No critical assessment of George Crabbe’s work has ever isolated his essence more precisely than do the words he himself provided in the concluding lines of letter 1 of The Borough:
Of sea or river, of a quay or street,The best description must be incomplete;But when a happier theme succeeds, and whenMen are our subjects and the deeds of men;Then may we find the Muse in happier style,And we may sometimes sigh and sometimes smile.
Any reader who has generously sampled Crabbe’s work would likely agree with the point suggested here: It is indeed people and their actions that form the central focus in the majority of his poems. Crabbe was, above all else, a narrative poet, and in the estimation of some critics second only to Geoffrey Chaucer. Paradoxically, however, his reputation in his own day (and to some extent even in the present) was not primarily based on that fact. Rather, he was seen as a painter in words—a master of highly particularized visual imagery who conjured up vivid landscapes and interior settings, most often for the purpose of emphasizing the sordid and brutal elements of existence. Though people might be present in these scenes, they were generally seen as little more than corollary features to the inanimate components dominating the whole (such as the famous description of the aged shepherd in the poorhouse found in book 1 of The Village). Hence, Sir Walter Scott’s well-known epithet, “nature’s sternest poet” (“nature” in the nineteenth century sense of the term), has come to epitomize the predominant attitude toward Crabbe as a poet. That view is indeed unfortunate, for the narrowness of its emphasis ignores the very features of Crabbe’s work on which his surest claim to significance might be built. Missing in this approach, for example, is any notion of the richness and diversity of Crabbe’s humor, surely one of his most delightful features. Furthermore, such a limited view fails to note the increasingly optimistic tone of Crabbe’s work, in its progress from The Village to Tales of the Hall. Most important, however, the opinion reverses what surely must be the proper emphasis when considering Crabbe’s poetry as a whole: People, rather than merely serving to enhance Crabbe’s realistic descriptions, are in fact the subject and center of his concern. Nature and external detail, while present to a significant degree in his poetry, exist primarily to illuminate his fascination with character.
If any one reason might be cited for the disproportionate emphasis given to Crabbe’s descriptive and pessimistic qualities, it would most likely be the influence of The Village. This poem, a sensation in its own day and still the most consistently anthologized of Crabbe’s works, paints an unrelentingly bleak picture of human existence in a manner that is essentially descriptive and makes extensive use of external detail. These same concerns and techniques may also be seen to operate in large portions of Crabbe’s next two major works, The Parish Register (which appeared in Poems) and The Borough. In all these, the influence of Crabbe’s early life, and especially his perceptions of his native town of Aldeburgh, form the controlling focus. At the same time, however, as early as The Village itself and certainly in the works that follow it, the perceptive reader can note Crabbe’s increasing interest in character and narration. By the time Tales in Verse was published, the mode had become completely narrative and continued to be so throughout the poet’s writing career.
Moreover, a concomitant softening of the hard lines presented in Crabbe’s early poetry becomes increasingly evident as he moved more and more in the direction of a psychological and sociological examination of the factors necessary for successful human interaction. True, social criticism, human suffering, and the stultifying effects of an inhospitable environment are factors that never disappear entirely from Crabbe’s writings. As time goes on, however, they retreat significantly from their earlier position of predominance and assume no more than their proportionate role in what Jeffrey referred to as “the pattern of Crabbe’s arabesque.”
With a canon as large as Crabbe’s, it is perhaps to be expected that a remarkably large and diverse array of themes and motifs may be cataloged when examining his work as a whole. Nevertheless, certain patterns recur frequently enough in dynamic variation so as to be considered dominant. Proceeding, as they invariably do, from an intense interest in character and in human interaction, they are all rich in psychological and sociological insights. Chief among them are the problems of moral isolation, of the influence of relatives on young minds, of success and failure in matters of love, courtship and marriage, and of the search for reconciliation as an antidote to bitterness and estrangement. To watch these thematic concerns grow in texture and complexity as Crabbe explores them in a succession of tales is one of the pleasures of reading a generous and representative selection of his works. Of no less interest is the process of experimentation and refinement by which Crabbe first discovers and then seeks to perfect the stylistic and structural mechanisms best suited to his characteristic narrative voice.
From the moment of its first appearance in 1783 to the present, the most immediate response of critics and general readers alike has been to see The Village as a poem written in response to Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1770), published thirteen years earlier. This is certainly understandable. The respective titles invite such comparison, and Crabbe himself explicitly alludes to Goldsmith’s poem on several occasions. Furthermore, it is apparent to even the most casual reader that Crabbe’s Aldeburgh (for most assuredly it is Aldeburgh that forms the model for The Village) is in every conceivable way the very antithesis of Goldsmith’s Auburn. Although all this is true, the notion of Crabbe’s poem as a simple rebuttal of Goldsmith is far too limiting; rather, it should be seen as a poem that constitutes in large part a reaction against the entire eighteenth century literary convention that governs Goldsmith’s poem. The term antipastoral is a convenient label to use here, but only if one keeps in mind the fact that Crabbe’s bias against the pastoral mode is somewhat specialized. It is not classical pastoralism or even its manifestations in earlier English poetry to which Crabbe objects, but rather the manner in which, in the eighteenth century, poets and public alike had irrationally come to accept the conventions of pastoral description as constituting accurate and useful representations of rural life. If it is somewhat difficult to understand the tone of outrage that underlies the cutting edge of Crabbe’s realism in this poem, it is perhaps because most modern readers, unlike Crabbe, have been spared the effusions of countless minor poets, most of them deservedly now forgotten, whose celebrations of the joys of pastoral rusticity filled the “poet’s corner” of many a fashionable eighteenth century magazine. He speaks to them when he says: “Yes, thus the Muses sing of happy swains,/ Because the Muses never knew their pains.” Crabbe knew their pains; he had felt many of them himself, perhaps too many to assure his own objectivity. For, whatever the merits of seeing The Village as a realistic rejoinder to an artificial and decadent literary tradition, one must always remember that Crabbe’s brand of realism may at times in itself be somewhat suspect by virtue of the conscious and unconscious prejudices he bears toward his subject matter.
