Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey.

Selections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey online

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that an author, who could write so well, should have

5 written so little. From that time to the present, we have
heard little of Mr. Crabbe ; and fear that he has been in
a great measure lost sight of by the public, as well as by
us. With a singular, and scarcely pardonable indifference
to fame, he has remained, during this long interval, in

10 patient or indolent repose ; and, without making a single
movement to maintain or advance the reputation he had
acquired, has permitted others to usurp the attention
which he was sure of commanding, and allowed himself
to be nearly forgotten by a public, which reckons upon

15 being reminded of all the claims which the living have
on its favour. His former publications, though of dis-
tinguished merit, were perhaps too small in volume to
remain long the objects of general attention, and seem,
by some accident, to have been jostled aside in the

20 crowd of more clamorous competitors.

Yet, though the name of Crabbe has not hitherto been
very common in the mouths of our poetical critics, we
believe there are few real lovers of poetry to whom some
of his sentiments and descriptions are not secretly

writers. It probably is idle enough (as well as a little presumptuous)
to suppose that a publication like this will afford many opportunities
of testing the truth of this prediction. But, as the experiment is to
be made, there can be no harm in mentioning this as one of its

It is but candid, however, after all, to add, that my concern for
Mr. Crabbe's reputation would scarcely have led me to devote near
one hundred pages to the estimate of his poetical merits, had I not
set some value on the speculations as to the elements of poetical
excellence in general, and its moral bearings and affinities — for the
introduction of which this estimate seemed to present an occasion,
or apology.


familiar. There is a truth and force in many of his
delineations of rustic life, which is calculated to sink
deep into the memory ; and, being confirmed by daily
observation, they are recalled upon innumerable occa-
sions — when the ideal pictures of more fanciful authors 5
have lost all their interest. For ourselves at least, we
profess to be indebted to Mr. Crabbe for many of these
strong impressions ; and have known more than one of
our unpoetical acquaintances, who declared they could
never pass by a parish workhouse without thinking of the 10
description of it they had read at school in t]je Poetical
Extracts. The volume before us will renew, we trust,
and extend many such impressions. It contains all the
former productions of the author, with about double their
bulk of new matter; most of it in the same taste and 15
manner of composition with the former ; and some of a
kind, of which we have had no previous example in this
author. The whole, however, is of no ordinary merit,
and will be found, we have little doubt, a sufficient
warrant for Mr. Crabbe to take his place as one of the 20
most original, nervous, and pathetic poets of the present

His characteristic, certainly, is force, and truth of
description, joined for the most part to great selection
and condensation of expression ; — that kind of strength 25
and originality which we meet with in Cowper, and that
sort of diction and versification which we admire in
"The Deserted Village" of Goldsmith, or "The Vanity
of Human Wishes" of Johnson. If he can be said to
have imitated the manner of any author, it is Goldsmith, 30
indeed, who has been the object of his imitation ; and
yet his general train of thinking, and his views of society,
are so extremely opposite, that, when "The Village" was
first published, it was commonly considered as an anti-


dote or an answer to the more captivating representations
of "The Deserted Village." Compared with this cele-
brated author, he will be found, we think, to have more
vigour and less delicacy ; and while he must be admitted
5 to be inferior in the fine finish and uniform beauty of his
composition, we cannot help considering him superior,
both in the variety and the truth of his pictures. Instead
of that uniform tint of pensive tenderness which over-
spreads the whole poetry of Goldsmith, we find in Mr.

10 Crabbe many gleams of gaiety and humour. Though
his habiti^l views of life are more gloomy than those of
his rival, his poetical temperament seems far more cheer-
ful ; and when the occasions of sorrow and rebuke are
gone by, he can collect himself for sarcastic pleasantry,

15 or unbend in innocent playfulness. His diction, though
generally pure and powerful, is sometimes harsh, and
sometimes quaint ; and he has occasionally admitted a
couplet or two in a state so unfinished, as to give a char-
acter of inelegance to the passages in which they occur,

20 With a taste less disciplined and less fastidious than that
of Goldsmith, he has, in our apprehension, a keener eye
for observation, and a readier hand for the delineation of
what he has observed. There is less poetical keeping in
his whole performance ; but the groups of which it con-

25 sists are conceived, we think, with equal genius, and
drawn with greater spirit as well as far greater fidelity.

