Crabbe – Tale 6: The Frank Courtship

Mt original comments….

>>>Jonas Kindred (great name!) is a stern Puritan,
a domestic tyrant who rules his wife and daughter,
Sybil, with a rod of iron. When Sybil goes to
stay with her Aunt, who is definitely not a
Puritan, she learns of worldly pleasure.
Jonas however finds a serious young man,
Josiah, whom he wishes Sybil to marry and summons her
home; Josiah’s courtship consists of a series
of reproofs of Sybil’s dress and habits. Not surprisingly
she rejects him but the poem ends with her telling
her father that this has been a temporary rebuff and
she will marry Josiah in the end.

Despite the description this is actually one
of the lighter-hearted Tales and one might
almost say that the ‘happy ending’ feels contrived
as though Crabbe was avoiding the conflicts
which the poem has earlier displayed.

The description of Jonas with which the poem opens
is one of those mini-masterpieces of characterisation and
satire with which The Tales are filled…

>>Grave Jonas Kindred, Sybil Kindred’s sire,
Was six feet high, and look’d six inches higher;
Erect, morose, determined, solemn, slow,
Who knew the man could never cease to know:
His faithful spouse, when Jonas was not by,
Had a firm presence and a steady eye;
But with her husband dropp’d her look and tone,
And Jonas ruled unquestion’d and alone.
He read, and oft would quote the sacred words,
How pious husbands of their wives were lords;
Sarah called Abraham Lord! and who could be,
So Jonas thought, a greater man than he?
Himself he view’d with undisguised respect,
And never pardon’d freedom or neglect.<<

How one loves that line ‘Himself he viewed with
undisguised respect’!

The theme of domestic tyranny and female subjugation
(of which Crabbe very clearly disapproves) continues
shortly afterwards…

>>Peace in the sober house of Jonas dwelt,
Where each his duty and his station felt:
Yet not that peace some favour’d mortals find,
In equal views and harmony of mind;
Not the soft peace that blesses those who love,
Where all with one consent in union move;
But it was that which one superior will
Commands, by making all inferiors still;
Who bids all murmurs, all objections, cease,
And with imperious voice announces–Peace!<<

And is linked to the fact that Jonas is a Puritan…

>>They were, to wit, a remnant of that crew,
Who, as their foes maintain, their Sovereign slew;
An independent race, precise, correct,
Who ever married in the kindred sect:
No son or daughter of their order wed
A friend to England’s king who lost his head;
Cromwell was still their Saint, and when they met,
They mourn’d that Saints were not our rulers yet.<<

It is certainly relevant at this point to consider Lucy
Hutchinson
and her account of her position within the
Hutchinson household! [1]

It is hardly surprising that Sybil should find her Aunt’s
company and house desirable…

>>Here all was varied, wonderful, and new;
There were plain meals, plain dresses, and grave looks –
Here, gay companions and amusing books;
And the young Beauty soon began to taste
The light vocations of the scene she graced.<<

The Aunt however is a dedicated hypocrite and
when she and Sybil have to visit Jonas she tells her
niece….

>>”Yes! we must go, my child, and by our dress
A grave conformity of mind express;
Must sing at meeting, and from cards refrain,
The more t’enjoy when we return again.”<<

It is of course important here to bear in mind, as always,
that Crabbe is a conservative Anglican clergyman. His attacks
on non-Anglicans as either tyrants or hypocrites are in
a sense a part of his ideological repertoire. However in this
poem there is an additional aim that Sybil should be
something of a heroine and to be a Crabbe heroine it
is certainly not possible to be wholly happy with the
Aunt’s frivolous life-style. When Sybil is summoned home
to meet Josiah she is therefore happy to go as she
is already tiring of endless games of cards.

