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Rosemary de Brissac Dobson (1920–2012)

by Marie-Louise Ayres

Rosemary de Brissac Dobson Bolton was born in Sydney on June 18, 1920, the daughter of Arthur Dobson (son of English Poet Laureate Austin Dobson) and Marjorie Caldwell Dobson. Following Arthur's death — when Rosemary and her sister Ruth were just five and seven years old — Marjorie Dobson accepted a position as housemistress at Winifred West's progressive Mittagong girls' school Frensham, in return for scholarships for her daughters. The school served both sisters well: Rosemary's successful career in poetry was matched by Ruth, who became Australia's first female career diplomat to be appointed an Australian ambassador. Dobson corresponded with West until the latter's death in 1971, and throughout her life acknowledged her debt to West and the literary and artistic education she received at Frensham.

Dobson studied English literature at the University of Sydney as a non-degree student before commencing employment with publishers Angus and Robertson, where she worked with Beatrice Davis, one of Australian literature's most influential editors. Through her work there, Dobson established friendships and working relationships with many of Australia's most significant writers, including Douglas Stewart, Norman Lindsay, Francis Webb and Nan McDonald. She also met her husband, editor Alec Bolton, marrying him in 1951. 

Dobson and Bolton suffered the loss at birth of their first daughter, Alexandra, before the births of a daughter and two sons.

Angus and Robertson appointed Bolton their London editor in 1966, and the family enjoyed a five-year sojourn in England, during which Dobson and Bolton developed their interests in European art, music, literature, and fine printing.

The Boltons returned to Australia, moving to Canberra in 1971 when Bolton was appointed the first director of publications at the National Library. Dobson undertook some writing and editing from the 1950s to the 1970s, but her main work besides her family was always her poetry. Her work flourished in the rich literary atmosphere of Canberra to which she contributed by being a regular patron of poetry readings and friend to many poets, young and old. After Bolton's 1996 death, Dobson remained in their Canberra home until just two years ago, when increasing frailty and vision loss saw her move to Brindabella Gardens Nursing Home. Dobson received many visitors there, enjoying conversation, cake, flowers and readings aloud of poetry (hers and others), novels, and cultural history. She remained dignified, gracious and attentive to her visitors to the end of her life, with her perfect manners and concern for others always in evidence.

Dobson had an astonishingly long poetic career. She wrote many poems as a very small child, and typeset and printed her first book of poems at Frensham in 1937, when she was 17. She published 16 books of poetry, beginning with In a Convex Mirror in 1944, and finishing with her University of Queensland Press Collected (which expands significantly on her 1991 Collected Poems) published just a month before her death. There can be few poets of any nation who have published over an almost 70-year period. Her work was recognised with multiple awards, including the Patrick White Award in 1984, an Order of Australia in 1987, and the Age Book of the Year Award in 2001 for her Untold Lives.

Dobson established her reputation from the start and throughout her life was regarded as one of Australia's most important poets, with a completely distinctive voice. Her career was one of steady commitment to contemplation, traditional forms, and the discipline of discovering and rendering anew oft-repeated themes and concerns. Unlike the work of her female contemporaries, such as Judith Wright and Dorothy Hewett, Dobson's work was never political, invited no controversy, and — in keeping with her lifelong personal modesty — eschewed the confessional. In her own words, in a 1989 ''Statement'' on poetry, her work was ''a search for something only fugitively glimpsed''.

Her early work focused on meditations on European painting, cartography and printing. For Dobson, art — in the form of paintings, poetry, printing, or music — both recorded a vanishing world and called that world back into being. In her early and much anthologised Country Press, for example, the use of a printing press transfers the minutiae of country life onto the printed page and returns those histories into the physical world. In the 1950s and 1960s, her experiences of grief, and then those of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood found their way into her poetry, but always obliquely, and often figured as mysterious countries or territories of which she is both explorer and cartographer.

Dobson found herself unable to write during her extended stay in England, but her experiences and deeper knowledge of European cultural history provided material for writing following her return to Australia. While she continued to write about paintings and the visual arts, she turned increasingly to her sense of inheriting a long and honourable tradition, and of taking part in the new poetry emerging in the 1970s.

Dobson and her friend and fellow poet David Campbell, for example, honed their craft in a long series of ''translations'' or ''imitations'' of the great Russian poets of the 20th century, and shared a love for ancient Greek, Chinese and Japanese poets, as well as contemporary European, American, and Australian writers.

She turned also to her sense of vocation, with many of her poems, including her 1984 'On Museums' speaking quite directly of her task as a poet:

Learn still; take, reject,

Choose, use, create,
Put past to present purpose. Make.

In her later years, Dobson's work celebrated love, loss, friendship and the simplest of life's verities. In her magnificent 1981 elegies for David Campbell, she notes quizzically: ''Two poets walking together/May pause suddenly and say,/Will this be your poem, or mine?''

She invited us into a more intimate world, stripping away some of the barriers previously erected between poet and reader, and speaking with a voice that encompasses all her previous aesthetic concerns and disciplines but pursues austerity precisely through stripping disguise from her own lived experience. Her moving and completely un-self-pitying meditations on the progressive loss of her eyesight of the early 1990s moved towards her simultaneous celebrations and laments for her husband Alec. In writing of these losses she acknowledged what her poetic task had been through her career: ''Praise taken / From Saxon word-hoard''.

Dobson retained that clear sight, as her final poem: ''Divining colander'' shows:

And here, in Age, I feel the need

Of some Divining Colander
To hold the best of all since done
And let the rest slip through

Dobson died peacefully on June 27, 2012, nine days after her 92nd birthday. She was farewelled at St Paul's in Manuka, with an address by David Malouf, and readings of her poems, including Country Press. Writing as a young woman of 28, Dobson asked:

When I shall die

Set me up close against my fellow-men,
Cheer that cold column headed ''Deaths'' with flowers,
Or mix me up with Births and Marriages;
Surround the tragic statement of my death
With euchre-drives and good-times-had-by-all
That, with these warm concomitants of life
Jostled and cheered, in lower-case italics
I shall go homewards in the Western Star.

Her wish was granted decades later, with her death notice placed in western Queensland's Western Star. She is survived by her three children — Lissant (now Keeper of Africana, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum), Robert (a journalist with The Australian Financial Review and Ian (violist with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra).

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Marie-Louise Ayres, 'Dobson, Rosemary de Brissac (1920–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 May 2024.

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