Crabbe – Tale 14: The Struggles of Conscience

The Struggles of Conscience forms one of that subset of The Tales concerned with the rise and fall of young men (other prominent examples include Tale 5, The Patron, Tale 11, Edward Shore and Tale 21, The Learned Boy). Although these tales are very different in their particular protagonists and their central issues, it is worth forming the connection, both because it raises questions around the autobiographical elements which may have worked their way, consciously or unconsciously, into such stories, but also because it is interesting to observe how Crabbe uses this particular narrative format to examine some of his major ideological, political and moral concerns. The story arc in each case (except The Learned Boy which is a major problem and exception in itself, as we shall discover) is similar – a trajectory which I think it is fair to characterise, as I have done, as ‘rise and fall’.

Having made these observations and connections I immediately move to contradict myself by saying that The Struggles of Conscience takes a unique form and its central conceit is highly notable in itself. The narrative can be easily summarised: the nephew, Fulham, of a ‘Toyman’ has his conscience awakened when he attends a meeting of his uncle’s sect; all is well until his uncle dies, when he becomes tempted by the prospect of acquiring money, which he does in various shady ways, culminating in marrying a rich young woman. His wife proves to be a spendthrift termagant so he traps her into an indiscretion, thus enabling him to divorce her but keep her money. At this point his conscience becomes overwhelming and he can only attempt to overcome it by plunging into debauchery, which in turn leads to worse guilt. At the poem’s conclusion he is trapped in this nightmare cycle and there is no suggestion that he will escape it.

The poem’s originality and substance are contained not in this narrative but in the dialogues between Fulham and his conscience. To suggest that this poem calls for a psychoanalytic reading is blindingly obvious, but it is well worth tracing these pscyhological transactions in some detail.

Let us start however with the first line…

A serious Toyman in the city dwelt,

‘Toyman’ here means literally one who sells toys, but the startling, almost antonymic adjective, immediately calls our attention to the fact that Crabbe has some doubts both about the particular character involved, but also possibly about the ‘profession’ itself. It is always necessary to pay attention to the exact sociological information which Crabbe supplies (when he does so). In fact we immediately learn that the term ‘serious’ is, at least as far as religion is concerned, at least semi-ironic as the verse continues….

Who much concern for his religion felt;
Reading, he changed his tenets, read again,
And various questions could with skill maintain;
Papist and Quaker if we set aside,
He had the road of every traveller tried;
There walk’d a while, and on a sudden turn’d
Into some by-way he had just discern’d:

Crabbe is always hostile to this kind of religious quest; his theology was of an unquestioning and conventional kind – exactly what was called for in the Anglican church of his period (as Terence Bareham explores in great depth (1)). So the use of ‘serious’ is both ironic – in that this kind of religious dilettantism is not to Crabbe ‘serious’ – but also critical; the Toyman would do better to be less ‘serious’ about finding some ideal answer to his ‘various questions’. Already we have a suggestion of a certain psychological instability.


At length the senior fix’d; I pass the sect
He call’d a Church, ’twas precious and elect;

‘elect’ here is specific, meaning that the sect was some variety of presbyterianism which believed they were the elect or chosen. It is when Fulham attends a meeting of this sect that his ‘Conscience’ (Gavin Edwards in his notes to the Penguin edition calls attention to the way in which Crabbe’s use of capitalisation for Conscience/conscience is varied throughout the tale) is awakened…

For though the Youth was call’d a prudent lad,
And prudent was, yet serious faults he had –

(we have just seen in Tale 13 how ‘prudence’ can be a very questionable virtue/quality in Crabbe – once again here it suggests acquisitiveness, or at least an over-concern with the material). So from this point Fulham becomes something of a divided self with his conscience acting as super-ego….

Whene’er he stray’d, he found his Conscience rose,
Like one determined what was ill t’oppose,
What wrong t’accuse, what secret to disclose;
To drag forth every latent act to light,
And fix them fully in the actor’s sight:
This gave him trouble, but he still confess’d
The labour useful, for it brought him rest.

