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English Men of Letters: Crabbe online

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the whole poem. It is where the elder brother hands over to the younger
the country house that is to form the future home of his
wife and children: -

"It is thy wife's, and will thy children's be,
Earth, wood, and water! all for thine and thee.
* * * * *
There wilt thou soon thy own Matilda view,
She knows our deed, and she approves it too;
Before her all our views and plans were laid,
And Jacques was there to explain and to persuade.
Here on this lawn thy boys and girls shall run,
And play their gambols when their tasks are done,
There, from that window shall their mother view
The happy tribe, and smile at all they do;
While thou, more gravely, hiding thy delight
Shalt cry, 'O! childish!' and enjoy the sight."

FitzGerald's selections are made with the skill and judgment we should
expect from a critic of so fine a taste, but it may be doubted whether
any degree of skill could have quite atoned for one radical flaw in his
method. He seems to have had his own misgivings as to whether he was
not, by that method, giving up one real secret of Crabbe's power. After
quoting Sir Leslie Stephen's most true remark that "with all its
short-and long-comings Crabbe's better work leaves its mark on the
reader's mind and memory as only the work of genius can, while so many a
more splendid vision of the fancy slips away, leaving scarce a mark
behind." FitzGerald adds: "If this abiding impression result (as perhaps
in the case of Richardson or Wordsworth) from being, as it were, soaked
in through the longer process by which the man's peculiar genius works,
any abridgement, whether of omission or epitome, will diminish from the
effect of the whole." FitzGerald is unquestionably in sight of a truth
here. The parallel with Wordsworth is indeed not exact, for the best of
Wordsworth's poetry neither requires nor admits of condensation. _The
Excursion_ might benefit by omission and compression, but not _The
Solitary Reaper_, nor _The Daffodils_. But the example of Richardson is
fairly in point. Abridgments of _Clarissa Harlowe_ have been attempted,
but probably without any effect on the number of its readers. The power
of Richardson's method does actually lie in the "soaking process" to
which FitzGerald refers. Nor is it otherwise with Crabbe. The
fascination which his readers find in him - readers not perhaps found in
the ranks of those who prefer their poetry on "hand-made paper" - is
really the result of the slow and patient dissection of motive and
temptation, the workings of conscience, the gradual development of
character. These processes are slow, and Crabbe's method of presenting
them is slow, but he attains his end. A distinction has lately been
drawn between "literary Poetry," and "Poetry which is Literature."
Crabbe's is rarely indeed that of the former class. It cannot be denied
that it has taken its place in the latter.

The apology for Crabbe's lengthiness might almost be extended to the
singular inequalities of his verse. FitzGerald joins all other critics
in regretting his carelessness, and indeed the charge can hardly be
called harsh. A poet who habitually insists on producing thirty lines a
day, whether or no the muse is willing, can hardly escape temptations to
carelessness. Crabbe's friends and other contemporaries noted it, and
expressed surprise at the absence in Crabbe of the artistic conscience.
Wordsworth spoke to him on the subject, and ventured to express regret
that he did not take more pains with the workmanship of his verse, and
reports that Crabbe's only answer was "it does not matter." Samuel
Rogers had related to Wordsworth a similar experience. "Mr. Rogers once
told me that he expressed his regret to Crabbe that he wrote in his
later works so much less correctly than in his earlier. 'Yes,' replied
he, 'but then I had a reputation to make; now I can afford to relax.'"
This is of course very sad, and, as has already been urged, Crabbe's
earlier works had the advantage of much criticism, and even correction
from his friends. But however this may be, it may fairly be urged that
in a "downright" painter of human life, with that passion for realism
which Crabbe was one of the first to bring back into our literature,
mere "polish" would have hindered, not helped, the effects he was bent
on producing. It is difficult in polishing the heroic couplet not to
produce the impression of seeking epigrammatic point. In Crabbe's
strenuous and merciless analyses of human character his power would have
been often weakened, had attention been diverted from the whole to the
parts, and from the matter to the manner. The "finish" of Gray,
Goldsmith, and Rogers suited exquisitely with their pensive musings on
Human Life. It was otherwise with the stern presentment of such stories
of human sin and misery as _Edward Shore_ or _Delay has Danger._




