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Crabbe, (George) by Alfred Ainger

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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.


_July 1903_


















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

"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

"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

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.




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

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

"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,

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

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'"




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[1]. 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

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

"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

"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:--

"Oh, laugh or mourn with me the rueful jest,
A cassocked huntsman, and a fiddling priest."

Cowper's first volume, containing _Table-Talk_ and its companion
satires, appeared some months before Crabbe's _Village_. The
shortcomings of the clergy are a favourite topic with him, and a varied
gallery of the existing types of clerical inefficiency may be formed
from his pages. Many of Cowper's strictures were amply justified by the
condition of the English Church. But Cowper's method is not Crabbe's.
The note of the satirist is seldom absent, blended at times with just a
suspicion of that of the Pharisee. The humorist and the Puritan contend
for predominance in the breast of this polished gentleman and scholar.
Cowper's friend, Newton, in the Preface he wrote for his first volume,
claimed for the poet that his satire was "benevolent." But it was not
always discriminating or just. The satirist's keen love of antithesis
often weakens the moral virtue of Cowper's strictures. In this earliest
volume anger was more conspicuous than sorrow, and contempt perhaps more
obvious than either. The callousness of public opinion on many subjects
needed other medicine than this. Hence was it perhaps that Cowper's
volume, which appeared in May 1782, failed to awaken interest. Crabbe's
_Village_ appeared just a year later (it had been completed a year or
two earlier), and at once made its mark. "It was praised," writes his
son, "in the leading journals; the sale was rapid and extensive; and my
father's reputation was by universal consent greatly raised, and
permanently established, by this poem," The number of anonymous letters
it brought the author, some of gratitude, and some of resentment (for it
had laid its finger on many sores in the body-politic), showed how
deeply his touch had been felt. Further publicity for the poem was
obtained by Burke, who inserted the description of the Parish Workhouse
and the Village Apothecary in _The Annual Register,_ which he
controlled. The same pieces were included a few years later by Vicesimus
Knox in that excellent Miscellany _Elegant Extracts_. And Crabbe was to
learn in later life from Walter Scott how, when a youth of eighteen,
spending a snowy winter in a lonely country-house, he fell in with the
volume of _The Annual Register_ containing the passages from _The
Village;_ how deeply they had sunk into his heart; and that (writing
then to Crabbe in the year 1809) he could repeat them still from memory.

Edmund Burke's friend, Edward Shackleton, meeting Crabbe at Burke's
house soon after the publication of the poem, paid him an elegant
tribute. Goldsmith's, he said, would now be the "deserted" village.
Crabbe modestly disclaimed the compliment, and assuredly with reason
Goldsmith's delightful poem will never be deserted. For it is no loss
good and wise to dwell on village life as it might be, than to reflect
on what it has suffered from man's inhumanity to man. What made Crabbe a
now force in English poetry, was that in his verse Pity appears, after a
long oblivion, as the true antidote to Sentimentalism. The reader is not
put off with pretty imaginings, but is led up to the object which the
poet would show him, and made to feel its horror. If Crabbe is our first
great realist in verse, he uses his realism in the cause of a true
humanity. _Facit indignatio versum._


[Footnote 1: I cannot deny myself the pleasure of here acknowledging my
indebtedness to a French scholar, M. Huchon of the University of Nancy.
M. Huchon is himself engaged upon a study of the Life and Poetry of
Crabbe, and in the course of a conversation with me in London, first
called my attention to the volume containing this letter. I agree with
him in thinking that no previous biographer of Crabbe has been aware of
its existence.]