The Village consists of two parts—books 1 and 2—but it is book 1 that has always commanded the greatest interest. This portion of the poem is dominated by a number of descriptive set pieces, perhaps the most frequently quoted passages in all of Crabbe’s works. The first of these, and the one that perhaps best epitomizes the poem’s uncompromisingly harsh view of rural life, concerns the countryside that surrounds the village—the coastline and adjoining heaths. It is a bleak, barren, forbidding prospect that Crabbe presents, a landscape inhospitable to people and barely capable of sustaining life of any sort. Images of decay and sickness, of despair, of almost anthropomorphic hostility pervade the descriptions, chiefly of vegetation, of this isolated sector of the East Anglian seacoast. Almost imperceptibly, Crabbe moves from this dominant sense of place to his initial, tentative descriptions of the inhabitants, the first of many instances in his poetry in which people and physical setting are juxtaposed in meaningful counterpoint.
The next of the famous set pieces in the poem is a description of the village poorhouse, the vividness and intensity of which so struck Crabbe’s contemporaries that the language they frequently used to discuss it is of a sort most generally reserved for discussions of painting. Several modern commentators have argued that, in this section of the poem, Crabbe is functioning primarily as a social critic, calling into question, among other things, the prevailing Poor Laws and their administration in local parishes. This may be so; nevertheless, it is again the pure descriptive vividness of this scene that remains its most memorable feature. The details relating to the exterior and interior of the building form a backdrop to the cataloging of its miserable inhabitants. Again, the predominant images are of decay, oppressiveness, and despair. Amid these scenes of not-so-quiet desperation, Crabbe gives particular attention to one inhabitant of the poorhouse, an old shepherd, worn out, useless, lodged there to pine away his days in loneliness and frustration. Perhaps nowhere else in the poem does Crabbe so brutally and cynically mock the pastoral ideal. Book 1 ends with vicious satirical portraits of the doctor and priest who, paid by the parish to attend to the needs of the inhabitants of the poorhouse, openly and contemptuously neglect their duties.
Book 2 is considerably less successful in its execution, primarily owing to a lack of consistency in tone and format. Crabbe begins by intimating that he wishes to soften his harsh picture of village life by showing some of its gentler moments; soon, however, this degenerates into a description and condemnation of the drunkenness of the villagers, a subject that he had previously explored in the youthful Inebriety. Even more disturbing, however, is the poem’s conclusion, which takes the form of an unrelated and lengthy eulogy on Lord Robert Manners, late younger brother of the duke of Rutland, the man whom Crabbe was currently serving as private chaplain.
Although it is probably his best-known work and contains some of his finest descriptive writing, The Village is hardly Crabbe’s most representative poem. In his treatment of the aged shepherd, in the satiric portraits of the doctor and priest, one may sense the embryonic forms of the distinctive narrative voice that would ultimately come to dominate his poetry; before this manifested itself, however, a number of years had intervened.
With the exception of The News-Paper, a lukewarm satire on the periodical press very much in the Augustan mode, Crabbe published no poetry in the period between the appearance of The Village in 1783 and the release of the collection, Poems, in 1807. That he was not artistically inactive during this period, however, is evidenced by the vigor and diversity of the poems found in the 1807 volume, and there is ample reason to lament the many efforts in manuscript he is known to have destroyed at this time. In addition to his previously published works, the 1807 Poems contained a number of commendable new efforts, including “The Birth of Flattery,” “The Hall of Justice,” and the provocative “Sir Eustace Grey.” All these works show Crabbe experimenting with various narrative techniques. The star attraction of the new collection, however, was a much longer poem entitled The Parish Register.
The Parish Register
Readers who enjoyed the angry, debunking tone of Crabbe’s antipastoralism in The Village were probably delighted by the first several hundred lines of The Parish Register, which seem to signal a continuation of the same interests. “Since vice the world subdued and waters drown’d,/ Auburn and Eden can no more be found,” Crabbe notes wryly and then proceeds to unveil a number of highly particularized descriptions, the most memorable of which outlines in vivid and often disgusting detail the vice and squalor of a poor village street. If anything, Crabbe appears to be well on his way to outdoing his previous efforts in this vein. At this point, however, the poem suddenly takes a new tack and begins to present a series of narratives that in the aggregate constitute its dominant...
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