1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

A. P., "An Essay on Crabbe's Works" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 1:175-80.



The REV. GEORGE CRABBE LL.B. is deservedly one of the most distinguished poets of the present day. In a preface to a new edition of his poem called The Library, he says, that while he was composing it, he was honored by the advice of Mr. Burke, in whose presence part of it was written, and the whole submitted to his judgment. Through Mr. Burke, he was introduced to Dr. Johnson, who expressed his approbation of the poem in warm terms. The reputation which he acquired by this piece procured him the patronage of the late Duke of Rutland, on whom he attended as chaplain to Ireland, and whose funeral sermon he preached in the chapel at Belvoir. In 1789, by the recommendation of the Duchess Dowager, Lord Thurlow presented him to the rectories of Muston in Leicestershire, and West Allington in Lincolnshire. The year following he communicated The Natural History of the Vale of Belvoir to Mr. Nichols, who has incorporated it into his history of Leicestershire. From this time to 1807, Mr. Crabbe resigned himself wholly to parochial duties and the improvement of a numerous family; the courtship of the Muses only occupying a few casual hours. The volume of poems which he published in the last mentioned year, was honored with the critical examination of Mr. Fox and his nephew Lord Holland, in the manuscript state, and from their remarks, the whole received both strength and polish.

Although Mr. Crabbe be obviously of Cowper's school, he has also a peculiar style and peculiar system. Mr. Crabbe, decidedly one of the greatest poets of the day, would seem to have never written any thing but inculpation of poetry. He has taken literally the common allegation against the Muse, that she only lives by lies, and has made it a point of conscience to refute her. It is not, indeed, in the fantastic country of enchantments, that he has dared to declare war against her. He has established his battery on a certain prosaic region, where the illusions of her witchcraft are more easily dissipated and annulled; and where, according to his view, her enchantments appeared most fatal. It matters little to him whether or not she flatter the powerful and the rich: but he forbids her to diffuse her gilding and perfume over the dwellings of the poor, lest she may so interdict them from pity and instruction. While following Mr. Crabbe through The Village or The Borough, beneath the villager's roof, or along the aisles of the church-yard, I picture to myself an old priest of the age of ignorance and chivalry, whom superstitious serfs would have appealed to, in order to banish, by his exorcisms, the fairy or hobgoblin of the village. Mr. Crabbe also reminds us of the catholic priest, by his profound knowledge of the human heart. None of the secrets of self-love escape him: he seizes the most complicated thread of the tissue of instincts, varieties, and passions, which constitute the human character. It would seem as if he had collected, by means of auricular confession, the avowals of a hundred different hearts.

Mr. Crabbe, in his descriptions and portraits, does not, therefore, employ himself solely on the subject of externals, like the Flemish painters: he, like them, is careful of mechanical and minute exactness of costume, of his groupes, and the disposal of his lights and shades but he, moreover, imparts so true and expressive a physiognomy to his personages, that they are never lost sight of, for the sake of admiring the mere accessories. It must be, however, admitted, with the critics, that his poetry affects sometimes, by overlaying the details, an air of technical precision. Although capable of embracing a vast circumference of subject, he too often prefers contracting himself within a narrow framework, and in his study of man, he more readily attaches himself to the individual than to the species. He is rather literal than natural, as Hazlitt has said, to whom he has supplied materials for one of his most singular criticisms.

"He takes an inventory of the human heart exactly in the same manlier as of the furniture of a sick room; his sentiments have very much the air of fixtures; he gives you the petrifaction of a sigh, and carves a tear to the life in stone. Almost all his characters are tired of their lives, and you heartily wish them dead. They remind one of anatomical preservations; and may be said to hear the same relation to actual life, that a stuffed cat, in a glass ease, does to the real one purring on the hearth."

In the desire to amuse by his ridiculous metaphors, Hazlitt has set out on the fallacious supposition that Mr. Crabbe meant to write pastorals. Mr. Crabbe had no such intention, even when depicting the rural labourer. If Don Quixote had known no other shepherds than those of Crabbe, he would never have added to his other absurdities, that of desiring to carry a crook. But it is certain that his taste for depicting the vulgar personages of real life, according to their costume, their ignoble sentiments, and their familiar language, leads him into too prosaic negligences of style. In aiming to be energetic, he is no more than trite; and his too denuded images inspire a kind of repugnance. His habit of tracing the moral deformities, with the fidelity of an anatomist, imparts to some of his compositions an air of bitterness and invective. It is obvious that he takes delight in the strokes of a caustic raillery: and, without imbibing any doubt of his philanthropy, one might be tempted to suspect that there was more contempt than love in his pity; for the objects of his pity are, at the same time, the victims of his satire. It is he whom Sir W. Scott designates, in one of his novels, as the English Juvenal. I should, for my part, rather designate him as the La Rochefoucault of the inferior classes. Poor human nature is only ridiculous, according to him, when it pretends to the heroism and sublimity of any virtues. Accordingly, no one is less sentimental than Mr. Crabbe. The undecorated beauty of the country does not even inspire him but seldom. Bathed in the sweat of the peasant's brow, it is, to his view, equally deprived of its enchantments as the village. But after all, poetical in spite of himself, Mr. Crabbe attaches us to him, not only by his magic talent of observation, his depth, and the sagacity of his remarks, but also by the variety of his sketches of nature, by his scenes of a heart-rending pathos, by his graceful pictures, and even by the sublime flights of a decidedly lyric poetry. It would be difficult to make war on imagination with more imagination. We shall continue the analysis of his distinguished talent at the same time as that of his principal works; our quotations will occasionally appear exceptions from his system; but these exceptions are numerous, and have given popularity to his verses.

