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The chief, and almost sole, source of information concerning Crabbe is
the Memoir by his son prefixed to the collected edition of his poems in
1834. Comparatively few letters of Crabbe's have been preserved, but a
small and interesting series will be found in the "Leadbeater Papers"
(1862), consisting of letters addressed to Mary Leadbeater, the daughter
of Burke's friend, Richard Shackleton.

I am indebted to Mr. John Murray for kindly lending me many manuscript
sermons and letters of Crabbe's and a set of commonplace books in which
the poet had entered fragments of cancelled poems, botanical memoranda,
and other miscellaneous matter.

Of especial service to me has been a copy of Crabbe's _Memoir_ by his
son with abundant annotations by Edward FitzGerald, whose long intimacy
with Crabbe's son and grandson had enabled him to illustrate the text
with many anecdotes and comments of interest chiefly derived from those
relatives. This volume has been most kindly placed at my disposal by
Mr. W. Aldis Wright, FitzGerald's literary executor.

Finally, I have once again to thank my old friend the Master of
Peterhouse for his careful reading of my proof sheets.


_July 1903_


















Two eminent English poets who must be reckoned moderns though each
produced characteristic verse before the end of the eighteenth century,
George Crabbe and William Wordsworth, have shared the common fate of
those writers who, possessing a very moderate power of self-criticism,
are apparently unable to discriminate between their good work and their
bad. Both have suffered, and still suffer, in public estimation from
this cause. The average reader of poetry does not care to have to search
and select for himself, and is prone summarily to dismiss a writer
(especially a poet) on the evidence of his inferior productions.
Wordsworth, by far the greater of the two poets, has survived the
effects of his first offence, and has grown in popularity and influence
for half a century past. Crabbe, for many other reasons that I shall
have to trace, has declined in public favour during a yet longer period,
and the combined bulk and inequality of his poetry have permanently
injured him, even as they injured his younger contemporary.

Widely as these two poets differed in subjects and methods, they
achieved kindred results and played an equally important part in the
revival of the human and emotional virtues of poetry after their long
eclipse under the shadow of Pope and his school. Each was primarily made
a poet through compassion for what "man had made of man," and through a
concurrent and sympathetic influence of the scenery among which he was
brought up. Crabbe was by sixteen years Wordsworth's senior, and owed
nothing to his inspiration. In the form, and at times in the technique
of his verse, his controlling master was Pope. For its subjects he was
as clearly indebted to Goldsmith and Gray. But for _The Deserted
Village_ of the one, and _The Elegy_ of the other, it is conceivable
that Crabbe, though he might have survived as one of the "mob of
gentlemen" who imitated Pope "with ease," would never have learned where
his true strength lay, and thus have lived as one of the first and
profoundest students of _The Annals of the Poor_. For _The Village_, one
of the earliest and not least valuable of his poems, was written (in
part, at least) as early as 1781, while Wordsworth was yet a child, and
before Cowper had published a volume. In yet another respect Crabbe was
to work hand in hand with Wordsworth. He does not seem to have held
definite opinions as to necessary reforms in what Wordsworth called
"poetic diction." Indeed he was hampered, as Wordsworth was not, by a
lifelong adherence to a metre - the heroic couplet - with which this same
poetic diction was most closely bound up. He did not always escape the
effects of this contagion, but in the main he was delivered from it by
what I have called a first-hand association with man and nature. He was
ever describing what he had seen and studied with his own eyes, and the
vocabulary of the bards who had for generations borrowed it from one
another failed to supply him with the words he needed. The very
limitations of the first five-and-twenty years of his life passed in a
small and decaying seaport were more than compensated by the intimacy
of his acquaintance with its inhabitants. Like Wordsworth he had early
known love and sorrow "in huts where poor men lie."

