Alfred Ainger.

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This prelude is followed by an account of the trustees who succeeded to
the management after the founder's death, among them a Sir Denys Brand,
a lavish donor to the town, but as vulgar and ostentatious as the
founder had been humble and modest. This man defeats the intentions of
the founder by admitting to the almshouses persons of the shadiest
antecedents, on the ground that they at least had been conspicuous in
their day:

"Not men in trade by various loss brought down,
But those whose glory once amazed the town;
Who their last guinea in their pleasure spent,
Yet never fell so low as to repent:
To these his pity he could largely deal,
Wealth they had known, and therefore want could feel."

From this unfit class of pensioner Crabbe selects three for his minute
analysis of character. They are, as usual, of a very sordid type. The
first, a man named "Blaney," had his prototype in a half-pay major known
to Crabbe in his Aldeburgh days, and even the tolerant Jeffrey held that
the character was rather too shameless for poetical treatment. The next
inmate in order, a woman also drawn from the living model, and disguised
under the title of _Clelia_, is a study of character and career, drawn
with consummate skill. Certain abortive attempts of Crabbe to write
prose fiction have been already mentioned. But this narrative of the
gradual degradation of a coquette of the lower middle class shows that
Crabbe possessed at least some of the best qualities of a great
novelist. Clelia is, in fact, a kind of country-town Becky Sharp, whose
wiles and schemes are not destined to end in a white-washed reputation
at a fashionable watering-place. On the contrary she falls from one
ignominy to another until, by a gross abuse of a public charity, she
ends her days in the almshouse!

One further instance may be cited of Crabbe's persistent effort to
awaken attention to the problem of poor-law relief. In his day the
question, both as to policy and humanity, between indoor and outdoor
relief, was still unsettled. In _The Borough_, as described, many of the
helpless poor were relieved at their own homes. But a new scheme, "The
maintenance of the poor in a common mansion erected by the Hundred,"
seems to have been in force in Suffolk, and up to that time confined to
that county. It differed from the workhouse of to-day apparently in this
respect, that there was not even an attempt to separate the young and
old, the sick and the healthy, the criminal and vicious from the
respectable and honest. Yet Crabbe's powerful picture of the misery thus
caused to the deserving class of inmate is not without its lesson even
after nearly a century during which thought and humanity have been
continually at work upon such problems. The loneliness and weariness of
workhouse existence passed by the aged poor, separated from kinsfolk and
friends, in "the day-room of a London workhouse," have been lately set
forth by Miss Edith Sellers, in the pages of the _Nineteenth Century_,
with a pathetic incisiveness not less striking than that of the
following passage from the Eighteenth Letter of Crabbe's _Borough_: -

"Who can, when here, the social neighbour meet?
Who learn the story current in the street?
Who to the long-known intimate impart
Facts they have learned, or feelings of the heart?
They talk indeed, but who can choose a friend,
Or seek companions at their journey's end?
Here are not those whom they when infants knew;
Who, with like fortune, up to manhood grew;
Who, with like troubles, at old age arrived;
Who, like themselves, the joy of life survived;
Whom time and custom so familiar made,
That looks the meaning in the mind conveyed:
But here to strangers, words nor looks impart
The various movements of the suffering heart;
Nor will that heart with those alliance own,
To whom its views and hopes are all unknown
What, if no grievous fears their lives annoy,
Is it not worse no prospects to enjoy?
'Tis cheerless living in such bounded view,
With nothing dreadful, but with nothing new;
Nothing to bring them joy, to make them weep;
The day itself is, like the night, asleep."

The essence of workhouse monotony has surely never been better indicated
than here.

_The Borough_ did much to spread Crabbe's reputation while he remained,
doing his duty to the best of his ability and knowledge, in the quiet
loneliness of the Vale of Belvoir, but his growing fame lay far outside
the boundaries of his parish. When, a few years later, he visited London
and was received with general welcome by the distinguished world of
literature and the arts, he was much surprised. "In my own village," he
told James Smith, "they think nothing of me." The three years following
the publication of _The Borough_ were specially lonely. He had, indeed,
his two sons, George and John, with him. They had both passed through
Cambridge - one at Trinity and the other at Caius, and were now in holy
orders. Each held a curacy in the near neighbourhood, enabling them to
live under the parental roof. But Mrs. Crabbe's condition was now
increasingly sad, her mind being almost gone. There was no daughter, and
we hear of no other female relative at hand to assist Crabbe in the
constant watching of the patient. This circumstance alone limited his
opportunities of accepting the hospitalities of the neighbourhood,
though with the Welbys and other county families, as well as with the
surrounding clergy, he was a welcome guest.

