When a youth, with a voracious appetite for books, an old lady, who kindly supplied me with many, put one day into my hands Crabbe's Borough. It was my first acquaintance with him, and it occasioned me the most singular sensations imaginable. Intensely fond of poetry, I had read the great bulk of our older writers, and was enthusiastic in my admiration of the new ones who had appeared. The Pleasures of Hope, of Campbell, the West Indies and World before the Flood, of Montgomery, the first Metrical Romances of Scott, all had their due appreciation. The calm dignity of Wordsworth and the blaze of Byron, had not yet fully appeared. Everything, however, old or new, in poetry, had a certain elevation of subject and style, which seemed absolutely necessary to give it the title of poetry. But here was a poem by a country parson; the description of a sea-port town, so full of real life, yet so homely and often prosaic, that its effect on me was confounding. Why, it is not poetry, and yet how clever! Why, there is certainly a resemblance to the style of Pope, yet what subjects, what characters, what ordinary phraseology! The country parson certainly is a great reader of Pope, but how unlike Pope's is the music of the rhythm — if music there be! What an opening for a poem in four and twenty books!
Describe the Borough — though our idle tribe
May love description, can we so describe,
That you shall fairly streets and buildings trace,
And all that gives distinction to the place?
This cannot be; yet moved by your request,
A part I paint — let fancy form the rest.
Cities and towns, the various haunts of men,
Require the pencil; they defy the pen.
Could he, who sang so well the Grecian Fleet,
So well have sung of Alley, Lane, or Street?
Can measured lines these various buildings show,
The Town Hall Tuning, or the prospect Row?
Can I the seats of wealth and want explore,
And lengthen out my lays from door to door?
No, good parson! how should you? I exclaimed to myself. You see the absurdity of your subject, and yet you rush into it. He who sang of the Greek Fleet certainly would never have thought of singing of Alley, Lane, or Street! What a difference from
Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumbered, heavenly goddess, sing!
The man for wisdom's various arts renowned,
Long exercised in woes, O Muse, resound!
What a difference from—
Arms and the man I sing, who forced by fate,
And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate!
Or from the grandeur of that exordium:—
Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, heavenly Muse! that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning, how the Heavens and Earth
Rose out of chaos; or, if Sion-hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook,
that flowed Fast by the Oracle of God,
I thence invoke thine aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou knowest: Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast abyss,
And mad'st it pregnant; what in me is dark
illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
With this glorious sound in my ears, like the opening hymn of an archangel — language in which more music and more dignity were united than in any composition of mere mortal man, and which heralded in the universe, God and man, perdition and salvation, creation and the great sum total of the human destinies, — what a fall was there to those astounding words — "Describe the Borough!" It was a shock to everything of the ideal great and poetical in the young and sensitive mind, attuned to the harmonies of a thousand great lays of the by-gone times, that was never to be forgotten. Are we then come to this? I asked. Is this the scale of topic, and is this the tone to which we are reduced in this generation? Turning over the heads of the different books did not much tend to remove this feeling. The Church, Sects, the Election, Law, Physic, Trades, Clubs and Social Meetings, Players, Almshouse and Trustees, Peter Grimes and Prisons! What, in heaven's name, were the whole nine Muses to do with such a set of themes! And then the actors! See a set of drunken sailors in their ale-house:—
The Anchor, too, affords the seaman joys,
In small smoked room, all clamour, crowds, and noise;
Where a curved settle half surrounds the fire,
Where fifty voices purl and punch require;
They for pleasure in their leisure hour,
And they enjoy it to their utmost power;
Standing they drink, they swearing smoke, while all
Call, or make ready for a second call.
But, spite of all, a book was a book, and therefore it was read. At every page the same struggle went on in the mind between all the old notions of poetry, and the vivid pictures of actual life which it unfolded. When I had read it once, I told the lender that it was the strangest, cleverest, and most absorbing book I had ever read, but that it was no poem. It was only by a second and a third perusal that the first surprise subsided; the first shock gone by, the poem began to rise out of the novel composition. The deep and experienced knowledge of human life, the sound sense, the quiet satire, there was no overlooking from the first; and soon the warm sympathy with poverty and suffering, the boldness to display them as they existed, and to suffer no longer poetry to wrap her golden haze round human life, and to conceal all that ought to he known, because it must be known before it could be removed; the tender pathos, and the true feeling for nature, grew every hour on the mind. It was not long before George Crabbe became as firmly fixed in my bosom as a great and genuine poet, as Rembrandt, or Collins, or Edwin Landseer are as genuine painters.
Crabbe saw plainly what was become the great disease of our literature. It was a departure from actual life and nature.
I've often marvelled, when by night, by day,
I've marked the manners moving in my way,
And heard the language and beheld the lives
Of lass and lover, goddesses and wives,
That books which promise much of life to give
Should show so little how we truly live.
To me it seems, their females and their men
Are but the creatures of the authors pen;
Nay, creatures borrowed, and again conveyed
From book to book, the shadows of a shade.
Life, if they'd seek, would show them many a change;
The ruin sudden and the misery strange;
With more of grievous, base, and dreadful things,
Than novelists relate, or poet sings.
But they who ought to look the world around,
Spy out a single spot in fairy-ground,
Where all in turns ideal forms behold,
And plots are laid, and histories are told.
To these home-truths, succeeds that admirable satirical description of our novel literature, which introduces the sad story of Ellen Orford. My space is little, but I must give a specimen of the manner in which the Cervantes of England strips away the sublime fooleries of our literary knight-errantry.
Time have I lent — I would their debt were less—
To flowing pages of sublime distress;
And to the heroine's soul-distracting fears
I early gave my sixpences and tears;
Oft have I travelled in these tender tales,
To Darnley Cottages, and Maple Vales....
