Crabbe – Tale 8: The Mother

Another hard tale of a parent and a child – in this case a Mother and daughter. The Tale actually begins with the Mother’s parents who are fatefully indulgent, granting Dorothea, their only surviving child’s (‘Sons they had lost’ – Crabbe is always alive to social facts such as the infant mortality rate) every wish, so she goes up to be a spoiled brat…..

“Each word, each look, each action was a cause
For flattering wonder and for fond applause;”

she was granted a companion who would provide her with the requisite praise…

“The yielding pair to her petitions gave
An humble friend to be a civil slave,
Who for a poor support herself resign’d
To the base toil of a dependant mind:”

This reminded me very much of Ellen’s discussion of Rizzo’s book on companions and the miserable life that these women led; for a pittance (‘a poor support’) she has to perform – and what a wonderful phrase this is – ‘ the base toil of a dependant mind’ ; for Crabbe the idea of having one’s true thoughts restricted like this is appalling. Of course it has become the common condition of millions who have to keep their opinions to themselves in order to stay in jobs which will provide them with ‘a poor support’.

Dorothea marries a totally unsuitable man…

“Her chosen Husband was a man so mild,
So humbly temper’d, so intent to please,”

Whom she basically harasses into an early grave….

>>Twelve heavy years this patient soul sustain’d
This wasp’s attacks, and then her praise obtain’d,
Graved on a marble tomb, where he at peace remain’d.<<

They have two daughters of whom one is, like the mother, a beauty. The other Lucy is…

“………………………………………………….a child
With a plain face, strong sense, and temper mild,”

for whom the mother has no time, and thus readily agrees when an Aunt (the father’s sister) begs that Lucy will come and stay with her (the role of Aunts in the Tales is a fascinating one). Lucy and her Aunt live together in great harmony….

“In tender friendship and in true respect
Lived Aunt and Niece, no flattery, no neglect –
They read, walk’d, visited–together pray’d,
Together slept the matron and the maid:”

Here is one of Crabbe’s visions of a good life – in both a moral and Epicurean sense of the word. It is quiet, domestic – friendship, respect, neither flattery nor neglect, reading, walking and visiting – it is companionate. Lucy is immensely valued…

“In Lucy’s looks, a manner so serene;
Such harmony in motion, speech, and air,
That without fairness she was more than fair,
Had more than beauty in each speaking grace,
That lent their cloudless glory to the face;”

And of course one of the morals of the poem is that ‘inner’ beauty is vastly superior to ‘outer’ beauty. However there is a problem in the wings…

“But love, like zephyr on the limpid lake,
Was now the bosom of the maid to shake,
And in that gentle mind a gentle strife to make.”

A young Rector falls for Lucy and she for him. The Aunt approves with a slight reservation…

“In all she found him all she wish’d to find,
With slight exception of a lofty mind:
A certain manner that express’d desire
To be received as brother to the ‘Squire.”

However she approves, the Rector proposes, Lucy accepts and her mother agrees on condition that she only has to pay a pittance as a dowry. And so the Tale might end happily but Crabbe comes along with a delicious authorial intervention…

“And here, might pitying hope o’er truth prevail,
Or love o’er fortune, we would end our tale;
For who more bless’d than youthful pair removed
From fear of want–by mutual friends approved –
Short time to wait, and in that time to live
With all the pleasures hope and fancy give;
Their equal passion raised on just esteem,
When reason sanctions all that love can dream?
   Yes! reason sanctions what stern fate denies:
The early prospect in the glory dies,
As the soft smiles on dying infants play
In their mild features, and then pass away.”

Note the harshness of Crabbe’s metaphor – the smiles on dying children; it does not bode well for the rest of the poem. The beautiful sister dies and the Mother instantly decrees that the Rector (a younger son) is a quite inadequate match now Lucy is an heiress…..

“Lucy appealing to a parent pray’d;
But all opposed the event that she design’d,
And all in vain–she never changed her mind;
But coldly answer’d in her wonted way,
That she “would rule, and Lucy must obey.”

Parental authority is here abused and we have a balance to those Tales in which this authority is benevolent and well-intentioned. In fact this is a recurring theme, and issues of good and bad parenting are central to many of the Tales. There is always a strong element of social realism as well as morality in Crabbe’s treatment of the issue however.

The Rector continues to come and press his claim but eventually…

“…. he, indignant, the dishonour spurn’d:
Nay, fix’d suspicion where he might confide,
And sacrificed his passion to his pride.”

and goes and marries another woman. Dorothea is triumphant, waving the announcement in Lucy’s face; she believes that Lucy will now do her bidding and marry the rich man she has picked out. On the contrary Lucy stands firm and slips into a terminal decline; Crabbe gives her a soliloquy…

“I am an humble actor, doom’d to play
A part obscure, and then to glide away:
Incurious how the great or happy shine,
Or who have parts obscure and sad as mine;
In its best prospect I but wish’d for life,
To be th’ assiduous, gentle, useful wife;
That lost, with wearied mind, and spirit poor,
I drop my efforts, and can act no more;
With growing joy I feel my spirits tend
To that last scene where all my duties end.”

Which I must admit fails to convince – Shakespearean echoes notwithstanding. Even less convincing are the religious visions which she then starts to have – I have the feeling that Crabbe is actually quite uncomfortable with such material and is relieved when he can write…

“Then grew the soul serene, and all its powers
Again restored, illumed the dying hours;
But reason dwelt where fancy stray’d before,
And the mind wander’d from its views no more;
Till death approach’d, when every look express’d
A sense of bliss, till every sense had rest.”

Crabbe is, I think, happier with reason than fancy even when he is talking of a young woman dying for love. It is the final two verses of the poem which are truly haunting however….