The Village was the origin of Mr. Crabbe's reputation. The aim of the poet is to prove, that the villager of real life has no point of resemblance with those of poetry; that, in point of fact, indigence possesses no constituent but what is extremely unpleasing; and that vice is not exclusively an inhabitant of the palaces of the wealthy. The description of the barren sands of the sea coast, where the author lays his scene, prepares the reader for the new aspect under which he will have to survey the objects usually embellished by the delusive colours of the muse: — "Lo! where the heath with withering brake grown o'er," etc., etc. It is on this ungrateful soil that Crabbe looks for the simple charms of the pastoral life; but he finds there nothing hut rapine, outrage, and terror. A bold, gloomy, artful, and savage race have there abandoned the labours of agriculture for those of a guilty traffic. These men, corrupted thus by a thirst for illegal gain, lurk on the shore, and at the approach of a tempest, rivet their greedy eyes on the first vessel, which, driven at the mercy of the billows, is destined to become either their prey, or that of the ocean. The existence of these smugglers and of their accomplices is described with frightful reality. The interior of the workhouse exhibits a not less striking picture. The apothecary, the curate, an old friend of the village children, the nobleman, and the magistrate, are depicted with infinite art.

The Register of the village forms the materials of Mr. Crabbe's first poem. After some reflections upon the morals of the inhabitants, and the furniture of their houses, by way of introduction, the poet divides his subject into three books, entitled Baptisms, Marriages, and Deaths. It comprises the history of all the individuals whom he has baptized, married, and buried in the course of the preceding year. This extremely simple frame-work contains a new gallery of portraits, each finished in its own peculiar manner. If one wished to banter the reverend minister, he might be accused of having traced the scandalous register of his parish.

The Library and the Journal, published at the same time as the Village, are not less demonstrative of the talent of the poet. These two works are, indeed, exempt from the defects of the former; but on account of the subject, they display fewer striking passages. Two little pieces of Mr. Crabbe's deserve notice, Sir Eustace Grey and the Gipsy.

In Sir Eustace Grey, the author has depicted a man whose faults and misfortunes have plunged him into the most terrible madness, but gradually mitigated by a kind of enthusiastical devotion, which only constitutes another form of his mental malady. Sir Eustace himself is made, with admirable energy of language and sentiment, to give an account of his delirium; he imagines himself to be hurried away by the rapid flight of two evil genii, with whom he stops on an immense plain, the silence and immobility of which display a frightful contrast with the agitation of his soul. The idea which he endeavours to give of it exhibits one of the most original conceptions of Eternity.

This poem and that of the Gypsey written in octosyllabic rhymes, remind one often of the rapid movements of the lyrical strophe. In the Gypsey, the expression of remorse, and the discoveries of the miserable mother, excite emotions of pity as strong as those of any tragedy. These emotions are indeed of too heart-rending a description.

But if Mr. Crabbe sometimes makes an ill use of a pathetic situation, he is capable of inspiring a more tender sympathy, when describing the tranquil decline of a virtuous old age, the calm joy of pious resignation, and the sentiments of an innocent affection.

The Borough will supply us, when necessary, with numerous examples; this poem is the continuation of the Village, or the developement of the same system upon a larger scale. It is a kind of moral history of a sea-port of the second order; the picturesque description of the spot chosen for the scene, and the portrait of the amphibious manners of the different classes of inhabitants. The author still confines himself within the limited circle of reality, although his views become enlarged with the enlarged range of his horizon. There are sublime inspirations from which Mr. Crabbe cannot divest himself in presence of the immensity of ocean; the colours of his picture of a storm are so correct, that it would seem as if, in order to become a witness of its rage, he had caused himself to be bound to the mast, like Joseph Vernet. The atmosphere of a similar landscape has doubtless imparted to his graphic touch an equal felicity in the portraiture of the passions. Not but that the greater number of his verses is not as usual consecrated to minute details, and subtle analysis of characters often but little interesting. His gaiety is not always in good tone. He is alternately diffuse, and obscure, through his affected precision but how many traits of refined irony, of smiling and agreeable images, of graceful or energetic sentiments, redeem those defects in a poem of considerable length. The Borough is divided into letters. We successively become acquainted with the vicar and curate of the place, with the dissenters, with the principal electors and candidates of an election day, with the lawyers, with the physicians, the apothecaries, and, in the self-same chapter, with the quacks. In another gallery figure the artizans, the strolling players, the amateur artists, the publicans, the governors of the hospital, and the overseers of the poor. But it is especially of the latter that Mr. Crabbe is the historian, or rather the biographer, in the poor houses, the prisons, and the schools.

Since the appearance of this poem, Mr. Crabbe has published a series of poetic tales, which might have been incorporated with it in the form of episodes. They are written in the same spirit, though the heroes of some of them are chosen from the middle walk of life. In his last work, the Tales of the Hall, the author introduces his readers to elegant society; and here he shews himself to be as profound an observer of human nature as in his delineations of more homely scenes. The tales in the volume to which I have just alluded, are for the most part extremely simple; but in many instances they display originality of conception. An analysis of Crabbe's Tales of the Hall would lead us too far. In this work he has not disdained to employ what I believe he has himself termed the artificial ornaments of poetry; but that which might be deemed high colouring in the writings of others is merely simple grace in the poetry of Crabbe. Love, that passion which the poet seemed to contemn in his early lays, has frequently lent its romantic charm to the more recent productions of his muse, and the reverend pastor occasionally reminds one of Anacreon binding his grey hair with flowers.

In spite of the animadversions of Hazlitt, and notwithstanding the system which Crabbe himself professed in the prefaces to his earliest productions, it must be acknowledged that few poets have displayed greater brilliancy of imagination. However, his writings, like those of many other English poets, are exceedingly unequal.