So far so good it would seem, as far as Crabbe (and maybe Freud) are concerned; the Conscience/super-ego attracts as a brake on the activities of the id. And it is worth pausing here to consider what Crabbe means by ‘serious faults’ and ‘stray’d’. Nothing is specified – as it will be later on – but it seems highly improbable to me that Crabbe is talking of the kind of political, theological and intellectual faults which he so often castigates. Nor, given what happens next, can he be talking of commercial fault. We are left, and the use of ‘stray’d’ suggests this, with wine and women, faults of the flesh. Crabbe’s observations in both these areas would demand separate lengthy essays and they are, especially in respect of sex, far from clear-cut. At times he could be extremely strict (The Parish Register is especially full of examples of this); on other occasions, with a full ration of the double standard, he could regard young men’s follies in this area as venial. My own conclusion is that is what he is doing here.

In any event the next, and crucial development, is that the Uncle dies….

The Uncle died, and when the Nephew read
The will, and saw the substance of the dead –
Five hundred guineas, with a stock in trade –
He much rejoiced, and thought his fortune made;
Yet felt aspiring pleasure at the sight,
And for increase, increasing appetite;
Desire of profit idle habits check’d
(For Fulham’s virtue was to be correct);
He and his Conscience had their compact made –
“Urge me with truth, and you will soon persuade;
But not,” he cried, “for mere ideal things
Give me to feel those terror-breeding stings.”
“Let not such thoughts,” she said, “your mind confound;
Trifles may wake me, but they never wound;
In them indeed there is a wrong and right,
But you will find me pliant and polite;
Not like a Conscience of the dotard kind,
Awake to dreams, to dire offences blind:
Let all within be pure, in all beside
Be your own master, governor, and guide;
Alive to danger, in temptation strong,
And I shall sleep our whole existence long.”
“Sweet be thy sleep,” said Fulham; “strong must be
The tempting ill that gains access to me:
Never will I to evil deed consent;
Or, if surprised, oh! how will I repent!
Should gain be doubtful, soon would I restore
The dangerous good, or give it to the poor;
Repose for them my growing wealth shall buy,
Or build – who knows? – an hospital like Guy.
Yet why such means to soothe the smart within,
While firmly purposed to renounce the sin?”
Thus our young Trader and his Conscience dwelt
In mutual love, and great the joy they felt;
But yet in small concerns, in trivial things,
“She was,” he said, “too ready with the stings;”
And he too apt, in search of growing gains,
To lose the fear of penalties and pains:
Yet these were trifling bickerings, petty jars,
Domestic strifes, preliminary wars;

I have quoted at length both because the passage is fascinating in itself, and because it is the first example of the interior monologues which dominate the poem. The sin which is to be Fulham’s downfall is avarice, which is a grave fault in Crabbe. In this sense he is an eighteenth century figure; the elevation of capitalism as a moral virtue does not touch him This is not to argue that he is radically anti-capitalist or a leveller – he assuredly is not – but the desire to acquire is not a virtue. When the poem relates….

Desire of profit idle habits check’d
(For Fulham’s virtue was to be correct);

…we are meant to question whether this desire of profit is in fact a good thing, or whether the idle habits are not in fact a lesser vice; indeed we should question whether correctness is in fact a virtue. As so often there is an ambiguity about the nature of ‘virtue’ and an insistence on its relation to specific circumstances and personalities. It is precisely this ambiguity which Crabbe develops as the interior monologue/argument starts.

We should note the gender assigned to Conscience. By making it female Crabbe accomplishes several things…

  • he removes any possibility that the reader may confuse Conscience with God (I do not think notions of a female deity were on his radar!)
  • in psychological terms this is not the voice of a stand-in father, or the uncle, or the preacher
  • it allows for Crabbe to present Conscience as being, on occasion, in error; or more accurately allows him to indicate this as a possibility (such is the nature of ingrained sexism)
  • in the closing sections of the poem it allows some resemblances between Conscience and the classical Furies.

