"Oh, laugh or mourn with me the rueful jest, A cassocked huntsman, and a fiddling priest."
Cowper's first volume, containing Table-Talk and its companion satires, appeared some months before Crabbe's Village. The shortcomings of the clergy are a favourite topic with him, and a varied gallery of the existing types of clerical inefficiency may be formed from his pages. Many of Cowper's strictures were amply justified by the condition of the English Church. But Cowper's method is not Crabbe's. The note of the satirist is seldom absent, blended at times with just a suspicion of that of the Pharisee. The humorist and the Puritan contend for predominance in the breast of this polished gentleman and scholar. Cowper's friend, Newton, in the Preface he wrote for his first volume, claimed for the poet that his satire was "benevolent." But it was not always discriminating or just. The satirist's keen love of antithesis often weakens the moral virtue of Cowper's strictures. In this earliest volume anger was more conspicuous than sorrow, and contempt perhaps more obvious than either. The callousness of public opinion on many subjects needed other medicine than this. Hence was it perhaps that Cowper's volume, which appeared in May 1782, failed to awaken interest. Crabbe's Village appeared just a year later (it had been completed a year or two earlier), and at once made its mark. "It was praised," writes his son, "in the leading journals; the sale was rapid and extensive; and my father's reputation was by universal consent greatly raised, and permanently established, by this poem," The number of anonymous letters it brought the author, some of gratitude, and some of resentment (for it had laid its finger on many sores in the body-politic), showed how deeply his touch had been felt. Further publicity for the poem was obtained by Burke, who inserted the description of the Parish Workhouse and the Village Apothecary in The Annual Register, which he controlled. The same pieces were included a few years later by Vicesimus Knox in that excellent Miscellany Elegant Extracts. And Crabbe was to learn in later life from Walter Scott how, when a youth of eighteen, spending a snowy winter in a lonely country-house, he fell in with the volume of The Annual Register containing the passages from The Village; how deeply they had sunk into his heart; and that (writing then to Crabbe in the year 1809) he could repeat them still from memory.
Edmund Burke's friend, Edward Shackleton, meeting Crabbe at Burke's house soon after the publication of the poem, paid him an elegant tribute. Goldsmith's, he said, would now be the "deserted" village. Crabbe modestly disclaimed the compliment, and assuredly with reason Goldsmith's delightful poem will never be deserted. For it is no loss good and wise to dwell on village life as it might be, than to reflect on what it has suffered from man's inhumanity to man. What made Crabbe a now force in English poetry, was that in his verse Pity appears, after a long oblivion, as the true antidote to Sentimentalism. The reader is not put off with pretty imaginings, but is led up to the object which the poet would show him, and made to feel its horror. If Crabbe is our first great realist in verse, he uses his realism in the cause of a true humanity. Facit indignatio versum.
[Footnote 1: I cannot deny myself the pleasure of here acknowledging my indebtedness to a French scholar, M. Huchon of the University of Nancy. M. Huchon is himself engaged upon a study of the Life and Poetry of Crabbe, and in the course of a conversation with me in London, first called my attention to the volume containing this letter. I agree with him in thinking that no previous biographer of Crabbe has been aware of its existence.]
LIFE AT BELVOIR CASTLE AND AT MUSTON
"The sudden popularity of The Village" writes Crabbe's son and biographer, "must have produced, after the numberless slights and disappointments already mentioned, and even after the tolerable success of The Library, about as strong a revulsion in my father's mind as a ducal chaplaincy in his circumstances; but there was no change in his temper or manners. The successful author continued as modest as the rejected candidate for publication had been patient and long-suffering." The biographer might have remarked as no less strange that the success of The Village failed, for the moment at least, to convince Crabbe where his true strength lay. When he again published a poem, two years later, he reverted to the old Popian topics and methods in a by no means successful didactic satire on newspapers. Meantime the occasional visits of the Duke of Rutland and his family to London brought the chaplain again in touch with the Burkes and the friends he had first made through them, notably with Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was also able to visit the theatre occasionally, and fell under the spell, not only of Mrs. Siddons, but of Mrs. Jordan (in the character of Sir Harry Wildair). It was now decided that as a nobleman's chaplain it would be well for him to have a university degree, and to this end his name was entered on the boards of Trinity College, Cambridge, through the good offices of Bishop Watson of Llandaff, with a view to his obtaining a degree without residence. This was in 1783, but almost immediately afterwards he received an LL.B. degree from the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was obtained for Crabbe in order that he might hold two small livings in Dorsetshire, Frome St. Quintin and Evershot, to which he had just been presented by Thurlow. It was on this occasion that the Chancellor made his memorable comparison of Crabbe to Parson Adams, no doubt pointing to a certain rusticity, and possibly provincial accent, from which Crabbe seems never to have been wholly free. This promotion seems to have interfered very little with Crabbe's residence at Belvoir or in London. A curate was doubtless placed in one or other of the parsonage-houses in Dorsetshire at such modest stipend as was then usual—often not more than thirty pounds a year—and the rector would content himself with a periodical flying visit to receive tithe, or inquire into any parish grievances that may have reached his ear. As incidents of this kind will be not infrequent during the twenty years that follow in Crabbe's clerical career, it may be well to intimate at once that no peculiar blame attaches to him in the matter. He but "partook of the frailty of his times." During these latter years of the eighteenth century, as for long before and after, pluralism in the Church was rather the rule than the exception, and in consequence non-residence was recognised as inevitable, and hardly matter for comment. The two Dorsetshire livings were of small value, and as Crabbe was now looking forward to his marriage with the faithful Miss Elmy, he could not have afforded to reside. He may not, however, have thought it politic to decline the first preferment offered by so important a dispenser of patronage as the Lord Chancellor.
Events, however, were at hand, which helped to determine Crabbe's immediate future. Early in 1784 the Duke of Rutland became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The appointment had been made some time before, and it had been decided that Crabbe was not to be on the Castle staff. His son expresses no surprise at this decision, and makes of it no grievance. The duke and the chaplain parted excellent friends. Crabbe and his wife were to remain at Belvoir as long as it suited their convenience, and the duke undertook that he would not forget him as regarded future preferment. On the strength of these offers, Crabbe and Miss Elmy wore married in December 1783, in the parish church of Beccles, where Miss Elmy's mother resided, and a few weeks later took up their abode in the rooms assigned them at Belvoir Castle.
As Miss Elmy had lived for many years with her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. John Tovell, at Parham, and moreover as this rural inland village played a considerable part in the development of Crabbe's poetical faculty, it may be well to quote his son's graphic account of the domestic circumstances of Miss Elmy's relatives. Mr. Tovell was, like Mr. Hathaway, "a substantial yeoman," for he owned an estate of some eight hundred a year, to some share of which, as the Tovells had lost their only child, Miss Elmy would certainly in due course succeed. The Tovells' house at Parham, which has been long ago pulled down, and rebuilt as Paritam Lodge, on very different lines, was of ample size, with its moat, so common a feature of the homestead in the eastern counties, "rookery, dove-cot, and fish-ponds"; but the surroundings were those of the ordinary farmhouse, for Mr. Tovell himself cultivated part of his estate.
"The drawing-room, a corresponding dining-parlour, and a handsome sleeping apartment upstairs, were all tabooed ground, and made use of on great and solemn occasions only—such as rent-days, and an occasional visit with which Mr. Tovell was honoured by a neighbouring peer. At all other times the family and their visitors lived entirely in the old-fashioned kitchen along with the servants. My great-uncle occupied an armchair, or, in attacks of gout, a couch on one side of a large open chimney.... At a very early hour in the morning the alarum called the maids, and their mistress also; and if the former were tardy, a louder alarum, and more formidable, was heard chiding their delay—not that scolding was peculiar to any occasion; it regularly ran on through all the day, like bells on harness, inspiriting the work, whether it were done well or ill." In the annotated volume of the son's memoir which belonged to Edward FitzGerald, the writer added the following detail as to his great-aunt's temper and methods:—"A wench whom Mrs. Tovell had pursued with something weightier than invective—a ladle, I think—whimpered out 'If an angel from Hiv'n were to come mawther'" (Suffolk for girl) "'to missus, she wouldn't give no satisfaction.'"
George Crabbe the younger, who gives this graphic account of the menage at Parham, was naturally anxious to claim for his mother, who so long formed one of this queer household, a degree of refinement superior to that of her surroundings. After describing the daily dinner-party in the kitchen—master, mistress, servants, with an occasional "travelling rat-catcher or tinker"—he skilfully points out that his mother's feelings must have resembled those of the boarding-school miss in his father's "Widow's Tale" when subjected to a like experience:—
"But when the men beside their station took, The maidens with them, and with these the cook; When one huge wooden bowl before them stood, Filled with huge balls of farinaceous food; With bacon, mass saline! where never lean Beneath the brown and bristly rind was seen: When from a single horn the party drew Their copious draughts of heavy ale and new; When the coarse cloth she saw, with many a stain, Soiled by rude hands who cut and came again— She could not breathe, but with a heavy sigh, Reined the fair neck, and shut th' offended eye; She minced the sanguine flesh in frustums fine, And wondered much to see the creatures dine!"
The home of the Tovells has long disappeared, and it must not therefore be confused with the more remarkable "moated grange" in Parham, originally the mansion of the Willoughbys, though now a farmhouse, boasting a fine Tudor gateway and other fragments of fifteenth and sixteenth century work. An engraving of the Hall and moat, after Stanfield, forms an illustration to the third volume of the 1834 edition of Crabbe.
