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Crabbe by Leslie Stephen

 

It is nearly a century since George Crabbe, then a young man of five-and-twenty, put three pounds in his pocket and started from his native town of Aldborough, with a box of clothes and a case of surgical instruments, to make his fortune in London. Few men have attempted that adventure with less promising prospects. Any sensible adviser would have told him to prefer starvation in his native village to starvation in the back lanes of London. The adviser would, perhaps, have been vexed, but would not have been confuted, by Crabbe's good fortune. We should still recommend a youth not to jump into a river, though, of a thousand who try the experiment, one may happen to be rescued by a benevolent millionaire, and be put in the road to fortune. The chances against Crabbe were enormous. Literature, considered as a trade, is a good deal better at the present day than it was towards the end of the last century, and yet anyone who has an opportunity of comparing the failures with the successes, would be more apt to quote Chatterton than Crabbe as a precedent for youthful aspirants. Crabbe, indeed, might say for himself that literature was the only path open to him. His father was collector of salt duties at Aldborough, a position, as one may imagine, of no very great emolument. He had, however, given his son the chance of acquiring a smattering of 'scholarship,' in the sense in which that word is used by the less educated lower classes. To the slender store of learning acquired in a cheap country school, the lad managed to add such medical training as could be picked up during an apprenticeship in an apothecary's shop. With this provision of knowledge he tried to obtain practice in his native town. He failed to get any patients of the paying variety. Crabbe was clumsy and absent-minded to the end of his life. He had, moreover, a taste for botany, and the shrewd inhabitants of Aldborough, with that perverse tendency to draw inferences which is characteristic of people who cannot reason, argued that as he picked up his samples in the ditches, he ought to sell the medicines presumably compounded from them for nothing. In one way or other, poor Crabbe had sunk to the verge of distress. Of course, under these circumstances, he had fallen in love and engaged himself at the age of eighteen to a young lady, apparently as poor as himself. Of course, too, he called Miss Elmy 'Mira,' and addressed her in verses which occasionally appeared in the poet's corner of a certain 'Wheble's Magazine.' My Mira, said the young surgeon, in a style which must have been rather antiquated even in Aldborough—

    My Mira, shepherds, is as fair
      As sylvan nymphs who haunt the vale;
    As sylphs who dwell in purest air,
      As fays who skim the dusky dale.

Moreover, he won a prize for a poem on Hope, and composed an 'Allegorical Fable' and a piece called 'The Atheist reclaimed;' and, in short, added plentifully to the vast rubbish-heap of old-world verses, now decayed beyond the industry of the most persevering of Dryasdusts. Nay, he even succeeded by some mysterious means in getting one of his poems published separately. It was called 'Inebriety,' and was an unblushing imitation of Pope. Here is a couplet by way of sample:—

    Champagne the courtier drinks the spleen to chase,
    The colonel Burgundy, and Port his Grace.

From the satirical the poet diverges into the mock heroic:—

    See Inebriety! her wand she waves,
    And lo! her pale, and lo! her purple slaves.

The interstices of the box of clothing which went with him from Aldborough to London were doubtless crammed with much waste paper scribbled over with these feeble echoes of Pope's Satires, and with appeals to nymphs, muses, and shepherds. Crabbe was one of those men who are born a generation after their natural epoch, and was as little accessible to the change of fashion in poetry as in costume. When, therefore, he finally resolved to hazard his own fate and Mira's upon the results of his London adventure, the literary goods at his disposal were already somewhat musty in character. The year 1780, in which he reached London, marks the very nadir of English poetry. From the days of Elizabeth to our own there has never been so absolutely barren a period. People had become fairly tired of the jingle of Pope's imitators, and the new era had not dawned. Goldsmith and Gray, both recently dead, serve to illustrate the condition in which the most exquisite polish and refinement of language has been developed until there is a danger of sterility. The 'Elegy' and the 'Deserted Village' are in their way inimitable poems: but we feel that the intellectual fibre of the poets has become dangerously delicate. The critical faculty could not be stimulated further without destroying all spontaneous impulse. The reaction to a more masculine and passionate school was imminent; and if the excellent Crabbe could have put into his box a few of Burns's lyrics, or even a copy of Cowper's 'Task,' one might have augured better for his prospects. But what chance was there for a man who could still be contentedly invoking the muse and stringing together mechanic echoes of Pope's couplets? How could he expect to charm the jaded faculties of a generation which was already beginning to heave and stir with a longing for some fresh excitement? For a year the fate which has overtaken so many rash literary adventurers seemed to be approaching steadily. One temporary gleam of good fortune cheered him for a time. He persuaded an enterprising publisher to bring out a poem called 'The Candidate,' which had some faint success, though ridiculed by the reviewers. Unluckily the publisher became bankrupt and Crabbe was thrown upon his resources—the poor three pounds and box of surgical instruments aforesaid. How he managed to hold out for a year is a mystery. It was lucky for him, as he intimates, that he had never heard of the fate of Chatterton, who had poisoned himself just ten years before. A Journal which he wrote for Mira is published in his Life, and gives an account of his feelings during three months of his cruel probation. He applies for a situation as amanuensis offered in an advertisement, and comforts himself on failing with the reflection that the advertiser was probably a sharper. He writes piteous letters to publishers, and gets, of course, the stereotyped reply with which the most amiable of publishers must damp the ardour of aspiring genius. The disappointment is not much softened by the publisher's statement that 'he does not mean by this to insinuate any want of merit in the poem, but rather a want of attention in the public.' Bit by bit his surgical instruments go to the pawnbroker. When one publisher sends his polite refusal poor Crabbe has only sixpence-farthing in the world, which, by the purchase of a pint of porter, is reduced to fourpence-halfpenny. The exchequer fills again by the disappearance of his wardrobe and his watch; but ebbs under a new temptation. He buys some odd volumes of Dryden for three-and-sixpence, and on coming home tears his only coat, which he manages to patch tolerably with a borrowed needle and thread, pretending, with a pathetic shift, that they are required to stitch together manuscripts instead of broadcloth. And so for a year the wolf creeps nearer the door, whilst Crabbe gallantly keeps up appearances and spirits, and yet he tries to preserve a show of good spirits in the Journal to Mira, and continues to labour at his versemaking. Perhaps, indeed, it may be regarded as a bad symptom that he is reduced to distracting his mind by making an analysis of a dull sermon. 'There is nothing particular in it,' he admits, but at least it is better, he thinks, to listen to a bad sermon than to the blasphemous rant of deistical societies. Indeed, Crabbe's spirit was totally unlike the desperate pride of Chatterton. He was of the patient enduring tribe, and comforts himself by religious meditations, which are, perhaps, rather commonplace in expression, but when read by the light of the distresses he was enduring, show a brave unembittered spirit, not to be easily respected too highly. Starvation seemed to be approaching; or, at least, the only alternative was the abandonment of his ambition, and acceptance, if he could get it, of the post of druggist's assistant. He had but one resource left; and that not of the most promising kind. Crabbe, amongst his other old-fashioned notions, had a strong belief in the traditional patron. Johnson might have given him some hints upon the subject; but luckily, as it turned out, he pursued what Chesterfield's correspondent would have thought the most hopeless of all courses. He wrote to Lord North, who was at that moment occupied in contemplating the final results of the ingenious policy by which America was lost to England, and probably consigned Crabbe's letter to the waste-paper basket. Then he tried the effect of a copy of verses, beginning:—

