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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
George Crabbe (1754–1832)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
GEORGE CRABBE was born at Aldborough in Suffolk, the son of a customs officer. He received a fair education for a village lad, and at the age of fourteen was apprenticed to a country surgeon. He early showed an inclination toward letters, versifying much while a schoolboy. In 1778 he abandoned his profession of medicine, in which he was not successful, and came up to London with a few pounds and some manuscript in his pocket, determined to make his way in literature. He met with the usual reverses of a beginner without reputation or patronage, and soon was desperately in need of money. He wrote many letters to well-known people, without response. In his extremity he applied to Burke, who, although a stranger, received him most kindly into his own house, gave him advice and criticism, recommended him to Dodsley the publisher, and introduced him to many notable men of the day, among them Reynolds, Johnson, and Fox.  1
  During this time Crabbe wrote ‘The Library’ and the ‘The Village’; and also at the suggestion of his patron qualified himself for the ministry. He took holy orders in 1782, and became shortly after chaplain to the Duke of Rutland. Subsequently he held a number of small livings, procured for him by his friends. The last of these, the rectory of Trowbridge, given him in 1813, he held until his death in 1832.  2
  ‘The Village,’ published in 1783, made the poet’s reputation. His next work, ‘The Newspaper,’ published two years later, was much inferior. For twenty years thereafter he wrote and destroyed vast quantities of manuscript. Not until 1809 did he publish again. ‘The Parish Register,’ coming out in that year, was even more successful than his first work. In 1810 appeared ‘The Borough,’ containing his best work; ‘Tales in Verse’ following in 1812. With ‘Tales of the Hall,’ appearing in 1819, he took leave of the public.  3
  Crabbe is an important link in the transition period between the poetry of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Men were growing tired of the artificiality and the conventional frigidity of the current verse in the hands of the imitators of Pope. A feeling for change was in the air, manifested in the incipient romantic movement and in what is called “the return to nature.” Goldsmith was one of the first to lead the way back to simplicity, but he enveloped in a tender, somewhat sentimental idealism whatever he touched. Then came Thomson with his generalizations of nature, Cowper, a more faithful painter of rural scenes, and Burns, who sang of the thought and feeling of the common man. The work of these poets was a reaction against the poetry of town life, too apt to become artificial with its subject. Yet, being poets and singers, they expressed not so much the reality as what lies behind—its beauty and its tenderness. To give the right perspective to this return to nature, there was needed a man who should paint life as it is, in its naked realism, unveiled by the glamour of poetic vision.  4
  Crabbe was this man. The most uncompromising realist, he led poetry back to human life on its stern dark side. Born and bred among the poor, he described, as no one else in the whole range of English verse has done, the sordid existences among which he had grown up. He dispelled all illusions about rural life, and dealt the death-blow to the Corydons and Phillises of pastoral poetry. He showed that the poor man can be more immoral and even more unprincipled than the rich, because his higher spiritual nature is hopelessly dwarfed in the desperate struggle to keep the wolf from the door. He supplied harrowing texts to the social economist. He is a gloomy poet, especially in the first part of his work, for he paints principally the shadows that hang over the lives of the lowly; he does not deal with that life imaginatively as Wordsworth and Burns do, but realistically, narrating with photographic accuracy what he saw. He excels in graphic delineations of external facts, but is also a powerful painter of the passions, especially the more violent ones, such as remorse and despair. ‘Sir Eustace Grey’ is a masterful portrayal of madness.  5
  Crabbe has at times been denied the name of poet. There is little music in his verse, little of that singing quality that goes with all true poetry. His versification is often slipshod and careless. His lack of taste and artistic feeling shows itself not only in the manner but also in the matter of his work. He dwells by preference on the unlovely; he does not choose his details as an artist would. He is too minute, too like those Dutch painters who bestow as much care on the refuse as on the burnished platters of their interiors. And again he is trivial or too literal. But the steady admiration his poetry has excited in men of the most different tastes for several generations shows that it has deeper qualities. The truth is, that his mean and squalid details are not mere heaps of unrelated things, nor irrelevant to his story; they are not even mere “scenery.” They are part of the history, in general the tragedy, of human hearts and souls; and owe their validity as poetic material, and their power of interesting us, to their being part of the influences that bear on the history.  6
  Scott had Crabbe’s poems read aloud in his last illness. Horace Smith called him “Pope in worsted stockings.” Jane Austen said she “could fancy being Mrs. Crabbe.” Cardinal Newman read the ‘Tales of the Hall’ with extreme delight on their first appearance, and fifty years later still thought well of them. These different opinions testify that whatever the shortcomings of Crabbe as craftsman, the earnestness and the genuineness of his work give him a secure place among English poets.  7
 
 
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