1812
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Tales in Verse: Preface.

Tales in Verse.

Rev. George Crabbe


George Crabbe defends his prosaic realism as legitimate poetical expression, comparing it even to Spenser's fantasies: "Fiction itself, we know, and every work of fancy, must for a time have the effect of realities; nay, the very enchanters, spirits, and monsters of Ariosto and Spenser must be present in the mind of the reader while he is engaged by their operations, or they would be as the objects and incidents of a nursery tale to a rational understanding, altogether despised and neglected."

Walter Scott: "we are confident that Mr. Crabbe has used too dark colouring, if his poem is to be considered as a general portrait of the people of Britain. It forms, at least, a very singular contrast to the amiable, simple, and interesting scenes of lower life, which have been presented to us by the regretted Burns. But although strongly opposite in stile, manner, and subject, as the groupes of Gainsborough to those of Hograrth, we acknowledge in each the masterly hand which designs from nature" "Living Poets" in Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808 (1810) 2:436.

George Crabbe to Walter Scott: "I truly rejoice in your success; and while I am entertaining, in my way, a certain set of readers, for the most part, probably, of peculiar turn and habit, I can with pleasure see the effect you produce on all. Mr. Hatchard tells me that he hopes or expects that thousands will read my Tales, and I am convinced that your publisher might, in like manner so speak of your ten thousands; but this, though it calls to mind the passage, is no true comparison with the related prowess of David and Saul, because I have no evil spirit to arise and trouble me on the occasion; though, if I had, I know no David whose skill is so likely to allay it. Once more, sir, accept my best thanks, with my hearty wishes for your health and happiness, who am, with great esteem, and true respect, dear sir, your humble and obedient servant. . ." 13 October 1812; in Lockhart, Life of Scott (1837-38; 1902) 2:296.

J. W. Croker to John Murray: "I had Crabbe's tales with me on shipboard, and they were a treasure. I never was so much taken with anything. The tales are in general so well conducted that, in prose, they would be interesting as mere stories; but to this are added such an admirable ease and force of diction, such good pleasantry, such high principles, such a strain of poetry, such a profundity of observation, and such a gaiety of illustration as I never before, I think, saw collected. He imagines his stories with the humour and truth of Chaucer, and tells them with the copious terseness of Dryden, and the tender and thoughtful simplicity of Cowper. This high commendation does not apply to the whole of the tales, nor, perhaps, to the whole of any one. There are sad exceptions here and there, which might easily be removed, but on the whole it is a delightful book" 18 July 1819; The Croker Papers, ed. Louis J. Jennings (1884) 1:133-34.

William Hazlitt: "His Muse is not one of the Daughters of Memory, but the old toothless, mumbling dame herself, doling out the gossip and scandal of the neighbourhood, recounting totidem verbis et literis, what happens in every place of the kingdom every hour in the year, and fastening always on the worst as the most palatable morsels. But she is a circumstantial old lady, communicative, scrupulous, leaving nothing to the imagination, harping on the smallest grievances, a village-oracle and critic, most veritable, most identical, bringing us acquainted with persons and things just as they chanced to exist, and giving us a local interest in all she knows and tells" Spirit of the Age (1825) 196-97.

Newcastle Magazine: "Now the Fairy Queen ... is full of the freaks of magicians and enchanters; and contains the most fascinating descriptions of fair dames, knights, and feats of arms, which have long, and will continue to, delight the civilized portion of mankind. Narrative poetry, however, has of late been so degraded, that it has fallen considerably from the high rank it once possessed. We all know Paradise Lost is a sublime and brilliant piece of narration. Those recent productions, however, Peter Bell, The Ideot Boy, and the Tales of the Hall, on the contrary, are just as homely; and although they may relate faithfully enough the acts and deeds of the humble individuals their authors intended, they certainly cannot deserve the name of dignified pieces of narrative poetry; for it needs some of the pomp of circumstance, a little of the grandeur and glitter of spear and shield (things generally associated with magnificence in the mind), and a depiction of the loftier passion of our nature, to constitute a noble poetical narrative" "Poetry of Spenser" NS 8 (December 1829) 544.




But in whatever degree I may venture to differ from any others in my notions of the qualifications and character of the true poet, I most cordially assent to their opinion who assert that his principal exertions must be made to engage the attention of his readers; and further, I must allow that the effect of poetry should be to lift the mind from the painful realities of actual existence, from its everyday concerns, and its perpetually-occurring vexations, and to give it repose by substituting objects in their place which it may contemplate with some degree of interest and satisfaction: but what is there in all this, which may not be effected by a fair representation of existing character? nay, by a faithful delineation of those painful realities, those every-day concerns, and those perpetually-occurring vexations themselves, provided they be not (which is hardly to be supposed) the very concerns and distresses of the reader? for when it is admitted that they have no particular relation to him, but are the troubles and anxieties of other men, they excite and interest his feelings as the imaginary exploits, adventures, and perils of romance; — they soothe his mind, and keep his curiosity pleasantly awake; they appear to have enough of reality to engage his sympathy, but possess not interest sufficient to create painful sensations. Fiction itself, we know, and every work of fancy, must for a time have the effect of realities; nay, the very enchanters, spirits, and monsters of Ariosto and Spenser must be present in the mind of the reader while he is engaged by their operations, or they would be as the objects and incidents of a nursery tale to a rational understanding, altogether despised and neglected: in truth, I can but consider this pleasant effect upon the mind of a reader, as depending neither upon the events related (whether they be actual or imaginary) nor upon the characters introduced (whether taken from life or fancy) but upon the manner in which the poem itself is conducted; let that be judiciously managed, and the occurrences actually copied from life will have the same happy effect as the inventions of a creative fancy; — while, on the other hand, the imaginary persons and incidents to which the poet has given "a local habitation and a name," will make upon the concurring feelings of the reader the same impression of those taken from truth and nature, because they will appear to be derived from that source, and therefore of necessity will have a similar effect.

Having thus far presumed to claim for the ensuing pages the rank and title of poetry, I attempt no more, nor venture to class or compare them with any other kinds of poetical composition; their place will doubtless be found for them. . . .


[Works (1823) 3:xxiii-xxiv]