George Crabbe.

The poetical works of George Crabbe online

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Few poets have a stronger claim to be widely known than
George Crabbe,. for all he wrote had good for its basis. His poetry-
is healthy and fit to permeate through the hearts of a thinking-
people. No mysticism, no extravagant misleading theories, no
unintelligible flights of imagination disfigure his manly verse ; it is
truth clothed iu sense, and uttered in an impressive style, that
fixes it in the memory of the reader. He is said to be "a stem
painter ;" but his pictures of the class that formed the objects of
his writings, are not such as to create antagonism between them
and other classes; he can, as in his "Noble Peasant" draw
attractive pictures of the poor, as well as sketches to claim pity
for their state.

In I'act, wo think it ono of the strongest proofs of the advantages
derived from the cheap circulation of good literature, that there is
a sufficient demand for the Poems of Crabbe to induce us to
publish all of them that are available in an attractive form.


Jane, 1858.


His works having passed through the ordeal of a sufficient time
to test then- merits and pronounce them good, tiic hiographer of
George Crabbe raaj- be allowed to conimonce, without fear of con-
tradiction, by asserting that he was a poet of great and original
genius. The only instance of his having, in any way, borrowed from .
or copied another writer, is the adoption of the measure of Pojic,
as most congenial to his object of conveying truth and good sense
harmoniously : beyond that there cannot exist a wider difference
between two writers than is fouiid in the style of Crabbe and the
bard of Twickenham. It is stiange that two poets so little resem-
bling Pope as Wordsworth and Crabbe, should the one have first
tried his wing in imitation of him, and the other have adopted hia
metre. As regards Crabbe, their subjects, their language, their
imagery, their wit, their sentiments are distinct as the poles.
Compare Pope's Gondola on the Thames, with Belinda, her com-tlj'
train of beaux and her hovering guard of sjdphs, with Crabbe'a
"Workhouse" and its miserable denizens: both pictures are
equally graphic, both within the restrictions of the same rhythm,
but, otherwise, not apparently the productions of the same art ;
Poj^e brilliant, dazzling, enchanting; Crabbe clear, stern, con-
vincing. Indeed, there is no poet since Homer more original than
Crabbe. We have had numbers of poets equally jneanly born and
imperfectly educated, but, as soon as their Muses began to lisp in
numbers, they have been sure to take up, in more or less degree,
some foregone strain ; whereas Crabl)e, oreatefl by circiunstances
the poet of the poor, carried out his before unheard-of mission in its
pure originality — his pictures are as faithful as Hogarth's, without
the painter's biting satire ; thej' are as stern as Churchill's, witliout
the poet's malignant vonom. Ills annals of the poor, by which ho
obtained from a brother poet of a very different character tho
title of "Nature's sternest painter, yet the," are revealments
of man's life which authors love not to make or readers to ciintcni'
plate ; they arc the hard reality of too largo a section of our raoo
for even tho philanthropist to hope greatly to ameliorate. When

A 2


Burns or Bloomfield seek to interest us in humble life, we have the
'• Cottar's Saturday Night," or the "Fair Day," to warm us into
good and kindly feeling; but Crabbe grapples with every-day
miseries, with keen want and bitter thought — to the reader who
would study human character in a degraded sphere, he is an anato-
mist who unshrinkingly tears away the skin and the flesh, and
reveals the muscles, arteries, and inward organs in all their bare,
repulsive truthfulness. And therein lie his power and his charm.
Psychologically considered, no poet has had in himself fewer of the
elements that form the character than Crabbe. He had none of
the impulsive wilfulness, none of the high-wrought feeling, or the
powerful imagination which leads its possessor to create a world for
himself independent of that vs'hich surrounds him : he was insensible
to music, he saw no attractions in painting or architecture, and,
still more strange, took no delight in beautiful scenery. In all
these, what may be truly called deficiencies, he resembled Johnson,
Mackintosh, and other great men ; but then they were not what he
was — he was essentially a poet. The only great object of natm'o
that appeared to strike him was the Sea. This had been the com-
manding sublimity of his childhood ; and once in after-life, having
been deprived of a sight of it for a considerable time, he rode sixty
miles and back merely for the pleasure of beholding it, and
enjoying one plunge into its waves. This is almost the only im-
pulse of a poetical character to be met with in his career.

