Crabbe’s Tales – The Critical Heritage

Crabbe: The Critical Heritage (ed: Arthur Pollard 1972) provides the full text of a number of contemporary reviews of The Tales. The following are summaries extracting what I saw as some of the main points of interest.

[This entry is far from complete but I thought it would be useful to get something down and, at a more practical level, I have now filled-up the notebook where my notes so far are contained – I am reading this book in Birmingham Central Library and so do not know when I will get back there to continue!].

First however a few quotes and points from Pollard’s useful Introduction…

‘In literary history he stands between two distinct eras, the Augustan and the Romantic, belonging in part to both, yet owing allegiance to neither.’

On Crabbe’s relationship to birth-place: ‘This attraction for the Aldeburgh district, combined with that strong repulsion from it, is characteristic of Crabbe’s uncomfortable mind’

Should never Crabbe’s work as one body – evolution over time an essential component.

And now to the contemporary reviews….

The British Review Anon (1812)

‘there are some realities of existence so gross, or so trivial, as to be fairly out of the jurisdiction of the poet, and flatly incapable of any interest or embellishment’

This line of attack – which is often repeated in both contemporary and 19thC criticism – on Crabbe, is, perhaps, the one which strikes the modern reader as most absurd. How can any subject be ‘out of the jurisdiction’ of the poet? Behind any such attack lie a whole array of assumptions about poetry which tell us very little about Crabbe but a great deal about the mind-set of the critics who made them.

However the critic then continues…

‘ we feel really obliged to Mr Crabbe for giving us a little bit of truth instead of fiction in his poetry’

and complements his ability in….

‘seizing the little peculiarities of mind’

This critic seemed to want the subject of his verse to fall within a fairly narrow range! Neither trivial not fantastic.

‘Our author’s stories are all of the most simple structure. Each turns upon a single event, and is designed to impress some useful lesson of prudence, some practical moral’

I would hope that my commentaries have shown that this is far from true – even at a narrative level they do not all turn upon a single event, and as for having a one useful lesson, when many are highly ambiguous as to the moral, the statement is absurd.

Having accused some stories of being too simple, the critic then makes a more justified observation when he says that Crabbe sometimes passes too abruptly from one speaker or scene to another leaving the reader in obscurity.

But he then goes on to the meat of his objection to The Tales which is that they take far too gloomy a view of human nature; The Tales are examples of exceptions which ‘ought not to be exhibited as specimens of human character, unless under such circumstances as make them seem to be forced into existence by extraordinary incidents, encouragements or provocations. The heart is rather hardened than corrected by the degrading views of its character’.

The critic is arguing that Crabbe’s world-view is only permissible if The Tales are seen as exceptions; if they are seen as general they lose what the critic sees as their desirable moral force. The notion that Crabbe’s world-view is in fact a true one does not seem to have presented itself as a possibility!

The critic goes on to single out The Mother (Tale 8) for particular attention….

“The circumstances of the story display no invention and it is far from being the happiest as to style and manner. It contains, however, so pleasing and well wrought a picture of an interesting and virtuous maiden, that our female readers shall have an opportunity of being edified by it.”

It is important to remember here that the ‘virtuous maiden’ concerned, Lucy, dies rather than marry the man whom her mother has selected for her; so the edification is presumably that death is some sort of reward for good behaviour and preserving virtue! It would be hard to imagine a finer example of the application of a patriarchal value system to literary criticism. It is also an extraordinary misreading of The Tale which – as the title would surely suggest to any but the most sublimely obtuse – is primarily concerned with The Mother (Dorothea) not Lucy, and whose ‘moral’, as far as it has one, is that physical beauty is inferior to inner qualities. But Crabbe’s hard realism allows no easy resolution of this moral in narrative terms, nor does The Tale draw its force from the moral.

The critic claims that the two most important Tales are The Confidante and Resentment.

He concludes that “Crabbe’s taste has been betrayed by too strong a bias to simplicity” – to which one can only retort that someone who reads the verse in such a crass fashion is almost bound to come to the conclusion that The Tales are too simple!

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