When Crabbe began The Village, it was clearly intended to be, like The Borough later, a picture of Aldeburgh and its inhabitants. Yet not only Parham, but the country about Belvoir crept in before the poem was completed. If the passage in Book I. beginning:—
"Lo! where the heath, with withering brake grown o'er,"
describes pure Aldeburgh, the opening lines of Book II., taking a more roseate view of rural happiness:—
"I, too, must yield, that oft amid those woes Are gleams of transient mirth and hours of sweet repose, Such as you find on yonder sportive Green, The squire's tall gate, and churchway-walk between, Where loitering stray a little tribe of friends On a fair Sunday when the sermon ends,"
are drawn from the pleasant villages in the Midlands (perhaps Allington, where he was afterwards to minister), whither he rambled on his botanising excursions from Belvoir Castle.
George Crabbe and his bride settled down in their apartments at Belvoir Castle, but difficulties soon arose. Crabbe was without definite clerical occupation, unless he read prayers to the few servants left in charge; and was simply waiting for whatever might turn up in the way of preferment from the Manners family, or from the Lord Chancellor. The young couple soon found the position intolerable, and after less than eighteen months Crabbe wisely accepted a vacant curacy in the neighbourhood, that of Stathern in Leicestershire, to the humble parsonage of which parish Crabbe and his wife removed in 1785. A child had been born to them at Belvoir, who survived its birth only a few hours. During the following four years at Stathern were born three other children—the two sons, George and John, in 1785 and 1787, and a daughter in 1789, who died in infancy.
Stathern is a village about four miles from Belvoir Castle, and the drive or walk from one to the other lies through the far-spreading woods and gardens surrounding the ducal mansion. Crabbe entered these woods almost at his very door, and found there ample opportunity for his botanical studies, which were still his hobby. As usual his post was that of locum tenens, the rector, Dr. Thomas Parke, then residing at his other living at Stamford. My friend, the Rev. J.W. Taylor, the present rector of Stathern, who entered on his duties in 1866, tells me of one or two of the village traditions concerning Crabbe. One of these is to the effect that he spoke "through his nose," which I take to have been the local explanation of a marked Suffolk accent which accompanied the poet through life. Another, that he was peppery of temper, and that an exceedingly youthful couple having presented themselves for holy matrimony, Crabbe drove them with scorn from the altar, with the remark that he had come there to marry "men and women, and not lads and wenches!"
Crabbe used to tell his children that the four years at Stathern were, on the whole, the happiest in his life. He and his wife were in humble quarters, but they were their own masters, and they were quit of "the pampered menial" for ever. "My mother and he," the son writes, "could now ramble together at their ease amidst the rich woods of Belvoir without any of the painful feelings which had before chequered his enjoyment of the place: at home a garden afforded him healthful exercise and unfailing amusement; and his situation as a curate prevented him from being drawn into any sort of unpleasant disputes with the villagers about him"—an ambiguous statement which probably, however, means that the absent rector had to settle difficulties as to tithe, and other parochial grievances. Crabbe now again brought his old medical attainments, such as they were, to the aid of his poor parishioners, "and had often great difficulty in confining his practice strictly within the limits of the poor, for the farmers would willingly have been attended gratis also." His literary labours subsequent to The Village seem to have been slight, with the exception of a brief memoir of Lord Robert Manners contributed to The Annual Register in 1784, for the poem of The Newspaper, published in 1785, was probably "old stock." It is unlikely that Crabbe, after the success of The Village, should have willingly turned again to the old and unprofitable vein of didactic satire. But, the poem being in his desk, he perhaps thought that it might bring in a few pounds to a household which certainly needed them. "The Newspaper, a Poem, by the Rev. George Crabbe, Chaplain to his Grace the Duke of Rutland, printed for J. Dodsley, in Pall Mall," appeared as a quarto pamphlet (price 2s.) in 1785, with a felicitous motto from Ovid's Metamorphoses on the title-page, and a politic dedication to Lord Thurlow, evincing a gratitude for past favours, and (unexpressed) a lively sense of favours to come.
The Newspaper is, to say truth, of little value, either as throwing light on the journalism of Crabbe's day, or as a step in his poetic career. The topics are commonplace, such as the strange admixture of news, the interference of the newspaper with more useful reading, and the development of the advertiser's art. It is written in the fluent and copious vein of mild satire and milder moralising which Crabbe from earliest youth had so assiduously practised. If a few lines are needed as a sample, the following will show that the methods of literary puffing are not so original to-day as might be supposed. After indicating the tradesman's ingenuity in this respect, the poet adds.—
"These are the arts by which a thousand live, Where Truth may smile, and Justice may forgive. But when, amid this rabble-rout, we find A puffing poet, to his honour blind: Who slily drops quotations all about Packet or Post, and points their merit out; Who advertises what reviewers say, With sham editions every second day; Who dares not trust his praises out of sight, But hurries into fame with all his might; Although the verse some transient praise obtains, Contempt is all the anxious poet gains"
The Newspaper seems to have been coldly received by the critics, who had perhaps been led by The Village to expect something very different, and Crabbe never returned to the satirical-didactic line. Indeed, for twenty-two years he published nothing more, although he wrote continuously, and as regularly committed the bulk of his manuscript to the domestic fire-place. Meantime he lived a happy country life at Stathern, studying botany, reading aloud to his wife, and by no means forgetting the wants of his poor parishioners. He visited periodically his Dorsetshire livings, introducing his wife on one such occasion, as he passed through London, to the Burkes. And one day, seized with an acute attack of the mal du pays, he rode sixty miles to the coast of Lincolnshire that he might once more "dip," as his son expresses it, "in the waves that washed the beach of Aldeburgh."
In October 1787, Crabbe's household were startled by the news of the death of his friend and patron the Duke of Rutland, who died at the Vice-regal Lodge at Dublin, after a short illness, at the early age of thirty-three. The duke, an open-handed man and renowned for his extravagant hospitalities, had lived "not wisely but too well." Crabbe assisted at the funeral at Belvoir, and duly published his discourse then delivered in handsome quarto. Shortly after, the duchess, anxious to retain their former chaplain in the neighbourhood, gave Crabbe a letter to Thurlow, asking him to exchange the two livings in Dorsetshire for two other, of more value, in the Vale of Belvoir. Crabbe waited on the Chancellor with the letter, but Thurlow was, or affected to be, annoyed by the request. It was a thing, he exclaimed with an oath, that he would not do "for any man in England." However, when the young and beautiful duchess later appealed to him in person, he relented, and presented Crabbe to the two livings of Muston in Leicestershire, and Allington in Lincolnshire, both, within sight of Belvoir Castle, and (as the crow flies) not much more than a mile apart. To the rectory house of Muston, Crabbe brought his family in February 1789. His connection with the two livings was to extend over five and twenty years, but during thirteen of those years, as will be seen, he was a non-resident. For the present he remained three years at the small and very retired village of Muston, about five miles from Grantham. "The house in which Crabbe lived at Muston," writes Mr. Hutton, "is now pulled down. It is replaced by one built higher up a slight hill, in a position intended, says scandal, to prevent any view of Belvoir. Crabbe with all his ironies had no such resentful feelings; indeed more modern successors of his have opened what he would have called a 'vista,' and the castle again crowns the distance as you look southward from the pretty garden."
Crabbe's first three years of residence at Muston were marked by few incidents. Another son, Edmund, was horn in the autumn of 1790, and a few weeks later a series of visits were paid by Crabbe, his wife and elder boy, to their relations at Aldeburgh, Parham, and Beccles, from which latter town, according to Crabbe's son, they visited Lowestoft, and were so fortunate as to hear the aged John Wesley preach, on a memorable occasion when he quoted Anacreon:—
"Oft am I by women told, Poor Anacreon! thou grow'st old . . . . . . . . . . But this I need not to be told, 'Tis time to live, if I grow old."
In 1792 Crabbe preached at the bishop's visitation at Grantham, and his sermon was so much admired that he was invited to receive into his house as pupils the sons of the Earl of Bute. This task, however, Crabbe rightly declined, being diffident as to his scholarship.
In October of this year Crabbe was again working hard at his botany—for like the Friar in Romeo and Juliet his time was always much divided between the counselling of young couples and the "culling of simples"—when his household received the tidings of the death of John Tovell of Parham, after a brief illness. It was momentous news to Crabbe's family, for it involved "good gifts," and many "possibilities." Crabbe was left executor, and as Mr. Tovell had died without children, the estate fell to his two sisters, Mrs. Elmy and an elderly spinster sister residing in Parham. As Mrs. Elmy's share of the estate would come to her children, and as the unmarried sister died not long after, leaving her portion in the same direction, Crabbe's anxiety for the pecuniary future of his family was at an end. He visited Parham on executor's business, and on his return found that he had made up his mind "to place a curate at Muston, and to go and reside at Parham, taking the charge of some church in that neighbourhood."
