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.