“The mother lives, and has enough to buy
The attentive ear and the submissive eye
Of abject natures–these are daily told,
How triumph’d beauty in the days of old;
How, by her window seated, crowds have cast
Admiring glances, wondering as they pass’d;
How from her carriage as she stepp’d to pray,
Divided ranks would humbly make her way;
And how each voice in the astonish’d throng
Pronounced her peerless as she moved along.
   Her picture then the greedy Dame displays;
Touch’d by no shame, she now demands its praise;
In her tall mirror then she shows a face,
Still coldly fair with unaffecting grace;
These she compares:  “It has the form,” she cries,
“But wants the air, the spirit, and the eyes;
This, as a likeness, is correct and true,
But there alone the living grace we view.”
This said, th’ applauding voice the Dame requir’d,
And, gazing, slowly from the glass retired.”

This is immensely powerful – it reminds me of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevardand also of course of the archetype of the Queen in Snow White (‘Mirror, Mirror’); which inevitably brings up the question of whether the poem is misogynist? It is my judgement that it is not so, because of the positive examples we have been given of both Lucy and the Aunt (and there are no positive men in this Tale – which indeed is dominated by women). One of the most remarkable things about this ending is that Crabbe shows Dorothea continuing to get away with it; she is wealthy enough to pay for flattery and self-deluded enough to be enraptured by her mirror image. We return once again to Crabbe’s realism; while the poem’s moral intent and message are clear to the reader, they actually entirely pass the central character – The Mother – by. Which is as it so often is in the world – the world does not run on moral lines. The Snow White comparison is highly instructive because there is no Happy Ending here – the heroine is dead and the bad mother goes on much as she has before. Hard and real.

3 thoughts on “Crabbe – Tale 8: The Mother

  1. ellenandjim

    Dear Nick,

    Thank you very much for your reading of this tale. I’m having a better night tonight than I have had all week. I”ve read the second chapter of Rizzo, a little of Le Coeur et la Raison (_S&S_ by Austen in French) and now have read “The Mother” for the first time and your exegesis and commentary.

    Hard and real certainly Crabbe is. I find his continual return with mistaken obsessions in reaction to social life intriguing. I want to know why he returns here. Thus when Lucy turns from reality to religion, he is showing her becoming twisted and half-mad; I agree only in the last lines when she begins to find peace just before death do we come back to a form of sanity and to me the mood of this is analogous to the mood of her life with her aunt.

    I see other repeating patterns. So many of his stories are of characters who are prevented from reaching out for the one chance of happiness they sought — usually through marriage — because of pressure from relatives over money or position. This is just what happens in Austen’s _Persuasion_, only she intervenes with a fairy tale by having the hero return and they fall in love again. Crabbe will have none of that. You might say he’s more truthful but then the author is the God of his universe and I feel Crabbe is aware he luxuriates in a certain cruelty:

    “And here, might pitying hope o’er truth prevail,
    Or love o’er fortune, we would end our tale;

    He chooses to kill off the beautiful sister. I’ve said before I feel something vengeful at work in his poems, a real corrosive spirit in reaction to what he has seen in life and experienced himself.

    I don’t think this one is misogynist either; it is centered in a group of women. Dorothea is rather a Lady Catherine de Bourgh type, only madder. She does end up half-mad only we are not to feel sorry for her. I could discern in those closing lines some sense of the this woman’s inner misery but so much in these lines condemns her (“Still coldly fair with unaffecting grace”) that there is no pity just a controlled fascinated horror.

    While the prosody seems on the surface the usual couplet art, I find it does not have the antithesis and tight style of Pope, but an individual sinuous line which carries the psychological feel over from line to line.

    I don’t know quite what to make of the continual quotation of Shakespeare in the opening of these. They point a moral, but they are also perhaps intended to give his work, somehow give himself a father poet, attach his work back to Shakespeare and say he is doing something of the same thing.


  2. Second thought:

    At the end of his comments on Crabbe’s Tale 8, Nick said he thought the tale not misogynistic, and I agreed, but thinking some more, or writing on an impulse to be more frank, my view is these fairy tales with aging mean ex-beauties gazing at themselves in their mirrors are, and if not, they are very cruel. In my limited experience (to myself and a few friends), I’ve discovered that many women when they age tend to avoid the mirror. Not hard to figure out why; they go to it briefly, as necessary, and then stay away.

    To my mind this ending of his tale is one a man writes and like many fairy tales shows a strongly instinctive dislike of older women, which may be seen for example in how only young women are hired to be stars in movies for the most part.

    I find the Snow White story particularly full of hatred for an old woman. She is in the original punished horrifically by having her dance in firing shoes; she is very wicked in the tale but then you can prove anything if you get to make up the evidence.


  3. nick2209

    Many thanks for your tremendous insights Ellen.

    I do agree that there often appears to be something vengeful at work in the poems – some working out of an inner darkness (which we only see in tiny glimpses in his son’s Life).

    But while I agree that Snow White is most certainly misogynist I still don’t think this poem is. On the one hand the conclusion is of course a very ordinary moral denunciation of the valuation of phsyical over inner beauty -a theme which the poem has made clear. But my feeling is that there is something more here – what Crabbe finds so appalling is the capacity for self-delusion ; this is a theme to which he refers again and again as the characters in his work have their ideals or delusions shattered. In some cases this leads to a moderately happy ending, in others to despair or even death. It is this which contributes to the difficulty of being able to ‘place’ Crabbe – to the extent that idealism is nearly always broken he is conservative, but in his exposure of delusions, particularly those of social life he is radical. I also think this contributes to his unpopularity as a poet – Crabbe is anti-illusory. For someone in the grip of self-delusion he has no sympathy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s