Her mother gives her advice as to love…

>>”Hear me,” she said; “incline thy heart, my child,
And fix thy fancy on a man so mild:
Thy father, Sybil, never could be moved
By one who loved him, or by one he loved.
Union like ours is but a bargain made
By slave and tyrant–he will be obey’d;<<

which is the tragic centre of the poem. Crabbe however
takes us in a different direction and the actual meeting
of Josiah and Sybil is something of a comic set-piece
with she giving as good as she gets….

>>.”–“Then know ’tis thy complaint,
That, for a sinner, thou’rt too much a saint;
Hast too much show of the sedate and pure,
And without cause art formal and demure:
This makes a man unsocial, unpolite;
Odious when wrong, and insolent if right.
Thou mayst be good, but why should goodness be
Wrapt in a garb of such formality?
Thy person well might please a damsel’s eye,
In decent habit with a scarlet dye;
But, jest apart–what virtue canst thou trace
In that broad brim that hides thy sober face?
Does that long-skirted drab, that over-nice
And formal clothing, prove a scorn of vice?
Then for thine accent–what in sound can be
So void of grace as dull monotony?
Love has a thousand varied notes to move
The human heart: –thou mayest not speak of love
Till thou hast cast thy formal ways aside,
And those becoming youth and nature tried:
Not till exterior freedom, spirit, ease,
Prove it thy study and delight to please;
Not till these follies meet thy just disdain,
While yet thy virtues and thy worth remain.”<<

Sybil thus presents a kind of Golden Mean which
Crabbe obviously applauds. The poem is an
argument for at least some degree of equality in
marriage (it would be dangerous to over-state
this but Crabbe is clearly utterly opposed to
domestic tyranny).

At the end the whole tone of the poem is altered and it becomes
light-hearted, skittish almost. It is this ability to alter
his tone and voice which is one of the most impressive
things about The Tales; the reader is never quite sure what
is going to come next. This may however also contribute
to Crabbe’s unpopularity – does it befit a poet to be
unpredictable in this way? (well it does the ones I like! –
Byron of course is notorious for unpredictability).<<<

Ellen commented….

>>>I’ll explain it this way: the very serious way of criticizing
Puritan repressive behavior links to a number of central 18th century
texts where we have a solemn, apparently repressive young male
hypocrite who fools everyone into thinking he’s all virtuous
contrasted to a spontaneous generous and apparently (or really)
sexually unrepressed (wild) young man who everyone thinks will be
forever damned and is vicious. In these stories the hypocrite works
to undermine the candid (to use the word in our 21st century sense)
young man with everyone else and as they are often presented as
brothers, gets his inheritance. This is the case of Blifill and Tom
Jones, and Joseph (the hypocrite) and Charles Surface. We may think
_School for Scandal_ feeble weak stuff, but perhaps in the original
audience the left-over memories of the results of religious
fanaticism gave the opposition of two brothers here real bite. To me
the story can be used to excuse a rake (boys will be boys), and the
woman playwrights of the era did see such justifications of Charles
Surface’s in this light.

The story of the niece who visits her gay aunt and finds her shallow
is not quite what we find in _Catherine, or the Bower_; in fact there
it’s a repressive narrow woman suspicious of Catherine, a proto-type
leading to Mrs Norris, but the outline is similar in the sense of the
niece sent away. And Austen would not like gay ladies of this
type: she gives us versions of them in Mary Crawford and (worse yet)
Lady Susan; she conforms more to what Harrington describes in his
history of the stage where the early gay witty lady takes on gravity
and serous earnestness as the century wears on.

And the satire on tyrannical males is one she and other women readers
would certainly grimace at.

Not that anyone should read a poem for this sort of thing but rather
on its own merits — and the prosody and hard lines. Crabbe has a
gift for acute psychological insight and aphorisms caught in single
lines. He is grim, saturnine satire, grave. Yes he’s original: he
doesn’t imitate other plots but is really working out his own
characters and feelings so you don’t know how a tale is going to end
— as in life :).<<<

Notes

  1. see Lucy Hutchinson Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson
     

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