It is not quite fair, perhaps, thus to draw a detailed
parallel between a living poet, and one whose reputation
has been sealed by death, and by the immutable sentence

30 of a surviving generation. Yet there are so few of his
contemporaries to whom Mr. Crabbe bears any resem-
blance, that we can scarcely explain our opinion of his
merit, without comparing him to some of his predecessors.
There is one set of writers, indeed, from whose works


those of Mr. Crabbe might receive all that elucidation
which results from contrast, and from an entire opposition
in all points of taste and opinion. We allude now to the
Wordsworths, and the Southeys, and Coleridges, and all
that ambitious fraternity, that, with good intentions and 5
extraordinary talents, are labouring to bring back our
poetry to the fantastical oddity and puling childishness of
Withers, Quarles, or Marvel. These gentlemen write a
great deal about rustic life, as well as Mr. Crabbe ; and
they even agree with him in dwelling much on its dis- 10
comforts ; but nothing can be more opposite than the
views they take of the subject, or the manner in which
they execute their representations of them.

Mr. Crabbe exhibits the common people of England
pretty much as they are, and as they must appear to 15
every one who will take the trouble of examining into
their condition ; at the same time that he renders his
sketches in a very high degree interesting and beautiful
— by selecting what is most fit for description — by
grouping them into such forms as must catch the attention 20
or awake the memory — and by scattering over the whole
such traits of moral sensibility, of sarcasm, and of deep
reflection, as every one must feel to be natural, and own
to be powerful. The gentlemen of the new school, on
the other hand, scarcely ever condescend to take their 25
subjects from any description of persons at all known to
the common inhabitants of the world ; but invent for
themselves certain whimsical and unheard-of beings, to
whom they impute some fantastical combination of feel-
ings, and then labour to excite our sympathy for them, 30
either by placing them in incredible situations, or by
some strained and exaggerated moralisation of a vague
and tragical description. Mr. Crabbe, in short, shows us
something which we have all seen, or may see, in real life;


and draws from it such feelings and such reflections as
every human being must acknowledge that it is calculated
to excite. He delights us by the truth, and vivid and
picturesque beauty of his representations, and by the
5 force and pathos of the sensations with which we feel that
they are connected. Mr. Wordsworth and his associates,
on the other hand, introduce us to beings whose existence
was not previously suspected by the acutest observers of
nature ; and excite an interest for them — where they do

10 excite any interest — more by an eloquent and refined
analysis of their own capricious feelings, than by any ob-
vious or intelligible ground of sympathy in their situation.
Those who are acquainted with the Lyrical Ballads, or
the more recent publications of Mr. Wordsworth, will

15 scarcely deny the justice of this representation ; but in
order to vindicate it to such as do not enjoy that advan-
tage, we must beg leave to make a few hasty references
to the former, and by far the least exceptionable of those

20 A village schoolmaster, for instance, is a pretty common
poetical character. Goldsmith has drawn him inimitably;
so has Shenstone, with the slight change of sex; and Mr.
Crabbe, in two passages, has followed their footsteps.
Now, Mr. Wordsworth has a village schoolmaster also —

25 a personage who makes no small figure in three or four of
his poems. But by what traits is this worthy old gentle-
man delineated by the new poet? No pedantry — no
innocent vanity of learning — no mixture of indulgence
with the pride of power, and of poverty with the conscious-

30 ness of rare acquirements. Every feature which belongs
to the situation, or marks the character in common appre-
hension, is scornfully discarded by Mr. Wordsworth; who
represents his grey-haired rustic pedagogue as a sort of
half crazy, sentimental person, overrun with fine feelings.


Constitutional merriment, and a most humorous melan-
choly. Here are the two stanzas in which this consistent
and intelligible character is pourtrayed. The diction is
at least as new as the conception.

