Crabbe – Tale 10: The Lover’s Journey

The Lover’s Journey, in contrast to the three Tales which preceded it, is most definitely not part of any group in terms of its subject or theme. It is a poem which could very easily be taken out of the context of The Tales. It is also in many ways a sunny, happy poem and thus provides a rebuttal to those who would claim that Crabbe is always gloomy. Right at the beginning Crabbe sets out the thesis or moral which the poem will attempt to prove….

It is the Soul that sees:  the outward eyes
Present the object, but the Mind descries;
And thence delight, disgust, or cool indiff’rence rise:
When minds are joyful, then we look around,
And what is seen is all on fairy ground;
Again they sicken, and on every view
Cast their own dull and melancholy hue;
Or, if absorb’d by their peculiar cares,
The vacant eye on viewless matter glares,
Our feelings still upon our views attend,
And their own natures to the objects lend:
Sorrow and joy are in their influence sure,
Long as the passion reigns th’ effects endure;
But Love in minds his various changes makes,
And clothes each object with the change he takes;
His light and shade on every view he throws,
And on each object what he feels bestows.

At a simple level this is merely a statement of the fairly obvious reflection that our view of the world is clouded by our mood. But there are of course far more important philosophical, and indeed theological, implications overtly presented in those first two lines…

It is the Soul that sees:  the outward eyes
Present the object, but the Mind descries;

Crabbe is tapping in not merely to 18thC philosophical debates, but to some central philosophical questions about our relationship to the outside world, the nature and possibility of objectivity and so on. Crabbe was, we should remember, a clergyman, and asserting the primacy of ‘Soul’ in these matters is a religious response.

However if this philosophical speculation seems heavy the way in which Crabbe proves his point is anything but. The narrative is a simple one; a young man called John takes a morning ride to see his beloved Susan….
Fair was the morning, and the month was June,
When rose a Lover;–love awakens soon:
Brief his repose, yet much he dreamt the while
Of that day’s meeting, and his Laura’s smile:
Fancy and love that name assign’d to her,
Call’d Susan in the parish-register;
And he no more was John–his Laura gave
The name Orlando to her faithful slave.
   Bright shone the glory of the rising day,
When the fond traveller took his favourite way;
He mounted gaily, felt his bosom light,
And all he saw was pleasing in his sight.

As he rides everything that he sees, whether objectively pleasing or not, is transformed by his mood into a source of delight…..

Onward he went, and fiercer grew the heat,
Dust rose in clouds before the horse’s feet;
For now he pass’d through lanes of burning sand,
Bounds to thin crops or yet uncultured land;
Where the dark poppy flourish’d on the dry
And sterile soil, and mock’d the thin-set rye.
   “How lovely this!” the rapt Orlando said;
“With what delight is labouring man repaid!
The very lane has sweets that all admire,
The rambling suckling, and the vigorous brier;
See! wholesome wormwood grows beside the way,
Where dew-press’d yet the dog-rose bends the spray;
Fresh herbs the fields, fair shrubs the banks adorn,
And snow-white bloom falls flaky from the thorn;
No fostering hand they need, no sheltering wall,
They spring uncultured, and they bloom for all.”

Now Crabbe is managing to make his point, write some delightful nature poetry and have a considerable amount of fun. John next comes across a village…
He saw some scatter’d hovels; turf was piled
In square brown stacks; a prospect bleak and wild!
A mill, indeed, was in the centre found,
With short sear herbage withering all around;
A smith’s black shed opposed a wright’s long shop,
And join’d an inn where humble travellers stop.
   “Ay, this is Nature,” said the gentle ‘Squire;
“This ease, peace, pleasure–who would not admire?
With what delight these sturdy children play,
And joyful rustics at the close of day;
Sport follows labour; on this even space
Will soon commence the wrestling and the race;
Then will the village-maidens leave their home,
And to the dance with buoyant spirits come;
No affectation in their looks is seen,
Nor know they what disguise aud flattery mean;

I cannot help thinking that Crabbe is once again to some extent parodying Goldsmith’s vision of the village nirvana to be found in The Deserted Village ( a subject of Crabbe’s own much earlier The Village) although I am not going to recur to a point I have previously made about the fact that this either represents a misreading of Goldsmith or the adoption of a political position for which I have no sympathy. Having said which, here Crabbe is, unlike in The Village, able to make his point with dexterity and humour, so that even I have to admit it is funny.

