ENGLISH MEN OF LETTERS
ENGLISH MEN OF LETTERS
NINETEEN HUNDRED AND THREE
The chief, and almost sole, source of information concerning Crabbe is the Memoir by his son prefixed to the collected edition of his poems in 1834. Comparatively few letters of Crabbe's have been preserved, but a small and interesting series will be found in the "Leadbeater Papers" (1862), consisting of letters addressed to Mary Leadbeater, the daughter of Burke's friend, Richard Shackleton.
I am indebted to Mr. John Murray for kindly lending me many manuscript sermons and letters of Crabbe's and a set of commonplace books in which the poet had entered fragments of cancelled poems, botanical memoranda, and other miscellaneous matter.
Of especial service to me has been a copy of Crabbe's Memoir by his son with abundant annotations by Edward FitzGerald, whose long intimacy with Crabbe's son and grandson had enabled him to illustrate the text with many anecdotes and comments of interest chiefly derived from those relatives. This volume has been most kindly placed at my disposal by Mr. W. Aldis Wright, FitzGerald's literary executor.
Finally, I have once again to thank my old friend the Master of Peterhouse for his careful reading of my proof sheets.
CHAPTER I EARLY LIFE IN ALDEBURGH
CHAPTER II POVERTY IN LONDON
CHAPTER III FRIENDSHIP WITH BURKE
CHAPTER IV LIFE AT BELVOIR CASTLE
CHAPTER V IN SUFFOLK AGAIN
CHAPTER VI "THE PARISH REGISTER"
CHAPTER VII "THE BOROUGH"
CHAPTER VIII "TALES"
CHAPTER IX VISITING IN LONDON
CHAPTER X "TALES OF THE HALL"
CHAPTER XI LAST YEARS AT TROWBRIDGE
EARLY LIFE IN ALDEBURGH
Two eminent English poets who must be reckoned moderns though each produced characteristic verse before the end of the eighteenth century, George Crabbe and William Wordsworth, have shared the common fate of those writers who, possessing a very moderate power of self-criticism, are apparently unable to discriminate between their good work and their bad. Both have suffered, and still suffer, in public estimation from this cause. The average reader of poetry does not care to have to search and select for himself, and is prone summarily to dismiss a writer (especially a poet) on the evidence of his inferior productions. Wordsworth, by far the greater of the two poets, has survived the effects of his first offence, and has grown in popularity and influence for half a century past. Crabbe, for many other reasons that I shall have to trace, has declined in public favour during a yet longer period, and the combined bulk and inequality of his poetry have permanently injured him, even as they injured his younger contemporary.
Widely as these two poets differed in subjects and methods, they achieved kindred results and played an equally important part in the revival of the human and emotional virtues of poetry after their long eclipse under the shadow of Pope and his school. Each was primarily made a poet through compassion for what "man had made of man," and through a concurrent and sympathetic influence of the scenery among which he was brought up. Crabbe was by sixteen years Wordsworth's senior, and owed nothing to his inspiration. In the form, and at times in the technique of his verse, his controlling master was Pope. For its subjects he was as clearly indebted to Goldsmith and Gray. But for The Deserted Village of the one, and The Elegy of the other, it is conceivable that Crabbe, though he might have survived as one of the "mob of gentlemen" who imitated Pope "with ease," would never have learned where his true strength lay, and thus have lived as one of the first and profoundest students of The Annals of the Poor. For The Village, one of the earliest and not least valuable of his poems, was written (in part, at least) as early as 1781, while Wordsworth was yet a child, and before Cowper had published a volume. In yet another respect Crabbe was to work hand in hand with Wordsworth. He does not seem to have held definite opinions as to necessary reforms in what Wordsworth called "poetic diction." Indeed he was hampered, as Wordsworth was not, by a lifelong adherence to a metre—the heroic couplet—with which this same poetic diction was most closely bound up. He did not always escape the effects of this contagion, but in the main he was delivered from it by what I have called a first-hand association with man and nature. He was ever describing what he had seen and studied with his own eyes, and the vocabulary of the bards who had for generations borrowed it from one another failed to supply him with the words he needed. The very limitations of the first five-and-twenty years of his life passed in a small and decaying seaport were more than compensated by the intimacy of his acquaintance with its inhabitants. Like Wordsworth he had early known love and sorrow "in huts where poor men lie."
Wordsworth's fame and influence have grown steadily since his death in 1850. Crabbe's reputation was apparently at its height in 1819, for it was then, on occasion of his publishing his Tales of the Hall, that Mr. John Murray paid him three thousand pounds for the copyright of this work, and its predecessors. But after that date Crabbe's popularity may be said to have continuously declined. Other poets, with other and more purely poetical gifts, arose to claim men's attention. Besides Wordsworth, as already pointed out, Scott, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley had found their various admirers, and drawn Crabbe's old public from him. It is the purpose of this little volume to inquire into the reasons why he is still justly counted a classic, and whether he has not, as Tennyson said of him, "a world of his own," still rich in interest and in profit for the explorer.
* * * * *
Aldeburgh—or as it came to be more commonly spelled in modern times, Aldborough—is to-day a pleasant and quiet watering-place on the coast of Suffolk, only a few miles from Saxmundham, with which it is connected by a branch line of the Great Eastern Railway. It began to be known for its fine air and sea-bathing about the middle of the last century, and to-day possesses other attractions for the yachtsman and the golfer. But a hundred years earlier, when Crabbe was born, the town possessed none of these advantages and means of access, to amend the poverty and rough manners of its boating and fishing inhabitants. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Aldeburgh had been a flourishing port with a population able to provide notable aid in the hour of national danger. Successive Royal Charters had accorded to the town markets, with other important rights and privileges. It had returned two members to Parliament since early in the days of Elizabeth, and indeed continued to do so until the Reform Bill of 1831. But, in common with Dunwich, and other once flourishing ports on the same coast, Aldeburgh had for its most fatal enemy, the sea. The gradual encroachments of that irresistible power had in the course of two centuries buried a large portion of the ancient Borough beneath the waves. Two existing maps of the town, one of about 1590, the other about 1790, show how extensive this devastation had been. This cause, and others arising from it, the gradual decay of the shipping and fishing industries, had left the town in the main a poor and squalid place, the scene of much smuggling and other lawlessness. Time and the ocean wave had left only "two parallel and unpaved streets, running between mean and scrambling houses." Nor was there much relief, aesthetic or other, in the adjacent country, which was flat, marshy, and treeless, continually swept by northern and easterly gales. A river, the Ald, from which the place took its name, approached the sea close to the town from the west, and then took a turn, flowing south, till it finally entered the sea at the neighbouring harbour of Orford.
In Aldeburgh, on Christmas Eve 1754, George Crabbe was born. He came of a family bearing a name widely diffused throughout Norfolk and Suffolk for many generations. His father, after school-teaching in various parishes in the neighbourhood, finally settled down in his native place as collector of the salt duties, a post which his father had filled before him. Here as a very young man he married an estimable and pious widow, named Loddock, some years his senior, and had a family of six children, of whom George was the eldest.
Within the limits of a few miles round, including the towns and villages of Slaughden, Orford, Parham, Beccles, Stowmarket, and Woodbridge, the first five-and-twenty years of the poet's life were spent. He had but slight interest in the pursuits of the inhabitants. His father, brought up among its fishing and boating interests, was something nautical in his ambitions, having a partnership in a fishing-boat, and keeping a yacht on the river. His other sons shared their father's tastes, while George showed no aptitude or liking for the sea, but from his earliest years evinced a fondness for books, and a marked aptitude for learning. He was sent early to the usual dame-school, and developed an insatiable appetite for such stories and ballads as were current among the neighbours. George Crabbe, the elder, possessed a few books, and used to read aloud to his family passages from Milton, Young, and other didactic poets of the eighteenth century. Furthermore he took in a country magazine, which had a "Poet's Corner," always handed over to George for his special benefit. The father, respecting these early signs of a literary bent in the son, sent him to a small boarding-school at Bungay in the same county, and a few years later to one of higher pretensions at Stowmarket, kept by a Mr. Richard Haddon, a mathematical teacher of some repute, where the boy also acquired some mastery of Latin and acquaintance with the Latin classics. In his later years he was given (perhaps a little ostentatiously) to prefixing quotations from Horace, Juvenal, Martial, and oven more recondite authors, to the successive sections of The Borough But wherever he found books—especially poetry—he read them and remembered them. He early showed considerable acquaintance with the best English poets, and although Pope controlled his metrical forms, and something more than the forms, to the end of his life, he had somehow acquired a wide knowledge of Shakespeare, and even of such then less known poets as Spenser, Raleigh, and Cowley.