It was then, as I have said, the truthfulness of his pictures that
at once stamped him as a man of genius, and has created him a
fame which will last as long as poverty and truth endure. No
poetry has less ornament ; sometimes, indeed, it is mean and
prosaic, but it always maintains its influence by its truthfulness.

Crabbe appeared at a fortunate period ; the Johnsonian age, with
its luminaries, was passing away ; and indeed, it, with one or two
glorious exceptions — no poet having ever combined clear intelligible
sense and exquisite feeling with melodious verse more happily than
d'd Oliver Goldsmith— had been more illustrated by learning and
wit than by poetry. But the tone of that age had taught readers
to look for sense as well as sound, for reason as well as metaphor ;
and therefore were such poets as Crabbe and Cowper, who dealt
with realities, welcomed and cheered on in their aspirations to g-ain
the tcuiplo of Fame. At the present time, when the object of the
poet seems to be to dazzle for a moment, like the pyrotechnist, or
to plunge headlong into wild metai>hysical tlieories, jiroducing no
he;iUhy jiabuhmi for min<l or heart, we fear such poets, without the
indelible stamp of reputation they have won, would stand but httle
chance of success.


Fortunately Crabbe has found an affectionate and well-informed
biog'rapher. His son, knowing his father's name to be established
beyond fear of future criticism, wisely avoids all extravagance of
admiration or praise ; he characteristically dwells upon his parent's
amiable qualities, but not ad nauseam, and safely leaves his name
to his writings. My opinions and remarks are my own, but I shall
go for data of the life to the pages of his son, who, as I acknowledge
the obligation, will I trust think this not too great a liberty.
Crabbe now belongs to his coimtry, and tens of thousands must
feel an interest in the events of the life of such a man, and have
a right to be gi-atified.

George Crabbe was born of obscure parentage ; for, although
there was a tradition in the family about some mythical pilot who
distinguished himself in the time of Edward III., the poet could
not safely trace his genealogical tree further back than his grand-
father. His father, who had a turn for calculation, had been school-
master and parish clerk at an humble village in Norfolk, but was
made salt-master, and became a kind oi factotum, at Aldborough,
in Suffolk. He here married a widow of the name of Loddock,
and the poet, George, was the eldest of six children, the fi-uit of
this union : he was born on the 24th of December, 1754.- His
father does not appear to have been either a steady or an amiable
character ; but he fancied he discerned something superior in his
eldest- boi-n, and, with considerable inconvenience to himself, gave
him as good an education as the neighbourhood could afford. His
brothei-s were devoted to the sea, and their adventures are inter-
woven with the poet's works. But as, I believe, is the case with
ninety-nine distinguished men out of a hundred, Crabbe had a good,
sensible, affectionate mother, who exorcised great influence on the
poet's life by the priucijjlcs and tastes ^he infused into his mind :
that he appreciated her and was grateful for her love, we learn from
some pleasing lines in the "Parish Register," written after her
death, when ho came in his pride to ttgure as a clergyman in a
scene where he had formerly played so mean a part : —

" Arrived at liomo, how then lie grazed around
On every place where she no more was found ;
The -eat at table she was wont to till.
The fireside i hair, still set, but vacant still ;
The Sunday pew she tiU'd with all her race,—
Each place of hers was now a sacred place."

No poet could bo bom in a situation less likely to create or feed
the imagination— a dull, flat, marshy, gloomy, sterile coast, with
ziothing but the sea to give birth to the least romantic feeling ; and


Aklboi-oxigh itself seems to have strotigly partaken of the sombre
character of the neighbourhood ; for not a spark of geniality was
ever shown by the inhabitants to the genius who has immortalized
a place that would othoi-wiso never have been lioard of. There can
1)0 no doubt that the prosaic part of his character, that insensibility
to nature's beauties which he always evinced, was the effect of early
impi'essione. Pope said that " the proper study of mankind is
man," but he was not therefore blind to the charms of inanimate
nature, as all may see who read the " Rape of the Lock" or
" Windsor Forest ;" but Crabbe adhered to the human study, and
Was here agam unfortunate. " The charactei-s he met with in early
life," says his son, "were unsophisticated and rough; masculine
and robust frames, rude manners, stormy passions, laborious days,
and occasionally boisterous nights of merriment — -among such
accom]ianiments was born an<l bred the Poet of the Poor."

