Genius, and other essays/Austin Dobson

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AN usher at the drawing-room door serves as a foil to the courtly groups beyond him. All his bows and flourishes seem commonplace beside the easy grace of his betters, if, indeed, the guests vouchsafe him a glance as they pass within. Little they care whether his legs be cross-gartered. Still, the usher is thought to be, in his way, a useful personage. And an introduction to these Vignettes in Rhyme thus may bear a certain fitness,—lest otherwise the collection should lack that effect which some prosaic contrast may lend to the delicate art of the whole.

Once acquainted with these pages, the reader will find that my comparison is an apt one; that he is in good company, and that Mr. Dobson, more than other recent poets, seems not only to gather about him a select concourse of fine people, but to move at ease among them. It is a pleasure to meet these gentlefolk, and like a mark of our own rank. Here are gathered, it is true, those of various periods and manners, but all demean themselves with graceful breeding and without affectation, and are on good terms with one another and with their host. Here are the old noblesse, the beau sabreur, the gentleman and gentlewoman of the old school, and here the youths and maidens of to-day,—a choice assemblage, with not a prig, a bore, or a vulgarian among them.

Some of the most attractive portions of this selection, therefore, have to do with the quaint people of a time gone by, and with the treasures they have bequeathed to us. But the author is an artist of the present, and his work a product of to-day. Its modernism is a constant charm. There are in England and France so many lovely relics of a refined, alluring age! In England, the canvases of Sir Joshua and Gainsborough, the old houses with their souvenirs of teacup-times,—brocade and chintz, deftly garnished mantels, tapestried and lavendered chambers, box-bordered lawns and garden-plots. In France, the dark hangings and polished floors of stately mirrored rooms in turreted chateaux and peaked mansions. Never so much as now have the artists availed themselves of these materials, and of the riches of galleries and museums close at hand. But one looks to the poet to catch the sense and soul of these things, the aroma that clings about them. The fashions that most readily appeal to Mr. Dobson are those which are so far bygone as to be again desired and new. What more odious than the mode we have just discarded? What so winning as that of a time earlier than our memory, and thoroughly good in its time? The movement which has given expression to all this, on both sides of the ocean, is like a new taste. Mr. Dobson is the instinctive and born interpreter of its sentiment, and his Vignettes in Rhyme will be as welcome to us as they have been to his own people. The actor's art delights us, because we know it is not real, and the modern renaissance delights us, because it gives us something quite apart from our common humdrum life; it is a feeling of to-day that dallies with the fragments of the past,—of that Past which never is past, which merges with the Present, and retains a hold upon our works of every-day use and beauty.

I write first of Mr. Dobson's old-time sentiment, because it is so definite and effective, but his muse is not restricted to a single range. Before looking farther, let us see who is this artist that has filled the vacant niche, and whose verse shows at once the strength and fineness that make it rank with the selectest poetry of our day.

Not unlike others who live at will in an ideal world, Austin Dobson is as modest and unassuming a person as one often meets. Just a poet, scholar and gentleman, the artist-side of whose nature compensates him for any lack of adventure in his daily work and walk. As is the case with many London authors, an office in the Civil Service has supplied him with an honorable certainty of livelihood and left his heart at ease for song. He was born in 1840, and has been a government-clerk for twenty-two years. Singularly enough, he did not begin to write poetry till he was twenty-five years of age, and the first collection of his Vignettes was not made until 1874. From the outset he took the public taste with the delicate sense and humor of his lyrics, no less than by their finish and ideality. We reasonably may surmise that years of growth, study, observation, lay behind this good fortune.

My own attention, I remember, first was drawn to his work by the neatest and brightest of society-verse, composed in a novel style, quite unlike that of Praed, Locker, or his earlier predecessors. I have elsewhere described poems of this class as "those patrician rhymes, which, for want of an English equivalent, are termed vers de société. . . . This is pervaded by an indefinable grace that elevates it to the region of poetic art, and owing to which the lightest ballads of Suckling and Waller are current to this day. In fine, the true kind is marked by humor, by spontaneity, joined with extreme elegance of finish, by the quality we call breeding,—above all, by lightness of touch." All of these essentials were present in "Tu Quoque," "An Autumn Idyll," and in other pieces which at once brought Mr. Dobson into favor. Some of them are so witty and elegant, surrounded by so fine an atmosphere, and withal so true to the feeling and scenery of his own island, as to make him seem like a modern Horace or Theocritus, or like both in one. He is not the first poet that has been called an English Horace, but few have better merited the title. He draws his Englishmen as Horace drew his town and country friends. It seems to me that he is the sketcher to whom Thackeray would take a liking. Since the De Floracs, we have had no such French people as L'Etoile and Monsieur Vieuxbois; since Esmond and his times, no such people of the old England have come to life again as Mr. Dobson's "Gentleman" and "Gentlewoman," his "Dorothy," or even that knight of the road, whose untimely taking-off is rehearsed in "The Ballad of 'Beau Brocade.'"

Our debonair poet elevates taste and feeling to the pitch of imagination. He yields himself to the spell of brooding memories and associations:

We shut our hearts up, now-a-days,
Like some old music-box that plays
Unfashionable airs that raise
Derisive pity;
Alas,—a nothing starts the spring:
And lo, the sentimental thing
At once commences, quavering
Its lover's ditty.

