1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

Anonymous, in "The Augustan Age in England" The Album 1 (1822) 209-11.



Mr. CRABBE is a poet of a very different kind [than Byron]: but he is one who has acquired, and will retain, a foremost rank in poetry. We should say, Mr. Crabbe's peculiar power is that of giving pain; he possesses that to a degree which we have never met with elsewhere. There is a terrible reality in his pictures of suffering, which give them more the air of transcripts than imaginations. His characters are usually placed in the lower ranks of life, and he commonly joins physical to mental distress in a manner equally natural and painful. His paintings in this style are highly wrought, and minutely finished, but we do not think, that from this they either lose the freedom of poetical conception, or have the appearance of being overcharged. These poetical and most powerful representations abound in his works; but we would cite, as more particularly illustrative of our meaning, the Hall of Justice — the Parting Hour — the Patron — and the Farmer's story in Sir Owen Dale. We know no one whose touch of tenderness is so true, and consequently so irresistible, as Mr. Crabbe's. In the compositions we have named, we meet with them here and there, in the midst of misery, and guilt, and terror — like the few spots of lovely and refreshing green which remain unburned in the scorched expanse of the desert. In addition to these qualities, which so eminently distinguish him, that they may be almost considered peculiar to himself, Mr. Crabbe has some productions of mingled genius and fancy which would do honour to any poet. His Sir Eustace Grey is a beautiful sketch of this kind — and his Edward Shore tells of the aberrations of genius and virtue in the highest tone of genius and virtue themselves. But Mr. Crabbe has other excellencies, which are more common in his writings, and have, accordingly, been more praised — we mean, those of humour, and what has been called his Dutch painting. We are not sure, however, whether these merits stand very high in our estimation. In the first place, we are angry with them for having, in some degree, usurped the place and the praise of the higher qualities of which we have been speaking. There are many who, in admiring the humorous delineations of Crabbe, overlook his other far nobler powers, from the circumstance of their being less frequently employed in his works; and thence talk of his Teniers-like style, as the general characteristic of his writings. His merit in this line, also, is very nearly connected with his faults, and is apt to degenerate into them. Quaintness — occasional vulgarity — and minute dwelling on subjects below all poetry, are the blemishes of Mr. Crabbe; and his humour, when too much indulged, not unfrequently runs into these. But it is in his lyrical productions that he has his chief power; and it is much to be lamented, that he should not have written more in this style. Since his first volume of poems, he has published absolutely nothing lyrical, with the exception of the songs very sparingly scattered through his last work. And even these songs, though inferior to the Hall of Justice and Sir Eustace Grey, sufficiently bespeak his great power in this branch of poetry. In all his lyrical pieces, his many and glaring defects totally vanish, and all his excellencies increase. He retains his nerve, his vigour — his exquisite tenderness, and fearful terror — while he loses his quaint style, his homely images-and that indulgence of sly humour, which so often casts a dash of ridicule over even his most powerful passages. With all these faults — and we admit them freely — Mr. Crabbe has acquired and deserves the very highest reputation. He is the most original writer that we ever remember to have met with; and he is successful in his originalities. His verses were worthy — and we cannot give them a higher praise — of the noble destiny of being the last literary enjoyment of Fox.