1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

Allan Cunningham, in "Literature of the Last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (November-December 1833) 715-16.



I have seen a long and ingenious critical comparison drawn between Burns and Crabbe; the resemblance lay most in the writer's fancy, for in all, save humility of subject, they are unlike. Burns flies, Crabbe creeps, the Scotsman is all fiery energy, buoyant feeling, and kindly sympathy with the woes and joys of man; the Englishman is a cold and remorseless dissector, who pauses, with the streaming knife in his hand, to explain how strongly the blood is tainted, what a gangrene is in the liver, how completely the sources of health are corrupted, and that the subject is a thorough bad one. The former mourns over human frailty; the latter crucifies it. Yet those who like to look at the sad estate into which husbandmen have fallen in these our latter days of "toils and taxes," and compare the peasant pacified, but not filled, with the parish spoon, sitting with his children in the dust, "Half mad, half fed, half sarkit," with those strong-nerved yeomen, and their grass-fields, cows, and cottages, who twanged their victorious bows at Agincourt, may consult George Crabbe.

He was born in the year 1754, at Aldborough, in Suffolk; received a classical education at Cambridge [not so!]; studied surgery with the intention of practising it, but, not succeeding, turned his thoughts on the church. In the church, men sometimes rise by merit; more frequently by patronage: to secure the latter, Crabbe wrote and published, in the year 1783, a poem called The Village. He commenced as he concluded; he is the poet of reality, and of reality, and of reality in humble life; he discards at once all the illusions of the muse, and sings "the honest, open, naked truth." To him, the Daisy of Burns, covered with beauty and diffusing fragrance, would have been but a weed; and the Mouse, surrounded with images of moral sympathy, and even terror, a creature worthy of the hob-nailed heel and the "murdering pattle." His views in verse are thus expressed in The Village:—

The village life, and every care that reigns
O'er youthful peasants and declining swains;
What labour yields, and what, that labour past,
Age in its hour of languor finds at last;
What form the real picture of the poor,
Demand a song — the muse can give no more.

He goes on to say, that the muses of old sung of happy rustics, because they were unacquainted with the sorrows of their condition; for his own part, he disdains to hide the ills of life under poetic trappings, and resolves

To paint the cot
As truth will paint it, and as bards will not.

That he saw only misery and depravity in the rustics around him, was, we suspect, the fault of his own eyes; for our part, we consider that happiness is pretty equally diffused among the children of men; the hind, when he has turned his stipulated number of furrows, goes home rejoicing; the dairy-maid, when she surveys her ranks of bowls, mantling with yellow cream, or sees the rich butter follow the plunges of the churn-staff; nay, the ragged mortal who sweeps a crossing, and with a piteous face holds out the reliques of an old hat to catch the halfpence pitched, not given, by the hasty passer by, are all as happy, perhaps happier than ministers of state, or lords of high degree approaching the throne, and whispering "A secret word or twa, man." I know not what Fox, and Burke, and Johnson, thought of The Village, and the lazar-house pictures which it contained; but this is certain, the author obtained a small appointment in the church, and silenced for twenty-seven years the stern tongue of his muse.

He had been forgotten by poets and critics when he published The Parish Register, and in the year 1810, burst out upon the world with The Borough, A Poem; it was found that time had increased his intensity of observation; had sharpened his sense of character, and improved his manner of communicating his notions to the world; but had not brightened the moral darkness of his early landscapes, nor shown him, with Burns, how much happiness and virtue the roofs of fifty smoking cabins covered. Alms-houses, hospitals, and prisons, with their paupers, their diseases, and their felons, are subjects little grateful to poetry. In this work — strong as it is in originality of character, and brief, clear, and decided, as most of its pictures are — the poet mistook, or eluded, the aim and purpose of poetry. He has given a Newgate Calendar in verse. If, weary with work, and sick of the cares of the world, we seek consolation in Crabbe, as we don in almost all other poets, instead of being soothed and elevated above our nature with the divinity of song, we should think of the grave — of a sixpenny leap into eternity from the top of the FIRE Monument. No; God deliver us from Crabbe in the hour of depression. Pictures of moral, and mental, and bodily degradation, are frequent through all his works; he is one of Job's chief comforters to the people; he shows the misery of their estate on earth, and then consoles them with the healing doctrine, that "hell was not made for Dogs." This "Come curse me, Jacob, and come defy me, Israel" sort of style, is as unjust as it is unpoetic. I hold it to be bade taste too, in the muse, to shut her right eye on all the virtues, and open her left eye on all the vices and miseries of man, and then pitching her voice to a tone sarcastic and dolorous, sing of nothing but the crying crimes and running sores of human nature. There is something wrong in the mind or taste of the poet who looks on creatures with ragged clothes and unswept houses, as utterly fallen and reprobate; and who dips his brush in the lake of darkness, and paints merry England as a vagrant and a strumpet.

It is pleasing to turn from the stern — nay, terrible pictures of Crabbe, to his more soft, graceful, and touching delineations; it is these which enable us to endure the misery of his more elaborate sketches, and which, like a spring amid burning sands, cheer and refresh us, and connect the poet with the kindlier sympathies of human nature. Had he mingled these more frequently with his gloomier strains; had he given as much of the good as of the evil of life, he would have obtained a place in our hearts next to Cowper and Burns, who, of all modern poets, have appealed most extensively to the general feelings of mankind. It would form a curious chapter in biography, to examine how little the works of men correspond with their nature. Crabbe was meek and affectionate; gentle and generous; gave largely to the poor; nay, followed them, and made amends both with tongue and hand. His poetry, instead of coming fresh from the heart, was the offspring of a system early settled and constantly followed; he had determined that his muse, instead of walking like a pastoral damsel barefoot among flowers, and crushing fragrant berries at every step, should rough it among the thorns and briars of the world; and for the cheering and mirth-awakening songs of the elder muses, should weep and wail, tear her hair, gnash her teeth, and refuse to be comforted. As a man, he was widely beloved; and as a clergyman, deeply respected. He was particularly anxious about the education of the poor, and gave much of his time to its furtherance. The Sunday School was his favourite place of resort: he loved to sit and listen to the children; and strangers, who desired to see the venerable and inspired man, usually went there between seven and eight in the evening — such visits were frequent. To a friend who called towards the close of his life, he said, pointing to the children, "I love them much; and now old age has made a fit companion for them." He died, 8th February 1832, in the 78th year of his age. The people of Trowbridge closed their windows, and many went into mourning from respect to his memory.