Edmund Gosse and Austin Dobson

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Two poets undoubtedly influenced by Banville’s Petit traité were Edmund Gosse and Austin Dobson. In a 1922 memorial essay upon the death of Dobson, Gosse remembered that their long friendship had begun in 1874 with a mutual enthusiasm for Banville’s Petit traité:

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The late Radical politician, Mr Peter Taylor, for many years M. P. for Leicester, lived in a large house, surrounded by gardens on Campden Hill–Aubrey House, long ago destroyed. Here he and his gifted wife entertained on a considerable scale, and hither came many persons of romantic and exotic interest. Mazzini was among those who had haunted Aubrey House at an earlier time. He was a correspondent of a Pen and Pencil Club inaugurated by Mrs Peter Taylor, whose members met on stated occasions to read and exhibit to one another prose and verse, and drawings also, illustrating a theme suggested for each occasion by the amiable hostess. Mr and Mrs Taylor liked to encourage ingenuous youth, and I had the honour of being elected to the Pen and Pencil Club. I attended the meeting in April 1874, when I was gratified by seeing and hearing several persons more or less notorious in their day. I knew no one in the room, nor was the quality of the successive contributions of a very exciting character. But in due course a slim young man, with dark eyes beneath a fine Horatian forehead, rose and read a short piece, in a voice attractive in its modesty and distinction. This, a whisper told me, was Mr Austin Dobson, whose ‘Vignettes in Rhyme’ had recently attracted a good deal of attention and were believed to have been rewarded by an Olympian nod from the Laureate [Tennyson]. As it happily chanced, I had just read that volume, with juvenile enthusiasm. But what greatly moved me was that I recognised (I alone, no doubt!) that the piece just read was a rondeau in the French form elaborately defined by Théodore de Banville in the 1874 reprint of his ‘Petit Traité de la Poésie Française,’ a book which–as we ultimately discovered–was exercising a remarkable influence over several young English poets. The company presently dispersed, and I shyly ventured to address the author of the rondeau with the remark that I noticed he had kept to the rules of De Banville. He was extremely surprised, and I may dare to say extremely pleased. We wandered out into the night together, and, late as it was, we paced the streets in a kind of dream for hours, absorbed in our metrical discussions. (Gosse, “Austin Dobson,” 63-4)

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Gosse might have the date of this meeting wrong–I can find no 1874 reprint of Banville’s Petit traité, though there is one dated 1875; more likely, Gosse and Dobson had simply read the first edition of 1872–but what is most important about the passage is the scene it sets. It is clear that the “elaborately defined” Renaissance forms perform a social function for Gosse similar to the social function they performed for Banville: for both, enthusiasm for the forms is a specialized knowledge that credentials the ambitious young littérateur, defining him as akin to but different from the established elder lions in their large houses surrounded by gardens. The friendship between Gosse and Dobson resembled, we may imagine, the friendship of Banville and Ténint and/or the friendship of Banville and Boyer: all were friendships founded on meeting in the salons, discussing the latest literature of the day, reading and editing one another’s work in private, and ultimately advertising and endorsing that work in public. It is in this way that new literary schools have always arisen; when Gosse writes that his recognition of Dobson’s rondeau “greatly moved me,” what he is moved toward is a movement–exclusive, but no longer forlornly singular.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Both Gosse and Dobson soon communicated their discovery of the “French forms” to an English audience, Gosse in an 1877 essay in the Cornhill Magazine titled “A Plea for Certain Exotic Forms of Verse” and Dobson in an 1878 essay less beseechingly titled “A Note on Some Foreign Forms of Verse,” which was appended to the anthology Latter-Day Lyrics.1 Certainly the new movement then forming in the hands of Gosse and Dobson had as one of its mainsprings the admiration for the exotic, the foreign; this is also evident in the passage above, in which Gosse’s admiration for the romantic Italian insurgent Giuseppe Mazzini (who died in 1872) seems to be an expectation that is rewarded by his meeting with the “slim young man, with dark eyes.” Dobson and Gosse themselves come to represent–indeed, seek to represent–the foreign and the exotic for their British public.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Gosse’s “A Plea for Certain Exotic Forms of Verse” is an important piece in the villanelle’s history, marking as it does the kindling of the form in nineteenth-century Anglophone poetry. Gosse begins by arguing that poetry is more a fine art than a philosophy, and goes on to assert that therefore “it need not surprise us to have to dismiss the purely spontaneous and untutored expression of it as of little else than historical interest” (53). (We remember Banville’s refusal to grant poetic licenses.) Gosse cites the Petrarchan sonnet as a flourishing example of a form in which “the severity of the plan and the rich and copious recurrence of the rhyme serve the double end of repelling the incompetent workman and stimulating the competent,” and therefore feels at liberty to recommend six “exotic forms which it seems desirable to adopt into English poetry” (56). These six forms are the rondel, the rondeau, the triolet, the villanelle, the ballade, and the chant royal. His chief authority for the history of the villanelle is Banville. Gosse sees the rondel, rondeau, and triolet as inescapably “light” forms, while the villanelle, the ballade, and the chant royal “are usually wedded to serious or stately expression, and almost demand a vein of pathos” (57). Gosse of course reprints Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma tourterelle” as an example of the villanelle, little knowing that it is the only early example of that reputedly fixed form, though he does write (in a slightly puzzled tone), “I do not find that much has been recorded of [the villanelle’s] history, but it dates back at least as far as the fifteenth century” (64). Of Passerat’s poem, he writes, “This dear dove of Passerat’s seems to me quite as sweet as Lesbia’s sparrow, and such a pretty grief is worthily enshrined in such a dainty form”–a sentence whose adjectives seem to contradict the earlier comment that the villanelle could be “serious or stately” (65).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Gosse also offers his own “Wouldst thou not be content to die” as an example, writing that “In English I do not think any have yet been printed, except one by the present writer, published in 1874 in the Athenaeum. In the dearth of examples, I may perhaps be pardoned if I quote here another which has not hitherto seen the light” (65). This earlier villanelle of Gosse’s has not been found, and may not exist: I have conducted an unsuccessful search for it in the journals Gosse was known to have contributed to in the period from 1872 to 1876: the Fortnightly Review, the Spectator, The Cornhill Magazine, The Academy, Fraser’s Magazine, The Athenaeum, and The Examiner.2 A previously unknown villanelle signed by Austin Dobson, however, appears in the October 24, 1874 issue of The Examiner:

