Studies in letters and life/Crabbe
We have done with Crabbe. His tales have failed to interest us. Burke and his friends, as we all know, held a different opinion from ours; and their praise is not likely to have been ill founded. The cultivated taste of Holland House, thirty years later, is also against our decision. Through two generations of markedly different literary temper Crabbe pleased the men best worth pleasing. Indeed, we owe him to Burke's approval; for when Lord North, Lord Shelburne, and Lord Thurlow had neglected his entreaties for recognition and aid, and had left him to write, pawn, and go hungry, Burke saved him from the debtor's prison, took him into his friendship, welcomed him to his home, and gave him to literature.
Yet the verses which won this recognition from Burke, and gained for Crabbe, besides, praise from Johnson and talk with Fox and idle mornings in Reynolds's studio, were only his fledgeling flights. It was not until after more than twenty years of silence, spent in the obscurity of a country clergyman's life, that he showed the richness and abundance of his vein. Then Burke and his friends had given place to those younger men, in whose lives a new age was dawning; but as warm a welcome awaited Crabbe among them as he had ever met with in Burke's club. With them he passed his old age, pleased with Byron's praise, and with the friendliness of Moore and Rogers, and with Scott's kindly regard and correspondence. They liked to see him, with his beautiful white hair, his formal, old-fashioned garb and old-school manners, the last of that long line of poets through whom the Queen Anne taste had tyrannized for a century in English verse, sitting familiarly among themselves, who were preparing the way for the next generation to ignore the traditions which Burke and Johnson had fixed in his poetic faith. Especially did Sir Walter honor him; like Fox, he chose Crabbe's poems to be read to him just before he died.
Without reckoning the approval of others, what was the strong attraction in Crabbe's work for Scott and Fox? Their judgment was not so worthless that it can be disregarded with the complacent assurance with which the decisions of Gifford and Jeffrey are set aside; on the contrary, Scott had such health and Fox such refinement that their judgment ought to raise a doubt whether our generation is not making a mistake and missing pleasure through its neglect of Crabbe.
Crabbe is a story-teller. He describes the life he saw,—common, homely life, sometimes wretched, not infrequently criminal; the life of the country poor, with occasional light and shadow from the life of the gentlefolk above them. He had been born into it, in a village on the Suffolk coast, amid stern and cheerless natural scenes: landward, the bramble-overgrown heath encompassing crowded and mean houses; eastward,—
"Stakes and sea-weed withering on the mud."
Here he had passed his boyhood, in the midst of human life equally barren and stricken with the ugliness of poverty, among surly and sordid fishers given to hard labor and rough brawl,—
"A joyless, wild, amphibious race,
With sullen woe displayed in every face,"—
In that early poem which Johnson praised Crabbe described this village life with the vigor of a youth who had escaped out of its dreary imprisonment, and without a touch of that tenderness for early associations which softened Goldsmith's retrospect of the scenes of his early days. Crabbe told of exhausting labor leading on to prematurely useless and neglected age; of storms sweeping away the shelter of the poor; of smugglers, poachers, wreckers, tavern debauchery, and, worst of all, the poor-house—a terrible picture, perhaps the best known of all his drawing—with its deserted inmates cut off from all human care except that of the heedless physician and the heartless parson; a miserable tale, but too much of it only what his own eyes had seen. We do not know the contents of those piles of manuscripts which he wrote during his twenty years of silence, and—not much to the world's loss, some think—made bonfires of to amuse his children; but his first poem after that long interval was the same story, the experience of those whose names appeared in the year's parish register of births, marriages, and deaths, and was a sorrowful survey of seduction, desertion, crime, discontent, and folly. In his later tales he dealt less in unrelieved gloom and bitter misery, and at times made a trial at humor. There are glimpses of pleasant English life and character, but these are only glimpses; the ground of his painting is shadow, the shadow that rested on the life of the English poor in his generation.
