Crabbe – Tales 1-3

I intend to proceed by reproducing the comments which I have so far written on Tales 1-7. These were posted to ECW (see link on right) and I apologise for the problems with formatting. I will then add a summary of any discussion which ensued and my responses. I start with Tales 1-3 taken together because Ellen and I had something of a general discussion which in many ways sets the tone for a lot of the issues that will recur in this commentary.

Tale 1 – The Dumb Orators

>>>This Tale in some ways sets the tone for my reaction
which is a mixture of admiration and rejection.
Crabbe straight away sets out the moral of the

>>And this the life of many a hero shows,
That, like the tide, man’s courage ebbs and flows:
With friends and gay companions round them, then
Men boldly speak and have the hearts of men;
Who, with opponents seated miss the aid
Of kind applauding looks, and grow afraid;
Like timid travelers in the night, they fear
Th’ assault of foes, when not a friend is near.<<

and proceeds to illustrate this with the story of
Justice Bolt who, within his own circle and locality,
is an impressive and over-bearing orator. He is also
a deep reactionary who applies his politics to every subject.
But then he goes to new and strange city and decides
to enter a ‘learned Club’ where he could impress
strangers with his wonderful powers of oratory.
He quickly discovers to his horror however that he
has entered a radical club (maybe rather like the
ones which Thomas Bewick frequented in Newcastle
of which I have just been reading in Brewer [1]).

>>For, hark!–he heard amazed, on every side,
His church insulted and her priests belied;
The laws reviled, the ruling power abused,
The land derided, and its foes excused:<<

Every sort of radical, whom it is clear that both
Bolt and Crabbe despise, is present. A climax
is reached with a long oration from the radical
Hammond calling for reform. Bolt however is
paralysed with fear, and far from testing his oratory
slinks away from the meeting contenting himself
with praying that the radicals be deported to France.
When he gets safely home the experience has had its
effect however…

>>Home came our hero, to forget no more
The fear he felt and ever must deplore:
For though he quickly join’d his friends again,
And could with decent force his themes maintain,
Still it occurr’d that, in a luckless time,
He fail’d to fight with heresy and crime;
It was observed his words were not so strong,
His tones so powerful, his harangues so long,
As in old times–for he would often drop
The lofty look, and of a sudden stop;
When conscience whisper’d, that he once was still,
And let the wicked triumph at their will;
And therefore now, when not a foe was near,
He had no right so valiant to appear.<<

But then by lucky chance the situations are reversed,
and Hammond turns up at a meeting at one of Bolt’s
clubs. Bolt launches into a lengthy peroration defending
the Church and State and excoriating Hammond.
Hammond actually tries to reply but is drowned out and
embarrassed and forced to leave and Bolt…

>>Exulting now, he gain’d new strength of fame,
And lost all feelings of defeat and shame.
“He dared not strive, you witness’d–dared not lift
His voice, nor drive at his accursed drift:
So all shall tremble, wretches who oppose
Our Church or State–thus be it to our foes.”
He spoke, and, seated with his former air,
Look’d his full self, and fill’d his ample chair;
Took one full bumper to each favourite cause,
And dwelt all night on politics and laws,
With high applauding voice, that gain’d him high applause.<<

Now I wish that I could read the politics of this as some
sort of satire – that Crabbe is really satirising Bolt’s absurd
and complacent defence of the powers that be (a phrase which
is truly applicable here as basically Bolt’s political beliefs
amount to support of those who hold power). But I fear this
is not so; while there may be elements of exaggeration Crabbe
is basically pro-Bolt and anti-Hammond. And I find
this repulsive.

But. At the same time I have to applaud the psychological
acuity and admit that Crabbe has produced something which
will speak to many people’s experience. It certainly speaks
to mine. There have been numerous occasions in my life when
I have failed to stand up for the values which I hold dear because
I have been in a minority, have been fearful of embarrassment,
of standing out. I have not said things which I would easily
say in the company of the sympathetic and friendly. So
Crabbe’s tale strikes home deeply – he achieves a real truth,
a hard truth, a human truth, even if he does so in a way I find makes me
want to throw the book across the room!<<

Ellen responded to this commentary by writing….

>>>When I read “The Dumb Orators” I
didn’t think the specifics of the political argument the judge was
advocating was the point, so much as how in a particular group we are
led to feel ourselves an outsider and alien when we don’t share the
views of all and are often silenced and depressed by the experience.
I thought the irony of the tale was to show how when the judge found
himself among his own people, he became a sort of bully. I didn’t
feel he was on the judge’s side politically particularly; I even felt
(somewhat without evidence) that Crabbe had chosen this high up man
out of a kind of dislike or animus and desire to send him up, as he,
Crabbe, was most of this life very poor, not exactly having much
decent patronage, and lived his life among the lowly, administering
to their needs and the requirements of his job. I don’t think Crabbe
is satirizing Bolt’s establishment point of view, simply exposing it
(rather like Defoe does in _The Shortest Way with Dissenters_), a
kind of ventriloquism. That the liberal point of view is presented
so unsympathetically without any sense of its validity or context is
how Bolt sees it, and this I think I felt from reading other tales
where we see what pressing and other horrors of the period led to.