I've watched a wintry night on castle walls,
I've stalked by moonlight through deserted halls;
And when the weary world was sunk to rest,
I've had such sights — as may not be expressed.
Lo! that chateau, the western tower decayed,
The peasants shun it, they are all afraid;
For there was done a deed could walls reveal
Or timbers tell it, how the heart would feel.
Most horrid was it — for, behold the floor
Has stains of blood, and will be clean no more.
Hark to the winds which, through the wide saloon,
And the long passage, send a dismal tune,—
Music that ghosts delight in; and now heed
Yon beauteous nymph who must unmask the deed:
See with majestic sweep she swims alone
Through rooms all dreary, guided by a groan.
Though windows rattle, and though tapestries shake,
And the feet falter every step they take,
Mid moans and gibing sprites she silent goes,
To find a something which shall soon expose
The villanies and wiles of her determined foes;
And having thus adventured, thus endured,
Fame, wealth, and lover, are for life secured.
Much have I feared, but am no more afraid,
When some chaste beauty, by some wretch betrayed,
Is drawn away with such distracted speed
That she anticipates a dreadful deed.
Not so do I. Let solid walls impound
The captive fair, and dig a moat around
Let there be brazen locks and bars of steel,
And keepers cruel, such as never feel.
With not a single note the purse supply,
And when she begs let men and maids deny.
Be windows those from which she dare not fall,
And help so distant 'tis in vain to call
Still means of freedom will some power devise,
And from the baffled ruffian snatch the prize.
From all this false sublime, Crabbe was the first to free us, and to lead us into the true sublime of genuine human life. How novel at that time, and yet how thrilling, was the incident of the seaside visitors surprised out on the sands by the rise of the tide. Here was real sublimity of distress, real display of human passion. The lady, with her children in her hand, wandering from the tea-table which had been spread on the sands, sees the boatmen asleep, the boat adrift, and the tide advancing:—
She gazed, she trembled, and though faint her call,
It seemed like thunder to confound them all.
Their sailor guests, the boatman and his mate,
Had drunk and slept, regardless of their state
"Awake!" they cried aloud! Alarm the shore!
Shout all, or never shall we reach it more!"
Alas! no shout the distant land can reach,
No eye behold them from the foggy beach:
Again they join in one loud, fearful cry,
Then cease, and eager listen for reply;
None came — the rising wind blew sadly by.
They shout once more, and then they turn aside
To see how quickly flowed the coming tide;
Between each cry they find the waters steal
On their strange prison, and new horrors feel.
Foot after foot on the contracted ground
The billows fall, and dreadful is the sound;
Less and yet less the sinking isle became,
And there was weeping, wailing, wrath, and blame.
It has been said that Crabbe's poetry is mere description, however accurate, and that he has not a spark of imagination. The charge arises from a false view of the man and his objects. He saw that the world was well supplied with what are poems of the creative faculty, that it was just as destitute of the poetry of truth and reality. He saw human life like waste land, as worthless of notice, while our poets and romancers "In trim gardens took their pleasure." He saw the vice, the ignorance, the misery, and he lifted the veil and cried, — "Behold your fellow-men! Such are the multitude of your fellow-creatures, amongst whom you live and move. Do you want to weep over distress? Behold it there, huge, dismal, and excruciating! Do you wish for a sensation? Find it there! Follow the ruined gentleman from his gaming and his dissipation, to his squalid den and his death. Follow the grim savage, who murders his shrieking boy at sea. Follow the poor maiden to her ruin, and the parent weeping and withering under the curse of a depraved child. Go down into the abodes of ignorance, of swarming vice, of folly, and madness — and if you want a lesson, or a moral, there they are by thousands."
Crabbe knew that the true imaginative faculty had a great and comprehensive task, to dive into the depths of the human heart, to fathom the recesses and the springs of the mind, and to display all their movements under the various excitements of various passions, with the hand of a master. He has done this, and done it with unrivalled tact and vigour. Out of the scum and chaos of lowest life, he has evoked the true sublime. He has taught us that men are our proper objects of display, and that the multitude has claims on our sympathies that duty as well as taste demand obedience to. He was the first to dare these desperate and deserted walks of humanity, and prove to us that still it was humanity. At every step he revealed scenes of the truest pathos, of the profoundest interest, and gave instances of the most generous sacrifices, the most patient love, the most heroic duty, in the very abodes of unvisited wretchedness. He made us feel that these beings were men! There is no picture so touching in all the million volumes of romance, as that of the dying sailor and his sweetheart. What hero ever breathed a more beautiful devotion, or clothed it in more exquisite language, than this poor sailor youth, when believing himself dying at sea:—
He called his friend, and prefaced with a sigh
A lover's message — "Thomas, I must die.
Would I could see my Sally, and could rest
My throbbing temples on her faithful breast,
And gazing go! — if not, this trifle take,
And say till death I wore it for her sake:
Yes, I must die — blow on, sweet breeze, blow on!
Give me one look before my life be gone,
Oh give me that and let me not despair,
One last fond look — and now repeat the prayer"....
She placed a decent stone his grave above,
Neatly engraved — an offering of her love,
For that she wrought, for that forsook her bed,
Awake alike to duty and the dead.