CHAPTER XI


LAST YEARS AT TROWBRIDGE

(1819-1832)

The last thirteen years of Crabbe's life were spent at Trowbridge,
varied by occasional absences among hiss friends at Bath, and in the
neighbourhood, and by annual visits of greater length to the family of
Samuel Hoare at Hampstead. Meantime his son John was resident with him
at Trowbridge, and the parish and parishioners were not neglected. From
Mrs. Hoare's house on Hampstead Heath it was not difficult to visit his
literary friends in London; and Wordsworth, Southey, and others,
occasionally stayed with the family. But as early as 1820, Crabbe became
subject to frequent severe attacks of neuralgia (then called _tic
douloureux_), and this malady, together with the gradual approach of old
age, made him less and less able to face the fatigue of London
hospitalities.

Notwithstanding his failing health, and not infrequent absence from his
parish - for he occasionally visited the Isle of Wight, Hastings, and
other watering-places with his Hampstead friends - Crabbe was living down
at Trowbridge much of the unpopularity with which he had started. The
people were beginning to discover what sterling qualities of heart
existed side by side with defects of tact and temper, and the lack of
sympathy with certain sides of evangelical teaching. His son tells us,
and may be trusted, that his father's personal piety deepened in his
declining years, an influence which could not be ineffectual. Children,
moreover, were growing up in the family, and proved a new source of
interest and happiness. Pucklechurch. was not far away, and his son
George's eldest girl, Caroline, as she approached her fourth birthday,
began to receive from him the tenderest of letters.

The most important incident in Crabbe's life during this period was his
visit to Walter Scott in Edinburgh in the early autumn of 1822. In the
spring of that year, Crabbe had for the first time met Scott in London,
and Scott had obtained from him a promise that he would visit him in
Scotland in the autumn. It so fell out that George the Fourth, who had
been crowned in the previous year, and was paying a series of Coronation
progresses through his dominions, had arranged to visit Edinburgh in the
August of this year. Whether Crabbe deliberately chose the same period
for his own visit, or stumbled on it accidentally, and Scott did not
care to disappoint his proposed guest, is not made quite clear by
Crabbe's biographer. Scott had to move with all his family to his house
in Edinburgh for the great occasion, and he would no doubt have much
preferred to receive Crabbe at Abbotsford. Moreover, it fell to Scott,
as the most distinguished man of letters and archaeologist in Edinburgh,
to organise all the ceremonies and the festivities necessary for the
King's reception. In Lockhart's phrase, Scott stage-managed the whole
business. And it was on Scott's return from receiving the King on board
the Royal yacht on the 14th of August that he found awaiting him in
Castle Street one who must have been an inconvenient guest. The
incidents of this first meeting are so charmingly related by Lockhart
that I cannot resist repeating them in his words, well known though they
may be: -

"On receiving the poet on the quarter-deck, his Majesty
called for a bottle of Highland whisky, and having drunk his
health in this national liquor, desired a glass to be filled for
him. Sir Walter, after draining his own bumper, made a
request that the king would condescend to bestow on him the
glass out of which his Majesty had just drunk his health: and
this being granted, the precious vessel was immediately
wrapped up and carefully deposited in what he conceived to
be the safest part of his dress. So he returned with it to
Castle Street; but - to say nothing at this moment of graver
distractions - on reading his house he found a guest established
there of a sort rather different from the usual visitors
of the time. The Poet Crabbe, to whom he had been introduced
when last in London by Mr. Murray of Albemarle
Street, after repeatedly promising to follow up the acquaintance
by an excursion to the North, had at last arrived in the
midst of these tumultuous preparations for the royal advent.
Notwithstanding all such impediments, he found his quarters
ready for him, and Scott entering, wet and hurried, embraced
the venerable man with brotherly affection. The royal gift
was forgotten - the ample skirt of the coat within which it had
been packed, and which he had hitherto held cautiously in
front of his person, slipped back to its more usual position - he
sat down beside Crabbe, and the glass was crushed to
atoms. His scream and gesture made his wife conclude that
he had sat down on a pair of scissors, or the like: but very
little harm had been done except the breaking of the glass, of
which alone he had been thinking. This was a damage not to
be repaired: as for the scratch that accompanied it, its scar
was of no great consequence, as even when mounting the
'cat-dath, or battle-garment' of the Celtic Club, he adhered,
like his hero, Waverley, to _the trews_."

