Crabbe – Tale 7: The Widow’s Tale

My original comments…..

>>>A simple narrative and moral here. Nancy Moss is
a farmer’s daughter who has been away at school in ‘town’.
When she returns to the farm she is disgusted by
the eating and living habits, and her father’s expectations
that she will attend to household tasks. He also wants
her to marry Harry Carr a neighbouring farmer. But
she is averse to being a farmer’s wife and he does not want
what he sees as a useless wife.

Nancy looks for a friend and picks upon a ‘pensive
widow’ who is generally despised as ‘useless’. She
pours out her heart but the Widow tells her the story of
her life – a very sad one. She bewails the fact that she
spent the best part of her life in love with a man whom
she never got to marry because of poverty. He died
and she eventually married a kindly man whom she did
not love but grew to enjoy a happy companionship. She persuades
Nancy that her best course is to put aside ideas of romance
and marry the farmer, which she in due course does – having
changed her ways so she is a hard-working woman and thus
attractive to Harry.

I am reading Crabbe’s son’s biography of his father (a most
enlightening and entertaining read) and he actually cites
some lines from this tale as exactly descriptive of the
living conditions at a relative of Crabbe’s wife with whom they
used to stay….

>>Used to spare meals, disposed in manner pure,
Her father’s kitchen she could ill endure:
Where by the steaming beef he hungry sat,
And laid at once a pound upon his plate;
Hot from the field, her eager brother seized
An equal part, and hunger’s rage appeased;
The air surcharged with moisture, flagg’d around,
And the offended damsel sigh’d and frown’d;
The swelling fat in lumps conglomerate laid,
And fancy’s sickness seized the loathing maid:
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,
Fill’d 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;
When the coarse cloth she saw, with many a stain
Soil’d by rude hinds who cut and came again –
She could not breathe; but with a heavy sigh,
Rein’d the fair neck, and shut th’ offended eye;
She minced the sanguine flesh in frustums fine,
And wonder’d much to see the creatures dine;<<

Tremendous descriptive writing going into areas which
few poets tread. How good is…

>>The swelling fat in lumps conglomerate laid,<<

or

>>Fill’d with huge balls of farinaceous food;
With bacon, mass saline, where never lean
Beneath the brown and bristly rind was seen;<<

Not designed to give one a good appetite!

But the poem’s heart is deeply anti-romantic. The Widow’s
Tale is in fact a tragic one. Crabbe’s knowledge and hatred
of poverty (and his knowledge was very real) is apparent…

Here is her father addressing her…

>>Can you endure to see each other cursed
By want, of every human woe the worst?
Warring for ever with distress, in dread
Either of begging or of wanting bread;
While poverty, with unrelenting force,
Will your own offspring from your love divorce;
They, through your folly, must be doom’d to pine,
And you deplore your passion, or resign;<<

There is real bitterness and pain here. But the portrait of
the widow’s eventual companionable marriage is a touching one…

>>In tranquil ease we pass’d our latter years,
By griefs untroubled, unassail’d by fears.<<

However at its core the poem has a conservative message…

>>There is no spirit sent the heart to move
With such prevailing and alarming love;
Passion to reason will submit–or why
Should wealthy maids the poorest swains deny?
Or how could classes and degrees create
The slightest bar to such resistless fate?
Yet high and low, you see, forbear to mix;
No beggars’ eyes the heart of kings transfix;
And who but am’rous peers or nobles sigh,
When titled beauties pass triumphant by?
For reason wakes, proud wishes to reprove;
You cannot hope, and therefore dare not love;
All would be safe, did we at first inquire –
‘Does reason sanction what our hearts desire?'<<

It is conservative because it says that this is how the
world is and one has to accept it. But it is also radical
because it does portray the world as it really is. Crabbe
never shies away from social realities in all their
harshest, grossest and sometimes comic detail. He never
comforts us with ‘pretty lies’ (that’s from a Joni Mitchell
song isn’t it?). In this sense he is in many ways it
seems to me anti-Romantic as well as here anti-romantic.
Of course the line…

>>’Does reason sanction what our hearts desire?'<<

cited with approval could be taken as a very crude caricature
of Enlightenment V Romantic values though this is not of
course how Crabbe would have seen or intended it.

In terms of the relationships of men and women in this poem
it means that Nancy has to submit, marry whom her
father chooses and become ‘useful’. This is conservative but
once again the recognition that it was the reality is in its way
radical. The essential contradiction at the heart of Crabbe repeats
itself.<<<

Ellen commented…..

>>>I was also struck by the power of the opening
lines; while the widow’s story was done with Crabbe’s usual
acuteness, the opening is strikingly vivid — real poetry of a sort
still avoided. Georgics encouraged people to write about real doings
in life, unpoetic subjects people are involved in for work,
livelihood, living. I did read the son’s biography while we were
reading the poems and it helped me see the strong autobiographical
context and sympathize

What can I add to what Nick says? The usual Austen comments. This
is Austen’s great theme in _Persuasion_ and there she does retrieve
time, so that while in _S&S_ she seems to (just as Nick says) have a
radical text because she tells hard truths, yet deliver a
conservative message if you take her literally just to mean Marianne
has learned a lesson about how love at first sight and romantic love
are not to be depended upon; how rebellious behavior can lead to
self-destruction as you avoid the safety and sanity of socializing
with a decent enough group of people; then you have these two trends
at once. Yet in the last novel she goes yet further. Until we read
Crabbe’s poetry I didn’t know how often he dwells on thwarted
marriage so I’d like to say he doth protest too much. One of the
tales are about a couple who live miserable lives (enslaved part of
the time, beaten in the case of the woman) because they obeyed
prudent elders. The epigraphs at the front are all by Shakespeare,
on behalf of romantic love and they are not in context ironic.

There is also the label for the widow: “useless.” Surely some irony
here. Useless to whom? Crabbe is questioning this whole idea of how
people are to be used by one another in accepted social
arrangings. The ending of the tale proves the widow conventionally
useful, but I like to think the tale hits at the usual definition itself.

A comment on prosody: Crabbe stays with these couplets; in their
strong medial way of movement, the symmetry, and tightness, they
demand hard reading (active not passive) but there is also the verse
paragraph we are to travel through like a journey at the end of which
we have gained a complex experience.<<<

I commented on the next to last paragraph….

>>>Absolutely.I failed to bring this out. Crabbe is in no way
uncritical of the farmer’s crudely materialistic values or his
dismissal of those who do not ‘contribute’ or fall in with them
as ‘useless’. For Crabbe such a perspective on any human
being is both immoral and irreligious.<<<

Yes – which brings us again to Crabbe’s anti-materialism, his anti-bourgeois stance.

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