Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Crabbe, George
CRABBE, GEORGE (1754–1832), poet, was born at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, 24 Dec. 1754. His father, George Crabbe, had been a village schoolmaster and parish clerk in Norfolk, and afterwards settled in his native town, Aldeburgh, where he married a widow named Loddock. He had by her six children, of whom George was the eldest, and rose through inferior offices to be ‘saltmaster,’ i.e. collector of salt duties. He was a man of great physical strength, imperious character, and strong passions; he had remarkable powers of calculation, and came to be for many years the ‘factotum of Aldeburgh.’ Robert, his second son, became a glazier. John, the third, was in command of a slave ship, when the slaves rose and sent him adrift with his crew in an open boat, nothing more being ever heard of them; the fourth, William, went to sea, was taken prisoner by the Spaniards, and settled in Mexico, where he married and prospered. He was forced by religious persecution to abandon his family and property, and was last heard of in 1803 on the coast of Honduras. His story is turned to account in Crabbe's ‘Parting Hour’ (‘Tales’ No. 2). There were two daughters, one of whom married a Mr. Sparkes, and died in 1827; the other's death in infancy threw her father into fits of gloomy misery, which strongly impressed her brother's imagination. George Crabbe, the son, was brought up at Aldeburgh amid scenery and characters afterwards most vividly described in his writings. He was chiefly self-educated. His father took in ‘Martin's Philosophical Magazine’ for the sake of the mathematical part, and handed over the poems to the son. Crabbe's bookish tastes induced his father to send him to school at Bungay, and afterwards to a school kept by Richard Haddon, a good mathematician, at Stowmarket. He was taken home and set to work for a time in a warehouse on the quay of Slaughden (described in his poems) till in 1768 he was bound apprentice to a village doctor at Wickham Brook, near Bury St. Edmunds, who employed him as errand boy and farm labourer. In 1771 he was transferred to Mr. Page, a surgeon at Woodbridge. Here he joined a small village club; one of its members introduced him to Sarah Elmy, then residing with her uncle, a substantial yeoman, at Parham, near Framlingham. Crabbe fell in love; his love was returned; and love led to poetry. He contributed verses to ‘Wheble's Magazine’ for 1772; won a prize for a poem on ‘Hope;’ celebrated ‘Mira,’ and planned epic poems and tragedies. He published anonymously at Ipswich in 1774 a didactic poem called ‘Inebriety,’ showing a close study of Pope and some satirical power. He tried vainly at Miss Elmy's bidding to learn the flute, and was at the same time acquiring a taste for botany. At the end of 1775 Crabbe returned to Aldeburgh. He was forced to set to work again in the repulsive duties of the warehouse. His father had acquired a love of the tavern in canvassing for the whig candidate at Aldeburgh during a contested election in 1774. He was now so violent as to be a terror to his meek wife, and had painful scenes with his son. The younger Crabbe continued his medical studies energetically in spite of these distractions, and the father sent him to London to ‘pick up a little surgical knowledge.’ He returned to Aldeburgh and became assistant to a surgeon named Maskill, and, upon Maskill's leaving the town, set up in practice for himself. His profits were small. His patients argued that a man who gathered plants in the ditches, presumably for medical purposes, could sell his drugs cheaply. The Warwickshire militia, quartered in the town in 1778, brought him some practice, and he was patronised by their colonel, H. S. Conway [q. v.] The Norfolk militia succeeded, and brought another gleam of prosperity. His engagement to Miss Elmy continued; it was approved by his parents and tolerated by her relations; but his practice fell off; his health was bad; Miss Elmy prudently declined to marry upon nothing, and Crabbe finally resolved to try his chances in literature. He borrowed five pounds from Mr. Dudley North, ‘brother to the candidate for Aldeburgh,’ and after paying his bill sailed to London with a box of surgical instruments, three pounds in cash, and some manuscripts. Crabbe took lodgings in the city 24 April 1780, near a friend of Miss Elmy's, wife of a linendraper in Cornhill. He bought a fashionable tie-wig from his landlord, Mr. Vickery, a hairdresser, and tried to dispose of his manuscripts. A poem called ‘The Candidate’ was published early in 1780. It was addressed to the ‘Authors of the Monthly Review,’ and received a cold notice in the number for September. The failure of the publisher deprived him of a small anticipated gain. He applied by letter vainly to Lord North, Lord Shelburne, and Thurlow. A cold letter from the last provoked a strong remonstrance in verse, which was unanswered. (William Cowper had a curiously similar passage with Thurlow two years later [see Cowper, William].) From the others he heard nothing. A journal addressed to Miss Elmy from 21 April to 11 June 1780 gives a vivid description of his difficulties. At last, in the beginning of 1781, he wrote a letter to Burke, describing his history, and saying that he would be in a debtor's prison unless within a week he could pay a debt of 14l. He had vainly applied to all his friends, including Lord Rochford, of whose late brother he had some knowledge. Burke, though a complete stranger, came to the rescue. He read Crabbe's poems, and persuaded Dodsley to publish the ‘Library,’ the whole profits of which were liberally given by Dodsley to the author. Burke took Crabbe to stay with him at Beaconsfield, where the poet worked upon his next publication, the ‘Village.’ Through Burke he also became acquainted with Reynolds and Johnson. Thurlow soon afterwards asked him to breakfast and gave him a bank-note for 100l., while apologising frankly for former neglect.
