1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:309-11.



The REV. GEORGE CRABBE, whom Byron has characterised as "Nature's sternest painter, yet the best," was of humble origin, and born at Aldborough, in Suffolk, on the Christmas eve of 1754. His father was collector of the salt duties, or salt-master, as he was termed, and though of poor circumstances and violent temper, he exerted himself to give George a superior education. It is pleasing to know that the old man lived to reap his reward, in witnessing the celebrity of his son, and to transcribe, with parental fondness, in his own handwriting, his poem of "The Library." Crabbe has described the unpromising scene of his nativity with his usual force and correctness:—

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 stretch their prickly arms afar,
And to the ragged infant threaten war;
There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil;
There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil;
Hardy and high, above the slender sheaf,
The slimy mallow waves her silky leaf;
O'er the young shoot the charlock throws a shade,
And clasping tares cling round the sickly blade;
With mingled tints the rocky coasts abound,
And a sad splendour vainly shines around.
So looks the nymph whom wretched arts adorn,
Betrayed by luau, then left for man to scorn;
Whose cheek in vain assumes the mimic rose,
While her sad eyes the troubled breast disclose;
Whose outward splendour is but folly's dress,
Exposing most, when most it gilds distress.

The poet was put apprentice in his fourteenth year to a surgeon, and afterwards practised in Aldborough; but his prospects were so gloomy, that he abandoned his profession, and proceeded to London as a literary adventurer. His whole stock of money amounted to only three pounds. Having completed some, poetical pieces, he offered them for publication, but they were rejected. In the course of the year, however, he issued a poetical epistle, "The Candidate," addressed to the authors of the Monthly Review. It was coldly received, and his publisher failing at the same time, the young poet was plunged into great perplexity and want. He wrote to the premier, Lord North, to the lord-chancellor Thurlow, and to other noblemen, requesting assistance; but in no case was an answer returned. At length, when his affairs were desperate, he applied to Edmund Burke, and in a modest yet manly statement, disclosed to him the situation in which he stood. Burke received him into his own house, and exercised towards him the most generous hospitality. While under his happy roof, the poet met Mr. Fox, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and others of the statesman's distinguished friends. In the same year (1781) he published his poem, "The Library," which was favourably noticed by the critics. Lord Thurlow (who now, as in the case of Cowper, came with tardy notice and ungraceful generosity) invited him to breakfast, and at parting, presented him with a bank-note for a hundred pounds. Crabbe entered into sacred orders, and was licensed as curate to the rector of his native parish of Aldborough. In a short time, Burke procured for him the situation of chaplain to the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir castle. This was a great advancement for the poor poet, and he never afterwards was in fear of want. He seems, however, to have felt all the ills of dependence on the great, and in his poem of "The Patron," and other parts of his writings, has strongly depicted the evils of such a situation. In 1783 appeared his poem, "The Village," which had been seen and corrected by Johnson and Burke. Its success was instant and complete. Some of the descriptions in the poem (as that of the parish workhouse) were copied into all the periodicals, and took that place in our national literature which they still retain. Thurlow presented him with two small livings then in his gift, telling him at the same time, with an oath, that he was as like Parson Adams as twelve to a dozen. The poet now married a young lady of Suffolk, the object of an early attachment, and taking the curacy of Stathern, adjoining Belvoir castle, he bade adieu to the ducal mansion, and transferred himself to the humble parsonage in the village. Four happy years were spent in this retirement, when the poet obtained the exchange of his two small livings in Dorsetshire for two of superior value in the vale of Belvoir. Crabbe remained silent as a poet for many years. "Out of doors," says his son, "he had always some object in view — a flower, or a pebble, or