"I feel great reluctance in admitting that these compositions have not a fair and legitimate claim to the poetic character." — Crabbe's Preface to his Tales.
It is a common practice with men of sagacious minds, to anticipate the censure which they know they deserve, in the hope that their candour may mitigate the severity of criticism, or, at least, that the self-knowledge displayed will prevent the loud boast with which the critic ushers in his own discoveries. This seems to have been the intention of Mr. CRABBE, in the preface from which the motto is taken: he knew very well, quite as well an any of his judges, what true poetry is, and was aware that a series of tales, which for the most part aimed at nothing beyond the delineation of the common features of common life, could have no claim to such a denomination. Nay, the very mottoes which he has culled, with numerous selection, from his favourite Shakespeare, and placed at the beginning of each story, convince us, that he who has such a model perpetually in his eye, need not be told (at least far information,) what is the difference between the poet and the versifier. Mr. Crabbe, however, feels that it would be a degradation, to take rank among this latter class; and, therefore, though he is compelled to allow the inferiority of that style of composition which he has chosen, yet he is exceedingly anxious to establish its claim to belong to the same family with its acknowledged superior. He refers to the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer, and to the satires of Dryden and Pope, to prove that poetry may exist without the aid of fancy or imagination. The answer to this seems easy: it is usual, for want of another general term, to call every writing poetry which is not prose, and yet every school-boy knows better than to attribute any similarity of character to the poet Homer and the poet Archilochus, to the poet Virgil and the poet Martial. Had Chaucer written nothing but the tales of The Miller and of the Wife of Bath; had Dryden published no other verse except the characters of Doeg and Og, had Pope never wandered into say other taste that that which he has displayed in his satires on Villiers and Wharton, we should indeed have called them (as we do low) poets, because we could not, without affectation, call them prose-writers. The title, however, would be associated with very different attributes to those with which we invest it, when we think of Palemon and Arcite, and "the story or Cambuscan bold," of Alexander's Feast, and the Elegies on Mrs. Killigrew, and Oliver Cromwell, of Eloisa's Epistle, and the machinery of the Rape of the Lock.
Mr. Crabbe, however, soon shifts his ground, and, aware that his last position is untenable, assumes a new hold of argument, so goodly, and apparently so strong, that in his confidence he seems to apprehend no possibility of a successful attack. He allows that the effect of poetry should be to lift the mind from every-day concerns, and the painful realities of actual existence, by substituting objects in their place which it may contemplate with interest and satisfaction. He then turns round triumphantly, and asks, "what is there in all this which may not be effected by a faithful delineation of those common concerns and painful realities, provided they be not the very concerns and distresses of the reader?" This is plausible, and I confess that Mr. Crabbe fights both sturdily and ingeniously in defence of his prosaic verse: but let us try whether we cannot beat him from his new post. The defect, then, in this argument seems to be, that although it contains what is true, it does not contain the whole truth. His description, or definition of the object of poetry, does not include all the purposes which the poet professes, nor does it exclude, as it ought, those other kinds of writing, whose effect is, to a certain talent, precisely the same. Much confusion would be avoided if definitions were worded with greater accuracy. For instance, every attentive observer may see that what Mr. Crabbe says of poetry may be applied equally to romances and novels; that by this rule, not only the high-toned Richardson, but even the humorous Fielding, and the coarser Smollet, must be placed in the same class as Shakespeare and Milton. Mr. Crabbe could scarcely say, that they are sufficiently distinguished from each other, because the former wrote in prose, and the latter in verse, for he has himself disdained to give the appellation of poetry to regularly-counted syllables. We must, therefore, seek another distinction, and by reflecting on the best authors, we shall find that it consists in the selection of the most picturesque incidents, — in the diction in which they are clothed, — and in the sentiments and imagery with which they are naturally and skillfully associated.
