As we shall see, there is a sense in which this Tale follows on directly from Tale 14 – it too has as a central concern the effects upon a young man of having his conscience awakened. This raises again the question of the way in which certain Tales are grouped and the order in which they are presented; I would certainly suggest that Tales 14 and 15 do need to be considered as, to some degree, complementary. Having said this the milieu and characters, not to mention the outcome, of this story are very different to those of The Struggles of Conscience, and centre on a relationship of which Crabbe must have had considerable personal knowledge.
As so often the narrative is simple. A debauched squire is disquieted by the condemnation of the local rector. He trains up a nephew to whom he will present the living, which is in his gift, when the rector dies, which he does fairly soon. Unfortunately the nephew has been ‘converted’ by a preacher so that, far from meeting his uncle’s expectations by turning a blind eye to his way of life, he attacks it vigorously. The village is divided, both squire and priest are dissatisfied and the poem ends on a strangely inconclusive note.
The second central theme of this poem is therefore the relationship of two essential elements of the rural Ruling Class – the squirearchy and the clergy. Most of the wonderfully witty and insightful reflection on this relationship comes in a series of declamations by the Squire, a thoroughgoing old rake who drinks to excess and keeps a ‘live-in’ mistress. Reflecting on the ‘stern old Rector’….
“Were he a bigot,” said the ’Squire, “whose zeal
Condemn’d us all, I should disdain to feel:
But when a man of parts, in college train’d,
Prates of our conduct, who would not be pain’d?
While he declaims (where no one dares reply)
On men abandon’d, grov’ling in the sty
(Like beasts in human shape) of shameless luxury.
Yet with a patriot’s zeal I stand the shock
Of vile rebuke, example to his flock:
It is the ‘patriot’s zeal’ which is so significant; the Squire knows that he cannot openly dissent, because this would damage the Ruling Class coalition and undermine Authority. This theme is developed in a very long speech (lines 174-261) which he makes to his nephew instructing him as to what makes a good Priest….
“On every priest a twofold care attends,
To prove his talents, and insure his friends:
First, of the first – your stores at once produce;
And bring your reading to its proper use:
On doctrines dwell, and every point enforce
By quoting much, the scholar’s sure resource;
For he alone can show us on each head
What ancient schoolmen and sage fathers said.
No worth has knowledge, if you fail to show
How well you studied and how much you know:
The last couplet quoted is an absolute gem: I would like it to be compulsory for this to be inserted at the beginning of every academic article written (and I do not except myself from this criticism – I am well-aware that I like to show off, although not I hope in ways which make my writing impenetrable)!
Dwell not one moment on a faith that shocks
The minds of men sincere and orthodox;
That gloomy faith, that robs the wounded mind
Of all the comfort it was wont to find
From virtuous acts, and to the soul denies
Its proper due for alms and charities;
That partial faith, that, weighing sins alone,
Lets not a virtue for a fault atone;
That partial faith, that would our tables clear,
And make one dreadful Lent of all the year;
Although it is often argued that Crabbe carefully avoids theological depth or controversy, we should be careful about overstating this. In particular the central argument about the efficacy of Works as against Faith does recur. We saw in The Struggles of Conscience how acts of charity etc. completely failed to assuage Fulham’s guilt; here the Squire, who is being parodied, insists that Works should count, and that atonement can be bought. The concluding words of the instruction as to how the Priest should ‘prove his talents’ are another comic gem…
Shall we a studious youth to college send,
That every clown his words may comprehend?
’Tis for your glory, when your hearers own
Your learning matchless, but the sense unknown.
However it is when we come to ‘insuring his friends’, cementing the Ruling Class alliance, that we come to the tale’s most surprising and interesting lines. The Squire begins with a general instruction…
“Thus honour gain’d, learn now to gain a friend,
And the sure way is – never to offend;
For, James, consider – what your neighbours do
Is their own business, and concerns not you:
In other words pay no attention to whatever moral failings the squirearchy may display. But so that the Priest can be seen to be doing his duty….
