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The Best Poems of Digby Mackworth Dolben


On a warm summer afternoon in 1867, Digby Mackworth Dolben drowned at age nineteen. The poems he left behind were said by future English poet laureate Robert Bridges to equal "anything that was ever written by any English poet at his age." According to Simon Edge, author of The Hopkins Conundrum, Gerard Manley Hopkins was "so captivated by a brief meeting [with Dolben] that he spent the rest of his life mourning him." In a letter to Bridges after Dolben’s death, Hopkins said "there can very seldom have happened the loss of so much beauty (in body and mind and life) and of the promise of still more as there has been in his case." Hopkins also asked Bridges whether Dolben's family had considered publishing his poems. Fortunately, the independently wealthy Bridges later published books of poems by both Dolben and Hopkins, or their poetry might have been lost to the world forever.

Is Dolben merely a literary curiosity today because he attracted the attention of two famous poetswith possible homoerotic undertones on Hopkins' partthen died so young and so tragically? Or does he merit consideration as a poet in his own right? After his discovery of the prodigy's work thanks to Simon's novel, THT advisory editor Tom Merrill emailed Simon that "Dolben's precocity surprised me―how beyond his years he was. I hope people know about him. He was a deeply sensitive person, maybe comparable to Shelley." Another poet to whom Dolben may be compared is Thomas Chatterton, the "marvellous boy" who died at age seventeen and yet was so highly esteemed by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley.

Dolben's poems were published in a single volume by Bridges in 1911; the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that his work stands "among the best of the poetry of the Oxford Movement." Dolben's death, it adds, "was the end of a life of exceptional poetic promise." I agree and see no reason that such exceptional poetry―all the more tantalizing because it was written at such a young age―should not be read today. Toward that end, here are the poems of Digby Dolben that strike me as his best, followed by three more that, according to Bridges, exhibit "complete mastery." The fourth such poem, in Bridges' opinion, is the first poem below.―Michael R. Burch, editor, The HyperTexts

There is a Digby Dolben Timeline/Chronology at the bottom of this page, along with a link to a very interesting Dolben bio written by Simon Edge.

A Song

The world is young today:
Forget the gods are old,
Forget the years of gold
When all the months were May.

A little flower of Love
Is ours, without a root,
Without the end of fruit,
Yet take the scent thereof.

There may be hope above,
There may be rest beneath;
We see them not, but Death
Is palpable ― and Love.

Far Above The Shaken Trees

Far above the shaken trees,
In the pale blue palaces,
Laugh the high gods at their ease:
We with tossèd incense woo them,
We with all abasement sue them,
But shall never climb unto them,
    Nor see their faces.

Sweet my sister, Queen of Hades,
Where the quiet and the shade is,
Of the cruel deathless ladies
Thou art pitiful alone.
Unto thee I make my moan,
Who the ways of earth hast known
    And her green places.

Feed me with thy lotus-flowers,
Lay me in thy sunless bowers,
Whither shall the heavy hours
Never trail their hated feet,
Making bitter all things sweet;
Nevermore shall creep to meet
    The perished dead.

There 'mid shades innumerable,
There in meads of asphodel,
Sleeping ever, sleeping well,
They who toiled and who aspired,
They, the lovely and desired,
With the nations of the tired
    Have made their bed.

There is neither fast nor feast,
None is greatest, none is least;
Times and orders all have ceased.
There the bay-leaf is not seen;
Clean is foul and foul is clean;
Shame and glory, these have been
    But shall not be.

When we pass away in fire,
What is found beyond the pyre?
Sleep, the end of all desire.
Lo, for this the heroes fought;
This the gem the merchant bought,
This the seal of laboured thought
    And subtilty.


Beyond the calumny and wrong,
Beyond the clamour and the throng,
Beyond the praise and triumph-song
       He passed.
Beyond the scandal and the doubt,
The fear within, the fight without,
The turmoil and the battle-shout
      He sleeps.

