Edmund Gosse (1849-1928)


(English poet, author, and critic)

Born in London on 21 September 1849 into a middle-class family with strong Calvinist convictions, Edmund Gosse’s childhood and youth were marked by a strict religious upbringing. He lost his mother to breast cancer at the age of seven and he continued to live under the constraints of his father’s firm Christian values. He began working at the library of the British Museum in 1865. The decade his spent at the British Museum granted him freedom from his life at home and brought him into contact with minor poets and intellectuals. Soon enough, he found himself, alongside the painter Ellen Epps whom he married in 1875, in the circle of the Pre-Raphaelites and in the company of men such as Algernon Charles Swinburne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, André Gide, Robert Browning, Robert Graves, and most significantly, the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft, with whom he cultivated an intimate relationship.

Though Gosse’s primary ambition was to be a poet, his literary works were met with mixed opinions by his contemporaries. His critical and biographical writings, despite his “genius for inaccuracy” as Henry James would put it, proved to be more fruitful. His Portraits from Life is comprised of studies of friends and acquaintances such as Swinburne (he wrote a biography on him in 1917), Robert Browning, and Henry James, and the subjects of his other biographical writings include figures such as John Donne and Thomas Gray. In addition to a biography of his father, P.H. Gosse, he also authored Father and Son, considered a classic and a significant contribution to the autobiographical genre. Gosse’s knowledge of Scandinavian languages led to the production of critical works on Scandinavian literature. In fact, Gosse was the first to introduce Heinrick Ibsen to the British public. His fondness for French literature and culture made him a champion of André Gide. During his lifetime, he was a lecturer at the University of Cambridge and delivered many talks, including a series of lectures in the United States. In 1904, he was appointed librarian at the House of Lords, and in 1925, he was knighted. Gosse passed away on 16 May 1928, and according to T.S. Eliot, “the place that Sir Edmund Gosse filled in the literary and social life of London is one that no one can ever fill again, because it is, so to speak, an office that has been abolished”.

Also see the the essay by Sanam Nader-Esfahani. “Paths Intertwined: The 1884 Lowell Lecture and ‘The Sacred Word ‘Botticelli’” (cat. MS.III.6)