1816 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

George Crabbe [son], "Biographical Account of George Crabbe" New Monthly Magazine 4 (January 1816) 511-17.



The subject of this sketch was born on the 24th December, 1754, at Aldborough in Suffolk, where his father and grandfather were officers of his majesty's customs.

At an early age he was placed by his father in a school in his native county, probably with no other view than that of his acquiring such a knowledge of arithmetic and accounts as would fit him for the paternal employment; but when his prospects in a certain degree brightened, Mr. Crabbe removed his son to a seminary where the classics were taught, with a design of giving him that moderate portion of the learned languages which might qualify him for the profession of physic in the capacity of surgeon and apothecary. To this business he was in due time apprenticed, and looked forward in life to the labours and rewards (things by no means proportionate) of that arduous profession.

But in this view he was not perhaps disappointed, though certainly prevented. The family of his father was not small, his abilities to establish his children in life were limited, and the young man found on arriving at that period when he was called upon to think for himself, that there were at least two impediments in his way, neither of which he had the power, and one of them probably not the inclination, to remove. He saw that he had not the means of establishing himself in a situation profitable or respectable, and after some contention with himself and the circumstances around him, he judged that it would be most conducive to his happiness to relinquish a profession in which he had no rational hopes of succeeding, even though his expectations in any other way, were (if somewhat more exhilarating) not more to be depended upon. What that other impediment to his succeeding in his intended profession was, may be readily conjectured from the bias and inclination of his mind, which at a very early period wandered into the fairy land of imagination, and rendered him unfit for a contention with the difficulties of life and the habits of severe application in a profession where his prospects were so clouded and precarious.

Mr. Crabbe the father was a mathematician, and in the course of his studies he became acquainted with and purchased the periodical works of Mr. Benjamin Martin, a man well known in his day, and remembered at this time by those then engaged in similar pursuits. Mr. Crabbe having much respect for the scientific part of the publication and not much for the poetical, separated the different parts which were paged with that view, and collecting the more favoured portions, mathematics and natural philosophy in decent binding, he sewed the poetry in paper and left it to the chance perusal of his children, if the eye of any of them should be attracted by the view of words placed in parallel lines of about the same length. The eye of the youth or rather the child was so directed, and he read, scarcely knowing what, pleased with the recurrence of similar sounds and with his ability of retaining a vast number of unmeaning verses in his memory. These he afterwards copied and when at school it became a part of his amusement; when his memory failed, he supplied the defect by his invention, and thus at a very early period of his life became a versifier: a poet, it is presumed, he was not vain enough at that time to imagine he could be.

To guess what number of idle verses a boy thus initiated would compose is impossible. He wrote upon every occasion and without occasion, and like greater men, and indeed like almost every young versifier, he planned tragedies and epic poems, and began to think of succeeding in the highest line of composition before he had made one good and commendable effort in the lowest.

But this period of boyhood and insensibility to the cares and duties of man does not continue long: the time came when Mr. Crabbe was told and believed that he had more important concerns to engage him, and therefore for some years, though he occasionally found time to write some lines upon Mira's Birth-day, and Silvia's Lap-dog, though he composed enigmas and solved rebuses, he had some degree of forbearance, and did not believe that the knowledge of diseases and the sciences of anatomy and physiology were to be acquired by the perusal of Pope's Homer, a Dictionary of Rhymes, and a Treatise on the Art of Poetry.

In this period of his life, had his prospects been such as would have given him rational and substantial grounds of hope that he might succeed in his profession, his views and connexions would probably have induced him to determine seriously to devote himself to his more immediate and certain duties; but he wanted courage to meet the difficulties that lay in his way: he saw impediments, insuperable in his idea, before him, and he probably did not find in himself that perseverance and fortitude which his situation required; nor can we suppose that the influence of the prevailing inclination was long dormant in him. He had with youthful indiscretion written for magazines and publications of that kind, wherein Damons and Delias begin the correspondence, that does not always end there, and where diffidence is nursed till it becomes presumption. There was then a Lady's Magazine published by Mr. Wheble in which our young candidate wrote for the prize on the subject of Hope, and he had the misfortune to gain it; by which he became intitled to we know not how many magazines, and in consequence of which he felt himself more elevated above the young men his companions, who made no verses, that, it is to be hoped he has done at any time since, when he has been able to compare and judge with a more moderate degree of self-approbation.

