George Crabbe 1754-1832
English poet and sermon writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Crabbe's life and works. For additional information on his career, see NCLC, Volume 26.
Best known for his realistic narrative verse, George Crabbe wrote poems that reflected the turbulent social, political, and economic circumstances which characterized England during his lifetime. Early works including The Village: A Poem. In Two Books (1783) and later works such as “The Parish Register” (1807), Tales (1812), and Tales of the Hall (1819), exemplify the narrative verse in which Crabbe explored the human condition. His poems had widespread appeal, to both high society as well as the average reader. Though Crabbe worked primarily as a minister and had a twenty-five-year break from publication, his poems are stark representations of subjects that were relatively unexamined in the dominant Romantic rhetoric of his era.
Crabbe was born on December 24, 1754, in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England, where his father worked as a minor customs official. Crabbe attended a local dame school and was exposed to literature by his father. He was sent to schools in Norfolk, first at Bungay then Stowmarket, to become a doctor. When he completed school around the age of thirteen, Crabbe worked as a laborer on a dock for a time. In 1768 he became a surgeon-apothecary's apprentice, but was released in 1771. During this apprenticeship, Crabbe began writing verse. After his release, Crabbe was apprenticed to a surgeon in a town near his home in Woodbridge. He continued writing, and also met Sarah Elmy, whom he would marry more than a decade later. In 1775, Crabbe published his first work, though anonymously, entitled Inebriety: A Poem in Three Parts.
In the mid-1770s Crabbe finished his apprenticeship and continued to write as he pursued more medical training in London. He spent a year there, from 1776 to 1777, but could not afford to pay for the additional training he needed. He returned to his hometown of Aldeburgh and began practicing medicine, rather unsuccessfully. Within a few years, Crabbe decided to seriously pursue a career as a writer and leave medicine behind. In 1780 he returned to London, with the support of Elmy, and tried to make his way in literary circles. Crabbe did not find success and he could not find the patronage necessary to sustain his newly chosen career. The only piece that was not rejected outright was The Candidate: A Poetical Epistle to the Authors of the “Monthly Review” (1780), though it was again published anonymously.
By 1781, Crabbe was desperate and impoverished; he wrote an impassioned letter to Edmund Burke, a leading British statesman, and included some of his work. Burke was impressed and helped Crabbe publish The Library. A Poem (1781). Burke helped Crabbe in other ways as well, arranging for the young poet to enter the church. In 1781 Crabbe became a curate to the rector of the church in his hometown of Aldeburgh and was ordained as a deacon. In 1782, after being ordained as a priest, Crabbe was named chaplain to the Duke of Rutland. Crabbe held this position through 1790, and held other curate and rectorships for the rest of his life.
While a minister, Crabbe continued to write. In 1783 he published his early defining work The Village, and in the same year he married his long-time fiancée Sarah Elmy. After publishing The News-paper in 1785, Crabbe did not publish poetry for over two decades. He did keep up with current trends in literature and wrote poetry as well as three novels, but he burned the latter and did not publish any of the former. Instead, Crabbe focused on his religious duties and used his medical training to treat the poor of the various parishes he served throughout England.
In 1790 Crabbe was prescribed opium to treat a gastric disorder. Crabbe and his wife had seven children, only two of whom survived to adulthood. Sarah suffered from mental and other illnesses after the death of their son Edmund in 1796, and continued to be plagued by such illnesses for the rest of her life. In 1805 the Crabbes returned to Munston and Crabbe began publishing again to pay for his sons' education. In 1807 he published Poems, which contained both old and new material. Crabbe continued to evolve as a poet, publishing another piece of significant realistic narrative verse, Tales, in 1812. After his wife's death in 1813 and his own subsequent serious illness, Crabbe moved to Trowbridge at Wiltshire. He spent the rest of his life there, but also traveled extensively to London and other cities. By this time, Crabbe was recognized for his poetic importance. In 1819 Crabbe published Tales of the Hall, considered by many to be his finest work. Among his travels was a significant meeting in 1822 with Sir Walter Scott in Scotland. The authors had exchanged letters for many years and influenced each other's writing. Crabbe continued to write verse until his death on February 3, 1832, at his rectory in Trowbridge. His later verse appeared in two versions of collected works, one published before his death in 1823 and one published posthumously in 1834.
