Alfred Ainger.

English Men of Letters: Crabbe online

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him, and the Squire's daughter, a young lady of the type of Lady Clara
Vere de Vere, evidently enjoys the opportunity of breaking a country
heart for pastime, "ere she goes to town." For after a while the family
leave for their mansion in London, the Squire at parting once more
impressing on his young guest that he will not forget him. After waiting
a reasonable time, the young poet repairs to London and seeks to obtain
an interview with his Patron. After many unsuccessful trials, and
rebuffs at the door from the servants, a letter is at last sent out to
him from their master, coolly advising him to abjure all dreams of a
literary life and offering him a humble post in the Custom House. The
young man, in bitterness of heart, tries the work for a short time; and
then, his health and spirits having utterly failed, he returns to his
parents' home to die, the father thanking God, as he moves away from his
son's grave, that no other of his children has tastes and talents above
his position:

"'There lies my Boy,' he cried, 'of care bereft,
And, Heaven be praised, I've not a genius left:
No one among ye, sons! is doomed to live
On high-raised hopes of what the Great may give.'"

Crabbe, who is nothing if not incisive in the drawing of his moral, and
lays on his colours with no sparing hand, represents the heartless
Patron and his family as hearing the sad tidings with quite amazing

"Meantime the news through various channels spread,
The youth, once favour'd with such praise, was dead:
'Emma,' the Lady cried, 'my words attend,
Your siren-smiles have kill'd your humble friend;
The hope you raised can now delude no more,
Nor charms, that once inspired, can now restore'

Faint was the flush of anger and of shame,
That o'er the cheek of conscious beauty came:
'You censure not,' said she, 'the sun's bright rays,
When fools imprudent dare the dangerous gaze;
And should a stripling look till he were blind,
You would not justly call the light unkind;
But is he dead? and am I to suppose
The power of poison in such looks as those?'
She spoke, and pointing to the mirror, cast
A pleased gay glance, and curtsied as she pass'd.

My Lord, to whom the poet's fate was told,
Was much affected, for a man so cold:
'Dead!' said his lordship, 'run distracted, mad!
Upon my soul I'm sorry for the lad;
And now, no doubt, th' obliging world will say
That my harsh usage help'd him on his way:
What! I suppose, I should have nursed his muse,
And with champagne have brighten'd up his views,
Then had he made me famed my whole life long,
And stunn'd my ears with gratitude and song.
Still should the father hear that I regret
Our joint misfortune - Yes! I'll not forget.'"

The story, though it has no precise prototype in Crabbe's own history,
is clearly the fruit of his experience of life at Belvoir Castle,
combined with the sad recollection of his sufferings when only a few
years before he, a young man with the consciousness of talent, was
rolling butter-tubs on Slaughden Quay.

Much of the Tale is admirably and forcibly written, but again it may be
said that it is powerful fiction rather than poetry - and indeed into
such matters poetry can hardly enter. It displays the fine observation
of Miss Austen, clothed in effective couplets of the school of Johnson
and Churchill. Yet every now and then the true poet comes to the
surface. The essence of a dank and misty day in late autumn has never
been seized with more perfect truth than in these lines:

"Cold grew the foggy morn, the day was brief,
Loose on the cherry hung the crimson leaf;
The dew dwelt ever on the herb; the woods
Roar'd with strong blasts, with mighty showers the floods:
All green was vanish'd, save of pine and yew,
That still displayed their melancholy hue;
Save the green holly with its berries red,
And the green moss that o'er the gravel spread."

The scheme of these detached Tales had served to develop one special
side of Crabbe's talent. The analysis of human character, with its
strength and weakness (but specially the latter), finds fuller exercise
as the poet has to trace its effects upon the earthly fortunes of the
persons portrayed. The Tale entitled _The Gentleman Farmer_ is a
striking illustration in point. Jeffrey in his review of the _Tales_ in
the _Edinburgh_ supplies, as usual, a short abstract of the story, not
without due insight into its moral. But a profounder student of human
nature than Jeffrey has, in our own day, cited the Tale as worthy even
to illustrate a memorable teaching of St. Paul. The Bishop of Worcester,
better known as Canon Gore to the thousands who listened to the
discourse in Westminster Abbey, finds in this story a perfect
illustration of what moral freedom is, and what it is often erroneously
supposed to be:

