Alfred Ainger.

English Men of Letters: Crabbe online

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Crabbe family, and had been parted with by them to one of the Suffolk
county families. "Moated Granges" were common in Norfolk and Suffolk.
Mr. Tovel's house had had a moat, and this too had been a feature of
George's paternal home:

"It was an ancient, venerable Hall,
And once surrounded by a moat and wall;
A part was added by a squire of taste
Who, while unvalued acres ran to waste,
Made spacious rooms, whence he could look about,
And mark improvements as they rose without;
He fill'd the moat, he took the wall away,
He thinn'd the park and bade the view be gay."

In this instance, the squire who had thus altered the property had been
forced to sell it, and George was thus able to return to the old
surroundings of his boyhood. In the third book, _Boys at School_, George
relates some of his recollections, which include the story of a
school-fellow, who having some liking for art but not much talent,
finds his ambitions defeated, and dies of chagrin in consequence. This
was in fact the true story of a brother of Crabbe's wife, Mr. James
Elmy. Later, again, in the work the rector of the parish is described,
and the portrait drawn is obviously that of Crabbe himself, as he
appeared to his Dissenting parishioners at Muston:

"'A moral teacher!' some, contemptuous, cried;
He smiled, but nothing of the fact denied,
Nor, save by his fair life, to charge so strong replied.
Still, though he bade them not on aught rely
That was their own, but all their worth deny,
They called his pure advice his cold morality.

* * * * *

He either did not, or he would not see,
That if he meant a favourite priest to be,
He must not show, but learn of them, the way
To truth - he must not dictate, but obey;
They wish'd him not to bring them further light,
But to convince them that they now were right
And to assert that justice will condemn
All who presumed to disagree with them:
In this he fail'd, and his the greater blame,
For he persisted, void of fear or shame."

There is a touch of bitterness in these lines that is unmistakably that
of a personal grievance, even if the poet's son had not confirmed the
inference in a foot-note.

Book IV. is devoted to the _Adventures of Richard_, which begin with his
residence with his mother near a small sea-port (evidently Aldeburgh);
and here we once more read of the boy, George Crabbe, watching and
remembering every aspect of the storms, and making friends with the
wives and children of the sailors and the smugglers:

"I loved to walk where none had walk'd before,
About the rocks that ran along the shore;
Or far beyond the sight of men to stray,
And take my pleasure when I lost my way;
For then 'twas mine to trace the hilly heath,
And all the mossy moor that lies beneath:
Here had I favourite stations, where I stood
And heard the murmurs of the ocean-flood,
With not a sound beside except when flew
Aloft the lapwing, or the grey curlew,
Who with wild notes my fancied power defied,
And mock'd the dreams of solitary pride."

And as Crabbe evidently resorts gladly to personal experiences to make
out the material for his work, the same also holds with regard to the
incidental Tales. Crabbe refers in his Preface to two of these as not of
his own invention, and his son, in the Notes, admits the same of others.
One, as we have seen, happened in the Elmy family; another was sent him
by a friend in Wiltshire, to which county the story belonged; while the
last in the series, and perhaps the most painful of all, _Smugglers, and
Poachers_ was told to Crabbe by Sir Samuel Romilly, whom he had met at
Hampstead, only a few weeks before Romilly's own tragic death. Probably
other tales, not referred to by Crabbe or his son, were also encountered
by the poet in his intercourse with his parishioners, or submitted to
him by his friends. We might infer this from the singular inequality, in
interest and poetical opportunity, of the various plots of these
stories. Some of them are assuredly not such as any poet would have sat
down and elaborated for himself, and it is strange how little sense
Crabbe seems to have possessed as to which were worth treating, or could
even admit of artistic treatment at all. A striking instance is afforded
by the strange and most unpleasing history, entitled _Lady Barbara: or,
The Ghost_.