    Ah! Shelburne, blest with all that's good or great,
    T' adorn a rich or save a sinking State.

He added a letter saying that, as Lord North had not answered him, Lord Shelburne would probably be glad to supply the needs of a starving apothecary turned poet. Another copy of verses was enclosed, pointing out that Shelburne's reputed liberality would be repaid in the usual coin:

    Then shall my grateful strains his ear rejoice,
    His name harmonious thrilled on Mira's voice;
    Round the reviving bays new sweets shall spring,
    And Shelburne's fame through laughing valleys ring!

Nobody can blame North and Shelburne for not acting the part of Good Samaritans. He, at least, may throw the first stone who has always taken the trouble to sift the grain from the chaff amidst all the begging letters which he has received, and who has never lamented that his benevolence outran his discretion. But there was one man in England at the time who had the rare union of qualities necessary for Crabbe's purpose. Burke is a name never to be mentioned without reverence; not only because Burke was incomparably the greatest of all English political writers, and a standing refutation of the theory which couples rhetorical excellence with intellectual emptiness, but also because he was a man whose glowing hatred of all injustice and sympathy for all suffering never evaporated in empty words. His fine literary perception enabled him to detect the genuine excellence which underlay the superficial triviality of Crabbe's verses. He discovered the genius where men like North and Shelburne might excusably see nothing but the mendicant versifier; and a benevolence still rarer than his critical ability forbade him to satisfy his conscience by the sacrifice of a five-pound note. When, by the one happy thought of his life, Crabbe appealed to Burke's sympathy, the poet was desperately endeavouring to get a poem through the press. But he owed fourteen pounds, and every application to friends as poor as himself, and to patrons upon whom he had no claims, had been unsuccessful. Nothing but ruin was before him. After writing to Burke he spent the night in pacing Westminster Bridge. The letter on which his fate hung is the more pathetic because it is free from those questionable poetical flourishes which had failed to conciliate his former patrons. It tells his story frankly and forcibly. Burke, however, was not a rich man, and was at one of the most exciting periods of his political career. His party was at last fighting its way to power by means of the general resentment against the gross mismanagement of their antagonists. A perfunctory discharge of the duty of charity would have been pardonable; but from the moment when Crabbe addressed Burke the poor man's fortune was made. Burke's glory rests upon services of much more importance to the world at large than even the preservation to the country of a man of genuine power. Yet there are few actions on which he could reflect with more unalloyed satisfaction; and the case is not a solitary one in Burke's history. A political triumph may often be only hastened a year or two by the efforts of even a great leader; but the salvage of a genius which would otherwise have been hopelessly wrecked in the deep waters of poverty is so much clear gain to mankind. One circumstance may be added as oddly characteristic of Crabbe. He always spoke of his benefactor with becoming gratitude: and many years afterwards Moore and Rogers thought that they might extract some interesting anecdotes of the great author from the now celebrated poet. Burke, as we know, was a man whom you would discover to be remarkable if you stood with him for five minutes under a haystack in a shower. Crabbe stayed in his house for months under circumstances most calculated to be impressive. Burke was at the height of his power and reputation; he was the first man of any distinction whom the poet had ever seen; the two men had long and intimate conversations, and Crabbe, it may be added, was a very keen observer of character. And yet all that Rogers and Moore could extract from him was a few 'vague generalities.' Moore suggests some explanation; but the fact seems to be that Crabbe was one of those simple, homespun characters, whose interests are strictly limited to their own peculiar sphere. Burke, when he pleased, could talk of oxen as well as politics, and doubtless adapted his conversation to the taste of the young poet. Probably, much more was said about the state of Burke's farm than about the prospects of the Whig party. Crabbe's powers of vision were as limited as they were keen, and the great qualities to which Burke owed his reputation could only exhibit themselves in a sphere to which Crabbe never rose. His attempt to draw a likeness of Burke under the name of 'Eugenius,' in the 'Borough,' is open to the objection that it would be nearly as applicable to Wilberforce, Howard, or Dr. Johnson. It is a mere complimentary daub, in which every remarkable feature of the original is blurred or altogether omitted.