"The sudden popularity of _The Village_" writes Crabbe's son and
biographer, "must have produced, after the numberless slights and
disappointments already mentioned, and even after the tolerable success
of _The Library_, about as strong a revulsion in my father's mind as a
ducal chaplaincy in his circumstances; but there was no change in his
temper or manners. The successful author continued as modest as the
rejected candidate for publication had been patient and long-suffering."
The biographer might have remarked as no less strange that the success
of _The Village_ failed, for the moment at least, to convince Crabbe
where his true strength lay. When he again published a poem, two years
later, he reverted to the old Popian topics and methods in a by no means
successful didactic satire on newspapers. Meantime the occasional visits
of the Duke of Rutland and his family to London brought the chaplain
again in touch with the Burkes and the friends he had first made through
them, notably with Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was also able to visit the
theatre occasionally, and fell under the spell, not only of Mrs.
Siddons, but of Mrs. Jordan (in the character of Sir Harry Wildair). It
was now decided that as a nobleman's chaplain it would be well for him
to have a university degree, and to this end his name was entered on the
boards of Trinity College, Cambridge, through the good offices of Bishop
Watson of Llandaff, with a view to his obtaining a degree without
residence. This was in 1783, but almost immediately afterwards he
received an LL.B. degree from the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was
obtained for Crabbe in order that he might hold two small livings in
Dorsetshire, Frome St. Quintin and Evershot, to which he had just been
presented by Thurlow. It was on this occasion that the Chancellor made
his memorable comparison of Crabbe to Parson Adams, no doubt pointing to
a certain rusticity, and possibly provincial accent, from which Crabbe
seems never to have been wholly free. This promotion seems to have
interfered very little with Crabbe's residence at Belvoir or in London.
A curate was doubtless placed in one or other of the parsonage-houses in
Dorsetshire at such modest stipend as was then usual--often not more
than thirty pounds a year--and the rector would content himself with a
periodical flying visit to receive tithe, or inquire into any parish
grievances that may have reached his ear. As incidents of this kind will
be not infrequent during the twenty years that follow in Crabbe's
clerical career, it may be well to intimate at once that no peculiar
blame attaches to him in the matter. He but "partook of the frailty of
his times." During these latter years of the eighteenth century, as for
long before and after, pluralism in the Church was rather the rule than
the exception, and in consequence non-residence was recognised as
inevitable, and hardly matter for comment. The two Dorsetshire livings
were of small value, and as Crabbe was now looking forward to his
marriage with the faithful Miss Elmy, he could not have afforded to
reside. He may not, however, have thought it politic to decline the
first preferment offered by so important a dispenser of patronage as the
Lord Chancellor.

Events, however, were at hand, which helped to determine Crabbe's
immediate future. Early in 1784 the Duke of Rutland became Lord
Lieutenant of Ireland. The appointment had been made some time before,
and it had been decided that Crabbe was not to be on the Castle staff.
His son expresses no surprise at this decision, and makes of it no
grievance. The duke and the chaplain parted excellent friends. Crabbe
and his wife were to remain at Belvoir as long as it suited their
convenience, and the duke undertook that he would not forget him as
regarded future preferment. On the strength of these offers, Crabbe and
Miss Elmy wore married in December 1783, in the parish church of
Beccles, where Miss Elmy's mother resided, and a few weeks later took up
their abode in the rooms assigned them at Belvoir Castle.

As Miss Elmy had lived for many years with her uncle and aunt, Mr. and
Mrs. John Tovell, at Parham, and moreover as this rural inland village
played a considerable part in the development of Crabbe's poetical
faculty, it may be well to quote his son's graphic account of the
domestic circumstances of Miss Elmy's relatives. Mr. Tovell was, like
Mr. Hathaway, "a substantial yeoman," for he owned an estate of some
eight hundred a year, to some share of which, as the Tovells had lost
their only child, Miss Elmy would certainly in due course succeed. The
Tovells' house at Parham, which has been long ago pulled down, and
rebuilt as Paritam Lodge, on very different lines, was of ample size,
with its moat, so common a feature of the homestead in the eastern
counties, "rookery, dove-cot, and fish-ponds"; but the surroundings were
those of the ordinary farmhouse, for Mr. Tovell himself cultivated part
of his estate.