…of our duties you must something tell,
And must at times on sin and frailty dwell;
Here you may preach in easy, flowing style,
How errors cloud us, and how sins defile:
Here bring persuasive tropes and figures forth,
To show the poor that wealth is nothing worth;
That they, in fact, possess an ample share
Of the world’s good, and feel not half its care:
Countless excellent leftist commentators have pointed to the way in which established Religions cement the social order and chains of obedience by insisting that worldly goods are unimportant and the poor should be content with their lot, storing up ‘treasure in heaven’; however very rarely has this argument been put so succinctly and wittily as Crabbe does here. I return again to Crabbe’s radicalism which is so at odds with his virulent attacks on free-thinkers and their works. In fact the whole of this speech would surely have delighted Voltaire, whom Crabbe hates with such vehemence?
And let it always, for your zeal, suffice
That vice you combat, in the abstract – vice:
The very captious will be quiet then;
We all confess we are offending men:
In lashing sin, of every stroke beware,
For sinners feel, and sinners you must spare;
In general satire, every man perceives
A slight attack, yet neither fears nor grieves;
So the Squire can sit comfortable in his pew as long as it is in sin in general which is being condemned. But the Priest can do even more in sustaining social order…
“Yet are there sinners of a class so low,
That you with safety may the lash bestow;
Poachers, and drunkards, idle rogues, who feed
At others’ cost, a mark’d correction need:
And all the better sort, who see your zeal,
Will love and reverence for their pastor feel;
Reverence for one who can inflict the smart,
And love, because he deals them not a part.
The modern equivalent of this since, in the UK at least, priests no longer have any significant role in society despite their anachronistic presence in the House of Lords, is the media, or those sections (the vast majority) which are allied with the Ruling Class. How often do we see attacks from both Politicians (the Squires) and Media (Priests) on drinking, crime and ‘benefit scroungers’ : plus ca change. Once again Crabbe’s radicalism is self-evident – and it is my belief that it is the fact that this has been ignored by commentators, and is easy to overlook in the face of the fact that he can be brutally reactionary, contributes to his undervaluation. I enter again my caveat that the extent to which Crabbe was self-aware of this radicalism is another issue entirely. So the Squire has issued his instructions as to how a model Priest should behave and conduct himself, for his own good and that of his fellows in local Ruling Classes.
Unfortunately for him the advice falls on deaf ears. His nephew, James, had early imbibed the instructions of his uncle and indeed…
His mother, too, in her maternal care,
Bade him of canting hypocrites beware:
Who from his duties would his heart seduce,
And make his talents of no earthly use.
Crabbe refers back to the parable of the talents to drive home his point that the way for James to advance is to ensure that he is careful of whom he might criticise. At this stage James is happy to comply…
This led the youth to views of easy life,
A friendly patron, an obliging wife;
His tithe, his glebe, the garden, and the steed,
With books as many as he wish’d to read.
In fact the kind of ideal way of life enjoyed by many an 18thC and 19thC Anglican vicar (I am reminded of A.N.Wilson’s assertion that if he could live at any period it would be as a comfortably-off Victorian vicar – allowing they had invented modern dentistry!). What is fascinating is that this is also the way of life which Crabbe undoubtedly aspired to; to what extent he is indulging in self-examination here is a fascinating one. In any case…
The plan was specious, for the mind of James
Accorded duly with his uncle’s schemes;
Here ‘specious’ is used in its meaning of ‘plausible, but wanting in genuineness’ (OED) ; a few lines later James goes to hear a Preacher…
James, leaving college, to a Preacher stray’d;
What call’d he knew not – but the call obey’d;
Mild, idle, pensive, ever led by those
Who could some specious novelty propose;
Humbly he listen’d, while the preacher dwelt
On touching themes, and strong emotions felt;
And in this night was fix’d that pliant will
To one sole point, and he retains it still.
At first his care was to himself confined;
Himself assured, he gave it to mankind:
His zeal grew active – honest, earnest zeal,
And comfort dealt to him, he long’d to deal;
He to his favourite preacher now withdrew,
Was taught to teach, instructed to subdue,
And train’d for ghostly warfare, when the call
Of his new duties reach’d him from the Hall.