" The sighs which Matthew heav'd were sighs 5

Of one tir'd out withy}/;/ and madjiess ;
The tears which came to Matthew's eyes
Were tears of light — the oil of gladness.

" Yet sometimes, when the secret cup

Of still and serious thought went round lo

He seem'd as if he drank it up.

He felt with spirit so profound.
Thou soul of God's best earthly mould,'"' &c.

A frail damsel again is a character common enough in
all poems ; and one upon which many fine and pathetic 15
lines have been expended. Mr. Wordsworth has written
more than three hundred on the subject ; but, instead of
new images of tenderness, or delicate representation of
intelligible feelings, he has contrived to tell us nothing
whatever of the unfortunate fair one, but that her name 20
is Martha Ray; and that she goes up to the top of a hill,
in a red cloak, and cries " O misery! " All the rest of
the poem is filled with a description of an old thorn and
a pond, and of the silly stories which the neighbouring
old women told about them. 25

The sports of childhood, and the untimely death of
promising youth, is also a common topic of poetry. Mr.
Wordsworth has made some blank verse about it ; but,
instead of the delightful and picturesque sketches with
which so many authors of modern talents have presented 30
us on this inviting subject, all that he is pleased to com-
municate of his rustic child, is, that he used to amuse
himself with shouting to the owls, and hearing them
answer. To make amends for this brevity, the process
of his mimicry is most accurately described. 35


" With fingers interwoven, both hands

Press'd closely palm to palm, and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument.
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls,
5 That they might answer him." —

This is all we hear of him ; and for the sake of this
one accomplishment, we are told, that the author has
frequently stood mute, and gazed on his grave for half an
hour together!

10 Love, and the fantasies of lovers, have afforded an
ample theme to poets of all ages. Mr. Wordsworth, how-
ever, has thought fit to compose a piece, illustrating this
copious subject by one single thought. A lover trots
away to see his mistress one fine evening, gazing all the

15 way on the moon ; when he comes to her door,

" O mercy! to myself I cried,
If Lucy should be dead! "

And there the poem ends!

Now, we leave it to any reader of common candour

20 and discernment to say, whether these representations of
character and sentiment are drawn from that eternal and
universal standard of truth and nature, which every one
is knowing enough to recognise, and no one great enough
to depart from with impunity; or whether they are not

25 formed, as we have ventured to allege, upon certain fan-
tastic and affected peculiarities in the mind or fancy of
the author, into which it is most improbable that many of
his readers will enter, and which cannot, in some cases,
be comprehended without much effort and explanation.

30 Instead of multiplying instances of these wide and wilful
aberrations from ordinary nature, it may be more satis-
factory to produce the author's own admission of the
narrowness of the plan upon which he writes, and of the
very extraordinary circumstances which he himself some-

35 times thinks it necessary for his readers to keep in view,


if they would wish to understand the beauty or propriety
of his dehneations.

A pathetic tale of guilt or superstition may be told, we
are apt to fancy, by the poet himself, in his general
character of poet, with full as much effect as by any other 5
person. An old nurse, at any rate, or a monk or parish
clerk, is always at hand to give grace to such a narration.
None of these, however, would satisfy Mr. Wordsworth.
He has written a long poem of this sort, in which he
thinks it indispensably necessary to apprise the reader, 10
that he has endeavoured to represent the language and
sentiments of a particular character — of which character,
he adds, " the reader will have a general notion, if he has
ever known a man, a captain of a sinall trading vessel, for
example, who being /^j"^ the middle age of life, has retired 15
upon an amiuity, or stnall independeiit iiicome, to some
village or country, of which he was 7iot a native, or in
which he had not been accustomed to live! "

Now, we must be permitted to doubt, whether, among
all the readers of Mr. Wordsworth (few or many), there 20
is a single individual who has had the happiness of know-
ing a person of this very peculiar description ; or who is
(Capable of forming any sort of conjecture of the particular
disposition and turn of thinking which such a combination
of attributes would be apt to produce. To us, we will 25
confess, the aimonce appears as ludicrous and absurd as
it would be in the author of an ode or an epic to say,
" Of this piece the reader will necessarily form a very
erroneous judgment, unless he is apprised, that it was
written by a pale man in a green coat — sitting cross- 30
legged on an oaken stool — with a scratch on his nose,
and a spelling dictionary on the table." ^