After some three years at Stowmarket—it now being settled that medicine was to be his calling—George was taken from school, and the search began in earnest for some country practitioner to whom he might be apprenticed. An interval of a few months was spent at home, during which he assisted his father at the office on Slaughden Quay, and in the year 1768, when he was still under fourteen years of age, a post was found for him in the house of a surgeon at Wickham-Brook, near Bury St. Edmunds. This practitioner combined the practise of agriculture on a small scale with that of physic, and young Crabbe had to take his share in the labours of the farm. The result was not satisfactory, and after three years of this rough and uncongenial life, a more profitable situation was found with a Mr. Page of Woodbridge—the memorable home of Bernard Barton and Edward FitzGerald. Crabbe became Mr. Page's pupil in 1771, and remained with him until 1775.
We have the authority of Crabbe's son and biographer for saying that he never really cared for the profession he had adopted. What proficiency he finally attained in it, before he forsook it for ever, is not quite clear. But it is certain that his residence among the more civilised and educated inhabitants of Woodbridge was of the greatest service to him. He profited notably by joining a little club of young men who met on certain evenings at an inn for discussion and mutual improvement. To this little society Crabbe was to owe one chief happiness of his life. One of its members, Mr. W.S. Levett, a surgeon (one wonders if a relative of Samuel Johnson's protege), was at this time courting a Miss Brereton, of Framlingham, ten miles away. Mr. Levett died young in 1774, and did not live to marry, but during his brief friendship with Crabbe was the means of introducing him to the lady who, after many years of patient waiting, became his wife. In the village of Great Parham, not far from Framlingham, lived a Mr. Tovell, of Parham Hall, a substantial yeoman, farming his own estate. With Mr. and Mrs. Tovell and their only child, a daughter, lived an orphan niece of Mr. Tovell's, a Miss Sarah Elmy, Miss Brereton's bosom-friend, and constant companion. Mr. Levett had in consequence become the friend of the Tovell family, and conceived the desire that his young friend, Crabbe, should be as blessed as himself. "George," he said, "you shall go with me to Parham; there is a young lady there who would just suit you!" Crabbe accepted the invitation, made Mr. Tovell's acquaintance, and promptly fell in love with Mr. Tovell's niece. The poet, at that time, had not yet completed his eighteenth year.
How soon after this first meeting George Crabbe proposed and was accepted, is not made clear, but he was at least welcomed to the house as a friend and an admirer, and his further visits encouraged. His youth and the extreme uncertainty of his prospects could not well have been agreeable to Mr. and Mrs. Tovell, or to Miss Elmy's widowed mother who lived not far away at Beccles, but the young lady herself returned her lover's affection from the first, and never faltered. The three following years, during which Crabbe remained at Woodbridge, gave him the opportunity of occasional visits, and there can be no doubt that apart from the fascinations of his "Mira," by which name he proceeded to celebrate her in occasional verse, the experience of country life and scenery, so different from that of his native Aldeburgh, was of great service in enlarging his poetical outlook. Great Parham, distant about five miles from Saxmundham, and about thirteen from Aldeburgh, is at this day a village of great rural charm, although a single-lined branch of the Great Eastern wanders boldly among its streams and cottage gardens through the very heart of the place. The dwelling of the Tovells has many years ago disappeared—an entirely new hall having risen on the old site; but there stands in the parish, a few fields away, an older Parham Hall;—to-day a farm-house, dear to artists, of singular picturesqueness, surrounded and even washed by a deep moat, and shaded by tall trees—a haunt, indeed, "of ancient peace." The neighbourhood of this old Hall, and the luxuriant beauty of the inland village, so refreshing a contrast to the barrenness and ugliness of the country round his native town, enriched Crabbe's mind with many memories that served him well in his later poetry.
In the meantime he was practising verse, though as yet showing little individuality. A Lady's Magazine of the day, bearing the name of its publisher, Mr. Wheble, had offered a prize for the best poem on the subject of Hope, which Crabbe was so fortunate as to win, and the same magazine printed other short pieces in the same year, 1772. They were signed "G.C., Woodbridge," and included divers lyrics addressed to Mira. Other extant verses of the period of his residence at Woodbridge show that he was making experiments in stanza-form on the model of earlier English poets, though without showing more than a certain imitative skill. But after he had been three years in the town, he made a more notable experiment and had found a printer in Ipswich to take the risk of publication. In 1775 was printed in that town a didactic satire of some four hundred lines in the Popian couplet, entitled Inebriety. Coleridge's friend, who had to write a prize poem on the subject of Dr. Jenner, boldly opened with the invocation—
"Inoculation! Heavenly maid, descend."
As the title of Crabbe's poem stands for the bane and not the antidote, he could not adopt the same method, but he could not resist some other precedents of the epic sort, and begins thus, in close imitation of The Dunciad—
"The mighty spirit, and its power which stains The bloodless cheek and vivifies the brains, I sing"
The apparent object of the satire was to describe the varied phases of Intemperance, as observed by the writer in different classes of society—the Villager, the Squire, the Farmer, the Parish Clergyman, and even the Nobleman's Chaplain, an official whom Crabbe as yet knew only by imagination. From childhood he had had ample experience of the vice in the rough and reckless homes of the Aldeburgh poor. His subsequent medical pursuits must have brought him into occasional contact with it among the middle classes, and even in the manor-houses and parsonages for which he made up the medicine in his master's surgery. But his treatment of the subject was too palpably imitative of one poetic model, already stale from repetition. Not only did he choose Pope's couplet, with all its familiar antitheses and other mannerisms, but frankly avowed it by parodying whole passages from the Essay on Man and The Dunciad, the original lines being duly printed at the foot of the page. There is little of Crabbe's later accent of sympathy. Epigram is too obviously pursued, and much of the suggested acquaintance with the habits of the upper classes—
"Champagne the courtier drinks, the spleen to chase, The colonel Burgundy, and Port his grace"
is borrowed from books and not from life. Nor did the satire gain in lucidity from any editorial care. There are hardly two consecutive lines that do not suffer from a truly perverse theory of punctuation. A copy of the rare original is in the writer's possession, at the head of which the poet has inscribed his own maturer judgment of this youthful effort—"Pray let not this be seen ... there is very little of it that I'm not heartily ashamed of." The little quarto pamphlet—"Ipswich, printed and sold by C. Punchard, Bookseller, in the Butter Market, 1775. Price one shilling and sixpence"—seems to have attracted no attention. And yet a critic of experience would have recognised in it a force as well as a fluency remarkable in a young man of twenty-one, and pointing to quite other possibilities when the age of imitation should have passed away.
In 1775 Crabbe's term of apprenticeship to Mr. Page expired, and he returned to his home at Aldeburgh, hoping soon to repair to London and there continue his medical studies. But he found the domestic situation much changed for the worse. His mother (who, as we have seen, was several years older than her husband) was an invalid, and his father's habits and temper were not improving with time. He was by nature imperious, and had always (it would seem) been liable to intemperance of another kind. Moreover, a contested election for the Borough in 1774 had brought with it its familiar temptations to protracted debauch—and it is significant that in 1775 he vacated the office of churchwarden that he had held for many years. George, to whom his father was not as a rule unkind, did not shrink from once more assisting him among the butter-tubs on Slaughden Quay. Poetry seems to have been for a while laid aside, the failure of his first venture having perhaps discouraged him. Some slight amount of practice in his profession fell to his share. An entry in the Minute Book of the Aldeburgh Board of Guardians of September 17, 1775, orders "that Mr. George Crabbe, Junr., shall be employed to cure the boy Howard of the itch, and that whenever any of the poor shall have occasion for a surgeon, the overseers shall apply to him for that purpose." But these very opportunities perhaps only served to show George Crabbe how poorly he was equipped for his calling as surgeon, and after a period not specified means were found for sending him to London, where he lodged with a family from Aldeburgh who were in business in Whitechapel. How and where he then obtained instruction or practice in his calling does not appear, though there is a gruesome story, recorded by his son, how a baby-subject for dissection was one day found in his cupboard by his landlady, who was hardly to be persuaded that it was not a lately lost infant of her own. In any case, within a year Crabbe's scanty means were exhausted, and he was once more in Aldeburgh, and assistant to an apothecary of the name of Maskill. This gentleman seems to have found Aldeburgh hopeless, for in a few months he left the town, and Crabbe set up for himself as his successor. But he was still poorly qualified for his profession, his skill in surgery being notably deficient. He attracted only the poorest class of patients—the fees ware small and uncertain and his prospects of an early marriage, or even of earning his living as a single man, seemed as far off as ever. Moreover, he was again cut off from congenial companionship, with only such relief as was afforded by the occasional presence in the town of various Militia regiments, the officers of which gave him some of their patronage and society.
