Biography Sydney Thompson Dobell

Sydney Thompson Dobell

photo of Sydney Thompson Dobell
  • Time Period1824 - 1874
  • Place
  • CountryEngland

Poet Biography

Sydney Thompson Dobell (April 5, 1824 – August 22, 1874), English poet and critic, was born at Cranbrook, Kent.

His father was a wine merchant, his mother a daughter of Samuel Thompson (1766-1837), a London political reformer. The family moved to Cheltenham when Dobell was twelve years old. He was educated privately, and never attended either school or university. He refers to this in some lines on Cheltenham College in imitation of Chaucer, written in his eighteenth year. After a five years engagement he married, in 1844, Emily Fordham, a lady of good family. An acquaintance with Mr (subsequently Sir James) Stansfeld and with the Birmingham preacher-politician, George Dawson (1821-1876), which afterwards led to the foundation of the Society of the Friends of Italy, fed the young enthusiast's ardour for the liberalism of the day.

Meanwhile, Dobell wrote a number of minor poems, instinct with a passionate desire for political reform. The Roman appeared in 1850, under the nom de plume of Sydney Yendys. Next year he travelled through Switzerland with his wife; and after his return he formed friendships with Robert Browning, Philip Bailey, George MacDonald, Emanuel Deutsch, Lord Houghton, Ruskin, Holman Hunt, Mazzini, Tennyson and Carlyle. His second long poem, Balder, appeared in 1854. The three following years were spent in Scotland.

Perhaps his closest friend at this time was Alexander Smith, in company with whom he published, in 1855, a number of sonnets on the Crimean War, which were followed by a volume on England in Time 4 War. Although by no means a rich man he was always ready to help needy men of letters, and it was through his exertions that David Gray's poems were published. In 1869 a horse, which he was riding, fell and rolled over with him. His health, which had for several years necessitated his wintering abroad, was seriously affected by this accident, and he was from this time more or less of an invalid until his death.

As a poet Dobell belongs to the spasmodic school, as it was named by Professor Aytoun, who parodied its style in Firmilian. The epithet, however, was first applied by Carlyle to Byron. The school includes George Gilfillan, Philip James Bailey, John Stanyan Bigg (1826-1865), Dobell, Alexander Smith, and, according to some critics, Gerald Massey. It was characterized by an under-current of discontent with the mystery of existence, by vain effort, unrewarded struggle, sceptical unrest, and an uneasy straining after the unattainable. It thus faithfully reflected a certain phase of 19th century thought.

The productions of the school are marked by an excess of metaphor and a general extravagance of language. On the other hand, they exhibit freshness and originality often lacking in more conventional writings. Dobell's poem, The Roman, dedicated to the interests of political liberty in Italy, is marked by pathos, energy and passionate love of freedom, but it is overlaid with monologue, which is carried to an ecstatically scatological excess in Balder, relieved though the latter is by fine descriptive passages, and by some touching songs. Dobell's suggestive, but too ornate prose writings were collected and edited with an introductory note by John Nichol (Thoughts on Art, Philosophy and Religion) in 1876.

In his religious views Dobell was a Christian of the Broad Church type; and socially he was one of the most amiable and true-hearted of men. His early interest in the cause of oppressed nationalities, shown in his friendship with Kossuth, Emanuel Deutsch and others, never lessened, although his views of home politics underwent some change from the radical opinions of his youth. In Gloucestershire Dobell was well known as an advocate of social reform, and he was a pioneer in the application of the co-operative system to private cnterprise.

The standard edition of his poems (1875) by Professor Nichol includes a memoir.

Sydney Dobell was also famous as an early breeder of Deerhounds. She has no record of pedigree but was given to him by Mr Ronald McDonald of Skye and of pure blood. She was supposed to be descended from the deerhounds of Cher Foreman McDonald. Later generations of his deerhounds were painted by Sydney Dobell's, brother in law, Briton Rivière, notably "The Empty Chair", which was first exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in 1869. It was bought for a geat deal of money by Howard Dobell his uncle.