Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey.

Selections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey online

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little, by their own experience, of palaces, castles, or
camps ; and still less of tyrants, warriors and banditti ; 10
but every one understands about cottages, streets, and
villages ; and conceives, pretty correctly, the character
and condition of sailors, ploughmen, and artificers. If
the poet can contrive, therefore, to create a sufficient
interest in subjects like these, they will infallibly sink 15
deeper into the mind, and be more prolific of kindred
trains of emotion, than subjects of greater dignity. Nor

is the difficulty of exciting such an interest by any means
so great as is generally imagined. For it is common
human nature, and common human feelings, after all, 20
that form the true source of interest in poetry of every
description ; — and the splendour and the marvels by
which it is sometimes surrounded, serve no other purpose
than to fix our attention on those workings of the heart,
and those energies of the understanding, which alone 25
command all the genuine sympathies of human beings —
and which may be found as abundantly in the breasts of
cottagers as of kings. Wherever there are human beings,
therefore, with feelings and characters to be represented,
our attention may be fixed by the art of the poet — by 3°
his judicious selection of circumstances — by the force
and vivacity of his style, and the clearness and brevity of
his representations.

In point of fact, we are all touched more deeply, as


well as more frequently, in real life, with the sufferings of
peasants than of princes ; and sympathise much oftener,
and more heartily, with the successes of the poor, than of
the rich and distinguished. The occasions of such feel-
5 ings are indeed so many, and so common, that they do
not often leave any very permanent traces behind them,
but pass away, and are effaced by the very rapidity of
their succession. The business and the cares, and the
pride of the world, obstruct the development of the

lo emotions to which they would naturally give rise ; and
press so close and thick upon the mind, as to shut it, at
most seasons, against the reflections that are perpetually
seeking for admission. When we have leisure, however,
to look quietly into our hearts, we shall find in them an

15 infinite multitude of little fragments of sympathy with our
brethren in humble life — abortive movements of com-
passion, and embryos of kindness and concern, which
had once fairly begun to live and germinate within them,
though withered and broken off by the selfish bustle and

20 fever of our daily occupations. Now, all these may be
revived and carried on to maturity by the art of the poet ;
— and, therefore, a powerful effort to interest us in the
feelings of the humble and obscure, will usually call forth
more deep, more numerous, and more permanent emo-

25 tions, than can ever be excited by the fate of princesses
and heroes. Independent of the circumstances to which
we have already alluded, there are causes which make us
at all times more ready to enter into the feelings of the
humble, than of the exalted part of our species. Our

30 sympathy with their enjoyments is enhanced by a certain
mixture of pity for their general condition, which, by
purifying it from that taint of envy which almost always
adheres to our admiration of the great, renders it more
welcome and satisfactory to our bosoms ; while our con-


cern for their sufferings is at once softened and endeared
to us, by the recollection of our own exemption from
them, and by the feeling, that we frequently have it in
our power to relieve them.

From these, and from other causes, it appears to us to 5
be certain, that where subjects, taken from humble life,
can be made sufficiently interesting to overcome the
distaste and the prejudices with which the usages of
polished society too generally lead us to regard them,
the interest which they excite wdll commonly be more 10
profound and more lasting than any that can be raised
upon loftier themes ; and the poet of the Village and the
Borough be oftener, and longer read, than the poet of
the Court or the Camp. The most popular passages of
Shakespeare and Cowper, we think, are of this description: 15
and there is much, both in the volume before us, and in
Mr. Crabbe's former publications, to which we might
now venture to refer, as proofs of the same doctrine.
When such representations have once made an' impres-
sion on the imagination, they are remembered daily, and 20
for ever. We can neither look around, nor within us,
without being reminded of their trujth and their import-
ance ; and, while the more brilliant effusions of romantic
fancy are recalled only at long intervals, and in rare
situations, we feel that we cannot walk a step from our 25
own doors, nor cast a glance back on our departed years,
without being indebted to the poet of vulgar life for some
striking image or touching reflection, of which the occa-
sions were always before us, but — till he taught us how
to improve them — were almost always allowed to escape. 30