It was by these genuine vindications of our entire humanity, that Crabbe, by casting the full blaze of the sunshine of truth and genius on the real condition of the labouring population of these kingdoms, laid the foundations of that great popular feeling which prevails at the present day. Patriots and patrons of the people are now plentiful enough, but in Crabbe's day the work had to be begun; the swinish multitude had yet to be visited in their sties; and the Circe of the modern sorceries of degradation, to feel the hand of a hero upon her, compelling her to restore the swine to their human form. George Crabbe was not merely a poet, but a poet who had the sagacity to see into the real state of things, and the heart to do his duty — the great marks of the true poet, who is necessarily a true and feeling man. To him popular education, popular freedom, popular advance into knowledge and power, owe a debt which futurity will gratefully acknowledge, but no time can cancel.
George Crabbe was born on the borders of that element which he so greatly loved, and which he has so powerfully described in the first chapter of the Borough. He has had the good fortune to have in his son George a biographer such as every good man would desire. The life written by him is full of the veneration of the son, yet of the candour of the historian; and is at once one of the most graphic and charming of books.
From this volume we learn that the poet was born at Aldborough, in Suffolk, on the Christmas eve of 1754. His birthplace was an old house in that range of buildings which the sea has now almost demolished. The chamber projected far over the ground floor; and the windows were small, with diamond panes almost impervious to the light. A view of it by Stanfield forms the vignette to the biography.
The father as well as grandfather of Crabbe bore the name of George, as well as himself. The grandfather, a burgess of Aldborough, and collector of customs there, yet died poor. The father, originally educated for trade, had been in early life the keeper of a parochial school in the porch of the church at Orford. He afterwards became schoolmaster and parish clerk at Norton, near Loddon, in Norfolk, and finally, returning to his native Aldborough, rose to the collection of the salt duties, as Salt-master. He was a stern, but able man, and with all his sternness not destitute of good qualities. The mother of Crabbe was an excellent and pious woman. Besides himself there were five other children, all of whom, except one girl, lived to mature years. His next brother Robert was a glazier who retired from business at Southwold. John Crabbe, the third son, was a captain of a Liverpool slave ship, who perished by an insurrection of the slaves. The fourth brother, William, also a seafaring man, was carried prisoner by the Spaniards into Mexico, and was once seen by an Aldborough sailor on the coast of Honduras, but never heard of again. This sailor brother in his inquiries after all at home, had expressed much astonishment to find that George was become a clergyman, when he left him a doctor; and on this incident Crabbe afterwards founded the sailor's story in The Parting Hour. His only surviving sister married a Mr. Sparkes, a builder of Aldborough, and died in 1827. Such were Crabbe's family. The scenery amongst which he spent his boyhood has been frequently described in his poetry, especially in the opening letter of his Borough. It is here equally livingly given in his son's prose.
"Aldborough, or, as it is more correctly written, Alderburgh, was in those days a poor and wretched place, with nothing of the elegance and gaiety which have since sprung up about it, in consequence of the resort of watering parties. The town lies between a low hill or cliff, on which only the old church and a few better houses were then situated, and the beach of the German ocean. It consisted of two parallel and unpaved streets, running between mean and scrambling houses, the abodes of seafaring men, pilots, and fishers. The range of houses nearest to the sea had suffered so much from repeated invasions of the waves, that only a few scattered tenements appeared erect among the desolation. I have often heard my father describe a tremendous spring tide of, I think, the 17th of January, 1779, when eleven houses here were at once demolished; and he saw the breakers dash over the roofs, and round the walls, and crush all to ruin. The beach consists of successive ridges — large rolled stones, then loose shingles, and, at the fall of the tide, a stripe of fine hard sand. Vessels of all sorts, from the large heavy troll boat, to the yawl and prame, drawn up along the shore — fishermen preparing their tackle, or sorting their spoil, — and, nearer, the gloomy old town-hall, the only indication of municipal dignity, a few groups of mariners, chiefly pilots, taking their quick short walks backwards and forwards, every eye watchful of the signal from the offing, — such was the squalid scene which first opened on the author of The Village!
"Nor was the landscape in the vicinity of a more engaging aspect: open commons and sterile farms, the soil poor and sandy, the herbage bare and rushy, the trees 'few and far between,' and withered and stunted by the bleak breezes of the sea. The opening picture of The Village was copied, in every touch, from the scene of the poet's nativity and boyish days:—
Lo! where the heath, with withering brake grown o'er,
Lends the light turf that warms the neighbouring poor;
From thence a length of burning sand appears,
Where the thin harvest waves its withered ears;
Rank weeds, that every art and care defy,
Reign o'er the land, and rob the blighted rye;
There thistles spread their prickly arms afar,
And to the ragged infants threaten war.
"The broad river, called the Ald, approaches the sea close to Aldborough, within a few hundred yards, and then turning abruptly, continues to run for about ten miles parallel to the beach, from which a dreary stripe of marsh and waste alone divides it, until it at length finds its embouchure at Orford. The scenery of this river has been celebrated as lovely and delightful, in a poem called Slaughden Vale, written by Mr. James Bird, a friend of my father's; and old Camden talks of 'the beautiful vale of Slaughden.' I confess, however, that though I have ever found an indescribable charm in the very weeds of the place, I never could perceive its claims to beauty. Such as it is, it has furnished Mr. Crabbe with many of his happiest and most graphical descriptions; and the same may be said of the whole line of coast from Orford to Dunwich, every feature of which has, somewhere or other, been reproduced in his writings. The quay of Slaughden, in particular, has been painted with all the minuteness of a Dutch landscape:—
Here samphire banks and saltwort bound the flood,
There stakes and sea-weeds withering on the mud;
And higher up a range of all things base,
Which some strong tide has rolled upon the place.
Yon is our quay I those smaller boys from town,
Its various wares for country use bring down, etc.