What follows in Lockhart's pages is also too interesting, as regards
Scott's visitor himself, to be omitted. The Highland clans, or what
remained of them, were represented on the occasion, and added greatly to
the picturesqueness of the procession and other pageantry. And this is
what occurred on the morning after the meeting of Scott and his guest: -

"By six o'clock next morning Sir Walter, arrayed in the
'Garb of old Gaul,' (which he had of the Campbell tartan, in
memory of one of his great-grandmothers) was attending a
muster of these gallant Celts in the Queen Street Gardens,
where he had the honour of presenting them with it set of
colours, and delivered a suitable exhortation, crowned with
their rapturous applause. Some members of the Club, all of
course in their full costume, were invited to breakfast with
him. He had previously retired for a little to his library, and
when he entered the parlour, Mr. Crabbe, dressed in the
highest style of professional neatness and decorum, with
buckles in his shoes, and whatever was then befitting an
English clergyman of his years and station, was standing in
the midst of half-a-dozen stalwart Highlanders, exchanging
elaborate civilities with them in what was at least meant to
be French. He had come into the room shortly before, without
having been warned about such company, and hearing the
party conversing together in an unknown tongue, the polite
old man had adopted, in his first salutation, what he considered
as the universal language. Some of the Celts, on their
part, took him for some foreign Abbé or Bishop, and were
doing their best to explain to him that they were not the
wild savages for which, from the startled glance he had thrown
on their hirsute proportions, there seemed but too much reason
to suspect he had taken them; others, more perspicacious,
gave in to the thing for the joke's sake; and there was high
fun when Scott dissolved the charm of their stammering, by
grasping Crabbe with one hand, and the nearest of these
figures with the other, and greeted the whole group with the
same hearty _good-morning_."

In spite, however, of banquets (at one of which Crabbe was present) and
other constant calls upon his host's time and labour, the southern poet
contrived to enjoy himself. He wandered into the oldest parts of
Edinburgh, and Scott obtained for him the services of a friendly caddie
to accompany him on some of these occasions lest the old parson should
come to any harm. Lockhart, who was of the party in Castle Street, was
very attentive to Scott's visitor, Crabbe had but few opportunities of
seeing Scott alone. "They had," writes Lockhart, "but one quiet walk
together, and it was to the ruins of St. Anthony's Chapel and Mushat's
Cairn, which the deep impression made on Crabbe by _The Heart of
Midlothian_ had given him an earnest wish to see. I accompanied them;
and the hour so spent - in the course of which the fine old man gave us
some most touching anecdotes of his early struggles - was a truly
delightful contrast to the bustle and worry of miscellaneous society
which consumed so many of his few hours in Scotland. Scott's family were
more fortunate than himself in this respect. They had from infancy been
taught to reverence Crabbe's genius, and they now saw enough of him to
make them think of him ever afterwards with tender affection."

Yet one more trait of Scott's interest in his guest should not be
omitted. The strain upon Scott's strength of the King's visit was made
more severe by the death during that fortnight of Scott's old and dear
friend, William Erskine, only a few months before elevated to the bench,
with the title of Lord Kinedder. Erskine had been irrecoverably wounded
by the circulation of a cruel and unfounded slander upon his moral
character. It so preyed on his mind that its effect was, in Scott's
words, to "torture to death one of the most soft-hearted and sensitive
of God's creatures." On the very day of the King's arrival he died,
after high fever and delirium had set in, and his funeral, which Scott
attended, followed in due course. "I am not aware," says Lockhart, "that
I ever saw Scott in such a state of dejection as he was when I
accompanied him and his friend Mr. Thomas Thomson from Edinburgh to
Queensferry in attendance upon Lord Kinedder's funeral. Yet that was one
of the noisiest days of the royal festival, and he had to plunge into
some scene of high gaiety the moment after we returned. As we halted in
Castle Street, Mr. Crabbe's mild, thoughtful face appeared at the
window, and Scott said, on leaving me, 'Now for what our old friend
there puts down as the crowning curse of his poor player in _The
Borough_: -

"To hide in rant the heart-ache of the night."'"