Where else would one turn for an adequate description of that life, or gain so direct an insight into the social sources and conditions of the Methodist revival, or into the motives and convictions of reformers like Mary Wollstonecraft? Where would one obtain so keen a sense of the vast change which has taken place in the conditions of humble human life within this century? Mr. Leslie Stephen, in that essay which is so good-humored but so unsuccessful an attempt to appreciate Crabbe, mentions the few illustrations in modern literature of the life Crabbe described; it is seen in Charlotte Brontë's Yorkshiremen, and George Eliot's millers, and in a few other characters, "but," he says, "to get a realistic picture of country life as Crabbe saw it, we must go back to Squire Western, or to some of the roughly-hewn masses of flesh who sat to Hogarth." The setting of Crabbe's tales has this special historic interest. The schools, houses, books, habits, occupations, and all the external characteristics of the tales belong to the time: the press-gang comes to carry off the lover just before his wedding-day, and leaves the bride to nurse an unfathered child, to receive the courtship of a canting and carnal preacher, and to find a refuge from him, and from the father who favors him, in suicide; orphan boys are bound over to brutal task-masters; pictures of tho sects (from the pen of a respectable clergyman of the Established Church, it is true) recall the beginnings of Methodism with a vividness only to be equaled by the books and pamphlets of the early converts' own writing. This historic value of the tales, however, great as it is to the student of manners, is secondary to their poetic value, which lies in the sentiment, feeling, and pathos with which the experience of life embodied in them, the workings of simple human nature, in however debased surroundings, is set forth. It is an experience which results usually from the interplay of low and selfish motives, and of ignoble or weak passions; it is, too often, the course of brutal appetite, thoughtless or heartless folly, avarice, sensuality, and vice, relieved too seldom by amiable character, sympathy, charity, self-sacrifice, or even by the charm of natural beauty. Yet if all the seventy tales be taken into account, they contain nearly all varieties of character and circumstance among the country poor; and, though the darker side may seem to be more frequently insisted upon, it is because the nature of his subject made it necessary, because he let his light, as Moore said,—
"Through life's low, dark interior fall,
Opening the whole, severely bright,"
rather than because he had any lack of cheerfulness of temper.
Crabbe does not, in a true sense, give expression to the life of the poor; he merely narrates it. Here and there, throughout the poems, are episodes written out of his own life; but usually he is concerned with the experience of other men, which he had observed, rather than with what his own heart had felt. A description of life is of course far inferior to an utterance of it, such as was given to us by Burns, who dealt with the life of the poor so much more powerfully than Crabbe; and a realistic description has less poetic value than an imaginative one, such as was given to us by Wordsworth at his best. Crabbe's description is perhaps the most nakedly realistic of any in English poetry; but it is an uncommonly good one. Realism has a narrow compass, and Crabbe's powers were confined strictly within it; but he had the best virtues of a realist. His physical vision—his sight of what presents itself to the eye—was almost perfect; he saw every object, and saw it as it was. Perhaps the minuteness with which he saw was not altogether an advantage, for he does not seem to have taken in the landscape as a whole, but only as a mosaic of separate objects. He never gives general effects of beauty or grandeur; indeed, he seldom saw the beauty of a single object; he did little more than catalogue the things before him, and employ in writing poetry the same faculty in the same way as in pursuing his favorite studies of botany and entomology. Yet, with these limitations, what realist in painting could exceed in truthfulness and carefulness of detail this picture of a fall morning?—
"It was a fair and mild autumnal sky,
And earth's ripe treasures met th' admiring eye;
The wet and heavy grass where feet had strayed,
Not yet erect, the wanderer's way betrayed;
Showers of the night had swelled the deep'ning rill,
The morning breeze had urged the quick'ning mill;
Long yellow leaves, from osiers strewed around,
Choked the small stream and hushed the feeble sound."
Or this sketch of light in a decayed warehouse turned into a tenement for the poor?—
"That window view! oiled paper and old glass
Stain the strong rays, which, though impeded, pass,
And give a dusty warmth to that huge room,
The conquered sunshine's melancholy gloom;
When all those western rays, without so bright,
Within become a ghastly glimmering light,
As pale and faint upon the floor they fall,
Or feebly gleam on the opposing wall."
Nor is this carefulness of detail a trick, such as is sometimes employed, to give the appearance of reality to unreal human life. Crabbe's mental vision, his sight into the workings of the passions and the feelings, although not so perfect as his physical vision, was yet at its best very keen and clear; the sentiments, moods, reflections, and actions of his characters are seldom contrary to nature. It would be difficult to show a finer delineation of its kind than his description of the meeting of two long-parted brothers. As Richard approaches his brother's hall, he reflects,—
"'How shall I now my unknown way explore,
He proud and rich, I very proud and poor?
Perhaps my friend a dubious speech mistook,
And George may meet me with a stranger's look.
