Crabbe – Tale 11: Edward Shore

Returning to Crabbe after a long absence (10 months) I am confronted by a Tale for which I have little sympathy. However I am able to admire Crabbe’s narrative skills and the power of his verse, even if I am suspicious of the ends to which they are put in this case.

Edward Shore is a very conservative Tale. Crabbe outlines his argument in the first 30 lines: ‘Genius’ , if lacking ‘tried Faith, and the resistless Word’, will fall prey to ‘strong temptation’ and fall into ‘Crime’, which will in turn lead to madness. The story of Edward Shore is designed to fit this moral lesson. Edward is a brilliant, handsome youth….

Boast of these friends, to older men a guide,
Proud of his parts, but gracious in his pride;
He bore a gay good-nature in his face,
And in his air were dignity and grace;
Dress that became his state and years he wore,
And sense and spirit shone in Edward Shore.

but he is ‘unfixed’ and cannot find an occupation. He rejects common morality and ordinary laws, either religious or temporal…

Our hero thought no deed should gain applause
Where timid virtue found support in laws;
He to all good would soar, would fly all sin,
By the pure prompting of the will within;
“Who needs a law that binds him not to steal,”
Ask’d the young teacher, “can he rightly feel?
To curb the will, or arm in honour’s cause,
Or aid the weak–are these enforced by laws?
Should we a foul, ungenerous action dread,
Because a law condemns th’ adulterous bed?
Or fly pollution, not for fear of stain,
But that some statute tells us to refrain?
The grosser herd in ties like these we bind,
In virtue’s freedom moves th’ enlighten’d mind.”

The notes to my edition mention Shelley but Crabbe can hardly have had any specific knowledge of Shelley in 1812. I think that this is more a generalised picture of what Crabbe thought of as a free-thinker – though I wonder how much contact he actually had with free-thinkers? This is quite an important point because much of the strengths of Crabbe’s characterisations come from a feeling that the poet had met, lived with, moved among, the kinds of people he describes. Edward Shore remains something of an abstraction, a figure invented to prove Crabbe’s moral.

In all events Shore is unable to find any occupation which will satisfy his ‘enlighten’d mind’. Worse still he has ‘doubts’ and falls into the company of other doubters who together merely compound the doubt…..

Of all their doubts, their reasoning clear’d not one,
Still the same spots were present in the sun:
Still the same scruples haunted Edward’s mind,
Who found no rest, nor took the means to find.

Shore falls back on his own company, as is shown in what, for me, is the most interesting passage in the poem….

In his own room, and with his books around,
His lively mind its chief employment found;
Then idly busy, quietly employ’d,
And, lost to life, his visions were enjoy’d:
Yet still he took a keen inquiring view
Of all that crowds neglect, desire, pursue;
And thus abstracted, curious, still, serene,
He, unemploy’d, beheld life’s shifting scene:
Still more averse from vulgar joys and cares,
Still more unfitted for the world’s affairs.

I love that phrase ‘idly busy’ and the lines describe what to me sounds like a fairly idyllic life-style, and one to which I personally aspire and when well am able to enjoy. I would hope that my mind is ‘lively’ and manage to keep myself ’employ’d’ with no difficulty. A state of idle busyness seems indeed ideal to me (the phrase is so good I would love it as a blog title!). I am not sure about enjoying any ‘visions’ as I am lacking the imaginative faculty for that, but I am interested in humanity and try to behold ‘life’s shifting scene’; but I am indeed ‘unfitted for the world’s affairs’ as I have proved so disastrously in the fairly recent past. Beyond this personal application however, I am very curious as to Crabbe’s attitude here. There is none of the feeling of outright hostility which is present in much of the rest of the poem. I would not go so far as saying there is approval but my feeling is that there is certainly a certain amount of desire here: would not such a life have seemed pleasantly ideal to Crabbe? Was he in fact engaging in self-criticism? Such a life would not have been wholly compatible with his pastoral responsibilities [although I suspect that it was precisely the fact that many Anglican vicars neglected the latter and led a life similar to the one Crabbe describes which had led A.N.Wilson to say that the most desirable position in history was that of a 19thC Anglican vicar in a well-endowed parish – given modern dentistry that is!].

Anyway the Tale must progress if Crabbe is to teach his moral, and it does when Shore meets ‘a serious Friend’: this latter, a much older man of 50,  is a more serious sceptic than Shore and has an easy Fortune which enables him to live the sort of life described above…..

Perplex’d himself, he ever sought to prove
That man is doom’d in endless doubt to rove;
Himself in darkness he profess’d to be,
And would maintain that not a man could see.

Strangely the relation, and arguments, between Shore and his friend do seem to prefigure those of Shelley and Byron….

