Alfred Ainger.

English Men of Letters: Crabbe online

. (page 6 of 14)
Online LibraryAlfred AingerEnglish Men of Letters: Crabbe → online text (page 6 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

side of English country-life that Crabbe, when he once more addressed
the public in verse, turned to the less sunny memories of his youth for
inspiration. It was not till some years after the appearance of _The
Parish Register_ and _The Borough_ that the pleasant paths of inland
Suffolk and of the Vale of Belvoir formed the background to his studies
in human character.

Meantime Crabbe was perpetually writing, and as constantly destroying
what he wrote. His small flock at Great and Little Glemham employed part
of his time; the education of his two sons, who were now withdrawn from
school, occupied some more; and a wife in failing health was certainly
not neglected. But the busy husband and father found time to teach
himself something of French and Italian, and read aloud to his family of
an evening as many books of travel and of fiction as his friends would
keep him supplied with. He was preparing at the same time a treatise on
botany, which was never to see the light; and during "one or two of his
winters in Suffolk," his son relates, "he gave most of his evening hours
to the writing of novels, and he brought not less than three such works
to a conclusion. The first was entitled 'The Widow Grey,' but I
recollect nothing of it except that the principal character was a
benevolent humorist, a Dr. Allison. The next was called 'Reginald
Glanshaw, or the Man who commanded Success,' a portrait of an assuming,
over-bearing, ambitious mind, rendered interesting by some generous
virtues, and gradually wearing down into idiotism. I cannot help
thinking that this Glanshaw was drawn with very extraordinary power; but
the story was not well managed in the details I forget the title of his
third novel; but I clearly remember that it opened with a description of
a wretched room, similar to some that are presented in his poetry, and
that on my mother's telling him frankly that she thought the effect very
inferior to that of the corresponding pieces in verse, he paused in his
reading, and after some reflection, said, 'Your remark is just.'"

Mrs. Crabbe's remark was probably very just. Although her husband had
many qualifications for writing prose fiction - insight into and
appreciation of character, combined with much tragic force and a real
gift for description - there is reason to think that he would have been
stilted and artificial in dialogue, and altogether wanting in lightness
of hand. Crabbe acquiesced in his wife's decision, and the novels were
cremated without a murmur. A somewhat similar fate attended a set of
Tales in Verse which, in the year 1799, Crabbe was about to offer to Mr.
Hatchard, the publisher, when he wisely took the opinion of his rector
at Sweffling, then resident at Yarmouth, the Rev. Richard Turner[3].
This gentleman, whose opinion Crabbe greatly valued, advised _revision_,
and Crabbe accepted the verdict as the reverse of encouraging. The Tales
were never published, and Crabbe again deferred his reappearance in
print for a period of eight years. Meantime he applied himself to the
leisurely composition of the _Parish Register_, which extended, together
with that of some shorter poems, over the period just named.

In the last years of the eighteenth century there was a sudden awakening
among the bishops to the growing abuse of non-residence and pluralities
on the part of the clergy. One prelate of distinction devoted his
triennial charge to the subject, and a general "stiffening" of episcopal
good nature set in all round. The Bishop of Lincoln addressed Crabbe,
with others of his delinquent clergy, and intimated to him very
distinctly the duty of returning to those few sheep in the wilderness at
Muston and Allington. Crabbe, in much distress, applied to his friend
Dudley North to use influence on his behalf to obtain extension of
leave. But the bishop, Dr. Pretyman (Pitt's tutor and friend - better
known by the name he afterwards adopted of Tomlins) would not yield, and
it was probably owing to pressure from some different quarter that
Crabbe succeeded in obtaining leave of absence for four years longer.
Dudley North would fain have solved the problem by giving Crabbe one or
more of the livings in his own gift in Suffolk, but none of adequate
value was vacant at the time. Meanwhile, the house rented by Crabbe,
Great Glemham Hall, was sold over Crabbe's head, by family arrangements
in the North family, and he made his last move while in Suffolk, by
taking a house in the neighbouring village of Rendham, where he remained
during his last four years. Crabbe was looking forward to his elder
son's going up to Cambridge in 1803, and this formed an additional
reason for wishing to remain as long as might be in the eastern

