1873 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

Joseph Devey, "Realistic School. Crabbe" A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873) 368-75.



It is rarely, when clergymen venture into the regions of the Muses, that they cut a very conspicuous figure there. I only know of two, who, as poets, have left behind them a brilliant reputation, and their triumphs were achieved in defiance of the cloth which they wore. While Herrick and Churchill wrote their best pieces, they lived in direct hostility with their professional duties. It would seem that the daughters of memory cherish some secret antipathy to theological pursuits, or at least they have no feelings of sympathy with those who,

To wander round the Muse's sacred hill,
Let the salvation of mankind stand still.
[Churchill's Satire on Bishop Warburton.]

We all know that Young did not get on very well with them, even when he moralized his song; and Bowles, in the list of those who have acquired fame during the present century, is, perhaps, the least entitled to it. Home, who was turned out of the Presbytery for writing dramas, occupies a still lower position. Crabbe, though a poet of far more respectable pretensions, still labours under the disadvantages of his profession. Had he or Young been trained divines, it is probable what little poetical capacity either possessed would have been squeezed out of them. But both entered the Church in mature age. They brought into the ministry a full knowledge of the world, a practical acquaintance with the miseries of life and vicissitudes of fortune. This experience was the grand storehouse of Young's and Crabbe's muse. But they brought to the manipulation of the raw material the contracted views of their new profession. Human life was painted in all its shivering nakedness. The world outside the Church was the vestibule of hell. The responsibilities of the wealthy made life burdensome, the labours of the poor made life miserable. That spirit of Greek joyousness which casts such broad sunshine over Helicon, hardly illumines a single line they have written. The sense of beauty suffers in them a complete eclipse. There is no outlet from the calamities of existence except spare living, a grave demeanour, reading one's Bible, and keeping a clear look-out against the evils which are always impending over us. The world is a sort of penitentiary, and they conduct us into its wards, with black staves, in crape bands, with the starch solemnity of decorum, as if they were ushering us into a house of mourning, and nature had no feeling but sorrow.

But Crabbe, in addition to the gloom imparted by his professional bias, allowed his early miseries to impart a peculiar hypochondriac tone to his poetry. The feelings he excites are mentally depressing. He is a mere anatomist of moral diseases. We go through his poems as we would through a lazar-house or hospital. The characters are drawn to the life. But each is the subject of a moral diagnosis. His early practice as a village doctor would seem to have inured his mind to the Asculapian habit of probing moral diseases to their root. We admit the truth of the picture, but feel that the poet has drawn his subjects from the darkest side of human life. Crabbe has been called the Hogarth of poets. But this is hardly correct, for he shuns licentious revels. He does not picture vice in the acme of enjoyment, but in the agonies of its fall. He surrounds himself with nothing but miseries, and never seems so happy as when he is recounting the griefs of his neighbours. The poet has no philosophical opinions or aesthetic views of any kind. The area of his mind might be covered by the village catechism. It is owing to this lack of comprehensiveness, no less than to the sombre nature of his muse, that Crabbe has long since fallen from the high place he once held among his contemporaries.

It is, I suppose, in consequence of this contracted range of his thoughts, that Crabbe does not flourish in abstract themes, but only in painting objective individualities. When he generalizes, he becomes trite and heavy. But to his portraits he imparts the finished touches and the marvellous shades of Rembrandt. His "Library" and "Newspaper" are two of his most general, and two of his worst, poems. His "Parish Register" is the most individual, and therefore the best of his productions. He even seems incompetent to deal with specific facts, unless such as are actually floating before his eyes. For nearly all his pictures are the result of visual observation. Perhaps, there is no instance of any other poet, who has risen to greatness, with so contracted a sphere for his muse. Nearly all his poems are so many different photographs of the same subject. His "Parish Register" is only a prolongation of his "Village." His "Borough" is a still further expansion of the same subject. They both consist of masterly analyses of character and delineations of social life, in its most prosaic and repulsive aspects. In the "Tales of the Hall," Crabbe is much more discursive; but they are all only so many episodes of provincial life. And even here, his lympathic constitution predominates. There is a sickly air of melancholy, and sombre tinge of cloistered morality over all his narratives. He seems, even upon amatory subjects, to have felt that his whole strength lay in subduing the soul by pity. The purifying tendencies of this feeling, so present to the Greek mind, doubtless led him to think that, in giving his poems this turn, he was employing the Muses as the moral regenerators of mankind.