The youthful Friend, dissentient, reason’d still
Of the soul’s prowess, and the subject-will;
Of virtue’s beauty, and of honour’s force,
And a warm zeal gave life to his discourse:
Since from his feelings all his fire arose,
And he had interest in the themes he chose.

 The Friend, indulging a sarcastic smile,
Said, “Dear enthusiast! thou wilt change thy style,
When man’s delusions, errors, crimes, deceit,
No more distress thee, and no longer cheat.”

Cannot one hear Shelley and Byron discoursing in like vein as they strolled an Italian shore?

But the poem now takes a narrative leap as the older man marries a young wife; she is presented as a gold-digger albeit good-natured; the three are together a lot, then the older man goes to care for a  sick relative….

Ah, foolish men! how could ye thus depend,
One on himself, the other on his friend?

The inevitable happens and Shore sleeps with the young wife [who not surprisingly finds him more attractive than her ageing husband]. The truth comes out and Shore is, for obvious reasons, rejected by his friend. Disgusted at himself he turns to drink….

So found our fallen Youth a short relief
In wine, the opiate guilt applies to grief,

He becomes a tavern philosopher, speaking much of ‘fate and fore-knowledge’ and how our actions are predetermined. Crabbe is thus able to attack both those who claim that the human will alone is enough (“the pure prompting of the will within;” – see above) and those [Calvinists] who over-emphasise predestination, in the course of a single Tale – an almost ostentatious parade of Anglican orthodoxy. But eventually Shore’s money runs out and he is imprisoned for debt. When his debts are paid off and he is released, he discovers that it was old friend whom he had betrayed who paid them….

This was too much; both aided and advised
By one who shunn’d him, pitied, and despised:
He bore it not; ’twas a deciding stroke,
And on his reason like a torrent broke:
In dreadful stillness he appear’d a while,
With vacant horror and a ghastly smile;
Then rose at once into the frantic rage,
That force controlled not, nor could love assuage.

The last 55 lines of the poem are a powerful description  of madness; Crabbe is excellent at this kind of descriptive writing and he brings his full powers to bear on the horror of Shore’s fate…..

Rarely from town, nor then unwatch’d, he goes,
In darker mood, as if to hide his woes;
Returning soon, he with impatience seeks
His youthful friends, and shouts, and sings, and speaks;
Speaks a wild speech with action all is wild –
The children’s leader, and himself a child;
He spins their top, or, at their bidding, bends
His back, while o’er it leap his laughing friends;
Simple and weak, he acts the boy once more,
And heedless children call him Silly Shore.

There certainly is power in this Tale and individual passages have a powerful descriptive resonance, but in my view the narrative is forced to fit the moral and Edward Shore himself is something of an abstraction. Now it may be that this view is strongly influenced by the fact that I dislike Crabbe’s moral, political and philosophical stance in this poem: in other words my sympathies are all with Edward Shore and his friend, and I certainly do not believe that reason, scepticism, doubt, free-thinking and so on inevitably harbour either moral weakness or an inclination to madness. But beyond that I do not see the central ‘sin’ of the poem as amounting to a particularly big deal either – consensual sex between consenting adults does not feature as a vice in my moral book, and while there undoubtedly are elements here which (as has been proved on far too many occasions) could form the stuff of art, they do not so here because the characters are cardboard. It is only with the descent into madness, if divorced from the rest of the poem, that Crabbe’s voice and vision truly assert themselves.

4 thoughts on “Crabbe – Tale 11: Edward Shore

  1. ellenandjim

    I’ve just read the poem, Nick, and now your blog. I see Crabbe as having in that perverse way I see people do when they know they are writing for others (a poem meant to be published is a social act) argued on the side of the very forces that repress and would be hostile to their own gifts. Trollope does this in his story of Fred Pickering. I’ve read stories and novels with people on line where I know the person writing is someone who has suffered from say ostacism or repression of their gifts, and there they are arguing on the side of what has hurt them. It’s as if they have to reinforce the punishments they are threatened with in order to justify their decision to go with the “enemies of promse” (to use Connolly’s phrase).

    So to me the best part of the poem is the powerful opening description of genius as well as the passage you pick out,

    In his own room, and with his books around,
    His lively mind its chief employment found;
    Then idly busy, quietly employ’d,
    And, lost to life, his visions were enjoy’d:
    Yet still he took a keen inquiring view
    Of all that crowds neglect, desire, pursue;
    And thus abstracted, curious, still, serene,
    He, unemploy’d, beheld life’s shifting scene:
    Still more averse from vulgar joys and cares,
    Still more unfitted for the world’s affairs.

    Crabbe among his books.