About the end of the year 1778, Mr. Crabbe, after as full and perfect a survey of the good and evil before him as his prejudices, inclinations, and his little knowledge of the world enabled him to take, finally resolved, to abandon his profession; his health was not robust, his spirits were not equal; assistance he could expect none, and he was not so sanguine as to believe he could do without it. With the best verses he could write and with very little more he quitted the place of his birth, not without the most serious apprehensions of the consequence of such a step — apprehensions which were conquered, and barely conquered, by the more certain evil of the prospect before him, should he remain where he then was.

When our young author, for such he was soon to become, if he had not yet entitled himself to the appellation, thus fled from a gloomy prospect to one as uncertain, though less gloomy, he had not heard of a youthful adventurer whose face it is probable would have in some degree affected his spirits, if it had not caused an alteration in his purpose. Of Chatterton, his extraordinary abilities, his enterprising spirit, his writing in periodical publications, his daring project and melancholy fate, he had yet learned nothing; otherwise it may he supposed that a warning of such a kind would have had no small influence upon a mind rather vexed with the present than expecting much from the future, and not sufficiently happy and at ease to draw consolations from variety, and much less from a comparison in which vanity would have found no trifling mortification.

Thus relinquishing every hope of fixing in his profession, Mr. Crabbe repaired to the metropolis and resided in lodgings with a family in the city: for reasons which he might not himself be able to assign, he was afraid of going to the west end of the town. He was placed it is true near to some friends of whose kindness he was assured, and was probably loth to lose that domestic and chearful society, which he doubly felt in a world of strangers.

In this lodging Mr. Crabbe passed something more than one year, during which his chief study was to improve in versification, to read all such books as he could command, and to take as full and particular a view of mankind, as his time and his finances enabled him to do. We believe that he particularly acknowledges his obligation to Mr. Bonnycastle, the present master of the Military Academy at Woolwich, for many hours of consolation, amusement, and instruction. They met in an evening after the studies and labours of the day, to commence other studies and labours of a more light and agreeable kind, and then it was that Mr. Crabbe experienced the inestimable relief which one mind may administer to another. After many months intercourse they parted as their different pursuits and duties called them.

Mr. Crabbe we believe at this time offered some poem for publication, but he was not encouraged by the reception which his M.S. experienced from those who are said to be not the worst judges of literary composition; he was indeed assured by a bookseller, who afterwards published for him, that he must not suppose the refusal to purchase proceeded from a want of merit in the poem. Such however was his inference, and that thought had the effect which it ought; he took more pains and tried new subjects. In one respect he was unfortunate. While preparing a more favourite piece for the inspection of a gentleman whom he had then in view, he hazarded the publication of an anonymous performance and had the satisfaction of hearing in due time that something, (not much indeed, that something was much) would arise from it, but while he gathered encouragement and looked forward to more than mere encouragement from this essay, the holder of his little prize, the publisher, failed, and his hope of profit was as transitory as the fame of his nameless production.

Our author, for now he must be classed with these adventurous men, either from his little experience or his observations, conceived the idea that his attempts would be hopeless while he continued to be unknown, and he grew modest enough to believe, that instead of being made known by his works, he must be first known to have them introduced, and he began to turn his view to the aid of some friend, celebrated himself and therefore able to give him an introduction to the notice of the public; or if he did not so far mistake as to believe that any name can give lasting reputation to an undeserving work, yet he was fully persuaded that it must be some very meritorious and extraordinary performance, such as he had not the vanity to suppose himself capable of producing, that would become popular without the introductory "probat" of some well-known and distinguished character. Thus thinking, and having now his first serious attempt nearly completed, afraid of venturing without a guide, doubtful whom to select, knowing many by reputation, none personally, he fixed, impelled by some propitious influence, in some happy moment, upon EDMUND BURKE, one of the first of Englishmen, and in the capacity and energy of his mind, one of the greatest of human beings.

