Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Austin, Alfred
AUSTIN, ALFRED (1835–1913), poet laureate, the second son of Joseph Austin, wool-stapler, of Leeds, by his wife, Mary, sister of Joseph Locke, M.P. [q. v.], was born at Headingley, Leeds, 30 May 1835. Of a Roman Catholic family, he was educated at Stonyhurst College (1849–1852) and then at Oscott College, whence in 1853 he graduated B.A. of London University. Called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1857, he joined the Northern circuit; but in 1858, having already published a verse-tale and a novel, he abandoned law for literature. The meagre notice given in the Athenæum to his satire, The Season (1861), drew from him a sequel abusing that journal and its editor, William Hepworth Dixon. Austin's faith in his poetic genius wavered somewhat in 1862, when a narrative poem entitled The Human Tragedy, which he gave out as the first draft of a magnum opus, was coldly received. He published no more verse till 1871, but turned again to novel-writing, though with little success. After his marriage in 1865 to Hester, daughter of Thomas Homan-Mulock, of Bellair, King's county, he sought an opening in political journalism. He contested Taunton unsuccessfully in 1865 and Dewsbury in 1880, standing in the conservative interest. From 1866 to 1896 he was leader-writer to the Standard, and occasionally acted as its special correspondent abroad, for example at the Vatican Council of 1869–1870, with the Prussian army in 1870, and at the Congress of Berlin in 1884. His chief concern was with foreign affairs. An early enthusiast for Polish and Italian patriots, his hatred of Russia made him a devoted follower of Disraeli. In 1870 he rejoiced when the Prussian sword, ‘the World's salvation, smote its insulter to the knee’ (Interludes), and by 1876 he thought Garibaldi an ‘unmitigated nuisance’. In 1883 he and William John Courthope [q. v.] became joint editors of the newly founded National Review, and Austin carried on the work for eight years after Courthope's resignation in 1887.
From 1863 Austin was a fairly regular contributor to the critical reviews. In this way, by 1870, he had given public expression to his view that Hugo, Tennyson, Browning, Morris, Arnold, Clough, and Swinburne were indifferent poets, because they were either ‘feminine’ or lyrical, and lyric he called ‘essentially childish’. He urged that no poem was great unless it was an epic or dramatic romance on a theme combining love, patriotism, and religion. In 1867 he had settled at Swinford Old Manor, near Ashford, Kent, in a domestic circle conscious of the privilege of cherishing a great poet. Feeling himself again ‘the adopted heir of Art and Nature’, he returned to poetry, and besides extending his Human Tragedy to the range of the ideal great poem, between 1871 and 1908 he published twenty volumes of verse. In 1894, a prose work, The Garden that I Love, achieved wide popular success; and because of this, or because of his journalistic services to Lord Salisbury's party, he was made poet laureate on 1 January 1896. Although the appointment was humorously criticized, the laureate's reverence for authority and for official ceremony gave him partial qualifications; but in commemorating certain national events he only revealed his own lack of all sense of the ludicrous. On the whole, his laureate pieces are better than most of their kind, although the first of them—an Ode in The Times (12 January 1896) hailing the news of the Jameson Raid—is as bad as the worst. To the end he believed that only the malice of critics and the odium theologicum prevented the world from taking him at his own high valuation. He never formally left the Church of Rome, but ‘vicarage gardens’ and ‘hamlets hallowed by their spires’ attached him sentimentally to the Church of England. He died without issue at Swinford Old Manor 2 June 1913.
By mingling earlier work with every new volume, Austin added to the apparent bulk of his writings. Probably he is best in his prose ‘garden-diaries’, casual but often pompous jottings, half reverie, half autobiography, mainly devoted to the charm of his Kentish home or of his Italian holidays: they are not as solemnly sentimental as his poems. His novels are thin in story, abundant in moralizing, and luscious in sentiment. His criticism is profuse in the false attribution to others of precisely those faults which he failed to recognize in himself. His verse never frees itself from his admiration of Scott and Byron: but Scott never taught him the way to tell a tale, and Byron could not save him from invariably being ‘an uncompromising moralist’ (The Season). Not content with a talent for singing simply of country and countryside, he attempted to treat philosophic themes in epic and dramatic form. The Conversion of Winckelmann and Fortunatus the Pessimist are minor successes: but he had no gift for characterization and his narrative dwells inordinately on tales of sighing lovers ‘with teardrops trembling on the cheek’. Perpetually revolving truisms, he could never give them the semblance of new or valuable truths.