The hard truth that Nick points out was for me the center of the
tale, but I didn’t see it from the point of view of criticizing
anyone who doesn’t speak up. I felt Crabbe didn’t think that
mattered. So I don’t think Cabbe is pro-Bolt and anti-Hammond,
rather I saw in the tale an underlying alienation in Crabbe himself
which allowed him to see these human groups in this (to me) curiously
compassionate Swiftian way.

I don’t know if I’ve made my meaning clear. I hope I have. I find it
hard to figure out where Crabbe stands. I see him as releasing
himself, releasing long-pent up critiques of humanity and society. I
have been influenced by the son’s biography and the long interview
someone did of him which was reprinted in the Twayne book.<<<

Tale 2 – The Parting Hour

>>>This is a tale which would strongly illustrate
Ellen’s defence of Crabbe’s power of sympathy.
It is a powerfully sad story of the life story of
Allen and Judith. Unable to marry because of their
financial circumstances, Allen seeks his fortune
overseas. He does not return for forty years.
In the meantime Judith has been married
as ‘slave to a wretch’ who has since died.
Allen’s ship was taken by the Spanish and
he found himself a slave, but he eventually
worked his way up and married a Spanish
woman, Isabel, by whom he had children.
When he grew rich however the Spanish expelled
him as a heretic. Eventually he makes his way
back to his home town. The two are re-united
though not in marriage.
This is Crabbe at his best. A strong narrative,
sympathetic characters. Highly recommended
as they say!<<<

Tale 3 – The Gentleman Farmer

>>>In contrast this is the other side of Crabbe. This tale
is wholly satiric and has almost no sympathy for any of
its characters. It also displays him in his politically
reactionary guise.Gwyn is a well-to-do farmer who wants
to rise out of his sphere. He therefore behaves like any
nouveau riche and Crabbe has easy fun satirising his
attempts to decorate his farm-house…

>>In full festoons the crimson curtains fell,
The sofas rose in bold elastic swell;
Mirrors in gilded frames display’d the tints
Of glowing carpets and of colour’d prints:
The weary eye saw every object shine,
And all was costly, fanciful, and fine.<<

(I love that ‘bold elastic swell’!). But Gwyn commits even
worse crimes than desiring social mobility; he attacks the
existing order of things, and in particular the Law…

>>Next, our affairs are govern’d, buy or sell,
Upon the deed the law must fix its spell;
Whether we hire or let, we must have still
The dubious aid of an attorney’s skill;
They take a part in every man’s affairs,
And in all business some concern is theirs;
Because mankind in ways prescribed are found
Like flocks that follow on a beaten ground.
Each abject nature in the way proceeds,
That now to shearing, now to slaughter leads.<<

(which in a way reminds me of exactly the view of their
function which the absurdly pompous and self-inflated
views of themselves which the lawyers Camperdown and
Dove have in  Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds)

and the Church….

>>What man of sense can marriage-rites approve?
What man of spirit can be bound to love?
Forced to be kind! compell’d to be sincere!
Do chains and fetters make companions dear?<,

(one wonders if Crabbe realises just how powerful this
poetry and rhetoric is? I suppose he felt he was being
satiric – it is wonderful how time’s whirligigs turn this
satiric purpose to something which many would echo
and sing quite straight!).

Gwyn’s descent into evil ways is summarised by the
contents of his Library – Gibbon, Hume and Paine –
all devils of reform and Enlightenment.

How does Crabbe punish this parvenu radical? He gives
him a partner Rebecca with whom he lives unmarried.
Then Gwyn falls ill and Rebecca calls in a Doctor (doctors
being another category of person Gwyn has earlier excoriated)
who soon obtains some control over Gywn by curing him.
But Gwyn then has intellectual doubts so the Doctor and
Rebecca call in a man called Wisp, an ex-ostler who has
become a preacher, with whom they agree
to rule Gwyn. Gwyn ends up in the thrall of all three…

>>Lo! now the change complete: the convert Gwyn
Has sold his books, and has renounced his sin;
Mollet his body orders, Wisp his soul,
And o’er his purse the Lady takes control;
No friends beside he needs, and none attend –
Soul, body, and estate, has each a friend;
And fair Rebecca leads a virtuous life –
She rules a mistress, and she reigns a wife.<<

A more manufactured story one could hardly imagine. And
the morals here are very clear – do not aspire to social
mobility, do not question the established order and way
of doing things. This is Crabbe in his fullest reactionary
– and most satiric – mode.

