George Crabbe: Poetry and Truth

Jerome McGann

No one who has read Crabbe’s poetry has ever denied the power of his portraits or his stories. ‘Peter Grimes’, one of the embedded sections of his great work The Borough (1810), is justly famous, and, were it better known, the story ‘Delay has danger’, part of the very uneven Tales of the Hall (1819), would be known for what it is, a masterpiece. But Crabbe’s work, like that of the contemporary Austrian master Thomas Bernard, is still not widely read.

In his own day Crabbe was a famous and distinguished author – the favourite of both Jane Austen and Byron. And while he had two distinct and distinctly successful careers, until the last two decades of his long life he was continually beset with disaster and the threat of disaster.

The first of his two careers happened in the 1780s, before the commencement of what we now call the Romantic period. In 1781 Crabbe left a poor medical practice in his native Aldeburgh on a high-risk venture – the pursuit of a literary life in London. This coup de dés almost ended in ruin for Crabbe. He was plucked from calamity at the last moment by the intervention of Burke, who set himself to sponsor the work of the impoverished and unknown author. Burke’s support led to the support of others, and climaxed in the publication of his excellent work The Village (1783), which Johnson himself condescended to praise.

Crabbe’s success led to his ordination and to the support of the powerful Duke of Rutland. Financially secure, he was at last able to marry Sarah Elmy, to whom he had been attached for the previous ten or more years. After The Village Crabbe published only one more work, The News-Paper (1785), before he left off writing poetry altogether for almost twenty years. In this period he devoted himself to his family and to his work as a parish priest.

Crabbe’s financial problems were solved, but these were exceedingly difficult years nonetheless. Seven children were born, but only five lived. Crabbe’s wife seems to have been broken by these sorrows and from 1793 began to lapse into an increasingly severe state of manic depression (she would eventually die in 1813). Crabbe himself, subject to nightmares, became addicted to opium.

He returned to poetry early in the new century at least partly for practical reasons – in order to pay for the education of his two surviving sons. In 1807 he brought out his Poems, which included two signal works, ‘Sir Eustace Gray’ and – even more notable – ‘The Parish Register’. In 1810 he published The Borough, one of the three most important works of poetry published in the Romantic period (the other two being Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and Byron’s Don Juan).[*] Then followed his Tales (1812), an extraordinary collection of stories in verse. At this point Crabbe’s fame was firmly established, and he began to move in some of the best literary circles. Tales of the Hall (1819) would be the only book he would publish again before his death in 1832. Nonetheless, he left behind a large body of finished and unfinished poetry, most of it in his favourite genre (the poetic portrait-narrative). This work has been gradually put into print by Crabbe’s various editors, and the new Oxford edition of his work edited by Dalrymple-Champneys and Pollard considerably augments the corpus of published verse. Most of this new material occupies the one hundred and more pages of Appendices V, VI and VII in Volume III of the edition. Far the greater part of this new material is not especially distinguished as verse, but it is important for clarifying how Crabbe wrote his poetry and built up his stories.

From the outset of his (second) career Crabbe’s poetry lived under a sign of contradiction. On the one hand stood people like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt, each of whom found the work repellent. Their legacy is to be traced not so much in a body of negative criticism as in the absence of any criticism at all. On the other hand, however, are Crabbe’s staunch adherents: beginning with Jeffrey, Austen and Byron, they comprise an impressive group, including Tennyson, Newman, Fitzgerald, E.M. Forster, and – turncoat this time in a better cause – Wordsworth himself. Happily, we have seen, in recent years, a growing body of academic critics who are reading Crabbe with fresh eyes.

Still, the hostility and indifference which Crabbe’s poetry generated is an important index to the character of his work. Three charges are typically brought against him. The first is that he has no imagination, that he is a mere recorder of things, people and events. Hazlitt puts it this way: ‘Crabbe describes ugly things; his descriptions are true because they are facsimiles; because they are facsimiles they are ugly.’ Corollary to this idea is the feeling that he is a depressing writer – too depressing. ‘Mr Crabbe’s great fault,’ Hazlitt observes, is that ‘he chooses [his] subject only to take the charm out of it, and to dispel the illusion, the glory, and the dream.’ He is like those ‘liberals’ so distasteful to Mr Reagan and Mr Bush because they have not been inspired to sing ‘America the Beautiful’ all the days of their lives.

The second charge is that Crabbe’s verse is dull. Most of his work is written in couplets, and while he is highly skilled in his use of this form, his style works by extreme indirection. His couplets do not arrest us like the sun in Ajalon: there is none of Dryden’s drama of language’s power, or of Pope’s dance of wit, or even of Byron’s force of personality. Crabbe plainly understands the couplet, and it is equally clear that he positively strives for a kind of minimalist precision at the local level, and for an almost paceless inexorability at the narrative level. This character of his work has led some to imagine that his poetry is lifeless and enervated, the barely surviving inheritor of a once great stylistic tradition.