There is pathos in the recollection that just ten years later when Scott
lay in his study at Abbotsford - the strength of that noble mind slowly
ebbing away - the very passage in _The Borough_ just quoted was one of
those he asked to have read to him. It is the graphic and touching
account in Letter XII. of the "Strolling Players," and as the
description of their struggles and their squalor fell afresh upon his
ear, his own excursions into matters theatrical recurred to him, and he
murmured smiling, "Ah! Terry won't like that! Terry won't like that!!"

The same year Crabbe was invited to spend Christmas at his old home,
Belvoir Castle, but felt unable to face the fatigue in wintry weather.
Meantime, among other occupations at home, he was finding time to write
verse copiously. Twenty-one manuscript volumes were left behind him at
his death. He seems to have said little about it at home, for his son
tells us that in the last year of his father's life he learned for the
first time that another volume of Tales was all but ready for the press.
"There are in my recess at home," he writes to George, "where they have
been long undisturbed, another series of such stories, in number and
quantity sufficient for another octavo volume; and as I suppose they are
much like the former in execution, and sufficiently different in events
and characters, they may hereafter, in peaceable times, be worth
something to you." A selection from those formed the _Posthumous Poems_,
first given to the world in the edition of 1834. The _Tales of the
Hall_, it may be supposed, had not quite justified the publisher's
expectations. John Murray had sought to revive interest in the whole
bulk of Crabbe's poetry, of which he now possessed the copyright, by
commissioning Richard Westall, R.A., to produce a series of
illustrations of the poems, thirty-one in number, engravings of which
were sold in sets at two guineas. The original drawings, in delicate
water-colour, in the present Mr. John Murray's possession, are
sufficiently grim. The engravings, lacking the relief of colour, are
even more so, and a rapid survey of the entire series amply shows how
largely in Crabbe's subjects bulks the element of human misery. Crabbe
was much flattered by this new tribute to his reputation, and dwells on
it in one of his letters to Mrs. Leadbeater.

A letter written from Mrs. Hoare's house at Hampstead in June 1825
presents an agreeable picture of his holiday enjoyments: -

"My time passes I cannot tell how pleasantly when the
pain leaves me. To-day I read one of my long stories to my
friends and Mrs. Joanna Baillie and her sister. It was a task;
but they encouraged me, and were, or seemed, gratified. I
rhyme at Hampstead with a great deal of facility, for nothing
interrupts me but kind calls to something pleasant; and
though all this makes parting painful, it will, I hope, make
me resolute to enter upon my duties diligently when I return.
I am too much indulged. Except a return of pain, and that
not severe, I have good health; and if my walks are not so
long, they are more frequent. I have seen many things and
many people; have seen Mr. Southey and Mr. Wordsworth;
have been some days with Mr. Rogers, and at last have been
at the Athenaeum, and purpose to visit the Royal Institution.
I have been to Richmond in a steamboat; seen also the
picture-galleries and some other exhibitions; but I passed one
Sunday in London with discontent, doing no duty myself, nor
listening to another; and I hope my uneasiness proceeded not
merely from breaking a habit. We had a dinner social and
pleasant, if the hours before it had been rightly spent; but I
would not willingly pass another Sunday in the same manner.
I have my home with my friends here (Mrs. Hoare's), and
exchange it with reluctance for the Hummums occasionally.
Such is the state of the garden here, in which I walk and read,
that, in a morning like this, the smell of the flowers is
fragrant beyond anything I ever perceived before. It is
what I can suppose may be in Persia or other oriental
countries - a Paradisiacal sweetness. I am told that I or my
verses, or perhaps both, have abuse in a boot of Mr. Colburn's
publishing, called _The Spirit of the Times_. I believe I felt
something indignant; but my engraved seal dropped out of
the socket and was lost, and I perceived this moved me much
more than the _Spirit_ of Mr. Hazlitt."

The reference is, of course, to Hazlitt's _Spirit of the Age_, then
lately published In reviewing the poetry of his day Hazlitt has a
chapter devoted to Campbell and Crabbe. The criticism on the latter is
little more than a greatly over-drawn picture of Crabbe's choice of
vice and misery for his subjects, and ignores entirely any other side of
his genius, ending with the remark that he would long be "a thorn in the
side of English poetry." Crabbe was wise in not attaching too much
importance to Hazlitt's attack.