Wordsworth's fame and influence have grown steadily since his death in
1850. Crabbe's reputation was apparently at its height in 1819, for it
was then, on occasion of his publishing his _Tales of the Hall_, that
Mr. John Murray paid him three thousand pounds for the copyright of this
work, and its predecessors. But after that date Crabbe's popularity may
be said to have continuously declined. Other poets, with other and more
purely poetical gifts, arose to claim men's attention. Besides
Wordsworth, as already pointed out, Scott, Byron, Coleridge, Keats,
Shelley had found their various admirers, and drawn Crabbe's old public
from him. It is the purpose of this little volume to inquire into the
reasons why he is still justly counted a classic, and whether he has
not, as Tennyson said of him, "a world of his own," still rich in
interest and in profit for the explorer.

* * * * *

Aldeburgh - or as it came to be more commonly spelled in modern times,
Aldborough - is to-day a pleasant and quiet watering-place on the coast
of Suffolk, only a few miles from Saxmundham, with which it is connected
by a branch line of the Great Eastern Railway. It began to be known for
its fine air and sea-bathing about the middle of the last century, and
to-day possesses other attractions for the yachtsman and the golfer. But
a hundred years earlier, when Crabbe was born, the town possessed none
of these advantages and means of access, to amend the poverty and rough
manners of its boating and fishing inhabitants. In the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries Aldeburgh had been a flourishing port with a
population able to provide notable aid in the hour of national danger.
Successive Royal Charters had accorded to the town markets, with other
important rights and privileges. It had returned two members to
Parliament since early in the days of Elizabeth, and indeed continued to
do so until the Reform Bill of 1831. But, in common with Dunwich, and
other once flourishing ports on the same coast, Aldeburgh had for its
most fatal enemy, the sea. The gradual encroachments of that
irresistible power had in the course of two centuries buried a large
portion of the ancient Borough beneath the waves. Two existing maps of
the town, one of about 1590, the other about 1790, show how extensive
this devastation had been. This cause, and others arising from it, the
gradual decay of the shipping and fishing industries, had left the town
in the main a poor and squalid place, the scene of much smuggling and
other lawlessness. Time and the ocean wave had left only "two parallel
and unpaved streets, running between mean and scrambling houses." Nor
was there much relief, aesthetic or other, in the adjacent country,
which was flat, marshy, and treeless, continually swept by northern and
easterly gales. A river, the Ald, from which the place took its name,
approached the sea close to the town from the west, and then took a
turn, flowing south, till it finally entered the sea at the neighbouring
harbour of Orford.

In Aldeburgh, on Christmas Eve 1754, George Crabbe was born. He came of
a family bearing a name widely diffused throughout Norfolk and Suffolk
for many generations. His father, after school-teaching in various
parishes in the neighbourhood, finally settled down in his native place
as collector of the salt duties, a post which his father had filled
before him. Here as a very young man he married an estimable and pious
widow, named Loddock, some years his senior, and had a family of six
children, of whom George was the eldest.

Within the limits of a few miles round, including the towns and villages
of Slaughden, Orford, Parham, Beccles, Stowmarket, and Woodbridge, the
first five-and-twenty years of the poet's life were spent. He had but
slight interest in the pursuits of the inhabitants. His father, brought
up among its fishing and boating interests, was something nautical in
his ambitions, having a partnership in a fishing-boat, and keeping a
yacht on the river. His other sons shared their father's tastes, while
George showed no aptitude or liking for the sea, but from his earliest
years evinced a fondness for books, and a marked aptitude for learning.
He was sent early to the usual dame-school, and developed an insatiable
appetite for such stories and ballads as were current among the
neighbours. George Crabbe, the elder, possessed a few books, and used to
read aloud to his family passages from Milton, Young, and other didactic
poets of the eighteenth century. Furthermore he took in a country
magazine, which had a "Poet's Corner," always handed over to George for
his special benefit. The father, respecting these early signs of a
literary bent in the son, sent him to a small boarding-school at Bungay
in the same county, and a few years later to one of higher pretensions
at Stowmarket, kept by a Mr. Richard Haddon, a mathematical teacher of
some repute, where the boy also acquired some mastery of Latin and
acquaintance with the Latin classics. In his later years he was given
(perhaps a little ostentatiously) to prefixing quotations from Horace,
Juvenal, Martial, and oven more recondite authors, to the successive
sections of _The Borough_ But wherever he found books - especially
poetry - he read them and remembered them. He early showed considerable
acquaintance with the best English poets, and although Pope controlled
his metrical forms, and something more than the forms, to the end of his
life, he had somehow acquired a wide knowledge of Shakespeare, and even
of such then less known poets as Spenser, Raleigh, and Cowley.