It also allows him to give a more dramatic, more personal, turn to the dialogue. It establishes Fulham’s two personalities more firmly. We are not however much closer to establishing what it is that Crabbe intends C/conscience to be, much less what the poem itself reveals about this. I have enumerated some negatives: not God, not a displaced father-figure or preacher. But crucially is C/conscience an external force or is it internally generated? There can be no clear answer to this because the poem itself is not clear; perhaps Crabbe himself was not. It would have been, I suppose, fairly heretical to suggest that conscience is a psychological phenomenon. At many points this is what the poem tells us though. So in the passage above…

Not like a Conscience of the dotard kind,

…which obviously implies the existence of many Consciences of different qualities. And I think this was Crabbe’s own view; I reiterate that the nature of virtues is tied to the way in which they operate in particular people and situations. The same may be true of consciences (like Crabbe I am varying my capitalisation!). Whatever the case it is clear from the passage above that there is trouble ahead,and that Fulham has what, we might politely term, some psychological issues.

Fulham now pursues his dreams of wealth by running a dodgy lottery scheme and selling his goods at a very high price. The argument that follows this is a classic…

She therefore told him that “he vainly tried
To soothe her anger, conscious that he lied;
If thus he grasp’d at such usurious gains,
He must deserve, and should expect her pains.”
The charge was strong; he would in part confess
Offence there was – But, who offended less?
“What! is a mere assertion call’d a lie?
And if it be, are men compell’d to buy?
’Twas strange that Conscience on such points should dwell,
While he was acting (he would call it) well;
He bought as others buy, he sold as others sell;
There was no fraud, and he demanded cause
Why he was troubled when he kept the laws?”
“My laws!” said Conscience. “What,” said he, “are thine?
Oral or written, human or divine?
Show me the chapter, let me see the text;
By laws uncertain subjects are perplex’d:
Let me my finger on the statute lay,
And I shall feel it duty to obey.”
“Reflect,” said Conscience, “’twas your own desire
That I should warn you – does the compact tire?
Repent you this? – then bid me not advise,
And rather hear your passions as they rise:
So you may counsel and remonstrance shun;
But then remember it is war begun;
And you may judge from some attacks, my friend,
What serious conflicts will on war attend.”
“Nay, but,” at length the thoughtful man replied,
“I say not that; I wish you for my guide;
Wish for your checks and your reproofs – but then
Be like a conscience of my fellow-men;
Worthy I mean, and men of good report,
And not the wretches who with Conscience sport:
There’s Bice, my friend, who passes off his grease
Of pigs for bears’, in pots a crown apiece;
His Conscience never checks him when he swears
The fat he sells is honest fat of bears;
And so it is, for he contrives to give
A drachm to each – ’tis thus that tradesmen live;
Now why should you and I be over-nice?
What man is held in more repute than Bice?”

In the first place we should remark how wonderfully modern and resonant this passage is; the arguments which Fulham makes as he rips people off are exactly those of today’s apologists for the excesses of the bankers, capitalist ideologues, tax dodgers and other assorted riff-raff…

“What! is a mere assertion call’d a lie?
And if it be, are men compell’d to buy?

The initial response is to blame the people whom you are exploiting; it is your fault for spending too much, borrowing too much – caveat emptor, nothing to do with my exploitative cheating.

’Twas strange that Conscience on such points should dwell,
While he was acting (he would call it) well;
He bought as others buy, he sold as others sell;

And everyone else is doing it; such behaviour is the norm. Indeed it is encouraged and applauded (see television programmes like The Apprentice); why should anyone feel guilty for sharp practice?

There was no fraud, and he demanded cause
Why he was troubled when he kept the laws?”
“My laws!” said Conscience. “What,” said he, “are thine?
Oral or written, human or divine?
Show me the chapter, let me see the text;
By laws uncertain subjects are perplex’d:
Let me my finger on the statute lay,
And I shall feel it duty to obey.”

This though is the brilliant clincher. I was watching a television programme about the mechanics of tax dodging a couple of weeks ago, and time and again the companies involved came up with precisely this argument – ‘we comply with the laws’, meaning that they exploit every loophole in order to cheat, but can still say they are acting properly. Crabbe eviscerates this narrow legalism and cuts through the specious special pleading. Once again this passage is of special interest to me because it is another demonstration of Crabbe’s radicalism. Once again I enter the caveat that this is unintentional – Crabbe would not be occupying Wall Street (or anywhere else!); however the passage and argument speak for themselves. We do not find (as far as I am aware) this kind of specific attack on capitalist malpractice in the identified ‘radical’ poets of the period – Byron and Shelley. I am not questioning the latter’s radicalism, but pointing out that Crabbe’s knowledge of, and attention to, very particular personalities and situations (in this case a small shopkeeper) lead to a poetry which is unique in its very realistic and incisive analysis of a set of arguments and apologia which have remained acutely relevant (much as I dislike using that word) through the past 200 years.