The world for him was not so sweet
That he should grieve to stay his feet
Where youth and manhood's highways meet,
       And die.
For every child a mother's breast,
For every bird a guarded nest;
For him alone was found no rest
       But this.

Beneath the flight of happy hours,
Beneath the withering of the flowers
In folds of peace more sure than ours
       He lies.
A night no glaring dawn shall break,
A sleep no cruel voice shall wake,
An heritage that none can take
       Are his.

From Martial

In vain you count his virtues up,
His soberness commend;
I like a steady servant,
But not a steady friend.


Lilies, lilies not for me,
Flowers of the pure and saintly―
I have seen in holy places
Where the incense rises faintly,
And the priest the chalice raises,
Lilies in the altar vases,
       Not for me.

Leave untouched each garden tree,
Kings and queens of flower-land.
When the summer evening closes,
Lovers may-be hand in hand
There will seek for crimson roses,
There will bind their wreaths and posies

From the corn-fields where we met
Pluck me poppies white and red;
Bind them round my weary brain,
Strew them on my narrow bed,
Numbing all the ache and pain.―
I shall sleep nor wake again,
       But forget.


When all my words were said,
When all my songs were sung,
I thought to pass among
The unforgotten dead,

A Queen of ruth to reign
With her, who gathereth tears
From all the lands and years,
The Lesbian maid of pain;

That lovers, when they wove
The double myrtle-wreath,
Should sigh with mingled breath
Beneath the wings of Love:

'How piteous were her wrongs,
Her words were falling dew,
All pleasant verse she knew,
But not the Song of songs.'

Yet now, O Love, that you
Have kissed my forehead, I
Have sung indeed, can die,
And be forgotten too.

There Was One Who Walked In Shadow

There was one who walked in shadow,
   There was one who walked in light:
But once their way together lay,
   Where sun and shade unite,

In the meadow of the lotus,
   In the meadow of the rose,
Where fair with youth and clear with truth
   The Living River flows.

Scarcely summer stillness breaking,
   Questions, answers, soft and low—
The words they said, the vows they made,
   None but the willows know.

Both have passed away for ever
   From the meadow and the stream;
Past their waking, past their breaking
   The sweetness of that dream.

One along the dusty highway
   Toiling counts the weary hours,
And one among its shining throng
   The world has crowned with flowers.

Sometimes perhaps amid the gardens,
   Where the noble have their part,
Though noon's o'erhead, a dew-drop's shed
   Into a lily's heart.

This I know, till one heart reaches
   Labour's sum, the restful grave,
Will still be seen the willow-green,
   And heard the rippling wave.

A Sea Song

In the days before the high tide
Swept away the towers of sand
Built with so much care and labour
By the children of the land,

Pale, upon the pallid beaches,
Thirsting, on the thirsty sands,
Ever cried I to the Distance,
Ever seaward spread my hands.

See, they come, they come, the ripples,
Singing, singing fast and low,
Meet the longing of the sea-shores,
Clasp them, kiss them once, and go.

'Stay, sweet Ocean, satisfying
All desires into rest—'
Not a word the Ocean answered,
Rolling sunward down the west.

Then I wept: 'Oh, who will give me
To behold the stable sea,
On whose tideless shores for ever
Sounds of many waters be?'

Methought, Through Many Years And Lands

Methought, through many years and lands,
I sped along an arrowy flood,
That leapt and lapt my face and hands,
I knew not were it fire or blood.

I saw no sun in any place;
A ghastly glow about me spread,
Unlike the light of nights and days,
From out the depth where writhe the dead.

I passed―their fleshless arms uprose
To draw me to the depths beneath:
My eyes forgot the power to close,
As other men's, in sleep or death.

I saw the end of every sin;
I weighed the profit and the cost;
I felt Eternity begin,
And all the ages of the lost.