"For one destined to distinction as a portrayer of character," continues his son, "few scenes could have been more favourable than that of his infancy and boyhood. He was cradled among the rough sons of the ocean, — a daily witness of unbridled passions, and of manners remote from the sameness and artificial smoothness of polished society. At home, as has already been hinted, he was subject to the caprices of a stern and imperious, though not unkindly nature; and probably few whom he could familiarly approach but had passed through some of those dark tragedies in which his future strength was to be exhibited. The common people of Aldborough in those days are described as—
A wild, amphibious race,
With sullen woe displayed in every face;
Who far from civil arts and social fly,
And scowl at strangers with suspicious eye."
Crabbe, though imbibing everything relating to the sea, and sailors, and fishermen, was by no means disposed to be one of this class himself. He early exhibited a bookish turn, and was reckoned effeminate; but his father saw his talent, and gave him a good education. He was then put apprentice to a surgeon, who was also a farmer, and George alternately pounded the pestle and worked in the fields, till he was removed to another surgeon at Woodbridge. Here he became a member of a small literary club, which gave a new stimulus to his love of poetry, already sufficiently strong, and in his eighteenth year he fell in love with the young lady who was destined to be his wife. Before the expiration of his apprenticeship he had published a volume of poems. His apprenticeship terminated, he set out for London; but unfurnished with money to attend the hospitals, he remained awhile in mean lodgings in Whitechapel, and then returned to Aldborough, and after engaging himself as an assistant for a short time, commenced practice for himself. It would not do, however, his practice was profitless; and as he filled up his leisure time by botanizing in the country, the people got a notion that he gathered his medicine out of the ditches. At length, starved out, he resolved to return to London as a literary adventurer. With £5 in his pocket, a present for the purpose, from Dudley North, brother to the candidate for Aldborough, he took his passage in a sloop for town.
In thinking of Crabbe, we generally picture him to ourselves as the well-to-do clergyman, comfortably inditing his verse in a goodly parsonage; but Crabbe commenced as a regular hack-author about town, and went through all the racking distress of that terrible life, utterly without funds, without patrons, or connexions. Chatterton had perished in the desperate undertaking just before, and it appeared likely enough for a long time that Crabbe might perish too. In vain he wrote, nobody would publish; in vain he addressed ministers of state in verse and prose, nobody would hear him. He maintained this fearful struggle for twelve months. He had lodgings at a Mr. Vickery's, a hairdresser, near the Exchange, who afterwards removed to Bishopsgate-street, whither he accompanied them. The people appeared to behave well to him, and gave him more trust than is usual with such people, though at length even their patience seems to have been exhausted, and he was threatened with a prison.
While he resided there he often spent his evenings at a small coffee-house near the Exchange, where he became acquainted with several clever young men, then beginning the world like himself. One of these was Bonnycastle, afterwards master of the military academy at Woolwich; another was Isaac Dalby, afterwards professor of mathematics in the military college of Marlowe; and a third, Reuben Burrow, who rose to high distinction in the service of the East India Company, and died in Bengal. To obtain healthy exercise, he used to walk much in the day time; and would accompany Mr. Bonnycastle on his visits to different schools in the suburbs; but more frequently stole off alone into the country, with a small edition of Ovid, Horace, or Catullus, in his pocket. Two or three of these little volumes remained in his possession in later days, and he set a high value on them, saying they were his companions in his adversity. His favourite haunt was Hornsey wood, where he sought for plants and insects. On one occasion he had strolled too far from town to return, and having no money he was compelled to lodge on a mow of hay, beguiling the time while it was light with reading Tibullus, and in the morning returned to town.
Of the depth of distress to which Crabbe was reduced, his journal kept through that dark time testifies, but nothing more so than this prayer:—
"My God, my God, I put my trust in thee; my troubles increase, my soul is dismayed; I am heavy and in distress; all day long I call upon thee; O be thou my helper in the needful time of trouble.
"Why art thou so far from me, O my Lord? why hidest thou thy face? I am cast down; I am in poverty and affliction; be thou with me, O my God; let me not be wholly forsaken, O my Redeemer!
"Behold, I trust in thee, blessed Lord. Guide me, and govern me unto the end. O Lord, my salvation, he thou ever with me. Amen."
Unlike poor Chatterton, Crabbe had a firm trust in Providence, and was neither so passionate nor so reservedly haughty. He determined to leave no stone unturned; and at length he wrote to the only man of the age who was likely to lend him a kindly ear — that was Edmund Burke. From that moment his troubles were at an end, and his fortune made. Burke sent for him, looked at his manuscripts, perceived his claims to genius well founded, and received him to his own table. He then introduced him to Dr. Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the surly old Lord Chancellor Thurlow; the last of whom, though he had paid no attention to a letter he had before written to him, nor to a stinger which he had sent him in consequence, now sent for him, and told him that he ought to have noticed the first letter, and that he forgave the second, and that there was his reply. He put a sealed paper into Crabbe's hand, which on being opened contained a bank note, value one hundred pounds! Burke advised Crabbe to take orders, as they were walking together one day at Beaconsfield, whither Burke had invited him. This was soon managed; he was examined and admitted to priest's orders by the Bishop of Norwich, and was sent, to the astonishment of the natives, to officiate as curate in his native town. But Burke soon procured him the chaplaincy to the Duke of Rutland, and he went down to reside at Belvoir castle. At this splendid establishment, and in a fine country, Crabbe did not enjoy himself. His son says; "The numberless allusions to the nature of a literary dependant's existence in a great lord's house, which occur in my father's writings, and especially in the tale of The Patron, are quite enough to lead any one that knew his character and feelings to the conclusion that, notwithstanding the kindness and condescension of the duke and duchess themselves — which were, I believe, uniform, and of which he always spoke with gratitude, — the situation he filled at Belvoir was attended with many painful circumstances, and productive in his mind of some of the acutest sensations of wounded pride that have ever been traced by any pen." He was always delighted to get away from the cold stateliness of Belvoir, with its troops of insolent menials, to the small seat of Chevely, about the period of the Newmarket races; or to Croxton, another small seat near Belvoir, where the family went sometimes to fish in the extensive ponds. Here the servants were few, ceremony was relaxed, and he could wander in the woods after his insects and his plants. Thurlow gave him two small livings in Dorsetshire, Frome St. Quintin, and Evershot; saying at the time, "By G—d, you are as much like Parson Adams as twelve to a dozen." He now published The Village, which was at once popular, and he got married.