his note-book in his hand; and in the house, if he was not writing, he was reading. He read aloud very often, even when walking, or seated by the side of his wife in the huge old-fashioned one-horse chaise, heavier than a modern chariot, in which they usually were conveyed in their lithe excursions, and the conduct of which he, from awkwardness and absence of mind, prudently relinquished to my mother on all occasions." In 1807 he published his "Parish Register," which had been previously submitted to Mr. Fox, and parts of this poem, (especially the story of Phoebe Dawson) were the last compositions of their kind that "engaged and amused the capacious, the candid, the benevolent mind of this great man." The success of this work was not only decided, but nearly unprecedented. In 1810 he came forward with "The Borough," a poem of the same class, and more connected and complete; and two years afterwards he produced his "Tales in Verse," containing perhaps the finest of all his humble but happy delineations of life and character. "The public voice," says his biographer, "was again highly favourable, and some of these relations were spoken of with the utmost warmth of commendation, as, the 'Parting Hour,' the 'Patron,' 'Edward Shore," and the "Confidant.'" In 1814 the Duke of Rutland appointed him to the living of Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, and he went thither to reside. His income amounted to about £800 per annum, a large portion of which he spent in charity. He still continued his attachment to literature, and in 1817 and 1818, was engaged on his last great work, the "Tales of the Hall." "He fancied that autumn was, on the whole, the most favourable season for him in the composition of poetry; but there was something in the effect of a sudden fall of snow that appeared to stimulate him in a very extraordinary manner." In 1819 the "Tales" were published by Mr. Murray, who, for them and the remaining copyright of all Crabbe's previous poems, gave the munificent sum of £3000. In an account of the negotiation for the sale of these copyrights, written by Mr. Moore for the life of his brother poet, we have the following amusing illustration of Crabbe's simplicity of manner: — "When he received the bills for £3000, we (Moore and Rogers) earnestly advised that he should, without delay, deposit them in some safe hands; but no — he must 'take them with him to Trowbridge, and show them to his son John. They would hardly believe in his good luck at home if they did not see the bills.' On his way down to Trowbridge, a friend at Salisbury, at whose house be rested (Mr. Everett, the banker), seeing that he carried these bills loosely in his waistcoat pocket, requested to be allowed to take charge of them for him; but with equal ill success. 'There was no fear,' he said, 'of his losing them, and he must show them to his son John.'" Another poetical friend, Mr. Campbell, who met him at this time in London, remarks of him — "His mildness in literary argument struck me with surprise in so stern a poet of nature, and I could not but contrast the unassumingness of his manners with the originality of his powers. In what may be called the ready-money small-talk of conversation, his facility might not perhaps seem equal to the known calibre of his talents; but in the progress of conversation, I recollect remarking that there was a vigilant shrewdness that almost eluded you, by keeping its watch so quietly." This fine remark is characteristic of Crabbe's genius, as well as of his manners. It gathered its materials slowly and silently with intent but unobtrusive observation. The "Tales of the Hall" were received with that pleasure and approbation due to an old and established favourite, but with less enthusiasm than same of his previous works. In 1822, the now venerable poet paid a visit to Sir Walter Scott in Edinburgh; and it is worthy of remark, that, as to the city itself, he soon got wearied of the New Town, but could amuse himself for ever in the Old. His latter years were spent in the discharge of his clerical duties, and in the enjoyment of social intercourse. His attachment to botany and geology seemed to increase with age; and at threescore and ten, he was busy, cheerful, and affectionate. His death took place at Trowbridge on the 3d of February 1832, and his parishioners erected a monument to his memory in the church of that place, where he had officiated for nineteen years. A complete collection of his works, with some new pieces and an admirable memoir, was published in 1834 by his son, the Rev. G. Crabbe.

