1871 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Crabbe

S. C. Hall, "George Crabbe" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 339-44.



CRABBE was born at Aldborough, in Suffolk, in a small and rude cottage, now removed, the "portraiture" of which has been preserved by the painter Stanfield. His father was a man of humble means and position. He gave, however, to his eldest son the best teaching he could; but George was "in a great measure self-educated;" yet the ground must have been well laid, for in later days he was no mean scholar. He was born on the Christmas-eve of the year 1754; and, when little more than a child, had made essays in verse. He was apprenticed to a village surgeon, but learned little and knew little. When "out of his time" he "set up for himself" at Aldborough. Of this uncongenial and ill-rewarded employment he soon wearied; and in 1780 — "with the best verses he could write," and a borrowed three pounds in money — he set forth to seek his fortune in London.

Thus writes the Laureate Southey in reference to a case somewhat analogous:—

"Woe be to the youthful poet who sets out upon his pilgrimage to the Temple of Fame with nothing but Hope for his viaticum! There are the Slough of Despond, and the Hill of Difficulty, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death upon the way!"

Partly from the statements of his son, and partly from a journal kept by himself, we learn much of the terrible struggle that followed the advent of Crabbe in the metropolis. His "wealth" gradually diminished; went down to shillings, and then to pence: nay, once, on taking stock, he found "sixpence farthing" in his purse, and reduced it to fourpence halfpenny by expending seven farthings in the purchase of a pint of porter. The pawnbroker gave temporary relief. At length he had accumulated a debt of 7; and the gates of a gaol were about to open to the heir of Parnassus. Here, there, and everywhere, he had sought a publisher in vain: as futile were his efforts to find a patron! Lord North was deaf; Lord Shelburne silent; Lord Chancellor Thurlow had "no leisure to read verses;" a poetical appeal to Prince William Henry — then a young sailor, afterwards King William IV. — produced no response.

Here he was, in the "peopled solitude," without a friend, without a shilling, without a hope: nay, not so, for trust in God never left him. And there was a dearly-loved girl (afterwards his loving and devoted wife) praying for him in the humble home he had left. But his sufferings of mind and body were intense: once when he had wandered away to Hornsey Wood (the locality he most frequented), and found it too late to return to his lodging, he passed the night under a hayrick — having no money to pay for a casual bed. What was he to do? The natural holiness of his mind kept him from following the example of that "marvellous boy" who, but a few months gone, had "perished in his pride" in the wretched attic of Shoe Lane. What was he to do as he wandered about, hungry and hopeless, with high aspirations and much self-dependence, — a full consciousness of the fount within, that was striving to send its streams of living water to mankind, — yet without a hand to sustain him across the Slough of Despond, or a glimpse of light to guide him through the Valley of the Shadow of Death?

Yes, his lot has been the lot of many to whom "letters" is a sole "profession;" but of few may the story be told so succinctly and emphatically as of Crabbe; for but few so thoroughly or so suddenly triumphed over the enemy, or could look back without a blush upon the progress of the fight when its end was Victory.

Who will say that his prayers, and those of his "Sarah," were not heard and answered, when an inspired thought suggested an application to Edmund Burke? I copy a touching passage from "The Life of the Rev. George Crabbe," by his son — a volume of rare interest, that renders full justice to an illustrious memory, but claims for it nothing that the present and the future will not readily give:—

"He went into Mr. Burke's room a poor young adventurer, spurned by the opulent and rejected by the publishers, his last shilling gone, and all but his last hope with it; he came out virtually secure of almost all the good fortune that by successive steps afterwards fell to his lot; his genius acknowledged by one whose verdict could not be questioned; his character and manners appreciated and approved by a noble and capacious heart, whose benevolence knew no limits but its power."

Ay, the dark and turbulent river was crossed, and the celestial city was in sight. The sad and solitary wanderer no longer walked London streets in hopeless misery; no more was the spirit to be subdued by the sickness of hope deferred; and who will grudge him the natural triumph with which he once again entered his native town, his genius acknowledged, his position secured, his lofty imaginings converted into palpable realities, the companion and the friend of many great men, whose renown had reached even the poor village of Aldborough?

It was by the advice of Burke, responding to his own thought, that he became a clergyman; and by that good man's influence he was ordained on the 21st of December, 1781, his first curacy being in his native village; and, no doubt, among those who heard his first sermon was the "Sarah" who had believed in him when neighbours considered him a "lubber" and a "fool," or at best a hare-brained youth, who "would never come to good." In 1783 they were married, and went to reside at Belvoir Castle, the Duke of Rutland having made Crabbe his domestic chaplain.

He who had borne poverty with heroism was able to bear the "straitened circumstances" which he had to endure for several after years. There was a sweet seraph ever by his side; and "trust in God" had been strengthened by imparting "trust" to others.

In 1815 he was inducted into the living of Trowbridge, and on the 5th of June he preached his first sermon there. Here he lived and worked till he died, discharging his duty until within a week of his removal; having been so richly gifted with health and strength that he had not omitted the duty on a Sabbath once for forty years—

The children's favourite and the grandsire's friend,
Tried, trusted, and beloved!

In the autumn of 1830 the world was closing over him. "Age had sadly bent his once tall stature, and his hand trembled;" and on February 3rd, 1832, he "died;" almost his last words to his children being, "God bless you! Be good, and come to me!"