In vivid sketches of individual suffering, drawn from the humbler ranks of life, and in exciting sympathy for such suffering among a class too brazened by affluence and custom to be impressed by the sight of it, Crabbe appears to have found his peculiar mission. Out of such materials he contrives to extract more genuine feeling than any other poet. Wordsworth, who closely followed him in this line, certainly did not improve upon his master. The descriptions of Crabbe are more terse, the portraits more life-like, his language more vigorous, his details more striking, and the thorn of sorrow rankles deeper in the heart, when barbed by a man who had himself experienced the miseries which he conveys. In the following description of the heroine of a milliner's shop, as in most of his other portraits, the poet seems not to have been drawing from his imagination so much as sketching from real life:—

And who that poor, consumptive, wither'd thing,
Who strains her slender throat and strives to sing?
Panting for breath, and forced her voice to drop,
And far unlike the inmate of the shop,
Where she, in youth and health, alert and gay,
Laugh'd off at night the labours of the day;
With novels, verses, fancy's fertile powers
And sister-converse pass'd the evening hours;
But Cynthia's soul was soft, her wishes strong,
Her judgment weak, and her conclusions wrong:
The morning call and counter were her dread,
And her contempt the needle and the thread:
But when she read some gentle Juliet's part,
Her woe, her wish, she had it all by heart.

At length the hero of the boards drew nigh,
Who spake of love till sigh re-echoed sigh;
He told in honey'd words his deathless flame,
And she his own by tender words became;
Nor ring nor license needed souls so fond,
Alfonso's passion was his Cynthia's bond:
And thus the simple girl, to shame betrayed,
Sinks to the grave forsaken and dismayed.
["The Borough Players," Letter xii.]

Here the poet produces his results by simply adhering to nature. There is no exaggeration of any kind, no apparent struggle to produce effect. The "Story of Phoebe Dawson" is still more effective than that of the "Musical Heroine," and the description of the "Miller's Daughter" is more vigorous than either. "Ruth" and "Ellen Orford" belong to the same gallery of portraits; yet there is a particularity about them which makes them as individual as the rest. The "History of Thomas, the Consumptive Sailor Boy," who comes back from Greenland to die in the arms of Sally, is, as far as the materials of the tale go, trite enough. But in the hands of Crabbe it is invested with more plaintive tenderness than any other similar story in our language. Throughout all this class of subjects, Crabbe shows himself an easy master of those graphic traits and salient touches which make the individual character walk out, as it were, from the framework of the narrative; and in using such materials for evoking sympathy he rules supreme. But these qualities alone would not place a man very high in the roll of British poets, and had it not been for adventitious circumstances, this poet would never have occupied that position in the eyes of his competitors.

Crabbe was singularly fortunate during his life, in reuniting in his favour the suffrages of the two dispensers of poetical reputation, — Gifford and Jeffrey, who vied with each other in chanting his praises and descanting on his merits. There has been no such union of rival political factions, in setting a poet upon a pedestal, since the days of Addison. Crabbe owed this success not less to the anti-democratic tendencies of his muse than to the solid advantages which the patronage of Burke conferred upon him. It certainly is another proof of the prescient sagacity of Burke's penetrating mind, that when no editor would receive Crabbe's wares, when all the booksellers to a man repudiated his pretensions, when every door was shut against him, Burke recognized his merit, and received the poet into his family, until some provision could enable him to woo the muses without experiencing the fate of an Otway or a Savage. Such was the expansiveness of that great man's heart, that to know Burke was to know the large circle of his acquaintance. By him he was introduced to Johnson, and found himself at the easel of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Thenceforth he shot up like a rocket into the heaven of renown. Booksellers competed for the honour of publishing what a few years before they had scornfully rejected. Fox soothed the hours of sickness by turning over the leaves of the "Parish Register," where he read of miseries deeper than his own. Even the tough heart of Thurlow was taught, by the same work, to melt at the sight of others' woe. He gave the poet a benefice. Sir Walter Scott re-echoed the general acclamation. Even the youthful Byron caught the infection so deeply as to place him in the first rank of existing poets:

