Vale Rosemary Dobson (Australian poet)

Last time I wrote about poet Rosemary Dobson was in my post on Australian literary couples but my post today is a sadder one as Dobson died this week, just a week or so after her 92nd birthday. She had a long career as a poet, starting soon after World War 2. When she first came to recognition, winning awards in the 1940s, she was described as the granddaughter of English poet and essayist, Austin Dobson, who was well-known in his time.

Dobson moved to my city – well, she was here first, in fact – in 1971 when her husband Alec Bolton became the National Library of Australia’s first Director of Publications. I knew Alec, as his office was next to mine for a few years in the late 1970s. He was a charming, lovely man who, first as a hobby and then a retirement project, managed his own small press which printed, among other works, some of his wife’s poetry. It’s nicely fitting that the poem used in our newspaper’s front page article on her death is one she dedicated to him:

The kitchen vessels that sustained
Your printed books, my poems, our life,
Are fallen away. The words remain –
Not all – but those of style and worth.

(from “Divining Colander”)

The poem goes on to use the “colander” as a metaphor for sifting out the bad from the good.

Dobson was active in Canberra poetry circles and well-known to our poets, some of whom I’ve written about here, such as Geoff Page and Alan Gould. But, she was known more widely too, having won several significant literary (and other) awards, including:

  • Patrick White Award for Literature (1984)
  • Grace Leven Prize for Poetry (1984)
  • Order of Australia for Services to Literature (1987)
  • Australia Council’s Writers’ Emeritus Award (1996)
  • The Age Book of the Year Award for Untold lives (2001)
  • NSW Premier’s Special Award (2006)

In a review of a recently published collected edition of her work, titled, Collected, Australian writer David Malouf described her as “the last of a generation of Australian poets – Judith Wright, David Campbell, Gwen Harwood – who in the 1940s and ’50s remade Australian poetry, and then, by remaking themselves, helped remake it a second time in the ’70s.” He also refers to a poem of hers which appears in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (1986) which I like to dip into every now and then. The poem is dedicated to Christina Stead, whom Dobson knew, and is about Stead’s dying:

I sit beside the bed where she lies dreaming
Of Pyrrhic victories and sharp words said


Suppose her smouldering thoughts break out in flame,
Not to consume bed, nightdress, flesh and hair
But the mind, the working and the making mind

That built these towers the world applauds

(from “The Nightmare”)

I reckon that effectively conveys Stead’s strength and feistiness – and Dobson’s affection and admiration for her. “The Nightmare” is one of five poems of hers, from her mid career I think, included in the anthology. They demonstrate some of Dobson’s variety, her seriousness and her humour, but there’s no way I can do justice to her career here, now. Before I conclude though, I must say that what I found interesting, when I researched her life a little a few years ago, was that she and poet David Campbell, also produced anthologies of Russian poetry that they had translated.

For a lovely, brief summary of her life and contribution to Australian poetry, check out the podcast from ABC Radio’s Books and Arts Daily.

Australian poetry will miss her …

23 thoughts on “Vale Rosemary Dobson (Australian poet)

  1. Thank you for a respectful and well-written post about one of my favourite poets. (I was introduced to Dobson’s work by reading my mother’s copy of the same volume! Such a great collection, and well-thumbed it is, too.) Yes, we will miss her.

  2. When I saw this news in The Age (online) yesterday I thought of you and had a feeling this would appear here today. Interestingly (although probably just to me), the photo of her they had with the article also had Kenneth Slessor in it, whose name I only know because my Year 7 class was named after him (all of the Year 7 classes that year were named after Australian poets). Having dipped my toes back into some A.B. Patterson recently I have started looking a little more into Australian poetry … I will be sure to add Ms Dobson to the list.

    • Oh Phew cheezyk, glad I didn’t disappoint. I saw the report in the paper this am and immediately thought, Oh I have to write about that, so changed my plans for the next post to this one. She had such a long career that she knew so many poets. Not surprised about Kenneth Slessor.

      Love your Slessor story. At my high school, our school houses were named after significant women (as I recollect) though I can’t remember them all now. I do remember mine though as it was Turner, named for Ethel Turner. I was very pleased to be in that house.

  3. That’s great! I went to several schools and our houses were always named after male explorers. i would have loved to be in Turner!

    • Of course, I went to a girls’ school – a government school, but a girls’ one. But your comment reminds me of a local private hospital in which the floors/wards are named after Australian artists but all male. Makes me so mad. Why not a Thea Proctor or Margaret Preston ward/floor, as well as a couple of the men?

  4. A lovely tribute. I very much like the excerpts you posted. None of her books seem to be available at any local libraries. Maybe I will have to breakdown sometime and find her collected online and buy it.

  5. I wondered, when I read the review of her book and the article about her in the Age at the start of the month, how long it would be till we saw an obituary (“These days she lives in a nursing home and because of blindness has dictated only the occasional poem,” it said), but I didn’t think it would be so soon — she’ll have a gap at least, I thought, months to let the reviews sink in, let more reviews come, etc. I’m trying to read her work at Australian Poetry now but the whole site is snubbing my computer. (And re. Stead: the last letter in the collected Stead letters is a Christmas card to Dobson. “This is the happy season, the days of celebration, love, closeness, friendship and all that I feel for you, who has been so good to me. Your devoted Christina.”)

    • Thanks DKS .. that’s a shame about the website. It’s a great site but I don’t think they have the funding for maintenance which is a real worry when you set up something like that. I notice that it has over 500 of her poems there. A letter to Dobson was the LAST letter in the collected letters!? That’s interesting. I think Dobson was a very graceful and gracious woman – from what I’ve heard. That was certainly what her husband was like.

      • My hope is that the site crashed because people saw the news and ran there to read her poetry. Demand overwhelmed it, it felt tired, and it decided to lie down for a while with a cup of tea and a biscuit. (Now it’s back up. Five hundred and seventy-seven, it says: that’s tonnes.)

  6. Thank you for your tribute to Dobson. Geoffrey Lehmann also has a thoughtful review of Collected in today’s Weekend Australian Review. I have treasured The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets for many years, and “The Nightmare” is a standout, but I also love the previous poem, “Captain Svenson” – it’s a pleasure to read aloud.

    • Thanks Bryce … yes I wanted to quote from Captain Svenson too, but there’s only so much eh. The descriptions of the nurses are priceless! And the poem’s rhythm is so perfectly suited to its humour/satire. I wonder if I can find the Lehmann review online.

  7. There are so many Hannahs commenting here! So all I’ll say is that perhaps you could point out those five poems in the anthology sometime when I’m over?

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    • Thanks Nigel … As I’ve said, I didn’t know her, but her husband had that same quiet quality … And yet they achieved much. Just shows that a lot of noise isn’t necessary is it?

  9. I hadn’t read anything by this poet before, thank you for introducing me to such powerful poetry. I’ll google and see what else I can find on her 🙂
    Loved your blog! following you now!
    Please do visit my book blog, and if you like it, please follow!

  10. On a quick skim it looks as if they’ve doubled up on some of the poems — “New York Spring” is there as “New York Spring” and also “3. New York Spring” — and the search function is not finding me “The Nightmare” but it’s still such a massive collection that “close to it” must be true unless she was some sort of John Kinsella retro-redux and shot out a fresh poem every time she breathed.

    As for “gracious and graceful:” she sent Stead “beautiful cards” (“where do you find them?”) and once lent her ten bucks so she sounds like an overall good person to’ve had around.

    • Oh, that makes a bit of sense DKS, the doubling up, because I read that she only wrote a few a year. As for the cards and money … that just says it all about her doesn’t it?

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