It is interesting that Crabbe repeats ‘specious’, but here it would seem to be another meaning of ‘fair and attractive appearance’. In any case we see repeated exactly the same conversion process which can be observed in other Tales, including, critically, the one immediately preceding. We are informed immediately though that there is a crucial difference between Fulham and James – the latter ‘retains it still’. In this sense the outcome of the narrative has an inevitability about it. The phrase ‘train’d for ghostly warfare’ is a fascinating one, and I speculate may be an allusion (though to what I have no idea); if not is Crabbe suggesting that the moral stance which James is to adopt is a false one? There is evidence to be cited on both sides of this possibility.
The dramatic climax of the poem occurs when the Squire actually hears James preach; Crabbe handles this with wit and aplomb – he compares the Squire’s feelings to those of a horse-racing owner whose steed is hot favourite for a big race but in fact….
A rival’s Herod bears the prize away,
Nor second his, nor third, but lagging last,
With hanging head he comes, by all surpass’d:
Surprise and wrath the owner’s mind inflame,
Love turns to scorn, and glory ends in shame; –
Herod was actually the name of a famous 18thC race-horse (Norma Dalrymple-Chambers informs me), but the biblical resonance works perfectly, as does the whole comparison – the horse-racing world is one the Squire would have known well (and Crabbe visited Newmarket on several occasions). Crabbe does however go on to supply some detail of the style and content of the sermon…
For now no crazed fanatic’s frantic dreams
Seem’d vile as James’s conduct, or as James:
All he had long derided, hated, fear’d,
This, from the chosen youth, the uncle heard; –
The needless pause, the fierce disorder’d air,
The groan for sin, the vehemence of prayer,
Gave birth to wrath, that, in a long discourse
Of grace triumphant, rose to fourfold force:
He found his thoughts despised, his rules transgress’d,
And while the anger kindled in his breast,
The pain must be endured that could not be expressed:
The dramatic rhetorical style was one which Crabbe, from all we can understand and know, meticulously avoided in his own sermons; these tended to the staid and conventional. But…
The needless pause, the fierce disorder’d air,
The groan for sin, the vehemence of prayer,
can be seen today on evangelist television channels – I especially like the observation of the ‘needless pause’ and ‘groan for sin’! But at the heart of the problem is not the style but the substance; ‘grace triumphant’ – the need for Faith and dismissal of Works. As previously observed the accepted wisdom (at least in such biography and criticism as I have so far read) is that Crabbe avoided theological controversy like the plague. However this central issue could not be avoided by someone who was going to write poems which featured priests, sectarians and, indeed, people with any connection to religion at the beginning of the 19thC. What attitude does Crabbe take? As with, and closely related to, the question of his position on James’s moral stance the evidence is confused. There can be no doubt that he regarded any hint of antinomianism as wholly unacceptable; indeed he seems to find the idea of the Elect as somewhat absurd – the word is nearly always used in a negative or satiric way. On the other hand in both this Tale and that preceding it, we see clearly that he was not prepared to accept that one could buy forgiveness, or release from guilt (at a psychological level), by donating to charity, alms and so on. There is no need of course to try and arrive at some definitive summation of Crabbe’s position; the truth is much more likely to be that he had no clear view, and so the expression of contradictions is only to be expected.
In fact the existence of irreconcilables emerge clearly in what happens after James has dropped his bombshell. James – and Crabbe has already recognised that it took considerable courage to defy his uncle and patron in this way – retreats to his vicarage…
Exhausted then he felt his trembling frame,
But fix’d his soul, – his sentiments the same;
And therefore wise it seem’d to fly from rage,
And seek for shelter in his parsonage:
There, if forsaken, yet consoled to find
Some comforts left, though not a few resign’d;
There, if he lost an erring parent’s love,
An honest conscience must the cause approve;
If the nice palate were no longer fed,
The mind enjoy’d delicious thoughts instead;
And if some part of earthly good was flown,
Still was the tithe of ten good farms his own.