His pathos and tenderness appear, too, in more serious pieces. There are kind touches in "The Child-Musician," "The Cradle," and "A Nightingale in Kensington Gardens." Mr. Brander Matthews, one of our own most agreeable writers, justly lays stress upon Dobson's perfect absorption in his immediate theme, his art of shutting out from a poem everything foreign to its needs. How purely Greek the image of Autonoë! How minute the picture of "An Old Fish-Pond," and what shrewd wisdom! What human nature in "A Dead Letter," one of my favorite pieces,—and how perfect its reproduction of the ancestral mode! With all his regard for "values," the poet never goes to the pseudo-æsthetic extreme; indeed, he is the first to poke fun at it, and seems quite free from certain affectations of modern verse. His English is pure and simple, and the natural finish of his poetry shows for itself. I doubt if there is another collection of lyrics by an English singer more devoid of blemishes, more difficult to amend by the striking-out or change of words and measures. Mr. Aldrich has suggested that it may well be compared, in this respect, to the French of such an artist as Théophile Gautier,—the lesson of whose L'Art, as will be seen from his own crystalline poem in imitation, Mr. Dobson long ago took to heart.

His lyrical studies and dialogues upon French themes of the Eighteenth Century are full of poetic realism. In "Une Marquise," and in "The Story of Rosina,"—a sustained piece which shows the higher range of its author's genius,—the presiding beauty, and the artist of a time and a region

Wherein most things went naked, save the Truth,

are made known to us more truly than they dared to know themselves. For dainty workmanship, and comprehension of the spirit of an age, read "The Metamorphosis," and its sequel, "The Song out of Season." What other poet could have written these, or "Good-night, Babette!"—which contains the Angelus song, whose loveliness I scarcely realized until Mr. Aldrich printed it by itself, a gem taken from its setting. And I know not, since reading "The Curé's Progress," where else to find so attractive an ideal of the goodness, quaintness, sweetness, of the typical Père on his journey down the street of his little town. The town itself is depicted, in a few stanzas, as plainly as "Our Village" in the whole series of Miss Mitford's classic sketches.

Mr. Dobson escapes the restrictions of many writers of elegant verse by his refreshing variety. In his lightest work he is a fine poet at play; not a weakling, with one pretty gift, doing the best thing in his power. He is entitled to the credit, whatever that may be, of having been among the first to really bring into fashion the present use of old French stanzaic and rhythmic forms. In view of the speed wherewith these have been adopted and played upon by poets and parodists without number, I am not sure whether to thank him or to condole with him. We must acknowledge that English poetry, like the language, is eclectic, deriving its riches from many sources. Its lyrical score, which long has been too monotonous, doubtless will gain something from the revival of these continental forms. Only those suited to the genius of our song will come into permanent use. If any readers are as yet unacquainted with the nature and varieties of these old-new forms, they can find the best exposition of them in Mr. Edmund Gosse's "Plea for Certain Exotic Forms of Verse."[2] The specimens of the Rondel, the Rondeau, the Triolet, the Villanelle, the Ballade, the Chant Royal, which he cites from the works of Swinburne, Lang, Dobson, and those of his own sweet and learned muse, are excellently done. Nearer home, we have Mr. Matthews's analysis[3] of Mr. Dobson's experiments in all these forms of verse, and a farther description on my part is rendered unnecessary.

Most of the poems of this class in the following pages first were brought together systematically in Dobson's Proverbs in Porcelain, 1877, although all of their modes, except the Chant Royal and the Villanelle, can be found in the relics of early English poetry,—some even in the verse of Gower and Chaucer. My own creed is that the chief question is not what novelty tempts us to the show, but whether the show be a good one,—and Mr. Dobson pleasantly avows a kindred belief. Some of these exotic forms seem to be handled as cleverly by him in English, as in French by De Banville. The villanelle "For a Copy of Theocritus," is like a necklace of beaten antique gold. His rondeaux "To Ethel" and "When Finis Comes," have a tricksy spirit, a winged and subtle perfection. Their rules seem peculiarly suited to experiments in translation from Horace. At all events, I do not recall any paraphrases of "O Fons Bandusiæ" and "Vixi Puellis" more satisfactory in form and flavor than those which Mr. Dobson gives us.

Reviewing these Vignettes in Rhyme and Proverbs in Porcelain, I have felt like one who has the freedom of a virtuoso's collection,—who handles unique and precious things, fearing that his clumsiness may leave a blemish or in some way cost him dear. Artist and poet at once, Mr. Dobson reminds me of Francia, who "loved to sign his paintings 'Aurifex,' and on his trinkets inscribed the word 'Pictor,'" and I have an impression that rarely of late has an English singer offered us more charming portraits, purer touches of nature, more picturesque glimpses of a manor which he holds in fee. It is hard to define his limitations, for he has not yet gone beyond them; yet I shall not be surprised if his future career shall prove them to be outside the "liberties" which even a friendly critic might assign to him.

  1. Introduction to Vignettes in Rhyme, and Other Verses. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1880.
  2. Cornhill Magazine, July, 1877.
  3. Appleton's Journal, June, 1878.