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December 22nd, 2004

  What to Make of George Crabbe


George Crabbe: An English Life
by Neil Powell
Pimlico; 352 pp. $22.95

George Crabbe was a minor poet, floruit the couple of decades on each side of 1800. He made most of his living as a country clergyman. He published nothing but verse, took no part in public affairs, and had no interest in science, philosophy, art or music. He seems not to have noticed the Napoleonic Wars. He spent almost his entire life in southern England, only venturing once to Edinburgh, at age 67, to visit Sir Walter Scott. His private life was wellnigh eventless: married to the same woman for thirty years, he had seven children, of whom two sons survived to adulthood (both became country clergymen). There seem to have been no sexual adventures or eccentricities beyond, just possibly, a couple of visits to bawdy-houses. He took opium, but not immoderately; and this was, in any case, an age when opium was freely sold and widely consumed in England. He did not even get into interesting financial difficulties, as Scott did.

Nor does Crabbe's verse offer much to the historian of literature. His life span, 1754-1832, completely encompassed those of Byron, Shelley, Keats, Burns, and Jane Austen. It missed encompassing the life spans of Coleridge and Scott by only months. Wordsworth outlived Crabbe, of course. Wordsworth outlived everybody (including, one cannot resist adding, himself). Some of these persons were among Crabbe's admirers. Jane Austen actually borrowed one of his characters to put in Mansfield Park. Even Samuel Johnson had kind, or at any rate not unkind, words for one of Crabbe's early efforts. Yet practically all of Crabbe's verse was, in the words of Somerset Maugham, "moral stories in rhymed couplets." The first of these came out in the early 1780s. There was then a 22-year hiatus in which Crabbe published nothing. In the middle of that hiatus, Wordsworth and Coleridge produced their Lyrical Ballads; but when Crabbe returned to the publishers' lists in 1807 his style, diction, and subject matter were very nearly unchanged. The admiration of those big names was largely unrequited: Crabbe "only mildly admired" the Lake poets, according to this biographer, and did not care for "Don Juan" at all.

Crabbe's poetry is of limited appeal to today's reader. The greater part of it is narrative verse, than which almost no other genre of poetry is deader. (To my personal regret, but there you are.) Accustomed as we have become to the firework effects of the Romantics and the circus acts of the Moderns, Crabbe's long pages of iambic couplets lull us to sleep. His topics are small: a wayward son, an absentee landowner, homilies on the perils of the imagination and the sufferings of the poor. Very little of it sticks in the mind. It is hard not to think that but for the chance of Benjamin Britten having made an opera out of Crabbe's poem "Peter Grimes," the poet would by now be utterly forgotten. "Crabbe's decision to publish The Village was a more courageous one than its modern readers usually appreciate," Powell tells us. It is hard not to smile at that. How many of these "modern readers" are there? All right, outside the Academy, how many are there?

So why write a biography? Well, there is academic log-rolling. After 100-odd years of salaried Eng. Lit. studies, it's very tough to find anything new to say about Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton, and even lesser veins of ore are pretty much worked out. Yet papers must be written, books published, and Critical Heritages assembled. Why not have a go at old George? True, there have already been three biographies (the first by the poet's son), and that might seem like a lot of weight for such a small talent to bear. The last of the three was in 1972, though, so perhaps there's a gap to be plugged in some publisher's list somewhere.

Unfortunately for this explanation, Neil Powell seems not to be a salaried academic. "Freelance writer, editor, and lecturer," says Google. He lives in Aldeburgh, though, the poet's home town, and can rest part of his case for this book on the very localism of Crabbe's best verse. To anyone not acquainted with that part of southern England, this aspect of Crabbe must seem hard to understand. I can personally testify, though, that the muddy estuaries of the mid-Suffolk coast, and the flat marshy hinterland, all enveloped in chilly fog or still, dull heat, offer a highly atmospheric backdrop to the poetic — not to mention operatic — imagination. Powell brings this out well, and left me wondering why the region has not generated more poets.

Crabbe had those North Sea mists soaked into his bones. Of some doings on an undefined "Western Isle" in his poem "The Parting Hour," published in 1812, Powell notes: "All this Crabbe recounts effectively, although the scene is too far from Suffolk to engage his fullest interest." Just so. In a 1792 letter to Edmund Cartwright (whose father, also Crabbe's friend, was the inventor of the steam-powered loom — Crabbe was not entirely bereft of interesting acquaintances), the poet offered his own manifesto:

People speak with raptures of fine prospects, clear skies, lawns, parks, and the blended beauties of art and nature, but give me a wild, wide fen in a foggy day; with quaking boggy ground and trembling hillocks in a putrid soil: shut in by the closeness of the atmosphere, all about is like a new creation …

It is not very surprising that Crabbe's best-know poem, "Peter Grimes," is likewise steeped in those sluggish, brackish coastal waters:

When tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
Through the tall bounding mud-banks made their way,
Which on each side rose swelling, and below
The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide …

It is this localism, I think, that accounts for what survives of Crabbe's appeal. The English have a weakness for local references and atmosphere in their verse unmatched, to my knowledge, by any other nation. My edition of John Betjeman's Collected Poems has an "Index of Places and Counties" running to 45 column inches containing over 400 entries.

Crabbe's principal appeal to his own time, and his sole claim to originality in verse, was what we should nowadays call his "realism." Here is Byron:

We have been so long assailed by the wonderful and terrific in the poems and romances of the present day … that it is some comfort to feel ourselves with Mr. Crabbe in a whole skin among beings like ourselves, and without a hippogryph or dragon at our elbow.

I don't think it is any offense to Crabbe to say that this aspect of his work, while of course interesting to a chronicler of literary fashion, does little to commend him to today's reader. We are not nowadays starved for realism. Crabbe had his day, though: in 1819 a publisher paid £3,000 for Tales of the Hall, equivalent to a quarter million dollars of today's money. That publisher seems to have lost on the deal; but for clues to why he made it, Neil Powell's book is as much as anyone could wish for.