Such, we conceive, are some of the advantages of the
subjects which Mr. Crabbe has in a great measure intro-
duced into modern poetry; — and such the grounds upon
which we venture to perdict the durability of the reputa-


tion which he is in the course of acquiring. That they
have their disadvantages also, is obvious ; and it is no
less obvious, that it is to these we must ascribe the
greater part of the faults and deformities with which this
5 author is fairly chargeable. The two great errors into
which he has fallen, are — that he has described many
things not worth describing ; — and that he has frequently
excited disgust, instead of pity or indignation, in the
breasts of his readers. These faults are obvious — and,

lo we believe, are popularly laid to his charge : Yet there is,
in so far as we have observed, a degree of misconception
as to the true grounds and limits of the charge, which
we think it worth while to take this opportunity of cor-

15 The poet of humble life 77mst describe a great deal —
and must even describe, minutely, many things which
possess in themselves no beauty or grandeur. The
reader's fancy must be awaked — and the power of his
own pencil displayed ; — a distinct locality and imaginary

20 reality must be given to his characters and agents : and
the ground colour of their common condition must be
laid in, before his peculiar and selected groups can be
presented with any effect or advantage. In the same
way, he must study characters with a minute and ana-

25 tomical precision ; and must make both himself and his
readers familiar with the ordinary traits and general
family features of the beings among whom they are to
move, before they can either understand, or take much
interest in the individuals who are to engross their atten-

30 tion. Thus far, there is no excess or unnecessary minute-
ness. But this faculty of observation, and this power of
description, hold out great temptations to go further.
There is a pride and a delight in the exercise of all
peculiar power ; and the poet, who has learned to de-


scribe external objects exquisitely, with a view to heighten
the effect of his moral designs, and to draw characters
with accuracy, to help forward the interest or the pathos
of the picture, will be in great danger of describing
scenes, and drawing characters, for no other purpose, but 5
to indulge his taste, and to display his talents. It cannot
be denied, we think, that Mr. Crabbe has, on many
occasions, yielded to this temptation. He is led away,
every now and then, by his lively conception of external
objects, and by his nice and sagacious observation of 10
human character ; and wantons and luxuriates in descrip-
tions and moral portrait painting, while his readers are
left to wonder to what end so much industry has been

His chief fault, however, is his frequent lapse into 15
disgusting representations ; and this, we will confess, is
an error for which we find it far more difficult either to
account or to apologise. We are not, however, of the
opinion which we have often heard stated, that he has
represented human nature under too unfavourable an 20
aspect ; or that the distaste which his poetry sometimes
produces, is owing merely to the painful nature of the
scenes and subjects with which it abounds. On the
contrary, we think he has given a juster, as well as a
more striking picture, of the true character and situation 25
of the lower orders of this country, than any other writer,
whether in verse or in prose ; and that he has made no
more use of painful emotions than was necessary to the
production of a pathetic effect.

All powerful and pathetic poetry, it is obvious, abounds 30
in images of distress. The delight which it bestows
partakes strongly of pain ; and, by a sort of contradic-
tion, which has long engaged the attention of the reflect-
ing, the compositions that attract us most powerfully,


and detain us the longest, are those that produce in us
most of the effects of actual suffering and wretchedness.
The solution of this paradox is to be found, we think, in
the simple fact, that pain is a far stronger sensation than
5 pleasure, in human existence ; and that the cardinal
virtue of all things that are intended to delight the mind,
is to produce a strong sensation. Life itself appears to
consist in sensation ; and the universal passion of all
beings that have life, seems to be, that they should be

lo made intensely conscious of it, by a succession of power-
ful and engrossing emotions. All the mere gratifications
or natural pleasures that are in the power even of the
most fortunate, are quite insufficient to fill this vast
craving for sensation : And accordingly, we see every