"The drawing-room, a corresponding dining-parlour, and a handsome
sleeping apartment upstairs, were all _tabooed_ ground, and made use of
on great and solemn occasions only--such as rent-days, and an occasional
visit with which Mr. Tovell was honoured by a neighbouring peer. At all
other times the family and their visitors lived entirely in the
old-fashioned kitchen along with the servants. My great-uncle occupied
an armchair, or, in attacks of gout, a couch on one side of a large open
chimney.... At a very early hour in the morning the alarum called the
maids, and their mistress also; and if the former were tardy, a louder
alarum, and more formidable, was heard chiding their delay--not that
scolding was peculiar to any occasion; it regularly ran on through all
the day, like bells on harness, inspiriting the work, whether it were
done well or ill." In the annotated volume of the son's memoir which
belonged to Edward FitzGerald, the writer added the following detail as
to his great-aunt's temper and methods:--"A wench whom Mrs. Tovell had
pursued with something weightier than invective--a ladle, I
think--whimpered out 'If an angel from Hiv'n were to come mawther'"
(Suffolk for _girl_) "'to missus, she wouldn't give no satisfaction.'"

George Crabbe the younger, who gives this graphic account of the
_menage_ at Parham, was naturally anxious to claim for his mother, who
so long formed one of this queer household, a degree of refinement
superior to that of her surroundings. After describing the daily
dinner-party in the kitchen--master, mistress, servants, with an
occasional "travelling rat-catcher or tinker"--he skilfully points out
that his mother's feelings must have resembled those of the
boarding-school miss in his father's "Widow's Tale" when subjected to a
like experience:--

"But when the men beside their station took,
The maidens with them, and with these the cook;
When one huge wooden bowl before them stood,
Filled with huge balls of farinaceous food;
With bacon, mass saline! where never lean
Beneath the brown and bristly rind was seen:
When from a single horn the party drew
Their copious draughts of heavy ale and new;
When the coarse cloth she saw, with many a stain,
Soiled by rude hands who cut and came again--
She could not breathe, but with a heavy sigh,
Reined the fair neck, and shut th' offended eye;
She minced the sanguine flesh in frustums fine,
And wondered much to see the creatures dine!"

The home of the Tovells has long disappeared, and it must not therefore
be confused with the more remarkable "moated grange" in Parham,
originally the mansion of the Willoughbys, though now a farmhouse,
boasting a fine Tudor gateway and other fragments of fifteenth and
sixteenth century work. An engraving of the Hall and moat, after
Stanfield, forms an illustration to the third volume of the 1834 edition
of Crabbe.

When Crabbe began _The Village_, it was clearly intended to be, like
_The Borough_ later, a picture of Aldeburgh and its inhabitants. Yet not
only Parham, but the country about Belvoir crept in before the poem was
completed. If the passage in Book I. beginning:--

"Lo! where the heath, with withering brake grown o'er,"

describes pure Aldeburgh, the opening lines of Book II., taking a more
roseate view of rural happiness:--

"I, too, must yield, that oft amid those woes
Are gleams of transient mirth and hours of sweet repose,
Such as you find on yonder sportive Green,
The squire's tall gate, and churchway-walk between,
Where loitering stray a little tribe of friends
On a fair Sunday when the sermon ends,"

are drawn from the pleasant villages in the Midlands (perhaps Allington,
where he was afterwards to minister), whither he rambled on his
botanising excursions from Belvoir Castle.

George Crabbe and his bride settled down in their apartments at Belvoir
Castle, but difficulties soon arose. Crabbe was without definite
clerical occupation, unless he read prayers to the few servants left in
charge; and was simply waiting for whatever might turn up in the way of
preferment from the Manners family, or from the Lord Chancellor. The
young couple soon found the position intolerable, and after less than
eighteen months Crabbe wisely accepted a vacant curacy in the
neighbourhood, that of Stathern in Leicestershire, to the humble
parsonage of which parish Crabbe and his wife removed in 1785. A child
had been born to them at Belvoir, who survived its birth only a few
hours. During the following four years at Stathern were born three
other children--the two sons, George and John, in 1785 and 1787, and a
daughter in 1789, who died in infancy.