The success of the ‘Library,’ hastened by Burke's warm advocacy, at once gave Crabbe a position in literature. Burke meanwhile advised him to take orders, as offering the most suitable career, and at the request of Burke, backed by Dudley North and Mr. Charles Long, Bishop Yonge of Norwich admitted Crabbe to deacon's orders 21 Dec. 1781. He was licensed as curate to Mr. Bennet, the rector of Aldeburgh, and took priest's orders the following August. Crabbe was well received in his native town, where his father took pride in his success. His mother had died during his absence. We are told that Crabbe had not altogether escaped some youthful temptations, and was too well known in the Aldeburgh tavern; but his conduct had been habitually pure, and he practised henceforth an exemplary morality.
Burke soon obtained for Crabbe the offer of a chaplaincy to the Duke of Rutland; and he accordingly went to reside at Belvoir in 1782. The duke and duchess, a celebrated beauty, were leaders of society and lived in a style of splendour little congenial to Crabbe's homely manners. They treated him kindly, however; and he finished the ‘Village,’ which Johnson read, applauded, and, after suggesting some trifling corrections, returned with a prophecy of success. It appeared in May 1783, and succeeded as it deserved. Thurlow again asked him to dinner, and, telling him with an oath that ‘he was as like Parson Adams as twelve to a dozen,’ presented him to the small livings of Frome St. Quentin and Evershot in Dorsetshire. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave him the degree of LL.B. to qualify him for the preferment. At the beginning of 1784 the Duke of Rutland went to Ireland as lord-lieutenant. Crabbe preferred to remain at Belvoir, which the duke asked him to consider as a home till something could be found for him. He was now able to marry without imprudence; Miss Elmy became his wife in December 1783; the first child was born at Belvoir; but in 1785 Crabbe took the curacy of Stathern, and settled in the village parsonage. In 1784 he published a brief memoir of Lord Robert Manners, his patron's brother (killed in Rodney's victory, 12 April 1782), in the ‘Annual Register,’ and in 1785 he published the ‘Newspaper.’ Twenty-two years of silence followed.
Crabbe was intellectually active during all this period, and also wrote voluminously. But he had a system (less common than might be wished) of periodical ‘incremations.’ His children helped him at intervals to burn masses of manuscript too vast to be safely consumed in the chimney. Among the destroyed papers was an ‘Essay on Botany,’ so nearly ready that he had already proposed the publication to Dodsley. Davies, vice-master of Trinity College, Cambridge, protested against an English publication upon such a subject, and it was therefore burnt.