The specific example of Bice and his particular sharp practice I have included as a further example of this kind of specificity, but also of Crabbe’s humour (one loves the idea of the fake bear’s fat – and how many big food manufacturers of today practice exactly this deception? a close look at many product’s ingredients will reveal that Bice is very much alive and well today).

In terms of the development of the interior monologue between Fulham and his conscience we observe here how the argument is becoming sharper. I do find Crabbe’s description of the way in which we can over-rule ourselves by a process of special pleading astonishingly acute and psychologically accurate; I can hear similar arguments (albeit over very different ‘sins’) in my own head.

But, but, but. I skip a little to come to the poem’s most astonishing passage. Fulham has obtained a position (by dishonestly posing as a reformer) on the Parish-Vestry; to hold on to this and the money it brings him, he needs to take the ‘sacramental test’ (ie: accept the theology of the Anglican Church thereby rejecting his sect). Here is the crucial passage…

Now, as a sectary, he had all his life,
As he supposed, been with the Church at strife: –
No rules of hers, no laws had he perused,
Nor knew the tenets he by rote abused;
Yet Conscience here arose more fierce and strong
Than when she told of robbery and wrong.
“Change his religion! No! he must be sure
That was a blow no Conscience could endure.”
Though friend to Virtue, yet she oft abides
In early notions, fix’d by erring guides;
And is more startled by a call from those,
Than when the foulest crimes her rest oppose:
By error taught, by prejudice misled,
She yields her rights, and Fancy rules instead;
When Conscience all her stings and terror deals,
Not as Truth dictates, but as Fancy feels:
And thus within our hero’s troubled breast,
Crime was less torture than the odious test.

I have highlighted what I see as the central assertion here. I remarked earlier that the issue of what C/conscience is, external force or psychological projection, is hard to answer, but in this particular passage it is very clearly the latter. Our conscience/superego is created by the influences to which we are exposed in our early life. For Crabbe if those influences are ‘erring guides’ then our conscience itself will be errant. And once again I insist on the radicalism of this (conscience as subjective) and again insist that this is very probably unconscious radicalism on Crabbe’s part, although it flows naturally from his insistence on individuality and circumstance. In broader terms the psychoanalytic acuteness of the analysis is wonderful – our superegos are a mess, comprised of all sorts of rubbish which we may have absorbed from our parents and the social norms which are imposed as we grow up. I have no doubt personally as to the truth of this – although examination of one’s own superego and its taboos is almost impossible without therapeutic assistance or great mental self-discipline, I have had enough of the former to know how warped my own is! In this particular case Crabbe’s argument is that theological specifics are venial, unimportant in comparison with real moral crimes. We might observe that this could be considered a strange position for a clergyman, even an Anglican clergyman, to take; but it was probably a good reflection of the mainstream latitudinarianism of the CofE at the time (again see Terence Bareham). Theology takes a backseat to morality. It is also worth remarking that we should see Crabbe’s repeated criticism of and attacks on sects in this light; it is not their theology with which he is concerned – or more accurately it is only their theology in as far as it affects behaviour with which he is concerned. We should always keep the passage above in mind when we read such attacks.

So C/conscience is far from infallible. It is individual and subject to psychological pressure. However before we draw a certain conclusion from this in respect of Crabbe’s and the poem’s view of conscience I shall hurry on to the tale’s conclusion, as I am also aware that this particular commentary is becoming unconscionably lengthy. The act which precipitates the final breach between Fulham and his C/conscience is the entrapment of his wife into adultery…

There was a youth – but let me hide the name,
With all the progress of this deed of shame;
He had his views – on him the husband cast
His net, and saw him in his trammels fast.