1 Some of our readers may have a curiosity to know in what
manner this old annuitant captain does actually express himself in


From these childish and absurd affectations, we turn
with pleasure to the manly sense and correct picturing of
Mr. Crabbe ; and, after being dazzled and made giddy
with the elaborate raptures and obscure originalities of
5 these new artists, it is refreshing to meet again with the
spirit and nature of our old masters, in the nervous pages
of the author now before us.

the village of his adoption. For their gratification, we annex the
two first stanzas of his story ; in which, with all the attention we
have been able to bestow, we have been utterly unable to detect
any traits that can be supposed to characterise either a seaman, an
annuitant, or a stranger in a country town. It is a style, on the
contrary, which we should ascribe, without hesitation, to a certain
poetical fraternity in the West of England ; and which, we verily
believe, never was, and never will be, used by any one out of that

" There is a thorn — it looks so old,

In truth you 'd find it hard to say,
How it could ever have been young !

It looks so old and gray.
Not higher than a two-years' child

It stands erect ; this aged thorn !
No leaves it has, no thorny points ;
It is a mass of knotted joints :

A wretched thing forlorn,
// stands erect ; and like a stone,
With lichens it is overgrown.

" Like rock or stone ^ it is o''ergrozvn

With lichens ; — to the very top ;
And hung with heavy tufts of moss

A melancholy crop.
Up from the earth these mosses creep.

And this poor thorn, they clasp it round
So close, you'd say that they were bent,
With plain and jnanifcst intent !

To drag it to the ground ;
And all had join'd in one endeavour,
To bury this poor thorn for ever."

And this it seems, is Nature, and Pathos, and Poetry !


A Poem, in Twcnty-foiir Letters. By the Rev. George Crabbe, LL.B .

8vo, pp. 344. London, 1810.

We are very glad to meet with Mr. Crabbe so soon
again ; and particularly glad to find, that his early return
has been occasioned, in part, by the encouragement he
received on his last appearance. This late spring of
public favour, we hope, he will live to see ripen into 5
mature fame. We scarcely know any poet who deserves
it better ; and are quite certain there is none who is more
secure of keeping with posterity whatever he may win
from his contemporaries.

The present poem is precisely of the character of The 10
Village and The Parish Register. It has the same
peculiarities, and the same faults and beauties ; though a
severe critic might perhaps add, that its peculiarities are
more obtrusive, its faults greater, and its beauties less.
However that be, both faults and beauties are so plainly 15
produced by the peculiarity, that it may be worth while,
before giving any more particular account of it, to try if
we can ascertain in what that consists.

•And here we shall very speedily discover, that Mr.
Crabbe is distinguished from all other poets, both by the 20
choice of his subjects, and by his manner of treating
them. All his persons are taken from the lower ranks of
life ; and all his scenery from the most ordinary and
familiar objects of nature or art. His characters and
incidents, too, are as common as the elements out of 25


which they are compounded are humble ; and not only
has he nothing prodigious or astonishing in any of his
representations, but he has not even attempted to impart
any of the ordinary colours of poetry to those vulgar
5 materials. He has no moralising swains or sentimental
tradesmen ; and scarcely ever seeks to charm us by the
artless graces or lowly virtues of his personages. On the
contrary, he has represented his villagers and humble
burghers as altogether as dissipated, and more dishonest

lo and discontented, than the profligates of higher life ; and,
instead of conducting us through blooming groves and
pastoral meadows, has led us along filthy lanes and
crowded wharves, to hospitals, alms-houses, and gin-
shops. In some of these delineations, he may be con-

15 sidered the Satirist of low life — an occupation sufhciently
arduous, and, in a great degree, new and original in our
language. But by far the greater part of his poetry is of
a different and a higher character ; and aims at moving
or delighting us by lively, touching, and finely contrasted

20 representations of the dispositions, sufferings, and occu-
pations of those ordinary persons who form the far
greater part of our fellow-creatures. This, too, he has
sought to effect, merely by placing before us the clearest,
most brief, and most striking sketches of their external

25 condition — the most sagacious and unexpected strokes
of character- — and the truest and most pathetic pictures
of natural feeling and common suffering. By the mere
force of his art, and the novelty of his style, he forces us
to attend to objects that are usually neglected, and to

30 enter into feelings from which we are in general but too
eager to escape ; — and then trusts to nature for the
effect of the representation.