Finally, many readers, and these include some of his apologists, see Crabbe’s ‘great fault’ as an inability to master what has been called ‘major form’. This charge is the basis for the prevailing judgment that Crabbe, like Clare or Southey or Hood, is a poet ‘of the second rank’. On this view, Crabbe was never able to rise above the limitations of the short verse portrait or verse tale. No matter how many or how complex are Crabbe’s successful stories, their poetic range is checked by a restricted and restricting imagination. One would therefore argue, on this view, that although Keats’s ambitions were frustrated and even broken by his failed ‘Hyperion’ project, the surviving fragments exhibit an imaginative scale that dwarfs Crabbe’s work.

It helps, in trying to understand Crabbe’s verse, to remember that his career, no less than Blake’s or Wordsworth’s, is founded on a conscious effort to reconstitute the grounds of poetry. This determination appears very early – in The Village, for example, which is as much as anything else a manifesto attacking the ‘tinsel trappings of poetic pride’. Crabbe means to establish new standards of truth in poetry by attacking pastoral verse as the epitome of the idea that poetic imagination deals in transcendental orders and desires. For Crabbe, it is not that such orders and desires do not exist, but that their poetical character is misconceived. For Crabbe, poetry can only deal in the order of the human.

Crabbe’s return to poetry, at the height of the Romantic period, brought this programme of his under sharp attack by those who were seeking to reformulate a transcendental poetic. Consequently he was forced to restate and defend his project once again, which he did most directly in the Preface to his Tales of 1812. The argument there turns on a cunning appeal to the example of Shakespeare in order to define imagination in human rather than apocalyptic terms.

Crabbe lived a modest life, and his work mirrors that style of personal address. But this absence of self-display should not be misread. He was serious about his poetry, and his perilous moment of initiation in 1781 is an eloquent sign of just how serious he was – a sign far more eloquent, perhaps, than the better-known symbol produced by Keats in ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ when he imagined his romance hero struggling up the steps of the Temple of Moneta.

This new edition prints an interesting draft fragment that was evidently intended at one time for Tales of the Hall. Headed by Crabbe ‘Tragic Tales Why’, it comprises a brief dialogue between the two brothers whose conversation provided the framework within which the Tales as a whole are set. Richard, the younger brother, puts the question which so many readers of Crabbe had often thought but rarely so well expressed.

‘I have observed’ said Richard ‘When I ask
Of those around us – your Memory task
For their Adventures – their Lives, what Fate!
How tragic most the Stories you relate!
Is it that most are wretched or have we
The Evil fate to live with Misery?’

The answer given by the older brother refuses both of the two possible reasons offered in the final couplet.

‘Not so perhaps, but Men of common Lives,
Who live contented with themselves – Wives,
Afford no Subject for the Muse than Mirth ...
Amusements, Pleasures, Comforts, Days of Joy
May a Man’s Mind, but not his Muse, employ;

Crabbe characteristically turns the problem from ethics to poetics. Crabbe postulates a chiaroscuro of happiness and sorrow, but he takes disaster as a poetical device which will illuminate the whole field of individual and social circumstances.

But, my dear Richard, when this transient Joy
Some sudden Ills – dire Events destroy!
When the fond Wife – faithful Husband die –
Fate unforeseen! – When Wealth takes wings and fly,
When by Deceit a Maidens peace is lost,
When tender Love by cruel fate is crost!
When groaning Poverty – fell Disease
Upon the happy – the wealthy seize,
– when on Man’s soft Heart these Evils press,
The awakened Poet paints the due Distress!
Tells how it came! and presses on the Mind
That we are Men – of the suffering Kind!
We own the grieving – opprest as Friends;
The Mind enlarges! as its Grief extends.

For Crabbe, the question is whether poetry’s chief object is pleasure or truth. The former, ‘transient’ and non-conscious, severely limits the range of the poem. Crabbe is well aware of the paradox involved in his position:

Marriage – Births of Heirs are pleasant Things,
But seldom help a poet when he sings,
A Day of Hunting, fishing, shooting, these,
Music – Dancing! Cards – fiddles – please!
And Wealth acquired or Wealth bequeathed impart,
More than they ought! rejoicing to the Heart!
But these, tho’ Man might for his Comforts choose,
Can give no Inspiration to the Muse.

Crabbe’s poetry often dwells, in the most minute way, on all these ‘Comforts’ and the ‘Wealth’ they exhibit. But the spirit of ruin is his poetical spirit precisely because it alone gives access to the truth of such phenomena. It is that spirit which inspires Crabbe’s mordant and insightful ‘More than they ought’, a phrase cunningly placed so as to arrest our attention in the rhythmic arrest which this phrase gives to the illusory march of ‘Wealth’ toward its happy completion, its expected rhyme.