The inward Crabbe remained to the end of his days what nature and education had already made him; the outward Crabbe, by the help of Burke, rapidly put on a more prosperous appearance. His poems were published and achieved success. He took orders and found patrons. Thurlow gave him £100, and afterwards presented him to two small livings, growling out with an oath that he was 'as like Parson Adams as twelve to a dozen.' The Duke of Rutland appointed him chaplain, a position in which he seems to have been singularly out of his element. Further patronage, however, made him independent, and he married his Mira and lived very happily ever afterwards. Perhaps, with his old-fashioned ideas, he would not quite have satisfied some clerical critics of the present day. His views about non-residence and pluralities seem to have been lax for the time; and his hearty dislike for dissent was coupled with a general dislike for enthusiasm of all kinds. He liked to ramble about after flowers and fossils, and to hammer away at his poems in a study where chaos reigned supreme. For twenty-two years after his first success as an author, he never managed to get a poem into a state fit for publication, though periodical conflagrations of masses of manuscript—too vast to be burnt in the chimney—testified to his continuous industry. His reappearance seems to have been caused chiefly by his desire to send a son to the University. His success was repeated, though a new school had arisen which knew not Pope. The youth who had been kindly received by Burke, Reynolds, and Johnson, came back from his country retreat to be lionised at Holland House, and be petted by Brougham and Moore, and Rogers and Campbell, and all the rising luminaries. He paid a visit to Scott contemporaneously with George IV., and pottered about the queer old wynds and closes of Edinburgh, which he preferred to the New Town, and apparently to Arthur's Seat, with a judicious caddie following to keep him out of mischief. A more tangible kind of homage was the receipt of £3,000 from Murray for his 'Tales of the Hall,' which so delighted him that he insisted on carrying the bills loose in his pocket till he could show them 'to his son John' in the country.[2] There, no doubt, he was most at home; and his parishioners gradually became attached to their 'Parson Adams,' in spite of his quaintnesses and some manful defiance of their prejudices. All women and children loved him, and he died at a good old age in 1832, having lived into a new order in many things, and been as little affected by the change as most men. The words with which he concludes the sketch of the Vicar in his 'Borough' are not inappropriate to himself:—

    Nor one so old has left this world of sin
    More like the being that he entered in.

The peculiar homeliness of Crabbe's character and poetry is excellently hit off in the 'Rejected Addresses,' and the lines beginning

    John Richard William Alexander Dwyer
    Was footman to Justinian Stubbs, Esquire,

are probably more familiar to the present generation than any of the originals. 'Pope in the worsted stockings' is the title hit off for him by Horace Smith, and has about the same degree of truth as most smart sayings of the kind. The 'worsted stockings' at least are characteristic. Crabbe's son and biographer indicates some of the surroundings of his father's early life in a description of the uncle, a Mr. Tovell, with whom the poet's wife, the Mira of his Journal, passed her youth. He was a sturdy yeoman, living in an old house with a moat, a rookery, and fishponds. The hall was paved with black and white marble, and the staircase was of black oak, slippery as ice, with a chiming clock and a barrel-organ on the landing-places. The handsome drawing-room and dining-rooms were only used on grand occasions, such as the visit of a neighbouring peer. Mrs. Tovell jealously reserved for herself the duty of scrubbing these state apartments, and sent any servant to the right-about who dared to lay unhallowed hands upon them. The family sat habitually in the old-fashioned kitchen, by a huge open chimney, where the blaze of a whole pollard sometimes eclipsed the feeble glimmer of the single candle in an iron candlestick, intended to illuminate Mrs. Tovell's labours with the needle. Masters and servants, with any travelling tinker or ratcatcher, all dined together, and the nature of their meals has been described by Crabbe himself:—

    But when the men beside their station took,
    The maidens with them, and with these the cook;
    When one huge wooden bowl before them stood,
    Filled with huge balls of farinaceous food;
    With bacon, mass saline, where never lean
    Beneath the brown and bristly rind was seen;
    When from a single horn the party drew
    Their copious draughts of heavy ale and new;

then, the poet goes on to intimate, squeamish persons might feel a little uncomfortable. After dinner followed a nap of precisely one hour. Then bottles appeared on the table, and neighbouring farmers, with faces rosy with brandy, drifted in for a chat. One of these heroes never went to bed sober, but scandalised all teetotallers by retaining all his powers and coursing after he was ninety. Bowl after bowl of punch was emptied, and the conversation took so convivial a character that Crabbe generally found it expedient to withdraw, though his son, who records these performances, was held to be too young to be injured, and the servants were too familiar for their presence to be a restraint.

It was in this household that the poet found his Mira. Crabbe's own father was apparently at a lower point of the social scale; and during his later years took to drinking and to flinging dishes about the room whenever he was out of temper. Crabbe always drew from the life; most of his characters might have joined in his father's drinking bouts, or told stories over Mr. Tovell's punchbowls. Doubtless a social order of the same kind survived till a later period in various corners of the island. The Tovells of to-day get their fashions from London, and their labourers, instead of dining with them in their kitchen, have taken to forming unions and making speeches about their rights. If, here and there, in some remote nooks we find an approximation to the coarse, hearty patriarchal mode of life, we regard it as a naturalist regards a puny modern reptile, the representative of gigantic lizards of old geological epochs. A sketch or two of its peculiarities, sufficiently softened and idealised to suit modern tastes, forms a picturesque background to a modern picture. Some of Miss Brontë's rough Yorkshiremen would have drunk punch with Mr. Tovell; and the farmers in the 'Mill on the Floss' are representatives of the same race, slightly degenerate, in so far as they are just conscious that a new cause of disturbance is setting into the quiet rural districts. Dandie Dinmont again is a relation of Crabbe's heroes, though the fresh air of the Cheviots and the stirring traditions of the old border life have conferred upon him a more poetical colouring. To get a realistic picture of country life as Crabbe saw it, we must go back to Squire Western, or to some of the roughly-hewn masses of flesh who sat to Hogarth. Perhaps it may be said that Miss Austen's delicate portrait of the more polished society, which took the waters at Bath, and occasionally paid a visit to London, implies a background of coarser manners and more brutal passions, which lay outside her peculiar province. The question naturally occurs to social philosophers, whether the improvement in the external decencies of life and the wider intellectual horizon of modern days prove a genuine advance over the rude and homely plenty of an earlier generation. I refer to such problems only to remark that Crabbe must be consulted by those who wish to look upon the seamy side of the time which he describes. He very soon dropped his nymphs and shepherds, and ceased to invoke the idyllic muse. In his long portrait gallery there are plenty of virtuous people, and some people intended to be refined; but features indicative of coarse animal passions, brutality, selfishness, and sensuality are drawn to the life, and the development of his stories is generally determined by some of the baser elements of human nature. 'Jesse and Colin' are described in one of the Tales; but they are not the Jesse and Colin of Dresden china. They are such rustics as ate fat bacon and drank 'heavy ale and new;' not the imaginary personages who exchanged amatory civilities in the old-fashioned pastorals ridiculed by Pope and Gay.