Miss Sarah Elney, to whom he became engaged at eighteen, had, through all his struggles in the metropolis, with unswerving affection maintained the superiority of his talents, and encouraged him to persevere. The Duke of Rutland being appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, the ducal family quitted Belvoir for Dublin, and Crabbe being left behind, was, on his proposed marriage, invited to bring his wife to the castle, and occupy certain apartments there. This was done; but the annoyance of another man's, and a great man's menials to attend on you, was too much for Crabbe, and he fled the castle, and took up his abode as curate of Stathern, in the humble parsonage there.
In this obscure parsonage Crabbe lived four years. He had three children born there, his two sons, George and John, and a daughter who died in infancy. There he published, too, his poem, The Newspaper, which also was well received; and then he laid by his poetic pursuits for two and twenty years! Nay, his son says, that after this period of two and twenty years, he published The Parish Register, and again lay by from his thirty-first year till his fifty-second; and so completely did he bury himself in the obscurity of domestic and village life, that he was gradually forgotten as a living author, and the name of Crabbe only remembered through some passages of his poems in the Elegant Extracts.
Of the four years spent at Stathern he used to speak as the very happiest of his life. He had won a pleasant retreat after his desperate clutch at fortune. His perseverance was rewarded by the society of her who had been the one faithful and congenial friend of his youth, and they could now ramble together at their ease amid the rich woods of Belvoir, without any of the painful feelings which had before chequered his enjoyment of the place. At home, a garden afforded him healthful exercise and unfailing amusement; and, as a mere curate, he was freed from any disputes with the villagers about him. Here he botanized, entomologized, and geologized to his heart's content. At one time he was tempted to turn sportsman, but neither his feelings nor his taste would allow him to continue one; and he employed his leisure hours much more to his satisfaction in exercising his medical skill to relieve the pains of his parishioners.
At the instance of the Duchess of Rutland, Thurlow having exchanged the poet's Dorsetshire livings for those of Muston, in Leicestershire, and Allington, in Lincolnshire, but near each other, Mr. Crabbe, in 1789, left Stathern, and entered on his rectory at Muston. Here his life continued much the same, but the country around was open and uninteresting. "Here," says his son, "were no groves, nor dry green lawns, nor gravel roads to tempt the pedestrian in all weathers; but still, the parsonage and its premises formed a pretty little oasis in the clayey desert. Our front windows looked full on the churchyard, by no means like the common forbidding receptacles of the dead, but truly ornamental ground; for some fine elms partially concealed the small beautiful church and its spire, while the eye travelled through their stems, and rested on the banks of a stream, and a picturesque old bridge. The garden enclosed the other two sides of the churchyard; but the crown of the whole was a gothic archway, cut through a thick hedge and many boughs, for through this opening, as in the deep frame of a picture, appeared, in the centre of the aerial canvas, the unrivalled Belvoir."
The home picture of Crabbe at this period, is given by his son with a glow of grateful remembrance of the happiness of the time to himself, then a child, that is beautiful. "Always visibly happy in the happiness of others, especially of children, our father entered into all our pleasures, and soothed and cheered us in all our little griefs, with such overflowing tenderness, that it was no wonder we almost worshipped him. My first recollection of him is of his carrying me up to his private room to prayers, in the summer evenings, about sunset, and rewarding my silence and attention afterwards with a view of the flower garden through his prism. Then I recall the delight it was to me to be permitted to sleep with him during a confinement of my mother's — how I longed for the morning, because then he would be sure to tell me some fairy tale of his own invention, all sparkling with gold and diamonds, magic fountains and enchanted princesses. In the eye of memory I can still see him as he was at thus period of his life; his fatherly countenance, unmixed with any of the less loveable expressions that, in too many faces, obscure that character — but preeminently fatherly; conveying the ideas of kindness, intellect, and purity; his manners grave, manly, and cheerful, in unison with his high and open forehead; his very attitudes, whether he sat absorbed in the arrangement of his minerals, shells, and insects, or as he laboured in his garden until his naturally pale complexion acquired a tinge of fresh healthy red, or as coming lightly towards us with some unexpected present, his smile of indescribable benevolence spoke exultation in the foretaste of our raptures.
"But I think even earlier than these are my first recollections of my mother. I think the very earliest is of her combing my hair one evening, by the light of the fire, which hardly broke the long shadows of the room, and singing the plaintive air of 'Kitty Fell,' till, though I could not be more than two or three years old, my tears dropped profusely."
Equally charming is the writer's recollection of a journey into Suffolk with his father while a boy. This was to Parham, the house of Mrs. Crabbe's uncle Tovell, with whom she had been brought up. The picture presented of the life and establishment of a wealthy yeoman is so vivid, that I must take leave to add it to the passage already quoted.