The story is as follows: A young and beautiful lady marries early a
gentleman of good family who dies within a year of their marriage. In
spite of many proposals she resolves to remain a widow; and for the sake
of congenial society and occupation, she finds a home in the family of a
pious clergyman, where she devotes herself to his young children, and
makes herself useful in the parish. Her favourite among the children is
a boy, George, still in the schoolroom. The boy grows apace; goes to
boarding-school and college; and is on the point of entering the army,
when he discovers that he is madly in love with the lady, still an
inmate of the house, who had "mothered him" when a child. No ages are
mentioned, but we may infer that the young man is then about two and
twenty, and the lady something short of forty. The position is not
unimaginable, though it may be uncommon. The idea of marrying one who
had been to her as a favourite child, seems to the widow in the first
instance repulsive and almost criminal. But it turns out that there is
another reason in the background for her not re-entering the marriage
state, which she discloses to the ardent youth. It appears that the
widow had once had a beloved brother who had died early. Those two had
been brought up by an infidel father, who had impressed on his children
the absurdity of all such ideas as immortality. The children had often
discussed and pondered over this subject together, and had made a
compact that whichever of them died first should, if possible, appear to
the survivor, and thus solve the awful problem of a future life. The
brother not long after died in foreign parts. Immediately after his
death, before the sister heard the news, the brother's ghost appeared in
a dream, or vision, to the sister, and warned her in solemn tones
against ever marrying a second time. The spirit does not appear to have
given any reasons, but his manner was so impressive and so unmistakable
that the lady had thus far regarded it as an injunction never to be
disobeyed. On hearing this remarkable story, the young man, George,
argues impatiently against the trustworthiness of dreams, and is hardly
silenced by the widow showing him on her wrist the mark still remaining
where the spirit had seized and pressed her hand. In fine, the
impassioned suitor prevails over these superstitious terrors, as he
reckons them, of the lady - and they become man and wife.

The reader is here placed in a condition of great perplexity, and his
curiosity becomes breathless. The sequel is melancholy indeed. After a
few months' union, the young man, whose plausible eloquence had so moved
the widow, tires of his wife, ill-treats her, and breaks her heart. The
Psychical Society is avenged, and the ghost's word was worth at least "a
thousand pounds." It is difficult for us to take such a story seriously,
but it must have interested Crabbe deeply, for he has expended upon it
much of his finest power of analysis, and his most careful writing. As
we have seen, the subject of dreams had always had a fascination for
him, of a kind not unconnected perhaps with the opium-habit. The story,
however it was to be treated, was unpromising; but as the _dénouement_
was what it proved to be, the astonishing thing is that Crabbe should
not have felt the dramatic impropriety of putting into the young man's
mouth passages of an impressive, and almost Shakespearian, beauty such
as are rare indeed in his poetry. The following lines are not indeed
placed within inverted commas, but the pronoun "I" is retained, and they
are apparently intended for something passing in the young suitor's

"O! tell me not of years, - can she be old?
Those eyes, those lips, can man unmoved behold?
Has time that bosom chill'd? are cheeks so rosy cold?
No, she is young, or I her love t'engage
Will grow discreet, and that will seem like age:
But speak it not; Death's equalising age
Levels not surer than Love's stronger charm,
That bids all inequalities be gone,
That laughs at rank, that mocks comparison.
There is not young or old, if Love decrees;
He levels orders, he confounds degrees:
There is not fair, or dark, or short, or tall,
Or grave, or sprightly - Love reduces all;
He makes unite the pensive and the gay,
Gives something here, takes something there away;
From each abundant good a portion takes,
And for each want a compensation makes;
Then tell me not of years - Love, power divine,
Takes, as he wills, from hers, and gives to mine."

In those fine lines it is no doubt Crabbe himself that speaks, and not
the young lover, who was to turn out in the sequel an unparalleled
"cad." But then, what becomes of dramatic consistency, and the
imperative claims of art?

In the letter to Mrs. Leadbeater already cited Crabbe
writes as to his forthcoming collection of Tales: "I do not know, on a
general view, whether my tragic or lighter Tales, etc., are most in
number. Of those equally well executed the tragic will, I suppose, make
the greater impression." Crabbe was right in this forecast. Whether more
or less in number, the "tragic" Tales far surpass the "lighter" in their
effect on the reader, in the intensity of their gloom. Such stories as
that of _Lady Barbara, Delay has Danger, The Sisters, Ellen, Smugglers
and Poachers_, Richard's story of _Ruth_, and the elder brother's
account of his own early attachment, with its miserable sequel - all
these are of a poignant painfulness. Human crime, error, or selfishness
working life-long misery to others - this is the theme to which Crabbe
turns again and again, and on which he bestows a really marvellous power
of analysis. There is never wanting, side by side with these, what
Crabbe doubtless believed to be the compensating presence of much that
is lovable in human character, patience, resignation, forgiveness. But
the resultant effect, it must be confessed, is often the reverse of
cheering. The fine lines of Wordsworth as to