He had still happily the assurance of the faithful devotion of Miss Elmy. Her father had been a tanner in the Suffolk town of Beccles, where her mother still resided, and where Miss Elmy paid her occasional visits. The long journey from Aldeburgh to Beccles was often taken by Crabbe, and the changing features of the scenery traversed were reproduced, his son tells us, many years afterwards in the beautiful tale of The Lover's Journey. The tie between Crabbe and Miss Elmy was further strengthened by a dangerous fever from which Crabbe suffered in 1778-79, while Miss Elmy was a guest under his parents' roof. This was succeeded by an illness of Miss Elmy, when Crabbe was in constant attendance at Parham Hall. His intimacy with the Tovells was moreover to be strengthened by a sad event in that family, the death of their only child, an engaging girl of fourteen. The social position of the Tovells, and in greater degree their fortune, was superior to that of the Crabbes, and the engagement of their niece to one whose prospects were so little brilliant had never been quite to their taste. But henceforth this feeling was to disappear. This crowning sorrow in the family wrought more cordial feelings. Crabbe was one of those who had known and been kind to their child, and such were now,
"Peculiar people—death had made them dear."
And henceforth the engagement between the lovers was frankly accepted. But though the course of this true love was to run more and more smooth, the question of Crabbe's future means of living seemed as hopeless of solution as ever.
And yet the enforced idleness of these following years was far from unprofitable. The less time occupied in the routine work of his profession, the more leisure he had for his favourite study of natural history, and especially of botany. This latter study had been taken up during his stay at Woodbridge, the neighbourhood of which had a Flora differing from that of the bleak coast country of Aldeburgh, and it was now pursued with the same zeal at home. Herbs then played a larger part than to-day among curative agents of the village doctor, and the fact that Crabbe sought and obtained them so readily was even pleaded by his poorer patients as reason why his fees need not be calculated on any large scale. But this absorbing pursuit did far more than serve to furnish Crabbe's outfit as a healer. It was undoubtedly to the observing eye and retentive memory thus practised in the cottage gardens, and in the lanes, and meadows, and marshes of Suffolk that his descriptions, when once he found where his true strength lay, owed a charm for which readers of poetry had long been hungering. The floral outfit of pastoral poets, when Crabbe began to write, was a hortus siccus indeed. Distinctness in painting the common growth of field and hedgerow may be said to have had its origin with Crabbe. Gray and Goldsmith had their own rare and special gifts to which Crabbe could lay no claim. But neither these poets nor even Thomson, whose avowed purpose was to depict nature, are Crabbe's rivals in this respect. Byron in the most hackneyed of all eulogies upon Crabbe defined him as "Nature's sternest painter yet the best." The criticism would have been juster had he written that Crabbe was the truest painter of Nature in her less lovely phases. Crabbe was not stern in his attitude either to his fellow-men, or to the varying aspects of Nature, although for the first years of his life he was in habitual contact with the less alluring side of both.
But it was not only through a closer intimacy with Nature that Crabbe was being unconsciously prepared for high poetic service. Hope deferred and disappointments, poverty and anxiety, were doing their beneficent work. Notwithstanding certain early dissipations and escapades which his fellow-townsmen did not fail to remember against him in the later days of his success, Crabbe was of a genuinely religious temperament, and had been trained by a devout mother. Moreover, through a nearer and more sympathetic contact with the lives and sorrows of the poor suffering, he was storing experience full of value for the future, though he was still and for some time longer under the spell of the dominant poetic fashion, and still hesitated to "look into his heart and write."
But the time was bound to come when he must put his poetic quality to a final test. In London only could he hope to prove whether the verse, of which he was accumulating a store, was of a kind that men would care for. He must discover, and speedily, whether he was to take a modest place in the ranks of literature, or one even more humble in the shop of an apothecary. After weighing his chances and his risks for many a weary day he took the final resolution, and his son has told us the circumstances:—
"One gloomy day towards the close of the year 1779, he had strolled to a bleak and cheerless part of the cliff above Aldeburgh, called The Marsh Hill, brooding as he went over the humiliating necessities of his condition, and plucking every now and then, I have no doubt, the hundredth specimen of some common weed. He stopped opposite a shallow, muddy piece of water, as desolate and gloomy as his own mind, called the Leech-pond, and 'it was while I gazed on it,' he said to my brother and me, one happy morning, 'that I determined to go to London and venture all'"
About thirty years later, Crabbe contributed to a magazine (The New Monthly) some particulars of his early life, and referring to this critical moment added that he had not then heard of "another youthful adventurer," whose fate, had he known of it, might perhaps have deterred him from facing like calamities. Chatterton had "perished in his pride" nearly ten years before. As Crabbe thus recalled the scene of his own resolve, it may have struck him as a touching coincidence that it was by the Leech-pool on "the lonely moor"—though there was no "Leech-gatherer" at hand to lend him fortitude—that he resolved to encounter "Solitude, pain of heart, distress, and poverty." He was, indeed, little better equipped than Chatterton had been for the enterprise. His father was unable to assist him financially, and was disposed to reproach him for forsaking a profession, in the cause of which the family had already made sacrifices. The Crabbes and all their connections were poor, and George scarcely knew any one whom he might appeal to for even a loan. At length Mr. Dudley North, of Little Glemham Hall, near Parham, whose brother had stood for Aldeburgh, was approached, and sent the sum asked for—five pounds. George Crabbe, after paying his debts, set sail for London on board a sloop at Slaughden Quay—"master of a box of clothes, a small case of surgical instruments, and three pounds in money." This was in April 1780.
POVERTY IN LONDON
Crabbe had no acquaintances of his own in London, and the only introduction he carried with him was to an old friend of Miss Elmy's, a Mrs. Burcham, married to a linen-draper in Cornhill. In order to be near these friendly persons he took lodgings, close to the Royal Exchange, in the house of a hairdresser, a Mr. Vickery, at whose suggestion, no doubt, he provided himself with "a fashionable tie-wig". Crabbe at once began preparations for his literary campaign, by correcting such verse as he had brought with him, completing "two dramas and a variety of prose essays," and generally improving himself by a course of study and practice in composition. As in the old Woodbridge days, he made some congenial acquaintances at a little club that met at a neighbouring coffee-house, which included a Mr. Bonnycastle and a Mr. Reuben Burrow, both mathematicians of repute, who rose to fill important positions in their day. These recreations he diversified with country excursions, during which he read Horace and Ovid, or searched the woods around London for plants and insects.
From his first arrival in town Crabbe kept a diary or journal, addressed to his "Mira" at Parham, and we owe to it a detailed account of his earlier struggles, three months of the journal having survived and fallen into his son's hands after the poet's death. Crabbe had arrived in London in April, and by the end of the month we learn from the journal that he was engaged upon a work in prose, "A Plan for the Examination of our Moral and Religious Opinions," and also on a poetical "Epistle to Prince William Henry," afterwards William IV., who had only the year before entered the navy as midshipman, but had already seen some service under Rodney. The next day's entry in the diary tells how he was not neglecting other possible chances of an honest livelihood. He had answered an advertisement in the Daily Advertiser for "an amanuensis, of grammatical education, and endued with a genius capable of making improvements in the writings of a gentleman not well versed in the English language." Two days later he called for a reply, only to find that the gentleman was suited. The same day's entry also records how he had sent his poem (probably the ode to the young Sailor-Prince) to Mr. Dodsley. Only a day later he writes. "Judging it best to have two strings to the bow, and fearing Mr. Dodsley's will snap, I have finished another little work from that awkward-titled piece, 'The Foes of Mankind': have run it on to three hundred and fifty lines, and given it a still more odd name, 'An Epistle from the Devil.' To-morrow I hope to transcribe it fair, and send it by Monday."
"Mr. Dodsley's reply just received: 'Mr. Dodsley presents his compliments to the gentleman who favoured him with the enclosed poem, which he has returned, as he apprehends the sale of it would probably not enable him to give any consideration. He does not mean to insinuate a want of merit in the poem, but rather a want of attention in the public.'"
All this was sufficiently discouraging, and the next day's record is one of even worse omen. The poet thanks Heaven that his spirits are not affected by Mr. Dodsley's refusal, and that he is already preparing another poem for another bookseller, Mr. Becket. He adds, however: "I find myself under the disagreeable necessity of vending or pawning some of my more useless articles: accordingly have put into a paper such as cost about two or three guineas, and, being silver, have not greatly lessened in their value. The conscientious pawnbroker allowed me—'he thought he might'—half a guinea for them. I took it very readily, being determined to call for them very soon, and then, if I afterwards wanted, carry them to some less voracious animal of the kind."