The Crucifix was on my breast;
I pressed the nails against my side;
And unto Him, Who knew no rest
For thirty years, I turned and cried:

'Sweet Lord! I say not, give me ease;
Do what Thou wilt, Thou doest good;
And all Thy saints went up to peace,
In crowns of fire or robes of blood.'

We hurry on, nor passing note

We hurry on, nor passing note
The rounded hedges white with May;
For golden clouds before us float
To lead our dazzled sight astray.
We say, 'they shall indeed be sweet
'The summer days that are to be'—
The ages murmur at our feet
The everlasting mystery.

We seek for Love to make our own,
But clasp him not for all our care
Of outspread arms; we gain alone
The flicker of his yellow hair
Caught now and then through glancing vine,
How rare, how fair, we dare not tell;
We know those sunny locks entwine
With ruddy-fruited asphodel.

A little life, a little love,
Young men rejoicing in their youth,
A doubtful twilight from above,
A glimpse of Beauty and of Truth,—
And then, no doubt, spring-loveliness
Expressed in hawthorns white and red,
The sprouting of the meadow grass,
But churchyard weeds about our head.

Homo Factus Est

Come to me, Belovèd,
Babe of Bethlehem;
Lay aside Thy Sceptre
And Thy Diadem.

Come to me, Belovèd;
Light and healing bring;
Hide my sin and sorrow
Underneath Thy wing.

Bid all fear and doubting
From my soul depart,
As I feel the beating
Of Thy Human Heart.

Look upon me sweetly
With Thy Human Eyes
With Thy Human Finger
Point me to the skies.

Safe from earthly scandal
My poor spirit hide
In the utter stillness
Of Thy wounded Side.

Guide me, ever guide me,
With Thy piercèd Hand,
Till I reach the borders
Of the pleasant land.

Then, my own Belovèd,
Take me home to rest;
Whisper words of comfort;
Lay me on Thy Breast.

Show me not the Glory
Round about Thy Throne;
Show me not the flashes
Of Thy jewelled Crown.

Hide me from the pity
Of the Angels' Band,
Who ever sing Thy praises,
And before Thee stand.

Hide me from the glances
Of the Seraphin,―
They, so pure and spotless,
I, so stained with sin.

Hide me from St. Michael
With his flaming sword:―
Thou can'st understand me,
O my Human Lord!

Jesu, my Belovèd,
Come to me alone;
In Thy sweet embraces
Make me all Thine own.

By the quiet waters,
Sweetest Jesu, lead;
'Mid the virgin lilies,
Purest Jesu, feed.

Only Thee, Belovèd,
Only Thee, I seek.
Thou, the Man Christ Jesus,
Strength in flesh made weak.

Sister Death

My sister Death! I pray thee come to me
Of thy sweet charity,
And be my nurse but for a little while;
I will indeed lie still,
And not detain thee long, when once is spread,
Beneath the yew, my bed:
I will not ask for lillies or for roses;
But when the evening closes,
Just take from any brook a single knot
Of pale Forget-me-not,
And lay them in my hand, until I wake,
For his dear sake;
(For should he ever pass and by me stand,
He might understand―)
Then heal the passion and the fever
With one cool kiss, for ever.

NOTE: The poems above are, in my personal opinion, the best poems by Digby Dolben. The poems below were named by Robert Bridges as the most masterful of Dolben's poems. The only poem on which we agreed was "A Song," the first poem on this page. ― Michael R. Burch

From Sappho

Thou liest dead,―lie on: of thee
No sweet remembrances shall be,
Who never plucked Pierian rose,
Who never chanced on Anterôs.
Unknown, unnoticed, there below
Through Aides' houses shalt thou go
Alone,―for never a flitting ghost
Shall find in thee a lover lost.

The Shrine

There is a shrine whose golden gate
Was opened by the Hand of God;
It stands serene, inviolate,
Though millions have its pavement trod;
As fresh, as when the first sunrise
Awoke the lark in Paradise.