Though Crabbe wrote at least one piece of nonfiction and published some of his sermons, nearly all critical attention focuses on his poetry. Most of Crabbe's poetry was written in heroic couplets, relied on detail, and featured his own brand of realism. Of two early works published anonymously, The Library set the stark tone for the rest of his work, which played against the Romantic ideals that characterized the majority of English literature at the time. With The Village, arguably his best-known work, Crabbe begins to employ—the narrative verse, decribing people, their professions, and the social institutions that existed in the community to help the less fortunate. Crabbe commented on poorhouses, and his harsh critique informed the volatile Poor Laws debate, which aimed to standardize care for the poor across the country. While Crabbe chides doctors and parish priests for their failings, he also blames the poor for giving in to vice, though he acknowledges the wealthy have similar problems. Crabbe's next work, The News-paper, is a satiric and political poem which, according to some critics, is an imitation of Alexander Pope written primarily to make money. In the poem Crabbe derides newspapers as the opposite of literature, stating that they created demand for news and published bad poems. Crabbe calls for poets to unite against this degradation of their art. When Crabbe returned from his two-decade break from publication, his works of importance were written primarily in the realistic narrative verse genre. Among the significant pieces in Poems is “The Parish Register.” This piece is a pastoral in the vein of The Village, but with shorter embedded sketches about members of the parish. The poem has three parts: “Baptisms,” “Marriages,” and “Burials.” Among the themes on which Crabbe expounds is the importance of love and marriage, as well as the problems with both, a theme that would continue in his narrative works. Poems also contains the poem “Sir Eustace Grey,” in which an insane man describes his opposing visions of demons and religious figures. The themes of insanity and mental illness are found in many of Crabbe's verses of this time period. Crabbe continued to explore narrative verse in The Borough: A Poem in Twenty-Four Letters (1810). The epistolary poems comprising this publication are similar to “The Parish Register” in that they focus on different kinds of people who live in a specific area, describing them and their motivations with what was sometimes harsh language; however, the use of the epistolary format provides some objectivity. Crabbe also included some social criticism, particularly, of poorhouses. At the beginning of Tales, Crabbe answers (in verse) the critics who devidedThe Borough and its type of realism as distasteful. Tales contains twenty-one pieces of narrative verse, many of which explore the nature of emotion. Crabbe organized his narrative verse a bit differently in Tales of the Hall. The main story concerns two brothers long separated who had lived very different lives and did not have much in common. The brothers reveal much about themselves and those they have met in these verses. By the end of the volume, their relationship is restored. This type of resolution is atypical of Crabbe and critics have explored whether this represented a philosophical transition late in the poet's life.
Crabbe's narrative verse was generally well-regarded by his contemporaries, although Romatics resonded negaticely, including William Hazlitt and William Wordsworth, who did not consider Crabbe to be a poet because of his realism and use of narrative in his verse. Crabbe had his defenders as well, who praised his unflinching portrayals of society. Though The Candidate was originally received negatively by contemporary reviewers, The Village was the first of Crabbe's well-received works, and continues to receive critical attention. Some critics assessed the poem as an attack on the pastoral in its depiction of rich and poor. The ending of the poem, in which Crabbe describes the village's social vices, was the source of extensive critical debate. Some argued that he was looking for favor from those who could offer him patronage, while others saw it as a positive statement about people rising above their environment. Crabbe's harsh depictions were also the focus of critics' commentary on Poems and The Borough, though Tales of the Hall was praised as less severe, and having a more cohesive narrative. Modern-day critics have also focused on Crabbe's realism, concentrating on how Crabbe's own life and psyche are reflected in his work, especially his position as minister, his use of opium, and his wife's mental illness. A number of critics have analyzed the narrative poems, especially, for Crabbe's interest in psychology, madness, morality, social issues, and, to some degree, politics. Other critics analyze his use of true locales, social institutions like poorhouses, and nature, and what this reveals about Crabbe. Critics have also traced the influence of other writers including, Alexander Pope, William Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Scott on his works, noting connections despite the differences in poetic philosophies.
Inebriety: A Poem in Three Parts (poetry) 1775
The Candidate: A Poetical Epistle to the Authors of the “Monthly Review” (poetry) 1780
The Library. A Poem (poetry) 1781
The Village: A Poem. In Two Books (poetry) 1783
The News-paper: A Poem (poetry) 1785
Poems (poetry) 1807
The Borough: A Poem, in Twenty-Four Letters (poetry) 1810
Tales. 2 vols. (poetry) 1812
Tales of the Hall. 2 vols. (poetry) 1819
The Poetical Works (poetry) 1822
The Works of the Rev. George...