The entries during the next six weeks continue of the same tenor. Mr. Becket, for whose approval were sent "Poetical Epistles, with a preface by the learned Martinus Scriblerus" (he was still harping on the string of the Augustans), proved no more responsive than Dodsley, "'Twas a very pretty thing, but, sir, these little pieces the town do not regard." By May 16th he had "sold his wardrobe, pawned his watch, was in debt to his landlord, and finally at some loss how to eat a week longer." Two days later he had pawned his surgical instruments—redeemed and repawned his watch on more favourable terms—and was rejoiced to find himself still the possessor of ten shillings. He remained stout of heart—his faith in Providence still his strong comfort—and the Vickery family, though he must have been constantly in their debt, were unfailingly kind and hospitable. He was also appealing to the possible patrons of literature among the leading statesmen of the hour. On May 21 we learn that he was preparing "a book" (which of his many ventures of the hour, is uncertain), and with it a letter for the Prime Minister, Lord North, whose relative, Dudley North, had started him on his journey to London. When, after a fortnight's suspense, this request for assistance had been refused, he writes yet more urgently to Lord Shelburne (at that time out of office) complaining bitterly of North's hardness of heart, and appealing on this occasion to his hoped-for patron both in prose and verse—
"Ah! Shelburne, blest with all that's good or great, T' adorn a rich or save a sinking state, If public Ills engross not all thy care, Let private Woe assail a patriot's ear, Pity confined, but not less warm, impart, And unresisted win thy noble heart"—
with much more in the same vein of innocent flattery. But once again Crabbe was doomed to disappointment. He had already, it would seem, appealed to Lord Chancellor Thurlow, with no better success. Crabbe felt these successive repulses very keenly, but it is not necessary to tax North, Shelburne, and Thurlow with exceptional hardness of heart. London was as full of needy literary adventurers as it had been in the days of The Dunciad, and men holding the position of these ministers and ex-ministers were probably receiving similar applications every week of their lives.
During three days in June, Crabbe's attention is diverted from his own distresses by the Lord George Gordon Riots, of which his journal from June 8th contains some interesting particulars. He was himself an eye-witness of some of the most disgraceful excesses of the mob, the burning of the governor of Newgate's house, and the setting at liberty of the prisoners. He also saw Lord George himself, "a lively-looking young man in appearance," drawn in his coach by the mob towards the residence of Alderman Bull, "bowing as he passed along."
At this point the diary ends, or in any case the concluding portion was never seen by the poet's son. And yet at the date when it closed, Crabbe was nearer to at least the semblance of a success than he had yet approached. He had at length found a publisher willing to print, and apparently at his own risk, "The Candidate—a Poetical Epistle to the Authors of the Monthly Review," that journal being the chief organ of literary criticism at the time. The idea of this attempt to propitiate the critics in advance, with a view to other poetic efforts in the future, was not felicitous. The publisher, "H. Payne, opposite Marlborough House, Pall Mall," had pledged himself that the author should receive some share of the profits, however small; but even if he had not become bankrupt immediately after its publication, it is unlikely that Crabbe would have profited by a single penny. It was indeed a very ill-advised attempt, even as regards the reviewers addressed. The very tone adopted, that of deprecation of criticism, would be in their view a proof of weakness, and as such they accepted it. Nor had the poem any better chance with the general reader. Its rhetoric and versification were only one more of the interminable echoes of the manner of Pope. It had no organic unity. The wearisome note of plea for indulgence had to be relieved at intervals by such irrelevant episodes as compliments to the absent "Mira," and to Wolfe, who "conquered as he fell"—twenty years or so before. The critics of the Monthly Review, far from being mollified by the poet's appeal, received the poem with the cruel but perfectly just remark that it had "that material defect, the want of a proper subject."
An allegorical episode may be cited as a sample of the general style of this effusion. The poet relates how the Genius of Poetry (like, but how unlike, her who was seen by Burns in vision) appeared to him with counsel how best to hit the taste of the town:—
"Be not too eager in the arduous chase; Who pants for triumph seldom wins the race: Venture not all, but wisely hoard thy worth, And let thy labours one by one go forth Some happier scrap capricious wits may find On a fair day, and be profusely kind; Which, buried in the rubbish of a throng, Had pleased as little as a new-year's song, Or lover's verse, that cloyed with nauseous sweet, Or birthday ode, that ran on ill-paired feet. Merit not always—Fortune Feeds the bard, And as the whim inclines bestows reward None without wit, nor with it numbers gain; To please is hard, but none shall please in vain As a coy mistress is the humoured town, Loth every lover with success to crown; He who would win must every effort try, Sail in the mode, and to the fashion fly; Must gay or grave to every humour dress, And watch the lucky Moment of Success; That caught, no more his eager hopes are crost; But vain are Wit and Love, when that is lost"
Crabbe's son and biographer remarks with justice that the time of his father's arrival in London was "not unfavourable for a new Candidate in Poetry. The giants, Swift and Pope, had passed away, leaving each in his department examples never to be excelled; but the style of each had been so long imitated by inferior persons that the world was not unlikely to welcome some one who should strike into a newer path. The strong and powerful satirist Churchill, the classic Gray, and the inimitable Goldsmith had also departed; and more recently still, Chatterton had paid the bitter penalty of his imprudence under circumstances which must surely have rather disposed the patrons of talent to watch the next opportunity that might offer itself of encouraging genius 'by poverty depressed.' The stupendous Johnson, unrivalled in general literature, had from an early period withdrawn himself from poetry. Cowper, destined to fill so large a space in the public eye somewhat later, had not as yet appeared as an author; and as for Burns, he was still unknown beyond the obscure circle of his fellow-villagers."
All this is quite true, but it was not for such facile cleverness as The Candidate that the lovers of poetry were impatient. Up to this point Crabbe shows himself wholly unsuspicious of this fact. It had not occurred to him that it was possible for him safely to trust his own instincts. And yet there is a stray entry in his diary which seems to show how (in obedience to his visionary instructor) he was trying experiments in more hopeful directions. On the twelfth, of May he intimates to his Mira that he has dreams of success in something different, something more human than had yet engaged his thoughts. "For the first time in my life that I recollect," he writes, "I have written three or four stanzas that so far touched me in the reading them as to take off the consideration that they were things of my own fancy." Thus far there was nothing in what he had printed—in Inebriety or The Candidate—that could possibly have touched his heart or that of his readers. And it may well have been that he was now turning for fresh themes to those real sorrows, those genuine, if homely, human interests of which he had already so intimate an experience.
However that may have been, the combined coldness of his reviewers and failure of his bookseller must have brought Crabbe within as near an approach to despair as his healthy nature allowed. His distress was now extreme; he was incurring debts with little hope of paying them, and creditors wore pressing. Forty years later he told Walter Scott and Lockhart how "during many months when he was toiling in early life in London he hardly over tasted butcher-meat except on a Sunday, when he dined usually with a tradesman's family, and thought their leg of mutton, baked in the pan, the perfection of luxury." And it was only after some more weary months, when at last "want stared him in the face, and a gaol seemed the only immediate refuge for his head," that he resolved, as a last resort, to lay his case once more before some public man of eminence and character. "Impelled" (to use his own words) "by some propitious influence, he fixed in some happy moment upon Edmund Burke—one of the first of Englishmen, and in the capacity and energy of his mind, one of the greatest of human beings."
It was in one of the early months of 1781 (the exact date seems to be undiscoverable) that Crabbe addressed his letter, with specimens of his poetry, to Burke at his London residence. The letter has been preserved, and runs as follows:—
"Sir,—I am sensible that I need even your talents to apologise for the freedom I now take; but I have a plea which, however simply urged, will, with, a mind like yours, sir, procure me pardon. I am one of those outcasts on the world who are without a friend, without employment, and without bread.
"Pardon me a short preface. I had a partial father who gave me a better education than his broken fortune would have allowed; and a better than was necessary, as he could give me that only. I was designed for the profession of physic, but not having wherewithal to complete the requisite studies, the design but served to convince me of a parent's affection, and the error it had occasioned. In April last I came to London with three pounds, and flattered myself this would be sufficient to supply me with the common necessaries of life till my abilities should procure me more; of these I had the highest opinion, and a poetical vanity contributed to my delusion. I knew little of the world, and had read books only: I wrote, and fancied perfection in my compositions; when I wanted bread they promised me affluence, and soothed me with dreams of reputation, whilst my appearance subjected me to contempt.
"Time, reflection, and want have shown me my mistake. I see my trifles in that which I think the true light; and whilst I deem them such, have yet the opinion that holds them superior to the common run of poetical publications.
