1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 102 (March 1832) 275-78.



Feb. 8. At Trowbridge, Wiltshire, after a short illness, aged 77, the Rev. George Crabbe, LL.B. Rector of that parish, and of Croxton Keryel, in Leicestershire.

In detailing the history of Mr. Crabbe, we have the advantage of a memoir which was published in the New Monthly Mag. in 1816, and which bears evident marks of being an autobiography. We do not think this impression will be removed, even in the abridged form to which we are obliged to condense it on the present occasion.

Mr. Crabbe was born on the 24th Dec. 1754, at Aldborough in Suffolk, where his father and grandfather were officers of the 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 as would fit him for some employment similar to his own; but when his prospects in a certain degree brightened, Mr. Crabbe removed his son to a school 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; but a deficiency both of means and inclination prevented his progress in this line of life.

Mr. Crabbe, the father, was a mathematician, and in the course of his studies he became acquainted with and purchased the Philosophical Magazine, edited by Mr. Benjamin Martin. Having much respect for the scientific part of the publication, and not much for the poetical, he separated the different parts, and collecting the more favoured portions, mathematics and natural philosophy, in a 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 equal lengths. The eye of his son was so directed, and, pleased with the recurrence of similar sounds, he committed a vast number of unmeaning verses to memory. These it became afterwards his amusement, when at school, to write out; and when his memory failed, he supplied the defect by his invention, and thus at a very early period of life became a versifier. He wrote upon every occasion and without occasion, 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. After a time, however, being told that it was his duty to apply himself to more important concerns, he placed himself under restraint, and confined his effusions to a few short and occasional pieces.

His poetic flame appears to have been revived by his having attained the prize for a poem on Hope, offered by Mr. Wheble, the publisher of the Lady's Magazine. About the end of the year 1778, he 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 very 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, but regarding with yet more gloomy anticipations the certain evil of remaining where he was. Repairing to the metropolis, he fixed his residence with a family in the city, near to some friends of whose kindness he was assured. In this lodging, he passed something more than a 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 finances enabled him to do. His most agreeable companion and friend was the late Mr. Bonnycastle, who afterwards became Master of the Military Academy at Woolwich. With that gentleman he spent many agreeable evenings, after their peculiar studies of the day were concluded; they at length separated to pursue their several destinies with much regret.

Mr. Crabbe at this period offered a poem for publication, but did not find a purchaser among the booksellers. He at length hazarded the publication of all anonymous performance: we believe The Candidate; a poetical Epistle to the Authors of the Monthly Review, which was printed in quarto in 1780. It was strictly a call upon the attention, not an appeal from the verdict, of the Monthly Reviewers; and it was favourably noticed by them in their vol. LXIII. p. 226. In this little publication, however, he was unfortunate; he had been informed that some little profit would accrue from the sale, when the publisher failed.

Mr. Crabbe was now convinced that his attempts would be hopeless while his name continued unknown; he therefore looked round for the aid of some celebrated individual, whose influence might introduce him to the public. "Knowing many by reputation, none personally, he fixed, impelled by some propitious influence, in some happy moment, upon Edmund Burke." It is evident from this passage (and Mr. Prior in his late Life of Burke affirms the same) that the aspiring but distressed youth made this application without an introduction; it was, however, benevolently met, and Mr. Burke took him by the hand. He submitted to his distinguished critic a large quantity of miscellaneous composition: much of which he was soon taught to appreciate at a reduced 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 these compositions were The Library and The Village; which were selected by Mr. Burke, and with the benefit of his judgment, and the comfort of his encouraging and exhilarating predictions, the Poet was desired to learn the duty of sitting in judgment upon his best efforts, and without mercy rejecting the rest. When this had been attempted with considerable patience and perseverance, Mr. Burke himself took The Library to Dodsley, the bookseller in 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, but would not undertake their publication. He, however, promised that Mr. Crabbe's poem should have all the benefit he could give it: and this promise he most liberally fulfilled, for he transferred to the author all his profits arising from the sale of the pamphlet, a kindness at the time peculiarly acceptable. The success of The Library gave some reputation to the writer; and encouraged him to publish his second poem, The Village, which was corrected, and a considerable portion of it written in the house of Mr. Burke. Mr. Crabbe was invited to Beaconsfield, the seat of his protector, and there placed in a convenient apartment, supplied with books for his information and amusement, and made a member of a family with whom it was an honour as well as pleasure to be in any degree associated. While at Beaconsfield, Mr. Crabbe became 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 that kindness, nor, in fact, that partiality, which he had before shown. At the seat of a most respectable friend in the eastern part of Suffolk, Mr. Crabbe drew from Mr. Fox a promise of reading and giving his opinion of any poetical attempts which might be submitted to his perusal. This promise Mr. Fox many years after fulfilled, during his last illness, with the poem entitled The Parish Register.

