Although George Crabbe’s poem, THE VILLAGE, contains two books, the anthologists have been largely justified in printing Book I as a separate poem. This book is in part a bitter answer to Oliver Goldsmith’s sentimental picture of rural life in THE DESERTED VILLAGE: “I paint the cot/ As Truth will paint it, and as Bards will not.” Book II continues the theme of the first book for over a hundred lines, then turns into a memorial eulogy of Lord Robert Manners, the brother of Crabbe’s patron, the Duke of Rutland.
Crabbe’s long life spanned the periods of eighteenth-century classicism and nineteenth-century romanticism, and his work contains elements of both schools. His friends included Samuel Johnson among the earlier poets and Sir Walter Scott among the later. Johnson “corrected” some of Crabbe’s poetry and, according to Boswell, revised lines 15-20 of THE VILLAGE:
On Mincio’s banks, in Caesar’s bounteousreign,If Tityrus found the Golden Age again,Must sleepy bards the flattering dreamprolong,Mechanic echoes of the Mantuan song?From Truth and Nature shall we widelystray,Where Virgin, not where Fancy, leads theway?
These lines do have a Johnsonian flavor; and although they fit into the structure of the poem, they are not entirely typical of Crabbe. Francis Jeffrey, one of Crabbe’s admiring later contemporaries, wrote: “The scope of the poem is to show that the villagers of real life have no resemblance to the villagers of poetry; that poverty, in sober truth, is very uncomfortable; and vice by no means confined to the opulent.”
Jeffrey set the tone for much subsequent criticism of Crabbe: “His characteristic, certainly, is force and truth of description, joined for the most part to great selection and condensation of expression. . . . With a taste less disciplined and less fastidious than that of Goldsmith, he has, in our apprehension, a keener eye for observation, and a readier hand for the delineation of what he has observed.” Crabbe has frequently been compared with the Dutch realistic painters, and THE VILLAGE is rich with vigorous, natural word-painting. A dismal landscape with infertile soil and hardy weeds, listed and described by name, serves as background for group and individual portraits of a surly, selfish, unscrupulous, vicious, often miserable population. Particularly notable is his interior scene of the poorhouse:
Theirs is yon house that holds the parishpoor,Whose walls of mud scarce bear thebroken door;There, where the putrid vapors, flaggingplay,And the dull wheel hums dolefulthrough the day—There children dwell, who know noparents’ care;Parents, who know no children’s love,dwell there!Heart-broken matrons on their joylessbed,Forsaken wives, and mothers neverwed;Dejected widows with unheeded tears,And crippled age with more than childhoodfears;The lame, the blind, and, far the happiestthey!The moping idiot and the madman gay.
In this miserable house one of the aged inmates is dying. In connection with this death Crabbe introduces two of his most savage caricatures. First, he presents the doctor:
Anon, a figure enters, quaintly neat,All pride and business, bustle and con-ceit;With looks unalter’d by these scenes ofwoe,With speed that, entering, speaks hishaste to go,He bids the gazing throng around himfly,And carries fate and physic in his eye:A potent quack, long versed in humanills,Who first insults the victim whom hekills;Whose murd’rous hand a drowsy Benchprotect,And whose most tender mercy is neg-lect.
After the departure of the doctor, the dying man asks for the parish priest. This character is a direct antithesis to the venerable vicar of Goldsmith’s THE DESERTED VILLAGE or THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD. He is concerned with hunting in the daytime and whist at night. He not only fails to answer the summons before the death, but cannot be troubled with saying the funeral service until the following Sunday:
And waiting long, the crowd retire dis-tress’d,To think a poor man’s bones should lieunbless’d.
These lines end the first book.
The smugglers and drunkards of Book I are forerunners of an equally vicious or more vicious group in the first part of Book II. In both books death is spoken of as a deliverer and equalizer. The elegy on Manners occupies the final hundred lines of the poem and is really complete in itself.
Crabbe has had warm admirers ever since THE VILLAGE was published. In our time Edwin Arlington Robinson paid him tribute in a strong-fibered sonnet; he felt that changing fashions in literature could not obscure Crabbe’s “hard, human pulse” or his “plain excellence and stubborn skill.” In his opera PETER GRIMES, based on one of the tales in THE BOROUGH, Benjamin Britten has brought Crabbe to the attention of many who knew little about the old poet; but THE VILLAGE, which first made Crabbe’s poetic reputation, still best sustains it, and remains his most familiar and frequently read poem.