To Mr. Burke the young man, with timidity indeed, but with the strong and buoyant expectation of inexperience, submitted a large quantity of miscellaneous composition, on a variety of subjects, which he was soon taught to appreciate at their proper value; yet such was the feeling and tenderness of his judge, that in the very act of condemnation something was found for praise. Mr. Crabbe had sometimes the satisfaction of hearing, when the verses were bad, that the thoughts deserved better, and that if he had the common faults of inexperienced writers, he had frequently the merit of thinking for himself. Among those compositions were poems of somewhat a superior kind, The Library and The Village; these were selected by Mr. Burke, and with the benefit of his judgment and the comfort of his encouraging and exhilarating predictions, Mr. Crabbe was desired to learn the duty of sitting in judgment upon his best efforts, and without mercy rejecting the rest. When all was done that his abilities permitted, and when Mr. Burke had patiently waited the progress of improvement in the man whom he conceived to he capable of it, he himself took The Library to Mr. Dodsley, then of Pall Mall, and gave many lines the advantage of his own reading and comments. Mr. Dodsley listened with all the respect due to the reader of the verses, and all the apparent desire to be pleased that could be wished by the writer, and he was as obliging in his reply, as in the very nature of things a bookseller can be supposed to be towards a young candidate for poetical reputation. "He had declined the venturing upon any thing himself: there was no judging of the probability of success. The taste of the town was exceedingly capricious and uncertain: he paid the greatest respect to Mr. Burke's opinion; the verses were good, and he did, in part, think so himself; but he declined the hazard of publication, yet would do all he could for Mr. Crabbe, and take care that his poem should have all the benefit he could give it."

The worthy man was mindful of his engagement: he became even solicitous for the success of the work, and no doubt its speedy circulation was in some degree caused by his exertions. This he did, and he did more: though by no means insensible of the value of money, he gave to the author his profits as a publisher and vender of the pamphlet, and Mr. Crabbe has seized every occasion which has offered to make acknowledgment for such disinterested conduct, at a period when it was more particularly acceptable and beneficial. The success of The Library gave some reputation to the author, and was the occasion of his second poem, The Village, which was corrected, and a considerable portion of it written in the house of his excellent friend, whose own activity and energy of mind would not permit a young man under his protection to cease from labour, and whose judgment directed that labour to its most useful attainments.

The exertions of this excellent friend in favour of a young writer were not confined to one mode of affording assistance. Mr. Crabbe was encouraged to lay open his views, past and present, to display whatever reading and acquirements he possessed, to explain the causes of his disappointments and the cloudiness of his prospects; in short he concealed nothing from it friend so able to guide inexperience, and so willing to pardon inadvertency. He was invited to Beaconsfield to the seat of his protector, and was there placed in a convenient apartment, supplied with books for his information and amusement, and made a member of a family, whom it was honour as well as pleasure to become in any degree associated with. If Mr. Crabbe, noticed by such man, and received into such family, should have given way to some emotions of vanity, and should have supposed there must have been merit on one part, as well as benevolence on the other, he has no slight plea to offer for his frailty, especially as we conceive it may be added, that his vanity never at any time extinguished any portion of his gratitude, and that it has ever been his delight to think, as well as his pride to speak, of Mr. Burke as his father, guide, and friend; nor did that gentleman ever disallow the name to which his conduct gave sanction and propriety.

While Mr. Crabbe was at Beaconsfield he had the happiness of seeing and of becoming known to the Right Hon. Charles James Fox, who, though for some years afterwards he was disappointed in his expectations of the young man's progress as a writer, yet never withdrew the kindness, nor in fact that partiality, which he had before shewn. At the seat of a most respectable friend in the eastern part of Suffolk, Mr. Crabbe had the good fortune of seeing Mr. Fox, and there drew from him a promise of reading and giving his opinion of any poetical attempts which might be submitted to his perusal. By the concurrence of many impediments, and chiefly by Mr. Crabbe's own want of diligence, Mr. Fox received no such attempts till the last year of his life. Some he did see, and however he might have been disappointed in the failure of his higher expectations, his good-nature selected some portions of the manuscripts submitted to his judgment, which he conceived merited his approbation; and infirm as he then was, he would not withhold an opinion which he had reason to be assured would give the greatest satisfaction.

But we return to our author while yet in his younger days and unfixed in his situation: his paternally-minded friend being first satisfied with respect to his opinions and wishes, coincided with his own views, and approved of his design of becoming a candidate for holy orders. It is not necessary in this place to relate his fears, his difficulties, the unremitted efforts of his friends, or the event of their recommendation. Mr. Crabbe was ordained a deacon by the Bishop of Norwich in the year 1781, and priest by the same prelate in the following year.

Mr. Crabbe immediately after his ordination became curate to the Reverend James Bennett, vicar of Aldborough, the place of his birth, and continued a few months in that situation: but it was not intended that the efforts of his friends should rest there.

Through the personal influence of Mr. Burke, our author had the honour of being introduced to the late Duke of Rutland, and his grace willing to prove his regard to such recommendation, was pleased to invite Mr. Crabbe to is seat, Belvoir Castle, to retain him there as his domestic chaplain, and to shew him by repeated acts of his favour what was expected from his gratitude and improvement.