"It is of great practical importance that we should get a
just idea of what our freedom consists in. There are men
who, under the impulse of a purely materialist science, declare
the sense of moral freedom to be an illusion. This is of course
a gross error. But what has largely played into the hands of
this error is the exaggerated idea of human freedom which is
ordinarily current, an idea which can only be held by ignoring
our true and necessary dependence and limitation. It is this
that we need to have brought home to us. There is an admirable
story among George Crabbe's _Tales_ called 'The Gentleman
Farmer.' The hero starts in life resolved that he will
not put up with any bondage. The orthodox clergyman,
the orthodox physician, and orthodox matrimony - all these
alike represent social bondage in different forms, and he will
have none of them So he starts on a career of 'unchartered

'To prove that _he alone was king of him,_'

and the last scene of all represents him the weak slave of
his mistress, a quack doctor, and a revivalist - 'which things
are an allegory.'"

The quotation shows that Crabbe, neglected by the readers of poetry
to-day, is still cherished by the psychologist and divine. It is to the
"graver mind" rather than to the "lighter heart" that he oftenest
appeals. Newman, to mention no small names, found Crabbe's pathos and
fidelity to Human Nature even more attractive to him in advanced years
than in youth. There is indeed much in common between Crabbe's treatment
of life and its problems, and Newman's. Both may be called "stern"
portrayers of human nature, not only as intended in Byron's famous line,
but in Wordsworth's use of the epithet when he invoked Duty as the
"stern Daughter of the voice of God." A kindred lesson to that drawn by
Canon Gore from _The Gentleman Farmer_ is taught in the yet grimmer Tale
of _Edward Shore_. The story, as summarised by Jeffrey, is as follows:

"The hero is a young man of aspiring genius and enthusiastic
temper with an ardent love of virtue, but no settled
principles either of conduct or opinion. He first conceives an
attachment for an amiable girl, who is captivated with his
conversation; but, being too poor to marry, soon comes to
spend more of his time in the family of an elderly sceptic of
his acquaintance, who had recently married a young wife, and
placed unbounded confidence in her virtue, and the honour of
his friend. In a moment of temptation they abuse this
confidence. The husband renounces him with dignified composure;
and he falls at once from the romantic pride of his
virtue. He then seeks the company of the dissipated and
gay, and ruins his health and fortune without regaining his
tranquillity. When in gaol and miserable, he is relieved by
an unknown hand, and traces the benefaction to the friend
whose former kindness he had so ill repaid. This humiliation
falls upon his proud spirit and shattered nerves with an
overwhelming force, and his reason fails beneath it. He is
for some time a raving maniac, and then falls into a state of
gay and compassionable imbecility, which is described with
inimitable beauty in the close of this story."

Jeffrey's abstract is fairly accurate, save in one particular. Edward
Shore can hardly be said to feel an "ardent love of virtue." Rather is
he perfectly confident of his respectability, and bitterly contemptuous
of those who maintain the necessity of religion to control men's unruly
passions. His own lofty conceptions of the dignity of human nature are
sufficient for himself:

"'While reason guides me, I shall walk aright,
Nor need a steadier hand, or stronger light;
Nor this in dread of awful threats, design'd
For the weak spirit and the grov'ling mind;
But that, engaged by thoughts and views sublime,
I wage free war with grossness and with crime.'
Thus looked he proudly on the vulgar crew,
Whom statutes govern, and whom fears subdue."

As motto for this story Crabbe quotes the fine speech of Henry V. on
discovering the treachery of Lord Scrope, whose character had hitherto
seemed so immaculate. The comparison thus suggested is not as felicitous
as in many of Crabbe's citations. Had _In_ _Memoriam_ been then
written, a more exact parallel might have been found in Tennyson's
warning to the young enthusiast:

"See thou, that countest reason ripe
In holding by the law within,
Thou fail not in a world of sin,
And ev'n for want of such a type."

The story is for the most part admirably told. The unhappy man, reduced
to idiocy of a harmless kind, and the common playmate of the village
children, is encountered now and then by the once loved maid, who might
have made him happy:

"Kindly she chides his boyish flights, while he
Will for a moment fix'd and pensive be;
And as she trembling speaks, his lively eyes
Explore her looks; he listens to her sighs;
Charm'd by her voice, th' harmonious sounds invade
His clouded mind, and for a time persuade:
Like a pleased infant, who has newly caught
From the maternal glance a gleam of thought,
He stands enrapt, the half-known voice to hear,
And starts, half conscious, at the falling tear.