The writing of poetry seems to have gone on apace. _The Parish Register_
was all but completed while at Rendham, and _The Borough_ was also
begun. After so long an abstinence from the glory of print, Crabbe at
last found the required stimulus to ambition in the need of some further
income for his two sons' education. But during the last winter of his
residence at Rendham (1804-1805), Crabbe produced a poem, in stanzas, of
very different character and calibre from anything he had yet written,
and as to the origin of which one must go back to some previous
incidents in Crabbe's history. His son is always lax as to dates, and
often just at those periods when they would be the most welcome. It may
be inferred, however, that at some date between 1790 and 1792 Crabbe
suffered from serious derangements of his digestion, attended by sudden
and acute attacks of vertigo. The passage in the memoir as to the exact
period is more than usually vague. The writer is dealing with the year
1800, and he proceeds:

"My father, now about his forty-sixth year, was much
more stout and healthy than when I first remember him.
Soon after that early period he became subject to vertigoes,
which he thought indicative of a tendency to apoplexy; and
was occasionally bled rather profusely, which only increased
the symptoms. When he preached his first sermon at Muston
in the year 1789 my mother foreboded, as she afterwards told
us, that he would preach very few more: but it was on one
of his early journeys into Suffolk, in passing through Ipswich,
that he had the most alarming attack."

This account of matters is rather mixed. The "early period" pointed to
by young Crabbe is that at which he himself first had distinct
recollection of his father, and his doings. Putting that age at six
years old, the year would be 1791; and it may be inferred that as the
whole family paid a visit of many months to Suffolk in the year 1790, it
was during that visit that he had the decisive attack in the streets of
Ipswich. The account may be continued in the son's own words: -

"Having left my mother at the inn, he walked into the
town alone, and suddenly staggered in the street, and fell.
He was lifted up by the passengers" (probably from the stagecoach
from which they had just alighted), "and overheard
some one say significantly, 'Let the gentleman alone, he will
be better by and by'; for his fall was attributed to the
bottle. He was assisted to his room, and the late Dr. Clubbe
was sent for, who, after a little examination, saw through the
case with great judgment. 'There is nothing the matter with
your head,' he observed, 'nor any apoplectic tendency; let
the digestive organs bear the whole blame: you must take
opiates.' From that time his health began to amend rapidly,
and his constitution was renovated; a rare effect of opium,
for that drug almost always inflicts some partial injury, even
when it is necessary; but to him it was only salutary - and
to a constant but slightly increasing dose of it may be attributed
his long and generally healthy life."

The son makes no reference to any possible effects of this "slightly
increasing dose" upon his father's intellect or imagination. And the
ordinary reader who knows the poet mainly through his sober couplets may
well be surprised to hear that their author was ever addicted to the
opium-habit; still more, that his imagination ever owed anything to its
stimulus. But in FitzGerald's copy there is a MS. note, not signed
"G.C.," and therefore FitzGerald's own. It runs thus: "It" (the opium)
"probably influenced his dreams, for better or worse" To this FitzGerald
significantly adds, "see also the _World of Dreams_, and _Sir Eustace

As Crabbe is practically unknown to the readers of the present day, _Sir
Eustace Grey_ will be hardly even a name to them. For it lies, with two
or three other noticeable poems, quite out of the familiar track of his
narrative verse. In the first place it is in stanzas, and what Browning
would have classed as a "Dramatic Lyric." The subject is as follows: The
scene "a Madhouse," and the persons a Visitor, a Physician, and a
Patient. The visitor has been shown over the establishment, and is on
the point of departing weary and depressed at the sight of so much
misery, when the physician begs him to stay as they come in sight of the
"cell" of a specially interesting patient, Sir Eustace Grey, late of
Greyling Hall. Sir Eustace greets them as they approach, plunges at once
into monologue, and relates (with occasional warnings from the doctor
against over-excitement) the sad story of his misfortunes and consequent
loss of reason. He begins with a description of his happier days: -

"Some twenty years, I think, are gone
(Time flies, I know not how, away),
The sun upon no happier shone
Nor prouder man, than Eustace Grey.
Ask where you would, and all would say,
The man admired and praised of all,
By rich and poor, by grave and gay,
Was the young lord of Greyling Hall.

"Yes! I had youth and rosy health,
Was nobly formed, as man might be;
For sickness, then, of all my wealth,
I never gave a single fee:
The ladies fair, the maidens free.
Were all accustomed then to say,
Who would a handsome figure see,
Should look upon Sir Eustace Grey.