Tales 2 and 3 thus make fascinating companion pieces
demonstrating what I see as the better and worse sides of Crabbe.<<<

Ellen then added a general comment…

>>>Just a thought: I feel you do not take strongly enough, seriously,
the theme of the outrages of social life so pervasive in Crabbe. A
central motif of the opportunity once lost never gotten again swirls
around this: the person doesn’t take the opportunity because they are
persuaded out of it — by the person’s stupidity, own interests,
forcibly. Etc.

This theme is strong in Austen: the outrages of social life. And
it’s one peculiar and repeated in the literature of the later 18th
century: very large in Burney, very large. This is where her strong
grotesquerie comes in.<<<

and then developed it further….

>>>Scatter shot development of idea, sorry: Nick, if we carry this a
little further, and see the outrages of social life as allowing
Grimes to have those boys and then igoring what he does to them, all
the while ignoring him and just call these social arrangements, you
can see why Cathy for example saw a more liberal point of view in Crabbe.

I myself don’t think it’s liberal as I don’t think Austen was
politically liberal. But do say that this is a key to understanding
Crabbe: social arrangements coming out of human nature are gouged for
all the cruelty they allow, all the irrationalities, all the
discomfort. He’s not amused — as for example Burney and Smollett
sometimes are. Byron is not amused either.<<<

Finally Ellen wrote a specific reply on The Gentleman Farmer (having established we were in complete agreement on The Parting which Ellen called ‘Crabbe at his best’)……

>>>I did manage to read this yesterday when I was still awake and alert,
and must say I can’t really counter Nick’s distaste in the sense of
providing an alternative perspective. It’s simply true that our
gentleman farmer, Gwyn, reads radical stuff and it goes to his head,
but note that this is not all that is satirized. When the man marries
to be conventional, he is punished all the more: one could say the
portrait of Rebecca is misogynistic. Gwyn’s adherence to hierarchies
and ranks and materialism make some of the best lines (quoted by Nick
with an apt eye). While this one is not about the outrages of social
life, it’s rather (to me) that Gwyn buys into whatever is the going fad.

Note the three opening quotations (from Merchant of Venice, Much Ado,
Macbeth [not so much] and Henry VIII): all are about someone living a
hollow life, not rating himself by his own estimation within, not
trusting to himself, someone living by performance.

I realize to day someone is apolitical is tantamount to saying he or
she is conservative, for apolitical often means you don’t want
change, but to me the poem is about someone with no inner
life. It’s “a plague on all your houses.” The thing about this poem
is Crabbe feels no sympathy (he is often very harsh) and doesn’t
enter into the inner life of his character: he doesn’t have one I
suppose, but it makes the poem not satisfying. In another register
Gwynn could be someone on the way to going mad. He likes to show
intense loneliness in effect, people so isolated from anyone for
real, but he has to enter into their case. I don’t like the poem
because Crabbe is so harsh — and in other cases I can see how one
could see how this poor person ended up this way from an empathetic
standpoint; Crabbe doesn’t give us enough to go on in this way. Not
that there aren’t people like Gwynn, what matter what they read might
be the point you see.

This is an outgrowth of Pope’s characteristically wholly objective
just suggestive vignettes in his ethical epistles (say the one on
man) which are savage in their way, but escape our criticisms because
they remain on a level of high generality and are so brief and concise.<<<

I replied to all Ellen’s comments as follows….

>>>Many thanks to Ellen for her responses which,
as ever, challenge me to sharpen my thinking and
responses. I take the four postings together.

Now I go back to Peter Grimes and that haunting
line – ‘Grimes is at his exercise’ – about which I have
written before [2]. For me it is very clear that is an
absolute condemnation of the village people who
stood by while a monstrous and horrible injustice
was perpetrated, and from that ‘Grimes is at his
exercise’ becomes a clarion call against all of us
(and I say us advisedly) who stand by while monstrous
acts are perpetrated. I think of the neighbours of
that man in Austria who kept his daughter in a cellar
and raped and abused her for years and years. I think of
the case of a little girl in my home city who has recently been
found dead of abuse. Well the examples are endless.
As I have written before I find that line a sort of
echoing reproach against our ability to shut out,
ignore, even take an ironic distance from, abuse
and injustice.

So as Ellen says…

>>social arrangements coming out of human nature are gouged for
all the cruelty they allow,<<

Now this is radical. But at the same time I think it is crystal
clear that Crabbe also condemns those who criticise and stand
up against the existing order of things – the Church, the State,
the Monarchy, the Social Hierarchy, the Law. Radicals of any
kind are condemned, satirised, sent to a bad end.