How delicious! James has lost his mother’s, as well as his uncle’s, approval but can be satisfied with his ‘honest conscience’ (no capitals here) and his ‘tithe of ten good farms’ (Crabbe had quite a lot of trouble with tithes and was tenacious in defence of his interests). It is clear that Crabbe is sympathetic, but also critical of James. In terms of the village’s social order and cohesion he is quite clear as to the effect….
Fear now, and discord, in the village reign,
The cool remonstrate, and the meek complain;
But there is war within, and wisdom pleads in vain.
Now dreads the Uncle, and proclaims his dread,
Lest the Boy-priest should turn each rustic head;
Indeed Crabbe seems to show some pity for the Squire when…
Matrons of old, with whom he used to joke,
Now pass his Honour with a pious look;
Lasses, who met him once with lively airs,
Now cross his way, and gravely walk to prayers:
A boon drinking companion of long-standing deserts him (in a wonderful parody of a drunken idiot’s speech which nevertheless has sincerity at its heart). His mistress presses her claims for marriage. And then…
Add to these outward ills some inward light,
That showed him all was not correct and right:
Though now he less indulged – and to the poor,
From day to day, sent alms from door to door;
Though he some ease from easy virtues found,
Yet conscience told him he could not compound,
But must himself the darling sin deny,
Change the whole heart, – but here a heavy sigh
Proclaim’d, “How vast the toil! and, ah! how weak am I!”
the ‘easy virtues’ of alms-giving do not work anymore than they did for Fulham. The Squire certainly does not become a shattered mad-man and the reason for this is that, as I have suggested in my comments on Tale 14, Crabbe does not regard wine and women as sinful in the same way that he regards Fulham’s commercial avarice and pandering/entrapment of his wife as sinful. The Squire is therefore not to be punished by his conscience in the way that Fulham was.
Meanwhile in the closing lines of the poem…
James too has trouble – he divided sees
A parish, once harmonious and at ease;
Though zealous still, yet he begins to feel
The heat too fierce that glows in vulgar zeal;
With pain he hears his simple friends relate
Their week’s experience, and their woful state;
With small temptation struggling every hour,
And bravely battling with the tempting power:
His native sense is hurt by strange complaints
Of inward motions in these warring saints;
Who never cast on sinful bait a look,
But they perceive the devil at the hook:
Grieved, yet compell’d to smile, he finds it hard
Against the blunders of conceit to guard;
He sighs to hear the jests his converts cause,
He cannot give their erring zeal applause;
But finds it inconsistent to condemn
The flights and follies he has nursed in them:
These, in opposing minds, contempt produce,
Or mirth occasion, or provoke abuse;
On each momentous theme disgrace they bring,
And give to Scorn her poison and her sting.
This, as I observed very early on, is not really a conclusion at all; the poem, its characters and the village are left dangling. In fact everyone would seem to be worse off – the Squire, James, and most definitely the social harmony of the community. The only real gainer may be the Mistress who stands a chance of much-desired marriage. But can this really be what Crabbe is suggesting? That the Church and priests should ignore carnal sins? It is impossible for anyone who has read The Parish Register to advance this as a tenable proposition. No, we have to fall back on the fact that everyone in the Tale has acted both well and badly; that social life and religion itself are rent by contradictions, even absurdities. There can be no question that Crabbe is excoriating the Squire’s self-satisfied nostrums as to the role of a Priest as a mere adjunct of the Ruling Class – the Church of England as ‘the Tory party at prayer’ in the words of the hoary, but accurate, maxim. But equally he is suspicious of the effects of James’s enthusiasm and an over-concentration on self-analysis – the ‘strange complaints of inward motions’. It is how men act which concerns Crabbe not what goes on in their heads – but he is always aware that the two cannot easily be divorced. The divergent sides and sympathies of his own beliefs and attitudes, often perhaps unrecognised, result in a poem such as this where the sum total of human happiness appears diminished but no-one is to blame.