A writer who wore several hats throughout his career, Alfred Austin was a critic, novelist and political journalist. Although he was educated in law, his professional life focused primarily on literature. Austin published regularly for half a century and succeeded Alfred, Lord Tennyson as poet laureate of England in 1896. Nonetheless, he carries the reputation of having been the worst and least read English poet.
Austin was born on May 30, 1835, in Headingley, near Leeds, to Roman Catholic parents Joseph and Mary Austin. His father was a merchant and a magistrate of Headingley and his mother was the sister of Joseph Locke, a member of Parliament and a civil engineer. He was schooled first at Stoneyhurst College and then St. Mary's College, Oscott. He received a B.A. in 1853 from the University of London. Called to the Bar of the Inner Temple in 1857, he became a barrister on the Northern Circuit at his parents urging but left the legal world within three years in pursuit of a career in literature. This decision came upon the heels of his father's death in 1861 and his newfound financial freedom with the assumption of an inheritance. In 1855, he published Randolph: A Poem in Two Cantos, and three years later he published a novel, entitled Five Years of It. From 1866 to 1896, he worked as a foreign affairs writer for the London Standard, where he was known as a conservative journalist.
Foreign politics was one of Austin's major interests. He had a special enthusiasm for Polish and Italian patriots. His hatred of Russia made him a steadfast devotee of Disraeli. He also was a frequent contributor to the Quarterly Review. He represented the Standard in Rome during the sittings of the Ecumenical Council of the Vatican. He was the Standard's special correspondent at the headquarters of the King of Prussia during the Franco-German War in 1870 and also served as the German correspondent at the Congress of Berlin in 1884. Among his political writings are "Russia Before Europe" (1861), "Tory Horrors (1876) and "England's Policy and Peril" (1877). He founded the National Review in 1883 with William John Courthope and remained an energetic joint-editor for the journal until 1893, and then continued as its sole editor from 1887, when Courthope retired, until 1895. He had unsuccessful candidacies for Parliament as a Conservative for Taunton in 1865, and again for Dewsbury in 1880.
Although his writing was inspired and shaped by the works of Byron and Scott, Austin was actually a mediocre poet, and was the target of much derision. He was most often parodied for his ode on the Jameson Raid, in which he praised what turned out to be military disaster and embarrassment for the British government. He saw narrative and dramatic verse as the height of poetic expression, and believed that Shakespeare and Milton were exemplars of these styles and worthy of imitation. He codified these criticisms in The Poetry of the Period, which was published in 1869 in Temple Bar and appeared the following year in book form. In this work, he attacked highly accomplished and widely respected authors, including Browning, Swinburne, Tennyson and Whitman, seeing them as "feminine" and "essentially childish." It was the audacity, rather than the substance, of these claims that distinguished Austin at the time. Yet his attack on Tennyson included some astute observations that revealed some of the great poet's weaknesses.
Austin's only popular book, The Garden that I Love (1894), was considered to be his best work, and was thoroughly enjoyed by the public at the time. It was a work in prose of a type known as "garden diaries," which relished the charm of his Kentish home in Swinford Old Manor. Other idyllic prose works included In Veronica's Garden (1895), Lamia's Winter Quarters (1898) and Spring and Autumn in Ireland (1900). His best work revealed a literate and proficient writer, who benefits from simplicity and sincerity. Some critics believed that Austin, while generally acknowledged to be an untalented writer, did not deserve the opprobrium heaped upon him. In addition to his capable bucolic verses, his early satire, The Season, is a noteworthy piece of heroic poetry. However, its poor critical reception by the Athenaeum induced Austin to compose a sequel attacking the journal and its editor, William Hepworth Dixon. Fortunatus the Pessimist: A Dramatic Poem (1892) and The Conversion of Winckelmann, and Other Poems (1897) were also moderately successful publications.
Austin's surprising ascension to the status of poet laureate in 1896 following Tennyson was probably more due to his stature as journalist for the conservative party rather than his skill as a poet. A writer for British Authors of the Nineteenth Century mentions that Austin was "appointed over the heads of abler men because of sins he had not committed." Apparently, the logical candidacies of Swinburne and Kipling were deemed unacceptable to Queen Victoria. His appointment was made at the recommendation of Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and was seen as a decision concerning Conservative Party patronage, as Austin had served that party well in his journalistic writings. Writing for the Nation, Stuart P. Sherman declared "his self-complacency appears in the record of his influence with political leaders," and claimed that he possessed "a divine satisfaction with his own position, [and] a bland unconsciousness of contemporary feeling and opinion."
Austin's appointment negatively affected the prestige of the laureateship. He became a standard target of ridicule in the journal Punch, appearing in a cartoon as "Alfred the Little," an appellation referring to Austin's 1896 play England's Darling, about Alfred the Great. Sherman went on to say that Austin was "the last minstrel of Toryism. As he writes, he feels himself soothed, sustained, and magnified by the support of the landed gentlemen of England. He is not, he fancies, dipping his pen into the shallow well of egotism, but into the inexhaustible springs of English sentiment." Door of Humility, a poem of fifty-seven cantos published in 1906, concerns the young poet's questioning of his religion and his travels across the globe in search for the truth. It was reviewed by a critic for the Athenaeum, who writes, "the philosophy and its sentimental setting are patiently planned on the Tennysonian model, but unhappily it is not enough to succeed a poet in order to be successful in imitating him."
Austin's Autobiography of Alfred Austin, Poet Laureate, 1835-1910 was written in a year and appeared in two volumes in 1911. Sherman reported that it is "written with unflagging zest and genuine power in self-revelation." In it, Austin voiced his pride in his family history, saying "no one admires honorable descent and the easy gradations of English society, from class to class, more than I do." However, Sherman claimed that "he contrives to cast an additional glamour over his family tree." A reviewer for the Saturday Review of Literature wrote of the Autobiography: "A traveller in many lands, a war correspondent, a diligent interviewer, Mr. Austin gossips about men and things in a way which is occasionally interesting, but not very entertaining on the whole. He tells us little that is new. In fact, the two portly volumes of his Autobiography might have been borne, not inaptly, as their motto, a line from one of his own verses which he quotes, 'Patter, chatter everywhere!'"
Sherman asserted that "the sentimental romantic Toryism of Mr. Austin is not so much dull as false; false and at the same time obsolete; obsolete but not yet old enough to have acquired an antiquarian interest." A contributor to British Authors of the Nineteenth Century stated that "his autobiography is almost incredible in its calm assumption that its writer was a great genius; it may survive his poems as a document portraying the vagaries of human self-deception." P. F. Bicknell, reviewing Austin's autobiography for Dial, maintained that "the world has a cruel way of refusing to take altogether seriously a man who takes himself too much so; and thus our autobiographer, with his somewhat conspicuous lack of humor, becomes, in a manner the reverse of Falstaff's, the cause of humor in other men." ...