"I had some knowledge of the late Mr. Nassau, the brother of Lord Rochford; in consequence of which I asked his Lordship's permission to inscribe my little work to him. Knowing it to be free from all political allusions and personal abuse, it was no very material point to me to whom it was dedicated. His Lordship thought it none to him, and obligingly consented to my request.
"I was told that a subscription would be the more profitable method for me, and, therefore, endeavoured to circulate copies of the enclosed Proposals.
"I am afraid, sir, I disgust you with this very dull narration, but believe me punished in the misery that occasions it. You will conclude that during this time I must have been at more expense than I could afford. Indeed the most parsimonious could not have avoided it. The printer deceived me, and my little business has had every delay. The people with whom I live perceive my situation, and find me to be indigent and without friends. About ten days since I was compelled to give a note for seven pounds, to avoid an arrest for about double that sum which I owe. I wrote to every friend I had, but my friends are poor likewise: the time of payment approached, and I ventured to represent my case to Lord Rochford. I begged to be credited for this sum till I received it of my subscribers, which I believe will be within one month: but to this letter I had no reply, and I have probably offended by my importunity. Having used every honest means in vain, I yesterday confessed my inability, and obtained with much entreaty and as the greatest favour a week's forbearance, when I am positively told that I must, pay the money or prepare for a prison.
"You will guess the purpose of so long an introduction. I appeal to you, sir, as a good and, let me add, a great man. I have no other pretensions to your favour than that I am an unhappy one. It is not easy to support the thoughts of confinement; and I am coward enough to dread such an end to my suspense. Can you, sir, in any degree aid me with propriety? Will you ask any demonstrations of my veracity? I have imposed upon myself, but I have been guilty of no other imposition Let me, if possible, interest your compassion. I know those of rank and fortune are teased with frequent petitions, and are compelled to refuse the requests even of those whom they know to be in distress; it is, therefore, with a distant hope I ventured to solicit such favour: but you will forgive me, sir, if you do not think proper to relieve. It is impossible that sentiments like yours can proceed from any but a humane and generous heart.
"I will call upon you, sir, to-morrow, and if I have not the happiness to obtain credit with you, I must submit to my fate. My existence is a pain to myself, and every one near and dear to me are distressed in my distresses. My connections, once the source of happiness, now embitter the reverse of my fortune, and I have only to hope a speedy end to a life so unpromisingly begun: in which (though it ought not to be boasted of) I can reap some consolation from looking to the end of it. I am, sir, with, the greatest respect, your obedient and most humble servant, GEORGE CRABBE."
The letter is undated, but, as we shall see, must have been written in February or March of 1781. Crabbe delivered it with his own hands at Burke's house in Charles Street, St. James's, and (as he long after told Walter Scott) paced up and down Westminster Bridge all night in an agony of suspense.
This suspense was not of long duration Crabbe made his threatened call, and anxiety was speedily at an end. He had sent with his letter specimens of his verse still in manuscript. Whether Burke had had time to do more than glance at them—for they had been in his hands but a few hours—is uncertain. But it may well have been that the tone as well as the substance of Crabbe's letter struck the great statesman as something apart from the usual strain of the literary pretender. During Burke's first years in London, when he himself lived by literature and saw much of the lives and ways of poets and pamphleteers, he must have gained some experience that served him later in good stead. There was a flavour of truthfulness in Crabbe's story that could hardly be delusive, and a strain of modesty blended with courage that would at once appeal to Burke's generous nature. Again, Burke was not a poet (save in the glowing periods of his prose), but he had read widely in the poets, and had himself been possessed at one stage of his youth "with the furor poeticus." At this special juncture he had indeed little leisure for such matters. He had lost his seat for Bristol in the preceding year, but had speedily found another at Malton—a pocket-borough of Lord Rockingham's,—and, at the moment of Crabbe's appeal, was again actively opposing the policy of the King and Lord North. But he yet found time for an act of kindness that was to have no inconsiderable influence on English literature. The result of the interview was that Crabbe's immediate necessities were relieved by a gift of money, and by the assurance that Burke would do all in his power to further Crabbe's literary aims. What particular poems or fragments of poetry had been first sent to Burke is uncertain; but among those submitted to his judgment were specimens of the poems to be henceforth known as the The Library and The Village. Crabbe afterwards learned that the lines which first convinced Burke that a new and genuine poet had arisen were the following from The Village, in which the author told of his resolution to leave the home of his birth and try his fortune in the city of wits and scholars—
"As on their neighbouring beach yon swallows stand And wait for favouring winds to leave the land; While still for flight the ready wing is spread: So waited I the favouring hour, and fled; Fled from those shores where guilt and famine reign, And cried, 'Ah! hapless they who still remain— Who still remain to hear the ocean roar; Whose greedy waves devour the lessening shore; Till some fierce tide, with more imperious sway, Sweeps the low hut and all it holds away; When the sad tenant weeps from door to door, And begs a poor protection from the poor!"
Burke might well have been impressed by such a passage. In some other specimens of Crabbe's verse, submitted at the same time to his judgment, the note of a very different school was dominant. But here for the moment appears a fresher key and a later model. In the lines just quoted the feeling and the cadence of The Traveller and The Deserted Village are unmistakable. But if they suggest comparison with the exquisite passage in the latter beginning—
"And as the hare, whom hounds and horns pursue, Pants to the place from which it first she flew,"
they also suggest a contrast. Burke's experienced eye would detect that if there was something in Crabbe's more Pope-like couplets that was not found in Pope, so there was something here more poignant than even in Goldsmith.
Crabbe's son reflected with just pride that there must have been something in his father's manners and bearing that at the outset invited Burke's confidence and made intimacy at once possible, although Crabbe's previous associates had been so different from the educated gentry of London. In telling of his now-found poet a few days afterwards to Sir Joshua Reynolds, Burke said that he had "the mind and feelings of a gentleman." And he acted boldly on this assurance by at once placing Crabbe on the footing of a friend, and admitting him to his family circle. "He was invited to Beaconsfield," Crabbe wrote in his short autobiographical sketch, "the seat of his protector, and was there placed in a convenient apartment, supplied with books for his information and amusement, and made a member of a family whom it was honour as well as pleasure to become in any degree associated with." The time thus spent was profitable to Crabbe in other ways than by enlarging his knowledge and ideas, and laying the foundation of many valued friendships. He devoted himself in earnest to complete his unfinished poems and revise others under Burke's judicious criticism. The poem he first published, The Library, he himself tells us, was written partly in his presence and submitted as a whole to his judgment. Crabbe elsewhere indicates clearly what were the weak points of his art, and what tendencies Burke found it most necessary he should counteract. Writing his reminiscences in the third person years later, he naively admitted that "Mr. Crabbe had sometimes the satisfaction of hearing, when the verses were bad, that the thoughts deserved better; and that if he had the common faults of inexperienced writers, he had frequently the merit of thinking for himself." The first clause of this sentence might be applied to Crabbe's poetry to the very end of his days. Of his later and far maturer poems, when he had ceased to polish, it is too true that the thoughts are often better than their treatment. His latest publisher, John Murray, used to say that in conversation Crabbe often "said uncommon things in so common a way" that they passed unnoticed. The remark applies equally to much of Crabbe's poetry. But at least, if this incongruity is to exist, it is on the more hopeful side. The characteristic of so much poetry of our own day is that the manner is uncommon, and the commonness resides in the matter.
When Crabbe had completed his revisions to his own satisfaction and his adviser's, Burke suggested the publication of The Library and The Village, and the former poem was laid before Mr. Dodsley, who only a few months before had refused a poem from the same hand. But circumstances were now changed, and Burke's recommendation and support were all-sufficient. Dodsley was all politeness, and though he declined to incur any risk—this was doubtless borne by Burke—he promised his best endeavours to make the poem a success. The Library was published, anonymously, in June 1781. The Monthly and the Critical Reviews awarded it a certain amount of faint praise, but the success with the general public seems only to have been slight.
