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.

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