There is a portrait of Austin by Leslie Ward (‘Spy’) in the National Portrait Gallery.
The following is a list of Austin's works:
I. Verse. (a) Satires: 1. The Season (1861). 2. My Satire and its Censors (1861). 3. The Golden Age (1871).
(b) Narrative: 4. Randolph (1854). 5. The Human Tragedy (1862); this was withdrawn from circulation, and an expanded version appeared in 1876, and revised versions of this in 1889 and 1891. 6. Madonna's Child (1873); this became Act 2 of The Human Tragedy in 1876. 7. Rome or Death (1873); this became Act 3 of The Human Tragedy in 1876, giving to the original story a setting in the Garibaldian wars, and leading to an Act 4 which extends the setting to include phases of the Franco-German War. 8. Leszko the Bastard: a Tale of Polish Grief (1877), a reshaping of no. 4 above.
(c) Collections of Lyric and Narrative: 9. Interludes (1872). 10. Soliloquies in Song (1882). 11. At the Gate of the Convent (1885). 12. Love's Widowhood (1889). 13. English Lyrics (edited by William Watson, 1890). 14. Lyrical Poems (1891). 15. Narrative Poems (1891). 16. The Conversion of Winckelmann (1897). 17. Songs of England (1898). 18. A Tale of True Love (1902). 19. The Door of Humility (1906); this is a reflective poem in lyric verse with a shadowy narrative framework. 20. Sacred and Profane Love (1908).
(d) Dramatic Poems: 21. The Tower of Babel (1874 and 1890). 22. Savonarola: a Tragedy (1881). 23. Prince Lucifer (1887). 24. Fortunatus the Pessimist (1892). 25. England's Darling (1896); this is the laureate's diploma piece on Alfred the Great. 26. Flodden Field: a Tragedy (1903); this is the only one of the dramas capable of being staged, and was performed without success at His Majesty's Theatre in June 1903.
II. Prose. (a) Novels: 1. Five Years of It (2 vols., 1858). 2. An Artist's Proof (3 vols., 1864). 3. Won by a Head (3 vols., 1866).
(b) Political: 4. Russia before Europe (1876); second edition entitled Tory Horrors: a letter to Gladstone (1876). 5. England's Policy and Peril: a letter to Beaconsfield (1877). 6. Hibernian Horrors: a letter to Gladstone (1880).
(c) Critical: 7. A Vindication of Lord Byron (1869); this first appeared in The Standard. 8. The Poetry of the Period (1870), eight papers reprinted from Temple Bar (1869). 9. New and Old Canons in Criticism (Contemporary Review, 1881). 10. A Vindication of Tennyson (Macmillan's Magazine, 1885), a reply to Swinburne's Tennyson and Victor Hugo, later reprinted in The Bridling of Pegasus (no. 13 below). 11. The End and Limits of Objective Poetry, a preface to the second edition of Prince Lucifer (1887). 12. The Position and Prospects of Poetry, a preface to the third edition of The Human Tragedy (1889). 13. The Bridling of Pegasus (1910), a collection of essays written in the preceding thirty years, the most noteworthy being an attack on Wordsworth.
(d) Personal and Miscellaneous: 14. A Note of Admiration to the editor of the Saturday Review (1861), part of the quarrel about The Season. 15. The Garden that I Love (1894). 16. In Veronica's Garden (1895). 17. Lamia's Winter Quarters (1898). 18. Spring and Autumn in Ireland (1900), reprinted from Blackwood's Magazine (1894–1895). 19. The Poet's Diary (1904). 20. Haunts of Ancient Peace (1902). 21. The Garden that I Love, Second Series (1907). 22. Autobiography (2 vols., 1911).
[Austin's Autobiography; J. O. in the Athenæum, 7 June 1913; S. P. Sherman, On Contemporary Literature, 1917.]