When Burke selected this poem to lay before Dodsley, he had already read portions of The Village, and it seems strange that he should have given The Library precedence, for the other was in every respect the more remarkable. But Burke, a conservative in this as in other matters, probably thought that a new poet desiring to be heard would be wiser in not at once quitting the old paths. The readers of poetry still had a taste for didactic epigram varied by a certain amount of florid rhetoric. And there was little beyond this in Crabbe's moralisings on the respective functions of theology, history, poetry, and the rest, as represented on the shelves of a library, and on the blessings of literature to the heart when wearied with business and the cares of life. Crabbe's verses on such topics are by no means ineffective. He had caught perfectly the trick of the school so soon to pass away. He is as fluent and copious—as skilful in spreading a truism over a dozen well-sounding lines—as any of his predecessors. There is little new in the way of ideas. Crabbe had as yet no wide insight into books and authors, and he was forced to deal largely in generalities. But he showed that he had already some idea of style; and if, when he had so little to say, he could say it with so much semblance of power, it was certain that when he had observed and thought for himself he would go further and make a deeper mark. The heroic couplet controlled him to the end of his life, and there is no doubt that it was not merely timidity that made him confine himself to the old beaten track. Crabbe's thoughts ran very much in antithesis, and the couplet suited this tendency. But it had its serious limitations. Southey's touching stanzas—
"My days among the dead are passed,"
though the ideas embodied are no more novel than Crabbe's, are worth scores of such lines as these—
"With awe, around these silent walks I tread; These are the lasting mansions of the dead: 'The dead!' methinks a thousand tongues reply; 'These are the tombs of such as cannot die! Crowned with eternal fame, they sit sublime, And laugh at all the little strife of Time'"
FRIENDSHIP WITH BURKE
Thus far I have followed the guidance of Crabbe's son and biographer, but there is much that is confused and incomplete in his narrative. The story of Crabbe's life, as told by the son, leaves us in much doubt as to the order of events in 1780-1781. The memorable letter to Burke was, as we have seen, without a date. The omission is not strange, for the letter was written by Crabbe in great anguish of mind, and was left by his own hand at Burke's door. The son, though he evidently obtained from his father most of the information he was afterwards to use, never extracted this date from him. He tells us that up to the time of his undertaking the Biography, he did not even know that the original of the letter was in existence. He also tells us that until he and his brother saw the letter they had little idea of the extreme poverty and anxiety which their father had experienced during his time in London. Obviously Crabbe himself had been reticent on the subject even with his own family. From the midsummer of 1780, when the "Journal to Mira" comes to an end, to the February or March of the following year, there is a blank in the Biography which the son was unable to fill. At the time the fragment of Diary closes, Crabbe was apparently at the very end of his resources. He had pawned all his personal property, his books and his surgical implements, and was still in debt. He had begged assistance from many of the leading statesmen of the hour without success. How did he contrive to exist between June 1780 and the early months of 1781?
The problem might never have been solved for us had it not been for the accidental publication, four years after the Biography appeared, of a second letter from Crabbe to Burke. In 1838, Sir Henry Bunbury, in an appendix to the Memoir and Correspondence of Sir Thomas Hanmer (Speaker of the House of Commons, and Shakspearian editor), printed a collection of miscellaneous letters from distinguished men in the possession of the Bunbury family. Among these is a letter of Crabbe to Burke, undated save as to the month, which is given as June 26th. The year, however, is obviously 1781, for the letter consists of further details of Crabbe's early life, not supplied in the earlier effusion. At the date of this second letter, Crabbe had been known to Burke three or four months. During that time Crabbe had been constantly seeing Burke, and with his help had been revising for the press the poem of The Library, which was published by Dodsley in this very month, June 1781. The first impression, accordingly, produced on us by the letter, is one of surprise that after so long a period of intimate association with Burke, Crabbe should still be writing in a tone of profound anxiety and discouragement as to his future prospects. According to the son's account of the situation, when Crabbe left Burke's house after their first meeting, "he was, in the common phrase, 'a made man'—from that hour." That short interview "entirely, and for ever, changed the nature of his worldly fortunes." This, in a sense, was undoubtedly true, though not perhaps as the writer meant. It is clear from the letter first printed by Sir Henry Bunbury, that up to the end of June 1781, Crabbe's future occupation in life was still unfixed, and that he was full of misgivings as to the means of earning a livelihood.
The letter is of great interest in many respects, but is too long to print as a whole in the text. It throws light upon the blank space in Crabbe's history just now referred to. It tells the story of a period of humiliation and distress, concerning which it is easy to understand that even in the days of his fame and prosperity Crabbe may well have refrained from speaking with his children. After relating in full his early struggles as an imperfectly qualified country doctor, and his subsequent fortunes in London up to the day of his appeal to Burke, Crabbe proceeds—"It will perhaps be asked how I could live near twelve months a stranger in London; and coming without money, it is not to be supposed I was immediately credited. It is not; my support arose from another source. In the very early part of my life I contracted some acquaintance, which afterwards became a serious connection, with the niece of a Suffolk gentleman of large fortune. Her mother lives with her three daughters at Beccles; her income is but the interest of fifteen hundred pounds, which at her decease is to be divided betwixt her children. The brother makes her annual income about a hundred pounds; he is a rigid economist, and though I have the pleasure of his approbation, I have not the good fortune to obtain more, nor from a prudent man could I perhaps expect so much. But from the family at Beccles I have every mark of their attention, and every proof of their disinterested regard. They have from time to time supplied me with such sums as they could possibly spare, and that they have not done more arose from my concealing the severity of my situation, for I would not involve in my errors or misfortunes a very generous and very happy family by which I am received with unaffected sincerity, and where I am treated as a son by a mother who can have no prudential reason to rejoice that her daughter has formed such a connection. It is this family I lately visited, and by which I am pressed to return, for they know the necessity there is for me to live with the utmost frugality, and hopeless of my succeeding in town, they invite me to partake of their little fortune, and as I cannot mend my prospects, to avoid making them worse." The letter ends with an earnest appeal to Burke to help him to any honest occupation that may enable him to live without being a burden on the slender resources of Miss Elmy's family. Crabbe is full of gratitude for all that Burke has thus far done for him. He has helped him to complete and publish his poem, but Crabbe is evidently aware that poetry does not mean a livelihood, and that his future is as dark as ever. The letter is dated from Crabbe's old lodging with the Vickerys in Bishopsgate Street, and he had been lately staying with the Elmys at Beccles. He was not therefore as yet a visitor under Burke's roof. This was yet to come, with all the happy results that were to follow. It may still seem strange that all these details remained to be told to Burke four months after their acquaintance had begun. An explanation of this may be found in the autobiographical matter that Crabbe late in life supplied to the New Monthly Magazine in 1816. He there intimates that after Burke had generously assisted him in other ways, besides enabling him to publish The Library, the question had been discussed of Crabbe's future calling. "Mr. Crabbe was encouraged to lay open his views, past and present; to display whatever reading and acquirements he possessed, to explain the causes of his disappointments, and the cloudiness of his prospects; in short he concealed nothing from a friend so able to guide inexperience, and so willing to pardon inadvertency." Obviously it was in answer to such invitations from Burke that the letter of the 26th of June 1781 was written.
It was probably soon after the publication of The Library that Crabbe paid his first visit to Beaconsfield, and was welcomed as a guest by Burke's wife and her niece as cordially as by the statesman himself. Here he first met Charles James Fox and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and through the latter soon became acquainted with Samuel Johnson, on whom he called in Bolt Court. Later in the year, when in London, Crabbe had lodgings hard by the Burkes in St. James's Place, and continued to be a frequent guest at their table, where he met other of Burke's distinguished friends, political and literary. Among these was Lord Chancellor Thurlow to whom Crabbe had appealed, without success, in his less fortunate days. On that occasion Thurlow had simply replied, in regard to the poems which Crabbe had enclosed, "that his avocations did not leave him leisure to read verses." To this Crabbe had been so unwise as to reply that it was one of a Lord Chancellor's functions to relieve merit in distress. But the good-natured Chancellor had not resented the impertinence, and now hearing afresh from Burke of his old petitioner, invited Crabbe to breakfast, and made him a generous apology. "The first poem you sent me, Sir," he said, "I ought to have noticed,—and I heartily forgive the second." At parting, Thurlow pressed a sealed packet containing a hundred pounds into Crabbe's hand, and assured him of further help when Crabbe should have taken Holy Orders.
For already, as the result of Burke's unceasing interest in his new friend, Crabbe's future calling had been decided. In the course of conversations at Beaconsfield Burke had discovered that his tastes and gifts pointed much more clearly towards divinity than to medicine. His special training for the office of a clergyman was of course deficient. He probably had no Greek, but he had mastered enough of Latin to read and quote the Latin poets. Moreover, his chief passion from early youth had been for botany, and the treatises on that subject were, in Crabbe's day, written in the language adopted in all scientific works. "It is most fortunate," said Burke, "that your father exerted himself to send you to that second school; without a little Latin we should have made nothing of you: now, I think we shall succeed." Moreover Crabbe had been a wide and discursive reader. "Mr. Crabbe," Burke told Reynolds, "appears to know something of every thing." As to his more serious qualifications for the profession, his natural piety, as shown in the diaries kept in his days of trial, was beyond doubt. He was well read in the Scriptures, and the example of a religious and much-tried mother had not been without its influence. There had been some dissipations of his earlier manhood, as his son admits, to repent of and to put away; but the growth of his character in all that was excellent was unimpeachable, and Burke was amply justified in recommending Crabbe as a candidate for orders to the Bishop of Norwich. He was ordained on the 21st of December 1781 to the curacy of his native town.