    As to the story told to exemplify the moral, I’d explain it as not having sufficient objective correlative. It’s a story about sex. If Crabbe wanted to present us with a story of a man punished for free-thinking, why is it necessary to bring in sex. I know that often it was said that libertinism exhibits itself in free or uncontrolled sexuality, but the way the poem was working originally the emphasis was on free thought. To tell a story about sexual transgression and fit it with the moral at hand reminds me of so many novels of the era where a moral is tacked on that obviously was not the driving reason for writing the particular story and characters.

    Again as I recall Crabbe’s marriage was not happy. I remember his wife had a nervous breakdown if I am not mistaken; she suffered bad depressions and pre-deceased him. They were not that compatible. So again we have him imagining a character doing maybe what he would like to have done and then punished for it.

    The conclusion in madness is powerful and pitiful. There was a long period in Crabbe’s life of not writing. He suffered early on from being very poor, many years of
    struggle including hard physical labor, being an apothecary and surgeon, failing (because he did have some bad luck, someone died and he wasn’t liked), then starving and having to cope with intense recriminations from his family (with friends like these?), then going to London and finding a patron in Burke and Johnson; the later years
    he was a clergyman with multiple livings . Who knows what went through his mind as he lived on doing his duties among his parish. He’s imagining himself going mad: Note the epigraph: “so should my thoughts be sever’d from my griefs …”


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks for the brilliant and insightful remarks Ellen. I had entirely missed the central point, which you so unerringly latch onto, that the sexual transgression at the Tale’s heart in no way follows or is a logical consequence of the opening argument. As you say it does not have ‘sufficient objective correlative.’: there are many more pertinent ways in which Crabbe could have chosen to illustrate his moral.

    And again you bring out the elements of self-contradiction, self-repression, which are at the poem’s core. I really like the suggestion that part of the power of Crabbe’s description of madness arises from the fact that he had been close to, and feared, that state himself.

    🙂 in fact your reading makes the poem much more interesting than I managed.

  3. Nick, When I went to bed last night and awoke again this morning, I thought further about what Nick had said about Crabbe and my response in the context of trying to write seriously about the gothic in Austen’s Northanger Abbey (and NA’s limitations) and also some reading I’m now doing of Gaskell’s astonishingly powerful short stories.

    I tried to write about it on facebook but 420 characters won’t do. Let me try again:

    I think Crabbe guilty of Magical thinking. Talking in response to Nick’s blog teaches me how those who write and talk as readers on behalf of enemies of promise, happiness, kindness are enacting a kind of obverse of voting against one’s economic individual interests in elections.

    There is certainly such a thing as false thinking
    (“consciousness”) and it too comes from magical thinking, you vote as if you were wishing/praying. People want so desperately for those around them who they are dependent on for money or friendship not to harm them and so voting becomes a way of wishing/saying you believe those who do harm privately do not. Magical thinking: you think to make them not do this harm or assert you do not believe it is harm in order somehow to make it a good or their behavior acceptable to you so you can endure it. It’s not and you should not if you can avoid this. It’s treating political public behavior as if it were a form of astrology. This is what is meant by family values voting.

    On the Gaskell story: “Lois the Witch:” set in the later 17th century it’s the remorseless terrifying story of a young woman burnt as a witch in the US among American puritans. I find it just rich, embedded with knowledge of the era, especially a feel for recreating the US and the scary fanaticisms of the religious types who dominated early Massachusetts. Lois has the misfortune to be not just an orphan (no one to protect her for real) but to have been born to those who fought for the king — high church.

    There’s a parallel set up between a woman who is tortured, raped and murdered by Indians, not saved by her Puritan males and this justified by their dismissing a real event as a vision of Satan — with Lois accused of being a witch and then being murdered in some horrible way. It’s brilliant of Gaskell to align them.

    Nothing in Austen comes near this. Her terrain is too limited and quits very quickly the real hardnesses around her she only implies.

    And so Crabbe’s flaws where we seey that (as Pogo put it) we have met the enemy and he is us.


  4. nick2209

    Many thanks for the further comment Ellen. I don’t think though that Crabbe can be accused of ignoring the harsh realities of life – indeed a main contemporary criticism was that he concentrated over-much on the dark side of life (‘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’ as the British review wrote in 1812) – I would go further and suggest that it is this subject matter which is a reason for his later obscurity.

    It is in the Tales about radicals and free-thinkers where Crabbe’s reactionary side is displayed. I accept that there is certainly a degree of ‘false consciousness’ about this, but I think it would also be fair to say that there is an element of fear and self-repression: Crabbe wanted, as you suggest, not to appear dangerous or subversive, and in his efforts to avoid this he stretched his narratives. There is a certain sense that the social conventions, the duties, the fixedness, are a defence not only against social dissolution but against, as we see here, madness. It is ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ – and for Crabbe, as a vicar, asserting that the grace of God is a reality was another important psychological and intellectual mechanism. Free-thinking was a threat to his mental world but he (mis) represents it as a threat to the moral order.

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