Rarely from town, nor then unwatch'd, he goes,
In darker mood, as if to hide his woes;
Returning soon, he with impatience seeks
His youthful friends, and shouts, and sings, and speaks;
Speaks a wild speech with action all as wild -
The children's leader, and himself a child;
He spins their top, or at their bidding bends
His back, while o'er it leap his laughing friends;
Simple and weak, he acts the boy once more,
And heedless children call him _Silly Shore_."

In striking contrast to the prevailing tone of the other Tales is the
charming story, conceived in a vein of purest comedy, called _The Frank
Courtship_. This Tale alone should be a decisive answer to those who
have doubted Crabbe's possession of the gift of humour, and on this
occasion he has refrained from letting one dark shadow fall across his
picture. It tells of one Jonas Kindred, a wealthy puritanic Dissenter of
narrowest creed and masterful temper. He has an only daughter, the pride
of her parents, and brought up by them in the strictest tenets of the
sect. Her father has a widowed and childless sister, with a comfortable
fortune, living in some distant town; and in pity of her solitary
condition he allows his naturally vivacious daughter to spend the
greater part of the year with her aunt. The aunt does not share the
prejudices of her brother's household. She likes her game of cards and
other social joys, and is quite a leader of fashion in her little town.
To this life and its enjoyments the beautiful and clever Sybil takes
very kindly, and unfolds many attractive graces. Once a year the aunt
and niece by arrangement spend a few weeks in Sybil's old home. The
aunt, with much serpentine wisdom, arranges that she and her niece shall
adapt themselves to this very different atmosphere - eschew cards, attend
regularly at chapel, and comply with the tone and habits of the family.
The niece, however, is really as good as she is pretty, and her
conscience smites her for deceiving her father, of whom she is genuinely
fond. She stands before him "pure, pensive, simple, sad," - yet

"the damsel's heart,
When Jonas praised, reproved her for the part;
For Sybil, fond of pleasure, gay and light,
Had still a secret bias to the right;
Vain as she was - and flattery made her vain -
Her simulation gave her bosom pain."

As time wears on, however, this state of things must come to a close.
Jonas is anxious that his daughter shall marry suitably, and he finds
among his neighbours an admirable young man, a staunch member of the
"persuasion," and well furnished in this world's goods. He calls his
daughter home, that she may be at once introduced to her future husband,
for the father is as certain as Sir Anthony Absolute himself that
daughters should accept what is offered them and ask no questions. Sybil
is by no means unwilling to enter the holy state, if the right man can
be found. Indeed, she is wearying of the aimless life she lives with her
worldly aunt, and the gradual change in her thoughts and hopes is
indicated in a passage of much delicacy and insight:

"Jonas now ask'd his daughter - and the Aunt,
Though loth to lose her, was obliged to grant. -
But would not Sybil to the matron cling,
And fear to leave the shelter of her wing?
No! in the young there lives a love of change,
And to the easy they prefer the strange!
Then, too, the joys she once pursued with zeal,
From whist and visits sprung, she ceased to feel:
When with, the matrons Sybil first sat down,
To cut for partners and to stake her crown,
This to the youthful maid preferment seem'd,
Who thought what woman she was then esteem'd;
But in few years, when she perceived indeed
The real woman to the girl succeed,
No longer tricks and honours fill'd her mind,
But other feelings, not so well defined;
She then reluctant grew, and thought it hard
To sit and ponder o'er an ugly card;
Rather the nut-tree shade the nymph preferr'd,
Pleased with the pensive gloom and evening bird;
Thither, from company retired, she took
The silent walk, or read the fav'rite book."

