Crabbe – Tale 5: The Patron

My original comments….

>>>This is a typically contradictory Tale which can be
read in two ways.

The story is, as usual, simple. A prosperous farmer’s
son, John, takes to writing poetry. When his father backs
a local Lord at an election, John writes a satiric verse in favour of this
Lord which brings him attention. He is
praised and invited to the Lord’s country house, where
he falls in love with the Lord’s sister but is rebuffed. Despite his
father’s advice as to the peril of his situation he is utterly crushed when
the noble family departs for town. When he seeks a post from
the Lord he is offered some minor clerkship in the ‘London
Quays’. John returns home and dies.

Now the telling of the tale is brilliant; here is Crabbe
describing John’s arrival at the Lord’s Hall…..

>>The happy guest his promised visit paid;
And now arriving at the Hall, he tried
For air composed, serene and satisfied;
As he had practised in his room alone,
And there acquired a free and easy tone:
There he had said, “Whatever the degree
A man obtains, what more than man is he?”
And when arrived–“This room is but a room;
Can aught we see the steady soul o’ercome?
Let me in all a manly firmness show,
Upheld by talents, and their value know.”
This reason urged; but it surpassed his skill
To be in act as manly as in will:
When he his Lordship and the Lady saw
Brave as he was, he felt oppress’d with awe;
And spite of verse, that so much praise had won,
The poet found he was the Bailiff’s son.
But dinner came, and the succeeding hours
Fix’d his weak nerves, and raised his failing powers;
Praised and assured, he ventured once or twice
On some remark, and bravely broke the ice;
So that, at night, reflecting on his words,
He found, in time, he might converse with lords.<<

I quote this at length not only because it conveys so
brilliantly social fears and awkwardness. Two more things
strike me about it: first this kind of writing is quite rare in
poetry. It is deeply personal (one feels Crabbe must have
shared this experience) but also about how we behave
in society. There is something which reminds me of Horace
here; but Crabbe is writing from the ‘Bailiff’s son’s’ perspective.
Secondly the passage is wonderfully reminiscent of Trollope
describing Phineas or Alice’s experiences when first
visiting Matching for instance; the same acute awareness of
the agonies of social life. And so I can connect Crabbe and
Trollope :).

At the heart of the poem however is a long lecture which the
farmer gives to his son instructing him in how the world operates.
It is deeply cynical and also penetrating….

“The real favourites of the great are they
Who to their views and wants attention pay,
And pay it ever; who, with all their skill,
Dive to the heart, and learn the secret will;
If that be vicious, soon can they provide
The favourite ill, and o’er the soul preside,
For vice is weakness, and the artful know
Their power increases as the passions grow;

For they who doubt thy talents scorn thy boast,
But they who grant them will dislike thee most:
Observe the prudent; they in silence sit,
Display no learning, and affect no wit;
Remember, too, that though the poor have ears,
They take not in the music of the spheres;
They must not feel the warble and the thrill,
Or be dissolved in ecstasy at will;
Beside, ’tis freedom in a youth like thee
To drop his awe, and deal in ecstasy!
“In silent ease, at least in silence, dine,
Nor one opinion start of food or wine:
Thou knowest that all the science thou can boast,
Is of thy father’s simple boil’d or roast;
Nor always these; he sometimes saved his cash,
By interlinear days of frugal hash:

(what a great last line). There is something of Lennon’s
Working Class Hero here…..

>>There’s room at the top they are telling you still,
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill,
If you want to be like the folks on the hill,
A working class hero is something to be. <<

However – and this brings us to the two readings
finally – Lennon’s outrage is replaced by a sort of
semi-acceptance, almost that this is the natural
order of things in Crabbe. When John has died his
father proclaims….

“There lies my Boy,” he cried, “of care bereft,
And heaven be praised, I’ve not a genius left:
No one among ye, sons! is doomed to live
On high-raised hopes of what the Great may give;
None, with exalted views and fortunes mean,
To die in anguish, or to live in spleen:
Your pious brother soon escaped the strife
Of such contention, but it cost his life;
You then, my sons, upon yourselves depend,
And in your own exertions find the friend.”

Is the moral of the poem that John would be much better
off not being a poet at all and that farmers should stick
to farming or that the world is a rotten place in which
art and creativity are tools for the rich?

Whatever the answer Tale 5 is a great achievement and
a remarkable poem about patronage and its dangers.<<<

Ellen replied….

>>>It brings me back to reading the poems which
I was doing last spring. I have a solution for the dilemma:

“Is the moral of the poem that John would be much better off not
being a poet at all and that farmers should stick to farming or that
the world is a rotten place in which art and creativity are tools for
the rich?”

I would bypass the question and say the moral of the poem is Crabbe’s
perception of experience — which he lived or watched others
living. Again and again in the poems are scenes of social
discomfort. I am convinced it was Crabbe who didn’t fit in into his

Of all these first seven Tales this is the one which has stuck most in my mind and is perhaps the greatest achievement. At the time of writing I had not read Crabbe’s biography (by his son) and thus failed to appreciate just how strongly auto-biographical some elements within the poem are. For all that and my acceptance of Ellen’s analysis of the poem as experiential I think my question remains a valid one because it tests out one of Crabbe’s ambiguities. The logic of the poem runs in one direction but this logic never reaches any conclusion; I think I would now say that was because the ambiguity is in Crabbe himself, a part of his make-up. Thus the evasion is a part of Crabbe; a characteristic.

One thought on “Crabbe – Tale 5: The Patron

  1. Pingback: Crabbe – Tale 13: Jesse and Colin (and an update) « Moving Toyshop

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