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G. R. Hibbard (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: Hibbard, G. R. “Crabbe and Shakespeare.” In Renaissance and Modern Essays: Presented to Vivian de Sola Pinto in Celebration of His Seventieth Birthday, edited by G. R. Hibbard with the assistance of George A. Panichas and Allan Rodway, pp. 83-93. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.
[In the following essay, Hibbard argues that Crabbe was one of the few Augustan poets to successfully make use of Shakespeare in his writing, and delineates the influence of certain of Shakespeare's plays on Crabbe's works.]
Regarding the heroic as the highest form of poetry, the great Augustans had more sense than to write it. Instead of seeking to rival Homer, Vergil and...
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Elizabeth Brewster (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: Brewster, Elizabeth. “George Crabbe and William Wordsworth.” University of Toronto Quarterly 42, no. 2 (winter 1973): 142-56.
[In the following essay, Brewster explores the link between Crabbe and Wordsworth, including how they influenced each other as writers, offers a critical comparison of certain works, and comments on previous critics' observations.]
It is perhaps a pity that, if George Crabbe and William Wordsworth have their names associated together, it is usually in rivalry, and largely through the reviews of their works by Francis Jeffrey. The two poets had more in common than Jeffrey would have admitted, and might have had more sympathy with each...
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R. B. Hatch (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: Hatch, R. B. “George Crabbe, the Duke of Rutland, and the Tories.” Review of English Studies 24, no. 96 (1973): 429-43.
[In the following essay, Hatch analyzes how Crabbe's liberal political tendencies were influenced by his role as the chaplain of the conservative Duke of Rutland, concluding that the effect was not as great as is generally perceived.]
One of the most curious incidents in George Crabbe's life was his unexpected appointment as chaplain to the Duke of Rutland. As is well known, Edmund Burke first obtained for Crabbe the position of curate in his native town of Aldborough, and when this arrangement proved unsatisfactory, he secured for him the...
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Hans Östman (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: Östman, Hans. “The Silent Years of George Crabbe.” Moderna Språk LXVIII, no. 3 (1974): 233-44.
[In the essay that follows, Östman examines Crabbe's literary activities between 1785 and 1807, a period during which he did not publish, and looks at what he read, how it influenced him, and what he wrote.]
George Crabbe's long and varied life presents the literary student with several problems. What, for example, is the significance of his almost silent period 1785-1807 and what is his debt to contemporary literature during these years? These questions are interesting since they may lead not only to a better understanding of the poet's own development but...
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Ronald B. Hatch (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: Hatch, Ronald B. “George Crabbe and the Workhouses of the Suffolk Incorporations.” Philological Quarterly 54, no. 3 (summer 1975): 689-98.
[In the following essay, Hatch analyzes Crabbe's poems that deal with poorhouses, underscoring the poet's opinions on such institutions.]
At first glance most modern-day readers probably suspect that George Crabbe included a description of the poorhouse in The Borough (1810) in order to remind his audience of the famous description of the parish poorhouse in The Village (1783). Certainly the description of the poorhouse in The Village was the best-known section of Crabbe's poetry, partly as a result...
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Beth Nelson (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: Nelson, Beth. “Prose Fiction.” In George Crabbe and the Progress of Eighteenth-Century Narrative Verse, pp. 102-26. London: Bucknell University Press, 1976.
[In the following essay, Nelson looks at how certain novels and novelists influenced Crabbe, focusing on the narrative aspects of his poetry.]
In order to understand Crabbe's narrative art, it is necessary to examine the relation that his work bears to the prose fiction of his time. A number of critics and scholars—chiefly Jeffrey, Sigworth, Speirs, and Kroeber—have observed, though only in passing, that this relationship exists: “many of the stories,” Jeffrey says, “may be ranked by the side...
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Michael Wade (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: Wade, Michael. “Object as Image in Crabbe's Portrait of Catherine Lloyd.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 17, no. 4 (October 1981): 337-50.
[In the following essay, Wade examines Crabbe's poem “Catherine Lloyd,” arguing the poet uses descriptions of details of her life as a way to reveal her character.]