Crabbe's son, with the admirable frankness that marks his memoir throughout, does not conceal that this step in his father's life was a mistake, and that he recognised and regretted it as such on cooler reflection. The comfortable home of the Tovells at Parham fell somehow, whether by the will, or by arrangement with Mrs. Elmy, to the disposal of Crabbe, and he was obviously tempted by its ampler room and pleasant surroundings. He would be once more among relatives and acquaintances, and a social circle congenial to himself and his wife. Muston must have been very dull and lonely, except for those on visiting terms with the duke and other county magnates. Moreover it is likely that the relations of Crabbe with his village flock were already—as we know they were at a later date—somewhat strained. Let it be said once for all that judged by the standards of clerical obligation current in 1792, Crabbe was then, and remained all his life, in many important respects, a diligent parish-priest. Mr. Hutton justly remarks that "the intimate knowledge of the life of the poor which his poems show proves how constantly he must have visited, no less than how closely he must have observed." But the fact remains that though he was kind and helpful to his flock while among them in sickness and in trouble—their physician as well as their spiritual adviser—his ideas as to clerical absenteeism were those of his age, and moreover his preaching to the end of his life was not of a kind to arouse much interest or zeal. I have had access to a large packet of his manuscript sermons, preached during his residence in Suffolk and later, as proved by the endorsements on the cover, at his various incumbencies in Leicestershire and Wiltshire. They consist of plain and formal explanations of his text, reinforced by other texts, entirely orthodox but unrelieved by any resource in the way of illustration, or by any of those poetic touches which his published verse shows he had at his command. A sermon lies before me, preached first at Great Glemham in 1801, and afterwards at Little Glemham, Sweffling, Muston, and Allington; at Trowbridge in 1820, and again at Trowbridge in 1830. The preacher probably held his discourses quite as profitable at one stage in the Church's development as at another. In this estimate of clerical responsibilities Crabbe seems to have remained stationary. But meantime the laity had been aroused to expect better things. The ferment of the Wesley and Whitefield Revival was spreading slowly but surely even among the remote villages of England. What Crabbe and the bulk of the parochial clergy called "a sober and rational conversion" seemed to those who had fallen under the fervid influence of the great Methodist a savourless and ineffectual formality. The extravagances of the Movement had indeed travelled everywhere in company with its worthier fruits. Enthusiasm,—"an excellent good word until it was ill-sorted,"—found vent in various shapes that were justly feared and suspected by many of the clergy, even by those to whom "a reasonable religion" was far from being "so very reasonable as to have nothing to do with the heart and affections." It was not only the Moderates who saw its danger. Wesley himself had found it necessary to caution his more impetuous followers against its eccentricities. And Joseph Butler preaching at the Rolls Chapel on "the Love of God" thought it well to explain that in his use of the phrase there was nothing "enthusiastical." But as one mischievous extreme generates another, the influence of the prejudice against enthusiasm became disastrous, and the word came too often to be confounded with any and every form of religious fervency and earnestness. To the end of his days Crabbe, like many another, regarded sobriety and moderation in the expression of religious feeling as not only its chief safeguard but its chief ornament. It may seem strange that the poetic temperament which Crabbe certainly possessed never seemed to affect his views of life and human nature outside the fields of poetic composition. He was notably indifferent, his son tells us, "to almost all the proper objects of taste. He had no real love for painting, or music, or architecture, or for what a painter's eye considers as the beauties of landscape. But he had a passion for science—the science of the human mind, first; then, that of nature in general; and lastly that of abstract qualities."
If the defects here indicated help to explain some of those in his poetry, they may also throw light on a certain lack of imagination in Crabbe's dealings with his fellow-men in general and with his parishioners in particular. His temperament was somewhat tactless and masterful, and he could never easily place himself at the stand-point of those who differed from him. The use of his imagination was mainly confined to the hours in his study; and while there, if he had his "beaux moments," he had also his "mauvais quarts d'heure."
Perhaps if he had brought a little imagination to bear upon his relations with Muston and Allington, Crabbe would not have deserted his people so soon after coming among them. The stop made him many enemies. For here was no case of a poor curate accepting, for his family's sake, a more lucrative post. Crabbe was leaving the Vale of Belvoir because an accession of fortune had befallen the family, and it was pleasanter to live in his native county and in a better house. So, at least, his action was interpreted at the time, and Crabbe's son takes no very different view. "Though tastes and affections, as well as worldly interests, prompted this return to native scenes and early acquaintances, it was a step reluctantly taken, and I believe, sincerely repented of. The beginning was ominous. As we were slowly quitting the place preceded by our furniture, a stranger, though one who knew my father's circumstances, called out in an impressive tone, 'You are wrong, you are wrong!'" The sound, he afterwards admitted, found an echo in his own conscience, and during the whole journey seemed to ring in his ears "like a supernatural voice."
[Footnote 2: See a pleasant paper on Crabbe at Muston and Allington by the Rev. W.H. Hutton of St John's College, Oxford, in the Cornhill Magazine for June 1901.]
IN SUFFOLK AGAIN
On the arrival of the family at Parham, poor Crabbe discovered that even an accession of fortune had its attendant drawbacks. His son, George, records his own recollections (he was then a child of seven years) of the scene that met their view on their alighting at Parham Lodge. "As I got out of the chaise, I remember jumping for very joy, and exclaiming, 'Here we are, here we are—little Willy and all!'"—(his parents' seventh and youngest child, then only a few weeks old)—"but my spirits sunk into dismay when, on entering the well-known kitchen, all there seemed desolate, dreary, and silent. Mrs. Tovell and her sister-in-law, sitting by the fireside weeping, did not even rise up to welcome my parents, but uttered a few chilling words and wept again. All this appeared to me as inexplicable as forbidding. How little do children dream of the alterations that older people's feelings towards each other undergo, when death has caused a transfer of property! Our arrival in Suffolk was by no means palatable to all my mother's relations."
Mr. Tovell's widow had doubtless her suitable jointure, and probably a modest dower-residence to retire to; but Parham Hall had to be vacated, and Crabbe, having purchased its furniture, at once entered on possession. The mere re-arrangement of the contents caused many heartburnings to the spinster-sister, who had known them under the old regime, and the alteration of the hanging of a picture would have made "Jacky," she averred, to turn in his grave. Crabbe seems, however, to have shown so much good-feeling and forbearance in the matter that the old lady, after grimly boasting that she could "screw Crabbe up and down like a fiddle," was ultimately friendly, and her share of her brother's estate came in due course to Crabbe and his wife. Moreover, the change of tenancy at the Hall was anything but satisfactory to the village generally. Mr. Tovell had been much given to hospitality, and that of a convivial sort. Such of the neighbours as were of kindred tastes had been in the habit of "dropping in" of an evening two or three times a week, when, if a quorum was present, a bowl of punch would be brewed, and sometimes a second and a third. The substitution for all this of the quiet and decorous family life of the Crabbes was naturally a hoary blow and grave discouragement to the village reveller, and contributed to make Crabbe's life at starting far from happy. His pursuits and inclinations, literary as well as clerical, made such company distasteful; and his wife, who had borne him seven children in nine years, and of these had lost four in infancy, had little strength or heart for miscellaneous company. But there was compensation for her husband among the county gentry of the neighbourhood, and notably in the constant kindness of Dudley North, of Little Glemham Hall, the same friend who had helped him with money when twelve years before he had left Aldeburgh, an almost penniless adventurer, to try his fortune in London. At Mr. North's table Crabbe had once more the opportunity of meeting members of the Whig party, whom he had known through Burke. On one such occasion Fox expressed his regret that Crabbe had ceased to write, and offered his help in revising any future poem that he might produce. The promise was not forgotten when ten years later The Parish Register was in preparation.
During his first year at Parham, Crabbe does not appear to have undertaken any fixed clerical duties, and this interval of leisure allowed him to pay a long visit to his sister at Aldeburgh, and here he placed his two elder boys, George and John, at a dame school. On returning to Parham, he accepted the office of curate-in-charge at Sweffling, the rector, Rev. Richard Turner, being resident at his other living of Great Yarmouth. The curacy of Great Glemham, also within easy reach, was shortly added. Crabbe was still residing at Parham Lodge, but the incidents of such residence remained far from pleasant, and, after four years there, Crabbe joyfully accepted the offer of a good house at Great Glemham, placed at his disposal by his friend Dudley North. Here the family remained for a further period of four or five years.
A fresh bereavement in his family had made Crabbe additionally anxious for change of scene and associations for his wife. In 1796, another child died—their third son, Edmund—in his sixth year. Two children, out of a family of seven, alone remained; and this final blow proved more than the poor mother could bear uninjured. From this time dated "a nervous disorder," which indeed meant a gradual decay of mental power, from which she never recovered; and Crabbe, an ever-devoted husband, tended her with exemplary care till her death in 1813. Southey, writing about Crabbe to his friend, Neville White, in 1808, adds: "It was not long before his wife became deranged, and when all this was told me by one who knew him well, five years ago, he was still almost confined in his own house, anxiously waiting upon this wife in her long and hopeless malady. A sad history! It is no wonder that he gives so melancholy a picture of human life."
Save for Mrs. Crabbe's broken health and increasing melancholy, the four years at Glemham were among the most peaceful and happiest of Crabbe's life. His son grows eloquent over the elegance of the house and the natural beauties of its situation. "A small well-wooded park occupied the whole mouth of the glen, whence, doubtless, the name of the village was derived. In the lowest ground stood the commodious mansion; the approach wound down through a plantation on the eminence in front. The opposite hill rose at the back of it, rich and varied with trees and shrubs scattered irregularly; under this southern hill ran a brook, and on the banks above it were spots of great natural beauty, crowned by whitethorn and oak. Here the purple scented violet perfumed the air, and in one place coloured the ground. On the left of the front in the narrower portion of the glen was the village; on the right, a confined view of richly wooded fields. In fact, the whole parish and neighbourhood resemble a combination of groves, interspersed with fields cultivated like gardens, and intersected with those green dry lanes which tempt the walker in all weathers, especially in the evenings, when in the short grass of the dry sandy banks lies every few yards a glowworm, and the nightingales are pouring forth their melody in every direction."