"Sorrow that is not sorrow, but delight;
And miserable love, that is not pain
To hear of, for the glory that redounds
Therefrom to human kind, and what we are,"

fail to console us as we read these later stories of Crabbe. We part
from too many of them not, on the whole, with a livelier faith in human
nature. We are crushed by the exhibition of so much that is abnormally
base and sordid.

The _Tales of the Hall_ are full of surprises even to
those familiar with Crabbe's earlier poems. He can still allow couplets
to stand which are perilously near to doggerel; and, on the other hand,
when his deepest interest in the fortunes of his characters is aroused,
he rises at times to real eloquence, if never to poetry's supremest
heights. Moreover, the poems contain passages of description which, for
truth to Nature, touched by real imagination, are finer than anything he
had yet achieved. The story entitled _Delay has Danger_ contains the
fine picture of an autumn landscape seen through the eyes of the
miserable lover - the picture which dwelt so firmly in the memory of

"That evening all in fond discourse was spent,
When the sad lover to his chamber went,
To think on what had pass'd, to grieve, and to repent:
Early he rose, and looked with many a sigh
On the red light that fill'd the eastern sky:
Oft had he stood before, alert and gay,
To hail the glories of the new-born day;
But now dejected, languid, listless, low,
He saw the wind upon the water blow,
And the cold stream curl'd onward as the gale
From the pine-hill blew harshly down the dale;
On the right side the youth a wood survey'd,
With all its dark intensity of shade;
Where the rough wind alone was heard to move,
In this, the pause of nature and of love,
When now the young are rear'd, and when the old,
Lost to the tie, grow negligent and cold -
Far to the left he saw the huts of men,
Half hid in mist that hung upon the fen;
Before him swallows, gathering for the sea,
Took their short flights, and twitter'd on the lea;
And near the bean-sheaf stood, the harvest done,
And slowly blacken'd in the sickly sun;
All these were sad in nature, or they took
Sadness from him, the likeness of his look,
And of his mind - he ponder'd for a while,
Then met his Fanny with a borrow'd smile."

The entire story, from which this is an extract, is finely told, and the
fitness of the passage is beyond dispute. At other times the description
is either so much above the level of the narrative, or below it, as to
be almost startling. In the very first pages of _Tales of the Hall_, in
the account of the elder brother's early retirement from business, occur
the following musical lines:

"He chose his native village, and the hill
He climb'd a boy had its attraction still;
With that small brook beneath, where he would stand
And stooping fill the hollow of his hand
To quench th' impatient thirst - then stop awhile
To see the sun upon the waters smile,
In that sweet weariness, when, long denied,
We drink and view the fountain that supplied
The sparkling bliss - and feel, if not express,
Our perfect ease in that sweet weariness."

Yet it is only a hundred lines further on that, to indicate the elder
brother's increasing interest in the graver concerns of human thought,
Crabbe can write:

"He then proceeded, not so much intent,
But still in earnest, and to church he went
Although they found some difference in their creed,
He and his pastor cordially agreed;
Convinced that they who would the truth obtain
By disputation, find their efforts vain;
The church he view'd as liberal minds will view,
And there he fix'd his principles and pew."

