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.