Crabbe seldom visited London during the later years of his long life, and I saw him only in a crowd, where certainly he was not "at home." He was then aged, over threescore and ten; it was impossible, however, not to be impressed by the exterior of the poet, whom a high contemporary authority characterised as "Nature's sternest painter, yet her best."

Half a century had passed between the period when the raw country youth sought and obtained the friendship of Edmund Burke, and the time when I saw him, the "observed of all observers," receiving the homage of intellectual listeners.

My visit was paid to him at Hampstead, where he was the guest of his friends, "the Hoares." It was in the year 1825 or 1826, I do not recollect which. There were many persons present. Of the party I can recall but one; that one, however, is a Memory — JOANNA BAILLIE. I remember her as singularly impressive in look and manner, with the "queenly" air we associate with ideas of high birth and lofty rank. Her face was long, narrow, dark, and solemn, and her speech deliberate and considerate, the very antipodes of "chatter." Tall in person, and habited according to the "mode" of an olden time, her picture, as it is now present to me, is that of a very venerable dame, dressed in coif and kirtle, stepping out, as it were, from a frame in which she had been placed by the painter Vandyke: Her popularity is derived from her "Plays of the Passions," only one of which was ever acted — De Montford — in which John Kemble, and afterwards Edmund Kean, performed the leading part. Her father, Dr. Baillie, must have been a stern, ungenial man, for it is said by Lucy Aikin (on the authority of her sister) that he had never given his daughter a kiss, and Joanna herself had spoken of her "yearning to be caressed when a child." We have no difficulty in accepting the testimony which Miss Aikin offers to the memory of the author of "Plays of the Passions:" — "If there were ever a human creature 'pure in the last recesses of the soul,' it was surely this meek, this pious, this noble-minded, and nobly-gifted woman, who, after attaining her ninetieth year, carried with her to the grave the love, the reverence, the regrets of all who had ever enjoyed the privilege of her society."

In the appearance of Crabbe there was little of the poet, but even less of the stern critic of mankind, who looked at nature askance, and ever contemplated beauty, animate or inanimate, — "The simple loves and simple joys," — "through a glass darkly." On the contrary, he seemed to my eyes the representative of the class of rarely troubled, and seldom thinking, English farmers. A clear grey eye, a ruddy complexion, as if he loved exercise and wooed mountain breezes, were the leading characteristics of his countenance. It is a picture of age, "frosty but kindly" — that of a tall and stalwart man gradually grown old, to whom age was rather an ornament than a blemish. He was one of those instances of men plain, perhaps, in youth, and homely of countenance in manhood, who become absolutely handsome when white hairs have become a crown of glory, and indulgence in excesses or perilous passions has left no lines that speak of remorse, or even of errors unatoned.

This is the portrait that Lockhart draws of Crabbe: — "His noble forehead, his bright beaming eye, without anything of old age about it — though he was then above seventy — his sweet and, I would say, innocent smile, and the calm, mellow tones of his voice, all are reproduced when I open a page of his poetry."

Certain it is that the Crabbe who wrote "The Village" and "Tales of the Hall," who seemed to have neither eye nor ear for the pure and graceful, whose spring wore the garb of autumn, to whom even the breeze was unmusical, and the zephyr harsh, whose hill, and stream, and valley were barren, muddy, and unprofitable, was only misanthropic in verse. In his life and practice he was amiable, benevolent, and conciliatory. We have other authority besides that of his son and biographer for believing that "to him it was recommendation enough to be poor and miserable;" that as a country clergyman — "To relieve the wretched was his care."

This is the tribute of his friend, the poet Moore: — "The 'musa severior' which he worships has had no influence whatever on the kindly dispositions of his heart; but while with the eye of a sage and a poet he looks into the darker region of human nature, he stands in the most genial sunshine himself."

This is the inscription on the monument (by the sculptor Baily) to his memory in the church at Trowbridge, of which he was so long the rector:—

SACRED
TO THE MEMORY OF
THE REV. G. CRABBE, LL.B.,
Who died on the 3rd of February, 1832, in the 78th year of
his Age, and the 18th of his services as
Rector of this Parish. Born in humble life, he made himself what he was;
Breaking through the obscurity of his birth by the force of
his genius,
Yet he never ceased to feel for the less fortunate;
Entering, as his works can testify, into the sorrows and
wants of the poorest of his parishioners,
And so discharging the duties of a pastor and a magistrate
As to endear himself to all around him.
As a writer he cannot be better described than in the words
of a great poet, his contemporary,—
"Tho' Nature's sternest painter, yet her best."

This monument was erected by some of his affectionate friends and parishioners.

I recall with pleasure a morning spent in the Rectory at Trowbridge, and in wandering among the lanes and into the cottages where the poet had trodden so often — the bearer of peace, love, and hope. It is a thoroughly English town, very quiet except on "fair days." The character there is so primitive that in any part of it the poet might have made a study. No doubt he did often work in thought among the peasantry and people he found about him, where nature remained, and I imagine remains, but little disturbed by the outer world. Though by no means "a lodge in a vast wilderness" for which Cowper longed, it seemed to me shut out completely from intercourse with the "busy throng" — The vain, the wealthy, and the proud."