony, and misunderstood the moral of its painful plot. The book is incomplete, as it stands a somewhat chaotic fragment of an unfulfilled design, but it exhibits the highest flights of the author's imagination and his finest pictures of Nature. The descriptions of Chamouni, of the Coliseum, of spring, and of the summer's day on the hill, almost sustain the comparisons which they provoke. To most readers ‘Balder’ will remain a portent, but it has stamina for permanence as a mine for poets.

In 1854 Dobell went to Edinburgh to seek medical advice for his wife, and during the next three years resided in Scotland, spending the winters in the capital, the summers in the highlands. During this period he made the acquaintance, among others, of Mr. Hunter of Craigcrook, Dr. Samuel Brown, Dr. John Brown, Edward Forbes, W. E. Aytoun, Sir Noel Paton, Mr. Dallas, and Sir David Brewster. In conjunction with Alexander Smith, to whom he was united in close ties of literary brotherhood, he issued in 1855 a series of sonnets on the Crimean war. This was followed in 1856 by a volume of dramatic and descriptive verses on the same theme, entitled ‘England in Time of War,’ which had a success only inferior to that of ‘The Roman.’ The best pieces in this collection, as ‘Keith of Ravelston,’ ‘Lady Constance,’ ‘A Shower in War Time,’ ‘Grass from the Battle-field,’ ‘Dead Maid's Pool,’ ‘An Evening Dream,’ ‘The Betsy Jane,’ &c., have, from their depth of sympathy and lyric flow, found a place in our best popular treasuries. Dobell's residence in Edinburgh was marked, as was all his life, by acts of kindness to struggling men of letters, notable alike for their delicacy and the comparatively slender resources of the benefactor. In the case of all deserving aspirants, among whom may be mentioned David Gray of Merklands, his advice and encouragement were as ready as his substantial aid. In 1857 he delivered a long lecture to the Philosophical Institution on ‘The Nature of Poetry,’ and the exhaustion resulting from the effort further impaired his already weak health. Advised to seek a milder climate, he spent the winters of the four following years at Niton in the Isle of Wight, the summers among the Cotswolds. Regular literary work being forbidden by his physicians, he turned his thoughts to another channel of usefulness, and, taking a more active part in the business of his firm, was one of the first to introduce and apply the system of co-operation. All who knew Gloucester associated his name with every movement in the direction of social progress and with every charitable enterprise in the town. After 1862 increasing delicacy of health rendered it necessary for Dobell to pass the winters abroad; in that of 1862–3 his headquarters were near Cannes, in 1863–4 in Spain, in 1864–6 in Italy. The summers of those years were still spent in Gloucestershire, and in 1865 he gave evidence of his political interests by the pamphlet on ‘Parliamentary Reform,’ advocating graduated suffrage and plurality of votes, that appears among his prose fragments.

In 1866 a serious fall among the ruins of Pozzuoli and, three years later, a dangerous accident with his horse, further reduced his strength, if not his energies, and the rest of his life was, though diversified by literary efforts—as the pamphlet on ‘Consequential Damages,’ ‘England's Day,’ and elaborate plans for the continuation of ‘Balder’—that of a more or less confirmed, though always cheerful, invalid. From 1866 to 1871 he resided mainly at Noke Place, on the slope of Chosen Hill, though he passed much of the colder season at Clifton, where he benefited by the advice of his friend, Dr. Symonds. In 1871 he removed to Barton-end House, fourteen miles on the other side of Gloucester, in a beautiful district above the Stroud Valley. There he continued to write occasional verses and memoranda, and was frequently visited by friends attracted by his gracious hospitality and brilliant conversational powers. In 1874 unfortunate circumstances, involving a mental strain to which he was then physically inadequate, hastened his death, which took place in the August of that year. He was buried in Painswick cemetery.

Dobell's character was above criticism. The nature of his work has been indicated; its quality will be variously estimated. Original and independent of formulæ to the verge of aggressiveness, he shared by nature, by no means through imitation, in some of the defects, occasional obscurity, involved conceits, and remoteness, of the seventeenth-century school which Dr. Johnson called metaphysical; but in loftiness of thought and richness of imagery his best pages have been surpassed by few, if any, of his contemporaries. His form is often faulty, but his life and writings together were in healthy protest against the subordination of form to matter that characterises much of the effeminate æstheticism of our age. Manliness in its highest attributes of courage and courtesy pervaded his career; his poetry is steeped in that keen atmosphere to which it is the aim of all enduring literature to raise our spirits. A radical reformer in some directions, he held the tyranny of mobs and autocrats in equal aversion. Though his politics had a visionary side, he was far from being a dreamer. Of practical welldoing he was never weary, and of jealousy he had not a tinge. His criticisms, if not always sound, were invariably valuable, for he awoke in his hearers a consciousness of capacities as well as a sense of duties.

A complete edition of his poems was published in 1875 (2 vols.), of his prose in 1876. His ‘Life and Letters’ appeared in 1878, 2 vols. A selected edition of his poems, edited by Mr. W. Sharp, appeared in February 1887 in one small volume.

[Dobell's Life and Letters; family records.]

J. N.