After some three years at Stowmarket - it now being settled that medicine
was to be his calling - George was taken from school, and the search
began in earnest for some country practitioner to whom he might be
apprenticed. An interval of a few months was spent at home, during which
he assisted his father at the office on Slaughden Quay, and in the year
1768, when he was still under fourteen years of age, a post was found
for him in the house of a surgeon at Wickham-Brook, near Bury St.
Edmunds. This practitioner combined the practise of agriculture on a
small scale with that of physic, and young Crabbe had to take his share
in the labours of the farm. The result was not satisfactory, and after
three years of this rough and uncongenial life, a more profitable
situation was found with a Mr. Page of Woodbridge - the memorable home of
Bernard Barton and Edward FitzGerald. Crabbe became Mr. Page's pupil in
1771, and remained with him until 1775.

We have the authority of Crabbe's son and biographer for saying that he
never really cared for the profession he had adopted. What proficiency
he finally attained in it, before he forsook it for ever, is not quite
clear. But it is certain that his residence among the more civilised and
educated inhabitants of Woodbridge was of the greatest service to him.
He profited notably by joining a little club of young men who met on
certain evenings at an inn for discussion and mutual improvement. To
this little society Crabbe was to owe one chief happiness of his life.
One of its members, Mr. W.S. Levett, a surgeon (one wonders if a
relative of Samuel Johnson's protégé), was at this time courting a Miss
Brereton, of Framlingham, ten miles away. Mr. Levett died young in 1774,
and did not live to marry, but during his brief friendship with Crabbe
was the means of introducing him to the lady who, after many years of
patient waiting, became his wife. In the village of Great Parham, not
far from Framlingham, lived a Mr. Tovell, of Parham Hall, a substantial
yeoman, farming his own estate. With Mr. and Mrs. Tovell and their only
child, a daughter, lived an orphan niece of Mr. Tovell's, a Miss Sarah
Elmy, Miss Brereton's bosom-friend, and constant companion. Mr. Levett
had in consequence become the friend of the Tovell family, and conceived
the desire that his young friend, Crabbe, should be as blessed as
himself. "George," he said, "you shall go with me to Parham; there is a
young lady there who would just suit you!" Crabbe accepted the
invitation, made Mr. Tovell's acquaintance, and promptly fell in love
with Mr. Tovell's niece. The poet, at that time, had not yet completed
his eighteenth year.

How soon after this first meeting George Crabbe proposed and was
accepted, is not made clear, but he was at least welcomed to the house
as a friend and an admirer, and his further visits encouraged. His youth
and the extreme uncertainty of his prospects could not well have been
agreeable to Mr. and Mrs. Tovell, or to Miss Elmy's widowed mother who
lived not far away at Beccles, but the young lady herself returned her
lover's affection from the first, and never faltered. The three
following years, during which Crabbe remained at Woodbridge, gave him
the opportunity of occasional visits, and there can be no doubt that
apart from the fascinations of his "Mira," by which name he proceeded to
celebrate her in occasional verse, the experience of country life and
scenery, so different from that of his native Aldeburgh, was of great
service in enlarging his poetical outlook. Great Parham, distant about
five miles from Saxmundham, and about thirteen from Aldeburgh, is at
this day a village of great rural charm, although a single-lined branch
of the Great Eastern wanders boldly among its streams and cottage
gardens through the very heart of the place. The dwelling of the Tovells
has many years ago disappeared - an entirely new hall having risen on the
old site; but there stands in the parish, a few fields away, an older
Parham Hall; - to-day a farm-house, dear to artists, of singular
picturesqueness, surrounded and even washed by a deep moat, and shaded
by tall trees - a haunt, indeed, "of ancient peace." The neighbourhood of
this old Hall, and the luxuriant beauty of the inland village, so
refreshing a contrast to the barrenness and ugliness of the country
round his native town, enriched Crabbe's mind with many memories that
served him well in his later poetry.