"My great-uncle's establishment was that of the first-rate yeoman of that period — the yeoman that already began to be styled by courtesy an esquire. Mr. Tovell might possess an estate of some eight hundred pounds per annum, a portion of which he himself cultivated. Educated at a mercantile school, he often said of himself, 'Jack will never make a gentleman;' yet he had a native dignity of mind and manners which might have enabled him to pass muster in that character with any but very fastidious critics. His house was large, and the surrounding moat, the rookery, the ancient dovecote, and the well-stored fishponds, were such as might have suited a gentleman's seat of some consequence; but one side of the house immediately overlooked a farm-yard, full of all sorts of domestic animals, and the scene of constant bustle and noise. On entering the house there was nothing, at first sight, to remind one of the farm: a spacious hail paved with black and white marble, at one extremity a very handsome drawing-room, and at the other a fine old staircase of black oak, polished till it was as slippery as ice, and having a chime clock and a barrel organ on its landing-places. But this drawing-room, a corresponding dining parlour, and a handsome sleeping apartment up stairs, were all tabooed ground, and made use of on great and solemn occasions only, such as rent days, and an occasional visit with which Mr. Tovell was honoured by a neighbouring peer. At all other times the family and their visitors lived entirely in the old-fashioned kitchen, along with the servants. My great-uncle occupied an arm-chair, or, in attacks of gout, a couch on one side of a large open chimney. Mrs. Tovell sat at a small table, on which, in the evening, stood one small candle, in an iron candlestick, plying her needle by the feeble glimmer, surrounded by her maids, all busy at the same employment; but in winter a noble block of wood, sometimes the whole circumference of a pollard, threw its comfortable warmth and cheerful blaze over the apartment.
"At a very early hour in the morning, the alarum called the maids and their mistress also; and if the former were tardy, a louder alarum, and more formidable, was heard chiding the delay — not that scolding was peculiar to any occasion, it regularly went on through all the day, like bells on harness, inspiriting the work whether it was done ill or well. After the important business of the dairy and a hasty breakfast, their respective employments were again resumed; that which the mistress took for her especial privilege being the scrubbing the floors of the state apartments. A new servant, ignorant of her presumption, was found one morning on her knees, hard at work on the floor of one of these preserves, and was thus addressed by her mistress: — 'You wash such floors as these? Give me the brush this instant, and troop to the scullery, and wash that, madam! ... As true as G—d's in heaven, here comes Lord Rochford to call on Mr. Tovell. Here, take my mantle,' — a blue woollen apron — 'and I'll go to the door.'
"If the sacred apartments had not been opened, the family dined in this wise: the heads seated in the kitchen at an old table; the farm-men standing in the adjoining scullery, with the door open; the female servants at a side table, called a bouter; with the principal at the table, perchance some travelling rat-catcher, or tinker, or farrier, or an occasional gardener in his shirt-sleeves, his face probably streaming with perspiration. My father well describes, in The Widow's Tale, my mother's situation, when living in her younger days at Parham:—
But when the men beside their station took,
The maidens with them, and with these the cook;
When one huge wooden bowl before them stood,
Filled with large balls of farinaceous food;
With bacon, mass saline where never lean
Beneath the brown and bristly rind was seen;
When, from a single horn, the parties drew
Their copious draughts of heavy ale and new;
When the coarse cloth she saw with many a stain,
Soiled by rude hands who cut and came again;
She could not breathe, but with a heavy sigh,
Reined the fair neck, and shut the offended eye;
She minced the sanguine flesh in frustrums fine,
And wondered much to see the creatures dine.
"On ordinary days, when the kitchen dinner was over, the fire replenished, the kitchen sanded and lightly swept over in waves, mistress and maids, taking off their shoes, retired to their chambers for a nap of one hour to a minute. The dogs and cats commenced their siesta by the fire. Mr. Tovell dozed in his chair, and no noise was heard, except the melancholy and monotonous cooing of a turtle-dove, varied with the shrill treble of a canary. After the hour had expired, the active part of the family were on the alert; the bottles — Mr. Tovell's tea equipage — placed on the table; and, as if by instinct, some old acquaintance would glide in for the evening's carousal, and then another and another. If four or five arrived, the punch-bowl was taken down, and emptied and filled again. But whoever came, it was comparatively a dull evening, unless two especial knights-companions were of the party. One was a jolly old farmer, with much of the person and humour of Falstaff, a face as rosy as brandy could make it, and an eye teeming with subdued merriment, for he had that prime quality of a joker, superficial gravity. The other was a relative of the family, a wealthy yeoman, middle-aged, thin, and muscular. He was a bachelor, and famed for his indiscriminate attachment to all who bore the name of woman — young or aged, clean or dirty, a lady or a gipsy, it mattered not to him; all were equally admired. Such was the strength of his constitution, that, though he seldom went to bed sober, he retained a clear eye and stentorian voice to his eightieth year, and coursed when he was ninety. He sometimes rendered the colloquies over the bowl peculiarly piquant; and as soon as his voice began to be elevated, one or two of the inmates — my father and mother, for example — withdrew with Mrs. Tovell into her own sanctum sanctorum but I, not being supposed capable of understanding much that might be said, was allowed to linger on the skirts of the festive circle; and the servants, being considered much in the same point of view as the animals dozing on the hearth, remained to have the full benefit of their wit, neither producing the slightest restraint, nor feeling it themselves."