I am not entirely sure what ‘He had his views’ means here? However the allusion to the Homeric myth of Ares and Aphrodite and the net in which Hephaistos entangled them is clear; Crabbe does not wish to provide any further salacious details. It is interesting that, although the wife is portrayed as pleasure-seeking and selfish, it is Fulham’s crime in tricking her, pandering, which attracts Crabbe’s condemnation. In any case the upshot in terms of our story is starkly portrayed….

Hence from that day, that day of shame and sin,
Arose the restless enmity within:
On no resource could Fulham now rely,
Doom’d all expedients, and in vain, to try;
For Conscience, roused, sat boldly on her throne,
Watch’d every thought, attack’d the foe alone,
And with envenom’d sting drew forth the inward groan:
Expedients fail’d that brought relief before,
In vain his alms gave comfort to the poor,
Give what he would, to him the comfort came no more:
Not prayer avail’d, and when (his crimes confess’d)
He felt some ease, she said, “Are they redress’d?
You still retain the profit, and be sure,
Long as it lasts, this anguish shall endure.”

Conscience/superego is now running rampant and Fulham is tormented by guilt. When the more obvious attempts to placate her, to assuage his guilt, by acts of charity and repentence fail he turns to ‘new allies’. Crabbe does not allow that what one might have expected to be traditional theological ‘cures’ – charity, prayer to have any efficacy. The psychological narrative impetus of the poem is relentless.

Now desperate grown, weak, harass’d, and afraid,
From new allies he sought for doubtful aid;
To thought itself he strove to bid adieu,
And from devotions to diversions flew;
He took a poor domestic for a slave
(Though avarice grieved to see the price he gave);
Upon his board, once frugal, press’d a load
Of viands rich the appetite to goad;
The long protracted meal, the sparkling cup,
Fought with his gloom, and kept his courage up:
Soon as the morning came, there met his eyes
Accounts of wealth, that he might reading rise;
To profit then he gave some active hours,
Till food and wine again should renovate his powers:

Fulham turns to sex, food, alcohol, money in his attempt to drive away his guilt; this is a brilliant portrait of the power of guilt and how one becomes desperate under its compulsions. I love the line…

To thought itself he strove to bid adieu,

….this is precisely the feeling I have when I am in the grip of a severe depressive episode. All thought becomes a torment and it is a relief that the mind to some extent shuts down. The temptation at this point to alleviate the pressure and pain by altering one’s brain chemistry (by drink or drugs) can be overwhelming. But, whatever short-term relief they offer,in fact make matters worse, and the external world will provide a sharp reminder…

Yet, spite of all defence, of every aid,
The watchful Foe her close attention paid;
In every thoughtful moment on she press’d,
And gave at once her dagger to his breast;
He waked at midnight, and the fears of sin,
As waters through a bursten dam, broke in;
Nay, in the banquet, with his friends around,
When all their cares and half their crimes were drown’d,
Would some chance act awake the slumbering fear,
And care and crime in all their strength appear:
The news is read, a guilty victim swings,
And troubled looks proclaim the bosom-stings:
Some pair are wed; this brings the wife in view;
And some divorced; this shows the parting too:
Nor can he hear of evil word or deed,
But they to thought, and thought to sufferings lead.

Commentators (Gavin Edwards (2) and Norma Dalrymple-Edwards (3)) point to the echoes from Macbeth in these lines, but there is something more here – a characteristic attention to specific circumstance. The ‘chance act’ during a drunken revel, the way in which particular news (here of weddings or divorces) prompts a reaction; indeed the way in which allowing thought in itself will ‘to sufferings lead’. The poem’s psychological acuity here will be very readily clear to anyone who has suffered from guilt-induced depression. We should note too how C/conscience has transformed into a ‘Foe’ whose relation to Fulham is much more like one of the avenging Furies, as I suggested previously. Not surprisingly, trapped in this endless cycle, as the poem closes Fulham starts to go more palpably insane…

Such was his life – no other changes came,
The hurrying day, the conscious night the same;
The night of horror – when he starting cried
To the poor startled sinner at his side,
“Is it in law? am I condemned to die?
Let me escape! – I’ll give – oh! let me fly –
How! but a dream! – no judges! dungeon! chain!
Or these grim men! – I will not sleep again –
Wilt thou, dread being! thus thy promise keep?
Day is thy time – and wilt thou murder sleep?
Sorrow and want repose, and wilt thou come,
Nor give one hour of pure untroubled gloom?
“Oh! Conscience! Conscience! man’s most faithful friend,
Him canst thou comfort, ease, relieve, defend;
But if he will thy friendly checks forego,
Thou art, oh? woe for me, his deadliest foe?”