The death of the Duke of Rutland in October 1787 deprived Crabbe of a patron; but the duchess persuaded Thurlow to allow of the exchange of the Dorsetshire livings for two better livings near Belvoir. Crabbe thus became rector of Muston and Allington, and settled at the Muston parsonage 25 Feb. 1789. In October 1792 his wife's uncle, Tovell, died, leaving Crabbe as his executor. Tovell's fortune also came ultimately to Crabbe. Upon Tovell's death he removed to Parham, leaving a curate in his own parish and becoming himself curate of Sweffling and Great Glemham. In 1796 he became the tenant of Dudley North at Great Glemham Hall. Here he led a retired life. His frugal habits made him an unpopular successor to the convivial Tovell; he was wanting in political zeal and therefore unjustly suspected of Jacobinism. Domestic troubles strengthened his habits of retirement. Five out of seven children died, and on the death of the last Mrs. Crabbe fell into a nervous disorder, which produced extreme depression, relieved by occasional intervals. Crabbe found consolation in botanical and literary work, three novels being ‘incremated’ at this time as well as the botanical treatise. His health was greatly improved by recourse to opium for digestive weakness. His preaching attracted large congregations. He was a clergyman of the old-fashioned school, a good friend to the poor, for whose benefit he still practised medicine, and a preacher of good homespun morality. But he was indifferent to theological speculations, suspicious of excessive zeal, contemptuous towards ‘enthusiasts,’ and heartily opposed to Wesleyans, evangelicals, and other troublesome innovators. His laxity in regard to residence now attracted official notice, and Pretyman, bishop of Lincoln, insisted about 1801, in spite of applications from Dudley North, that he should return to Muston. Crabbe obtained leave of absence for four years longer, which were spent at Rendham, a neighbouring village, Great Glemham Hall having been sold by North. In October 1805 he returned to Muston and found that dissent had thriven during his absence. He seems to have attacked it with more fire than prudence. The ‘Parish Register’ was finished at the end of 1806, having been begun eight years before. He offered the dedication to Fox, who had met him at Beaconsfield and afterwards in 1794 or 1795 at North's house in Suffolk, and shown him much courtesy. Fox, though now breaking, fulfilled a previous promise by reading and correcting it. The story of ‘Phœbe Dawson’ was one of the last pieces of poetry which gave pleasure to the dying statesman. The ‘Parish Register,’ with ‘Eustace Grey’ and other poems, appeared after Fox's death (September 1807) with a dedication to Lord Holland. It had a great success, and was followed by the equally successful ‘Borough’ in 1810. Some attacks upon the Huntingtonians in this poem produced a controversy with the editor of the ‘Christian Observer,’ which ended amicably. In 1812 appeared ‘Tales in Verse,’ which led to friendly communications with Scott, who had already written kindly of the ‘Parish Register.’
On 31 Oct. 1813 Mrs. Crabbe died, and the simultaneous occurrence of other troubles caused a severe illness. Crabbe had remained upon friendly terms with the Rutland family and occasionally visited Belvoir, where he was much pleased among other things with the talk of Beau Brummell [q. v.] The Duke of Rutland now offered him the living of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, to which was added, in order to make up for a mistake as to value, the living of Croxton, near Belvoir. He was inducted to Trowbridge Church on 3 June 1814. Here he had to encounter some opposition from the parishioners, who had pressed the claims of another candidate upon the patron, and was even mobbed at a contested election, when he showed unflinching firmness. He was welcomed by the chief people, and his liberality and independence gradually won general popularity. His son mentions certain flirtations which prove that he was still sensitive to feminine charms and capable of attracting feminine devotion. He was now famous, and on a visit to London in 1817 was welcomed at Holland House and received many attentions from Rogers, Moore, Campbell, and others. In 1819 he published the ‘Tales of the Hall.’ Murray paid him 3,000l. for these and the copyright of his previous poems, and Crabbe insisted upon carrying the bills about in his waistcoat pocket to show to ‘his son John.’ On a later visit to London (1822) he met Scott, and the same autumn visited Edinburgh, where he unluckily arrived during the welcome of George IV. He stayed at Scott's house and was introduced to the literary celebrities. Lockhart showed him the sights, and Scott occasionally entrusted him to a ‘caddie,’ as Colonel Mannering provided for Dominie Sampson. Crabbe showed equal simplicity, and was one day found discoursing in execrable French to some highland chiefs whose costume and Gaelic had suggested some indefinite foreign origin.
Crabbe led a retired life in later years, varied by occasional visits to his son George, now vicar of Pucklechurch, to the house of Samuel Hoare at Hampstead, where he met Wilberforce, Joanna Baillie, Miss Edgeworth, Mrs. Siddons, and others, and to seaside places. He saw Horace Smith, author of the famous parody in ‘Rejected Addresses,’ and spoke good-humouredly to his ‘old enemy.’ His second son, John, became his curate at Trowbridge at the beginning of 1817, having just married a Miss Crowfoot, and lived with him till his death. He suffered much from tic douloureux, but took great pleasure in his grandchildren, kept up his old habits of observation, performed services, and became increasingly liberal. His strength declined gradually, and he died 3 Feb. 1832.
A monument, with a statue by Baily, was erected in the church at Trowbridge at the cost of the parishioners. Portraits were painted by Pickersgill and Phillips. An engraving from the latter, painted for Mr. Murray and copied for Lord Holland, is prefixed to his works.
