1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 98.



GEORGE CRABBE was born on the 24th of December, 1754, at Aldborough, in Suffolk, where his father was an officer of the customs. He was originally apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary; but disliking the profession, and encouraged by the praise accorded to some early attempts at composition, he ventured to London, and had the good fortune to meet a friend in the illustrious Edmund Burke; under whose auspices, in 1781, The Library was published. The Village soon followed; and both received the praise of Dr. Johnson. The Poet, however, had no ambition to become an author by profession: he took holy orders, and obtained the rectory of Trowbridge, in Wiltshire; here — away from the busy world — in calm and contented tranquillity, the remainder of his long life was passed. In 1807, he published a collection of Poems; in 1810, the Borough; in 1812, the Tales; and in 1819, the Tales of the Hall. The whole of his works have been recently collected, with the addition of several posthumous poems, and published by his son.

The character of Mr. Crabbe forms a singular contrast to his writings: — he was amiable, benevolent, and conciliatory to a degree. All who knew him loved him;

In every family
Alike, in every generation clear,—
The children's favourite, and the grandsire's friend,
Tried, trusted, and beloved.

"To him it was recommendation enough to be poor and wretched." We quote this passage from the Life, by his son, which prefaces the edition of his works. It is a gracefully and sensibly written biography; and altogether worthy of the memory of the admirable Poet and estimable man. His conversation was easy, fluent, and abundant in correct information; but distinguished chiefly by good sense and good feeling. "Kindness, meekness, and comfort were in his tongue." He died on the 3rd of February, 1832. Mr. Lockhart thus describes his person: — "His noble forehead, his bright beaming eye, without any thing of old age about it — though he was then, I presume, above seventy — his sweet, and, I would say, innocent, smile, and the calm, mellow tones of his voice, — all are re-produced the moment I open any page of his poetry." A high contemporary authority characterises Crabbe as "Nature's sternest painter — yet the best."

It is certain, that those who read his poems derive from them greater pain than pleasure; and while admitting the general truth of his pictures, and the accuracy of his portraits, turn from them with a feeling of dissatisfaction approaching to disgust. It may be that "The fault was not in him — but in mankind:" there can be, however, no doubt that the Poet wilfully exaggerated in his descriptions of human vice, and details of human suffering; and that he himself neither believed nor imagined his fellow-beings so odious and depraved as he describes them. His desire to be original led him into this large error, — to reject the garb in which poetry had for ages been wont to array the works of the creation; and to clothe them in a dress quite as unnatural and equally opposed to reality. The rustic population of our country are neither so wretched nor so degraded as they are, with few exceptions, made to appear. The poor, as well as the rich, have their vices — but their virtues also. It is not only while writing of men and women that Crabbe "looks askance:" he can perceive in the people who surround him little that is good, and less that is gracious; but he has neither eye nor ear for the beautiful sights and delicious sounds of inanimate nature. To him, the breeze is ever harsh and unmusical, — seldom moving except to produce wrecks; and hill, and stream, and valley, are barren, muddy, and unprofitable. He contemplates all things, animate and in animate, "through a glass, darkly." The consequence has naturally been, that Crabbe never was a popular Poet. Yet the rough energy of his descriptions, the vigorous and manly style of his versification, the deep though oppressive interest of his stories, and his stern maxims of morality, — with a little more of a kindly leaning towards humanity — must have secured for him universal admiration.