'Tis compassed with the dust and toil
Of common days, yet should there fall
A single speck, a single soil
Upon the whiteness of its wall,
The angels' tears in tender rain
Would make the temple theirs again.

Without, the world is tired and old,
But, once within the enchanted door,
The mists of time are backward rolled,
And creeds and ages are no more;
But all the human-hearted meet
In one communion vast and sweet.

I enter―all is simply fair,
Nor incense-clouds, nor carven throne
But in the fragrant morning air
A gentle lady sits alone;
My mother―ah! whom should I see
Within, save ever only thee?

He Would Have His Lady Sing

Sing me the men ere this
Who, to the gate that is
A cloven pearl uprapt,
The big white bars between
With dying eyes have seen
The sea of jasper, lapt
About with crystal sheen;

And all the far pleasance
Where linkèd Angels dance,
With scarlet wings that fall
Magnifical, or spread
Most sweetly over-head,
In fashion musical,
Of cadenced lutes instead.

Sing me the town they saw
Withouten fleck or flaw,
Aflame, more fine than glass
Of fair Abbayes the boast,
More glad than wax of cost
Doth make at Candlemas
The Lifting of the Host:

Where many Knights and Dames,
With new and wondrous names,
One great Laudaté Psalm
Go singing down the street;
'Tis peace upon their feet,
In hand 'tis pilgrim palm
Of Goddes Land so sweet:

Where Mother Mary walks
In silver lily stalks,
Star-tirèd, moon-bedight;
Where Cecily is seen,
With Dorothy in green,
And Magdalen all white,
The maidens of the Queen.

Sing onthe Steps untrod,
The Temple that is God,
Where incense doth ascend,
Where mount the cries and tears
Of all the dolorous years,
With moan that ladies send
Of durance and sore fears:

And Him who sitteth there,
The Christ of purple hair,
And great eyes deep with ruth,
Who is of all things fair
That shall be, or that were,
The sum, and very truth.
Then add a little prayer,

That since all these be so,
Our Liege, who doth us know,
Would fend from Sathanas,
And bring us, of His grace,
To that His joyous place:
So we the Doom may pass,
And see Him in the Face.

For a brief bio of Digby Dolben by Simon Edge, please click here: Digby Dolben Bio.

Digby Dolben Chronology/Timeline

1772: According to Louisa May Portman, the niece of George Digby Wingfield Digby, their ancestor Elizabeth Digby, later Lady Dolben, was an "especial favourite" of the poet Alexander Pope.

1848: Digby Augustus Stewart Mackworth Dolben is born on February 8, 1848 on the English Channel island of Guernsey. His father, William Harcourt Isham Mackworth (1806-1872), a younger son of Sir Digby Mackworth, the 3rd Baronet, takes the additional surname Dolben after he marries Frances, the heiress of Sir John English Dolben, the 4th Baronet.

1853: While the young Digby Dolben is growing up in the Finedon parish of Northamptonshire, Gerard Manley Hopkins' future spiritual mentor, Henry Parry Liddon, is briefly in charge of the parish. Dolben attends Cheam School, whose alumni include Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Randolph Churchill (the father of Winston Churchill).

1862: Digby Dolben enters Eton College around age fourteen, where he studies under the influential Master William Johnson Cory, whose collection of verses Ionica would influence his own poetry. At Eton, Dolben's distant cousin Robert Bridges is his senior and takes him under his wing. According to Bridges, his cousin was tall and pale, with delicate features and an "abstracted manner" that made him seem like a "different species" from the other students. Furthermore, he had "a spirit of mischief as wanton as Shelley's." The rugged Bridges and the delicate Dolben were very different animals, but they shared passions for poetry and religion (Bridges called them both "high church boys").