The quotation from Macbeth becomes direct (‘murder sleep’) and there is no happy ending or consolation provided. However there is a problem here. The last four lines are at odds not only with what comes immediately before, but also, arguably, with the whole of the poem. In terms of the immediate, the contrast with the wild soliloquy, the dashes and aposiopesis (what will he give?), of the proceeding versification, these measured lines telling the moral seem out of place and jarring. More generally it is hard to see how the poem has given us any evidence of Conscience as a ‘faithful friend’, let alone of comforting, easing or relieving. How much more effective the poem would be if these four lines were omitted! But their presence, especially given the weight which inevitably attaches to their position, cannot be ignored. My own explanation, which may be faniful, is that Crabbe felt disturbed by the heterodoxy the poem had acquired: conscience has been shown, as I have argued, to be individual, psychological and potentially errant. He needed to pull back to a more orthodox moral position, where conscience is an external objective force, a vital part of the ethical armoury which will keep the individual from error. It is not a ‘Foe’ but a ‘faithful friend’ – a satisfactory position for an Anglican clergyman to take: the reader, considering the poem as a whole, may find that a far more interesting version of C/conscience has been portrayed. If we return again to the question of exactly what is the C/conscience which appears in the poem we can reasonably argue that the picture Crabbe presents in his concluding moral is, at the least, somewhat tenuous given the body of the poem.

One comparison which I wanted to raise, very briefly, is with Byron’s Manfred. This may seem absurd given the massive differences between the two poems and their protagonists (lower middle-class shopkeeper and idealised Romantic nobleman-hero), but they do share an intense concern with the psychological effects of guilt, and the struggle with superego. In Manfred the Romantic hero (Byron) defeats and throws off the chains, where in Crabbe the chains entangle and ultimately destroy the protagonist. But one would hardly expect these two poets to have a similar viewpoint or moral outlook! However the very fact that such a comparison could be made and further considered is proof, to me, that The Struggles of Conscience is one of the most interesting of The Tales, though it does not appear to have received much critical attention.


  1. Terence Bareham: George Crabbe (1977) passim but Chapter 3 in particular.
  2. George Crabbe, Selected Poems ed. Gavin Edwards (1991) p497
  3. George Crabbe The Complete Poetical Works ed Norma Dalrymple-Chambers and Arthur Pollard (1988) p707. It is worth noting though that Crabbe individualises these Shakespearean allusions by the addition of a characteristic watery/Fenland metaphor (the breaking dam)

2 thoughts on “Crabbe – Tale 14: The Struggles of Conscience

  1. ellenandjim

    I’ve just read the poem and then your analysis, Nick. In one sense Crabbe’s psychological analysis comes right out of the 18th century: he takes to as far as he can the psychological-moral point of view found in Pope, Fielding, Richardson. No one goes as far as he without stopping to point a moral about half way through and rest satisfied. On the other, the thoroughness makes him go well beyond the radical insights of his contemporaries and after and make statements we recognize as relevant today. Did he think the psychological was what we most need to understand in life?


  2. nick2209

    Wow Ellen that’s a tough question! But I think my answer would tend to be no. That’s not to say he wasn’t interested in individual psychology – I think he was fascinated by it. But his dominant concern seems to me to be with the social relationships of various kinds – in a way The Struggles of Conscience is an exception in that there is really only one major character – and that one he makes bi-polar!! The normal pattern is that are at least two major characters, frequently more. Often there are also issues of how the individual reacts with whole communities, or examinations of the community itself (as in The Borough).

    I think there is a continual insistence – albeit an unexamined, unconscious one – on the fact that individual psychologies are shaped by particular social circumstances. Once again I think this is a reason for his being so overlooked – it is not what later generations have come to think poetry should ‘do’ or be about.

    But I am still just scratching the surface of the work and so would not want to come to any definitive conclusions.

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