The "Village," "Parish Register," and shorter tales of Crabbe are his most popular productions. The "Tales of the Hall" are less interesting. They relate principally to the higher classes of society, and the poet was not so happy in describing their peculiarities as when supporting his character of the poet of the poor. Some of the episodes, however, are in his best style — "Sir Owen Dale," "Ruth," "Ellen," and other stories, are all marked with the peculiar genius of Crabbe. The redeeming and distinguishing feature of that genius was its fidelity to nature, even when it was dull and unprepossessing. His power of observation and description might be limited, but his pictures have all the force of dramatic representation, and may be compared to those actual and existing models which the sculptor or painter works from, instead of vague and general conceptions. They are often too tree, and human nature being exhibited in its naked reality, with all its defects, and not through the bright and alluring medium of romance or imagination, our vanity is shocked and our pride mortified. His anatomy of character and passion harrows up our feelings, and leaves us in the end sad and ashamed of our common nature. The personal circumstances and experience of the poet affected the bent of his genius. He knew how untrue and absurd were the pictures of rural life which figured in poetry. His own youth was dark and painful — spent in low society, amidst want and misery, irascible gloom and passion. Latterly, he had more of the comforts and elegances of social life at his command than Cowper, his rival as a domestic painter. He not only could have "wheeled his sofa round," "let fall the curtains, and, with the bubbling and loud hissing urn" on the table "welcome peaceful evening in," but the amenities of refined and intellectual society were constantly present with him, or at his call. Yet he did not, like Cowper, attempt to describe them, or to paint their manifold charms. When he took up his pen, his mind turned to Aldborough and its wild amphibious race — to the parish workhouse, where the wheel hummed doleful through the day — to erring damsels and luckless swains, the prey of overseers or justices — or to the haunts of desperate poachers and smugglers, gipsies and gamblers, where vice and misery stalked undisguised in their darkest forms. He stirred up the dregs of human society, and exhibited their blackness and deformity, yet worked them into poetry. Like his own Sir Richard Monday, he never forgot the parish. It is true that village life in England in its worst form, with the old poor and game laws and nonresident clergy, was composed of various materials, some bright and some gloomy, and Crabbe drew them all. His Isaac Ashford is as honourable to the lowly English poor as the Jeanie Deans or Dandie Dinmont of Scott are to the Scottish character. His story of the real mourner, the faithful maid who watched over her dying sailor, is a beautiful tribute to the force and purity of humble affection. In the "Parting Hour" and the "Patron" are also passages equally honourable to the poor and middle classes, and full of pathetic and graceful composition. It must be confessed, however, that Crabbe was in general a gloomy painter of life — that he was fond of depicting the unlovely and unamiable — and that, either for poetic effect or from painful experience, he makes the bad of life predominate over the good. His pathos and tenderness are generally linked to something coarse, startling, or humiliating — to disappointed hopes or unavailing sorrow—

Still we tread the same coarse way,
The present's still a cloudy day.

The minuteness with which he dwells on such subjects sometimes makes his descriptions tedious, and apparently unfeeling. He drags forward every defect, every vice and failing, not for the purpose of educing something good out of evil, but, as it would seem, merely for the purpose of completing the picture. In his higher flights, where scenes of strong passion, vice or remorse, are depicted, Crabbe is a moral poet, purifying the heart, as the object of tragedy has been defined, by terror and pity, and by fearful delineations of the misery and desolation caused by unbridled passion. His story of Sir Eustace Grey is a domestic tragedy of this kind, related with almost terrific power, and with lyrical energy of versification. His general style of versification is the couplet of Pope (he has been wittily called "Pope in worsted stockings"), but less flowing and melodious, and often ending in points and quibbles. Thus, in describing his cottage furniture, he says—

No wheels are here for either wool or flax,
But parks of cards made up of sundry packs.

His thrifty housewife, Widow Goe, falls down in sickness — "Heaven in her eye, and in her hand her keys." This jingling style heightens the effect of his humorous and homely descriptions; but it is too much of a manner, and mars the finer passages. Crabbe has high merit as a painter of English scenery. He is here as original and forcible as in delineating character. His marine landscapes are peculiarly fresh and striking; and he invests even the sterile fens and barren sands with interest. His objects are seldom picturesque; but he noted every weed and plant — the purple bloom of the heath, the dwarfish flowers among the wild gorse, the slender grass of the sheep walk, and even the pebbles, sea-weed, and shells amid "The glittering waters on the shingles rolled." He was a great lover of the sea, and once, as his son relates, after being some time absent from it, mounted his horse and rode alone sixty miles from his house, that he might inhale its freshness and gaze upon its waters.