George Crabbe was born on Christmas Eve in 1754 in Aldeburgh (or, as it was then known, Aldborough), Suffolk, the eldest son of the local collector of salt duties, who early recognized the intellectual potential of his son and endeavored to provide educational opportunities for him beyond those normally accessible to one in his station. Once a busy and prosperous seaport, Aldeburgh had dwindled in size and importance by the middle of the eighteenth century and contained a populace whose general poverty, ignorance, and ill-nature was matched by the isolated, inhospitable conditions of a seacoast plagued by tempestuous weather and surrounded by a dreary countryside consisting largely of salt marshes, heaths, and tidal flats. Crabbe’s early experiences in this setting left a lasting impression: Throughout his life, Aldeburgh retained a strong hold on his imagination. This strange mixture of fascination and repugnance formed the basis for a large number of the characters and settings that are possibly the most striking features of his poetry.
Between the ages of eight and thirteen, Crabbe’s father arranged for him to attend grammar schools in Bungay and Stowmarket, both in Norfolk, where he received the foundations of a classical education and is known to have made his first attempts at composing doggerel verse. Unable to continue financing his son’s education and having determined that the field of medicine would be the most suitable to his son’s talents and inclinations, the elder Crabbe in 1768 engaged for George to be bound as an apprentice to an apothecary and surgeon at Wickhambrook, near Bury St. Edmund’s, in Suffolk. Used more as a farmhand than as a surgical apprentice, young Crabbe was exceedingly unhappy there and, in 1771, was removed by his father to a more favorable situation in Woodbridge, Suffolk. These were to prove relatively happy years, for though he seems to have shown no great interest in his medical studies, life in Woodbridge was an agreeable contrast to what he had known in Aldeburgh and Wickhambrook. It was also during this period that he met and courted his future wife, Sarah Elmy, and saw his first poem of any consequence, Inebriety, appear in print in 1775.
In the summer of that year, his apprenticeship over, Crabbe returned to Aldeburgh, and after a period of uncertainty during which he worked as a common laborer on the docks (much to the dismay of his father), he finally began to practice his profession late in the year. The next four years were particularly frustrating and unhappy ones for the young doctor: It is clear that he never had any real confidence in his abilities as a physician and that he felt himself to be surrounded by people who did not appreciate him and to whom he felt in every way superior. His practice was unsuccessful, and his continuing poverty made it appear doubtful whether he would ever find himself in a position financially stable enough to marry his beloved Sarah. Thus, in early 1780, he abandoned his practice, borrowed five pounds from a local philanthropist, and journeyed to London to take his chances as a poet. Although he would never again return to the profession of medicine, the years spent in training and practice were not entirely wasted ones, for they are undoubtedly responsible for such often-noted features of his poetry as his minute attention to detail and his fascination with aberrant psychological states.
London did not treat Crabbe kindly. Although he did manage to publish The Candidate , a dull, unreadable poem, his attempts to secure patronage were singularly unsuccessful, and his increasingly desperate financial state brought him to the point where, by early 1781, he was threatened with debtors’ prison. At this propitious moment, he found the patron he had been seeking, the influential statesman Edmund Burke, who eased his financial straits, helped him find publishers for his poetry, and introduced him to such eminent figures of the day as Sir Joshua...
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