Horace Smith, in a note to ‘Rejected Addresses,’ called Crabbe ‘Pope in worsted stockings.’ Byron, in ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,’ says that he is, ‘though nature's sternest painter, yet the best.’ The resemblance to Pope consists chiefly in the fact that Crabbe retained the old form of verse, and in his first poems adopted the didactic method. His ‘stern painting of nature’ was the power to which he owes his permanent interest. The ‘Village’ was intended as an antithesis to Goldsmith's idyllic sentimentalism. Crabbe's realism, preceding even Cowper and anticipating Wordsworth, was the first important indication of one characteristic movement in the contemporary school of poetry. His clumsy style and want of sympathy with the new world isolated him as a writer, as he was a recluse in his life. But the force and fidelity of his descriptions of the scenery of his native place and of the characteristics of the rural population give abiding interest to his work. His pathos is genuine and deep, and to some judgments his later works atone for the diminution in tragic interest by their gentleness and simple humour. Scott and Wordsworth had some of his poetry by heart. Scott, like Fox, had Crabbe read to him in his last illness (Lockhart, ch. lxxxiii.) Wordsworth said that the poems would last as long as anything written in verse since their first appearance (note to ‘Village,’ bk. i. in Collected Works). Miss Austen said that she could fancy being Mrs. Crabbe. Jeffrey reviewed him admiringly, and in later years E. FitzGerald, the translator of ‘Omar Khayyám,’ wrote (1882) an admiring preface to a selection in which he says that Lord Tennyson appreciates them equally with himself. Cardinal Newman speaks of the ‘extreme delight’ with which he read ‘Tales of the Hall’ on their appearance. Thirty years later he says that a fresh reading has touched him still more, and a note, after a further lapse of twenty years, endorses this opinion. ‘A work which can please in youth and age seems to fulfil (in logical language) the accidental definition of a classic’ (The Idea of a University, ed. 1875, p. 150).
His works were: 1. ‘Inebriety,’ Ipswich, 1775. 2. ‘The Candidate, a poetical epistle to the author of the “Monthly Review,”’ 1780. 3. ‘The Library,’ 1781 and (with the author's name) 1783. 4. ‘The Village,’ 1783. 5. ‘Character of Lord Robert Manners,’ in ‘Annual Register’ for 1783. 6. ‘The Newspaper,’ 1785 (this has been translated into German, 1856, and Dutch, 1858). 7. ‘The Parish Register,’ 1807, in a volume including reprints of the ‘Library,’ the ‘Village,’ and the ‘Newspaper,’ also (for the first time) ‘Sir Eustace Grey,’ and some shorter poems. 8. ‘The Borough,’ 1810. 9. ‘Tales,’ 1812. 10. ‘Tales of the Hall,’ 1819. All the above are published, together with some posthumous ‘Tales,’ in the collected edition of his works (8 vols. 1834, and in 1835 and at later dates in one volume), with life by his son. Besides these Crabbe published two separate sermons, and contributed an account of the natural history of the vale of Belvoir to the ‘History of Leicestershire.’
George Crabbe, the poet's son, born 16 Nov. 1785, received his whole education from his father, except a few months under Mr. King at Ipswich, entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1803, graduated B.A. 1807, became curate of Allington in 1811, married Caroline Matilda, daughter of Thomas Timbrell of Trowbridge, in 1817, and became curate of Pucklechurch. In 1834 he was presented by Lord Lyndhurst to the vicarages of Bredfield and Petistree in Suffolk, and built a parsonage at Bredfield, where he lived till his death, 16 Sept. 1857. Besides the life of his father (1834) he published a book upon natural theology. He inherited his father's humour, was a sturdy, old-fashioned gentleman, enjoying long walks amidst fine scenery or to objects of antiquarian interest, and professing a hearty contempt for verse, except, apparently, his father's (Gent. Mag. 1857, ii. 562, and Life of G. Crabbe).
[Crabbe's Life by his son George, an excellent piece of biography, is the main authority for his life. See also Brief Notices of the Rev. G. Crabbe … by James Hews Bransby, Carnarvon, 1832; Cuttings from Crabbe, with a Memoir (by Mr. Taylor, a parishioner; see Life of Crabbe, 1861, p. 73); Autobiographical Sketch in New Monthly Magazine, 1816, republished in the Annual Biog. and Obituary for 1833. The Leadbeater Papers (1862), ii. 337–403, gives the full correspondence with Mary Leadbeater, daughter of Burke's friend, Shackleton.]