George Crabbe's one-hundred-line portrait of “Catherine Lloyd” (“The Parish Register: Burials,” 1807)1 has engaged the attention of a number of scholars and critics, notably Lilian Haddakin, Robert Chamberlain, John Speirs, Peter New, and Terence Bareham,2 largely because it possesses similarities with...
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Hugh C. Prince (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: Prince, Hugh C. “George Crabbe's Suffolk Scenes.” In Humanistic Geography and Literature, edited by Douglas C. D. Pocock, pp. 190-208. London: Croom Helm, Ltd., 1981.
[In the following essay, Prince analyzes Crabbe's poetry in order to evaluate his relationship with his native Suffolk.]
In a history of English literature, George Crabbe (1754-1832) stands apart from his contemporaries.1 He was an Augustan poet who rhymed couplets in the manner of Pope, Gray and Dyer, but his verses destroyed the pastoral idyll and depicted village life, ‘as Truth will paint it, and as Bards will not’.2 He rejected Thomson's progressive view of the...
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Roger Sales (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: Sales, Roger. “George Crabbe's Reverence for Realism.” In English Literature in History 1780-1830: Pastoral and Politics, pp. 36-51. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1983.
[In the following essay, Sales remarks on Crabbe's reputation for factual representations of society, arguing that the poet actually produced an idealized and elitist view of his community.]
Historians, travailing helpfully on official sources, tend to arrive at the ‘shocking realism’ fallacy. These sources reflect a perspective from above, in which the agricultural labourer is not a person but a problem that needs solving. The full horror...
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Gavin Edwards (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: Edwards, Gavin. “Crabbe's So-Called Realism.” Essays in Criticism: A Quarterly Journal of Literary Criticism 37, no. 4 (October 1987): 303-20.
[In the following essay, Edwards addresses previous criticism that focuses on the concept of realism in Crabbe's poetry and asserts that the subject is more complex than is traditionally acknowledged.]
George Crabbe, Hazlitt insisted, ‘is a fascinating writer’,1 but the books written about Crabbe have not been fascinating. All the good things on him are short: essays, chapters or paragraphs. When Crabbe's critics venture beyond brevity something depressing happens, and that something is...
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Frank Whitehead (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Whitehead, Frank. “Crabbe, ‘Realism’, and Poetic Truth.” Essays in Criticism 39, no. 1 (January 1989): 29-46.
[In the following essay, Whitehead responds to Gavin Edwards's ideas about realism in Crabbe's poetry, presenting his own interpretation of the relationship between realism, the truth, Crabbe's poetry, and the environment in which it was created.]
It was pleasing to find Gavin Edwards's essay ‘Crabbe's So-Called Realism’ in the pages of E in C1, despite its preoccupation with the post-structuralist project of demolishing ‘realism’ both as a critical term and as an authorial practice. Less agreeable to me personally,...
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Frank Whitehead (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Whitehead, Frank. “Biographical Speculations.” In George Crabbe: A Reappraisal, pp. 209-18. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Whitehead explores how Crabbe's personal life is revealed in his poetry, and how facts about his life can be used to understand his writing.]
Although contemporary literary theory has increasingly ignored or devalued the role of the author in literary works, the reading public at large has continued to show a lively interest in the individual author's life, his personality, and his psychology. In recent years, for example, there has been a flood of new biographies of distinguished poets,...
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Gavin Edwards (essay date 1998)
SOURCE: Edwards, Gavin. “Scott and Crabbe: A Meeting at the Border.” Essays in Criticism 22, no. 1 (February 1998): 123-40.
[In the following essay, Edwards analyzes the relationship between Crabbe and Sir Walter Scott, including their meetings, their impressions of each other, how they influenced each other, and how they dealt differently with similar themes.]
Walter Scott (1771-1832) and George Crabbe (1754-1832) met twice, first in London at John Murray's in Albemarle Street, in 1817, then in August 1822 when Crabbe was Scott's guest in Edinburgh. But although a guest, Crabbe did not see much of his host, who was busy stage-managing the state-visit of George...
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Bareham, Terence. George Crabbe. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1977, 245 p.
Provides a critical overview of the author's life and works.
Bareham, Terence. “Crabbe's Studies of Derangement and Hallucination.” Orbis Litterarum 24, no. 2 (1969): 161-81.
Explores the significsnt role derangement plays in a number of Crabbe's poems.
Canfield, R. M. “A Clergyman-Poet and the Church in Change.” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (1989): 398-99.
Presents a brief evaluation of Crabbe's sermons....
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