1902 Encyclopedia > George Crabbe

George Crabbe
English poet and naturalist

GEORGE CRABBE, (1754-1832), was born at Aid-borough, in Suffolk, December 24, 1754, and was the son of an officer of the customs. He appears to have been designed by his father first for an employment similar to his own, and afterwards for the medical profession. He was apprenticed to an apothecary, and received an educa-tion merely sufficient to qualify him for such an occupation, and by no means to advance him in that literary career in which he became eventually distinguished. His poetical taste was first elicited by the casual perusal of some verses in the Philosophical Magazine, which his father, who was a mathematician and averse to poetry, had separated from the scientific portions of that periodical, and thrown aside as unworthy. The spark thus kindled burnt steadily; and even while a schoolboy he versified much, and made sundry ambitious attempts in the highest walks of composition. The attainment of a prize offered by the editor of the Lady's Magazine for a poem on Hope, although a humble specie3 of success, sufficed to encourage him to renewed exertions; and in 1778 he quitted the profession of medicine, which ho had always disliked, and repaired to London, determined to apply himself to literature. His early efforts in his new career were attended with disheartening circumstances. The first poem he offered for publication could find no publisher. Prom the first that was printed he obtained no profit, in consequence of the publisher's bankruptcy. It was entitled The Candidate, a Poetical Epistle to the Authors of the Monthly Review, and appeared anonymously in 1780. Soon afterwards he became acquainted with Burke, an acquaintance from which may be dated the dawn of his literary rise. Without an introduction, and impelled by distress, he applied to Burke, who kindly took him by the hand, afforded him the advantage of his criticism and advice, recommended him to Dodsley the publisher, invited him to his house, and made him known to many distin-guished men of that time, among whom were Beynolds, Johnson, and Fox. Crabbe's first published poems, after the commencement of his acquaintance with Burke, were The Library and The Village, both of which received the benefit of Burke's observations, and the second of which was in a great measure composed at Beaconsfield. In 1781 Crabbe, who by the recommendation of Burke had been qualifying himself for holy orders, was ordained a deacon, and he took priest's orders the following year. After serving a short time as curate at Aldborough, through the influence of this generous and distinguished friend he was introduced to the duke of Rutland and became his domestic chaplain. Nor did Burke's kindness stop here ; for he obtained for him from Lord Thurlow, in 1783, a presentation to the rectory of FromeSt Quintin, in Dorsetshire, which he held for six years. About this time he married, and resided for some time at Swefling, county of Suffolk, officiating as curate to the minister of Great Yarmouth. About 1789 he was presented, through the instrumentality of the duchess of Rutland, to the rectories of Muston in Leicestershire and West Arlington in Lincolnshire. In 1813 he was preferred to the rectory of Trowbridge, county of Wilts, which, together with the smaller liviug of Croxton Kerrial, in Leicestershire, he held to the time of his death. After The Village, published in 1783, which had received the correc-tions and commendations of Dr Johnson, Crabbe next pro-duced The Newspaper, published in 1785. After this time his poetical labours were long suspended, owing probably to the dedication of his time to domestic affairs and the duties of his profession, or, as he himself ascribes it, to the loss of those early and distinguished friends who had given him the benefit of their criticism. He had, however, the satisfaction of seeing his next work, The Parish Register, published in 1809, read and approved by Fox. The suc-cess obtained by these poems, which far exceeded that which had attended his earlier efforts, encouraged him to write again ; and in 1810 he published one of his best poems, The Borough, and in 1812 Tales in Verse. His last pub-lication was entitled Tales of the Hall, and appeared in 1819. The latter years of his life he spent in the tranquil and amiable exercise of his domestic and clerical duties, at his rectory of Trowbridge, esteemed and admired by his parishioners, among whom he died, after a short illness, on the 8th February 1832, aged seventy-seven. He was buried in the chancel of Trowbridge Church. Crabbe's only prose publications were a Funeral Sermon on Charles, duke of Rutland, preached at Belvoir, and an essay on tha natural history of the vale of Belvoir, written for Nichols's History of Leicestershire, in which it is thankfully acknow-ledged. His fame rests solely on his poems, of which The Parish Register and The Borough are destined to a reputa-tion, if not as brilliant, yet probably as enduring as that of any other contemporary productions.