Crabbe's rough style is indicative of his general temper. It is in places at least the most slovenly and slipshod that was ever adopted by any true poet. The authors of the 'Rejected Addresses' had simply to copy, without attempting the impossible task of caricaturing. One of their familiar couplets, for example, runs thus:—

    Emmanuel Jennings brought his youngest boy
    Up as a corn-cutter, a safe employ!

And here is the original Crabbe:—

    Swallow, a poor attorney, brought his boy
    Up at his desk, and gave him his employ.

When boy cannot be made to rhyme with employ, Crabbe is very fond of dragging in a hoy. In the 'Parish Register' he introduces a narrative about a village grocer and his friend in these lines:—

    Aged were both, that Dawkins, Ditchem this,
    Who much of marriage thought and much amiss.

Or to quote one more opening of a story:—

    Counter and Clubb were men in trade, whose pains,
    Credit, and prudence, brought them constant gains;
    Partners and punctual, every friend agreed
    Counter and Clubb were men who must succeed.

But of such gems anyone may gather as many as he pleases by simply turning over Crabbe's pages. In one sense, they are rather pleasant than otherwise. They are so characteristic and put forward with such absolute simplicity that they have the same effect as a good old provincialism in the mouth of a genuine countryman. It must, however, be admitted that Crabbe's careful study of Pope had not initiated him in some of his master's secrets. The worsted stockings were uncommonly thick. If Pope's brilliance of style savours too much of affectation, Crabbe never manages to hit off an epigram in the whole of his poetry. The language seldom soars above the style which would be intelligible to the merest clodhopper; and we can understand how, when in his later years Crabbe was introduced to wits and men of the world, he generally held his peace, or, at most, let fall some bit of dry quiet humour. At rare intervals he remembers that a poet ought to indulge in a figure of speech, and laboriously compounds a simile which appears in his poetry like a bit of gold lace on a farmer's homespun coat. He confessed as much in answer to a shrewd criticism of Jeffrey's, saying that he generally thought of such illustrations and inserted them after he had finished his tale. Here is one of these deliberately-concocted ornaments, intended to explain the remark that the difference between the character of two brothers came out when they were living together quietly:—

    As various colours in a painted ball,
    While it has rest are seen distinctly all;
    Till, whirl'd around by some exterior force,
    They all are blended in the rapid course;
    So in repose and not by passion swayed
    We saw the difference by their habits made;
    But, tried by strong emotions, they became
    Filled with one love, and were in heart the same.

The conceit is ingenious enough in one sense, but painfully ingenious. It requires some thought to catch the likeness suggested, and then it turns out to be purely superficial. The resemblance of such a writer to Pope obviously does not go deep. Crabbe imitates Pope because everybody imitated him at that day. He adopted Pope's metre because it had come to be almost the only recognised means of poetical expression. He stuck to it after his contemporaries had introduced new versification, partly because he was old-fashioned to the backbone and partly because he had none of those lofty inspirations which naturally generate new forms of melody. He seldom trusts himself to be lyrical, and when he does his versification is nearly as monotonous as it is in his narrative poetry. We must not expect to soar with Crabbe into any of the loftier regions; to see the world 'apparelled in celestial light,' or to descry

    Such forms as glitter in the muses' ray,
    With orient hues, unborrowed of the sun.

We shall find no vehement outbursts of passion, breaking loose from the fetters of sacred convention. Crabbe is perfectly content with the British Constitution, with the Thirty-nine Articles, and all respectabilities in Church and State, and therefore he is quite content also with the good old jogtrot of the recognised metres; his language, halting invariably, and for the most part clumsy enough, is sufficiently differentiated from prose by the mould into which it is run, and he never wants to kick over the traces with his more excitable contemporaries.

                The good old rule
    Sufficeth him, the simple plan

that each verse should consist of ten syllables, with an occasional Alexandrine to accommodate a refractory epithet, and should rhyme peaceably with its neighbour.

From all which it may be too harshly inferred that Crabbe is merely a writer in rhyming prose, and deserving of no attention from the more enlightened adherents of a later school. The inference, I say, would be hasty, for it is impossible to read Crabbe patiently without receiving a very distinct and original impression. If some pedants of æsthetic philosophy should declare that we ought not to be impressed because Crabbe breaks all their rules, we can only reply they are mistaking their trade. The true business of the critic is to discover from observation what are the conditions under which a book appeals to our sympathies, and, if he finds an apparent exception to his rules, to admit that he has made an oversight, and not to condemn the facts which persist in contradicting his theories. It may, indeed, be freely granted that Crabbe has suffered seriously by his slovenly methods and his insensibility to the more exquisite and ethereal forms of poetical excellence. But however he may be classified, he possesses the essential mark of genius, namely, that his pictures, however coarse the workmanship, stamp themselves on our minds indelibly and instantaneously. His pathos is here and there clumsy, but it goes straight to the mark. His characteristic qualities were first distinctly shown in the 'Village,' which was partly composed under Burke's eye, and was more or less touched by Johnson. It was, indeed, a work after Johnson's own heart, intended to be a pendant, or perhaps a corrective, to Goldsmith's 'Deserted Village.' It is meant to give the bare blank facts of rural life, stripped of all sentimental gloss. To read the two is something like hearing a speech from an optimist landlord and then listening to the comments of Mr. Arch. Goldsmith, indeed, was far too exquisite an artist to indulge in mere conventionalities about agricultural bliss. If his 'Auburn' is rather idealised, the most prosaic of critics cannot object to the glow thrown by the memory of the poet over the scene of now ruined happiness, and, moreover, Goldsmith's delicate humour guards him instinctively from laying on his rose-colour too thickly. Crabbe, however, will have nothing to do with rose-colour, thick or thin. There is one explicit reference in the poem to his predecessor's work, and it is significant. Everybody remembers, or ought to remember, Goldsmith's charming pastor, to whom it can only be objected that he has not the fear of political economists before his eyes. This is Crabbe's retort after describing a dying pauper in need of spiritual consolation:—

    And does not he, the pious man, appear,
    He, 'passing rich with forty pounds a year?'
    Ah! no; a shepherd of a different stock,
    And far unlike him, feeds this little flock:
    A jovial youth, who thinks his Sunday's task
    As much as God or man can fairly ask;
    The rest he gives to loves and labours light,
    To fields the morning, and to feasts the night.
    None better skilled the noisy pack to guide,
    To urge their chase, to cheer them, or to chide;
    A sportsman keen, he shoots through half the day,
    And, skilled at whist, devotes the night to play.