It was not, therefore, for lack of acquaintance with the more idyllic side of English country-life that Crabbe, when he once more addressed the public in verse, turned to the less sunny memories of his youth for inspiration. It was not till some years after the appearance of The Parish Register and The Borough that the pleasant paths of inland Suffolk and of the Vale of Belvoir formed the background to his studies in human character.
Meantime Crabbe was perpetually writing, and as constantly destroying what he wrote. His small flock at Great and Little Glemham employed part of his time; the education of his two sons, who were now withdrawn from school, occupied some more; and a wife in failing health was certainly not neglected. But the busy husband and father found time to teach himself something of French and Italian, and read aloud to his family of an evening as many books of travel and of fiction as his friends would keep him supplied with. He was preparing at the same time a treatise on botany, which was never to see the light; and during "one or two of his winters in Suffolk," his son relates, "he gave most of his evening hours to the writing of novels, and he brought not less than three such works to a conclusion. The first was entitled 'The Widow Grey,' but I recollect nothing of it except that the principal character was a benevolent humorist, a Dr. Allison. The next was called 'Reginald Glanshaw, or the Man who commanded Success,' a portrait of an assuming, over-bearing, ambitious mind, rendered interesting by some generous virtues, and gradually wearing down into idiotism. I cannot help thinking that this Glanshaw was drawn with very extraordinary power; but the story was not well managed in the details I forget the title of his third novel; but I clearly remember that it opened with a description of a wretched room, similar to some that are presented in his poetry, and that on my mother's telling him frankly that she thought the effect very inferior to that of the corresponding pieces in verse, he paused in his reading, and after some reflection, said, 'Your remark is just.'"
Mrs. Crabbe's remark was probably very just. Although her husband had many qualifications for writing prose fiction—insight into and appreciation of character, combined with much tragic force and a real gift for description—there is reason to think that he would have been stilted and artificial in dialogue, and altogether wanting in lightness of hand. Crabbe acquiesced in his wife's decision, and the novels were cremated without a murmur. A somewhat similar fate attended a set of Tales in Verse which, in the year 1799, Crabbe was about to offer to Mr. Hatchard, the publisher, when he wisely took the opinion of his rector at Sweffling, then resident at Yarmouth, the Rev. Richard Turner. This gentleman, whose opinion Crabbe greatly valued, advised revision, and Crabbe accepted the verdict as the reverse of encouraging. The Tales were never published, and Crabbe again deferred his reappearance in print for a period of eight years. Meantime he applied himself to the leisurely composition of the Parish Register, which extended, together with that of some shorter poems, over the period just named.
In the last years of the eighteenth century there was a sudden awakening among the bishops to the growing abuse of non-residence and pluralities on the part of the clergy. One prelate of distinction devoted his triennial charge to the subject, and a general "stiffening" of episcopal good nature set in all round. The Bishop of Lincoln addressed Crabbe, with others of his delinquent clergy, and intimated to him very distinctly the duty of returning to those few sheep in the wilderness at Muston and Allington. Crabbe, in much distress, applied to his friend Dudley North to use influence on his behalf to obtain extension of leave. But the bishop, Dr. Pretyman (Pitt's tutor and friend—better known by the name he afterwards adopted of Tomlins) would not yield, and it was probably owing to pressure from some different quarter that Crabbe succeeded in obtaining leave of absence for four years longer. Dudley North would fain have solved the problem by giving Crabbe one or more of the livings in his own gift in Suffolk, but none of adequate value was vacant at the time. Meanwhile, the house rented by Crabbe, Great Glemham Hall, was sold over Crabbe's head, by family arrangements in the North family, and he made his last move while in Suffolk, by taking a house in the neighbouring village of Rendham, where he remained during his last four years. Crabbe was looking forward to his elder son's going up to Cambridge in 1803, and this formed an additional reason for wishing to remain as long as might be in the eastern counties.
The writing of poetry seems to have gone on apace. The Parish Register was all but completed while at Rendham, and The Borough was also begun. After so long an abstinence from the glory of print, Crabbe at last found the required stimulus to ambition in the need of some further income for his two sons' education. But during the last winter of his residence at Rendham (1804-1805), Crabbe produced a poem, in stanzas, of very different character and calibre from anything he had yet written, and as to the origin of which one must go back to some previous incidents in Crabbe's history. His son is always lax as to dates, and often just at those periods when they would be the most welcome. It may be inferred, however, that at some date between 1790 and 1792 Crabbe suffered from serious derangements of his digestion, attended by sudden and acute attacks of vertigo. The passage in the memoir as to the exact period is more than usually vague. The writer is dealing with the year 1800, and he proceeds:
"My father, now about his forty-sixth year, was much more stout and healthy than when I first remember him. Soon after that early period he became subject to vertigoes, which he thought indicative of a tendency to apoplexy; and was occasionally bled rather profusely, which only increased the symptoms. When he preached his first sermon at Muston in the year 1789 my mother foreboded, as she afterwards told us, that he would preach very few more: but it was on one of his early journeys into Suffolk, in passing through Ipswich, that he had the most alarming attack."
This account of matters is rather mixed. The "early period" pointed to by young Crabbe is that at which he himself first had distinct recollection of his father, and his doings. Putting that age at six years old, the year would be 1791; and it may be inferred that as the whole family paid a visit of many months to Suffolk in the year 1790, it was during that visit that he had the decisive attack in the streets of Ipswich. The account may be continued in the son's own words:—
"Having left my mother at the inn, he walked into the town alone, and suddenly staggered in the street, and fell. He was lifted up by the passengers" (probably from the stagecoach from which they had just alighted), "and overheard some one say significantly, 'Let the gentleman alone, he will be better by and by'; for his fall was attributed to the bottle. He was assisted to his room, and the late Dr. Clubbe was sent for, who, after a little examination, saw through the case with great judgment. 'There is nothing the matter with your head,' he observed, 'nor any apoplectic tendency; let the digestive organs bear the whole blame: you must take opiates.' From that time his health began to amend rapidly, and his constitution was renovated; a rare effect of opium, for that drug almost always inflicts some partial injury, even when it is necessary; but to him it was only salutary—and to a constant but slightly increasing dose of it may be attributed his long and generally healthy life."
The son makes no reference to any possible effects of this "slightly increasing dose" upon his father's intellect or imagination. And the ordinary reader who knows the poet mainly through his sober couplets may well be surprised to hear that their author was ever addicted to the opium-habit; still more, that his imagination ever owed anything to its stimulus. But in FitzGerald's copy there is a MS. note, not signed "G.C.," and therefore FitzGerald's own. It runs thus: "It" (the opium) "probably influenced his dreams, for better or worse" To this FitzGerald significantly adds, "see also the World of Dreams, and Sir Eustace Grey."
As Crabbe is practically unknown to the readers of the present day, Sir Eustace Grey will be hardly even a name to them. For it lies, with two or three other noticeable poems, quite out of the familiar track of his narrative verse. In the first place it is in stanzas, and what Browning would have classed as a "Dramatic Lyric." The subject is as follows: The scene "a Madhouse," and the persons a Visitor, a Physician, and a Patient. The visitor has been shown over the establishment, and is on the point of departing weary and depressed at the sight of so much misery, when the physician begs him to stay as they come in sight of the "cell" of a specially interesting patient, Sir Eustace Grey, late of Greyling Hall. Sir Eustace greets them as they approach, plunges at once into monologue, and relates (with occasional warnings from the doctor against over-excitement) the sad story of his misfortunes and consequent loss of reason. He begins with a description of his happier days:—
"Some twenty years, I think, are gone (Time flies, I know not how, away), The sun upon no happier shone Nor prouder man, than Eustace Grey. Ask where you would, and all would say, The man admired and praised of all, By rich and poor, by grave and gay, Was the young lord of Greyling Hall.
"Yes! I had youth and rosy health, Was nobly formed, as man might be; For sickness, then, of all my wealth, I never gave a single fee: The ladies fair, the maidens free. Were all accustomed then to say, Who would a handsome figure see, Should look upon Sir Eustace Grey.
"My lady I—She was all we love; All praise, to speak her worth, is faint; Her manners show'd the yielding dove, Her morals, the seraphic saint: She never breathed nor looked complaint; No equal upon earth had she: Now, what is this fair thing I paint? Alas! as all that live shall be.
"There were two cherub-things beside, A gracious girl, a glorious boy; Yet more to swell my fall-blown pride, To varnish higher my fading joy, Pleasures were ours without alloy, Nay, Paradise,—till my frail Eve Our bliss was tempted to destroy— Deceived, and fated to deceive.
"But I deserved;—for all that time When I was loved, admired, caressed, There was within each secret crime, Unfelt, uncancelled, unconfessed: I never then my God addressed, In grateful praise or humble prayer; And if His Word was not my jest— (Dread thought!) it never was my care."
The misfortunes of the unhappy man proceed apace, and blow follows blow. He is unthankful for his blessings, and Heaven's vengeance descends on him. His wife proves faithless, and he kills her betrayer, once his trusted friend. The wretched woman pines and dies, and the two children take some infectious disease and quickly follow. The sufferer turns to his wealth and his ambitions to drug his memory. But "walking in pride," he is to be still further "abased." The "Watcher and the Holy One" that visited Nebuchadnezzar come to Sir Eustace in vision and pronounce his fate:
"Full be his cup, with evil fraught— Demons his guides, and death his doom."