_The Borough_ appeared in February 1810, and the reviewers were prompt
in their attention. The _Edinburgh_ reviewed the poem in April of the
same year, and the _Quarterly_ followed in October. Jeffrey had already
noticed _The Parish Register_ in 1808. The critic's admiration of Crabbe
had been, and remained to the end, cordial and sincere. But now, in
reviewing the new volume, a note of warning appears. The critic finds
himself obliged to admit that the current objections to Crabbe's
treatment of country life are well founded. "His chief fault," he says,
"is his frequent lapse into disgusting representations." All powerful
and pathetic poetry, Jeffrey admits, abounds in "images of distress,"
but these images must never excite "disgust," for that is fatal to the
ends which poetry was meant to produce. A few months later the
_Quarterly_ followed in the same strain, but went on to preach a more
questionable doctrine. The critic in fact lays down the extraordinary
canon that the function of Poetry is not to present any truth, if it
happens to be unpleasant, but to substitute an agreeable illusion in its
place. "We turn to poetry," he says, "not that we may see and feel what
we see and feel in our daily experience, but that we may be refreshed by
other emotions, and fairer prospects, that we may take shelter from the
realities of life in the paradise of Fancy."

The appearance of these two prominent reviews to a certain extent
influenced the direction of Crabbe's genius for the remainder of his
life. He evidently had given them earnest consideration, and in the
preface to the _Tales_, his next production, he attempted something like
an answer to each. Without mentioning any names he replies to Jeffrey in
the first part of his preface, and to the _Quarterly_ reviewer in the
second. Jeffrey had expressed a hope that Crabbe would in future
concentrate his powers upon some interesting and connected story. "At
present it is impossible not to regret that so much genius should be
wasted in making us perfectly acquainted with individuals of whom we are
to know nothing but their characters." Crabbe in reply makes what was
really the best apology for not accepting this advice. He intimates that
he had already made the experiment, but without success. His peculiar
gifts did not fit him for it. As he wrote the words, he doubtless had in
mind the many prose romances that he had written, and then consigned to
the flames. The short story, or rather the exhibition of a single
character developed through a few incidents, he felt to be the method
that fitted his talent best.

Crabbe then proceeds to deal with the question, evidently implied by the
_Quarterly_ reviewer, how far many passages in _The Borough_, when
concerned with low life, were really poetry at all. Crabbe pleads in
reply the example of other English poets, whose claim to the title had
never been disputed. He cites Chaucer, who had depicted very low life
indeed, and in the same rhymed metre. "If all that kind of satire
wherein character is skilfully delineated, must no longer be esteemed as
genuine poetry," then what becomes of the author of _The Canterbury
Tales_? Crabbe could not supply, or be expected to supply, the answer to
this question. He could not discern that the treatment is everything,
and that Chaucer was endowed with many qualities denied to himself - the
spirit of joyousness and the love of sunshine, and together with these,
gifts of humour and pathos to which Crabbe could make no pretension.
From Chaucer, Crabbe passes to the great but very different master, on
whom he had first built his style. Was Pope, then, not a poet? seeing
that he too has "no small portion of this actuality of relation, this
nudity of description, and poetry without an atmosphere"? Here again, of
course, Crabbe overlooks one essential difference between himself and
his model. Both were keen-sighted students of character, and both
described sordid and worldly ambitions. But Pope was strongest exactly
where Crabbe was weak. He had achieved absolute mastery of form, and
could condense into a couplet some truth which Crabbe expanded, often
excellently, in a hundred lines of very unequal workmanship. The
_Quarterly_ reviewer quotes, as admirable of its kind, the description
in _The Borough_ of the card-club, with the bickerings and ill-nature of
the old ladies and gentlemen who frequented it. It is in truth very
graphic, and no doubt absolutely faithful to life; but it is rather
metrical fiction than poetry. There is more of the essence of poetry in
a single couplet of Pope's:

"See how the world its veterans rewards -
A youth of frolics, an old age of cards."