1863: Dolben causes considerable scandal at Eton with his eccentric, exhibitionist behavior. He writes love poems to another pupil, Martin Le Marchant Gosselin, whom Bridges later dubs "Archie" to keep his identity secret. Dolben also defies his strict Protestant upbringing by joining a High Church Puseyite group of pupils. He claims allegiance to the Order of St. Benedict, affects a monk's habit, traipses around barefoot, and employs the signature "Dominic." He also considers a conversion to Roman Catholicism, which his family considers beyond the pale. Around this time Dolben destroys all his poems by burning them, in what Bridges calls a "holocaust." (The love poems to "Archie" are posited by Bridges as a reason for the holocaust, but then why were all the other poems destroyed?) Bridges leaves Eton for Oxford in July 1863. On July 30, Dolben is dismissed from Eton for a period of time, after engaging in a secret meeting with Jesuits. Bridges and Dolben begin to correspond by letter on August 1. (Bridges would publish a number of these letters in 1911, providing us with a good bit of historical information about Dolben.) In late 1863 there was no sign of any Dolben poems being written since the holocaust, according to Bridges.

1864: In early 1864, Dolben is fasting and stealing the breakfast rolls of other students, apparently to introduce them to the joys of fasting! According to Bridges, Dolben resumes writing poetry around Lent. (This means all Dolben's published poems were written in less than three years.) Dolben announces that he is now Brother Dominic. He is writing religious poetry and expressing hopes of entering Oxford, but alas his Greek is not up to snuff and he is constantly in search of tutors. "Homo Factus Est" may be Dolben's first mature poem. According to Bridges, William Cory crows that the poem is "better than Newman" (i.e., the celebrated Cardinal John Henry Newman, a leading figure of the Oxford Movement). Six of Dolben's poems are published in the Union Review. Not bad for a sixteen-year-old!

1865: On his seventeenth birthday, Dolben is introduced by Bridges, now an undergraduate at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, to Gerard Manley Hopkins, a student at Balliol. According to Hopkins biographer Norman White, this encounter greatly perturbs Hopkins. Another biographer, Robert Bernard Martin, asserts that Hopkins' meeting with Dolben is "quite simply, the most momentous emotional event of [his] undergraduate years, probably of his entire life". Hopkins is apparently smitten with Dolben and his diary details his "suppressed erotic thoughts" about the younger poet. Hopkins keeps up a correspondence with Dolben and composes two poems about him: "Where art thou friend" and "The Beginning of the End." Hopkins' High Anglican confessor seems to have forbidden him to have any contact with Dolben except by letter. According to Bridges, the quality of Dolben's poems begins to "mature" in 1865 as he turns increasingly from Christianity to a Greek or "pagan" idea of beauty.

1866: By this time, now living at Boughrood and studying under Henry de Winton for the Oxford entrance exams, Doblen is writing poems of "rarest attainment," according to Bridges.

1867: Dolben faints during his Oxford entrance exams on May 2, 1867 and fails. On June 15 he travels to meet a new tutor. Thirteen days later, Dolben drowns in the River Welland (actually, a sluggish brook) on June 28, 1867 while bathing with the ten-year-old son of his new tutor, C. E. Prichard, Rector of South Luffenham. Dolben is only nineteen at the time. Did he have another fainting spell? Did he commit suicide, out of despair? Was it a tragic accident? A possible clue: Prichard wrote that Dolben was very pale and "might have looked in ill health." After his death, W. B. Gamlen, Secretary of the Oxford University Chest, recollected Dolben's "distinguished appearance, and the dreamy far-away look in his eyes." Gamlen concluded that at Luffenham he had been in "constant contact" with a "highly-cultivated intelligence" beyond his ability to appraise.

1911: Robert Bridges, poet laureate from 1913 to 1930, edits and publishes a book of Dolben's verse, Poems.

1932: Bridges includes Dolben in Three Friends: Memoirs of Digby Mackworth Dolben, Richard Watson Dixon, Henry Bradley.

1981: The Poems and Letters of Digby Mackworth Dolben 1848–1867 is published.

2017: Hopkins' infatuation for Dolben and Dolben's poetry and tragic death feature in Simon Edge's novel The Hopkins Conundrum.

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