As our author had not the benefit of a university education, it became necessary that he should take the only certain means in his power to obtain a degree; and in obedience to the desire of his patron his name was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, where, in conformity with the statute, it was continued ten years; after which time a degree in that college was offered to his acceptance, of which he would gladly have availed himself, had not circumstances unforeseen, and events of much importance to him changed his purposes, and made an application to the late Archbishop of Canterbury for a degree at Lambeth a more immediate object. This his grace was pleased to grant, and Mr. Crabbe became, in virtue of it, Bachelor of Laws, which gave one qualification for holding the benefices which have been, and those which now are in his possession.

Among the many benefits conferred by Mr. Burke upon our author, was that of an introduction to Sir Joshua Reynolds, at whose hospitable mansion he first beheld and was made known to Dr. Johnson; and from this knowledge, late as it was in the doctor's life, he had the good fortune of reaping all the advantages which could be expected by him. He had frequently the pleasure of seeing that good and wise man, and he obtained his opinion of a poem, afterwards published under the title of The Village, which certainly was a gratification to his pride, though it did not prove so much as it ought to have been a stimulus to his endeavours.

But we must once more return to an earlier period in our author's life. In the same year, when he became known to Mr. Burke, he had the good fortune to be introduced to the Lord Chancellor Thurlow, from whom he received, at various times, very flattering attention, as well as more substantial and lasting proofs of favour. By his lordship's presentation Mr. Crabbe became possessed of the rectory of Frome St. Quintin with Evershop, in the county of Dorset, which he held about six years, when, in conformity with the wishes of her grace the Duchess of Rutland, his lordship presented him to the rectories of Muston and West Allington, in the diocese of Lincoln, which he held during many years.

Previous to this event Mr. Crabbe had, by the direction of the Duke of Rutland, taken a curacy at Stathorn, a village near to Belvoir Castle, where he purposed to reside till his grace should determine respecting his more permanent situation. In this place he continued with his family, for he was now married and a father, till the news arrived so distressing as well as so important to him, and to many, of his grace's decease in Ireland, where he had been Lord Lieutenant from the year 1784 to 1787.

Mr. Crabbe now had ample leisure for his poetical improvements and pursuits: he was himself young, and his children infants. But with some men leisure is not an excitement to industry: — Mr. Crabbe satisfied himself with few and abortive attempts. Perhaps the deaths of his friends were not without their effect: he felt the loss of them, and could not feel their disappointment in him. New engagements, situations, and duties, engrossed his attention, his faculties, and his inclinations; most of the great men whom he had the honour of calling his friends, were lost to him and to their country; and those who remained were distant, and their opinions and encouragements reached him not in the villages where his fortune had allotted him a temporary residence. He removed with his family, after the decease of the Duke of Rutland, into Suffolk, and continued there, taking upon him the duties of the rectory of Swefling in that county, then and at this time in possession of the Rev. Richard Turner, minister of Great Yarmouth in the same diocese, with whom it has ever been Mr. Crabbe's pride and satisfaction to have lived, as he still does, on terms of friendship, and in the mutual interchange of good offices.

After an interval of more than twenty years, Mr. Crabbe returned to his duties and parsonage in Leicestershire, and prepared those poems for the press of which Mr. Fox had given his more favourable opinion. These were returned to their author by the kindness of Lord Holland, after the decease of his uncle, and his lordship was pleased to permit the work then in hand to be dedicated to him; in this respect, as in others, imitating the condescension and obliging spirit of that great man.

Why our author should so long abstain from any call or claim upon public favour, it is not our business to inquire; but it is most probable that the subject itself, viz. Village Manners, described under the three parts of a parish register — Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, and the further opportunities which he had of viewing these in the different places wherein he resided, gave the hope of success in this attempt. He must have acquired some knowledge of men and their manners; and if from disuse his facility of versification was somewhat abated, his powers of discrimination, and his accuracy in describing, were proportionably augmented.

Of the poems published in 1807 the general opinion was not unfavourable, and Mr. Crabbe had reason to be well satisfied; as it is understood he felt himself, with the verdict of more critical judges. In what degree critics of this description may unite in fixing the reputation of an author, or whether they do in fact determine this, we pretend not to judge; it may be, that every work finally succeeds according to its merit; but it is assuredly a fact, that the immediate success of writers, and especially writers on subjects of taste and those addressed to the imagination, is caused in a great measure by the favourable sentence of critics who stand foremost in the public estimation, and in these Mr. Crabbe certainly found no cold or injurious opinions. What they wrote it is hoped they wrote justly; it is certain they wrote favourably.