For here the expression is faultless, and Pope has educed
an eternally pathetic truth, of universal application.

Even had the gentle remonstrances of the two reviewers never been
expressed, it would seem as if Crabbe had already arrived at somewhat
similar conclusions on his own account. At the time the reviews
appeared, the whole of the twenty-one _Tales_ to be published in August
1812 were already written. Crabbe had perceived that if he was to retain
the admiring public he had won, he must break fresh ground. Aldeburgh
was played out. It had provided abundant material and been an excellent
training-ground for Crabbe's powers. But he had discovered that there
were other fields worth cultivating besides that of the hard lots of the
very poor. He had associated in his later years with a class above
these - not indeed with the "upper ten," save when he dined at Belvoir
Castle, but with classes lying between these two extremes. He had come
to feel more and more the fascination of analysing human character and
motives among his equals. He had a singularly retentive memory, and the
habit of noting and brooding over incidents - specially of "life's little
ironies" - wherever he encountered them. He does not seem to have
possessed much originating power. When, a few years later, his friend
Mrs. Leadbeater inquired of him whether the characters in his various
poems were drawn from life, he replied: - "Yes, I will tell you readily
about my ventures, whom I endeavour to paint as nearly as I could, and
_dare_ - for in some cases I dared not.... Thus far you are correct:
there is not one of whom I had not in my mind the original, but I was
obliged in most cases to take them from their real situations, and in
one or two instances even to change their sex, and in many, the
circumstances.... Indeed I do not know that I could paint merely from my
own fancy, and there is no cause why I should. Is there not diversity
enough in society?"




Crabbe's new volume - "Tales. By the Rev. George Crabbe, LL.B." - was
published by Mr. Hatchard of Piccadilly in the summer of 1812. It
received a warm welcome from the poet's admirers, and was reviewed, most
appreciatively, by Jeffrey in the _Edinburgh_ for November. The _Tales_
were twenty-one in number, and to each was prefixed a series, often four
or five, of quotations from Shakespeare, illustrating the incidents in
the Tales, or the character there depicted. Crabbe's knowledge of
Shakespeare must have been in those days, when concordances were not,
very remarkable, for he quotes by no means always from the best known
plays, and he was not a frequenter of the theatre. Crabbe had of late
studied human nature in books as well as in life.

As already remarked, the Tales are often built upon events in his own
family, or else occurring within their knowledge. The second in order of
publication, _The Parting Hour_, arose out of an incident in the life of
the poet's own brother, which is thus related in the notes to the
edition of 1834:

"Mr. Crabbe's fourth brother, William, taking to a sea-faring
life, was made prisoner by the Spaniards. He was
carried to Mexico, where he became a silversmith, married,
and prospered, until his increasing riches attracted a charge
of Protestantism; the consequence of which was much persecution.
He at last was obliged to abandon Mexico, his
property, and his family; and was discovered in the year
1803 by an Aldeburgh sailor on the coast of Honduras,
where again he seems to have found some success in business.
This sailor was the only person he had seen for many a year
who could tell him anything about Aldeburgh and his family,
and great was his perplexity when he was informed that his
eldest brother, George, was a clergyman. 'This cannot be
_our_ George,' said the wanderer, 'he was a _Doctor_! This was
the first, and it was also the last, tidings that ever reached
Mr. Crabbe of his brother William; and upon the Aldeburgh
sailor's story of his casual interview, it is obvious that
he built this tale."

The story as developed by Crabbe is pathetic and picturesque, reminding
us in its central interest of _Enoch Arden_. Allen Booth, the youngest
son of his parents dwelling in a small seaport, falls early in love with
a child schoolfellow, for whom his affection never falters. When grown
up the young man accepts an offer from a prosperous kinsman in the West
Indies to join him in his business. His beloved sees him depart with
many misgivings, though their mutual devotion was never to fade. She
does not see him again for forty years, when he returns, like Arden, to
his "native bay,"

"A worn-out man with wither'd limbs and lame,
His mind oppress'd with woes, and bent with age his frame."