The interview between Sybil and the young man is conceived with real
skill and humour. The young lady receives her lover, prepared to treat
him with gentle mockery and to keep him at a convenient distance. The
young lover is not daunted, and plainly warns her against the
consequences of such levity. But as the little duel proceeds, each
gradually detects the real good that underlies the surface qualities of
the other. In spite of his formalism, Sybil discerns that her lover is
full of good sense and feeling; and he makes the same discovery with
regard to the young lady's _badinage._ And then, after a conflict of
wits that seems to terminate without any actual result, the anxious
father approaches his child with a final appeal to her sense of filial

"With anger fraught, but willing to persuade,
The wrathful father met the smiling maid:
'Sybil,' said he, 'I long, and yet I dread
To know thy conduct - hath Josiah fled?
And, grieved and fretted by thy scornful air,
For his lost peace, betaken him to prayer?
Couldst then his pure and modest mind distress
By vile remarks upon his speech, address,
Attire, and voice?' - 'All this I must confess.'
'Unhappy child! what labour will it cost
To win him back!' - 'I do not think him lost.'
'Courts he then (trifler!) insult and disdain?' -
'No; but from these he courts me to refrain.'
'Then hear me, Sybil: should Josiah leave
Thy father's house?' - 'My father's child would grieve.'
'That is of grace, and if he come again
To speak of love?' - 'I might from grief refrain.'
'Then wilt thou, daughter, our design embrace?' -
Can I resist it, if it be of grace?'
'Dear child! in three plain words thy mind express:
Wilt thou have this good youth?' - 'Dear father! yes.'"

All the characters in the story - the martinet father and his poor
crushed wife, as well as the pair of lovers - are indicated with an
appreciation of the value of dramatic contrast that might make the
little story effective on the stage. One of the Tales in this
collection, _The Confidant_, was actually turned into a little drama in
blank verse by Charles Lamb, under the changed title of _The Wife's
Trial: or the Intruding Widow_. The story of Crabbe's _Confidant_ is not
pleasant; and Lamb thought well to modify it, so as to diminish the
gravity of the secret of which the malicious friend was possessed. There
is nothing but what is sweet and attractive in the little comedy of _The
Frank Courtship_, and it might well be commended to the dexterous and
sympathetic hand of Mr. J.M. Barrie.




In the margin of FitzGerald's copy of the _Memoir_ an extract is quoted
from Crabbe's Diary: "1810, Nov. 7. - Finish Tales. Not happy hour." The
poet's comment may have meant something more than that so many of his
Tales dealt with sad instances of human frailty. At that moment, and for
three years longer, there hung over Crabbe's family life a cloud that
never lifted - the hopeless illness of his wife. Two years before,
Southey, in answer to a friend who had made some reference to Crabbe and
his poetry, writes:

"With Crabbe's poems I have been acquainted for about
twenty years, having read them when a schoolboy on their
first publication, and, by the help of _Elegant Extracts_,
remembered from that time what was best worth remembering.
You rightly compare him to Goldsmith. He is an imitator,
or rather an _antithesizer_ of Goldsmith, if such a word may be
coined for the occasion. His merit is precisely the same as
Goldsmith's - that of describing things clearly and strikingly;
but there is a wide difference between the colouring of the
two poets. Goldsmith threw a sunshine over all his pictures,
like that of one of our water-colour artists when he paints
for ladies - a light and a beauty not to be found in Nature,
though not more brilliant or beautiful than what Nature
really affords; Crabbe's have a gloom which is also not in
Nature - not the shade of a heavy day, of mist, or of clouds,
but the dark and overcharged shadows of one who paints by
lamplight - whose very lights have a gloominess. In part
this is explained by his history."

Southey's letter was written in September 1808, before either _The
Borough_ or the _Tales_ was published, which may account for the
inadequacy of his criticism on Crabbe's poetry. But the above passage
throws light upon a period in Crabbe's history to which his son
naturally does little more than refer in general and guarded terms. In a
subsequent passage of the letter already quoted, we are reminded that as
early as the year 1803 Mrs. Crabbe's mental derangement was familiarly
known to her friends.

But now, when his latest book was at last in print, and attracting
general attention, the end of Crabbe's long watching was not far off. In
the summer of 1813 Mrs. Crabbe had rallied so far as to express a wish
to see London again, and the father and mother and two sons spent nearly
three months in rooms in a hotel. Crabbe was able to visit Dudley North,
and other of his old friends, and to enter to some extent into the
gaieties of the town, but also, as always, taking advantage of the
return to London to visit and help the poor and distressed, not
unmindful of his own want and misery in the great city thirty years
before. The family returned to Muston in September, and towards the
close of the month Mrs. Crabbe was released from her long disease. On
the north wall of the chancel of Muston Church, close to the altar, is a
plain marble slab recording that not far away lie the remains of "Sarah,
wife of the Rev. George Crabbe, late Rector of this Parish."

