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Monday, February 1, 2016

Does Crabbe Look Forward or Back?


I read the Penguin Classics Selected Poems volume edited by Gavin Edwards. Page numbers in parentheses are references to this edition. Endnotes are in brackets.

A typical characterization of George Crabbe concludes “The characteristics of his expression single him out as the last of the classical writers; but there is also in his poetry the suggestion of a virtual Romanticism.” The author finds him “a suffering sensibility,” “an imagination resolutely bent under the yoke of the real.” [1] This sense of Crabbe as a sort of Janus, pointing at once toward the past and the future, has become something of a received idea. Just what he is glancing toward, in views both beyond and back, is not always detailed. To exploit this notion in understanding Crabbe, it remains to specify more precisely just what are the old-fashioned and innovative elements within his unique body of work.

Though he published largely in the nineteenth century and socialized with the Lake Poets, George Crabbe with his heroic couplets and sententiae seems to many the last of the Augustans, and he was applauded by Doctor Johnson (in a letter to Reynolds) as “original, vigorous, and elegant.” [2] On the other hand his content focusing on lower-class figures and village life is more consistent with Romantic predilections. His reputation for focusing on realistic portrayals of recognizable life casts him as a herald of realism and naturalism in fiction. Yet his falling between these literary various models, each of which continues to have enthusiastic readers, is perhaps less a reason for his present lack of popularity as his status as one of the last poets to use a metrical line as the natural medium for uses that after his time were more commonly treated in prose: narrative, description, and moralizing. His poetry is less dense and, closer to everyday speech than that of many of his contemporaries. The recent popularity of “poetry” which is colloquial to a fault has not benefited the writer whom the great Hazlitt called the most prosaic of poets whose work resembled “a dull leaden cloud” hanging over the earth. Worse, to Hazlitt his work is even “repulsive.” Yet Hazlitt also called this surgeon, entomologist, priest, and addict “one of the most popular and admired of our living authors.” [3]

As fond of artificial conventions as any poet, Crabbe was, however, notoriously innovative in his inclusion of the middle class and the poor in stories relating what he calls “the follies and crimes of persons in lower life.” [4] In Book I of “The Village” he ridicules earlier pastoralists for idealizing rural life, insisting “I will paint the cot./ As truth will paint it, and as bards will not.” The novelty of such subject matter is difficult for moderns to understand, but the fact is that most literature had once been concerned primarily with the ruling class, including workers as villainous or comic figures. Fiction began early to include those in lower social strata with Nashe and then Defoe and picaresques in the following centuries, but drama and poetry were slower to follow suit. It is not until Büchner and, much later, Hauptmann that dramatists (who had paid attention to bourgeois life earlier) used proletarians.

Still Crabbe was not alone in his use of the lower reaches of the social scale, especially as the nineteenth century dawned. In poetry Burns was “the ploughman poet” and the milkmaid Ann Yearsley wrote “the touch of Ecstasy, which strikes/ Most pow'rful on defenceless, untaught Minds.” [5] Among those who defined Romanticism, Wordsworth had favored focusing on the lowly, saying that among the humble “the essential passions of the heart find a better soil” and thus the feelings common to all may “be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated.” [6]

There is little, in fact, in Crabbe’s stories that recalls his anti-pastoral prefaced to “The Village” (I, 63-78) with its catalogue of weeds and picture of privation, “the village life a life of pain.” (II, 1-2) The inherent hardships of working life occupy him far less than love-relations and religious questions. To some extent Crabbe recognizes the gap between lived experience and his narrations when he speaks of the persona as an “ideal” friend. [7]

Elsewhere Crabbe himself seems defensive about his practice. In the Preface to his “Tales” Crabbe notes that realism is an admired end in painting and should be in poetry as well, only to instantly concede with the decisive witness of Shakespeare the sublimity of idealizing verse with the ability to “body forth” “the forms of things unknown.” [8] Agreeing on the lofty value of such work, he then asks that room be allowed the more modest work of “those who address their productions to the plain sense and sober judgment of their Readers, rather than on their fancy and imagination.” (469) He bases a good share of his claim on the fact that his stories “are founded on real events,” (470) that they represent “a faithful delineation of those painful realities, those every-day concerns, and those perpetually-occurring vexations” which the reader is likely to have personally experienced. (471)

Many critics have taken him at his word, ever since the perspicacious Hazlitt, despite his having so little taste for Crabbe, allowed that “individuality is, in his theory, the only definition of poetry. Whatever is, he hitches into rhyme. Whoever makes an exact image of any thing on the earth, however deformed or insignificant, according to him, must succeed — and he himself has succeeded.” [9]