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 VILLANELLE.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 When I first saw your eyes,
You were then but a child:
Time changes, Time tries.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 You were pure from disguise;
O the deeps undefiled,
When I first saw your eyes!

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Now your hand is a prize,
Now your heart is beguiled;
Time changes, Time tries.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 You have learned to despise,
Not as now had you smiled,
When I first saw your eyes.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 You are cold, you are wise;
Yet you were but a child
When I first saw your eyes.
Time changes, Time tries! (1157)

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The subject and the versification of the Examiner villanelle are virtually the same as that of “When I Saw You Last, Rose,” a villanelle of Dobson’s published in his 1877 collection Proverbs in Porcelain: the concluding quatrain of that piece runs, “Is it Cupid? Who knows! / Yet you used not to sigh, / When I saw you last, Rose; / How fast the time goes!” Of some interest is the fact that Dobson’s “When I first saw your eyes,” now the earliest known English villanelle, follows Banville’s stanzaic model. As Clive Scott has pointed out, the nineteen-line Passerat model would not come to be the norm for Anglophone poets until after the publication of Boulmier’s Villanelles in 1878, while French poets even after that date (Rollinat, Leconte de Lisle) still tended to regard the villanelle as a stanza type rather than a fixed form.3

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Gosse’s “Wouldst thou not be content to die,” included with his plea for exotic forms, was similarly stanzaic at twenty-five lines:

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Wouldst thou not be content to die
When low-hung fruit is hardly clinging,
And golden Autumn passes by?

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 If we could vanish, thou and I,
While the last woodland bird is singing,
Wouldst thou not be content to die?

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Deep drifts of leaves in the forest lie,
Red vintage that the frost is flinging,
And golden Autumn passes by.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Beneath this delicate rose-gray sky,
While sunset bells are faintly ringing,
Wouldst thou not be content to die?

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 For wintry webs of mist on high
Out of the muffled earth are springing,
And golden Autumn passes by.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 O now when pleasures fade and fly,
And Hope her southward flight is winging,
Wouldst thou not be content to die?

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Lest Winter come, with wailing cry,
His cruel icy bondage bringing,
When golden Autumn has passed by,