Among those surprises to which I have referred is the apparently recent
development in the poet of a lyrical gift, the like of which he had not
exhibited before. Crabbe had already written two notable poems in
stanzas, _Sir Eustace Grey_ and that other painful but exceedingly
powerful drama in monologue, _The Hall of Justice_. But since the
appearance of his last volumes, Crabbe had formed some quite novel
poetical friendships, and it would seem likely that association with
Rogers, though he saw and felt that elegant poet's deficiencies as a
painter of human life, had encouraged him to try an experiment in his
friend's special vein. One of the most depressing stories in the series
is that of the elder brother's ill-fated passion for a beautiful girl,
to whom he had been the accidental means of rendering a vital service in
rescuing her and a companion from the "rude uncivil kine" in a meadow.
To the image of this girl, though he never set eyes on her again for
many years, he had remained faithful. The next meeting, when at last it
came, brought the most terrible of disillusions. Sent by his chief to
transact certain business with a wealthy banker ("Clutterbuck & Co."),
the young merchant calls at a villa where the banker at times resided,
and finds that the object of his old love and his fondest dreams is
there installed as the banker's mistress. She is greatly moved at the
sight of the youthful lover of old days, who, with more chivalry than
prudence, offers forgiveness if she will break off this degrading
alliance. She cannot resolve to take the step. She has become used to
luxury and continuous amusement, and she cannot face the return to a
duller domesticity. Finally, however, she dies penitent, and it is the
contemplation of her life and death that works a life-long change in the
ambitions and aims of the old lover. He wearies of money-making, and
retires to lead a country life, where he may be of some good to his
neighbours, and turn to some worthy use the time that may be still
allowed him. The story is told with real pathos and impressive force.
But the picture is spoiled by the tasteless interpolation of a song
which the unhappy girl sings to her lover, at the very moment apparently
when she has resolved that she can never be his:

"My Damon was the first to wake
The gentle flame that cannot die;
My Damon is the last to take
The faithful bosom's softest sigh;
The life between is nothing worth,
O! cast it from thy thought away;
Think of the day that gave it birth,
And this its sweet returning day.

"Buried be all that has been done,
Or say that nought is done amiss;
For who the dangerous path can shun
In such bewildering world as this?
But love can every fault forgive,
Or with a tender look reprove;
And now let nought in memory live,
But that we meet, and that we love."

The lines are pretty enough, and may be described as a blend of Tom
Moore and Rogers. A similar lyric, in the story called _The Sisters_,
might have come straight from the pen which has given us "Mine be a cot
beside a hill," and is not so wholly irrelevant to its context as the
one just cited.

Since Crabbe's death in 1832, though he has never been without a small
and loyal band of admirers, no single influence has probably had so much
effect in reviving interest in his poetry as that of Edward FitzGerald,
the translator of Omar Khayyam. FitzGerald was born and lived the
greater part of his life in Suffolk, and Crabbe was a native of
Aldeburgh, and lived in the neighbourhood till he was grown to manhood.
This circumstance alone might not have specially interested FitzGerald
in the poet, but for the fact that the temperament of the two men was
somewhat the same, and that both dwelt naturally on the depressing sides
of human life. But there were other coincidences to create a strong tie
between FitzGerald and the poet's family. When FitzGerald's father went
to live at Boulge Hall, near Woodbridge, in 1835, Crabbe's son George
had recently been presented to the vicarage of the adjoining parish of
Bredfield (FitzGerald's native village), which he continued to hold
until his death in 1857. During these two and twenty years, FitzGerald
and George Crabbe remained on the closest terms of friendship, which was
continued with George Crabbe's son (a third George), who became
ultimately rector of Merton in Norfolk. It was at his house, it will be
remembered, that FitzGerald died suddenly in the summer of 1883. Through
this long association with the family FitzGerald was gradually acquiring
information concerning the poet, which even the son's _Biography_ had
not supplied. Readers of FitzGerald's delightful _Letters_ will remember
that there is no name more constantly referred to than that of Crabbe.
Whether writing to Fanny Kemble, or Frederick Tennyson, or Lowell, he is
constantly quoting him, and recommending him. During the thirty years
that followed Crabbe's death his fame had been on the decline, and poets
of different and greater gifts had taken his place. FitzGerald had
noted this fact with ever-increasing regret, and longed to revive the
taste for a poet of whose merits he had himself no doubt. He discerned
moreover that even those who had read in their youth _The Village_ and
_The Borough_ had been repelled by the length, and perhaps by the
monotonous sadness, of the _Tales of the Hall_. It was for this reason
apparently (and not because he assigned a higher place to the later
poetry than to the earlier) that he was led, after some years of
misgiving, to prepare a volume of selections from this latest work of
Crabbe's which might have the effect of tempting the reader to master it
as a whole. Owing to the length and uniformity of Crabbe's verse, what
was ordinarily called an "anthology" was out of the question. FitzGerald
was restricted to a single method. He found that readers were impatient
of Crabbe's _longueurs_. It occurred to him that while making large
omissions he might preserve the story in each case, by substituting
brief prose abstracts of the portions omitted. This process he applied
to the Tales that pleased him most, leaving what he considered Crabbe's
best passages untouched. As early as 1876 he refers to the selection as
already made, and he printed it for private circulation in 1879.
Finally, in 1882, he added a preface of his own, and published it with
Quaritch in Piccadilly.

