Sydney Thompson Dobell Biography

Sydney Thompson Dobell (5 April 1824 – 22 August 1874), English poet and critic, was born at Cranbrook, Kent.
His father, John Dobell, 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-year engagement he married, in 1844, Emily Fordham, a lady of good family. Acquaintance with James Stansfeld (subsequently Sir James Stansfeld) and with the Birmingham preacher-politician George Dawson (1821-1876) fed the young enthusiast's ardour for the liberalism of the day, and later led to the foundation of the Society of the Friends of Italy.

Meanwhile, Dobell wrote a number of minor poems, infused 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. Dobell also wrote England in Time of War, The Ballad of Keith Ravelston, and Tommy's Dead.


As a poet Dobell belongs to the Spasmodic school of poetry, as it was named by Professor Aytoun, who parodied its style in Firmilian: A Spasmodic Tragedy. 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 1850 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 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 1875 or 1876. The standard edition includes a memoir.