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 And thou, with many a tear and sigh,
While life her wasted hands is wringing,
Shalt pray in vain for leave to die
When golden Autumn has passed by.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 A bare two years later, after the publication of Boulmier’s Villanelles, Gosse would excise the second and third stanzas from the poem, though it retained its eight stanzas when reprinted in Latter-Day Lyrics, the anthology of 1878 to which Dobson appended his “Note on Some Foreign Forms of Verse.”4 Neither Dobson nor Gosse obeyed Banville’s rule for the use of feminine and masculine rhyme (though Gosse does employ feminine rhyme in the second line of the tercet rather than in the first and third lines), nor did Gosse mention this rule in his essay. Dobson’s early villanelles are in trimeter, while Gosse chooses tetrameter, early evidence that the villanelle was understood to have no particular meter. Nineteenth-century villanelles, however, avoid pentameter in favor of shorter lines, doubtless because of the influence of the French examples with their seven-syllable masculine lines.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Gosse was notoriously inaccurate about more than just the point of whether he or Dobson had published the first villanelle in English, more than just the point of whether there was more than one example of the form in the Renaissance. In the fall of 1886, in what Gosse’s biographer Ann Thwaite calls “the central episode of Edmund Gosse’s literary career,” the critic John Churton Collins attacked Gosse’s From Shakespeare to Pope for its unscholarliness (277). “We have even refrained from discussing matters of opinion,” wrote Collins in the widely-read Quarterly Review piece. “We have confined ourselves entirely to matters of fact–to gross and palpable blunders, to unfounded and reckless assertions, to such absurdities in criticism and such vices of style as will in the eyes of discerning readers carry with them their own condemnation” (qtd. in Thwaite 282). Gosse was just about to take up the position of Clark Lecturer at Cambridge when the denunciation appeared. It was the Sokal scandal of its time, shocking, much-talked of, and much-written of in academic and literary circles. Thwaite writes, “There is no question that Collins was a fanatic and a pedant. Later in life he would search the registers of forty-two Norwich churches, trying to pin down the elusive birth-date of Robert Greene for an edition he was editing. But, as far as Gosse’s book was concerned, Collins happened to be right. . . . From Shakespeare to Pope is full of extraordinary mistakes” (278). Gosse’s career did survive the blow–he took up his position as scheduled–but his reputation as a scholar was never the same. His translations, too, came in for criticism; in 1891 William Archer wrote in the Pall Mall Gazette that Gosse’s translation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler was “inconceivably careless” and “fantastically inaccurate” (qtd. in Thwaite 341). Henry James remarked upon the occasion in a letter that Gosse “has a genius for inaccuracy which makes it difficult to dress his wounds” (emphasis original, qtd. in Thwaite 339).

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Despite the charges of unscholarly carelessness that persisted throughout his career, Gosse retained more than enough authority to write the entry on the villanelle for the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. There are many differences between the text of “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” printed in the 1877 “A Plea for Certain Exotic Forms of Verse” and that printed in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. The version of “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” of 1877 was riddled with errors, many of them highly ungrammatical, and while these might have been due to printer error rather than to Gosse’s poor French, Gosse strove to correct them for his 1911 reference-work article. (See Appendix III for a textual collation, and see Appendix IV to compare the full texts of the versions discussed below side by side.) For instance, the 1877 article prints “regrette” rather than Passerat’s “regretes”–a rather serious mistake, since one of the easier and more consistent rules of French conjugation is that present-tense verbs conjugated for “tu” end in “s.” Four other scholars (two French-speaking and two English-speaking) would later “correct” Passerat’s spelling to the incorrect “regrètes,” but this mistake is more understandable, since many French verbs ending in “-ter” are indeed spelled that way in the “tu” form (e.g., “acheter” becomes “achètes”). In the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, as in most modernized versions of “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle,” the correct modern spelling, “regrettes,” is used. The 1877 article also prints entirely non-existent French words–“fermi” for “ferme” and “joy” for “foy”–and introduces a jarring and fictitious exclamation point in the final quatrain (an interpolation picked up by seven subsequent scholars). Gosse corrects these mistakes in his 1911 piece, and in addition attempts to make his modernizations more consistent, for instance modernizing “J’ay” to “J’ai” for the first time. The source of Gosse’s 1877 text of “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” is unclear; the text of that poem had not appeared in Banville, so Gosse must have tracked down the single Renaissance example elsewhere. Gosse’s highly corrupt text of 1877 cannot be traced to any of the prior known sources through collation. The source of the 1911 text, however, cited by Gosse and verified by textual collation, is Joseph Boulmier’s 1878/9 Villanelles, suivies de poésies en langage du XVe siècle, et précédées d’une notice historique et critique sur la villanelle avec une villanelle technique.5

  1. I take issue to some extent with the term “French forms,” especially in the case of the villanelle, which has so many more English examples than French examples. I do occasionally use the term while narrating the history of the revival of these forms, because their “Frenchness” was highly significant for the post-Romantics and even for the modernists, but I think the term should be retired from contemporary handbooks. To my mind a more accurate and neutral term, also now in common usage, is “fixed forms.” Continually designating certain forms as “French” emphasizes their foreignness to Anglophone poetry in an inevitably hierarchical way, even if the affective connotations of “Frenchness” have somewhat diminished for English-speakers. Or had, before the resurgence of ancient Francophobic tendencies in the international arguments over the war on Iraq.
  2. For journals to which Gosse contributed in this period, see Ann Thwaite, Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape, 1849-1928 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1984) 129-30.
  3. See Clive Scott, French Verse-Art: A Study (Cambridge [Eng.]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980) 157-64.
  4. See Edmund Gosse, New Poems (London: C. Kegan Paul & Co., 1879) 154-5 and W. Davenport Adams, ed., Latter-Day Lyrics: Being Poems of Sentiment and Reflection by Living Writers (London: Chatto and Windus, 1878) 312-13.
  5. The accidentals in these two texts match almost exactly.
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