1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

Richard Henry Dana, in Review of Hazlitt's English Poets; North American Review [Boston] 8 (March 1819) 315-18.



If variety of powers in a single mind be accounted genius, who among modern poets shall be placed before Crabbe? We do not mean by this, that certain quickness and aptitude for any thing, no matter what, by which some men perform pretty well whatever they choose to undertake, or like Bunyan's "Talkative," can discourse you what you will; "will talk of things heavenly or things earthly, things moral or things evangelical, things sacred or things profane, things past or things to come, things foreign or things at home, things more essential or things circumstantial." — This is what we call smartness, or sometimes dignify with the title of talent. But it is rather a misfortune than a blessing to the man who possesses it, and to his neighbours; for he will have an active part in whatever is done or said, yet all that comes from him is, at most, but second best. Yet his versatility astonishes the bystanders. What would he be, could he condescend to devote his powers to a single pursuit! He would be only a second rate man in that. His change is his weakness, a want of a particular bent of mind, arising not from an intense universal love, but a knowing all things superficially, and a caring little for any thing. We mean not that variety of powers which makes a man turn poet, politician, divine, artist, mathematician, metaphysician, chemist, and botanist, with the alterations of fashion or whim, but that by which one feels and sees in all its changes and relations the particular object for which nature seems solely to have made him. And this variety has Crabbe beyond any man since the days of Shakspeare. Reading Shakspeare is studying the world; and though we would not apply this in any thing like its full extent to Crabbe, yet we do not hesitate to say, that such a variety of characters, with the growth and gradual change in each individual, the most secret thoughts, and the course of the passions from a perfect calm to their most violent tossings, and all the humours of men, cannot be found so fully brought together, and distinctly made out, in any other author since Shakspeare and our old dramatists. Nor is this done by a cold anatomical process or anxious repetition. Though every variation is distinctly marked, and made visible to us, there is no appearance of labour, nor are we left standing as mere lookers-on. It is not a dissection of character as has been sometimes said. The men and women are living and moving beings, suffering and acting; we take a deep interest in all their concerns, and are moved to terrour or deep grief, to gaiety or laughter, with them. Nothing but the dramatic form could imbody us more completely in them. Notwithstanding there is such a multitude of characters, and none of them, except Sir Eustace Grey, lying higher than the middle class of society, or engaged in any but the ordinary pursuits of life, yet no repetition is produced. — As in life, some have a general resemblance, but particular differences prevent a fiat sameness.

No one is a stronger master of the passions. Peter Grimes, the Patron, Edward Shore, the Parish Clerk, — it is endless to go on naming them, — take hold of us with a power that we have not felt since the time of our old poets, except now and then in Lord Byron. He is quite as good too in playful sarcasm and humour. The bland Vicar, whom "sectaries liked — he never troubled them," moved to complaining by nothing but innovations in forms and ceremonies, who extracted "moral compliment" from flowers, for the ladies, the fire of whose love burnt like a very glowworm, and who declared his passion with all the uncontrolled ardour of Slender, — who protested to Mistress Ann Page "that he loved her as well as he loved any woman in Gloucestershire," — the whole story of this once "ruddy and fair" youth, whose arts were "fiddling and fishing," is sustained throughout, and is one of the most delightfully sarcastic and humorous tales ever read. There are the same particularity, clearness, and nice observation in his descriptions, — but with no marks of the tool. His scenes are just the very places in which his men and women should be set down, or rather such as they appear to have grownup in from children; so that the occupations of his people, their characters and the scenes amidst which they live, are in perfect keeping with each other, and brought together just as they should be. And this gives a feeling, sentiment, and reality to his description. Where else could Peter Grimes have been placed than where he is?

—when tides were neap,—
There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide.

But we forget that Peter Grimes, for power and development of character unequalled before or since, even by Crabbe himself, and placed in the midst of scenery painted with an originality and poetry which we have scarce seen before, is shut out by Crabbe's earliest and warmest admirers, the Edinburgh Reviewers, because it was thought necessary to write a dissertation under the title of the word "disgusting," and found convenient to sacrifice him as an example. For an exemplification of their principle, they might as well have taken Macbeth or Iago, for Peter could equally with them cause a poetical dread. — Crabbe's versification has been compared to Pope's. There is very seldom a resemblance. It is easy and familiar, when his subject is so, and rises with it. It is infinitely more varied than Pope's, though not so much broken as Cowper's rhyming verse. His language, strongly idiomatic, has no bad words in it, and is very eloquent and poetic when he chooses.

We do assure Mr. Hazlitt, that if he and master Leigh Hunt undertake to turn such gentlemen as Crabbe into the kitchen, they will soon have the parlour all to themselves. They may amuse each other as much as they like, and admire their own forms and the tie of their cravats, in the full length mirror, — there will be but four of them, Hunt and Hazlitt in the glass, and Hunt and Hazlitt out of it, all equally agreeable.