"My lady I - She was all we love;
All praise, to speak her worth, is faint;
Her manners show'd the yielding dove,
Her morals, the seraphic saint:
She never breathed nor looked complaint;
No equal upon earth had she:
Now, what is this fair thing I paint?
Alas! as all that live shall be.

"There were two cherub-things beside,
A gracious girl, a glorious boy;
Yet more to swell my fall-blown pride,
To varnish higher my fading joy,
Pleasures were ours without alloy,
Nay, Paradise, - till my frail Eve
Our bliss was tempted to destroy -
Deceived, and fated to deceive.

"But I deserved; - for all that time
When I was loved, admired, caressed,
There was within each secret crime,
Unfelt, uncancelled, unconfessed:
I never then my God addressed,
In grateful praise or humble prayer;
And if His Word was not my jest -
(Dread thought!) it never was my care."

The misfortunes of the unhappy man proceed apace, and blow follows blow.
He is unthankful for his blessings, and Heaven's vengeance descends on
him. His wife proves faithless, and he kills her betrayer, once his
trusted friend. The wretched woman pines and dies, and the two children
take some infectious disease and quickly follow. The sufferer turns to
his wealth and his ambitions to drug his memory. But "walking in pride,"
he is to be still further "abased." The "Watcher and the Holy One" that
visited Nebuchadnezzar come to Sir Eustace in vision and pronounce his

"Full be his cup, with evil fraught -
Demons his guides, and death his doom."

Two fiends of darkness are told off to tempt him. One, presumably the
Spirit of Gambling, robs him of his wealth, while the Spirit of Mania
takes from him his reason, and drags him through a hell of horriblest
imaginings. And it is at this point that what has been called the
"dream-scenery" of the opium-eater is reproduced in a series of very
remarkable stanzas:

Upon that boundless plain, below,
The setting sun's last rays were shed,
And gave a mild and sober glow,
Where all were still, asleep, or dead;
Vast ruins in the midst were spread,
Pillars and pediments sublime,
Where the grey moss had form'd a bed,
And clothed the crumbling spoils of time.

"There was I fix'd, I know not how,
Condemn'd for untold years to stay:
Yet years were not; - one dreadful _Now_
Endured no change of night or day;
The same mild evening's sleepy ray
Shone softly-solemn and serene,
And all that time I gazed away,
The setting sun's sad rays were seen.

"At length a moment's sleep stole on, -
Again came my commission'd foes;
Again through sea and land we're gone,
No peace, no respite, no repose:
Above the dark broad sea we rose,
We ran through bleak and frozen land;
I had no strength their strength t' oppose,
An infant in a giant's hand.

"They placed me where those streamers play,
Those nimble beams of brilliant light;
It would the stoutest heart dismay,
To see, to feel, that dreadful sight:
So swift, so pure, so cold, so bright,
They pierced my frame with icy wound;
And all that half-year's polar night,
Those dancing streamers wrapp'd me round

"Slowly that darkness pass'd away,
When down, upon the earth I fell, -
Some hurried sleep was mine by day;
But, soon as toll'd the evening bell,
They forced me on, where ever dwell
Far-distant men in cities fair,
Cities of whom no travellers tell,
Nor feet but mine were wanderers there

"Their watchmen stare, and stand aghast,
As on we hurry through the dark;
The watch-light blinks as we go past,
The watch-dog shrinks and fears to bark;
The watch-tower's bell sounds shrill; and, hark!
The free wind blows - we've left the town -
A wide sepulchral ground I mark,
And on a tombstone place me down.

"What monuments of mighty dead!
What tombs of various kind are found!
And stones erect their shadows shed
On humble graves, with wickers bound;
Some risen fresh, above the ground,
Some level with the native clay:
What sleeping millions wait the sound,
'Arise, ye dead, and come away!'

Alas! they stay not for that call;
Spare me this woe! ye demons, spare! -
They come! the shrouded shadows all, -
'Tis more than mortal brain can bear;
Rustling they rise, they sternly glare
At man upheld by vital breath;
Who, led by wicked fiends, should dare
To join the shadowy troops of death!"