In the mean time, having explained all the difficulties of his situation to Mr. Burke, and been assisted by that paternally-minded friend in his preparation for holy orders, Mr. Crabbe was ordained a Deacon by Dr. Yonge, Bishop of Norwich, in 1781, and Priest by the same prelate in the following year, he immediately after became Curate to the Rev. James Bennet, at Aldborough, the place of his birth, and continued a few months in that situation. It was not however intended that the efforts of his friends should rest there; through the personal influence of Mr. Burke, he was introduced to the Duke of Rutland, who, having invited him to Belvoir Castle, was pleased to retain him there as Domestic Chaplain. He shortly after undertook the curacy of Stathern, near Belvoir Castle, where he continued to reside until the Duke of Rutland's death, which occurred whilst he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in 1787.

As Mr. Crabbe had not the benefit of education, it became necessary that he should take the only certain means in his power to obtain a degree. At the desire of his patron his name was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, where, in conformity, with the statute, it was continued two years; after which time a degree in that college was offered to his acceptance, of which he would gladly have availed himself, had not some offers of preferment previously required a more immediate application for a degree at Lambeth. This favour was granted by Archbishop Moore, and Mr. Crabbe became, in consequence, Bachelor of Laws.

In 1783, Lord Chancellor Thurlow, through the recommendation of Mr. Burke, presented Mr. Crabbe to the rectory of Frome St. Quentin, in Dorsetshire, which he held for about six years, but where he never went to reside. At the end of that period Lord Thurlow, in conformity to the wishes of the Duchess of Rutland, presented him with the rectories of Muston in Leicestershire and West Allington in Lincolnshire. Previously, however, to this change of preferment, he had, on the death or the Duke of Rutland, removed from Leicestershire into Suffolk, and with his family (for he was now become a husband and a father), was settled at Swefling in that county, as Curate to the Rev. Richard Turner, the Minister of Great Yarmouth.

We now return to Mr. Crabbe's poetical career. Among the many benefits conferred upon him by Mr. Burke, was that of an introduction to Sir Joshua Reynolds, at whose hospitable mansion he first beheld and was made known to Dr. Johnson. He had afterwards frequently the pleasure of seeing that good and wise man, who revised his next poem, entitled The Village. "Its sentiments," says Boswell, in his Life of the great Moralist, "as to the false notions of rustic happiness and rustic virtue, were quite congenial with his own; and he took the trouble not only to suggest slight corrections and variations, but to furnish some lines which he thought would give the writer's meaning better than in the words of the manuscript." Dr. Johnson's letter to Sir Joshua Reynolds, on returning the poem, "which," he said, "I read with great delight; it is original, vigorous, and elegant," has already been printed in our vol. lxxvii. p. 1033. The Village was published in 1783. In 1785 Mr. Crabb produced The Newspaper, a poem which was well received by the public; but from that time he rested content with the literary reputation he had acquired, and committed nothing more to the press until the year 1807. Having devoted himself assiduously to the duties of a parish priest, and the task of educating a numerous family, his courtship of the Muses was only at occasional intervals. "I have," he says, in his preface to the collected volume, printed in 1807, "for many years intended a republication of these Poems, as soon as I should be able to join with them such others of late date as might not deprive me of the little credit the former had obtained." He ascribes the delay to the duties of his profession, and the loss of those early and distinguished friends who had given him the benefit of their criticism. In this respect, however, his love of great names was a third time gratified. The Parish Register was submitted to Mr. Fox, and in part read to him during his last illness. "Whatever he approved (says Mr. Crabbe in his Preface) the reader will readily believe, I have carefully retained; the parts he disliked are totally expunged; and others are substituted, which I hope resemble those more conformable to the taste of so admirable a judge. Nor can I deny myself the melancholy satisfaction of adding that this Poem (and more especially the story of Phoebe Dawson, with some parts of the second book) were the last compositions of their kind that engaged and amused the capacious, the candid, the benevolent mind of this great man. The above information I owe to the favour of the Right Hon. Lord Holland; nor this only; but to his Lordship I am indebted for some excellent remarks upon the other parts of my MS." — Very full extracts, as well from the preface to this volume, as from the Poems themselves, are given in our vol. lxxvii. pp. 1033-40; lxxviii. 59. The Poet here depicted a more favourable view of rural manners than in his earlier work, and if it was not more true, it was certainly more pleasing.

