Sir Edmund William Gosse (1849–1928): Biography and famous works

Sir Edmund William Gosse (1849–1928) was a famous British literary critic, poet, librarian, and man of letters. The son of Philip Henry Gosse (1810–88), eminent zoologist, and member of the Plymouth Brethren of fundamentalist Christians, he was a self-schooled man. He started his career as an assistant in a department of the British Museum(1867-75). In 1875, the year of his marriage, he became a translator at the Board of Trade. He saw himself as a poet and made early acquaintance with the Pre-Raphaelites. A.C.Swinburne became a close friend.

When Gosse applied for the post of Clark lecturer at Cambridge in 1883, he was able to give Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Matthew Arnold as referees. A great deal of his early critical work was devoted to Scandinavian literature and he was the first to introduce Henrik Ibsen’s name to England. A successful lecture tour of America in 1884–5 was followed by an attack by John Churton Collins (1848–1908) on his published lectures From Shakespeare to Pope, an indictment of his carelessness which shadowed the rest of his life. His book Father and Son: A Study in Two Temperaments (1907) details Gosse’s life with his father as well as his father’s faith and struggles with Darwinian beliefs.

Gosse’s collections of poetry include On Viol and Flute (1873); King Erik (1893), a tragedy in verse; New Poems (1879); Firdausi in Exile and Other Poems (1885); In Russet & Silver (1894); and The Collected Poems of Edmund Gosse (1911). His novels include The Secret of Narcisse: A Romance(1892) and Hypolympia; or, The gods on the island: An ironic fantasy (1901). He wrote History of Modern English Literature in 1897.

Gosse’s books on biography include the lives of Thomas Gray (1882), Walter Raleigh, William Congreve (1888), P. H. Gosse (1890), John Donne (1899), Jeremy Taylor (1904), Sir Thomas Browne, Coventry Patmore (1905), Henrik Ibsen (1907), and A.C. Swinburne (1917).

He introduced Andre Gide to England and was honored by the Academie Française for his services to the literature of France. His close friends included R. L. Stevenson, Henry James, and Thomas Hardy. From 1904 he was librarian of the House of Lords and exercised considerable power and influence: H. G. Wells dubbed him the official British “man of letters”. He was knighted in 1925. He was writing regularly for the Sunday Times until his death. A biography by Ann Thwaite appeared in 1984.

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