But it is hardly an “exact image” that one finds in the poet’s verse. Far from realistically depicting the life of the poor, Crabbe specialized in dramatizing the retributive justice visited on those who stray from the straight and narrow in belief and behavior. Though writing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, his work harks back to the seventeenth, to Everyman in the fifteenth and to even earlier saints’ lives and medieval allegories, and to Piers Ploughman. Though his characters resemble those of the everyday world in their ordinariness, even the ordinariness of their sins (with the exception of some lurid, if sordid, cases), their fates are far more predictable and the cause and effect of their lives more lucid than what we observe in our lived experience.

The narratives of “The Poor of the Borough” pass for realistic simply because they largely ignore the upper class. Still, most modern readers will experience them not as slices of life but rather as straightforwardly moralistic tales in which deviation from conventional piety and behavior proves not only ruinous but regretted in a way far from consistently observed in lived experience. Crabbe’s language is not only close to Pope’s in its significant rhymes and its personifications, it harks back to the Bible in many of the names and to Chaucer in the use of obsolete words such as “hight” and “churl.”
The life of each is measured in a rather medieval way by death. Thus the parish clerk, Abel Keene, and Peter Grimes end their lives in wretched despair, while Ellen Orford, who has all along been more a victim than a sinner, enters a penitential redemptive life of service.

Prior to the retributive justice of their ends, though, each manifests faults more banal than demonic. The parish clerk who steals from the offerings resembles those one reads of in the morning newspaper who have helped themselves to funds of scouts or volunteer fire outfits or local political campaigns. Ellen Orford’s cruel stepfather, her unfortunate seduction and later mésalliance are unfortunately too commonplace even to make the paper.

Crabbe did employ Romantic aesthetic values in, for instance, his admiration of picturesque ruins, [10] his cultivation of a sort of mean antihero such as Peter Grimes, [11] and his interest in dreams and in mental illness (still in his day often called melancholy). Both “The World of Dreams” and “Sir Eustace Grey” exploit the opportunity these themes offer to fly above the notoriously prosaic ground he had marked out for himself. Yet both poems very likely owe their visions not to Romantic conceptions of Genius than to his involvement in another proclivity of the Romantics, the use of psychoactive drugs.
The extreme joys and woes in “The World of Dreams” have little in common with an ordinary night’s sleep and are likely to represent a coded way of describing the poet’s experience of opium addiction. Indeed, the persona specifically contrasts himself to the reader and calls his own dream-state an “ideal World.” (l. 16) He is the unsleeping one. (l. 96)

The deranged visions of the mad protagonist of “Sir Eustace Grey” include a frozen landscape of Grey’s imagination is reminiscent of both the arctic scene in Frankenstein and Burroughs’ passage beginning “Junkies always beef about The Cold. . . life in The Old Ice House.” [12] But even in this sensational piece which is set in a madhouse and in which Crabbe allows himself unusually disjointed syntax, the verse form is a fast-moving tetrameter and the linked rhyme scheme unforgiving.

Further, in this poem built in the boundary-land between neo-classicism and Romanticism, madness is no grand Romantic frenzy implying greater insight akin to the poetic. Grey is not magnificently mad but rather the victim of the gathering force of his initial religious doubts that lead him to neglect his soul’s tending (92 ff.) combined with his wife’s infidelity and the shock of killing her lover, [13] once his best friend. The insane anti-hero’s fate is softened at the end when he accepts a “methodistic call” and finds some peace. The story’s arc is determined by his divine punishment for apostasy, though then his affliction is lessened with his relative improvement in theology, though his pathology leads to his selecting a nonconforming sect.

It is a telling index of Crabbe’s conservatism both in style and in theme that “The Family of Love,” the lengthy tale which is very likely his last opus, looks clearly backward. The title may well recall Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison where the phrase is used straightforwardly in praise of the title character and his two sisters. [14] Although contemporary history is acknowledged in some of the details of the poem, this final work, with its leisurely exposition, in a sense the same plot as the story of Roger Cuff from “The Parish Register”, seems to assert all the more aggressively the practices Crabbe had established in early work.

“The Family of Love” could very nearly be a medieval exemplum illustrating hypocrisy were it not wrapped in a comforting sort of belittlement of the sin. After he has penetrated the façade of familial harmony and caught out his relatives for greedy self-interest, the returned Captain Elliot graciously allows, “If as frail mortals you, my Friends appear,/ I looked for no angelic beings here.” (1035-6) Presumably everyone will gladly decide to try to do better next time and that will, it seems, settle the matter.

