Crabbe : An Introduction

I started to read George Crabbe as part of a group read on Eighteenth Century Worlds (link on right) in April 2008. At that point I  really knew nothing of the poet other than that one of his poems formed the basis for Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. When I look back at what I first wrote on my reaction to Crabbe I am covered with embarrassment as many of my judgements are utterly wrong. This is somewhat surprising given that on the surface Crabbe is not a ‘difficult’ poet – the verse is mainly of a narrative, or semi-narrative, kind and the language is generally clear. But the more I have read the more I have come both to appreciate him and to discover complexities within his work. Rash judgements based on an initial reading have proven deeply erroneous. I therefore decided to give some time to further study and reading. This project has, as usual, stalled on the basis of the interruptions of depression and ‘events’. However I am determined to pick it up and proceed. A starting place will be The Tales since the edition of Crabbe’s verse which I possess contains them in full (see below for the problems posed for the amateur student of Crabbe in terms of the texts). I have already written (and posted on ECW) comments on the first 7 tales which it will merely be a matter of reproducing here and therefore the project, once commenced, should move forward at a fairly rapid rate for a little while! I will then tackle the remaining tales as and when time and illness allow.

The amateur student or enthusiast who wishes to approach George Crabbe’s poetry faces quite peculiar difficulties.  The definitive Complete Poetical Works (Oxford 1988) is so expensive that it is only within the range of the institutional buyer, so its availability depends on whether you have a public library within reach which happens to have been so far-sighted as purchase a copy. The two decent selections which are most easily available (ed. Mills, Cambridge 1967 and ed. Edwards, Penguin 1991) contain different selections, yet remain, even when added together remain incomplete. At the present time I only possess Edwards who gives The Village (1783), 4 sections of The Borough (1810) ,the whole of The Tales (1812) 1 of the Tales from the Hall (1819) and a few other odds and ends. The great advantage of this edition is that one does get the whole of The Tales and it is about them that I wish to write initially- a project that may stretch over many months, if not years, given my usual rate of progress in such matters.

In addition to the poems themselves being difficult to obtain it is also hard for those without access to a decent academic Library to obtain Crabbe criticism, which, in comparison to many poets is somewhat thin on the ground. I have managed to read in Birmingham Central Library the excellent A Bibliography of George Crabbe (1978) by T. Bareham and S. Gattrell. From this it is possible in the first place to establish a list of Crabbe’s poetry here summarised in a form which is quite adequate for my purposes….

  1. Inebriety 1775
  2. The Candidate 1780
  3. The Library 1781
  4. The Village (2 books) 1783
  5. The Newspaper 1785
  6. The Poems 1807 (incl. The Library, The Village,  The Newspaper, Sir Eustace Grey, The Parish Register – 3 books)
  7. The Borough 1810 (24 letters)
  8. Tales 1812 (21 tales)
  9. Tales of the Hall 1819 (22 tales)
  10. Posthumous Works

I don’t intend to discuss Crabbe’s biography at all here but it is necessary to draw attention for anyone wholly new to him to the quite extraordinary lacuna of 22 years between The Newspaper and the Poems of 1807; his career as a poet is then divided into two very distinct periods – and makes him an extraordinary bridging figure, for in his first success he knew the London of Johnson and Burke and in the second published in the era of Byron and Wordsworth. From a temporal – as well as many other – point of view Crabbe is hard to classify, which may be yet another reason for his obscurity.

Based on my limited reading to date my judgement would be that Crabbe grew as a poet. My initial reaction to The Village was unfavourable. It may be that at some point I shall return to it and revise my opinion. It is to his second period that one should look for his important works.

I want to get on to detailed commentary on specific tales but before doing so I shall briefly try to summarise what I picked up from Bareham and Gattrell about the history of Crabbe criticism. It was with the publication of The Poems in 1807 that Crabbe criticism, both pro and con, and his popularity really took off. At this point Jeffrey led the way using Crabbe to compare positively against the Lakers. Elsewhere there was the first reference to Crabbe as a ‘Dutch painter’ (Annual Review vol 6 1808) which BandG say became a ‘standard currency in criticism’.

With the publication of the Borough another standard is introduced when Crabbe is called the ‘Hogarth‘ of poetry (Monthly Review vol 61, April 1810) – but the author of this comment – a T Denman –  intended this as a criticism (!) and Jeffrey also changed tack castigating Crabbe for describing things not worth describing; on the same lines Gifford  in the Quarterly Review (November 1810) called Crabbe ‘the poet of reality’ which was apparently reprehensible!

When the Tales were published in 1812 the Critical Review (December 1812) noted how the debate on Crabbe’s status divided the critical world into two radically exposed sides. But reading the criticism it is evident that similar aspects of the verse could provoke opposite reactions often dependant on either what the critic perceived as Crabbe’s position or on their reaction to a certain facet – which we can in shorthand call ‘realism’ – of his work ; thus the Scottish Review (September 1812) accused the Tales of being over-burdened with Crabbe’s conservative prejudices, where the British Review (October 1812) accused him of placing too much emphasis on pain. Jeffrey (Edinburgh Review November 1812) thought The Tales an improvement on The Borough but still too concerned with subjects that arouse disgust rather than pity. While The Gentleman’s Magazine (December 1812) and The Universal Magazine (1813) were enthusiastic, almost laudatory, The Eclectic Review (December 1812) accused Crabbe of lacking fancy’ and insisting ‘too much on painful reality’.