For about fifteen stanzas this power of wild imaginings is sustained,
and, it must be admitted, at a high level as regards diction. The reader
will note first how the impetuous flow of those visionary recollections
generates a style in the main so lofty and so strong. The poetic diction
of the eighteenth century, against which Wordsworth made his famous
protest, is entirely absent. Then again, the eight-line stanza is
something quite different from a mere aggregate of quatrains arranged in
pairs. The lines are knit together; sonnet-fashion, by the device of
interlacing the rhymes, the second, fourth, fifth, and seventh lines
rhyming. And it is singularly effective for its purpose, that of
avoiding the suggestion of a mere ballad-measure, and carrying on the
descriptive action with as little interruption as might be.

The similarity of the illusions, here attributed to insanity, to those
described by De Quincey as the result of opium, is too marked to be
accidental. In the concluding pages of his _Confessions_, De Quincey
writes: "The sense of space, and in the end the sense of time, were
both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, etc., were exhibited in
proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive ... This
disturbed me very much less than the vast expansion of time. Sometimes I
seemed to have lived for seventy or a hundred years in one night."

Compare Crabbe's sufferer: -

"There was I fix'd, I know not how,
Condemn'd for untold years to stay
Yet years were not; - one dreadful _Now_
Endured no change of night or day."

Again, the rapid transition from one distant land to another, from the
Pole to the Tropics, is common to both experiences. The "ill-favoured
ones" who are charged with Sir Eustace's expiation fix him at one moment

" - on the trembling ball
That crowns the steeple's quiv'ring spire"

just as the Opium-Fiend fixes De Quincey for centuries at the summit of
Pagodas. Sir Eustace is accused of sins he had never committed: -

"Harmless I was: yet hunted down
For treasons to my soul unfit;
I've been pursued through many a town
For crimes that petty knaves commit."

Even so the opium-eater imagines himself flying from the wrath of
Oriental Deities. "I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a
deed, they said, which the Ibis and the Crocodile trembled at." The
morbid inspiration is clearly the same in both cases, and there can be
little doubt that Crabbe's poem owes its inception to opium, and that
the frame work was devised by him for the utilisation of his dreams.

But a curious and unexpected _dénouement_ awaits the reader. When Sir
Eustace's condition, as he describes it, seems most hopeless, its
alleviation arrives through a religious conversion. There has been
throughout present to him the conscience of "a soul defiled with every
stain." And at the same moment, under circumstances unexplained, his
spiritual ear is purged to hear a "Heavenly Teacher." The voice takes
the form of the touching and effective hymn, which has doubtless found a
place since in many an evangelical hymn-book, beginning

"Pilgrim, burthen'd with thy sin,
Come the way to Zion's gate;
There, till Mercy let thee in,
Knock and weep, and watch and wait.
Knock! - He knows the sinner's cry.
Weep! - He loves the mourner's tears.
Watch! - for saving grace is nigh
Wait, - till heavenly light appears."

And the hymn is followed by the pathetic confession on the sufferer's
part that this blessed experience, though it has brought him the
assurance of heavenly forgiveness, still leaves him, "though elect,"
looking sadly back on his old prosperity, and bearing, but unresigned,
the prospect of an old ago spent amid his present gloomy surroundings.
And yet Crabbe, with a touch of real imaginative insight, represents him
in his final utterance as relapsing into a vague hope of some day being
restored to his old prosperity:

"Must you, my friends, no longer stay?
Thus quickly all my pleasures end;
But I'll remember, when I pray,
My kind physician and his friend:

And those sad hours you deign to spend
With me, I shall requite them all.
Sir Eustace for his friends shall send,
And thank their love at Greyling Hall."[4]

The kind physician and his friend then proceed to diagnose the patient's
condition - which they agree is that of "a frenzied child of grace," and
so the poem ends. To one of its last stanzas Crabbe attached an
apologetic note, one of the most remarkable ever penned. It exhibits the
struggle that at that period must have been proceeding in many a
thoughtful breast as to how the new wine of religion could be somehow
accommodated to the old bottles: -

"It has been suggested to me that this change from restlessness to
repose in the mind of Sir Eustace is wrought by a methodistic call; and
it is admitted to be such: a sober and rational conversion could not
have happened while the disorder of the brain continued; yet the verses
which follow, in a different measure," (Crabbe refers to the hymn) "are
not intended to make any religious persuasion appear ridiculous; they
are to be supposed as the effect of memory in the disordered mind of the
speaker, and though evidently enthusiastic in respect to language, are
not meant to convey any impropriety of sentiment."