Two fiends of darkness are told off to tempt him. One, presumably the Spirit of Gambling, robs him of his wealth, while the Spirit of Mania takes from him his reason, and drags him through a hell of horriblest imaginings. And it is at this point that what has been called the "dream-scenery" of the opium-eater is reproduced in a series of very remarkable stanzas:
Upon that boundless plain, below, The setting sun's last rays were shed, And gave a mild and sober glow, Where all were still, asleep, or dead; Vast ruins in the midst were spread, Pillars and pediments sublime, Where the grey moss had form'd a bed, And clothed the crumbling spoils of time.
"There was I fix'd, I know not how, Condemn'd for untold years to stay: Yet years were not;—one dreadful Now Endured no change of night or day; The same mild evening's sleepy ray Shone softly-solemn and serene, And all that time I gazed away, The setting sun's sad rays were seen.
"At length a moment's sleep stole on,— Again came my commission'd foes; Again through sea and land we're gone, No peace, no respite, no repose: Above the dark broad sea we rose, We ran through bleak and frozen land; I had no strength their strength t' oppose, An infant in a giant's hand.
"They placed me where those streamers play, Those nimble beams of brilliant light; It would the stoutest heart dismay, To see, to feel, that dreadful sight: So swift, so pure, so cold, so bright, They pierced my frame with icy wound; And all that half-year's polar night, Those dancing streamers wrapp'd me round
"Slowly that darkness pass'd away, When down, upon the earth I fell,— Some hurried sleep was mine by day; But, soon as toll'd the evening bell, They forced me on, where ever dwell Far-distant men in cities fair, Cities of whom no travellers tell, Nor feet but mine were wanderers there
"Their watchmen stare, and stand aghast, As on we hurry through the dark; The watch-light blinks as we go past, The watch-dog shrinks and fears to bark; The watch-tower's bell sounds shrill; and, hark! The free wind blows—we've left the town— A wide sepulchral ground I mark, And on a tombstone place me down.
"What monuments of mighty dead! What tombs of various kind are found! And stones erect their shadows shed On humble graves, with wickers bound; Some risen fresh, above the ground, Some level with the native clay: What sleeping millions wait the sound, 'Arise, ye dead, and come away!'
Alas! they stay not for that call; Spare me this woe! ye demons, spare!— They come! the shrouded shadows all,— 'Tis more than mortal brain can bear; Rustling they rise, they sternly glare At man upheld by vital breath; Who, led by wicked fiends, should dare To join the shadowy troops of death!"
For about fifteen stanzas this power of wild imaginings is sustained, and, it must be admitted, at a high level as regards diction. The reader will note first how the impetuous flow of those visionary recollections generates a style in the main so lofty and so strong. The poetic diction of the eighteenth century, against which Wordsworth made his famous protest, is entirely absent. Then again, the eight-line stanza is something quite different from a mere aggregate of quatrains arranged in pairs. The lines are knit together; sonnet-fashion, by the device of interlacing the rhymes, the second, fourth, fifth, and seventh lines rhyming. And it is singularly effective for its purpose, that of avoiding the suggestion of a mere ballad-measure, and carrying on the descriptive action with as little interruption as might be.
The similarity of the illusions, here attributed to insanity, to those described by De Quincey as the result of opium, is too marked to be accidental. In the concluding pages of his Confessions, De Quincey writes: "The sense of space, and in the end the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, etc., were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive ... This disturbed me very much less than the vast expansion of time. Sometimes I seemed to have lived for seventy or a hundred years in one night."
Compare Crabbe's sufferer:—
"There was I fix'd, I know not how, Condemn'd for untold years to stay Yet years were not;—one dreadful Now Endured no change of night or day."
Again, the rapid transition from one distant land to another, from the Pole to the Tropics, is common to both experiences. The "ill-favoured ones" who are charged with Sir Eustace's expiation fix him at one moment
"—on the trembling ball That crowns the steeple's quiv'ring spire"
just as the Opium-Fiend fixes De Quincey for centuries at the summit of Pagodas. Sir Eustace is accused of sins he had never committed:—
"Harmless I was: yet hunted down For treasons to my soul unfit; I've been pursued through many a town For crimes that petty knaves commit."
Even so the opium-eater imagines himself flying from the wrath of Oriental Deities. "I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the Ibis and the Crocodile trembled at." The morbid inspiration is clearly the same in both cases, and there can be little doubt that Crabbe's poem owes its inception to opium, and that the frame work was devised by him for the utilisation of his dreams.
But a curious and unexpected denouement awaits the reader. When Sir Eustace's condition, as he describes it, seems most hopeless, its alleviation arrives through a religious conversion. There has been throughout present to him the conscience of "a soul defiled with every stain." And at the same moment, under circumstances unexplained, his spiritual ear is purged to hear a "Heavenly Teacher." The voice takes the form of the touching and effective hymn, which has doubtless found a place since in many an evangelical hymn-book, beginning
"Pilgrim, burthen'd with thy sin, Come the way to Zion's gate; There, till Mercy let thee in, Knock and weep, and watch and wait. Knock!—He knows the sinner's cry. Weep!—He loves the mourner's tears. Watch!—for saving grace is nigh Wait,—till heavenly light appears."
And the hymn is followed by the pathetic confession on the sufferer's part that this blessed experience, though it has brought him the assurance of heavenly forgiveness, still leaves him, "though elect," looking sadly back on his old prosperity, and bearing, but unresigned, the prospect of an old ago spent amid his present gloomy surroundings. And yet Crabbe, with a touch of real imaginative insight, represents him in his final utterance as relapsing into a vague hope of some day being restored to his old prosperity:
"Must you, my friends, no longer stay? Thus quickly all my pleasures end; But I'll remember, when I pray, My kind physician and his friend:
And those sad hours you deign to spend With me, I shall requite them all. Sir Eustace for his friends shall send, And thank their love at Greyling Hall."
The kind physician and his friend then proceed to diagnose the patient's condition—which they agree is that of "a frenzied child of grace," and so the poem ends. To one of its last stanzas Crabbe attached an apologetic note, one of the most remarkable ever penned. It exhibits the struggle that at that period must have been proceeding in many a thoughtful breast as to how the new wine of religion could be somehow accommodated to the old bottles:—
"It has been suggested to me that this change from restlessness to repose in the mind of Sir Eustace is wrought by a methodistic call; and it is admitted to be such: a sober and rational conversion could not have happened while the disorder of the brain continued; yet the verses which follow, in a different measure," (Crabbe refers to the hymn) "are not intended to make any religious persuasion appear ridiculous; they are to be supposed as the effect of memory in the disordered mind of the speaker, and though evidently enthusiastic in respect to language, are not meant to convey any impropriety of sentiment."
The implied suggestion (for it comes to this) that the sentiments of this devotional hymn, written by Crabbe himself, could only have brought comfort to the soul of a lunatic, is surely as good a proof as the period could produce of the bewilderment in the Anglican mind caused by the revival of personal religion under Wesley and his followers.
According to Crabbe's son Sir Eustace Grey was written at Muston in the winter of 1804-1805. This is scarcely possible, for Crabbe did not return to his Leicestershire living until the autumn of the latter year. Probably the poem was begun in Suffolk, and the final touches were added later. Crabbe seems to have told his family that it was written during a severe snow-storm, and at one sitting. As the poem consists of fifty-five eight-lined stanzas, of somewhat complex construction, the accuracy of Crabbe's account is doubtful. If its inspiration was in some degree due to opium, we know from the example of S.T. Coleridge that the opium-habit is not favourable to certainty of memory or the accurate presentation of facts. After Crabbe's death, there was found in one of his many manuscript note-books a copy of verses, undated, entitled The World of Dreams, which his son printed in subsequent editions of the poems. The verses are in the same metre and rhyme-system as Sir Eustace, and treat of precisely the same class of visions as recorded by the inmate of the asylum. The rapid and continuous transition from scene to scene, and period to period, is the same in both. Foreign kings and other potentates reappear, as with De Quincey, in ghostly and repellent forms:—
"I know not how, but I am brought Into a large and Gothic hall, Seated with those I never sought— Kings, Caliphs, Kaisers—silent all; Pale as the dead; enrobed and tall, Majestic, frozen, solemn, still; They make my fears, my wits appal, And with both scorn and terror fill."
This, again, may be compared, or rather contrasted, with Coleridge's Pains of Sleep, and it can hardly be doubted that the two poems had a common origin.
The year 1805 was the last of Crabbe's sojourn in Suffolk, and it was made memorable in the annals of literature by the appearance of the Lay of the Last Minstrel. Crabbe first met with it in a bookseller's shop in Ipswich, read it nearly through while standing at the counter, and pronounced that a new and great poet had appeared.