His f;ither, observing his early love of studj-, sent him to school
to a place called Bungay. So little had he been from under his
mother's wing, that, the first morning- of his school days, he was
unable to dress him.self without the assistance of his bedfellow.
The principal avent recorded of this school is his having been
nearly smothered in a dog-kennel, into which he and many of his
little mates had got in play. As it was intended ho sho\ild be
brought up to the medical profession, at the age of twelve he was
sent to a better school, at Stowmarket. It is called better, but it
appears to have been for both sexes ; as he is here said to have
addressed his first verses to '•' a schoolfellow," warning her against
being too vain of the blue ribbons of her bonnet. He, however,
soon after took a loftier theme, and, in these juvenile verses
developed some of the spirit that wiis latent within him : —

" I to the ocean gave
My mind and thoughts as restless as tlie wave.
Where crowds assembled I was sure to run,
Hear what was said, and nuise on wiiat was done;
To mo the wives of seamen loved to tell
What storms cngeudcr'd men estccm'd so well;
No ships were Wreck'd vipon the fatal beach
But I could give the luckK'ss tale of each.
In fact, I lived for many an idle year
In fond ))ursuit of agitations drear.
For ever seeking, ever pleased to find
The food 1 sought, I thought not of its kind."

These evidently show the bias of his mind.

After leaving school, he stayed at home for some time, to help
the salt-master in wareliouso duties which much disgusted him ;


but was at length sent, in his fourteenth year, as an apprentice to a
surgeon, at Wickhain Brook, near Bury St. Edmunds. His position
here was not a very exalted one, for he had to in the duties
of his master's farm, and slept with the ploughboy. After going
through three years of his chirurgico-agricultiu-al apprenticeship,
he was removed to the care of IMr. Page, a surgeon at Woodbridge,
where he finished all the medical education ho obtained. He here
met with Miss Sarah Elmy, for many years the object of his devoted
love, and for many his amiable and affectionate wife. It was a
pleasing courtship, carried on very prudently for a poet, and was
happy in its results.

He was now eighteen, and wrote a great deal ; like most other
poets, much that was not print-worthy : he imitated several poets,
but produce<l nothing to entitle him to be considered an original
one. He did, however, gain a poetical prize in a Magazine, upon
the subject of " Hope," which elated him greatly. He likewise, by
some means, obtained the publication of a poem which he called
" Inebriety," principally remarkable for its borrowings from Pope.
The clergy, of which body he afterwards became so honouralile a
member, were, in his early days, frequently the objects of his
satirical verses. At the expiration of his term, ho returned home,
but with veiy poor prospects, his father, whose habits had become
l)ad, having no means to assist him. ' ' Inebriety" met with so little
encouragement, that he turned his back upon his Muse for a time,
and gave all his attention to " botany and natm-al history." He
next went to London to prosecute his professional studies, but his
means were so scanty that no beneficial results could be expected ;
the principal event of this visit, recorded by his biographer, being
his having had a narrow escape from a committal before the Lord
Mayor, as a resurrectionist. After being assistant for some time to
a coarse man of the name of Maskill, he set up for himself at Aid-
borough, but met with little success. He, however, contrived to be
introduced to Field-marshal Conway, who was in that neighbour-
hood with a part of the army, and he kindly lent him Latin books,
and gave liim the benefit of his countenance. With his departure
he again sank into distress. Through all these vicissitudes he was
upheld by his love for his Mira, as he styled Miss Elmy ; and so
pleasing are the passages connected with this lady that I regret
I have not space to lay the details before tny readers.

Being reduced to despair, he had recourse to an expedient which
belonged rather to the days of noble patrons and dedications than
to the present time ; he addressed a curious letter to Mr. Dudley
North, explaining to him the painfulncss of his position, and
re<iuesting some ti-ifling assistance to enable him to go to London.