On arriving in Aldeburgh Crabbe once more set up housekeeping with a sister, as he had done in his less prosperous days as parish doctor. Sad changes had occurred in his old home during the two years of his absence. His mother had passed away after her many years of patient suffering, and his father's temper and habits were not the better for losing the wholesome restraints of her presence. But his attitude to his clergyman son was at once changed. He was proud of his reputation and his new-formed friends, and of the proofs he had given that the money spent on his education had not been thrown away. But, apart from the family pride in him, and that of Miss Elmy and other friends at Parham, Crabbe's reception by his former friends and neighbours in Aldeburgh was not of the kind he might have hoped to receive. He had left the place less than three years before, a half-trained and unappreciated practitioner in physic, to seek his fortune among strangers in London, with the forlornest hopes of success. Jealousy of his elevated position and improved fortunes set in with much severity. On the other hand, it was more than many could tolerate that the hedge-apothecary of old should be empowered to hold forth in a pulpit. Crabbe himself in later life admitted to his children that his treatment at the hands of his fellow-townsmen was markedly unkind. Even though he was happy in the improved relations with his own family, and in the renewed opportunities of frequent intercourse with Miss Elmy and the Tovells, Crabbe's position during the few months at Aldeburgh was far from agreeable. The religious influence, moreover, which he would naturally have wished to exercise in his new sphere would obviously suffer in consequence. The result was that in accordance with the assurances given him by Thurlow at their last meeting, Crabbe again laid his difficulties before the Chancellor. Thurlow quite reasonably replied that he could not form any opinion as to Crabbe's present situation—"still less upon the agreeableness of it"; and hinted that a somewhat longer period of probation was advisable before he selected Crabbe for preferment in the Church.
Other relief was however at hand, and once more through the watchful care of Burke. Crabbe received a letter from his faithful friend to the effect that he had mentioned his case to the Duke of Rutland, and that the Duke had offered him the post of domestic chaplain at Belvoir Castle, when he might be free from his engagements at Aldeburgh. That Burke should have ventured on this step is significant, both as regards the Duke and Duchess, and Crabbe. Crabbe's son remarks with truth that an appointment of the kind was unusual, "such situations in the mansions of that rank being commonly filled either by relations of the family itself, or by college acquaintances, or dependents recommended by political service and local attachment." Now Burke would certainly not have recommended Crabbe for the post if he had found in his protege any such defects of breeding or social tact as would have made his society distasteful to the Duke and Duchess. Burke, as we have seen, described him on their first acquaintance as having "the mind and feelings of a gentleman." Thurlow, it is true, after one of Crabbe's earlier interviews, had declared with an oath (more suo) that he was "as like Parson Adams as twelve to a dozen." But Thurlow was not merely jesting. He knew that Fielding's immortal clergyman had also the "mind and feelings of a gentleman," although his simplicity and ignorance of the world put him at many social disadvantages. It was probably the same obvious difference in Crabbe from the common type of nobleman's chaplain of that day which made Crabbe's position at Belvoir, as his son admits, full of difficulties. It is quite possible and even natural that the guests and visitors at the Castle did not always accept Crabbe's talents as making up for a certain want of polish—or even perhaps for a want of deference to their opinions in conversation. The "pampered menials" moreover would probably resent having "to say Amen" to a newly-discovered literary adventurer from the great metropolis.
In any case Crabbe's experience of a chaplain's life at Belvoir was not, by his son's admission, a happy one. "The numberless allusions," he writes, "to the nature of a literary dependent's existence in a great lord's house, which occur in my father's writings, and especially in the tale of The Patron, are, however, quite enough, to lead any one who knew his character and feelings to the conclusion that notwithstanding the kindness and condescension of the Duke and Duchess themselves—which were, I believe, uniform, and of which he always spoke with gratitude—the situation he filled at Belvoir was attended with many painful circumstances, and productive in his mind of some of the acutest sensations of wounded pride that have ever been traced by any pen." It is not necessary to hold Crabbe himself entirely irresponsible for this result. His son, with a frankness that marks the Biography throughout, does not conceal that his father's temper, even in later life, was intolerant of contradiction, and he probably expressed his opinions before the guests at Belvoir with more vehemence than prudence. But if the rebuffs he met with were long remembered, they taught him something of value, and enlarged that stock of worldly wisdom so prominent in his later writings. In the story of The Patron, the young student living as the rich man's guest is advised by his father as to his behaviour with a fulness of detail obviously derived from Crabbe's own recollections of his early deficiencies:—
"Thou art Religion's advocate—take heed. Hurt not the cause thy pleasure 'tis to plead; With wine before thee, and with wits beside, Do not in strength of reasoning powers confide; What seems to thee convincing, certain, plain, They will deny and dare thee to maintain; And thus will triumph o'er thy eager youth, While thou wilt grieve for so disgracing truth. With pain I've seen, these wrangling wits among, Faith's weak defenders, passionate and young; Weak thou art not, yet not enough on guard Where wit and humour keep their watch and ward. Men gay and noisy will o'erwhelm thy sense, Then loudly laugh at Truth's and thy expense: While the kind ladies will do all they can To check their mirth, and cry 'The good young man!'"
Meantime there were alleviations of the poet's lot. If the guests of the house were not always convinced by his arguments and the servants did not disguise their contempt, the Duke and Duchess were kind, and made him their friend. Nor was the Duke without an intelligent interest in Crabbe's own subjects. Moreover, among the visitors at Belvoir were many who shared that interest to the full, such as the Duke of Queensberry, Lord Lothian, Bishop Watson, and the eccentric Dr. Robert Glynn. Again, it was during Crabbe's residence at Belvoir that the Duke's brother, Lord Robert Manners, died of wounds received while leading his ship, Resolution, against the French in the West Indies, in the April of 1782. Crabbe's sympathy with the family, shown in his tribute to the sailor-brother appended to the poem he was then bringing to completion, still further strengthened the tie between them. Crabbe accompanied the Duke to London soon after, to assist him in arranging with Stothard for a picture to be painted of the incident of Lord Robert's death. It was during this visit that Crabbe received the following letter from Burke. The letter is undated, but belongs to the month of May, for The Village was published in that month, and Burke clearly refers to that poem as just received, but as yet unread. Crabbe seems to have been for the time off duty, and to have proposed a short visit to the Burkes;—
"Dear Sir,—I do not know by what unlucky accident you missed the note I left for you at my house. I wrote besides to you at Belvoir. If you had received these two short letters you could not want an invitation to a place where every one considers himself as infinitely honoured and pleased by your presence. Mrs. Burke desires her best compliments, and trusts that you will not let the holidays pass over without a visit from you I have got the poem; but I have not yet opened it. I don't like the unhappy language you use about these matters. You do not easily please such a judgment as your own—that is natural; but where you are difficult every one else will be charmed. I am, my dear sir, ever most affectionately yours,
The "unhappy language" seems to point to Crabbe having expressed some diffidence or forebodings concerning his new venture. Yet Crabbe had less to fear on this head than with most of his early poems. The Village had been schemed and composed in parts before Crabbe knew Burke. One passage in it indeed, as we have seen, had first convinced Burke that the writer was a poet. And in the interval that followed the poem had been completed and matured with a care that Crabbe seldom afterwards bestowed upon his productions. Burke himself had suggested and criticised much during its progress, and the manuscript had further been submitted through Sir Joshua Reynolds to Johnson, who not only revised it in detail but re-wrote half a dozen of the opening lines. Johnson's opinion of the poem was conveyed to Reynolds in the following letter, and here at last we get a date:—
March 4, 1783.
"Sir,—I have sent you back Mr. Crabbe's poem, which I read with great delight. It is original, vigorous, and elegant. The alterations which I have made I do not require him to adopt; for my lines are perhaps not often better than his own: but he may take mine and his own together, and perhaps between them produce something better than either. He is not to think his copy wantonly defaced: a wet sponge will wash all the red lines away and leave the pages clean. His dedication will be least liked: it were better to contract it into a short, sprightly address. I do not doubt of Mr. Crabbe's success. I am, Sir, your most humble servant,
Boswell's comment on this incident is as follows:—"The sentiments of Mr. Crabbe's admirable poem as to the false notions of rustic happiness and rustic virtue were quite congenial with Dr. Johnson's own: and he took the trouble not only to suggest slight corrections and variations, but to furnish some lines when he thought he could give the writer's meaning better than in the words of the manuscript." Boswell went on to observe that "the aid given by Johnson to the poem, as to The Traveller and Deserted Village of Goldsmith, were so small as by no means to impair the distinguished merit of the author." There were unfriendly critics, however, in Crabbe's native county who professed to think otherwise, and "whispered that the manuscript had been so cobbled by Burke and Johnson that its author did not know it again when returned to him." On which Crabbe's son rejoins that "if these kind persons survived to read The Parish Register their amiable conjectures must have received a sufficient rebuke."