This was Crabbe's first introduction to one who was before long to prove himself one of his warmest admirers and friends. It was one of Crabbe's virtues that he was quick to recognise the worth of his poetical contemporaries. He had been repelled, with many others, by the weak side of the Lyrical Ballads, but he lived to revere Wordsworth's genius. His admiration for Burns was unstinted. But amid all the signs of a poetical renaissance in progress, and under a natural temptation to tread the fresh woods and pictures new that were opening before him, it showed a true judgment in Crabbe that he never faltered in the conviction that his own opportunity and his own strength lay elsewhere. Not in the romantic or the mystical—not in perfection of form or melody of lyric verse, were his own humbler triumphs to be won. Like Wordsworth, he was to find a sufficiency in the "common growth of mother-earth," though indeed less in her "mirth" than in her "tears," Notwithstanding his Eustace Grey, and World of Dreams, and the really powerful story of Aaron the Gipsy (afterwards to appear as the The Hall of Justice), Crabbe was returning to the themes and the methods of The Village. He had already completed The Parish Register, and had The Borough in contemplation, when he returned to his Leicestershire parish. The woods of Belvoir, and the rural charms of Parham and Glemham, had not dimmed the memory of the sordid little fishing-town, where the spirit of poetry had first met him, and thrown her mantle round him.
And now the day had come when the mandate of the bishop could no longer be ignored. In October 1805, Crabbe with his wife and two sons returned to the Parsonage at Muston. He had been absent from his joint livings about thirteen years, of which four had been spent at Parham, five at Great Glemham, and four at Rendham, all three places lying within a small area, and within reach of the same old friends and relations. No wonder that he left the neighbourhood with a reluctance that was probably too well guessed by his parishioners in the Vale of Belvoir.
[Footnote 3: Richard Turner of Yarmouth was a man of considerable culture, and belonged to a family of scholars. His eldest brother was Master of Pembroke, Cambridge, and Dean of Norwich: his youngest son was Sir Charles Turner, a Lord Justice of Appeal; and Dawson Turner was his nephew. Richard Turner was the intimate friend of Dr. Parr, Paley, and Canning.]
[Footnote 4: Readers of Lockhart's Biography will remember that in one of Scott's latest letters to his son-in-law, before he left England for Naples, he quoted and applied to himself this stanza of Sir Eustace Grey. The incident is the more pathetic that Scott, as he wrote the words, was quite aware that his own mind was failing.]
THE PARISH REGISTER
"When in October, 1805, Mr. Crabbe resumed the charge of his own parish of Muston, he found some changes to vex him, and not the less because he had too much reason to suspect that his long absence from his incumbency had been, partly at least, the cause of them. His cure had been served by respectable and diligent clergymen, but they had been often changed, and some of them had never resided within the parish; and he felt that the binding influence of a settled and permanent minister had not been withdrawn for twelve years with impunity. A Wesleyan missionary had formed a thriving establishment in Muston, and the congregations at the parish church were no longer such as they had been of old. This much annoyed my father; and the warmth with which he began to preach against dissent only irritated himself and others, without bringing back disciples to the fold."
So writes Crabbe's son with his wonted frankness and good judgment. Moreover, besides the Wesleyan secession, the mischievous extravagances of William Huntington (S.S.) had found their way into the parish. To make matters worse, a former gardener of Crabbe's had set up as a preacher of the doctrines of this fanatic, who was still attracting crowds in London. Then, too, as another fruit of the rector's long absence, strange stories of his political opinions had become current. Owing, doubtless, to his renewed acquaintance with Dudley North at Glemham, and occasional association with the Whig leaders at his house, he had exposed himself to the terrible charge that he was a Jacobin!
Altogether Crabbe's clerical position in Leicestershire, during the next nine years, could not have been very comfortable. But he was evidently still, as always, the devout and kindly pastor of his flock, and happily for himself, he was now to receive new and unexpected tributes to his popularity in other fields. His younger son, John, now eighteen years of age, was shortly to go up to Cambridge, and this fresh expense had to be provided for. To this end, a volume of poems, partly old and partly new, had been for some time in preparation, and in September 1807, it appeared from the publishing house of John Hatchard in Piccadilly. In it were included The Library, The Newspaper, and The Village. The principal new poem was The Parish Register, to which were added Sir Eustace Grey and The Hall of Justice. The volume was prefaced by a Dedication to Henry Richard Fox, third Lord Holland, nephew and sometime ward of Charles James Fox, and the reason for such dedication is told at greater length in the long autobiographical introduction that follows.
Twenty-two years had elapsed since Crabbe's last appearance as an author, and he seems to have thought it due to his readers to give some reason for his long abstention from the poet's 'idle trade.' He pleads a higher 'calling,' that of his professional duties, as sufficient excuse. Moreover, he offers the same excuse for his 'progress in the art of versification' being less marked than his readers might otherwise expect. He then proceeds to tell the story of the kindness he had received from Burke (who had died in 1797); the introduction by him to Sir Joshua Reynolds, and through him again to Samuel Johnson. He gives in full Johnson's note approving The Village, and after a further laborious apology for the shortcomings of his present literary venture, goes on to tell the one really relevant incident of its appearance. Crabbe had determined, he says, now that his old valued advisers had passed away, not to publish anything more—
"unless I could first obtain the sanction of such an opinion as I might with some confidence rely upon. I looked for a friend who, having the discerning taste of Mr. Burke and the critical sagacity of Doctor Johnson, would bestow upon my MS. the attention requisite to form his opinion, and would then favour me with the result of his observations; and it was my singular good fortune to obtain such assistance—the opinion of a critic so qualified, and a friend so disposed to favour me. I had been honoured by an introduction to the Right Hon. Charles James Fox, some years before, at the seat of Mr. Burke; and being again with him, I received a promise that he would peruse any work I might send to him previous to its publication, and would give me his opinion. At that time I did not think myself sufficiently prepared; and when afterwards I had collected some poems for his inspection, I found my right honourable friend engaged by the affairs of a great empire, and struggling with the inveteracy of a fatal disease. At such time, upon such mind, ever disposed to oblige as that mind was, I could not obtrude the petty business of criticising verses; but he remembered the promise he had kindly given, and repeated an offer which though I had not presumed to expect, I was happy to receive. A copy of the poems, now first published, was sent to him, and (as I have the information from Lord Holland, and his Lordship's permission to inform my readers) the poem which I have named The Parish Register was heard by Mr. Fox, and it excited interest enough by some of its parts to gain for me the benefit of his judgment upon the whole. Whatever he approved, the reader will readily believe, I have carefully retained: the parts he disliked are totally expunged, and others are substituted, which I hope resemble those more conformable to the taste of so admirable a judge. Nor can I deny myself the melancholy satisfaction of adding that this poem (and more especially the history of Phoebe Dawson, with some parts of the second book) were the last compositions of their kind that engaged and amused the capacious, the candid, the benevolent mind of this great man."
It was, as we have seen, at Dudley North's residence in Suffolk that Crabbe had renewed his acquaintance with Fox, and received from him fresh offers of criticism and advice. And now the great statesman had passed beyond reach of Crabbe's gratitude. He had died in the autumn of 1806, at the Duke of Devonshire's, at Chiswick. His last months wore of great suffering, and the tedium of his latter days was relieved by being read aloud to—the Latin poets taking their turn with Crabbe's pathetic stories of humble life. In the same preface, Crabbe further expresses similar obligations to his friend, Richard Turner of Yarmouth. The result of this double criticism is the more discernible when we compare The Parish Register with, its successor, The Borough, in the composition of which Crabbe admits, in the preface to that poem, that he had trusted more entirely to his own judgment.
In The Parish Register, Crabbe returns to the theme which he had treated twenty years before in The Village, but on a larger and more elaborate scale. The scheme is simple and not ineffective. A village clergyman is the narrator, and with his registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials open before him, looks through the various entries for the year just completed. As name after name recalls interesting particulars of character and incident in their history, he relates them as if to an imaginary friend at his side. The precedent of The Deserted Village is still obviously near to the writer's mind, and he is alternately attracted and repelled by Goldsmith's ideals. For instance, the poem opens with an introduction of some length in which the general aspects of village life are described. Crabbe begins by repudiating any idea of such life as had been described by his predecessor:—
"Is there a place, save one the poet sees, A land of love, of liberty, and ease; Where labour wearies not, nor cares suppress Th' eternal flow of rustic happiness: Where no proud mansion frowns in awful state, Or keeps the sunshine from the cottage-gate; Where young and old, intent on pleasure, throng, And half man's life is holiday and song? Vain search for scenes like these! no view appears, By sighs unruffled, or unstain'd by tears; Since vice the world subdued and waters drown'd, Auburn and Eden can no more be found."
And yet the poet at once proceeds to describe his village in much the same tone, and with much of the same detail as Goldsmith had done:—
"Behold the Cot! where thrives th' industrious swain, Source of his pride, his pleasure, and his gain, Screen'd from the winter's-wind, the sun's last ray Smiles on the window and prolongs the day; Projecting thatch the woodbine's branches stop, And turn their blossoms to the casement's top; All need requires is in that cot contain'd, And much that taste untaught and unrestrain'd Surveys delighted: there she loves to trace, In one gay picture, all the royal race; Around the walls are heroes, lovers, kings; The print that shows them and the verse that sings."
Then follow, as in The Deserted Village, the coloured prints, and ballads, and even The Twelve Good Rules, that decorate the walls: the humble library that fills the deal shelf "beside the cuckoo clock"; the few devotional works, including the illustrated Bible, bought in parts with the weekly sixpence; the choice notes by learned editors that raise more doubts than they close. "Rather," exclaims Crabbe:
"Oh! rather give me commentators plain Who with no deep researches vex the brain; Who from the dark and doubtful love to run, And hold their glimmering tapers to the sun."