So we have an immediate contradiction here – both silence
and speaking out are in, very different ways, condemned.
I think this contradiction makes Crabbe difficult to interpret
at times and may have lead me to mis-read.

Like Ellen …

>>the exigencies of argument will lead me to come out more
on the other side than I really am.<<

but in respect of The Dumb Orators perhaps I was mistaken
in reading Crabbe as being more supportive of Bolt than in fact
he is – I can see that there is an element of satire, or at least
exposure, as Ellen says, there. But I do think, as I have argued
above, that Crabbe is both critical of those who don’t and do
speak up – so he is trapped. But I agree that there is sympathy
within the poem.

Onto The Gentleman Farmer – I do agree that…

>>one could say the
portrait of Rebecca is misogynistic.<<

Indeed I like the whole of Ellen’s reading. I am not sure our
readings are wholly contradictory though – for Crabbe I think that
reading Gibbon and Hume and being radical is a step along the
path to madness; he does think that such people (which include me!)
have no inner life, because for him the inner life is necessarily
a religious one, among the books there is…

‘of devotion not a single trace’

devotion is the only way to a satisfying inner-life and without it
one will inevitably fall into isolation and possibly madness.
And he has no sympathy here as Ellen says.<<<

Re-reading this discussion now and reflecting I am much more convinced that Ellen is fundamentally right and I am fundamentally wrong; in particular in relation to The Dumb Orators I see the extent to which the portrait of Bolt is in fact satirical. What this really points to is how important it is to read Crabbe very carefully and not be lured away by instant reactions. However I would also advance as an idea that The Gentleman Farmer is an important poem in terms of Crabbe’s politics and sociology. Taking on board Ellen’s point that that ‘Gwyn buys into whatever is the going fad’ (buys being an admirable pun) it can be argued that Crabbe is not attacking social movement in general but rather very specifically embourgeoisment. Gwyn is becoming a bourgeois in both material and if we take his ideological positions as ‘fads’, intellectual terms (or perhaps at a more direct level – after all the source of attacks on the church and the legal system was in fact often the bourgeoisie). Is it possible then to consider Crabbe as an anti-bourgeois poet?  Even the first one? Well perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch especially on the basis of one tale. But we can note that anti-bourgeois positions are double edged and can be both reactionary and progressive depending on the angle one comes from – and this may be one of the factors which contributes to the problems over Crabbe’s political position. We can also advance the position that this kind of social satire was highly unlikely to be popular in the century of the triumph of the bourgeois – ie: the Victorian era which is precisely when Crabbe’s popularity plummeted. Finally looking at the matter from another angle one might argue that Crabbe’s attack in The Gentleman Farmer is on insincerity which would be a Romantic position. Overall though I recur to the superiority of Ellen’s readings to mine which now seem a little callow.


  1. John Brewer The Pleasures of the Imagination. I have since read a much fuller account of the kind of clubs which Bewick attended in Jenny Uglow’s excellent biography Nature’s Engraver (separate blog to follow).
  2. Peter Grimes is in The Borough to which I will eventually – I hope – get round.

2 thoughts on “Crabbe – Tales 1-3

  1. ellenandjim

    My rejoinder:

    I think Nick has succeeded in reconciling the two positions he and I took — not so disparate but emphasizing such different things that they come out with different stances, mine more sympathetic to Crabbe’s position. I agree with Nick that finally Crabbe is (paradoxically) an “anti-bourgeois poet.”

    I’ll add that I think I came to my original view by reading Austen: In her novels I see

    how in a particular group we are led to feel ourselves an outsider and alien when we don’t share the views of all and are often silenced and depressed by the experience … (Marianne Dashwood anyone?)

    the theme of the outrages of social life so pervasive in Crabbe. A
    central motif of the opportunity once lost never gotten again swirls
    around this: the person doesn’t take the opportunity because they are
    persuaded out of it … (in all the novels, but especially S&S, P&P_, MP)

    Austen parts company with Crabbe because she can empathize and she recognizes that crass, stupid, narrow, mean, bigoted people have inner lives too, and it’s those which makes the lives of others such a misery when you come into contact with them or they have power over you …


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen. The comparisons with Austen are enormously enriching. And yes I think that something which emerges from The Tales is that Crabbe is capable of great feeling but at other times he can be hard – I think this in part accounts for the diversity of critical reaction, where he can be considered by one critic as kindly and by another as lacking in human sympathy. We come back to a central fact that Crabbe is a much more complex poet than he first appears and each poem needs its own careful consideration.

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