That gentleman, though unacquainted with him, sent him £5, and
with that large sum he set off for the great city. The period of his
arrival was favourable ; one race of poets had disappeared, the
others, which illustrated the beginning of the nineteenth centurj',
were not yet seen above the horizon. ■ He was now as earnest in his
love of the Muse as of his incomparable Miss Elmy, and made the
best use of his residence in London, by studying both mankind and
books. He formed good and improving acquaintances, and, in his
leisure, pursued his botanical studies in Hornsey Wood. So poor
was he, however, that in one of these scientific rambles, he got too
fixr from town, and was forced to sleep in a hay-rick. He went
through even more than his share of the usual difficulties and pri-
vations of aspirants for literary fame; but he was so in earnest, that
trials and disappointed hopes only produced fresh exertions. ' ' The
Candidate," published at this time, met with a very cold reception :
like Wordsworth, he was not happy in the choice of his subjects.
He would, however, have derived some little benefit — but his pub-
lisher failed ! He then boldly applied to several noblemen— Lord
North, Lord Shelburne. and Chancellor Thurlow, but without
success. The booksellers, all round, were next, equally in vain,
had recourse to — and yet he deserved to succeed ; for, in addition to
the merits of the writings he exhibited, he was brave and trusting:
nothing disheartened him. As he writes to his Mira : " Arc you
not disheartened ? Dearest Mira, not I ! The wanting a letter from
you, and the knowing myself to be possessed but of sixpence far-
thing in the world, are much more consequential things." A few
days after this, lie writes in the following melancholy strain : " I
have parted with my money, sold my wardrobe, pawned my watch,
am in debt to my landlord, and finally am at some loss how to
eat a week longer." Numbers of poets have undergone as many
troubles at their outset as Christian encoimtered in his way to the
Heavenly city, but few have borne them so bravely and cheerfully
as George Crabbe did ; he had not only a strong will, he really,
like the patriarch, went through his years of servitude for his wife ;
she was the star that cheered him on.

" Aide toi, leCiel t'aidera;" he left no stone unturned, and at
last hit upon a white one. He addressed Edmund Burke, and from
that moment his destiny was changed. Burke was no half-friend
when he took a man oi- genius by the hand ; he was as kind
to Crabbe as he had been to Barry. He examined the writings
submitted to him critically ; ho recommended them strongly to
Dodsely, who had before rejected them ; invited him to his house at
Beaconsficld ; and, indeed, did far more for him than could be
expected ft-om mere admiration of the genius of a young and
unknown writer.


Crabbe at this period began to express a feeling he had long
privately entertained, of a desire to enter the church, which was
certainly a bold step in one so inadequately educated. At Burke's
residence he was introduced to Keynolds, Fox, and his other distin-
guishe.l friends ; and, on his return to town, met Dr. Johnson at
Burke's table. Though the great lexicographer and moralist
fi-iahtened him at first, he was afterwards kind and indulgent to
him. When the "Library" was published, Crabbe became iully
aware of the genial influence of Burke's patronage, and he received
gratifying praises from the same persons who had before been the
most liberal in their censure. But the most curious instance was
the rough Chancellor Thurlow. As I before said, he had paid no
attention to Crabbe's apphcation, but seeing the young poet bask-
mr in the favour of the eloquent commoner, he sent him an invita-
tion to breakfast with him. He behaved to him with all the
poUteness his nature was capable of, and, at Crabbe's departure,
after promising with an oath not to forget his interests, begged his
acceptance of the contents of a note he put into his hands. We
may well suppose the poor poet did not proceed far before he
opened it, and what was his surprise at finding instead of ten or
twenty pounds, the most he could expect, a bank bill for one hun-
dred pounds ! Never was son of Apollo so elated ! It was a mine
of wealth ! He paid all his debts, clothed himself suitably for the
company he now kept, and looked about for objects upon whom to
bestow his charity, and ease his overflowing heart.