15 day, that a more violent stimulus is sought for by those
who have attained the vulgar heights of life, in the
pains and dangers of war — the agonies of gaming — or
the feverish toils of ambition. To those who have tasted
of those potent cups, where the bitter, however, so

20 obviously predominates, the security, the comforts, and
what are called the enjoyments of common life, are
intolerably insipid and disgusting. Nay, we think we
have observed, that even those who, without any effort or
exertion, have experienced unusual misery, frequently

25 appear, in like manner, to acquire a sort of taste or
craving for it ; and come to look on the tranquillity of
ordinary life with a kind of indifference not unmingled
with contempt. It is certain, at least, that they dwell
with most apparent satisfaction on the memory of those

30 days, which have been marked by the deepest and most
agonising sorrows ; and derive a certain delight from the
recollections of those overwhelming sensations which
once occasioned so fierce a throb in the languishing pulse
of their existence.


If any thing of this kind, however, can be traced in
real life — if the passion for emotion be so strong as to
carry us, not in imagination, but in reality, over the rough
edge of present pain — it will not be difficult to explain,
why it should be so attractive in the copies and fictions 5
of poetry. There, as in real life, the great demand is for
emotion ; while the pain with which it may be attended,
can scarcely, by any possibility, exceed the limits of
endurance. The recollection, that it is but a copy and
a fiction, is quite sufficient to keep it down to a moderate 10
temperature, and to make it welcome as the sign or
the harbinger of that agitation of which the soul is
avaricious. It is not, then, from any peculiar quality in
painful emotions that they become capable of affording
the delight which attends them in tragic or pathetic poetry 15
— but merely from the circumstance of their being more
intense and powerful than any other emotions of which
the mind is susceptible. If it was the constitution of our
nature to feel joy as keenly, or to sympathise wi'th it as
heartily as we do with sorrow, we have no doubt that no 20
other sensation would ever be intentionally excited by
the artists that minister to delight. But the fact is, that
the pleasures of which we are capable are slight and feeble
compared with the pains that we may endure ; and that,
feeble as they are, the sympathy which they excite falls 25
much more short of the original emotion. When the
object, therefore, is to obtain sensation, there can be
no doubt to which of the two fountains we should
repair ; and if there be' but few pains in real life which
are not, in some measure, endeared to us by the emotions 3°
with which they are attended, we may be pretty sure, that
the more distress we introduce into poetry, the more we
shall rivet the attention and attract the admiration of the


There is but one exception to this rule — and it brings
us back from the apology of Mr. Crabbe, to his condem-
nation. Every form of distress, whether it proceed from
passion or from fortune, and whether it fall upon vice or

5 virtue, adds to the interest and the charm of poetry —
except only that which is connected with ideas of Disgust
— the least taint of which disenchants the whole scene,
and puts an end both to delight and sympathy. But what
is it, it may be asked, that is the proper object of disgust?

10 and what is the precise description of things which we
think Mr. Crabbe so inexcusable for admitting.'^ It is
not easy to define a term at once so simple and so sig-
nificant ; but it may not be without its use, to indicate,
in a general way, our conception of its true force and

15 comprehension.

It is needless, we suppose, to explain what are the
objects of disgust in physical or external existences.
These are sufficiently plain and unequivocal ; and it is
universally admitted, that all' mention of them must be

20 carefully excluded from every poetical description. With
regard, again, to human character, action, and feeling, we
should be inclined to term every thing disgusting, which
represented misery, without making any appeal to our love,
respect, or admiration. If the suffering person be

25 amiable, the delightful feeling of love and affection
tempers the pain which the contemplation of suffering
has a tendency to excite, and enhances it into the
stronger, and therefore more attractive, sensation of
pity. If there be great power or energy, however, united

30 to guilt or wretchedness, the mixture of admiration exalts
the emotion into something that is sublime and pleasing :
and even in cases of mean and atrocious, but efficient
guilt, our sympathy with the victims upon whom it is
practised, and our active indignation and desire of


vengeance, reconcile us to the humiliating display, and
make a compound that, upon the whole, is productive of