In the meantime he was practising verse, though as yet showing little
individuality. A Lady's Magazine of the day, bearing the name of its
publisher, Mr. Wheble, had offered a prize for the best poem on the
subject of _Hope_, which Crabbe was so fortunate as to win, and the same
magazine printed other short pieces in the same year, 1772. They were
signed "G.C., Woodbridge," and included divers lyrics addressed to Mira.
Other extant verses of the period of his residence at Woodbridge show
that he was making experiments in stanza-form on the model of earlier
English poets, though without showing more than a certain imitative
skill. But after he had been three years in the town, he made a more
notable experiment and had found a printer in Ipswich to take the risk
of publication. In 1775 was printed in that town a didactic satire of
some four hundred lines in the Popian couplet, entitled _Inebriety_.
Coleridge's friend, who had to write a prize poem on the subject of Dr.
Jenner, boldly opened with the invocation -

"Inoculation! Heavenly maid, descend."

As the title of Crabbe's poem stands for the bane and not the antidote,
he could not adopt the same method, but he could not resist some other
precedents of the epic sort, and begins thus, in close imitation of _The
Dunciad_ -

"The mighty spirit, and its power which stains
The bloodless cheek and vivifies the brains,
I sing"

The apparent object of the satire was to describe the varied phases of
Intemperance, as observed by the writer in different classes of
society - the Villager, the Squire, the Farmer, the Parish Clergyman, and
even the Nobleman's Chaplain, an official whom Crabbe as yet knew only
by imagination. From childhood he had had ample experience of the vice
in the rough and reckless homes of the Aldeburgh poor. His subsequent
medical pursuits must have brought him into occasional contact with it
among the middle classes, and even in the manor-houses and parsonages
for which he made up the medicine in his master's surgery. But his
treatment of the subject was too palpably imitative of one poetic model,
already stale from repetition. Not only did he choose Pope's couplet,
with all its familiar antitheses and other mannerisms, but frankly
avowed it by parodying whole passages from the _Essay on Man_ and _The
Dunciad_, the original lines being duly printed at the foot of the page.
There is little of Crabbe's later accent of sympathy. Epigram is too
obviously pursued, and much of the suggested acquaintance with the
habits of the upper classes -

"Champagne the courtier drinks, the spleen to chase,
The colonel Burgundy, and Port his grace"

is borrowed from books and not from life. Nor did the satire gain in
lucidity from any editorial care. There are hardly two consecutive lines
that do not suffer from a truly perverse theory of punctuation. A copy
of the rare original is in the writer's possession, at the head of which
the poet has inscribed his own maturer judgment of this youthful
effort - "Pray let not this be seen ... there is very little of it that
I'm not heartily ashamed of." The little quarto pamphlet - "Ipswich,
printed and sold by C. Punchard, Bookseller, in the Butter Market, 1775.
Price one shilling and sixpence" - seems to have attracted no attention.
And yet a critic of experience would have recognised in it a force as
well as a fluency remarkable in a young man of twenty-one, and pointing
to quite other possibilities when the age of imitation should have
passed away.