He passed through his examination creditably, was admitted to
deacon's orders in London, on the 21st of December, 1780, and
ordained a priest by the Bishop of Norwich in the August of the
following year. He then became curate to the Rev. Mr. Bennett,
rector of Aldborough ; but this was a ialse move. Few men are
prophets in their own country : the inhabitants of Aldborough could
not appreciate his poetical talents ; they only saw a man come back
to them as a parson, who had left them as a broken-down doctor,
and he was coldly and badly received. He had been dining, too,
above the salt; Aldborough society was not palatable after the faro
he had partaken of at the tables of Burke and Reynolds ; his
father's manners and position wero likewise objectionable, and,
although still poor, the pride of the man of genius was awakened.

Whilst in this uncomfortable state, Burke's influence procured
him another auspicious connection : the Duke of Rutland appointed
him his domestic chaplain at Bclvoir Castle. But his residence here
had many disagreeables ; the Duke and Duchess were hospitable,
kind, and polite to him ; but the numerous greedy, servile under-
lings in such an estublishment were sure to prove an annoyance to


an independent spirit. Ho published •■ The Village" in May, 1783 :
it had great success, and established his i-eputation, Ill-natiu-ed
critics said it had been " cobbled " by Johnson and Burke, but this
the poet's son positively denies ; Johnson's suggestions amounted
to very little. Everybody observed how like, and yet how unlike,
it was to Pope. Being in London with the Duke of Rutland's family
gave him an opportimity of associating with all the very remarkable
men of that period, to some of whom he no doubt made hin.sslf
a^-recable by his gentlemanly deportment and his taciturniti/ ; for,
be it observed, he never had a talent for conversation. Among
the rest, Thurlow invited him to dmner, and, after swearing by

G that ho was as much like Parson Adams as twelve are to a

dozen, gave him two small livings in Dorsetshire. He obtained the
degree of LL.B. from Doctor Moore, Archbishop of Canterbury.

On the Duke of Rutland being appointed viceroy to Ireland,
Crabbe gave up his chaplaincy, and, in December, 1783, married
his so long and faithfully beloved Sarah Elmy. Such, however,
was the duke's friendship for him, that he insisted upon his
residing in Bclvoir Castle till he was comfortably established : here
he remained a year and a half ; but some of the same sort of disgust
he had before experienced, made it necessary for them to quit that
noble roof and take shelter in the humble curacy of Stathern. His
fii-st child was born in Belvoir Castle, but survived only a few hours ;
his second son, his biographer, was born at Stathern, in November,
1785 : he had two other children whilst residing there; —
John, afterwards his father's assistant, and a daughter who died in

He lived happily in his curacy four years, surrounded by
domestic enjoyments, cidtivating his mind, amusing himself with
his favourite pursuits of botany, entomology, and natui-al history,
and employing his medical knowledge for the benefit of the poor.
In 1785 he published "The Newspaper," which, however successful,
closed his poetical career for twonty-two years. From the age of
thirty-one to fifty-two he led a completely village life amidst the
quiet pleasures of the country. It nmst have been a whimsical
sight to see him, his wife, and one of the children in the old-
fashioned onc-horsc chaise, big enough for a coach, his wife driving
and he reailing aloud. But such enjoyments leave better fruit
behind thom than do the more exciting pleasures of the gay world :
this was, no doubt, the happiest period of his life ; though he
published nothing, ho wrote much, but burnt all he wrote. The
occasional holocausts of this kind weie astounding ; no chimney
could bo safely employed, the sacrifices were performed in open
air. Considering what was being bm-nt, it is a curious spectacle to


contemplate— the father mercilessly heajiing into the flames the
Ijrodiice of his brain, the wife looking on with a sad smilt, and the
childi-en dancing round in glee ! In this way three entire novels
were destroj^ed.

In 1787 he lost his patron, the Duke of Rutland, who died
during his viceroyalty, in his thirty-fifth year ; but the widowed
duchess did not desert him : at her personal intercession Lord
Thm-low changed his two small livings for the rectory of Muston,
in Leicestershire, of which he took possession in 1789. In this year
he lost his father, who, though certainly not an amiable character,
was affectionately remembered in the writings of his son. In 1792,
on the death of his wife's uncle, he removed to Parham, near the
place of his birth. His residence here, which lasted four years,
was far from comfortable ; he was religious, but not fanatical or

Online LibraryGeorge CrabbeThe poetical works of George Crabbe → online text (page 1 of 49)