Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1488
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 epistle. In place of wit and music, Crabbe relies on rugged and compact language that reflects that of his characters, especially that of the burgess who is supposed to be writing the letters. The most tiring feature of the succession of couplets is the regular placing of the caesura, which makes too obvious the antithesis and balance supporting the lines:
Then he began to reason and to feelHe could not dig nor had he learn’d to steal;And should he beg as long as he might live,He justly fear’d that nobody would give.
Crabbe arranges the letters in a certain order, precedes each with a curt prose argument, adds a long preface, and subscribes a brief envoi. After the “General Description” of letter 1, Crabbe arranges his aspects in the proper order, beginning with the most important person in the borough and its center, the vicar and his church, but concluding with the schools. His arrangement falls into two major divisions, the provident and the improvident, of the adult world, with the children bringing up the rear. The provident come under three headings or activities in order of importance: religion, work, and play. The improvident are divided into those in the almshouse and hospital and the poor outside parish relief, with a final letter on those in prisons. Seven of these letters narrate the miserable histories of those in or out of the almshouse. Within each of the three sections of the first division, Crabbe also observes a declining order of importance: After the church and the vicar are described, Crabbe turns to the “Sects and Professions of Religion,” which he defends at length in his preface as a strong but essentially true picture of the “Calvinistic” and “Armenian” Methodists who so disturb the parson and his church, as Crabbe knew from bitter experience. The professions of law and physic are followed by the “Trades.” The third section begins with “Amusements,” followed in descending order by “Clubs and Social Meetings,” “Inns,” and “Players,” which last leads straight down the path of destruction to the whole division on the improvident. The strength of this division is the seven narratives, but many readers prefer the first division for the extraordinarily vivid scenes briefly sketched there, especially in “Elections” and “Players.” These include brief portraits such as that of the lawyer Swallow, who lives up to his name.
Crabbe’s preface, like his arguments, outlines what is to come in each letter but also deals with the work as a whole. The whole scheme of The Borough is that Crabbe has apparently written to “an ideal friend,” a burgess in an unnamed large seaport, asking him to describe his borough. The letters sometimes begin with a brief question that the correspondent answers. Crabbe admits that the resulting picture of the borough is uneven, but the envoi provides the answer:
Man’s vice and crime I combat as I can, . . .(The giant-Folly, the enchanter-Vice) . . . I point the powers of rhyme,And, sparing criminals, attack the crime.
Here the country parson drops his mask and admits that he is preaching one of his regular sermons to encourage industry and thrift and to avoid the enticements of riches and city life. Most of the preface, including the long passage on the Methodists, is taken up with apologizing for the satire of religions, professions, and amusements in the first division and for the repetitious falls from fortune in the second. An exception is letter 20, “Ellen Orford,” which ends in resigned piety. Crabbe’s justification is that of “fidelity,” that he did know such a person or instance, as when in letter 5 he cites a rich fisherman who never heard, until a friend told him, of the practice of lending money at interest, with this result:
Though blind so long to interest, all allowThat no man better understands it now: . . .Stepping from post to post, he reach’d the chair,And there he now reposes—that’s the mayor.
Crabbe is the bard who will paint his borough “as Truth will paint it,” and in the envoi to letter 24 he looks forward to his readers’ reaction: “This is alikeness,” may they all declare,/ “And I have seen him but I know not where. . . .”
It is sometimes difficult to see the “likeness” in the seven narratives of the poor and the almshouse because they all seem to decline with celerity into remorse and destitution. It may be, however, that time has removed such objects from what must have been Crabbe’s daily observation both as a boy in Aldeburgh and as a country parson. Certainly the most surprising decline is that of Peter Grimes, which is at the same time the most convincing, partly because in this account Crabbe uses nature to much greater effect than in the other narratives. More than nature, society is his object, and especially the quirks of character and turns of fate in family histories well known to those who stay long in any place. If Crabbe seems to relish the misery and vice exhibited in the citizens of his borough, he is adopting what is often the provincial’s revenge against his native town: a scarifying of its mean soul and low manners in gripping detail. This is not the whole effect of The Borough, but what there is marks it as a forerunner of that supremely provincial novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).
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