The only sufferers, then, upon whom we cannot bear
to look, are those that excite pain by their wretchedness, 5
while they are too depraved to be the objects of affection,
and too weak and insignificant to be the causes of
misery to others, or, consequently, of indignation to the
spectators. Such are the depraved, abject, diseased, and
neglected poor — creatures in whom every thing amiable 10
or respectable has been extinguished by sordid passions
or brutal debauchery ; — who have no means of doing
the mischief of which they are capable — whom every
one despises, and no one can either love or fear. On the
characters, the miseries, and the vices of such beings, we 15
look with disgust merely : and, though it may perhaps
serve some moral purpose, occasionally to set before us
this humiliating spectacle of human nature sunk to utter
worthlessness and insignificance, it is altogether in vain to
think of exciting pity or horror, by the truest and most 20
forcible representations of their sufferings or their
enormities. They have no hold upon any of the feelings
that lead us to take an interest in our fellow-creatures ; —
we turn away from them, therefore, with loathing
and dispassionate aversion ; — we feel our imaginations 25
polluted by the intrusion of any images connected with
them ; and are offended and disgusted when w^e are
forced to look closely upon those festering heaps of
moral filth and corruption.

It is with concern we add, that we know no writer who 30
has sinned so deeply in this respect as Mr. Crabbe — who
has so often presented us with spectacles which it is
purely painful and degrading to contemplate, and bestowed
such powers of conception and expression in giving us


distinct ideas of what we must ever abhor to remember.
If Mr. Crabbe had been a person of ordinary talents,
we might have accounted for his error, in some degree,
by supposing, that his frequent success in treating of
5 subjects which had been usually rejected by other poets,
had at length led him to disregard, altogether, the common
impressions of mankind as to what was allowable and
what inadmissible in poetry ; and to reckon the unalter-
able laws by which nature has regulated our sympathies,

lo among the prejudices by which they were shackled and
impaired. It is difficult, however, to conceive how a
writer of his quick and exact observation should have
failed to perceive, that there is not a single instance of a
serious interest being excited by an object of disgust ;

15 and that Shakespeare himself, who has ventured every
thing, has never ventured to shock our feelings with the
crimes or the sufferings of beings absolutely without
power or principle. Independent of universal practice,
too, it is still more difficult to conceive how he should

20 have overlooked the reason on which this practice is
founded ; for though it be generally true, that poetical
representations of suffering and of guilt produce emotion,
and consequently delight, yet it certainly did not require
the penetration of Mr. Crabbe to discover, that there is

25 a degree of depravity which counteracts our sympathy
with suffering, and a degree of insignificance which
extinguishes our interest in guilt. We abstain from
giving any extracts in support of this accusation ; but
those who have perused the volume before us, will have

30 already recollected the story of Frederic Thompson, of
Abel Keene, of Blaney, of Benbow, and a good part
of those of Grimes and Ellen Orford — besides many
shorter passages. It is now time, however, to give the
reader a more particular account of the work which

35 contains them.


By the Reverend George Crabbe. 2 vols. 8vo, pp. 6yo. London, i8ig.

Mr. Crabbe is the greatest mafme?'ist, perhaps, of all
our living poets ; and it is rather unfortunate that the
most prominent features of his mannerism are not the
most pleasing. The homely, quaint, and prosaic style
— the flat, and often broken jingling versification — the 5
eternal full-lengths of low and worthless characters —
with their accustomed garnishings of sly jokes and familiar
moralising — are all on the surface of his writings ; and
are almost unavoidably the things by which we are
first reminded of him, when we take up any of his new 10
productions. Yet they are ?iot the things that truly con-
stitute his peculiar manner; or give that character by
which he will, and ought to be, remembered with future
generations. It is plain enough, indeed, that these are
things that will make nobody remembered — and can 15
never, therefore, be really characteristic of some of the
most original and powerful poetry that the -world has ever

