Crabbe's poems form a very distinct landmark in the course of English literature. Nothing is more noticeable in the latter part of the eighteenth century than the apparent exhaustion of poetical material. Poetry thrives in an agitated atmosphere; it languishes in a state of settled repose. For more than a century before the appearance of Crabbe the prevailing tone of English poetry had been political. The interest of the people had been absorbed in the establishment of their constitutional liberties, which they had secured at the price of civil war and a disputed succession, and what was felt in society was reflected in verse. The political passions of the period show themselves in different forms in the controversial satires of Dryden, in the personal satires of Pope, in the dramatic declamation of Addison, and at last in the more composed moralising of Johnson and Goldsmith. But by degrees, under a settled dynasty, the air is cleared of serious political storms. And as the times become more quiet, we observe a rapid ebb in the inspiration of the poets who carried on the traditions peculiar to the eighteenth century. Churchill is but a poor third in satire to Dryden and Pope; The Traveller and The Vanity of Human Wishes are ill replaced in the didactic class of poetry by Erasmus Darwin's frigid Loves of the Plants, or Payne Knight's Progress of Society. In another direction the strong centrifugal tendency of poetry, afterwards so fully developed by the Lake School, first discovers itself in the solitary and meditative muse of Cowper, and in the Doric provincialism of Burns.
Another feature equally observable in late eighteenth-century poetry is the decline of the Romantic paatoralismn of the classical Renaissance. From The Shepherds Calender down to the Pastorals of Pope this literary fashion of thought had continued to afford materials to the English poet. It was derived from the fiction of a Golden Age of virtue and innocence, traces of which were supposed still to linger in the simplicity of country life. A belief so artificial could only thrive in an artificial atmosphere; it was congenial to Courts. For along period "every flowery courtier writ romance," and in all that portion of society which pretended to good breeding, each lover thought of himself as a shepherd, and sighed for his mistress as a nymph. Slight indications of the fashion are to be found even in poets so plain and unaffected as Cowper and Burns. But as wealth accumulated, and the democratic influence of cities extended, it was gradually felt that for a rich and refined society to be always emulating the manners of shepherds was somewhat absurd. This feeling found a vigorous exponent in Johnson, whose Lives of the Poets abound in expressions of contempt for the insipidity and unreality of pastoral poetry.
Of these conditions of taste Crabbe dexterously availed himself. He saw that the questions which were becoming of paramount interest in men's minds were no longer political but social. Himself born and bred among the poor, he knew that there was a vast range of human interest in the actions, passions, and manners of common life, of which the general reader, though they lay immediately under his eyes, was completely ignorant. At the same time his knowledge of English literature enabled him to perceive how effective a contrast might be drawn between rural life as it was conventionally described by poets, and as it existed in reality. On this principle he designed and executed The Village. Beginning with a brief but telling allusion to the fiction of the Golden Age, he proceeded to draw with a stern fidelity the picture of the actual village, with its sterile soil, its half-starved inhabitants, and its smuggling surroundings; he described the sufferings of the peasant concealed by pride or suppressed by necessity, the hopelessness of his prospect, in the workhouse which awaited his old age, and where he could look for no relief for his material and spiritual wants except such as might be afforded by the quack doctor or the foxhunting parson. His apology for such a representation of reality was, he said, the necessity of showing how small was the difference between the different ranks of men, when measured by the standard of their common nature. The plea was felt to be just; many whose imaginations had before been satisfied with the dreamland of conventional fancy were induced to extend their sympathies to the drama of actual life; The Village speedily became popular.