John continues his ride and Crabbe continues to make his point; John’s next landscape is a salt-marsh…

When next appear’d a dam–so call the place –
Where lies a road confined in narrow space;
A work of labour, for on either side
Is level fen, a prospect wild and wide,
With dikes on either hand by ocean’s self supplied:
Far on the right the distant sea is seen,
And salt the springs that feed the marsh between:
Beneath an ancient bridge, the straiten’d flood
Rolls through its sloping banks of slimy mud;
Near it a sunken boat resists the tide,
That frets and hurries to th’ opposing side;
The rushes sharp, that on the borders grow,
Bend their brown flow’rets to the stream below,
Impure in all its course, in all its progress slow:
Here a grave Flora scarcely deigns to bloom,
Nor wears a rosy blush, nor sheds perfume:
The few dull flowers that o’er the place are spread
Partake the nature of their fenny bed;
Here on its wiry stem, in rigid bloom,
Grows the salt lavender that lacks perfume;
Here the dwarf sallows creep, the septfoil harsh,
And the soft slimy mallow of the marsh;
Low on the ear the distant billows sound,
And just in view appears their stony bound;
No hedge nor tree conceals the glowing sun,
Birds, save a wat’ry tribe, the district shun,
Nor chirp among the reeds where bitter waters run

This of course is Crabbe’s landscape home; the salt-marshes of the East Anglian coast. Here is where Peter Grimes resides. Crabbe is the great – if not only – poet of these extraordinary, bleak and yet moving landscapes. But John’s transformational vision actually allows Crabbe to now poke fun at and parody himself…

“Various as beauteous, Nature, is thy face,”
Exclaim’d Orlando:  “all that grows has grace:
All are appropriate–bog, and marsh, and fen,
Are only poor to undiscerning men;
Here may the nice and curious eye explore
How Nature’s hand adorns the rushy moor;
Here the rare moss in secret shade is found,
Here the sweet myrtle of the shaking ground;
Beauties are these that from the view retire,
But well repay th’ attention they require;
For these my Laura will her home forsake,
And all the pleasures they afford partake.”

It is all in the eye (or more accurately soul and mind) of the beholder, so Crabbe might well have written in very different terms of the lowering bleakness of the salt-marshes which form an appropriate background to some of his grimmest work.

Finally, after an encounter with some gypsies whom he regards with a most benevolent eye, John reaches Susan’s house to find she has gone out to visit some friends for the day. Bitterly disappointed John commences to ride to these friends, and now while every scene he encounters is objectively pleasing, to John they are all repulsive………

Forth rode Orlando by a river’s side,
Inland and winding, smooth, and full, and wide,
That roll’d majestic on, in one soft-flowing tide;
The bottom gravel, flow’ry were the banks,
Tall willows waving in their broken ranks;
The road, now near, now distant, winding led
By lovely meadows which the waters fed;
He pass’d the way-side inn, the village spire,
Nor stopp’d to gaze, to question or admire;
On either side the rural mansions stood,
With hedge-row trees, and hills, high-crown’d with wood,
And many a devious stream that reach’d the nobler flood.
   “I hate these scenes,” Orlando angry cried,
“And these proud farmers! yes I hate their pride,
See! that sleek fellow, how he strides along,
Strong as an ox, and ignorant as strong;
Can yon close crops a single eye detain
But he who counts the profits of the grain?
And these vile beans with deleterious smell,
Where is there beauty? can a mortal tell?
These deep fat meadows I detest; it shocks
One’s feelings there to see the grazing ox; –
For slaughter fatted, as a lady’s smile
Rejoices man, and means his death the while.
Lo! now the sons of labour! every day
Employ’d in toil and vex’d in every way;
Theirs is but mirth assumed, and they conceal,
In their affected joys, the ills they feel:
I hate these long green lanes; there’s nothing sees
In this vile country but eternal green;
Woods! waters! meadows!  Will they never end?
‘Tis a vile prospect: –Gone to see a friend?”

My pleasure in these lines is not merely the way in which Crabbe handles his material so adroitly and acutely in psychological terms (I can certainly recognise myself being quite as irrational as John) but the humour with which he does this. How delightful is the

And these vile beans with deleterious smell,
Where is there beauty? can a mortal tell?

Crabbe is capable of coming out with these extraordinary couplets using words(deleterious) and concepts (the bad odour of beans) and rhymes (smell/tell really shouldn’t work here) which somehow not only cohere but are memorable and often, as here, very funny.

By the time he has passed yet more happy scenes which bring offence to his eye and is nearing the friends whom Susan is visiting, John’s anger is cooling down. There is a happy reunion. John rides back home the next day and his vision is once again different…

Alone Orlando on the morrow paced
The well-known road; the gipsy-tent he traced;
The dam high-raised, the reedy dikes between,
The scatter’d hovels on the barren green,
The burning sand, the fields of thin-set rye,
Mock’d by the useless Flora blooming by;
And last the heath with all its various bloom,
And the close lanes that led the trav’ller home.
   Then could these scenes the former joys renew?
Or was there now dejection in the view? –
Nor one or other would they yield–and why?
The mind was absent, and the vacant eye
Wander’d o’er viewless scenes, that but appear’d to die.

When the mind is fully occupied the eye perceives absolutely nothing at all, and no subjective judgements, whether positive or negative, are brought to bear on the scenes which are presented to it. I will not pretend that Crabbe really pursues in any serious way the philosophical implications of the arguments which he lays out at the beginning of the poem. This Tale is fundamentally a light-hearted one in which Crabbe is having fun, with, among others, himself (always an excellent sign in a writer in my view); certainly it achieves the goal of proving that our perceptions depend on out mood – not that as a depressive I needed any proof of that. The Lover’s Journey provides some delightful light relief in The Tales as a whole – there is no heartbreak or death here ; of course its effect as light relief depends on its being set in context, so while I have said that it would be possible to extract it (and anthologise it) it is far better read where it is intended to be read. And those who question Crabbe’s ability to alter his tone should certainly be referred to this highly enjoyable Tale.