This fox-hunting parson (of whom Cowper has described a duplicate) lets the pauper die as he pleases; and afterwards allows him to be buried without attending, performing the funerals, it seems, in a lump upon Sundays. Crabbe admits in a note that such negligence was uncommon, but adds that it is not unknown. The flock is, on the whole, worthy of the shepherd. The old village sports have died out in favour of smuggling and wrecking. The poor are not, as rich men fancy, healthy and well fed. Their work makes them premature victims to ague and rheumatism; their food is

    Homely, not wholesome, plain, not plenteous, such
    As you who praise would never deign to touch.

The ultimate fate of the worn-out labourer is the poorhouse, described in lines of which it is enough to say that Scott and Wordsworth learnt them by heart, and the melancholy deathbed already noticed. Are we reading a poem or a Blue Book done into rhyme? may possibly be the question of some readers. The answer should perhaps be that a good many Blue Books contain an essence which only requires to be properly extracted and refined to become genuine poetry. If Crabbe's verses retain rather too much of the earthly elements, he is capable of transmuting his minerals into genuine gold, as well as of simply collecting them. Nothing, for example, is more characteristic than the mode in which the occasional descriptions of nature are harmoniously blended with the human life in his poetry. Crabbe is an ardent lover of a certain type of scenery, to which justice has not often been done. We are told how, after a long absence from Suffolk, he rode sixty miles from his house to have a dip in the sea. Some of his poems appear to be positively impregnated with a briny, or rather perhaps a tarry, odour. The sea which he loved was by no means a Byronic sea. It has no grandeur of storm, and still less has it the Mediterranean blue. It is the sluggish muddy element which washes the flat shores of his beloved Suffolk. He likes even the shelving beach, with fishermen's boats and decaying nets and remnants of stale fish. He loves the dreary estuary, where the slow tide sways backwards and forwards, and whence

    High o'er the restless deep, above the reach
    Of gunner's hope, vast flocks of wildfowl stretch.

The coming generation of poets took to the mountains; but Crabbe remained faithful to the dismal and yet, in his hands, the impressive scenery of his native salt-marshes. His method of description suits the country. His verses never become melodramatic, nor does he ever seem to invest nature with the mystic life of Wordsworth's poetry. He gives the plain prosaic facts which impress us because they are in such perfect harmony with the sentiment. Here, for example, is a fragment from the 'Village,' which is simply a description of the neighbourhood of Aldborough:—

    Lo! where the heath, with withering brake grown o'er,
    Lends the light turf that warms the neighbouring poor;
    From thence a length of burning sand appears,
    Where the thin harvest waves its withered ears;
    Rank weeds, that every art and care defy,
    Reign o'er the land, and rob the blighted rye;
    There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar,
    And to the ragged infant threaten war;
    There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil;
    There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil;
    Hardy and high, above the slender sheaf,
    The slimy mallow waves her silky leaf;
    O'er the young shoot the charlock throws a shade,
    And clasping tares cling round the sickly blade.

The writer is too obviously a botanist; but the picture always remains with us as the only conceivable background for the poverty-stricken population whom he is about to describe. The actors in the 'Borough' are presented to us in a similar setting; and it may be well to put a sea-piece beside this bit of barren common. Crabbe's range of descriptive power is pretty well confined within the limits so defined. He is scarcely at home beyond the tide-marks:—

    Be it the summer noon; a sandy space
    The ebbing tide has left upon its place;
    Then just the hot and stony beach above,
    Light twinkling streams in bright confusion move;

          * * * * *

    There the broad bosom of the ocean keeps
    An equal motion; swelling as it sleeps,
    Then slowly sinking; curling to the strand,
    Faint lazy waves o'ercreep the ridgy sand,
    Or tap the tarry boat with gentle blow,
    And back return in silence, smooth and slow.
    Ships in the calm seem anchored: for they glide
    On the still sea, urged slowly by the tide:
    Art thou not present, this calm scene before
    Where all beside is pebbly length of shore,
    And far as eye can reach, it can discern no more?

I have omitted a couplet which verges on the scientific; for Crabbe is unpleasantly anxious to leave nothing unexplained. The effect is, in its way, perfect. Anyone who pleases may compare it with Wordsworth's calm in the verses upon Peele Castle, where the sentiment is given without the minute statement of facts, and where, too, we have the inevitable quotation about the 'light that never was on sea or land,' and is pretty nearly as rare in Crabbe's poetry. What he sees we can all see, though not so intensely, and his art consists in selecting the precise elements that tell most forcibly towards bringing us into the required frame of mind. To enjoy Crabbe fully, we ought perhaps to be acclimatised on the coast of the Eastern Counties; we should become sensitive to the plaintive music of the scenery, which is now generally drowned by the discordant sounds of modern watering-places, and would seem insipid to a generation which values excitement in scenery as in fiction. Readers, who measure the beauty of a district by its average height above the sea-level, and who cannot appreciate the charm of a 'waste enormous marsh,' may find Crabbe uncongenial.