This jolly old Mr. Tovell being carried off suddenly, Mr. Crabbe, induced by the desire to be in his own county, and amongst his own relatives, placed a curate at Muston, and went to reside at Parham in Mr. Tovell's house. It was not a happy removal. It was a desertion of his proper flock and duty in obedience to his own private inclinations, and it was not blest; his son says, that as they were slowly quitting Muston, preceded by their furniture, a person who knew them, called out in an impressive tone — "You are wrong, you are wrong!" The sound, Crabbe said, found an echo in his own conscience, and rang like a supernatural voice in his ears, through the whole journey. His son believes that he sincerely repented of this step. At Parham he did not find that happiness that perhaps the dreams of his youth — for there lived Miss Elmy during their long attachment — had led him first to expect there. Mrs. Elmy, his wife's mother, and Miss Tovell, the sister of the old gentleman, were the coheiresses of their brother, and resided with him. The latter seems to have been a regular old-fashioned fidget. She used to stalk about with her tall ivory-tipped walking cane, and on any the slightest alteration made, were it but the removal of a shrub, or a picture on the walls, would say — 'It was enough to make Jacky (her late brother) shake in his grave if he could see it," and would threaten to make a "cadicy" to her will.
Mr. Crabbe stood it for four years — memorable instance of patience! — and then found a residence to his heart's content. This was Great Glemham hall, belonging to Mr. North, and then vacant. He took it, and continued there five years. We may imagine these five of as happy years as most of Crabbe's life. The house was large and handsome. It stood in a small but well-wooded park, occupying the mouth of a glen; and in this glen lay the mansion. The hills that were on either hand were finely hung with wood; a brook ran at the foot of one of these, and all round were woodlands, "and those green dry lanes which tempt the walker in all weathers, especially in the evenings, when in the short grass of the dry sandy banks, lies, every few yards, a glow-worm, and the nightingales are pouring forth their melody in every direction." Just at hand was the village; and the church at which he preached at Sweffling was convenient. At Parham, he was not more popular out doors than he was in, because he was no jovial fellow like Mr. Tovell, and did not like much visiting. Here, he was popular as a preacher, drew large congregations, and in Mr. Turner, his rector, had an enlightened and admiring friend. In such a place, too, a paradise to his boys, he was as busy in botany as ever; wrote a treatise on the subject, which, however, he was advised, to the public loss, not to publish, because such books had usually been published in Latin! He therefore burnt it, as he used to do novels, which it was his great delight to write scores of, and then make bonfires of; his boys carrying them out to him by armfuls in the garden, and glorying in the blaze as he presided over it.
He returned in 1805 to Muston, to which he was called by the bishop. At the end of five years he had been obliged to quit his beautiful retreat at Glemham. It was sold; the house pulled down, and another built in its place. For the four further years that he continued in Suffolk he lived at the village of Rendham. At Muston, the shepherd being absent, all had gone wrong; the Warning voice had been fulfilled. The Methodist and the Huntingtonian had, in the absence of the pastor, set up their tabernacles, and had become successful rivals. Crabbe was not destitute of professional feelings or zeal. He preached against these interlopers, and only increased the evil. The farmers here were shy of him, for they had heard that he was a Jacobin, of all things! that is, he was no advocate for the terrible war which was raging with France, and which kept up the price of their corn. In this cold, clayey, and farming county, he continued nine years. Here he issued to the world his Parish Register and his Borough, perhaps, after all, his very best work, for it is full of such a variety of life, all drawn with the force and clearness of his prime; here also he published his Tales in verse; but here, too, he lost his wife, who had been an invalid for many years. It was therefore become to him a sad place. His health and spirits failed him; and it was a fortunate circumstance, that at this juncture, the living of Trowbridge was conferred on him by the Duke of Rutland. He removed thither in June 1814.
From long before the time of Mr. Crabbe's removal to Trowbridge, he had been in the habit of making, during the season, occasionally a visit to London. His fame, especially after the publication of The Borough, was established. His power of painting human life and character, the bold and faithful pencil with which he did this, the true sympathies with the poor and afflicted and neglected which animated him, were all fully perceived and acknowledged; and he found himself a welcome guest in the highest circles of both aristocracy and literature. He who had been the humble curate at Belvoir, subject to slights and insults from pompous domestics, which are difficult to complain of but are deeply felt, had, long before quitting the neighbourhood of the castle, been the honoured guest in the midst of the proudest nobles. In London, all the literary coteries were eager to have him. Holland-house, Lansdowne-house, the Duke of Rutland's, and other great houses, found him a frequent guest amid lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses; and at Holland-house, and Mr. Rogers's, he was surrounded by all that was at the time brilliant and famous in the political and literary world. These visits, after the death of his wife, became annual, and the old man wonderfully enjoyed them. The extracts which his son has given from his journal, teem with men and women of title and name. He is dining or breakfasting with Lady Errol, Lady Holland, the Duchess of Rutland. He meets Mr. Fox, Mr. Canning, Foscolo; Lords Haddington, Dundas, Strangford, etc. Moore, Campbell, Sir Walter Scott, Sir James Mackintosh; Ladies Spencer and Besborough; Duke and Duchess of Cumberland; in fact, everybody. He became much attached to the Hoares, of Hampstead, and used to take up his quarters there, and with them make summer excursions to Hastings, the isle of Wight, and the like places. With them he saw Miss Edgeworth, Joanna Baillie, etc. So popular was he become, that John Murray gave him £3,000 for his Tales of the Hall, and he carried the bills for that sum home in his waistcoat pocket. His meeting with Sir Walter Scott caused him to accept a pressing invitation from him to Scotland, whither he happened to go at the time of George IV.'s visit to Edinburgh; by which means, though he saw all the gala of the time, and all Highland costumes, he missed seeing Scott at Abbotsford. At Scott's house, in Castle-street, occurred his adventure with the three highland chiefs, which has caused much merriment. He came down one morning and found these three portly chiefs in full Highland costume, talking at a great rate, in a language which he did not understand; and not thinking of Gaelic, concluded that they were foreigners. They, on their part, seeing an elderly gentleman, dressed in a somewhat antiquated style, with buckles in his shoes, and perfectly clerical, imagined him some leaned Abbe, who had come on a visit to Sir Walter. The consequence was, that Sir Walter entering the breakfast-room with his family, stood a moment in amazement to hear them all conversing together in execrable French; and then burst into a hearty laugh, saying, — "Why, you are all fools together! This is an Englishman, and these Highlanders, Mr. Crabbe, can speak as good English as you can." The amazement it occasioned may be imagined.