Crabbe is one of the most original of our poeta; and his originality is of that best kind, which displays itself not in tumid exaggeration or flighty extravagance—not in a wide departure from the sober standard of truth—but in a more rigid and uncompromising adherence to it than inferior writers venture to attempt. He is pre-eminently the poet of reality in humble life ; and to its representation he has applied himself with a rigorous fidelity which startled the timid fastidiousness of many readers. He discarded the aid of those pleasing illusions with which humble life had previously been enveloped; condemned as fictitious the prevalent representations, and in their stead fearlessly exhibited the stern, harsh, naked truth, and determined to rely for popularity on the fidelity and vigour of his delinea-tions. His chief characteristics are force and accuracy; and through these, and the originality of his style, he com-pels us to bestow our attention on objects that are usually neglected. His poetry, unlike that of others, directs our sympathy where it is well for the cause of humanity that it should be directed, but whence the squalidness of misery and want too frequently repels it. Much of his success arises from his graphic delineation of external objects, but more from his knowledge of the human heart, and his powerful treatment of the passions. Both the milder and the more violent emotions are portrayed with ability, but in the latter he is most strikingly successful. Despair and remorse are exhibited with a tragic strength that has been rarely equalled; and madness has been seldom drawn with a more powerful hand than in his poem of Sir Eustace Grey. He has been called the satirist of the poor; but we must be careful lest we attach to this expression too harsh an acceptation. It is true he discountenances those romantic day-dreams which associate virtue inseparably with poverty, and an Arcadian innocence with rural life. He shows that demoralization is the attendant of distress, and that villagers may be equally dissipated, and more dishonest than the profligates of a wealthier class; but he shows this in a spirit rather of pity than of anger; and whilst he denounces and exposes crime, he makes us interested not so much in its punishment, as, what is still better, in its prevention. He spares not the vices of the poorer classes; but at the same time he does more justice to their virtues, and renders them more important objects of consideration than perhaps any other imaginative writer.

With many sterling merits as a poet, Crabbe has numerous defects. His descriptions are forcible and exact, but they are too detailed. They have too much of the minuteness of a Dutch picture; and it is a minuteness exhibited in the representation of disgusting objects. He never shrinks from the irksome task of threading the details of vice and misery. Abject depravity is a too favourite subject of his pen; and he does not seem sufficiently aware that there is a species of wickedness which counteracts our sympathy with suffering, and a degree of insignificance which extinguishes our interest in guilt. His skill in displaying the morbid anatomy of our moral nature has rendered him too prone to that unpleasing exercise of his talents; and his habit of tracing tho deformities of character has given to his expositions too much the appearance of invective. His taste is very inferior to his other powers. Even with subjects naturally pleasing he is apt to blend disagreeable images. His descriptions of natural scenery, graphic as they are, have little in them of elevation. There is no genial glow about them, as if the contemplation of nature had warmed and inspired him. His deficiency of taste displays itself also sometimes in his humour, which is apt to verge upon buffoonery. His style is little to be commended. It is too often clumsy and ungraceful,—diffuse without freedom, homely without being easy, and antithetical without being pointed. His diction is frequently harsh and quaint, and compels us to feel that the merit of his works resides rather in their ideas thau in the dress in which he clothes them. His lines are deficient in refinement and polish, and frequently offend the ear by something uncouth and prosaio in the sound, and the absence of musical rhythm. Such are the defects which have conduced to deprive him of that popularity which his merits would otherwise have obtained for him. (T. H. LI.)

A complete edition of Crabbe's works was published in 1834, in 8 volumes 12mo, the first volume containing his Life by his son, the Rev. George Crabbe. A reprint, in one volume royal 8vo, was issued in 1867.

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