He finds his old love, who had been faithful to her engagement for ten
years, and then (believing Allen to be dead) had married. She is now a
widow, with grown-up children scattered through the world, and is
alone. Allen then tells his sad story. The ship in which he sailed from
England had been taken by the Spaniards, and he had been carried a slave
to the West Indies, where he worked in a silver mine, improved his
position under a kind master, and finally married a Spanish girl,
hopeless of ever returning to England though still unforgetful of his
old love. He accumulates money, and, like Crabbe's brother, incurs the
envy of his Roman Catholic neighbours. He is denounced as a heretic, who
would doubtless bring up his children in the accursed English faith. On
his refusal to become a Catholic he is expelled the country, as the
condition of his life being spared:

"His wife, his children, weeping in his sight,
All urging him to flee, he fled, and cursed his flight."

After many adventures he falls in with a ship bound for England, but
again his return is delayed. He is impressed (it was war-time), and
fights for his country; loses a limb, is again left upon a foreign shore
where his education finds him occupation as a clerk; and finally, broken
with age and toil, finds his way back to England, where the faithful
friend of his youth takes care of him and nurses him to the end. The
situation at the close is very touching - for the joy of re-union is
clouded by the real love he feels for the Spanish wife and children from
whom he had been torn, and who are continually present to him in his

Nor is the treatment inadequate. It is at once discernible how much
Crabbe had already gained by the necessity for concentration upon the
development of a story instead of on the mere analysis of character. The
style, moreover, has clarified and gained in dignity: there are few, if
any, relapses into the homelier style on which the parodist could try
his hand. Had the author of _Enoch Arden_ treated the same theme in
blank-verse, the workmanship would have been finer, but he could hardly
have sounded a truer note of unexaggerated pathos.

The same may be said of the beautiful tale of _The Lover's Journey_.
Here again is the product of an experience belonging to Crabbe's
personal history. In his early Aldeburgh days, when he was engaged to
Sarah Elmy with but faint hope of ever being able to marry, it was one
of the rare alleviations of his distressed condition to walk over from
Aldeburgh to Beccles (some twenty miles distant), where his betrothed
was occasionally a visitor to her mother and sisters. "It was in his
walks," writes the son, "between Aldeburgh and Beccles that Mr. Crabbe
passed through the very scenery described in the first part of _The
Lover's Journey_; while near Beccles, in another direction, he found the
contrast of rich vegetation introduced in the latter part of that tale;
nor have I any doubt that the _disappointment_ of the story figures out
something that, on one of these visits, befell himself, and the feelings
with which he received it.

"Gone to a friend, she tells me; - I commend
Her purpose: means she to a female friend?"

"For truth compels me to say, that he was by no means free from the less
amiable sign of a strong attachment - jealousy." The story is of the
slightest - an incident rather than a story. The lover, joyous and
buoyant, traverses the dreary coast scenery of Suffolk, and because he
is happy, finds beauty and charm in the commonest and most familiar
sights and sounds of nature: every single hedge-row blossom, every group
of children at their play. The poem is indeed an illustration of
Coleridge's lines in his ode _Dejection_:

"O Lady, we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live, -
Ours is her wedding-garment, ours her shroud."

All along the road to his beloved's house, nature wears this
"wedding-garment." On his arrival, however, the sun fades suddenly from
the landscape. The lady is from home: gone to visit a friend a few miles
distant, not so far but that her lover can follow, - but the slight, real
or imaginary, probably the latter, comes as such a rebuff, that during
the "little more - how far away!" that he travels, the country, though
now richer and lovelier, seems to him (as once to Hamlet) a mere
"pestilent congregation of vapours." But in the end he finds his
mistress and learns that she had gone on duty, not for pleasure, - and
they return happy again, and so happy indeed, that he has neither eyes
nor thoughts for any of nature's fertilities or barrennesses - only for
the dear one at his side.