2 thoughts on “Crabbe – Tale 10: The Lover’s Journey

  1. Dear Nick,

    I didn’t like the poem as much as you did because I felt the reflection at the center was banal; but as a clothesline on which to hang extraordinary landscapes, it’s superb. And I have to say (this morning we are in a debate mode I see) that I find this poem as bleak and grim as any of Crabbe’s: he creates a strange beauty out of the salt-marshes, but what are we to say of the gypsy family.

    Now what I find particularly admirable here is not just the justice he does to rage the impoverished and desperate might feel, but the lines that show he identifies with the gypsies, for example, the misery of the mother and all a woman can know, the grandfather who looks about him and foresees with pity what is to come to them:

    I’m not permitted to quote too much in a comment so highlight the awareness the young girl must prositute herself to survive:

    150 He saw their sister on her duty stand;
    151 Some twelve years old, demure, affected, sly,
    152 Prepared the force of early powers to try;
    153 Sudden a look of languor he descries,
    154 And well-feign’d apprehension in her eyes;
    155 Train’d but yet savage, in her speaking face

    The brother would like to, but cannot stop her; they need the stuff she brings in (“train’d”).

    The father watching this:

    162 The looks of pity in the Trav’ller’s face:
    163 Within, the Father, who from fences nigh
    164 Had brought the fuel for the fire’s supply,
    165 Watch’d now the feeble blaze, and stood dejected by:

    The mother yet endlessly pregnant (imagine what her breasts are like, the lines invite this):

    169 Reclined the Wife, an infant at her breast;
    170 In her wild face some touch of grace remain’d,
    171 Of vigour palsied and of beauty stain’d;
    172 Her blood-shot eyes on her unheeding mate

    Finally the old man:

    the worn-out Grandsire sits
    183 Neglected, lost, and living but by fits;
    184 Useless, despised, his worthless labours done,
    185 And half protected by the vicious Son,
    186 Who half supports him; he with heavy glance
    187 Views the young ruffians who around him dance;
    188 And, by the sadness in his face, appears
    189 To trace the progress of their future years:
    190 Through what strange course of misery, vice, deceit,
    191 Must wildly wander each unpractised cheat!
    192 What shame and grief, what punishment and pain ….

    This is certainly a poem to reply to Goldsmith; it’s in Crabbe’s early vein; that Austen so loved Crabbe makes me know that were she to have been allowed to describe the gypsies we would not have Harriet Smith’s shallow unaware response.

    I was glad to return to Crabbe today. Too much aristocracy is no good for one. I’m looking forward to our time with Nokes on Johnson as Johnson saw this world too: he knew Crabbe’s early poetry and liked it.

    Finally, in my Oxford I noticed an early poem by Crabbe: “The library!” It’s a sort of ironic Jorges poem: Crabbe’s idea of paradise is a library, the poor person’s free place to travel, meet great minds, encounter extraordinary experiences, widen sympathy and so on. Here I think the argument is central; it’s a very Johnsonian poem rather than Pope (opening: “When the sad soul, by care and grief, oppress’d/Looks round the world” reminds me of Johnson’s Vanity.”

    Just a couple of lines:

    But what strange art, what magic can dispose
    The troubled mind to change its native wores?
    Or lead us willing from ourselves, to see
    Others more wretched, more undone than we …”

    The real problem with Crabbe is he never develops an individual enough poetic diction. That’s the limitation of his verse.

    Ellen

  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen. And there is certainly nothing wrong with quoting extensively in a comment! I was delighted that you drew attention to the gypsy section which I felt forced to omit for reasons of space – it is indeed strong and powerful.

    Not surprisingly though I do disagree with you. On three counts really —
    1) I still think that overall it is a light-hearted poem and that Crabbe is in relaxed mood here.
    2) I disagree that the central contention is banal – though this might depend on one’s definition of that word. I would not argue that it is a contention that has often been made, and is I suppose therefore common; but it is certainly not a perception which has any sort of universal philosophical acceptance. Indeed one might argue that it is currently under sustained attack whether from scientific objectivists or theological extremists, who would unite in denying such a position. In fact I am not at all sure that I buy the notion as a general philosophical proposition!
    3) On the matter of poetic diction I really am in a position of ignorance; all I can come out with is the crude statement that ‘I don’t know much about poetic diction but I know what I like’ – actually I have never really understood why this is such an unreasonable statement as it is generally taken to be in its more usual context (art). Strangely this really links back to (2) – how much weight and authority do we allow to the individual response, however emotional, as against some attempted measures of objective worth and value? Precisely because I think this is a vexed and difficult and eternal question I don’t think any rumination on the subject can ever be banal – in the sense of lacking all interest anyway.

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