The last line of which he conveyed, no doubt unconsciously, from Young. Nothing can be more winning than the picture of the village home thus presented. And outside it, the plot of carefully-tended ground, with not only fruits and herbs but space reserved for a few choice flowers, the rich carnation and the "pounced auricula":—
"Here, on a Sunday eve, when service ends, Meet and rejoice a family of friends: All speak aloud, are happy and are free, And glad they seem, and gaily they agree. What, though fastidious ears may shun the speech, Where all are talkers, and where none can teach; Where still the welcome and the words are old, And the same stories are for ever told; Yet theirs is joy that, bursting from the heart, Prompts the glad tongue these nothings to impart; That forms these tones of gladness we despise, That lifts their steps, that sparkles in their eyes; That talks or laughs or runs or shouts or plays, And speaks in all there looks and all their ways."
This charming passage is thoroughly in Goldsmith's vein, and even shows markedly the influence of his manner, and yet it is no mere echo of another poet. The scenes described are those which had become dear and familiar to Crabbe during years of residence in Leicestershire and inland Suffolk. And yet at this very juncture, Crabbe's poetic conscience smites him. It is not for him, he remembers, to deal only with the sweeter aspects, though he knows them to exist, of village life. He must return to its sterner side:—
"Fair scenes of peace! ye might detain us long, But vice and misery now demand the song; And turn our view from dwellings simply neat, To this infected Row we term our Street."
For even the village of trim gardens and cherished Bibles has its "slums," and on these slums Crabbe proceeds to enlarge with almost ferocious realism:—
"Here, in cabal, a disputatious crew Each evening meet; the sot, the cheat, the shrew; Riots are nightly heard:—the curse, the cries Of beaten wife, perverse in her replies, While shrieking children hold each threat'ning hand, And sometimes life, and sometimes food demand; Boys, in their first-stol'n rags, to swear begin; And girls, who heed not dress, are skill'd in gin."
It is obvious, I think, that Crabbe's representations of country life here, as in The Village and The Borough, are often eclectic, and that for the sake of telling contrast, he was at times content to blend scenes that he had witnessed under very opposite conditions.
The section entitled "Baptisms" deals accordingly with many sad instances of "base-born" children, and the section on "Marriages" also has its full share of kindred instances in which the union in Church has only been brought about by pressure from the parish authorities. The marriage of one such "compelled bridegroom" is related with a force and minuteness of detail throughout which not a word is thrown away:—
"Next at our altar stood a luckless pair, Brought by strong passions and a warrant there; By long rent cloak, hung loosely, strove the bride From every eye, what all perceived, to hide. While the boy-bridegroom, shuffling in his pace, Now hid awhile, and then exposed his face; As shame alternately with anger strove The brain, confused with muddy ale, to move, In haste and stammering he perform'd his part, And look'd the rage that rankled in his heart: (So will each lover inly curse his fate, Too soon made happy, and made wise too late:) I saw his features take a savage gloom, And deeply threaten for the days to come. Low spake the lass, and lisp'd and minced the while, Look'd on the lad, and faintly tried to smile; With soften'd speech and humbled tone she strove To stir the embers of departed love: While he, a tyrant, frowning walk'd before, Felt the poor purse, and sought the public door, She sadly following in submission went And saw the final shilling foully spent; Then to her father's hut the pair withdrew, And bade to love and comfort long adieu! Ah! fly temptation, youth, refrain! refrain! I preach for ever; but I preach in vain!"
There is no "mealy-mouthed philanthropy" here. No one can doubt the earnestness and truth of the poet's mingled anger and sorrow. The misery of irregular unions had never been "bitten in" with more convincing force. The verse, moreover, in the passage is freer than usual from many of Crabbe's eccentricities. It is marked here and there by his fondness for verbal antithesis, almost amounting to the pun, which his parodists have not overlooked. The second line indeed is hardly more allowable in serious verse than Dickens's mention of the lady who went home "in a flood of tears and a sedan-chair." But Crabbe's indulgence in this habit is never a mere concession to the reader's flippant taste. His epigrams often strike deeply home, as in this instance or in the line:—
"Too soon made happy, and made wise too late."
The story that follows of Phoebe Dawson, which helped to soothe Fox in the last stage of his long disease, is no less powerful. The gradual steps by which the village beauty is led to her ruin are told in a hundred lines with a fidelity not surpassed in the case of the story of Hetty Sorrel. The verse, alternately recalling Pope and Goldsmith, is yet impelled by a moral intention, which gives it absolute individuality. The picture presented is as poignantly pathetic as Frederick Walker's Lost Path, or Langhorne's "Child of misery, baptized in tears." That it will ever again be ranked with such may be doubtful, for technique is the first quality demanded of an artist in our day, and Crabbe's technique is too often defective in the extreme.
These more tragic incidents of village life are, however, relieved at proper intervals by some of lighter complexion. There is the gentleman's gardener who has his successive children christened by the Latin names of his plants,—Lonicera, Hyacinthus and Senecio. Then we have the gallant, gay Lothario, who not only fails to lead astray the lovely Fanny Price, but is converted by her to worthier aims, and ends by becoming the best friend and benefactor of her and her rustic suitor. There is an impressive sketch of the elderly prude:—
"—wise, austere, and nice, Who showed her virtue by her scorn of vice";
and another of the selfish and worldly life of the Lady at the Great House who prefers to spend her fortune in London, and leaves her tenants to the tender mercies of her steward. Her forsaken mansion is described in lines curiously anticipating Hood's Haunted House:—
"—forsaken stood the Hall: Worms ate the floors, the tap'stry fled the wall: No fire the kitchen's cheerless grate display'd; No cheerful light the long-closed sash convey'd; The crawling worm that turns a summer fly, Here spun his shroud, and laid him up to die The winter-death:—upon the bed of state, The bat shrill shrieking woo'd his flickering mate."
In the end her splendid funeral is solemnised:—
"Dark but not awful, dismal but yet mean, With anxious bustle moves the cumbrous scene; Presents no objects tender or profound But spreads its cold unmeaning gloom around."
And the sarcastic village-father, after hearing "some scholar" read the list of her titles and her virtues, "looked disdain and said":—
"Away, my friends! why take such pains to know What some brave marble soon in Church shall show? Where not alone her gracious name shall stand, But how she lived—the blessing of the land; How much we all deplored the noble dead, What groans we uttered and what tears we shed; Tears, true as those which in the sleepy eyes Of weeping cherubs on the stone shall rise; Tears, true as those which, ere she found her grave, The noble Lady to our sorrows gave!"
These portraits of the ignoble rich are balanced by one of the "noble peasant" Isaac Ashford, drawn, as Crabbe's son tells us, from a former parish-clerk of his father's at North Glemham. Coming to be past work through infirmities of age, the old man has to face the probability of the parish poorhouse, and reconciling himself to his lot is happily spared the sore trial:—
"Daily he placed the Workhouse in his view! But came not there, for sudden was his fate, He dropp'd, expiring, at his cottage-gate. I feel his absence in the hours of prayer, And view his seat, and sigh for Isaac there: I see no more those white locks thinly spread Round the bald polish of that honour'd head; No more that awful glance on playful wight, Compell'd to kneel and tremble at the sight, To fold his fingers, all in dread the while, Till Mister Ashford soften'd to a smile; No more that meek and suppliant look in prayer, Nor the pure faith (to give it force), are there:— But he is blest, and I lament no more A wise, good man, contented to be poor."
Where Crabbe is represented, not unfairly, as dwelling mainly on the seamy side of peasant and village life, such passages as the above are not to be overlooked.
This final section ("Burials") is brought to a close by an ingenious incident which changes the current of the vicar's thoughts. He is in the midst of the recollections of his departed flock when the tones of the passing-bell fall upon his ear. On sending to inquire he finds that they tell of a new death, that of his own aged parish-sexton, "old Dibble" (the name, it may be presumed, an imperfect reminiscence of Justice Shallow's friend). The speaker's thoughts are now directed to his old parish servant, and to the old man's favourite stories of previous vicars under whom he has served. Thus the poem ends with sketches of Parson Addle, Parson Peele, Dr. Grandspear and others—among them the "Author-Rector," intended (the younger Crabbe thought) as a portrait of the poet himself. Finally Crabbe could not resist the temptation to include a young parson, "a youth from Cambridge," who has imbibed some extreme notions of the school of Simeon, and who is shown as fearful on his death-bed lest he should have been guilty of too many good works. He appeals to his old clerk on the subject:—
"'My alms-deeds all, and every deed I've done, My moral-rags defile me every one; It should not be:—what say'st thou! Tell me, Ralph.' 'Quoth I, your Reverence, I believe you're safe; Your faith's your prop, nor have you pass'd such time In life's good works as swell them to a crime. If I of pardon for my sins were sure, About my goodness I would rest secure.'"
The volume containing The Parish Register, The Village, and others, appeared in the autumn of 1807; and Crabbe's general acceptance as a poet of mark dates from that year. Four editions were issued by Mr. Hatchard during the following year and a half—the fourth appearing in March 1809. The reviews were unanimous in approval, headed by Jeffrey in the Edinburgh, and within two days of the appearance of this article, according to Crabbe's son, the whole of the first edition was sold off.