In his preface FitzGerald claims for Crabbe's latest work that the net
impression left by it upon the reader is less sombre and painful than
that left by his earlier poems. "It contains," he urges, "scarce
anything of that brutal or sordid villainy of which one has more than
enough in the poet's earlier work." Perhaps there is not so much of the
"brutal or sordid," but then in _The_ _Parish Register_ or _The
Borough_, the reader is in a way prepared for that ingredient, because
the personages are the lawless and neglected poor of a lonely seaport.
It is because, when he moves no longer among these, he yet finds vice
and misery quite as abundant in "a village with its tidy homestead, and
well-to-do tenants, within easy reach of a thriving country-town," that
a certain shock is given to the reader. He discovers that all the evil
passions intrude (like pale Death) into the comfortable villa as
impartially as into the hovels at Aldeburgh. But FitzGerald had found a
sufficient alleviation of the gloom in the framework of the Tales. The
growing affection of the two brothers, as they come to know and
understand each other better, is one of the consistently pleasant
passages in Crabbe's writings. The concluding words of FitzGerald's
preface, as the little volume is out of print and very scarce, I may be
allowed to quote: -

"Is Crabbe then, whatever shape he may take, worth
making room for in our over-crowded heads and libraries?
If the verdict of such critics as Jeffrey and Wilson be set
down to contemporary partiality or inferior 'culture,' there is
Miss Austen, who is now so great an authority in the representation
of genteel humanity, so unaccountably smitten with
Crabbe in his worsted hose that she is said to have pleasantly
declared he was the only man whom she would care to marry.
If Sir Walter Scott and Byron are but unaesthetic judges of the
poet, there is Wordsworth who was sufficiently exclusive in
admitting any to the sacred brotherhood in which he still
reigns, and far too honest to make any exception out of
compliment to any one on any occasion - he did nevertheless
thus write to the poet's son and biographer in 1834: 'Any
testimony to the merit of your revered father's works would,
I feel, be superfluous, if not impertinent. They will last
from their combined merits as poetry and truth, full as long
as anything that has been expressed in verse since they first
made their appearance' - a period which, be it noted, includes
all Wordsworth's own volumes except _Yarrow Revisited_, _The
Prelude_, and _The Borderers_. And Wordsworth's living successor
to the laurel no less participates with him in his
appreciation of their forgotten brother. Almost the last time
I met him he was quoting from memory that fine passage in
_Delay has Danger_, where the late autumn landscape seems to
borrow from the conscience-stricken lover who gazes on it the
gloom which it reflects upon him; and in the course of further
conversation on the subject Mr. Tennyson added, 'Crabbe has
a world of his own'; by virtue of that original genius, I
suppose, which is said to entitle and carry the possessor to
what we call immortality."

Besides the stories selected for abridgment in the volume there were
passages, from Tales not there included, which FitzGerald was never
weary of citing in his letters, to show his friends how true a poet was
lying neglected of men. One he specially loved is the description of an
autumn day in _The Maid's Story_: -

"There was a day, ere yet the autumn closed,
When, ere her wintry wars, the earth reposed;
When from the yellow weed the feathery crown,
Light as the curling smoke, fell slowly down;
When the winged insect settled in our sight,
And waited wind to recommence her flight;
When the wide river was a silver sheet,
And on the ocean slept th' unanchor'd fleet,
When from our garden, as we looked above,
There was no cloud, and nothing seemed to move."

Another passage, also in Crabbe's sweeter vein, forms the conclusion of

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Online LibraryAlfred AingerEnglish Men of Letters: Crabbe → online text (page 12 of 14)