The human character is determined, as Mr. Buckle and other philosophers have assured us, by the climate and the soil. A little ingenuity, such as those philosophers display in accommodating facts to theory, might discover a parallel between the type of Crabbe's personages and the fauna and flora of his native district. Declining a task which might lead to fanciful conclusions, I may assume that the East Anglian character is sufficiently familiar, whatever the causes by which it has been determined. To define Crabbe's poetry we have simply to imagine ourselves listening to the stories of his parishioners, told by a clergyman brought up amongst the lower rank of the middle classes, scarcely elevated above their prejudices, and not willingly leaving their circle of ideas. We must endow him with that simplicity of character which gives us frequent cause to smile at its proprietor, but which does not disqualify him from seeing a great deal further into his neighbours than they are apt to give him credit for doing. Such insight, in fact, is due not to any great subtlety of intellect, but to the possession of deep feeling and sympathy. Crabbe saw little more of Burke than would have been visible to an ordinary Suffolk farmer. When transplanted to a ducal mansion, he only drew the pretty obvious inference, embodied in a vigorous poem, that a patron is a very disagreeable and at times a very mischievous personage. The joys and griefs which really interest him are of the very tangible and solid kind which affect men and women to whom the struggle for existence is a stern reality. Here and there his good-humoured but rather clumsy ridicule may strike some lady to whom some demon has whispered 'have a taste;' and who turns up her nose at the fat bacon on Mr. Tovell's table. He pities her squeamishness, but thinks it rather unreasonable. He satirises too the heads of the rustic aristocracy; the brutal squire who bullies his nephew the clergyman for preaching against his vices, and corrupts the whole neighbourhood; or the speculative banker who cheats old maids under pretence of looking after their investments. If the squire does not generally appear in Crabbe in the familiar dramatic character of a rural Lovelace, it is chiefly because Crabbe has no great belief in the general purity of the inferior ranks of rural life. But his most powerful stories deal with the tragedies—only too life-like—of the shop and the farm. He describes the temptations which lead the small tradesman to adulterate his goods, or the parish clerk to embezzle the money subscribed in the village church, and the evil influence of dissenting families in fostering a spiritual pride which leads to more unctuous hypocrisy; for, though he says of the wicked squire that

    His worship ever was a Churchman true,
    And held in scorn the Methodistic crew,

the scorn is only objectionable to him in so far as it is a cynical cloak for scorn of good morals. He tells how boys run away to sea, or join strolling players, and have in consequence to beg their bread at the end of their days. The almshouse or the county gaol is the natural end of his villains, and he paints to the life the evil courses which generally lead to such a climax. Nobody describes better the process of going to the dogs. And most of all, he sympathises with the village maiden who has listened too easily to the voice of the charmer, in the shape of a gay sailor or a smart London footman, and has to reap the bitter consequences of her too easy faith. Most of his stories might be paralleled by the experience of any country clergyman who has entered into the life of his parishioners. They are as commonplace and as pathetic as the things which are happening round us every day, and which fill a neglected paragraph in a country newspaper. The treatment varies from the purely humorous to the most deep and genuine pathos; though it never takes us into the regions of the loftier imagination.

The more humorous of these performances may be briefly dismissed. Crabbe possesses the faculty, but not in any eminent degree; his hand is a little heavy, and one must remember that Mr. Tovell and his like were of the race who require to have a joke driven into their heads with a sledge-hammer. Once or twice we come upon a sketch which may help to explain Miss Austen's admiration. There is an old maid devoted to Mira, and rejoicing in stuffed puppies and parrots, who might have been ridiculed by Emma Woodhouse, and a parson who would have suited the Eltons admirably:—

    Fiddling and fishing were his arts; at times
    He altered sermons and he aimed at rhymes;
    And his fair friends, not yet intent on cards,
    Oft he amused with riddles and charades.

Such sketches are a pleasant relief to his more sombre portraiture; but it is in the tragic elements that his true power comes out. The motives of his stories may be trivial, but never the sentiment. The deep manly emotion makes us forget not only the frequent clumsiness of his style but the pettiness of the incident, and what is more difficult, the rather bread-and-butter tone of morality. If he is a little too fond of bringing his villains to the gallows, he is preoccupied less by the external consequences than by the natural working of evil passions. With him sin is not punished by being found out, but by disintegrating the character and blunting the higher sensibilities. He shows—and the moral, if not new, is that which possesses the really intellectual interest—how evil-doers are tortured by the cravings of desires that cannot be satisfied, and the lacerations inflicted by ruined self-respect. And therefore there is a truth in Crabbe's delineations which is quite independent of his more or less rigid administration of poetical justice. His critics used to accuse him of having a low opinion of human nature. It is quite true that he assigns to selfishness and brutal passion a very large part in carrying on the machinery of the world. Some readers may infer that he was unlucky in his experience, and others that he loved facts too unflinchingly. His stories sometimes remind one of Balzac's in the descriptions of selfishness triumphant over virtue. One, for example, of his deeply pathetic poems is called 'The Brothers;' and repeats the old contrast given in Fielding's Tom Jones and Blifil. The shrewd sly hypocrite has received all manner of kindnesses from the generous and simple sailor, and when, at last, the poor sailor is ruined in health and fortune, he comes home expecting to be supported by the gratitude of the brother, who has by this time made money and is living at his ease. Nothing can be more pathetic or more in the spirit of some of Balzac's stories than the way in which the rich man receives his former benefactor; his faint recognition of fraternal feelings gradually cools down under the influence of a selfish wife; till at last the poor old sailor is driven from the parlour to the kitchen, and from the kitchen to the loft, and finally deprived of his only comfort, his intercourse with a young nephew not yet broken into hardness of heart, on the plea that the lad is not to be corrupted by the coarse language of his poor old uncle. The rich brother suspects that the sailor has broken this rule, and is reviling him for his ingratitude, when suddenly he discovers that he is abusing a corpse. The old sailor's heart is broken at last; and his brother repents too late. He tries to comfort his remorse by cross-examining the boy, who was the cause of the last quarrel:—

    'Did he not curse me, child?' 'He never cursed,
    But could not breathe, and said his heart would burst.'
    'And so will mine'——'But, father, you must pray;
    My uncle said it took his pains away.'

Praying, however, cannot bring back the dead; and the fratricide, for such he feels himself to be, is a melancholy man to the end of his days. In Balzac's hands repentance would have had no place, and selfishness have been finally triumphant and unabashed. We need not ask which would be the most effective or the truest treatment; though I must put in a word for the superior healthiness of Crabbe's mind. There is nothing morbid about him. Still it would be absurd to push such a comparison far. Crabbe's portraits are only spirited vignettes compared with the elaborate full-lengths drawn by the intense imagination of the French novelist; and Crabbe's whole range of thought is incomparably narrower. The two writers have a real resemblance only in so far as in each case a powerful accumulation of life-like details enables them to produce a pathos, powerful by its vivid reality.