Yet though Crabbe had thus established for himself a permanent place among the English poets, he seemed in no haste to work further the vein of poetry which he had discovered. After the publication of The Newspaper — a somewhat uninteresting composition — he seemed almost to lay aside literary ambition, and twenty-two years elapsed before the appearance of The Parish Register. This poem is an extension of the subject treated in The Village; he takes up again the old text, "Auburn and Eden can be found no more," but experience of the world had enlarged his views, and his descriptions of life and character in the Register are not so unvaryingly dark as in the earlier poem. To his view of country "tempers, manners, morals, customs, arts," he now joined some highly finished episodes of individual life, one of which, the story of Phoebe Dawson, is specially memorable as having given pleasure to Fox in his last illness. In his next poem The Borough, together with many admirable pictures of that Suffolk coast life and scenery, which always exercised a strong spell on his imaginations, he inserted several connected tales, illustrative of the peculiar temptations and passions to which the poor are exposed, and having now discovered his extraordinary power of tracing the working of the human mind, he soon afterwards published twenty-one Tales of various kinds, tragic, pathetic, and humorous. These were entirely wanting in connection; and it was probably a fear that the appearance of a new set of separate stories might expose him to the charge of repeating himself, which caused him to attempt a kind of unity in his last work, Tales of the Hall. In this the stories, though in every other respect resembling the first series, were connected with each other by the persons of the narrators, two brothers, who having been parted since their youth, meet when middle-aged in the house of the elder, and amuse each other with their different experiences.
Though Crabbe occupies so marked a place in the history of English poetry, he has not met in our own generation with all the attention which he deserves. Something of this comparative neglect is to be attributed to changes in society; the altered position of the poor has fortunately deprived his poems of much of the reality they once possessed. Something too must be ascribed to the revolutions of taste. We have been long accustomed to look at Nature and peasant life through the philosophic medium created for us by Wordsworth and his followers. From the poetical standpoint of this school Crabbe is as far removed as he is from the .conventional pastoralism of his predecessors. His intention is simply to paint things as they are, and modern ideology therefore finds in his poetry an uncongenial atmosphere. But beyond this it must be allowed that of all standard English writers Crabbe makes the largest demands on the patience of his readers. His great defect is an incurable want of taste. Like Rembrandt, to whose work his poetical chiaroscuro has a striking analogy, he seems, while impressing the imagination with powerful effects of light and shade, to delight at the same time in the exhibition of the most vulgar details. These he introduces into his poetry without the slightest attempt at generalisation or selection. In the midst of a passage of sustained tragic pathos he shocks us by the appearance of some incredibly mean thought or word; his shrewd humour runs without restraint into coarseness; and he frequently oversteps the line that divides the horrible from the terrible.
Yet after making full deduction for these defects we have still left a body of powerful and original poetry, and indeed the defects themselves arise from that strong bent of genius which makes Crabbe's verse such an admirable foil to the insincerity of the fashionable pastoral. The extraordinary minuteness of his descriptions of actual nature becomes excusable when we take into consideration the deep moral truth which he seeks to convey in them. As an observer and painter of the individual truths of nature no poet has ever approached him. He had a scientific interest and curiosity shout all living objects, and this, though it impaired his sense of beauty, gave him an unrivalled power in placing the scenes and persons he described before the mind of the reader. Whether he paints a storm on the East Coast, or exhibits the succession of images passing through the imagination of the condemned felon, or shows the mental stages by which the enthusiast of virtue proceeds to crime, everything is represented with an appearance of scientific precision, which in an ordinary poet would be offensive, but which from Crabbe's point of view is just and necessary. At the same time, with all this Dutch minuteness, he possessed, as we see in The Lover's Journey, and Delay has Danger, exceptional skill in describing Nature in the aspect which she presents to minds labouring under strong emotions. His powers of pathos are extraordinary, and his faculty of giving pain is often put to an illegitimate use. When his humour is under his control it is admirable, and of all the poets who have used the heroic couplet, Pope himself not excepted, he is the best writer of easy dialogue. As a painter of character he evidently modelled himself on Pope, but the style of the two poets is as different as their genius. Pope, an unequalled observer within a limited compass, is most careful to choose rare types and to embody their prominent features in the most select and pregnant words; Crabbe, on the other hand, trusts to the largeness of his experience, and to the general human interest of his descriptions, and, though preserving the antithetical form of Pope's verse, makes comparatively little attempt at epigrammatic expression. It is noticeable that, as his subjects become more numerous and extended, his care in composition seems to diminish; there is far more literary finish in The Village than in Tales of the Hall.