The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VI. Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century

§ 7. Sydney Dobell

And yet there are grounds for holding Sydney Dobell the greatest poet of the group. He, like some others, has been more unfortunate in his eulogists than in his detractors, for to say that Balder “contains beauties beyond the reach of any contemporary poet” (the competitors, be it remembered, including, to mention nobody else, Tennyson, Browning and Matthew Arnold) is so monstrous an exaggeration that it may recoil not more on its author than on its subject. But the critics who indulged in this aberration of enthusiasm palinodes it in the same sentence with such terms as “preposterous” and “chaotic,” while, in others, we find charges of “dull verbiage,” “outrageous extravagance,” “mereinanity,” “obscurity,” “pretentiousness,” “sentimentaland sonorousclaptrap” and the like. The indignite, to use the old tag once more, is not much more exact than the excès d’honneur. A purely private education, very bad health and (though he was a man of business for parts of his life) recluse habits fostered in Dobell an evidently congenital incapacity for self-and other criticism. The Roman, his first book, is, admittedly, a mere rhetorical utterance of the “Italomania” common at the time; Balder, with some fine passages, though none of his finest, has more of the “burst ginger-beer bottle” quality of the spasmodics than any other poem by any other author; and England in Time of War contains a good deal of rubbish, with some things as different from rubbish as it is possible to conceive. Of Dobell’s two masterpieces, Keith of Ravelston and Tommy’s Dead, as of a considerable number of passages, if hardly another complete poem, in his other works, though it is, as has been said, absurd to put them “beyond the reach” of others, it might truly enough be said that, in those others, nothing exactly like them is actually found. There is, in them, an idiosyncrasy of strangeness—a faculty of inspiring and surrounding sometimes the very simplest words with an aura or atmosphere of poetic unfamiliarity—which thing whosoever possesses, he passes as a poet without further question. None of Dobell’s fellows—not even Elizabeth Barrett Browning—who is a sort of she-spasmodic of the nobler kind—actually has it in the same way or in the same degree. But it must be allowed that no other poet brings so vividly before us the faults which Kingsley (with the spasmodics clearly in mind) has attributed to his Alton Lockes and his Elsley Vavasours; while none enables us so thoroughly to understand the way in which Matthew Arnold, at this very time, was plying the new critical weapons he had forged against extravagance, caprice, the subordination of the general fashioning of the poetic garment to its decoration with purple patches or tinsel trimmings and the like.

We may turn, in logical connection as well as rhetorical contrast, from these poets who, though they were not all entirely destitute of humour, undoubtedly owed most of their faults to the want of its chastening influence, to another group composed of writers of verse, not always purely humorous, but, at its and their own best, mainly so. And we may, with special propriety—again logical as well as chronological—begin with the coiner of the name “spasmodic”—William Edmonstoune Aytoun.