With the Tales of the Hall (1819) Jeffrey was still puzzling over his reactions to Crabbe, caught between what he saw as his alternating excellencies and lapses. Jeffrey believed this combination sprang from the ‘directness’ of Crabbe’s inspiration – ‘the courage to write from (his) own impressions……(not to)….fear the laugh or wonder of the more barren part of his readers’ : Crabbe draws men ‘in their true postures and dimensions, and with all the imperfections that actually belong to their condition’ but although satirical he is not misanthropic. It is clear that, confused though he may have been, Jeffrey was a contemporary critic who really tried to get to grips with Crabbe and his own reactions to the verse (as my own reactions are often confused I would certainly not blame anyone else for being in a similar state!). Meanwhile Blackwoods Magazine (July 1819) linked Crabbe with Burns and Wordsworth in limiting themselves to local scenes but singles out Crabbe for ‘almost miraculous powers of describing common actuality’. At the opposite end of the spectrum but with a very colourful turn of phrase the British Critic (September 1819) accused Crabbe ‘building pigstyes round the Parthenon’ – at best he is the ‘skillful anatomist of a diseased patient’; the Monthly Review of 1819 added that modern poetry had gone to the Dutch dogs; but the Monthly Review (September 1819) called Crabbe the ‘inimitable poet of truth and nature’.

It will be seen that even when there was agreement about the nature of Crabbe’s verse – ‘Dutch’, ‘Hogarthian’, realist (and we should not of course uncritically accept any such descriptions) – these could provoke diametrically opposed reactions depending on whether the critic thought that such qualities were in general a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing. Following Crabbe’s death (1832) the production of The Life and Works in 1834 provoked another round of critical reaction among which the most interesting, and once again opposing, reactions came from The London Review (July 1835) which claimed Crabbe lacked human sympathy due to having been soured in youth (he certainly had a lot to sour him!) and disliked his ‘cold resignation to the existence of human suffering’ , and the  New York Review (March 1837) which, almost as if in reply, argued that if Crabbe is gloomy so is life itself; as the ‘first poet of the poor’ Crabbe is unique; his kindliness and religious feelings are especially praised and the review claimed that far from being ‘Pope in worsted stockings’ (I have not found the attribution for this phrase yet) Crabbe was not even of Pope’s school.

Although they are amusingly forthright in their judgements of various full-length biographical and critical studies which had appeared by 1978 (not in fact a vast number by any means) these are not relevant here so I pass on to their brief history of  Crabbe’s reputation. I have not completed this section and will need to return to the Library to do so (and it is also obviously now over 30 years out of date). But in quick summary Crabbe’s reputation declined throughout the 19thC; he was felt to lack any ‘sense of beauty’ and wrote at the time of the ‘nadir of English poetry’ according to Sir L. Stephen in 1874 (this must surely be one of the most calamitous critical misjudgements in respect of English verse ever made – whatever sides one might take, whoever one might like or dislike, to claim that the period of  Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats etc. represents a nadir takes some doing!). Coventry Patmore, as a representative of 19thC poets themselves, called Crabbe ‘coarse’ and ‘gross’.  Crabbe’s rehabilitation began with Ezra Pound who opposed his ‘free speech’ to the Victorians ‘pretty embroideries’; F.R Leavis continued this and in the appropriately named Revaluation (1936 p124-9) said that Tales and Tales of the Hall should make Crabbe a ‘living classic’.

Many of these critical observations and reflections are ones which I have made myself but others present new perspectives. In particular I had a problem in my early reading of Crabbe with his politics and his moralising; but neither of these are by any means as simple as I supposed and are best reflected on in the context of close reading of the actual verse.

The last, but very certainly not least, thing to say here is that I am immeasurably indebted in all my writing about Crabbe to the members of ECW who took part in the discussion and above all to the incomparable Ellen Moody, the list-owner, who’s contributions and observations on Crabbe are, as on all subjects, ever-pertinent, challenging and revelatory – indeed it is thanks to her that I have discovered Crabbe in the first place.

2 thoughts on “Crabbe : An Introduction

  1. A fine summary of the criticism, Nick, and very valuable.
    Yes Crabbe’s reputation declined in the 19th century because a narrow insistence on “beauty” by which was meant visionary uplift (like that of _The Prelude_), which Tennyson manages even if he has the courage of a certain pessmism.

    I agree that the crux of the poetry as people saw it was its realism, its depiction of common actuality. I feel Austen valued it for this, but also for its perspective on some of the same themes of the way love and other human relationships are destroyed by economic arrangements. Crabbe goes much further than she is giving the real unhappy ending characters such as hers might have had. Barbauld is of the school that says there is too much pain here, but she does not read autobiographically the way we do know so does not move onto to accuse Crabbe of not pitying, or sympathizing or “understanding.” For my part I’m glad he sees some deeds as unforgivable and condemns aspects of human nature society unrelentingly.

    He is basically conservative. The radicalism can only come from “telling it” and inferences his readers can take away.

    I was myself surprized to see how Judy brought out of Cowper more enlightened liberalism than I had seen (beyond the obvious abolitionism). The introds to Cowpwer nowadays are by this-hard edged conservative and I would have missed these other currents but for Judy’s remarks. Look in our archives at ECW for this.

    These older complex poets with their somewhat erudite and allusive language are hard for us to delve, but enormously worth while. Maybe they were not popular as Byron or Scott or Wordsworth because they are harder.

    Shelley became a cult figure later on, and Keats too.


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen. The whole question about realism is, I suspect, one that will recur when I get onto commentary on specific Tales and – even better – start reading some again. How ‘hard’ is Crabbe? how ‘real’? how ‘conservative’? these are all fascinating questions.

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