The singular power of Crabbe is in some sense more conspicuous in the stories where the incidents are almost audaciously trifling. One of them begins with this not very impressive and very ungrammatical couplet:—

    With our late Vicar, and his age the same,
    His clerk, hight Jachin, to his office came.

Jachin is a man of oppressive respectability; so oppressive, indeed, that some of the scamps of the borough try to get him into scrapes by temptations of a very inartificial kind, which he is strong enough to resist. At last, however, it occurs to Jachin that he can easily embezzle part of the usual monthly offerings while saving his character in his own eyes by some obvious sophistry. He is detected and dismissed, and dies after coming upon the parish. These materials for a tragic poem are not very promising; and I do not mean to say that the sorrows of poor Jachin affect us as deeply as those of Gretchen or Desdemona. The parish clerk is perhaps a fit type of all that was least poetical in the old social order of the country, and virtue which succumbs to the temptation of taking two shillings out of a plate scarcely wants a Mephistopheles to overcome it. We may perhaps think that the apologetic note which the excellent Crabbe inserts at the end of his poem, to the effect that he did not mean by it to represent mankind as 'puppets of an overpowering destiny,' or 'to deny the doctrine of seducing spirits,' is a little superfluous. The fact that a parish-clerk has taken to petty pilfering can scarcely justify those heterodox conclusions. But when we have smiled at Crabbe's philosophy, we begin to wonder at the force of his sentiment. A blighted human soul is a pathetic object, however paltry the temptation to which it has succumbed. Jachin has the dignity of despair, though he is not quite a fallen archangel; and Crabbe's favourite scenery harmonises with his agony.

    In each lone place, dejected and dismayed,
    Shrinking from view, his wasting form he laid,
    Or to the restless sea and roaring wind
    Gave the strong yearnings of a ruined mind;
    On the broad beach, the silent summer day,
    Stretched on some wreck, he wore his life away;
    Or where the river mingles with the sea,
    Or on the mud-bank by the elder tree,
    Or by the bounding marsh-dyke, there was he.

Nor would he have been a more pitiable object if he had betrayed a nation or sold his soul for a Garter instead of the pillage of a subscription plate. Poor old Jachin's story may seem to be borrowed from a commonplace tract; but the detected pilferer, though he has only lost the respect of the parson, the overseer, and the beadle, touches us as deeply as the Byronic hero who has fallen out with the whole system of the world.

If we refuse to sympathise with the pang due to so petty a catastrophe—though our sympathy should surely be proportioned to the keenness of the suffering rather than the absolute height of the fall—we may turn to tragedy of a deeper dye. Peter Grimes, as his name indicates, was a ruffian from his infancy. He once knocked down his poor old father, who warned him of the consequences of his brutality:—

    On an inn-settle, in his maudlin grief,
    This he revolved, and drank for his relief.

Adopting such a remedy, he sank from bad to worse, and gradually became a thief, a smuggler, and a social outlaw. In those days, however, as is proved by the history of Mrs. Brownrigg, parish authorities practised the 'boarding-out system' after a reckless fashion. Peter was allowed to take two or three apprentices in succession, whom he bullied, starved, and maltreated, and who finally died under suspicious circumstances. The last was found dead in Peter's fishing-boat after a rough voyage: and though nothing could be proved, the Mayor told him that he should have no more slaves to belabour. Peter, pursuing his trade in solitude, gradually became morbid and depressed. The melancholy estuary became haunted by ghostly visions. He had to groan and sweat with no vent for his passion:—

    Thus by himself compelled to live each day,
    To wait for certain hours the tide's delay;
    At the same time the same dull views to see,
    The bounding marsh-bank and the blighted tree;
    The water only, when the tides were high,
    When low, the mud half-covered and half-dry;
    The sun-burnt tar that blisters on the planks,
    And bank-side stakes in their uneven ranks;
    Heaps of entangled weeds that slowly float,
    As the tide rolls by the impeded boat.

Peter grew more sullen, and the scenery became more weird and depressing. The few who watched him remarked that there were three places where Peter seemed to be more than usually moved. For a time he hurried past them, whistling as he rowed; but gradually he seemed to be fascinated. The idle loungers in the summer saw a man and boat lingering in the tideway, apparently watching the gliding waves without casting a net or looking at the wildfowl. At last his delirium becoming stronger, he is carried to the poorhouse, and tells his story to the clergyman. Nobody has painted with greater vigour that kind of externalised conscience which may still survive in a brutalised mind. Peter Grimes, of course, sees his victims' spirits and hates them. He fancies that his father torments him out of spite, characteristically forgetting that the ghost had some excuse for his anger:—

    'Twas one hot noon, all silent, still, serene,
    No living being had I lately seen;
    I paddled up and down and dipped my net,
    But (such his pleasure) I could nothing get—
    A father's pleasure, when his toil was done,
    To plague and torture thus an only son!
    And so I sat and looked upon the stream,
    How it ran on, and felt as in a dream;
    But dream it was not; no!—I fixed my eyes
    On the mid stream and saw the spirits rise;
    I saw my father on the water stand,
    And hold a thin pale boy in either hand;
    And there they glided ghastly on the top
    Of the salt flood, and never touched a drop;
    I would have struck them, but they knew the intent,
    And smiled upon the oar, and down they went.

Remorse in Peter's mind takes the shape of bitter hatred for his victims; and with another characteristic confusion, he partly attributes his sufferings to some evil influence intrinsic in the locality:—

    There were three places, where they ever rose—
    The whole long river has not such as those—
    Places accursed, where, if a man remain,
    He'll see the things which strike him to the brain.

And then the malevolent ghosts forced poor Peter to lean on his oars, and showed him visions of coming horrors. Grimes dies impenitent, and fancying that his tormentors are about to seize him. Of all haunted men in fiction, it is not easy to think of a case where the horror is more terribly realised. The blood-boulter'd Banquo tortured a noble victim, but scarcely tortured him more effectually. Peter Grimes was doubtless a close relation of Peter Bell. Bell having the advantage of Wordsworth's interpretation, leads us to many thoughts which lie altogether beyond Crabbe's reach; but, looking simply at the sheer tragic force of the two characters, Grimes is to Bell what brandy is to small beer. He would never have shown the white feather like his successor, who,

    After ten months' melancholy,
    Became a good and honest man.