Within _two_ days of the wife's death Crabbe fell ill of a serious
malady, worn out as he was with long anxiety and grief. He was for a few
days in danger of his life, and so well aware of his condition that he
desired that his wife's grave "might not be closed till it was seen
whether he should recover." He rallied, however, and returned to the
duties of his parish, and to a life of still deeper loneliness. But his
old friends at Belvoir Castle once more came to his deliverance. Within
a short time the Duke offered him the living of Trowbridge in Wiltshire,
a small manufacturing town, on the line (as we should describe it today)
between Bath and Salisbury. The value of the preferment was not as great
as that of the joint livings of Muston and Allington, so that poor
Crabbe was once more doomed to be a pluralist, and to accept, also at
the Duke's hands, the vicarage of Croxton Kerrial, near Belvoir Castle,
where, however, he never resided.

And now the time came for Crabbe's final move, and rector of Trowbridge
he was to remain for the rest of his life. He was glad to leave Muston,
which now had for him the saddest of associations. He had never been
happy there, for reasons we have seen. What Crabbe's son calls
"diversity of religious sentiment" had produced "a coolness in some of
his parishioners, which he felt the more painfully because, whatever
might be their difference of opinion, he was ever ready to help and
oblige them all by medical and other aid to the utmost extent of his
power." So that in leaving Muston he was not, as was evident, leaving
many to lament his departure. Indeed, malignity was so active in one
quarter that the bells of the parish church were rung to welcome
Crabbe's successor before Crabbe and his sons had quitted the house!

For other reasons, perhaps, Crabbe prepared to leave his two livings
with a sense of relief. His wife's death had cast a permanent shadow
over the landscape. The neighbouring gentry were kindly disposed, but
probably not wholly sympathetic. It is clear that there was a certain
rusticity about Crabbe; and his politics, such as they were, had been
formed in a different school from that of the county families. A busy
country town was likely to furnish interests and distractions of a
different kind. But before finally quitting the neighbourhood he visited
a sister at Aldeburgh, and, his son writes, 'one day was given to a
solitary ramble among the scenery of bygone years - Parham and the woods
of Glemham, then in the first blossom of May. He did not return until
night; and in his note-book I find the following brief record of this
mournful visit:

"Yes, I behold again the place,
The seat of joy, the source of pain;
It brings in view the form and face
That I must never see again.

The night-bird's song that sweetly floats
On this soft gloom - this balmy air -
Brings to the mind her sweeter notes
That I again must never hear.

Lo! yonder shines that window's light,
My guide, my token, heretofore;
And now again it shines as bright,
When those dear eyes can shine no more.

Then hurry from this place away!
It gives not now the bliss it gave;
For Death has made its charm his prey,
And joy is buried in her grave."

In family relationships, and indeed all others, Crabbe's tenderness was
never wanting, and the verse that follows was found long afterwards
written on a paper in which his wife's wedding-ring, nearly worn through
before she died, was wrapped:

"The ring so worn, as you behold,
So thin, so pale, is yet of gold:
The passion such it was to prove;
Worn with life's cares, love yet was love."

Crabbe was inducted to the living of Trowbridge on the 3rd of June 1814,
and preached his first sermon two days later. His two sons followed him,
as soon as their existing engagements allowed them to leave
Leicestershire. The younger, John, who married in 1816, became his
father's curate, and the elder, who married a year later, became curate
at Pucklechurch, not many miles distant. As Crabbe's old cheerfulness
gradually returned he found much congenial society in the better
educated classes about him. His reputation as a poet was daily
spreading. The _Tales_ passed from edition to edition, and brought him
many admirers and sympathisers. The "busy, populous clothing town," as
he described Trowbridge to a friend, provided him with intelligent
neighbours of a class different from any he had yet been thrown with.
And yet once more, as his son has to admit, he failed to secure the
allegiance of the church-going parishioners. His immediate predecessor,

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Online LibraryAlfred AingerEnglish Men of Letters: Crabbe → online text (page 10 of 14)