How stands the case? My brother's friend and mine
Met at an inn, and set them down to dine;
When, having settled all their own affairs,
And kindly canvassed such as were not theirs,
Just as my friend was going to retire,
"Stay! you will see the brother of our squire,"
Said his companion; "be his friend, and tell
The captain that his brother loves him well,
And when he has no better thing in view
Will be rejoiced to see him. Now, adieu!"
"'Well, here I am; and, brother, take you heed,
I am not come to flatter you and feed.
You shall no soother, fawner, hearer, find;
I will not brush your coat, nor smooth your mind;
I will not hear your tales the whole day long,
Nor swear you're right, if I believe you wrong;
I will not earn my dinner when I dine
By taking all your sentiments for mine;
Nor watch the guiding motions of your eye
Before I venture question or reply.
Yet, son of that dear mother could I meet—
But lo! the mansion,—'t is a fine old seat!'
"The brothers met, with both too much at heart
To be observant of each other's part.
'Brother, I'm glad!' was all that George could say,
Then stretched his hand, and turned his head away;
Richard, meantime, made some attempt to speak,
Strong in his purpose, in his trial weak.
At length, affection, like a risen tide,
Stood still, and then seemed slowly to subside;
Each on the other's looks had power to dwell,
And brother brother greeted passing well."
These qualities of fine, true physical and mental vision are the essential qualities for valuable realistic work; if there be room for regret in Crabbe's share of them, it is because their range is contracted. The limitations of his physical vision have been mentioned; in respect to his mental vision Crabbe saw only a few and comparatively simple operations of human nature, the workings of country-bred minds, not finely or complexly organized, but slow-motioned, and perplexed, if perplexed at all, not from the difficulty of the problem, but from their own dullness. Yet within these limits his characters are often pathetic, sometimes tragic, or even terrible, in their energy of evil passion or remorse.
One other quality, without which clear mental and physical vision would be ineffective, is essential to realism like Crabbe's,—transparency, the quality by virtue of which life is seen through the text plainly and without distortion; and this is the quality which Crabbe possessed in most perfection. He not only saw the object as it was; he presented it as it was. He neither added nor took away; he did not unconsciously darken or heighten color, soften or harden line. Whatever was before his mind—the conversation of a gossip, the brutality of a ruffian, the cant of a convert—he reproduced truthfully; whatever was the character of his story, mean or tragic, trivial or pathetic, he did not modify it. There was no veil of fancy, no glamour of amiable deception or dimness of charitable tears, to obscure his view: if he found nudity and dirt, they reappeared in his work nudity and dirt still; if he found courage and patience, he dealt the same even-handed justice. His distinction is that he told a true story.
It was, perhaps, because he was thus able to present accurately and faithfully the human life which he saw so clearly that he won such admiration from Scott; for Scott had the welcome of genius for any new glimpse of humanity, and he knew how rare, and consequently how valuable, is the gift of simple and direct narration of what one sees. Fox had great sensibility and tenderness of heart; and Crabbe presented the lot of the poor so vividly, so lucidly, so immediately, that he stirred in Fox the same feelings with which a better poet would have so charged his verses that natures not so finely endowed as Fox would have been compelled to feel them too. Scott and Fox knew what a valuable acquisition this realistic sketch of humble life in their generation was, so faithful, minute, and trustworthy; they felt that their experience was enlarged, that real humanity had been brought home to them, and in the sway of those emotions, which Crabbe did not infuse into his work, but which his work quickens in sympathetic hearts, they could forgive him his tediousness, his frequent commonplace, his not unusual absurdity of phrase, his low level of flight with its occasional feebleness of wing.
In their minds, too, his style must have had more influence than we are apt to think,—the style of the great school which died with him, the form and versification which they had been taught to believe almost essential to the best poetry, and from a traditional respect for which they could hardly free their minds as easily as ourselves. Crabbe used the old heroic rhymed couplet, that simplest form of English verse music, which could rise, nevertheless, to the almost lyric loftiness of the last lines of the Dunciad; so supple and flexible; made for easy simile and compact metaphor; lending itself so perfectly to the sudden flash of wit or turn of humor; the natural shell of an epigram; compelling the poet to practice all the virtues of brevity; checking the wandering fancy, and repressing the secondary thought; requiring in a masterly use of it the employment of more mental powers than any other metrical form; despised and neglected now because the literature which is embodied in it is despised and neglected, yet the best metrical form which intelligence, as distinct from poetical feeling, can employ. Crabbe did not handle it in any masterful way; he was careless, and sometimes slipshod; but when he chose he could employ it well, and should have credit for it. To take one more example from his poems, how excellently he uses it in this passage!—
"Where is that virtue which the generous boy
Felt, and resolved that nothing should destroy;
He who with noble indignation glowed
When vice had triumph; who his tear bestowed
On injured merit? He who would possess
Power, but to aid the children of distress!