If, in some sense, Peter Grimes is the most effective of Crabbe's heroes, he would, if taken alone, give a very distorted impression of the general spirit of the poetry. It is only at intervals that he introduces us to downright criminals. There is, indeed, a description of a convicted felon, which, according to Macaulay, has made 'many a rough and cynical reader cry like a child,' and which, if space were unlimited, would make a striking pendant to the agony of the burdened Grimes. But, as a rule, Crabbe can find motives enough for tenderness in sufferings which have nothing to do with the criminal law, and of which the mere framework of the story is often interesting enough. His peculiar power is best displayed in so presenting to us the sorrows of commonplace characters as to make us feel that a shabby coat and a narrow education, and the most unromantic of characters, need not cut off our sympathies with a fellow-creature; and that the dullest tradesman who treads on our toes in an omnibus may want only a power of articulate expression to bring before us some of the deepest of all problems. The parish clerk and the grocer—or whatever may be the proverbial epitome of human dulness—may swell the chorus of lamentation over the barrenness and the hardships and the wasted energies and the harsh discords of life which is always 'steaming up' from the world, and to which it is one, though perhaps not the highest, of the poet's functions to make us duly sensible. Crabbe, like all realistic writers, must be studied at full length, and therefore quotations are necessarily unjust. It will be sufficient if I refer—pretty much at random—to the short story of 'Phoebe Dawson' in the 'Parish Register,' to the more elaborate stories of 'Edward Shore' and the 'Parting Hour' in the 'Tales,' or to the story of 'Ruth' in the 'Tales of the Hall,' where again the dreary pathos is strangely heightened by Crabbe's favourite seaport scenery, to prove that he might be called as truly as Goldsmith affectuum potens, though scarcely lenis, dominator.

It is time, however, to conclude with a word or two as to Crabbe's peculiar place in the history of English literature. I said that, unlike his contemporaries, Cowper and Burns, he adhered rigidly to the form of the earlier eighteenth-century school, and partly for this reason excited the wayward admiration of Byron, who always chose to abuse the bridge which carried him to fame. But Crabbe's clumsiness of expression makes him a very inadequate successor of Pope or of Goldsmith, and his claims are really founded on the qualities which led Byron to call him 'nature's sternest painter, yet her best.' On this side he is connected with some tendencies of the school which supplanted his early models. So far as Wordsworth and his followers represented the reaction from the artificial to a love of unsophisticated nature, Crabbe is entirely at one with them. He did not share that unlucky taste for the namby-pamby by which Wordsworth annoyed his contemporaries, and spoilt some of his earlier poems. Its place was filled in Crabbe's mind by an even more unfortunate disposition for the simply humdrum and commonplace, which, it must be confessed, makes it almost as hard to read a good many of his verses as to consume large quantities of suet pudding, and has probably destroyed his popularity with the present generation. Still, Crabbe's influence was powerful as against the old conventionality. He did not, like his predecessors, write upon the topics which interested 'persons of quality,' and never gives us the impression of having composed his rhymes in a full-bottomed wig or even in a Grub Street garret. He has gone out into country fields and village lanes, and paints directly from man and nature, with almost a cynical disregard of the accepted code of propriety. But the points on which he parts company with his more distinguished contemporaries is equally obvious. Mr. Stopford Brooke has lately been telling us with great eloquence what is the theology which underlies the poetical tendencies of the last generation of poets. Of that creed, a sufficiently vague one, it must be admitted, Crabbe was by no means an apostle. Rather one would say he was as indifferent as a good old-fashioned clergyman could very well be to the existence of any new order of ideas in the world. The infidels, whom he sometimes attacks, read Bolingbroke, and Chubb, and Mandeville, and have only heard by report even of the existence of Voltaire. The Dissenters, whom he so heartily detests, have listened to Whitefield and Wesley, or perhaps to Huntington, S.S.—that is, as it may now be necessary to explain, Sinner Saved. Every newer development of thought was still far away from the quiet pews of Aldborough, and the only form of Church restoration of which he has heard is the objectionable practice of painting a new wall to represent a growth of lichens. Crabbe appreciates the charm of the picturesque, but has never yet heard of our elaborate methods of creating modern antiques. Lapped in such ignorance, and with a mind little given to speculation, it is only in character that Crabbe should be totally insensible to the various moods of thought represented by Wordsworth's pantheistic conceptions of nature, or by Shelley's dreamy idealism, or Byron's fierce revolutionary impulses. Still less, if possible, could he sympathise with that love of beauty, pure and simple, of which Keats was the first prophet. He might, indeed, be briefly described by saying that he is at the very opposite pole from Keats. The more bigoted admirers of Keats—for there are bigots in matters of taste or poetry as well as in science or theology or politics—would refuse the title of poet to Crabbe altogether on the strength of the absence of this element from his verses. Like his most obvious parallels in painting, he is too fond of boors and pothouses to be allowed the quality of artistic perception. I will not argue the point, which is, perhaps, rather a question of classification than of intrinsic merit; but I will venture to suggest a test which will, I think, give Crabbe a very firm, though, it may be, not a very lofty place. Though I should be unwilling to be reckoned as one of Macaulay's 'rough and cynical readers,' I admit that I can read the story of the convicted felon, or of Peter Grimes, without indulging in downright blubbering. Most readers, I fear, can in these days get through pathetic poems and novels without absolutely using their pocket-handkerchiefs. But though Crabbe may not prompt such outward and visible signs of emotion, I think that he produces a more distinct tendency to tears than almost any poet of his time. True, he does not appeal to emotions, accessible only through the finer intellectual perceptions, or to the thoughts which 'lie too deep for tears.' That prerogative belongs to men of more intense character, greater philosophical power, and more delicate instincts. But the power of touching readers by downright pictures of homespun griefs and sufferings is one which, to my mind, implies some poetical capacity, and which clearly belongs to Crabbe.

FOOTNOTES:

[2] It seems, one is sorry to add, that Murray made a very bad bargain in this case.

 
 
 

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