Trowbridge is not the sort of place that you would imagine a poet as voluntarily choosing as a place of residence. It is a manufacturing town of about 12,000 inhabitants, chiefly of the working class, with a sprinkling of shopkeepers, and wealthy manufacturers. It has no striking features, but to a person proceeding thither from London, has a mean, huddled, and unattractive aspect. The country round is a good dairy country, but is not by any means striking. Crabbe, however, found there families of intelligence and great kindness. His sons married well amongst them, and John acted as his curate; George, the writer of his biography, had the living, and occupied the parsonage of Pucklechurch, about twenty miles only distant. These were all circumstances, with a good parsonage, and a wide field of usefulness in comforting and relieving his poor parishioners, as well as in instructing them, which were calculated to make a man like Crabbe happy. By all classes he soon became much beloved; and was, in all senses, a most excellent pastor. In his own children he seems to have been peculiarly blest; his two sons, clergymen, being all that he could desire, and they and his grandchildren held him in the warmest and most reverential affection.
One of his great haunts were the quarries near Trowbridge, where he used to geologize assiduously; for after his wife's death, he ceased to retain his taste for botany; her youthful botanical rambles with him no doubt now coming back too painfully upon him.
His parsonage was a good, capacious old house, of grey stone, and pointed gables, standing in a large garden surrounded by a high wall. It lies almost in the heart of the town, and within a hundred yards of the churchyard. In his time, I understand, the garden was almost a wood of lofty trees. Many of these have since been cut down. Still it is a pleasant and spacious retirement, with some fine trees about it. The church is a very old building, and threatening to tumble. At the time of my visit workmen were busy lowering the tower, and the northern aisle showed no equivocal marks of giving way, and must come down. The churchyard was also undergoing the process of levelling; the turf was removed, and it altogether looked dismal. A very civil and intelligent sexton, living by the churchyard gate, in a cottage overhung with ivy, showed me the church, and appeared much interested in the departed pastor and poet. I ascended into the pulpit, and imagined how often the author of The Borough had stood there and addressed his congregation. There is a monument to his memory in the chancel, by Baillie. The old man is represented as lying on his death-bed, by which are two celestial beings, as awaiting his departure. The likeness to Crabbe is said to be excellent. The inscription is as follows: — "Sacred to the memory of the Rev. George Crabbe, LL.B., who died February the third, 1832, in the seventy-eighth year of his age, and the nineteenth of his services as rector of this parish. Born in humble life, he made himself what he was. By the force of his genius, he broke through the obscurity of his birth; yet never ceased to feel for the less fortunate. Entering, as his works can testify, into the sorrows and privations of the poorest of his parishioners; and so discharging the duties of his station, as a minister and a magistrate, as to acquire the respect and esteem of all his neighbours. As a writer he is well described by a great cotemporary, as 'Nature's sternest painter, yet her best.'"
In the north aisle is also a tablet to the memory of the wife of his son George, who it appears died two years after Crabbe himself, and in the very year, 1834, in which her husband published his excellent and most interesting life of his father.
Trowbridge impressed me, as numbers of other places have done where men of genius have lived, with the fleeting nature of human connexions. Crabbe, so long associated with Trowbridge, was gone, his sons were gone, neither of them succeeding him in the living, and all trace of him, except his monument, seemed already wiped out from the place. Another pastor occupied his dwelling and his pulpit, and the population seemed to bear no marks of a great poet having been among them, but were rich subjects for such a pen as that of Crabbe. The character of the place may be judged of by its head inn. It was a fair, and I found the court-yard of this old-fashioned inn set out with rows of benches, all filled with common people drinking. On one side of the yard was a large room, in which the fiddle went merrily, and a crowd of dancers hopped as merrily to it. At a window near that room, on the same side, a woman was delivering out pots of ale, as fast as somebody within could supply them, to the people in the yard. On the other side of the court lay, however, the main part of the inn. Here a gallery ran along which conducted to the different bedrooms, through the open air, and from this sundry spectators were surveying the scene below. All was noise, loud and eager talking, and odours not the most delectable, of beer, fish, and heaven knows what. The house was dirty, dark, and full of the same fumes. People of all sorts were passing up and down stairs, and in and out of the house in crowds. The travellers' room was the only place, I was informed, where there was much room or comfort. Thither I betook myself, and while my dinner was preparing, I heard the fine strong, clear voice of a woman in an adjoining room, which I instantly recognised by the style of singing to be German. I walked into the said room to see who was the singer, and what was her audience. It was a strong-built, healthy-looking German girl, who was accompanying her singing on a guitar, in a little room close packed with the ordinary run of people. To these she was singing some of the finest airs of Germany, with no mean skill or voice, but in a language of which they did not understand a syllable. My appearance amongst them occasioned some temporary bustle, but this soon passed, and they politely offered me a chair. I stayed to hear several songs, and proposed some of the most rare and excellent that I knew, amongst them some Austrian airs, which, in every instance, the poor girl knew and sung with great effect. As I went out, two French women were entering with a tambourine, and I soon heard them, accompanied by a fiddle, also performing their parts. Thus through the whole day, the strolling musicians of the fair entered this little concert-room of the head inn of Trowbridge, and entertained the fair-going bacchanals. It was a scene which Crabbe would have made much of.