Who has such joy in generous actions shown,
And so sincere they might be called his own;
Knight, hero, patriot, martyr! on whose tongue
And potent arm a nation's welfare hung,—
Where now this virtue's fervor, spirit, zeal?
Who felt so warmly, has he ceased to feel?
Or are these feelings varied? Has the knight,
Virtue's own champion, now refused to fight?
Is the deliverer turned th' oppressor now?
Has the reformer dropt the dangerous vow?
Or has the patriot's bosom lost its heat,
And forced him, shivering, to a snug retreat?
Is such the grievous lapse of human pride!
Is such the victory of the worth untried!"
Scott felt an attraction in such poetic form which we have perhaps ceased to feel; and Fox, had he lived to read it, would equally have acknowledged its power.
But Wordsworth said Crabbe was unpoetical; he condemned him for "his unpoetical mode of considering human nature and society; "and, after all, the world has agreed with Wordsworth, and disagreed with Scott and Fox. Wordsworth told Scott an anecdote in illustration of his meaning. Sir George Beaumont, sitting with himself and Crabbe one day, blew out the candle which he had used in sealing a letter. Sir George and Wordsworth, with proper taste, sat watching the smoke rise from the wick in beautiful curves; but Crabbe seeing—or rather smelling—the object, and not seeing the beauty of it, put on the extinguisher. Therefore, said Wordsworth, Crabbe is unpoetical,—as fine a bit of æsthetic priggishness as is often met with. Scott's opinion was not much affected by the anecdote, and Wordsworth was on the wrong track. It is true, however, that Crabbe was unpoetical in Wordsworth's sense. Crabbe had no imaginative vision,—no such vision as is shown in that stormy landscape of Shelley's, in the opening of The Revolt of Islam, which lacks the truth of actuality, but possesses the higher imaginative truth, like Turner's painting, or as is shown in that other storm in Pippa Passes. Crabbe saw sword-grass and saltwort and fen, but he had no secret of the imagination by which he could mingle them into harmonious beauty; there is loveliness in a salt marsh, but Crabbe could not present it, nor even see it for himself. As in landscape so in life. Goldsmith was untrue to the actual Auburn, but he was faithful to a far more precious truth, the truth of remembered childhood, and he revealed with the utmost beauty the effect of the subtlest working of the spirit of man on practical fact; it is his fidelity to this psychological and spiritual truth which makes Auburn the "loveliest village of the plain." Crabbe exhibited nothing of this imaginative transformation of the familiar and the commonplace, perhaps saw nothing of it; he described the fishing village of Aldborough as any one with good powers of perception, who took the trouble, might see it. Through these defects of his powers he loses in poetic value; his poetry is, as he called it, poetry without an atmosphere; it is a reflection, almost mirror-like, of plain fact.
Men go to poetry too often with a preconceived notion of what the poet ought to give, instead of with open minds for whatever he has to give. Too much is not to be expected from Crabbe. He was only a simple country clergyman, half educated, with no burning ideals, no reveries, no passionate dreams; his mind did not rise out of the capabilities and virtues of respectability. His life was as little poetical, in Wordsworth's sense, as his poetry. Yet his gift was not an empty one. Moore, Scott, and Byron were story-tellers who were poetical, in Wordsworth's sense; but is Crabbe's true description of humble life less valuable than Scott's romantic tradition, or Moore's melting, Oriental dream, or Byron's sentimental, falsely-heroic adventure? It is far more valuable, because there is more of the human heart in it; because it contains actual suffering and joy of fellow-men; because it is humanity, and calls for hospitality in our sympathies and charities. Unpoetical? Yes; but it is something to have real life brought home to our tears and laughter, although it be presented barely, and the poet has trusted to the rightness and tenderness of our hearts for those feelings the absence of which in his verse led Wordsworth to call these tales unpoetical. But it is only when Crabbe is at his best that his verse has this extraordinary power.