The implied suggestion (for it comes to this) that the sentiments of
this devotional hymn, written by Crabbe himself, could only have brought
comfort to the soul of a lunatic, is surely as good a proof as the
period could produce of the bewilderment in the Anglican mind caused by
the revival of personal religion under Wesley and his followers.

According to Crabbe's son _Sir Eustace Grey_ was written at Muston in
the winter of 1804-1805. This is scarcely possible, for Crabbe did not
return to his Leicestershire living until the autumn of the latter year.
Probably the poem was begun in Suffolk, and the final touches were added
later. Crabbe seems to have told his family that it was written during a
severe snow-storm, and at one sitting. As the poem consists of
fifty-five eight-lined stanzas, of somewhat complex construction, the
accuracy of Crabbe's account is doubtful. If its inspiration was in some
degree due to opium, we know from the example of S.T. Coleridge that the
opium-habit is not favourable to certainty of memory or the accurate
presentation of facts. After Crabbe's death, there was found in one of
his many manuscript note-books a copy of verses, undated, entitled _The
World of Dreams_, which his son printed in subsequent editions of the
poems. The verses are in the same metre and rhyme-system as _Sir
Eustace_, and treat of precisely the same class of visions as recorded
by the inmate of the asylum. The rapid and continuous transition from
scene to scene, and period to period, is the same in both. Foreign kings
and other potentates reappear, as with De Quincey, in ghostly and
repellent forms: -

"I know not how, but I am brought
Into a large and Gothic hall,
Seated with those I never sought -
Kings, Caliphs, Kaisers - silent all;
Pale as the dead; enrobed and tall,
Majestic, frozen, solemn, still;
They make my fears, my wits appal,
And with both scorn and terror fill."

This, again, may be compared, or rather contrasted, with Coleridge's
_Pains of Sleep_, and it can hardly be doubted that the two poems had a
common origin.

The year 1805 was the last of Crabbe's sojourn in Suffolk, and it was
made memorable in the annals of literature by the appearance of the _Lay
of the Last Minstrel_. Crabbe first met with it in a bookseller's shop
in Ipswich, read it nearly through while standing at the counter, and
pronounced that a new and great poet had appeared.

This was Crabbe's first introduction to one who was before long to prove
himself one of his warmest admirers and friends. It was one of Crabbe's
virtues that he was quick to recognise the worth of his poetical
contemporaries. He had been repelled, with many others, by the weak side
of the _Lyrical Ballads_, but he lived to revere Wordsworth's genius.
His admiration for Burns was unstinted. But amid all the signs of a
poetical _renaissance_ in progress, and under a natural temptation to
tread the fresh woods and pictures new that were opening before him, it
showed a true judgment in Crabbe that he never faltered in the
conviction that his own opportunity and his own strength lay elsewhere.
Not in the romantic or the mystical - not in perfection of form or melody
of lyric verse, were his own humbler triumphs to be won. Like
Wordsworth, he was to find a sufficiency in the "common growth of
mother-earth," though indeed less in her "mirth" than in her "tears,"
Notwithstanding his _Eustace Grey_, and _World of Dreams_, and the
really powerful story of Aaron the Gipsy (afterwards to appear as the
_The Hall of Justice_), Crabbe was returning to the themes and the
methods of _The Village_. He had already completed _The Parish
Register_, and had _The Borough_ in contemplation, when he returned to
his Leicestershire parish. The woods of Belvoir, and the rural charms of
Parham and Glemham, had not dimmed the memory of the sordid little
fishing-town, where the spirit of poetry had first met him, and thrown
her mantle round him.

And now the day had come when the mandate of the bishop could no longer
be ignored. In October 1805, Crabbe with his wife and two sons returned
to the Parsonage at Muston. He had been absent from his joint livings
about thirteen years, of which four had been spent at Parham, five at
Great Glemham, and four at Rendham, all three places lying within a
small area, and within reach of the same old friends and relations. No
wonder that he left the neighbourhood with a reluctance that was
probably too well guessed by his parishioners in the Vale of Belvoir.


[Footnote 3: Richard Turner of Yarmouth was a man of considerable

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryAlfred AingerEnglish Men of Letters: Crabbe → online text (page 6 of 14)