Joanna Baillie and her sister Agnes, mentioned in the letter just cited,
saw much of Crabbe during his visits to Hampstead. A letter from Joanna
to the younger George speaks, as do all his friends, of his growing
kindliness and courtesy, but notes how often, in the matter of judging
his fellow-creatures, his head and his heart were in antagonism. While
at times Joanna was surprised and provoked by the charitable allowances
the old parson made for the unworthy, at other times she noted also that
she would hear him, when acts of others were the subject of praise,
suggesting, "in a low voice as to himself," the possible mixture of less
generous motives. The analytical method was clearly dominant in Crabbe
always, and not merely when he wrote his poetry, and is itself the clue
to much in his treatment of human nature.

Of Crabbe's simplicity and unworldliness in other matters Miss Baillie
furnishes an amusing instance. She writes: -

"While he was staying with Mrs. Hoare a few years since
I sent him one day the present of a blackcock, and a message
with it that Mr. Crabbe should look at the bird before it was
delivered to the cook, or something to that purpose. He
looked at the bird as desired, and then went to Mrs. Hoare in
some perplexity to ask whether he ought not to have it
stuffed, instead of eating it. She could not, in her own house,
tell him that it was simply intended for the larder, and he
was at the trouble and expense of having it stuffed, lest I
should think proper respect had not been put upon my
present."

Altogether the picture presented in these last years of Crabbe's
personality is that of a pious and benevolent old man, endearing himself
to old and new friends, and with manners somewhat formal and overdone,
representing perhaps what in his humbler Aldeburgh days he had imagined
to be those of the upper circles, rather than what he had found them to
be in his prosperous later days in London.

In the autumn of 1831 he was visiting his faithful and devoted friends,
the Samuel Hoares, at their residence in Clifton. The house was
apparently in Princes Buildings, or in the Paragon, for the poet
describes accurately the scene that meets the eye from the back-windows
of those pleasant streets: -

"I have to thank my friends for one of the most beautiful
as well as comfortable rooms you could desire. I look from
my window upon the Avon and its wooded and rocky bounds - the
trees yet green. A vessel is sailing down, and here comes
a steamer (Irish, I suppose). I have in view the end of the Cliff
to the right, and on my left a wide and varied prospect over
Bristol, as far as the eye can reach, and at present the novelty
makes it very interesting. Clifton was always a favourite
place with me. I have more strength and more spirits since
my arrival at this place, and do not despair of giving a good
account of my excursion on my return."

It is noteworthy that Crabbe, who as a young man witnessed the Lord
George Gordon Riots of 1780, should, fifty years later, have been in
Bristol during the disgraceful Reform Bill Rising of 1831, which,
through the cowardice or connivance of the government of the day, went
on unchecked to work such disastrous results to life and property. On
October the 26th he writes to his son: -

"I have been with Mrs. Hoare at Bristol, where all appears
still. Should anything arise to alarm, you may rely upon our
care to avoid danger. Sir Charles Wetherell, to be sure, is
not popular, nor is the Bishop, but I trust that both will be
safe from violence - abuse they will not mind. The Bishop
seems a good-humoured man, and, except by the populace, is
greatly admired."

A few days later, however, he has to record that his views of the
situation were not to be fulfilled. He writes: -

"Bristol, I suppose, never in the most turbulent times of
old, witnessed such outrage. Queen's Square is but half
standing; half is a smoking ruin. As you may be apprehensive
for my safety, it is right to let you know that my friends
and I are undisturbed, except by our fears for the progress of
this mob-government, which is already somewhat broken into
parties, who wander stupidly about, or sleep wherever they
fall wearied with their work and their indulgence. The
military are now in considerable force, and many men are
sworn in as constables; many volunteers are met in Clifton
Churchyard, with white round one arm to distinguish them,
some with guns and the rest with bludgeons. The Mayor's
house has been destroyed; the Bishop's palace plundered,
but whether burned or not I do not know. This morning a
party of soldiers attacked the crowd in the Square; some lives
were lost, and the mob dispersed, whether to meet again is


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Online LibraryAlfred AingerEnglish Men of Letters: Crabbe → online text (page 13 of 14)