The Poems of Digby Mackworth Dolben

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Who is being described? Born in the 1840s, he died young, and his poetry was only published after his death. When it appeared – in the early twentieth century – it was thanks to Robert Bridges, who became UK Poet Laureate in 1913. This poet, who was a friend of Bridges’, was drawn to the religion of Roman Catholicism. Indeed, much of his poetry is deeply religious. He was also known for his attachments to other young men, though nobody knows precisely how far these went.

Got it? If you’re still scratching your head, don’t worry – we’ve been trying to send you on a wild goose chase with the answer ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins’, but in fact the poet we’re thinking of is a far more obscure figure: Digby Mackworth Dolben (1848-1867), a Victorian poet whose work only reached a wider audience in 1911. In fact, if we’re being pedantic, who (sorry, whom) are we kidding? The title of this blog post probably gave away the answer, so if you answered, ‘Why, Digby Mackworth Dolben, of course!’, kudos.

Dolben and Hopkins did know each other, though. Dolben was Robert Bridges’ cousin, and in 1865 – on Dolben’s seventeenth birthday – Bridges introduced the youth to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Bridges’ fellow undergraduate at the University of Oxford. For Hopkins, meeting Dolben was a crucial moment in his life.

In the words of Hopkins’s biographer Robert Bernard Martin, ‘Their meeting was, quite simply, the most momentous emotional event of Hopkins’s undergraduate years, probably of his entire life.’ Two of Hopkins’s early sonnets, ‘Where art thou friend’ and ‘The Beginning of the End’, were written about Dolben.

Dolben also shared Hopkins’s Catholic faith, joining the English Benedictine order (he once walked barefoot through the streets of Birmingham clad in his monk’s robes).

But his promising poetic career was to be cut short. Tragically, Dolben drowned, in June 1867, while bathing in the River Welland. He was preparing to go up to university that autumn. The poetry he left was edited and published by Bridges over forty years after Dolben’s death. His poetry is not widely known about, and no authoritative edition of his poems is in print. In an effort to put his name out there a little, here is one of the finest poems included in the original 1911 volume, ‘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.

It may not be up there with Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’, but it shows signs of promise – glimmers of the poet that Dolben might have been, had he lived. You can read more of Dolben’s poetry here.

If you want to learn more about Gerard Manley Hopkins, we’ve compiled five great facts about his life here.


  1. Thinking about the comment I made above, I should clarify that of course the influence of the Oxford Movement and Tractarianism did last well after 1845, indeed rippled out for decades afterwards. I just meant the hey-day of the movement at Oxford itself would appear to have been over by the early 1850s, from what I can gather. Anyway I’m glad you agree this section of the post needs more clarity…look forward to more…..I enjoy this blog! Thank you.

  2. Indeed an easy-to-understand piece which holds some timeless truism within! Thanks for bringing it to public attention.

  3. Interesting. Although, as a Hopkins fan, I knew about Dolben already, I hadn’t read, or at least remembered, this rather charming little poem. Thank you for posting! But I am a bit puzzled by this sentence: “Dolben also shared Hopkins’s Catholic faith, joining the English Benedictine order (he once walked barefoot through the streets of Birmingham clad in his monk’s robes) and being influenced by the Oxford Movement centred on Cardinal John Henry Newman.” This gives the impression that the Oxford Movement was a Roman Catholic movement, although of course it wasn’t. Some of those involved in it did become Roman Catholics, including Newman, but he wasn’t a cardinal until long afterwards. Anyway the heyday of the Oxford Movement was much earlier than the undergraduate years of Hopkins and Dolben; didn’t it begin to peter out when Newman joined the Catholic church in 1845? Hopkins did turn to him when also thinking of converting to Catholicism, but more because Newman himself had trodden that path than anything to do with the Oxford Movement.

  4. Thank you – another little gem I hadn’t come across… What a tragedy he died so young when he clearly had so much promise.