George Crabbe was a writer of provincial background who made good in the capital by using his provincial material. His initial success in London with The Library, published in 1781, made it possible for the son of a fisherman and petty customs officer to enter the Church in 1782 and be given a respectable living as an Anglican clergyman. For a time he gave up poetry after publishing The News-Paper in 1785. His next publication, Poems, was not until 1807. In the decades between his two periods of composition, much changed in English poetry; Crabbe’s continuation of his original style and matter makes it difficult to place him in the Romantic period.
He was really the last and best representative of the host of adventuring, provincial poetasters who flocked to London to make their fortunes in the eighteenth century—these included Thomas Chatterton, Oliver Goldsmith, David Mallet, and Samuel Johnson, to name but a few. This is to repeat a truism in Crabbe criticism—that Aldeburgh, where he was born, is all his material—but it also places Crabbe in literary history, shows his strength, and perhaps accounts for his durability. The most obvious manifestation of that is the initiation of the Aldeburgh Festival and Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (1945), derived from letter 22 of The Borough.
The Village, published in 1783, and The Borough contain and are contained by a seaside community in which the folk are at the mercy of the elements, their only salvation against bad times being native prudence. In their world, no help comes from the outside, only temptation and danger. Despite his absence from Aldeburgh after the age of twenty-six, Crabbe was unable to forget youthful privation and misery by adopting a tourist’s attitude to provincial society and nature, an increasingly common mid-Victorian attitude of which Balmoral is the symbol. Few of his heroes and heroines have private incomes, and if caught in a storm at sea they are more likely to perish than to find themselves washed up on the sand.
Crabbe’s realism was reinforced by parish duties; it is not the pessimism of which his mid-Victorian and Romantic critics accused him. Later readers appreciated the salt in his stories more than the sugar in the work of other poets, equipped with a less immediate experience of people and place, writing at the same time as Crabbe. His second importance in the history of English poetry is the fact that he casts a shadow beside the major figures of his second period and prepares the narrative form in English poetry for the genre work of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, and Other Poems (1864), Robert Browning’s Men and Women (1855), and Thomas Hardy’s local-color sketches in verse. In the early years of the nineteenth century Crabbe’s work was paralleled in prose by Maria Edgeworth’s Irish Castle Rackrent (1800) and John Galt’s Scottish Annals of the Parish (1821), rather than the country novels of Jane Austen. All the foregoing is summed up in Crabbe’s best-known line from The Village—“I paint the Cot, as Truth will paint it, and as Bards will not”—and illustrated in The Borough, the most unified of his works.
To “paint the Cot” Crabbe uses the pentameter couplet, a meter noted for its wit and music and not for the narrative use to which Crabbe put it; that The Borough is made up of twenty-four letters or “epistles” to some extent restricts the narrative and encourages general observation, conventional in the eighteenth century verse...
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