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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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 his

(The entire section is 818 words.)