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 Reynolds, Charles James Fox, and Johnson. It was Burke also who convinced Crabbe to take holy orders in the Anglican Church and who used his influence to get the young poet ordained, which occurred in 1782. Burke then secured for him a position that allowed him to pursue his duties as a clergyman while at the same time leaving sufficient leisure to write poetry.
His financial worries finally over, his career set, Crabbe entered a largely productive and happy phase in his life. He and Sarah were married in 1783, and over the years, Crabbe was assigned to various livings in Suffolk and Leicestershire. In the early 1790’s, the deaths of several of their children affected Sarah’s mental state in a way that would become progressively more desperate until her death in 1813. At about the same time, Crabbe began to suffer from vertigo and digestive ailments. Opium was prescribed, and he continued to use the drug for the remainder of his life. For these and perhaps other reasons, he published no poetry for a period of twenty-two years, though he is known to have continued writing poems and other literary works, the majority of which he ultimately destroyed. Crabbe’s literary reemergence in 1807 marked the beginning of his most significant period of poetic production, culminating in the 1819 publication of Tales of the Hall. Following Sarah’s death, he assumed the livings at Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, where he passed the remaining years of his life as a celebrated member of his community, taking occasional trips to London and Suffolk to visit old friends. Though he never remarried, he maintained a lively correspondence with admiring female readers in several parts of the British Isles. Crabbe died in the rectory at Trowbridge on February 3, 1832.
George Crabbe (krab), born at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, in 1754, was the eldest son of a schoolmaster and revenue officer. In his youth, while apprenticed to a surgeon at Woodbridge, he met his future wife, Sarah Elmy, whom he addressed in his poems as “Mira.” After practicing surgery for a time he began to despair of his aptitude for the profession, and in 1780, bearing with him his accumulated poems in manuscript, he went to London in the hope of subsisting by literature. There, Crabbe owed much to patronage. Edmund Burke arranged for him to take holy orders in 1781 and recommended him to the duke of Rutland, who appointed Crabbe as his chaplain and started him on the progress from curate to rector.
Marrying in 1783, his financial condition improved gradually through the increasing popularity of his poems and later through an inheritance from his wife’s family. Typical of many eighteenth century Anglican parsons, Crabbe was a pluralist, one deriving income from a number of parishes; at one time Crabbe was rector of thirteen parishes, one in his birthplace. As a member of the minor gentry, his politics were conservative, and as a churchman, his theology was more ethical than mystical. His sermons were popular with his congregations, as were the sessions at home when Crabbe read eighteenth century fiction aloud to his family. Though of humble education—his degree was honorary—Crabbe was well read in the Latin and English classic authors and kept a well-stocked library. The Village was published in 1783, and in 1785, The News-Paper.
Crabbe’s financial circumstances improved little by little, but he brought out no more poems until 1807, when a collected edition was issued. He achieved some popularity with The Borough and Tales in Verse, and he gained the friendship of Sir Walter Scott. His wife’s mind failed in her last years; she died in 1813. He lived until February 3, 1832, dying at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, where he had become rector in 1814.
Crabbe’s literary biography falls into four periods. The earliest is marked by the Augustan style of generalized verse essays such as Inebriety, The Candidate, The Village, and The News-Paper. Later he turned to particularized character sketches as in “The Parish Register” (from Poems) and The Borough. His best work is that of his third period, especially Tales in Verse, narrative poems of remarkable realism. His last period is one of decline in Tales of the Hall and Posthumous Tales, poems that lack the vigor of the earlier work.
As a poet Crabbe was widely read and respected, praised by authors as different as Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and Lord Byron. He was a friend of Sir Walter Scott and a frequent guest of the brilliant Holland House circle. Highly popular in the 1800’s, his work nevertheless lagged behind the Romantic poetical fashion despite its own substantial intrinsic merits.