In 1775 Crabbe's term of apprenticeship to Mr. Page expired, and he
returned to his home at Aldeburgh, hoping soon to repair to London and
there continue his medical studies. But he found the domestic situation
much changed for the worse. His mother (who, as we have seen, was
several years older than her husband) was an invalid, and his father's
habits and temper were not improving with time. He was by nature
imperious, and had always (it would seem) been liable to intemperance of
another kind. Moreover, a contested election for the Borough in 1774 had
brought with it its familiar temptations to protracted debauch - and it
is significant that in 1775 he vacated the office of churchwarden that
he had held for many years. George, to whom his father was not as a rule
unkind, did not shrink from once more assisting him among the
butter-tubs on Slaughden Quay. Poetry seems to have been for a while
laid aside, the failure of his first venture having perhaps discouraged
him. Some slight amount of practice in his profession fell to his share.
An entry in the Minute Book of the Aldeburgh Board of Guardians of
September 17, 1775, orders "that Mr. George Crabbe, Junr., shall be
employed to cure the boy Howard of the itch, and that whenever any of
the poor shall have occasion for a surgeon, the overseers shall apply to
him for that purpose." But these very opportunities perhaps only served
to show George Crabbe how poorly he was equipped for his calling as
surgeon, and after a period not specified means were found for sending
him to London, where he lodged with a family from Aldeburgh who were in
business in Whitechapel. How and where he then obtained instruction or
practice in his calling does not appear, though there is a gruesome
story, recorded by his son, how a baby-subject for dissection was one
day found in his cupboard by his landlady, who was hardly to be
persuaded that it was not a lately lost infant of her own. In any case,
within a year Crabbe's scanty means were exhausted, and he was once more
in Aldeburgh, and assistant to an apothecary of the name of Maskill.
This gentleman seems to have found Aldeburgh hopeless, for in a few
months he left the town, and Crabbe set up for himself as his successor.
But he was still poorly qualified for his profession, his skill in
surgery being notably deficient. He attracted only the poorest class of
patients - the fees ware small and uncertain and his prospects of an
early marriage, or even of earning his living as a single man, seemed as
far off as ever. Moreover, he was again cut off from congenial
companionship, with only such relief as was afforded by the occasional
presence in the town of various Militia regiments, the officers of which
gave him some of their patronage and society.

He had still happily the assurance of the faithful devotion of Miss
Elmy. Her father had been a tanner in the Suffolk town of Beccles, where
her mother still resided, and where Miss Elmy paid her occasional
visits. The long journey from Aldeburgh to Beccles was often taken by
Crabbe, and the changing features of the scenery traversed were
reproduced, his son tells us, many years afterwards in the beautiful
tale of _The Lover's Journey_. The tie between Crabbe and Miss Elmy was
further strengthened by a dangerous fever from which Crabbe suffered in
1778-79, while Miss Elmy was a guest under his parents' roof. This was
succeeded by an illness of Miss Elmy, when Crabbe was in constant
attendance at Parham Hall. His intimacy with the Tovells was moreover to
be strengthened by a sad event in that family, the death of their only
child, an engaging girl of fourteen. The social position of the Tovells,
and in greater degree their fortune, was superior to that of the
Crabbes, and the engagement of their niece to one whose prospects were
so little brilliant had never been quite to their taste. But henceforth
this feeling was to disappear. This crowning sorrow in the family
wrought more cordial feelings. Crabbe was one of those who had known and
been kind to their child, and such were now,

"Peculiar people - death had made them dear."

And henceforth the engagement between the lovers was frankly accepted.
But though the course of this true love was to run more and more
smooth, the question of Crabbe's future means of living seemed as
hopeless of solution as ever.

And yet the enforced idleness of these following years was far from
unprofitable. The less time occupied in the routine work of his
profession, the more leisure he had for his favourite study of natural
history, and especially of botany. This latter study had been taken up
during his stay at Woodbridge, the neighbourhood of which had a Flora
differing from that of the bleak coast country of Aldeburgh, and it was
now pursued with the same zeal at home. Herbs then played a larger part
than to-day among curative agents of the village doctor, and the fact
that Crabbe sought and obtained them so readily was even pleaded by his
poorer patients as reason why his fees need not be calculated on any
large scale. But this absorbing pursuit did far more than serve to
furnish Crabbe's outfit as a healer. It was undoubtedly to the observing
eye and retentive memory thus practised in the cottage gardens, and in
the lanes, and meadows, and marshes of Suffolk that his descriptions,
when once he found where his true strength lay, owed a charm for which
readers of poetry had long been hungering. The floral outfit of pastoral
poets, when Crabbe began to write, was a _hortus siccus_ indeed.
Distinctness in painting the common growth of field and hedgerow may be
said to have had its origin with Crabbe. Gray and Goldsmith had their
own rare and special gifts to which Crabbe could lay no claim. But
neither these poets nor even Thomson, whose avowed purpose was to depict
nature, are Crabbe's rivals in this respect. Byron in the most
hackneyed of all eulogies upon Crabbe defined him as "Nature's sternest

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Online LibraryAlfred AingerEnglish Men of Letters: Crabbe → online text (page 1 of 14)