This fact in Virtue's name let Crabbe attest;
Though Nature's sternest painter, yet the best.

But this general eulogy was too exalted to be sustained. In the next generation Crabbe rapidly declined in favour, and now he is as virtually laid on the shelf as Rogers or Southey himself. But a calm and dispassionate criticism will equally learn to reduce factitious renown to its true value, while it rescues the poet's memory from the injustice of neglect.

No poet in our literature carved out for himself a more special province than Crabbe, and adhered to it with more fidelity. This, perhaps, is one of the best proofs of his original genius. While adhering to the old poetical establishment with respect to his style, with respect to his matter, he resolved to follow nature, to discard the hackneyed poetical commonplaces, — to sing of nothing but the natural results of his own experience. Life must be painted as it actually is, and not as it is depicted by a too heated imagination. As his predecessors revelled with buskined nymphs and swains in Idaean valleys or in Olympian groves, he reproduced the outcasts of cellars, the inmates of almshouses, and the victims of depravity, wrestling with misery in the squalid haunts of impoverished towns. No subject was too low for his muse. Every rank and grade of life was ransacked to afford him instances of the miseries and the vices of the class from which he sprung. But these are treated in the elaborate style which the Queen Anne poets applied to a far different kind of subjects. Hence, he has been called Pope in worsted stockings. But this is hardly fair to either poet, for both have distinct peculiarities, which keep them as wide apart as any two poets in our literature. If Crabbe has none of the passion, or sublimity, or recondite thought, or ingenious fancy, he has few of the artificial airs of his master. He rarely substitutes words for thoughts. If his language is polished, it is always terse, manly, unostentatious, — always revealing the matter, never itself. He never attempts to hide prosaic conceptions behind brilliant antitheses. But we rarely get more than the simple picture of the object which Crabbe presents to us, or if the poet helps us to anything out of his own mind, it simply consists of wise saws of prudence, moral hints, and religious admonitions. In this respect he is the most objective poet in any literature.

I must, therefore, set down Crabbe as wanting in all the qualities of first-class poetry. Ideality, passion, constructiveness, invention upon any imposing scale, brilliant fancy, — he has none of these, — hence, he rarely attempts any other form of verse except the simple idyll, or any other metre than the pentameter. In extracting pathos out of scenes mainly drawn from humble life, he is unrivaled. Here his strength lay. He is also hardly less successful in graphic delineation of the provincial life with which he was familiar. Crabbe from a boy was a keen observer of everything which passed under his notice. He has drawn his own portrait in this respect in the adventures of Richard, the poor lad who daily brought to his widowed mother's home the results of his rambles through the neighbouring fishing village, and also contrived, from the quay and the street, from the mechanic's shop and the smuggler's cave, from the fisher's hut and the tavern fireside, from the screaming gulls and the clashing waves, to extract themes for his muse and principles for his guidance, in after life. In reproducing these varied experiences, and in surrounding them with details which imparted to them life and freshness, no poet could have been more successful than Crabbe; but here his triumph ends. In describing the lower phases of the actual, he distances all his competitors. But when he comes to warmth of colouring, to passionate imagination, to sublime philosophic invention; in fine, to any of those qualities which invest the actual with the ideal, here Crabbe touches ground. It is not that he fails in any of these great qualities, so much as he never attempts to exhibit them. Hence Crabbe's stories can never occupy the top rank of idyllic literature, nor entitle their author to more than a respectable place in the middle group of our third-class poets.