At this date, there was room for Crabbe as a poet, and there was still more room for him as an innovator in the art of fiction. Macaulay, in his essay on Addison, has pointed out how the Roger de Coverley papers gave the public of his day the first taste of a new and exquisite pleasure. At the time "when Fielding was birds-nesting, and Smollett was unborn," he was laying the foundations of the English novel of real life. After nearly a hundred years, Crabbe was conferring a similar benefit. The novel had in the interim risen to its full height, and then sunk. When Crabbe published his Parish Register, the novels of the day were largely the vapid productions of the Minerva Press, without atmosphere, colour, or truth. Miss Edgeworth alone had already struck the note of a new development in her Castle Rackrent, not to mention the delightful stories in The Parents' Assistant, Simple Susan, Lazy Lawrence, or The Basket-Woman. Galt's masterpiece, The Annals of the Parish, was not yet even lying unfinished in his desk. The Mucklebackits and the Headriggs were still further distant. Miss Mitford's sketches in Our Village—the nearest in form to Crabbe's pictures of country life—were to come later still. Crabbe, though he adhered, with a wise knowledge of his own powers, to the heroic couplet, is really a chief founder of the rural novel—the Silas Marner and the Adam Bede of fifty years later. Of course (for no man is original) he had developed his methods out of that of his predecessors. Pope was his earliest master in his art. And what Pope had done in his telling couplets for the man and woman of fashion—the Chloes and Narcissas of his day—Crabbe hoped that he might do for the poor and squalid inhabitants of the Suffolk seaport. Then, too, Thomson's "lovely young Lavinia," and Goldsmith's village-parson and poor widow gathering her cresses from the brook, had been before him and contributed their share of influence. But Crabbe's achievement was practically a new thing. The success of The Parish Register was largely that of a new adventure in the world of fiction. Whatever defects the critic of pure poetry might discover in its workmanship, the poem was read for its stories—for a truth of realism that could not be doubted, and for a pity that could not be unshared.
In 1809 Crabbe forwarded a copy of his poems (now reduced by the publisher to the form of two small volumes, and in their fourth edition) to Walter Scott, who acknowledged them and Crabbe's accompanying letter in a friendly reply, to which reference has already been made. After mentioning how for more than twenty years he had desired the pleasure of a personal introduction to Crabbe, and how, as a lad of eighteen, he had met with selections from The Village and The Library in The Annual Register, he continues:—
"You may therefore guess my sincere delight when I saw your poems at a late period assume the rank in the public consideration which they so well deserve. It was a triumph to my own immature taste to find I had anticipated the applause of the learned and the critical, and I became very desirous to offer my gratulor among the more important plaudits which you have had from every quarter. I should certainly have availed myself of the freemasonry of authorship (for our trade may claim to be a mystery as well as Abhorson's) to address to you a copy of a new poetical attempt, which I have now upon the anvil, and I esteem myself particularly obliged to Mr. Hatchard, and to your goodness acting upon his information, for giving me the opportunity of paving the way for such a freedom. I am too proud of the compliments you honour me with to affect to decline them; and with respect to the comparative view I have of my own labours and yours, I can only assure you that none of my little folks, about the formation of whose tastes and principles I may be supposed naturally solicitous, have ever read any of my own poems—while yours have been our regular evening's amusement My eldest girl begins to read well, and enters as well into the humour as into the sentiment of your admirable descriptions of human life. As for rivalry, I think it has seldom existed among those who know by experience that there are much better things in the world than literary reputation, and that one of the best of those good things is the regard and friendship of those deservedly and generally esteemed for their worth or their talents. I believe many dilettante authors do cocker themselves up into a great jealousy of anything that interferes with what they are pleased to call their fame: but I should as soon think of nursing one of my own fingers into a whitlow for my private amusement as encouraging such a feeling. I am truly sorry to observe you mention bad health: those who contribute so much to the improvement as well as the delight of society should escape this evil. I hope, however, that one day your state of health may permit you to view this country."
This interchange of letters was the beginning of a friendship that was to endure and strengthen through the lives of both poets, for they died in the self-same year. The "new poetical attempt" that was "on the anvil" must have been The Lady of the Lake, completed and published in the following year. But already Scott had uneasy misgivings that the style would not bear unlimited repetition. Even before Byron burst upon the world with the two first cantos of Childe Harold, and drew on him the eyes of all readers of poetry, Scott had made the unwelcome discovery that his own matter and manner was imitable, and that others were borrowing it. Many could now "grow the flower" (or something like it), for "all had got the seed." It was this persuasion that set him thinking whether he might not change his topics and his metre, and still retain his public. To this end he threw up a few tiny ballons d'essai—experiments in the manner of some of his popular contemporaries, and printed them in the columns of the Edinburgh Annual Register. One of these was a grim story of village crime called The Poacher, and written in avowed imitation of Crabbe. Scott was earnest in assuring Lockhart that he had written in no spirit of travesty, but only to test whether he would be likely to succeed in narrative verse of the same pattern. He had adopted Crabbe's metre, and as far as he could compass it, his spirit also. The result is noteworthy, and shows once again how a really original imagination cannot pour itself into another's mould. A few lines may suffice, in evidence. The couplet about the vicar's sermons makes one sure that for the moment Scott was good-humouredly copying one foible at least of his original:—
"Approach and through the unlatticed window peep. Nay, shrink not back, the inmate is asleep; Sunk 'mid yon sordid blankets, till the sun Stoop to the west, the plunderer's toils are done. Loaded and primed, and prompt for desperate hand, Rifle and fowling-piece beside him stand, While round the hut are in disorder laid The tools and booty of his lawless trade; For force or fraud, resistance or escape The crow, the saw, the bludgeon, and the crape; His pilfered powder in yon nook he hoards, And the filched lead the church's roof affords— (Hence shall the rector's congregation fret, That while his sermon's dry, his walls are wet.) The fish-spear barbed, the sweeping net are there, Dog-hides, and pheasant plumes, and skins of hare, Cordage for toils, and wiring for the snare. Bartered for game from chase or warren won, Yon cask holds moonlight, seen when moon was none; And late-snatched spoils lie stowed in hutch apart, To wait the associate higgler's evening cart."
Happily for Scott's fame, and for the world's delight, he did not long pursue the unprofitable task of copying other men. Rokeby appeared, was coldly received, and then Scott turned his thoughts to fiction in prose, came upon his long-lost fragment of Waverley and the need of conciliating the poetic taste of the day was at an end for ever. But his affection for Crabbe never waned. In his earlier novels there was no contemporary poet he more often quoted as headings for his chapters—and it was Crabbe's Borough to which he listened with unfailing delight twenty years later, in the last sad hours of his decay.
[Footnote 5: A cant term for smuggled spirits.]
The immediate success of The Parish Register in 1807 encouraged Crabbe to proceed at once with a far longer poem, which had been some years in hand. The Borough was begun at Rendham in Suffolk in 1801, continued at Muston after the return thither in 1805, and finally completed during a long visit to Aldeburgh in the autumn of 1809. That the Poem should have been "in the making" during at least eight years is quite what might be inferred from the finished work. It proved, on appearance, to be of portentous length—at least ten thousand lines. Its versification included every degree of finish of which Crabbe was capable, from his very best to his very worst. Parts of it were evidently written when the theme stirred and moved the writer: others, again, when he was merely bent on reproducing scenes that lived in his singularly retentive memory, with needless minuteness of detail, and in any kind of couplet that might pass muster in respect of scansion and rhyme. In the preface to the poem, on its appearance in 1810, Crabbe displays an uneasy consciousness that his poem was open to objection in this respect. In his previous ventures he had had Edmund Burke, Johnson, and Fox, besides his friend Turner at Yarmouth, to restrain or to revise. On the present occasion, the three first-named friends had passed away, and Crabbe took his MS. with him to Yarmouth, on the occasion of his visit to the Eastern Counties, for Mr. Richard Turner's opinion. The scholarly rector of Great Yarmouth may well have shrunk from advising on a poem of ten thousand lines in which, as the result was to show, the pruning-knife and other trenchant remedies would have seemed to him urgently needed. As it proved, Mr. Turner's opinion was on the whole "highly favourable; but he intimated that there were portions of the new work which might be liable to rough treatment from the critics."
The Borough is an extension—a very elaborate extension—of the topics already treated in The Village and The Parish Register. The place indicated is undisguisedly Aldeburgh; but as Crabbe had now chosen a far larger canvas for his picture, he ventured to enlarge the scope of his observation, and while retaining the scenery and general character of the little seaport of his youth, to introduce any incidents of town life and experiences of human character that he had met with subsequently. The Borough is Aldeburgh extended and magnified. Besides church officials it exhibits every shade of nonconformist creed and practice, notably those of which the writer was now having unpleasant experience at Muston. It has, of course, like its prototype, a mayor and corporation, and frequent parliamentary elections. It supports many professors of the law; physicians of high repute, and medical quacks of very low. Social life and pleasure is abundant, with clubs, card-parties, and theatres. It boasts an almshouse, hospital, prisons, and schools for all classes. The poem is divided into twenty-four cantos or sections, written as "Letters" to an imaginary correspondent who had bidden the writer "describe the borough," each dealing with its separate topic—professions, trades, sects in religion, inns, strolling players, almshouse inhabitants, and so forth. These descriptions are relieved at intervals by elaborate sketches of character, as in The Parish Register—the vicar, the curate, the parish clerk, or by some notably pathetic incident in the life of a tenant of the almshouse, or a prisoner in the gaol. Some of these reach the highest level of Crabbe's previous studies in the same kind, and it was to these that the new work was mainly to owe its success. Despite of frequent defects of workmanship, they cling to the memory through their truth and intensity, though to many a reader to-day such, episodes may be chiefly known to exist through a parenthesis in one of Macaulay's Essays, where he speaks of "that pathetic passage in Crabbe's Borough which has made many a rough and cynical reader cry like a child."