It is obvious, at first sight, that this is not a task for
an ordinary hand ; and that many ingenious writers, who


make a very good figure with battles, nymphs, and moon-
light landscapes, would find themselves quite helpless, if
set down among streets, harbours, and taverns. The
difficulty of such subjects, in short, is sufficiently visible
— and some of the causes of that difficulty: But they 5.
have their advantages also ; — and of these, and their
hazards, it seems natural to say a few words, before
entering more minutely into the merits of the work
before us.

The first great advantage of such familiar subjects is, 10
that every one is necessarily well acquainted with the
originals ; and is therefore sure to feel all that pleasure,
from a faithful representation of them, which results from
the perception of a perfect and successful imitation. In
the kindred art of painting, we find that this single con- 15
sideration has been sufficient to stamp a very high value
upon accurate and lively delineations of objects, in them-
selves uninteresting, and even disagreeable ; and no very
inconsiderable part of the pleasure which may be derived
from Mr. Crabbe's poetry may probably be referred to 20
its mere truth and fidelity ; and to the brevity and clear-
ness with which he sets before his readers, objects and
characters with which they have been all their days

In his happier passages, however, he has a higher 25
merit, and imparts a far higher gratification. The chief
delight of poetry consists, not so much in what it directly
supplies to the imagination, as in what it enables it to
supply to itself ; — not in warming the heart by its pass-
ing brightness, but in kindling its own latent stores of 3°
light and heat ; — not in hurrying the fancy along by a
foreign and accidental impulse, but in setting it agoing,
by touching its internal springs and principles of activity.
Now, this highest and most delightful effect can only be


produced by the poet's striking a note to which the heart
and the affections naturally vibrate in unison ; — by rous-
ing one of a large family of kindred impressions ; — by
dropping the rich seed of his fancy upon the fertile and
5 sheltered places of the imagination. But it is evident,
that the emotions connected with common and familiar
objects — with objects which fill every man's memory,
and are necessarily associated with all that he has ever
really felt or fancied, are of all others the most likely to

10 answer this description, and to produce, where they can
be raised to a sufficient height, this great effect in its
utmost perfection. It is for this reason that the images
and affections that belong to our universal nature, are
always, if tolerably represented, infinitely more captivat-

15 ing, in spite of their apparent commonness and simplicity,
than those that are peculiar to certain situations, however
they may come recommended by novelty or grandeur.
The familiar feeling of maternal tenderness and anxiety,
which is every day before our eyes, even in the brute

20 creation — and the enchantment of youthful love, which
is nearly the same in all characters, ranks, and situations
— still contribute far more to the beauty and interest of
poetry than all the misfortunes of princes, the jealousies
of heroes, and the feats of giants, magicians, or ladies

25 in armour. Every one can enter into the former set of
feelings ; and but a few into the latter. The one calls
up a thousand familiar and long-remembered emotions —
which are answered and reflected on every side by the
kindred impressions which experience or observation

30 have traced upon every memory: while the other lights up
but a transient and unfruitful blaze, and passes away with-
out perpetuating itself in any kindred and native sensation.
Now, the delineation of all that concerns the lower
and most numerous classes of society, is, in this respect,


on a footing with the pictures of our primary affections

— that their originals are necessarily familiar to all men,
and are inseparably associated with their own most inter-
esting impressions. Whatever may be our own condition,
we all live surrounded with the poor, from infancy to 5
age ; — we hear daily of their sufferings and misfortunes ;

— and their toils, their crimes, or their pastimes, are our
hourly spectacle. Many diligent readers of poetry know

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Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 8 of 21)