This commitment to poetry as an agency of truth, which is traditional enough in one sense, results in Crabbe’s unusual approach to the problem of poetic form. The apparently rambling, even random structure of The Borough, anticipated in the similarly organised ‘The Parish Register’, is a mirror of Crabbe’s vision of truth. Both works offer a collection of portraits and stories drawn from a given and highly particular social world. The two poems are not organised, however, by any of the literary forms we customarily expect in long poems. Romance, tragedy, an epic order or comic rhythm – none of these is the idea which inspires the order of a work like The Borough. In ‘The Parish Register’ Crabbe chooses the arbitrary order of a fundamental social document to organise his materials, and the consequence is the invention of a new kind of major form in poetry.

The Borough exhibits this new form in its fullest power. Formally arranged as 24 ‘Letters’ sent from ‘an imaginary personage’ living in a seaport borough (clearly modelled on Aldeburgh) to a friend living in ‘a village in the centre of the kingdom’, the work is striking precisely in its avoidance of traditional literary forms. The Borough opens with a letter of ‘General Description’, and it closes with a letter headed ‘Schools’, and the 22 letters in between could easily be arranged in any number of other orders. The poem has no plot as a whole, though plot and the various forms of narrativity do appear at the work’s more local levels, in many of the stories which The Borough gathers together.

The work shows, nevertheless, all the marks of something that has been arranged with deliberation. Most noticeable here is the kind of material treated in the earlier and the later parts of the work: The Borough turns for its subjects from the more to the less advantaged persons and circumstances in the town. This differential order, however, does not introduce a plot or sequencing principle into the poem. The lack of sequence is most apparent in the arbitrary ordering we find at more local levels – in the arrangement of the stories within certain groups (‘The Poor of the Borough’, ‘The Aims-House and Its Inhabitants’, and so forth), and in the arrangement of the sequences themselves. The choice of 24 letters, an obvious allusion to epic convention, becomes in this work, paradoxically, one more sign of the constructed (as opposed to the traditional) character of the poem.

This effect is produced because ‘the borough’ as the work’s scene of order clearly exists in an incongruent relation to the literary idea of 24. Crabbe might have added more stories illustrative of other parts of the borough, or he might have removed some. What he did publish shows us that the work has been produced on what the 20th-century would call constructivist principles. What might otherwise appear as arbitrary and random in The Borough serves in the end to foreground the conscious agency of its orders. In this sense the poem’s form raises a massive act of resistance against those other orders which appear in the work as non-conscious functions, and which are associated with pain and suffering. That the poem intends to achieve this result – indeed, that it wants ‘intention’ to be perceived as one of its principal operative functions – is underscored in Crabbe’s decision to end the poem with a letter headed ‘Schools’. The material here emphasises the poem’s fundamental commitment to knowledge as its guiding principle.

If one had to give a name to the form which organises a work like The Borough, I suppose it would have to be ‘politics’. The poem’s structure is arrived at by pursuing a verse analogy with the structure of a political organism. Crabbe’s imagination of politics, however, is more a social than it is an historical imagination. As a consequence, the work lacks any model for graphing or projecting forms of change. What emerges instead are sets of recurrences within a decentred but relatively stable form.

The framework of that form is the dialectic set in motion by the ‘letters’ sent from a marginalised place like ‘the borough’, which is represented as a negative ideal in economic and cultural terms, to the lovely ‘village in the centre of the kingdom’, whose appearances suggest wealth, comfort, gratifying circumstances. That village is Crabbe’s later version of the pastoral idea he had attacked early in his work. ‘The borough’ of the poem is thus the general equivalent of the ‘tragic tale’ which has to be told in order to reveal the truth of social life in this kingdom; and The Borough sets both village and borough in a critical tension that encompasses the poetical work’s field of truth.

The editors have done a great service in setting Crabbe’s work before us once again. No previous edition has assembled so much of the corpus, and none has executed its work with greater care or more useful notes and other editorial apparatus and commentary. My only cavil would be directed at the decision to print the posthumous and unpublished work with editorially-supplied punctuation. The interventions are minimal, as one can see from the passages quoted earlier. Nevertheless, as these texts now stand we cannot tell where an intervention has been made. It would have been better to print diplomatic transcripts of all the work not published by Crabbe or over-seen by him for the printer, including the texts of works first published posthumously by Crabbe’s earlier editors.

One would very much like to see a one-volume Oxford Authors edition of Crabbe issued soon. These three volumes are for specialists, and Crabbe’s work belongs in more general circulation, and in the school curriculum as well. The Borough (in its entirety) should be at least as well-known as The Village and ‘Peter Grimes’.

[*] The Prelude was not published until after Wordsworth’s death and Blake’s masterpieces were not, strictly speaking, ‘published’.