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Rosemary Dobson (1920 – )

Rosemary Dobson, copyright National Library of Australia Rosemary Dobson, copyright National Library of Australia

Rosemary de Brissac Dobson was born in Sydney in 1920, the second of two daughters of Arthur Dobson (the son of English poet and essayist Austin Dobson), and his wife Marjorie (née Caldwell). Her father died when she was only five years old, and her mother found herself in difficult financial circumstances with two young children. The family was helped by Winifred West, the founder of Frensham, a progressive girls' boarding school in Mittagong, New South Wales, who offered Marjorie Dobson a position as housemistress, and scholarships for Rosemary and her sister Ruth. Rosemary Dobson displayed early talents both for academic study and for creative work, especially writing and art, and she began writing poetry while still a young child. In 1937, she produced a collection of juvenile poems at Frensham, designing the linocut cover herself and printing and binding the work with the help of the Frensham librarian and printer Joan Phipson-beginning a lifelong interest in fine printing and book arts.

At the age of 21, Dobson went to Sydney to study English at the University of Sydney as a non-degree student; she also studied drawing with artist Thea Proctor. From 1941, she began regularly contributing her poems to leading Australian newspapers and literary journals, especially the Bulletin and Meanjin Papers, and in 1944 published her first collection of poetry, In a Convex Mirror, with the Sydney bookseller Dymocks. Her early poetry often reflected her strong interest in European art history and the visual arts more broadly. In the early 1940s, Dobson joined the leading Sydney publisher Angus & Robertson as an editor, beginning a long career there. During the 1940s, she established friendships with a number of literary figures including Douglas Stewart, Beatrice Davis, Nan MacDonald, the artist and writer Norman Lindsay, and poet Francis Webb. Meanwhile she continued to publish and further her reputation as a poet. Her second poetry collection, The Ship of Ice: with other poems, was published by Angus & Robertson in 1948, and attracted significant critical acclaim; the title poem, a dramatic sketch in blank verse, won the Sydney Morning Herald's Literary Competition for poetry in 1948.

In 1951, Dobson married a fellow book editor, Alec Bolton, and over the following decade the couple had three children. Dobson continued to write and publish her poems in the press, and her third collection, Child with a Cockatoo and Other Poems, was published in 1955. Her next major collection, Cock Crow, appeared a decade later in 1965. The poems in these collections reflected a shift in her work towards themes taken from personal experience-including the experiences of childbirth and motherhood-though these themes are often explored in complex and impersonal ways. In 1966, Alec Bolton was appointed as Angus & Robertson's London editor, and the family went with him to England. While there, Dobson pursued her interest in art, and travelled frequently in Europe, including through Greece, where her sister Ruth worked at the Australian Embassy. On their return to Australia in 1971, Bolton was appointed to a position at the National Library of Australia, and the family settled in Canberra. In Canberra, Dobson enjoyed the resources of the National Library, and formed new literary friendships, including with David Campbell, with whom she collaborated in the publication of a collection of translations from Russian poets, Moscow Trefoil (1975), and a further collection of 'imitations' (Seven Russian Poets, 1979).

In 1972 Alec Bolton founded the Brindabella Press, a small press devoted to fine printing. Although not directly involved in the work of the press, Dobson took great pleasure in its work and in the enhanced connections she and Bolton had with a number of major poets whose work was published with the press, including Campbell, R.F. Brissenden, James McAuley and A.D. Hope. She continued to regularly publish her own work, which attracted increasing critical attention and praise. She was given the FAW Christopher Brennan award in 1978, after the publication of Over the Frontier: poems (1978), and her 1984 collection The Three Fates and Other Poems won the Grace Leven Poetry Prize and was co-winner of the C. J. Dennis Award for Poetry. Through her long career Dobson gave occasional lectures and published critical articles and reviews, as well as editing anthologies, including Australian Poetry 1949-50 (1950), Songs for All Seasons: 100 Poems for Young People (1967), Sisters Poets, 1 (1979), and Directions (1991), and published a novel, Summer Press (1987). But her major contribution to Australian life and letters has been her poetry. Her Collected Poems was published by Angus & Robertson in 1991, but she has continued to publish into her 80s; since the year 2000 she has published two collections: Untold Lives and Later Poems (2000), and Folding the Sheets and Other Poems (2004).

