1825 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

Henry Mackenzie, Anecdotes and Egotisms, 1825 ca.; ed. Thompson (1927) 163-64.



A modern poet of great celebrity has described the dwellings of the poor with the greatest accuracy, such accuracy as makes us shrink from the picture, squalid as it is with all the sickening accompaniments of poverty and wretchedness. The Idylls of Crabbe are exactly the reverse of the Idylls of Gessner. The German is embroidered as the other is begrimed beyond what we see in the ordinary intercourse of life; most of the readers of poetry seldom visit those sordid abodes of wretchedness which Crabbe (at least in his earlier tales) describes with such minuteness, and indeed with so much power. It may be noticed as a sort of coincidence, that Crabbe's familiar poetry came forward into public favour in Britain when the German familiar poetry rose into high favour in Germany. Both took the incidents of ordinary and often vulgar life for the subjects of their verse; but the Germans threw the drapery of sentiment over these common persons of the drama, which suited the wearers so ill that the combination became ludicrous, and at last provoked the ridicule of many foreign and of most British readers. Crabbe shewed the very ragged clothing of his figures. He did not make them studies, but copied them as portraits. They were not therefore subject to that ludicrous contrast which was ridiculed in the German; but were still liable to the objection of being often something lower than poetry ought to deal in.... They are natural, it will be said, and so are a mouth, a nose, or a chin as they are often seen in the human countenance of monstrous disproportions; but they are caricaturas in painting as Crabbe's description is in poetry; both perhaps more easily drawn, and more strongly tho' disagreeably felt, than features of comeliness or beauty. Yet the extreme of such ugliness is not common in real life; and even if it were, the question would still remain, if it is proper for being introduced in poetry.

In moral as in descriptive painting Goldsmith's Village is nearly as much the opposite of Crabbe's as Gessner's is tho' Goldsmith describes his Auburn in its decay, its beauties spoiled, its last inhabitant drooping in hopeless poverty and gathering a wretched subsistence from the plashy spring but I should think it a wonderful perversion of taste if any one preferred Crabbe's picture to Goldsmith's.

Another poem with less of sunshine in its representation of rural life is Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard. The images of rustic labour and of rustic manners in this beautiful poem are (as it seems to me) more natural, as well as more pleasing, than those in the Tales of Crabbe. Crabbe's are true, but they are truths with which one rarely meets. Gray's are constantly under our eye, and nobody has ever passed a week in the country but must acknowledge their justice.

I hope that Crabbe's admirers will take these observations in good part as strewing respect for, not detraction from his genius, which I know perfectly how to value and only sometimes regret as we do the eccentricity of some men of high rank when their humour leads them into company which we think beneath them.