This confident retort is not wholly just. There can be no doubt that some special mannerisms and defects of Crabbe's later style had been kept in check by the wise revision of his friends. And again, when after more than twenty years Crabbe produced The Parish Register, that poem, as we shall see, had received from Charles James Fox something of the same friendly revision and suggestion as The Village had received from Burke and Johnson.
The Village, in quarto, published by J. Dodsley, Pall Mall, appeared in May 1783, and at once attracted attention by novel qualities. Among these was the bold realism of the village-life described, and the minute painting of the scenery among which it was led. Cowper had published his first volume a year before, but thus far it had failed to excite general interest, and had met with no sale. Burns had as yet published nothing. But two poetic masterpieces, dealing with the joys and sorrows of village folk, were fresh in Englishmen's memory. One was The Elegy in a Country Churchyard, the other was The Deserted Village. Both had left a deep impression upon their readers—and with reason—for two poems, more certain of immortality, because certain of giving a pleasure that cannot grow old-fashioned, do not exist in our literature. Each indeed marked an advance upon all that English descriptive or didactic poets had thus far contributed towards making humble life and rural scenery attractive—unless we except the Allegro of Milton and some passages in Thomson's Seasons. Nor was it merely the consummate workmanship of Gray and Goldsmith that had made their popularity. The genuineness of the pathos in the two poems was beyond suspicion, although with Gray it was blended with a melancholy that was native to himself. Although their authors had not been brought into close personal relations with the joys and sorrows dealt with, there was nothing of sentiment, in any unworthy sense, in either poet's treatment of his theme. But the result of their studies of humble village life was to produce something quite distinct from the treatment of the realist. What they saw and remembered had passed through the transfiguring medium of a poet's imagination before it reached the reader. The finished product, like the honey of the bee, was due to the poet as well as to the flower from which he had derived the raw material.
It seems to have been generally assumed when Crabbe's Village appeared, that it was of the nature of a rejoinder to Goldsmith's poem, and the fact that Crabbe quotes a line from The Deserted Village, "Passing rich on forty pounds a year," in his own description of the village parson, might seem to confirm that impression. But the opening lines of The Village point to a different origin. It was rather during those early years when George's father read aloud to his family the pastorals of the so-called Augustan age of English poetry, that the boy was first struck with the unreality and consequent worthlessness of the conventional pictures of rural life. And in the opening lines of The Village he boldly challenges the judgment of his readers on this head. The "pleasant land" of the pastoral poets was one of which George Crabbe, not unjustly, "thought scorn."
"The village life, and every care that reigns O'er youthful peasants and declining swains, What labour yields, and what, that labour past, Age, in its hour of languor, finds at last; What form the real picture of the poor, Demand a song—the Muse can give no more. Fled are those times when in harmonious strains The rustic poet praised his native plains: No shepherds now, in smooth alternate verse, Their country's beauty or their nymphs' rehearse; Yet still for these we frame the tender strain, Still in our lays fond Corydons complain, And shepherds' boys their amorous pains reveal, The only pains, alas! they never feel."
At this point follow the six lines which Johnson had substituted for the author's. Crabbe had written:—
"In fairer scenes, where peaceful pleasures spring, Tityrus, the pride of Mantuan swains, might sing. But charmed by him, or smitten with his views, Shall modern poets court the Mantuan muse? From Truth and Nature shall we widely stray, Where Fancy leads, or Virgil led the way?"
Johnson substituted the following, and Crabbe accepted the revised version:—
"On Mincio's banks, in Caesar's bounteous reign, If Tityrus found the Golden Age again, Must sleepy bards the flattering dream prolong, Mechanic echoes of the Mantuan song? From Truth and Nature shall we widely stray, Where Virgil, not where Fancy, leads the way?"
The first four lines of Johnson are beyond question an improvement, and it is worth remark in passing how in the fourth line he has anticipated Cowper's "made poetry a mere mechanic art."
But in the concluding couplet, Crabbe's meaning seems to lose in clearness through the change. Crabbe intended to ask whether it was safe to desert truth and nature for one's own self-pleasing fancies, even though Virgil had set the example. Johnson's version seems to obscure rather than to make clearer this interpretation. Crabbe, after this protest against the conventional, which, if unreal at the outset, had become a thousand times more wearisome by repetition, passes on to a daring presentation of real life lived among all the squalor of actual poverty, not unskilfully interspersed with descriptions equally faithful of the barren coast-scenery among which he had been brought up. It has been already remarked how Crabbe's eye for rural nature had been quickened and made more exact by his studies in botany. There was little in the poetry then popular that reproduced an actual scene as perfectly as do the following lines:—
"Lo! where the heath, with withering brake grown o'er, Lends the light turf that warms the neighbouring poor; From thence a length of burning sand appears, Where the thin harvest waves its withered ears; Rank weeds, that every art and care defy, Reign o'er the land, and rob the blighted rye: There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar, And to the ragged infant threaten war; There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil; There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil; Hardy and high above the slender sheaf The slimy mallow waves her silky leaf; O'er the young shoot the charlock throws a shade, And clasping tares cling round the sickly blade; With mingled tints the rocky coasts abound, And a sad splendour vainly shines around."
Crabbe here perceives the value, as Goldsmith had done before him, of village scenery as a background to his picture of village life. It suited Goldsmith's purpose to describe the ideal rural community, happy, prosperous, and innocent, as contrast with that depopulation of villages and corruption of peasant life which he predicted from the growing luxury and selfishness of the rich. But notwithstanding the title of the poem, it is Auburn in its pristine condition that remains in our memories. The dominant thought expressed is the virtue and the happiness that belong by nature to village life. Crabbe saw that this was no less idyllic and unreal, or at least incomplete, than the pictures of shepherd life presented in the faded copies of Theocritus and Virgil that had so long satisfied the English readers of poetry. There was no unreality in Goldsmith's design. They were not fictitious and "lucrative" tears that he shed. For his object was to portray an English rural village in its ideality—rural loveliness—enshrining rural innocence and joy—and to show how man's vices, invading it from the outside, might bring all to ruin. Crabbe's purpose was different. He aimed to awaken pity and sympathy for rural sins and sorrows with which he had himself been in closest touch, and which sprang from causes always in operation within the heart of the community itself, and not to be attributed to the insidious attacks from without. Goldsmith, for example, drew an immortal picture of the village pastor, closely modelled upon Chaucer's "poor parson of a town," his piety, humility, and never failing goodness to his flock.—
"Thus to relieve the wretched was his pride, And even his failings leaned to virtue's side; But in his duty prompt at every call He watched and wept; he prayed and felt for all. And as a bird each fond endearment tries To tempt its new-fledged offspring to the skies, He tried each art, reproved each dull delay, Allured to brighter worlds, and led the way."
Crabbe remembered a different type of parish priest in his boyhood, and this is how he introduces him. He has been describing, with an unmitigated realism, the village poorhouse, in all its squalor and dilapidation:—
"There children dwell who know no parents' care: Parents, who know no children's love, dwell there. Heart-broken matrons on their joyless bed, Forsaken wives, and mothers never wed"
The dying pauper needs some spiritual consolation ere he passes into the unseen world,
"But ere his death some pious doubts arise, Some simple fears which bold, bad men despise; Fain would he ask the parish priest to prove His title certain to the joys above: For this he sends the murmuring nurse, who calls The holy stranger to these dismal walls; And doth not he, the pious man, appear, He, 'passing rich with forty pounds a year'? Ah! no: a shepherd of a different stock. And far unlike him, feeds this little flock: A jovial youth, who thinks his Sunday's task As much as God or man can fairly ask; The rest he gives to loves and labours light, To fields the morning, and to feasts the night; None better skilled the noisy pack to guide, To urge their chase, to cheer them, or to chide; A sportsman keen, he shoots through half the day, And, skilled at whist, devotes the night to play: Then, while such honours bloom around his head, Shall he sit sadly by the sick man's bed, To raise the hope he feels not, or with zeal To combat fears that e'en the pious feel?"
Crabbe's son, after his father's death, cited in a note on these lines what he hold to be a parallel passage from Cowper's Progress of Error, beginning:—