Rosemary Dobson's contribution to Australian literature has been recognised by the award of a number of major honours: she received the Order of Australia (AO) in 1987, the Patrick White Award in 1994, an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Sydney in 1996, and was the subject of a National Library of Australia 'Celebration' in 2000. Her poetry has generally followed classical verse forms, and a deep respect and reverence for European  literary and artistic history and traditions has been an important element in Dobson's work, though some major poems also draw on Chinese influences. All these influences in her poetry have always been transformed through a specifically Australian sensibility.

Poetry Collections

Poems (Mittagong, New South Wales: Frensham Press, 1937).

In a Convex Mirror: poems (Sydney: Dymocks, 1944).

The Ship of Ice: with other poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1948).

Child with a Cockatoo and other poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1955).

Rosemary Dobson. Australian Poets
(Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1963).

Poems. Australian Poets and Artists ([Adelaide]: Australian Letters, [ca.1964]).

Cock Crow: poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1965).

Selected Poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1973).

[with David Campbell]. Moscow Trefoil: poems from the Russian of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1975).

Over the Frontier: poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1978).

Seven Russian Poets: Imitations
(St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1979).

The Three Fates and other poems (Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1984).

Seeing and Believing (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1990).

Collected Poems (North Ryde, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1991).

Untold Lives: a sequence of poems (Deakin, ACT: Brindabella Press, 1992).

Untold Lives and later poems (Rose Bay, NSW: Brandl and Schlesinger, 2000).

Folding the Sheets and other poems (Warners Bay, NSW: Picaro Press, 2004).

Suggested Further Reading

Marie-Louise Ayers, 'Rosemary Dobson (1920- ),' in Selina Samuels, ed., Australian Writers, 1915-1950 (Detroit, USA: Gale Research Co., 2002), pp. 99-105.

Marie-Louise Ayers, 'Rosemary Dobson - the Text and the Textile,' Australian Literary Studies 17.1 (1995), pp. 3-9.

Veronica Brady, 'Over the Frontier: The Poetry of Rosemary Dobson,' Caught in the Draught: On Contemporary Australian Culture and Society (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1994), pp. 191-220.

Gary Catalano, 'The Figure in the Doorway: On the Poetry of Rosemary Dobson,' Quadrant 38.10 (1994), pp. 28-32.

Rosemary Dobson, 'A World of Difference: Australian Poetry and Painting in the 1940s,' Southerly 33.4 (1973), pp. 365-83.

Rosemary Dobson, 'Over My Shoulder,' Island Magazine no.39 (1989), pp. 55-59.

Rosemary Dobson, 'Poetry and Painting: A Personal View,' Quadrant 21.11 (1977), pp. 68-72.

Joy Hooton, 'A Celebration of the Art of Rosemary Dobson,' National Library of Australia News 10.12 (2000), pp. 12-14. http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2000/sep00/story-3.pdf

Joy Hooton, Rosemary Dobson: A Celebration (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2000).

Graeme Kinross Smith, 'The Intricate, Devised Hearing of Sight..: A Profile of Rosemary Dobson,' Westerly no. 3 (1974), pp. 55-63. http://purl.library.usyd.edu.au/setis/westerly/pdfs/33803

David McCooey, 'A Conversation with Rosemary Dobson,' Antipodes 10.2 (1996), pp. 107-110.

David McCooey, ' "Looking into the Landscape": The Elegaic Art of Rosemary Dobson,' Westerly 40.2 (1995), pp. 15-25. http://purl.library.usyd.edu.au/setis/westerly/pdfs/253530

Adrian Mitchell, 'A Frame of Reference: Rosemary Dobson's Grace Notes for Humanity,' Australian Literary Studies 10.1 (1981), pp. 3-12.

Werner Senn, 'Vision Poetry and the Land in Rosemary Dobson's Poetry,' Antipodes 10.2 (1996), pp. 111-16.

Barbara Williams, 'Rosemary Dobson,' In Other Words: Interviews with Australian Poets (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998), pp. 2-10.

Fay Zwicky, 'Reclusive Grace: The Poetry of Rosemary Dobson,' The Lyre in the Pawnshop: Essays on Literature and Survival 1974-1984 (Nedlands, W.A.: UWA Publishing, 1986), pp. 112-23.