Thus encouraged, Mr. Crabbe proceeded to compose a still greater number of verses on kindred subjects, which arose in his view of a sea-port, and amid scenes which were engraven on his memory from the time when be first began to observe, or, at least to retain whatever he might remark.

Neither the picture of a populous borough, nor that of a noisy port, had been described: they had certainly not been made the subject of a poem; and this might likewise be observed of the manners of the different classes of the inhabitants. The novelty of the work, therefore, the author probably conceived, might be some compensation for the coarseness of the materials, and the accuracy of the likenesses might in some degree atone for their humble situations. This has been decided, and the author was satisfied with the decision; at least he gave a further proof in a third publication (Tales in Verse,) in which he introduced characters principally from the middle class of life, and incidents such as were likely to befal them. Three years have elapsed since this work was given to the public, and we cannot therefore judge from that time whether Mr. Crabbe means once more to try the constancy of his partial readers; though it has been mentioned to us that, without meaning to pledge himself for their appearance, he has informed his friends that he has a view of sparing his family the trouble of examining his papers, and of deciding for himself whether the subject which at present offers, and the verses it has already occasioned, are worth the trouble of correction, and will at length become such as may be presented to the view of the public, without causing in him greater apprehensions for their fate, than he has felt for that of their predecessors; and this we suppose is the way which the modesty of all author takes when he means to inform us that he intends to publish again.

When Mr. Crabbe was writing the Borough, his second publication, (at least the second fruits of his riper years,) he was resident on his benefice of Muston, and had once more the happiness of seeing the noble family at Belvoir Castle, by whom he had been so highly favoured in the former part of his life. He now petitioned for the honour of dedicating the poem he was writing to his grace of Rutland, who granted his request, and was pleased to receive into his notice the chaplain of the late duke, although he had for many years, in an earlier part of his life, been a stranger to the country. Her grace the duchess dowager was likewise pleased to remember him, and to allow him to express his sense of her goodness by dedicating his last works (his Tales) to her grace. These were honours to which he looked, and rewards which his respect for the family might have some claim to; but his grace did not confine himself to these proofs of his favour; he presented Mr. Crabbe to the rectory of Trowbridge, in the diocese of Salisbury, and with it to a smaller benefice in that of Lincoln, which the indulgence of the bishop enabled him to hold. To the former Mr. Crabbe was instituted early in the year 1813, and has from that time resided in a parsonage, made convenient and enlarged by the efforts of the Rev. Gilbert Beresford, who preceded him in the rectory.

If there be any thing in the life of Mr. Crabbe which calls for particular attention from a general and indifferent reader, it must be, as he has himself frequently remarked, that ready kindness, the continued benevolence and liberality of those friends, upon whom he had no other claim than that with which his need of their favours supplied him. Grateful he might be, and as we know not any proof to the contrary, we may admit that he was; but his gratitude was not manifested by any pains that he took, or at least by any progress that he made, in those pursuits which it is probable his friends expected from him. During many years he gave no proof of his exertions; and when at length he ventured to publish his Parish Register and other poems, there is reason to believe that he was actuated by a more common and less generous motive than that of gratifying the expectations of his friends, in giving proof of his obedience to their commands. Yet for this he may not be entirely without excuse. That he wrote sometimes may be presumed, and if he succeeded not to his own mind, he was right in not intruding his unsuccessful attempts on the notice of the public; and if we add to this, though this of itself is sufficient, the increase of his duties and engagements as a father of a family and the minister of a parish, he is perhaps rather justified in his long silence than in his breaking it at last; for it does not always happen that a man has so good a reason for publishing his manuscripts as he has for keeping them in his private possession.

Our author, besides the poems mentioned above, wrote a sermon on the death of his patron the Duke of Rutland which he preached at the chapel at Belvoir Castle. This her grace the duchess caused to be printed; a task which Mr. Dodsley took upon himself, though at that time he had retired from the fatigues of his profession, and confined his attention to works in which he was more particularly interested.

Of the poems published by Mr. Crabbe, (we speak of those of his late years, including The Library and Village,) one has reached a fourth, and the other two each a sixth impression: the author has, therefore, no reason to complain of their reception; and whether he makes any future attempt or not, he may draw some consolation from what he has done, and may indulge the hope that his verses will be read when he is no more solicitous for any future success; or what should be the same thing, when he is no longer grateful for past indulgence.