I have already had occasion to quote a few lines from this beautiful
poem, to show Crabbe's minute observation - in his time so rare - of
flowers and birds and all that makes the charm of rural scenery - but I
must quote some more:

"'Various as beauteous, Nature, is thy face,'
Exclaim'd Orlando: 'all that grows has grace:
All are appropriate - bog, and marsh, and fen,
Are only poor to undiscerning men;
Here may the nice and curious eye explore
How Nature's hand adorns the rushy moor,
Here the rare moss in secret shade is found,
Here the sweet myrtle of the shaking ground;
Beauties are these that from the view retire,
But well repay th' attention they require;
For these my Laura will her home forsake,
And all the pleasures they afford, partake.'"

And then follows a masterly description of a gipsy encampment on which
the lover suddenly comes in his travels. Crabbe's treatment of peasant
life has often been compared to that of divers painters - the Dutch
school, Hogarth, Wilkie, and others - and the following curiously
suggests Frederick Walker's fine drawing, _The Vagrants_:

"Again, the country was enclosed, a wide
And sandy road has banks on either side;
Where, lo! a hollow on the left appear'd,
And there a gipsy tribe their tent had rear'd;
'Twas open spread, to catch the morning sun,
And they had now their early meal begun,
When two brown boys just left their grassy seat,
The early Trav'ller with their prayers to greet:
While yet Orlando held his pence in hand,
He saw their sister on her duty stand;
Some twelve years old, demure, affected, sly,
Prepared the force of early powers to try;
Sudden a look of languor he descries,
And well-feigned apprehension in her eyes;
Train'd but yet savage in her speaking face,
He mark'd the features of her vagrant race;
When a light laugh and roguish leer express'd
The vice implanted in her youthful breast:
Forth from the tent her elder brother came,
Who seem'd offended, yet forbore to blame
The young designer, but could only trace
The looks of pity in the Trav'ller's face:
Within, the Father, who from fences nigh
Had brought the fuel for the fire's supply,
Watch'd now the feeble blaze, and stood dejected by.
On ragged rug, just borrowed from the bed,
And by the hand of coarse indulgence fed,
In dirty patchwork negligently dress'd,
Reclined the Wife, an infant at her breast;
In her wild face some touch of grace remain'd,
Of vigour palsied and of beauty stain'd;
Her bloodshot eyes on her unheeding mate
Were wrathful turn'd, and seem'd her wants to state,
Cursing his tardy aid - her Mother there
With gipsy-state engross'd the only chair;
Solemn and dull her look; with such she stands,
And reads the milk-maid's fortune in her hands,
Tracing the lines of life; assumed through years,
Each feature now the steady falsehood wears.
With hard and savage eye she views the food,
And grudging pinches their intruding brood;
Last in the group, the worn-out Grandsire sits
Neglected, lost, and living but by fits:
Useless, despised, his worthless labours done,
And half protected by the vicious Son,
Who half supports him; he with heavy glance
Views the young ruffians who around him dance;
And, by the sadness in his face, appears
To trace the progress of their future years:
Through what strange course of misery, vice, deceit,
Must wildly wander each unpractised cheat!
What shame and grief, what punishment and pain,
Sport of fierce passions, must each child sustain -
Ere they like him approach their latter end,
Without a hope, a comfort, or a friend!

But this Orlando felt not; 'Rogues,' said he,
'Doubtless they are, but merry rogues they be;
They wander round the land, and be it true
They break the laws - then let the laws pursue
The wanton idlers; for the life they live,
Acquit I cannot, but I can forgive.'
This said, a portion from his purse was thrown,
And every heart seem'd happy like his own."

_The Patron_, one of the most carefully elaborated of the Tales, is on
an old and familiar theme. The scorn that "patient merit of the unworthy
takes"; the misery of the courtier doomed "in suing long to bide"; - the
ills that assail the scholar's life,

"Toil, envy, want, the Patron and the jail,"

are standing subjects for the moralist and the satirist. In Crabbe's
poem we have the story of a young man, the son of a "Borough-burgess,"
who, showing some real promise as a poet, and having been able to render
the local Squire some service by his verses at election time, is invited
in return to pay a visit of some weeks at the Squire's country-seat. The
Squire has vaguely undertaken to find some congenial post for the young
scholar, whose ideas and ambitions are much in advance of those
entertained for him in his home. The young man has a most agreeable time
with his new friends. He lives for the while with every refinement about

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Online LibraryAlfred AingerEnglish Men of Letters: Crabbe → online text (page 9 of 14)