Encouraged by the approbation of all the critics, Mr. Crabbe appeared now to take a second lease of his poetic mine. The observations he had made in a populous town and a noisy seaport, were conveyed in The Borough, a Poem; in twenty-four Letters, published in 1810; and Tales, in verse, which appeared in 1812.

After an interval of more than twenty years, Mr. Crabbe returned to his parsonage at Muston in Leicestershire, and again received the favourable notice of the Rutland family. In 1813 the present Duke presented him to the rectory of Trowbridge, and with it to the smaller benefice of Croxton Kerryel in Leicestershire, which the indulgence of the Bishop enabled him to hold. To the former place he removed, and has from that time resided in the parsonage. which had been enlarged and made convenient by his predecessor the Rev. Gilbert Beresford.

Mr. Crabbe's last published volume contained Tales of the Hall, which appeared in 1819. It is said that Mr. Murray has for some time had another poem in his hands, but has not hitherto, in the present state of the public taste, ventured to proceed with a volume of verse, even by so popular an author.

The publications of Mr. Crabbe, it has been recently remarked by Mr. Wilson Croker, "have placed him high in the roll of British poets, — though his having taken a view of life too minute, too humiliating, too painful, and too just, may have deprived his works of so extensive, or at least so brilliant, a popularity as some of his contemporaries have attained. He generally deals with the 'short and simple annals of the poor;' but he exhibits them with such a deep knowledge of human nature, — with such general ease and simplicity, and such accurate force of expression, whether grave, gay, or pathetical, as (in the writer's humble judgment) no poet except Shakspeare has excelled." (Bowell's Johnson.)

Mr. Crabbe's only prose publications, were a Funeral Sermon an Charles Duke of Rutland, 1789, preached in the chapel of Belvoir castle; and an Essay on the Natural History of the Vale of Belvoir, written for the History of Leicestershire by Mr. Nichols, who says, under the parish of Muston, that "Mr. Crabbe's communications in the progress of this laborious work are such as to entitle him to my warmest and most grateful acknowledgments."

Mr. Crabbe's last illness was or very short duration, having been only about a week confined to his house. He was very highly esteemed by his parishioners — to the poor he was proverbially liberal — and the different denominations of professing Christians in the town bear testimony of the catholic spirit which he invariably cultivated on every occasion when their united energies were required to carry any benevolent purpose into effect. The principal shops in the town were half closed as soon as the melancholy event became generally known. His remains were deposited in a vault at the south-east corner of the chancel in Trowbridge church. The principal inhabitants in the town joined in the melancholy procession. A book has been opened at the Trowbridge bank to receive subscriptions for a monument to his memory.

A portrait of Mr. Crabbe, drawn by Pickersgill, and engraved by H. Meyer, war, published in the New Monthly Magazine, Jan. 1, 1816. A sketch made by Mr. Chantrey in 1826 has been recently published in lithography by Mr. Lane.