Beauty is the very soul of poetry; low vices, vulgar habits, disgusting calamities, can have no place in it. Milton has drawn a devil, and Shakespeare a monster: but Satan is a being of such stupendous power, as well as heroic qualities, that all distaste is lost in admiration: and Caliban is a mystery, a miraculous combination, and overwhelms us with astonishment, before we have leisure to dislike him. Such creations do indeed lift the mind above every-day concerns, and such deserve the name of poetry: but how? is it for the substitution of one common painful reality for another? Is it not rather by the selection and combination of all that is grand and imposing in possible nature, and so managed that the faith of man can recognize it, though his experience cannot? Common concerns and sorrows, however well described, can never excite a pleasing interest, because it is impossible to divest them of that familiar coarseness with which they must ever be attended. Nothing can be more painful than a fit of the cholic, but does Mr. Crabbe think that any description of it, however faithful, could be in made pleasing and consolatory to the mind that is in search of the intellectual pleasures of poetry? It is easy to conceive the most distressing cases of public punishment, capable of exciting the best sympathies, and whose recital might be made a vehicle of gloomy delight; but though the Muse might follow the sufferer to the cell and the scaffold, would she venture to describe the execution with all the dreadful but merely minute circumstances of common executioners, and ropes, and caps? Mr. Crabbe, to be consistent, must answer "Yes:" and for an authority, may perhaps refer to the tragedy of George Barnwell, who is fairly hanged on the stage. We can, however, assure him, that the play so named is reckoned by all men of judgment an one of the grossest pollutions of our literature, and that even the Easter audiences have too much taste to endure the nauseous detail of execution.
It seems, then, that this gentleman, unless he can shew better qualifications than that he is a faithful delineator of common characters, has but a slight claim to the title of a poet. Happily for him, he has much better pretensions, and so decisive, that one is surprized that he should endeavour to make such a stand with doubtful vouchers, when he might gain his point directly and triumphantly by the production of his worthier testimony. The author of "Phoebe Dawson," of "Sir Eustace Grey," of "Ellen Orford," of the "Highwayman's Dream," and above all, of the "Parting Hour," has manifested such grace of imagination, such delicacy of sentiment, such energy, and even sublimity of feeling, varied with such pathetic tenderness, as fully justify him in claiming the humours of a poet. Yet so perverse is the human mind, so strongly can whim and caprice combat against the power of reason, that the man whom fair fame is absolutely courting, turns away to seek a strange reputation by strange and unknown ways. He has mixed up with his poetic powers, much shrewdness and acuteness of discrimination: and by the exercise of this satiric faculty, he has given distinctness and vivacity to several portraits. The effort was praised as it deserved, but the praise has done him injury. — It has induced him to neglect or despise all the fine qualities of observation and feeling with which he was gifted, and has converted him into a mere dry delineator of common boors and petty-larceny villains. His sagacity has degenerated into mere pedantry: it is the eye of the anatomist, and not of the poet or the philosopher, which he casts on human subjects. He describes man, not by the prominent features, the expression of countenance, the gaze or the gesture, but by the nerves, the muscles, and the myriad subdivisions of the physical oeconomy. His taste, too, it so spoiled by his fondness far satire, and use necessity of looking for its food among the lowest of mankind, that his books more resemble the catalogue raisonne of a work-house, or a jail, than a fair picture of our common nature. Broken limbs and crutches seem to him more delectable objects than an Antinous or an Apollo: the meanness of avarice, the savageness of anger, and the distortions of remorse, attract him more than benevolence, or mildness, or magnanimity. If he were unable to describe these last-mentioned noble features of our nature, if even out of the worse parts of man he had not skill to select the least displeasing and the most picturesque, in that case we ought to bound our wishes by the power of the poet; but it in impossible to suppress some rising feelings of indignation, and even of scorn, for a mind which, after having fed on celestial food, can stoop "to prey on garbage." Mr. Crabbe sometimes alludes to painting, and has said, that the lowest describers of manners have been allowed, to assume the general name of painters as well as the sublimest representers of heroic passion. Be it so; let the low grotesque of Jan Steen be admitted to the same title as the grand conceptions of Buonarotti: but let me ask Mr. Crabbe, in candour, whether he would not think the ambition of that painter most paltry and contemptible, who, if able attain either, should prefer the vulgar notoriety of a Teniers or an Ortade, to the graceful reputation of a Corregio or a Guido.