1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

Walter Scott, in "Living Poets" Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808 (1810) 2:435-37.



The works of CRABBE, are ... in some measure allied to satire, though not falling strictly under that name. This distinguished and powerful writer has traced for himself a path, which is, to the best of our knowledge, new in poetry. He has assumed for his subject, the middling and lower ranks of life; their ordinary pursuits, pleasures, cares, vices and sorrows. These he has depicted alternately with deep pathos, strong humour, and masculine morality. He has laid aside the Mincian and Arcadian reed, and, assuming for his guide Truth, not merely unadorned, but under her harshest aspect, he has even avoided drawing such pleasing pictures of low life, as he might easily have found originals for without violation of nature. Perhaps we judge incorrectly of the peasantry of England, from those with whose state and manners we have an opportunity to be intimately acquainted. But whatever vice and misery may be found in large manufacturing towns, or in smuggling villages, where the habitual and professional breach of one class of laws brings all others into contempt, and where the very staple of their traffic is the source of idleness, poverty, and vice, we are confident that Mr. Crabbe has used too dark colouring, if his poem is to be considered as a general portrait of the people of Britain. It forms, at least, a very singular contrast to the amiable, simple, and interesting scenes of lower life, which have been presented to us by the regretted Burns. But although strongly opposite in stile, manner, and subject, as the groupes of Gainsborough to those of Hograrth, we acknowledge in each the masterly hand which designs from nature. Indeed the resemblance between Hogarth and Crabbe has very often appeared to us extremely striking. Both have laid their scenes in the regions of low and vulgar life; both have presented their subjects with the squalid and disgusting accompaniments which too often attend them in sad reality. But the want of taste which does not withdraw from our view even the most unpleasing of these circumstances, is amply compensated both in the poet and painter, by the reality given to the picture; by the fund of humour employed in bringing out the comic scenes; by the power and vigour which are displayed in its more serious arts; above all, by the pleasing display of genius armed in behalf of virtue and of moral feeling. Even the defects of the painter and the poet resemble each other: There is in both a want of grace, though no deficiency in pathetic effect; and the serious and ludicrous are sometimes so closely united, as to mar the effect of each. But Hogarth was deficient in sublimity as well as in beauty, and so is not the poet so whom we have compared him. On the contrary, the and sublime conceptions of the visions of Sir Eustace Grey, and the incidents in the tale entitled The Hall of Justice, trench upon the horrible; and, far from falling short in effect, are almost too powerful for perusal. The same sombre pencil which deepens the gloom and misery attached to poverty and ignorance, has, in these tales, worked upon subjects of more exalted passion, and we behold its productions with interest of that deep and painful kind arising from the narration of a crime of enormous degree, or the sight of the execution of an atrocious criminal, when grief and pity struggle with the feelings of horror and disgust. The former feelings are excited by the tragic power of the poet, the latter by the readiness with which he exhibits in the lowest deep a lower still, by the addition of the horror of incestuous passion, or some similar aggravating enormity, to the vices and misfortunes which his verse details.

In his style, Crabbe somewhat resembles Cowper; his versification being careless and harsh, and his language marked by a quaint and antithetical turn of expression, sometimes humorous, and sometimes substituted in the room of humour. Both poets were perhaps indebted to Oldham's satires for these peculiarities, at least, as Dryden said of him, they want

—the numbers of their native tongue:
But satire needs not these, and wit can shine
Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line;
A noble error, and but seldom made,
When poets are by too much force betray'd.

It may be farther observed, that the labour which Mr. Crabbe has bestowed upon his characters, and the laudable pains which he takes to invest them with all their peculiar attributes, is in some few instances heavy and tedious, where the subject either excites little interest, or an interest which is not likely to be generally felt. Such heaviness attaches especially to those passages which refer to the clerical profession, and circumstances connected with its exercise. On these Mr. Crabbe is very naturally more minute and particular than can be interesting to the great mass of his readers. But his roughness of style, and occasional prolixity, even his coarseness and want of taste, are trifles in the balance compared to his merits. Mr. Crabbe is an original poet, he is sui generis, — and in these few words we comprehend a greater praise than can be conferred upon almost any of his contemporaries.