Mr. C, accordingly, has other gifts ; and those not
less peculiar or less strongly marked than the blemishes 20
with which they are contrasted ; an unrivalled and almost
magical power of observation, resulting in descriptions so
true to nature as to strike us rather as transcripts than
imitations — an anatomy of character and feeling not less
exquisite and searching — an occasional touch of match- 25


less tenderness — and a deep and dreadful pathetic, inter-
spersed by fits, and strangely interwoven with the most
minute and humble of his details. Add to all this the
sure and profound sagacity of the remarks with which he
5 every now and then startles us in the midst of very
unambitious discussions ; — and the weight and terseness
of the maxims which he drops, like oracular responses,
on occasions that give no promise of such a revelation ;
— and last, though not least, that sweet and seldom

10 sounded chord of Lyrical inspiration, the lightest touch
of which instantly charms away all harshness from his
numbers, and all lowness from his themes — and at once
exalts him to a level with the most energetic and inven-
tive poets of his age.

15 These, we think, are the true characteristics of the
genius of this great writer ; and it is in their mixture
with the oddities and defects to which we have already
alluded, that the peculiarity of his manner seems to us
substantially to consist. The ingredients may all of them

20 be found, we suppose, in other writers ; but their com-
bination — -in such proportions at least as occur in this
instance — may safely be pronounced to be original.

Extraordinary, however, as this combination must
appear, it does not seem very difficult to conceive in what

25 way it may have arisen, and, so far from regarding it as
a proof of singular humorousness, caprice, or affectation
in the individual, we are rather inclined to hold that
something approaching to it must be the natural result of
a long habit of observation in a man of genius, possessed

30 of that temper and disposition which is the usual accom-
paniment of such a habit ; and that the same strangely
compounded and apparently incongruous assemblage of
themes and sentiments would be frequently produced
under such circumstances — if authors had oftener the


courage to write from their own impressions, and. had less
fear of the laugh or wonder of the more shallow and
barren part of their readers.

A great talent for observation, and a delight in the
exercise of it — the power and the practice of dissecting 5
and disentangling that subtle and complicated tissue, of
habit, and self-love, and affection, which constitute human
character — seems to us, in all cases, to imply a contem-
plative, rather than an active disposition. It can only
exist, indeed, where there is a good deal of social 10
sympathy ; for, without this, the occupation could excite
no interest, and afford no satisfaction — but only such a
measure and sort of sympathy as is gratified by being a
spectator, and not an actor on the great theatre of life —
and leads its possessor rather to look with eagerness on 15
the feats and the fortunes of others, than to take a share
for himself in the game that is played before him. Some
stirring and vigorous spirits there are, no doubt, in which
this taste and talent is combined with a more thorough
and effective sympathy ; and leads to the study of men's 20
characters by an actual and hearty participation in their
various passions and pursuits ; — though it is to be
remarked, that when such persons embody their observa-
tions in writing, they will generally be found to exhibit
their characters in action, rather than to describe them in 25
the abstract ; and to let their various personages disclose
themselves and their peculiarities, as it were spontane-
ously, and without help or preparation, in their ordinary
conduct and speech — of all which we have a very
splendid and striking example in the Tales of My Land- 30
lord, and the other pieces of that extraordinary writer.
In the common case, however, a great observer, we
believe, will be found, pretty certainly, to be a person of
a shy and retiring temper — who does not mingle enough


with the people he surveys, to be heated with their
passions, or infected with their delusions — and who has
usually been led, indeed, to take up the office of a looker
on, from some little infirmity of nerves, or weakness of
5 spirits, which has unfitted him from playing a more
active part on the busy scene of existence.

Now, it is very obvious, we think, that this contem-
plative turn, and this alienation from the vulgar pursuits
of mankind, must in the first place, produce a great con-

10 tempt for most of those pursuits, and the objects they
seek to obtain — a levelling of the factitious distinctions

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Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 9 of 21)