In fact in many ways, Crabbe is less an anticipation of Romantic trends and tastes than he is a reminiscence of an immensely popular 17th century writer John Bunyan. In his bourgeois vision, his decorous plain style rooted in familiar objects, his moralistic themes, and his allegorical figures Crabbe is a sort of Bunyan redivivus. For all Crabbe’s Anglicanism and service to aristocrats, his poetic lines are prosaic in the way that a Friends’ meeting housed is plain, with a sort of wholesome elegance, implying that things themselves are sufficient marvels needing no elaboration from the fancy. As fiction writers like Sarah Orne Jewett and poets like Edgar Lee Masters were to recognize in the century following Crabbe the ordinary struggles of villagers contain drama as moving as the fortunes of princes and magnates, but Bunyan too had a bourgeois hero. The comparison is all the more compelling when the reader considers the many plots in which orthodox belief is critical, such works as “The Dumb Orators,” “The Gentleman Farmer,” “Edward Shore,” “The Struggles of Conscience,” “The Convert,” and “The Leaned Boy.” In each of these free-thinking or heterodox ideas lead to moral and worldly disaster while conventional piety provides the likeliest route to peace and satisfaction, if not happiness.

Crabbe’s immense popularity, his reputation with Byron and others, arose more from his being a throwback than an innovator. What strikes the contemporary reader as most modern in Crabbe is his neurotic complex, his tendency to depression, his fascination with wrong-doing, guilt, and madness, and – in style -- his pared-down rhetoric, even when expressed in the previous century’s heroic couplets. Though just when the reader feels he has adequately characterized Crabbe’s Protestant gravitas, his assumptions are tossed by the conclusion to his preface to “Tales of the Hall” in which he self-deprecatingly offers a defense of his work as the product of otherwise idle hours that might have been “lost in the indulgence of unregistered thoughts and fancies, that melt away in the instant they are conceived, and ‘leave not a wreck behind.’” (478) [15] Though he escapes the accusation of the “indulgence” of doing nothing, he substitutes the construction of durable specters in words and accounts as a more worthy pastime on this earth, forever regreening as we age and grow ever more justly anxious. Suddenly he sounds less like a purveyor of pious dogma than like a dilettante or a lost modern.


1. Émile Legouis and Louis Cazamian, A History of English Literature, p. 970. I find this old book translated from French in the 1920s peerless, the best guide to the whole range of its subject I have encountered.

2. T. E. Kebble, Life of Crabbe, p. 45.

3. William Hazlitt, in "Mr. Campbell and Mr. Crabbe," The Spirit of the Age: or Contemporary Portraits (1825), 194-205.

4. P. 461 in Crabbe’s preface to "The Borough."

5. “To Mr. — — — , an Unlettered Poet, on Genius Unimproved.”

6. Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

7. Preface to “The Borough,” 460.

8. Quoting Midsummer Night’s Dream V, i.

9. “Mr. Campbell and Mr. Crabbe.”

10. “Sir Eustace Grey,” 209.

11. In the Preface to “The Borough” Crabbe describes Grimes, with simultaneous fascination and apology, as “the victim of a distempered and horror-stricken fancy.” Just as with Sir Eustace the madness is in no sense associated with access to a higher truth. It is instead purely a curiosity with the appeal of exotic horror. The reader recalls the 18th century vogue for touristic visits to the psychiatric wards of Bethlem Royal Hospital.

12. Crabbe used opium habitually, having begun as a treatment for indigestion under a doctor’s care. See Opium and the Romantic Imagination by Alethea Hayter and M. H. Abrams The Milk of Paradise. The poet Edward Fitzgerald, a good friend of Crabbe’s son, originally suggested the connection between "Sir Eustace Grey" and opium. Apart from his yen for opium, Crabbe was an active participant in Sir Humphry Davy’s experiments with nitrous oxide and other psychoactive substances. The Burroughs reference is to the introduction of Naked Lunch.

13. A modern analogue of this scenario occurs In Bobby Marchan’s “There’s Something on Your Mind.” When the persona discovers his beloved having an affair with his “very best friend,” he shoots him only to find “here come another one of your best friends through the door” which “really makes you blows your top.”

14. Richardson aimed in this book to feature a moral leading man and, in particular, to counter the pernicious influence of writers like Fielding with his Tom Jones, virtually a libertine.

15. This phrase from The Tempest is carved on Shakespeare’s Westminster Abbey memorial.

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