Stathern is a village about four miles from Belvoir Castle, and the
drive or walk from one to the other lies through the far-spreading woods
and gardens surrounding the ducal mansion. Crabbe entered these woods
almost at his very door, and found there ample opportunity for his
botanical studies, which were still his hobby. As usual his post was
that of _locum tenens_, the rector, Dr. Thomas Parke, then residing at
his other living at Stamford. My friend, the Rev. J.W. Taylor, the
present rector of Stathern, who entered on his duties in 1866, tells me
of one or two of the village traditions concerning Crabbe. One of these
is to the effect that he spoke "through his nose," which I take to have
been the local explanation of a marked Suffolk accent which accompanied
the poet through life. Another, that he was peppery of temper, and that
an exceedingly youthful couple having presented themselves for holy
matrimony, Crabbe drove them with scorn from the altar, with the remark
that he had come there to marry "men and women, and not lads and

Crabbe used to tell his children that the four years at Stathern were,
on the whole, the happiest in his life. He and his wife were in humble
quarters, but they were their own masters, and they were quit of "the
pampered menial" for ever. "My mother and he," the son writes, "could
now ramble together at their ease amidst the rich woods of Belvoir
without any of the painful feelings which had before chequered his
enjoyment of the place: at home a garden afforded him healthful
exercise and unfailing amusement; and his situation as a curate
prevented him from being drawn into any sort of unpleasant disputes with
the villagers about him"--an ambiguous statement which probably,
however, means that the absent rector had to settle difficulties as to
tithe, and other parochial grievances. Crabbe now again brought his old
medical attainments, such as they were, to the aid of his poor
parishioners, "and had often great difficulty in confining his practice
strictly within the limits of the poor, for the farmers would willingly
have been attended _gratis_ also." His literary labours subsequent to
_The Village_ seem to have been slight, with the exception of a brief
memoir of Lord Robert Manners contributed to _The Annual Register_ in
1784, for the poem of _The Newspaper,_ published in 1785, was probably
"old stock." It is unlikely that Crabbe, after the success of _The
Village,_ should have willingly turned again to the old and unprofitable
vein of didactic satire. But, the poem being in his desk, he perhaps
thought that it might bring in a few pounds to a household which
certainly needed them. "_The Newspaper_, a Poem, by the Rev. George
Crabbe, Chaplain to his Grace the Duke of Rutland, printed for J.
Dodsley, in Pall Mall," appeared as a quarto pamphlet (price 2s.) in
1785, with a felicitous motto from Ovid's _Metamorphoses_ on the
title-page, and a politic dedication to Lord Thurlow, evincing a
gratitude for past favours, and (unexpressed) a lively sense of favours
to come.

_The Newspaper_ is, to say truth, of little value, either as throwing
light on the journalism of Crabbe's day, or as a step in his poetic
career. The topics are commonplace, such as the strange admixture of
news, the interference of the newspaper with more useful reading, and
the development of the advertiser's art. It is written in the fluent and
copious vein of mild satire and milder moralising which Crabbe from
earliest youth had so assiduously practised. If a few lines are needed
as a sample, the following will show that the methods of literary
puffing are not so original to-day as might be supposed. After
indicating the tradesman's ingenuity in this respect, the poet adds.--

"These are the arts by which a thousand live,
Where Truth may smile, and Justice may forgive.
But when, amid this rabble-rout, we find
A puffing poet, to his honour blind:
Who slily drops quotations all about
Packet or Post, and points their merit out;
Who advertises what reviewers say,
With sham editions every second day;
Who dares not trust his praises out of sight,
But hurries into fame with all his might;
Although the verse some transient praise obtains,
Contempt is all the anxious poet gains"

_The Newspaper_ seems to have been coldly received by the critics, who
had perhaps been led by _The Village_ to expect something very
different, and Crabbe never returned to the satirical-didactic line.
Indeed, for twenty-two years he published nothing more, although he
wrote continuously, and as regularly committed the bulk of his
manuscript to the domestic fire-place. Meantime he lived a happy country
life at Stathern, studying botany, reading aloud to his wife, and by no
means forgetting the wants of his poor parishioners. He visited
periodically his Dorsetshire livings, introducing his wife on one such
occasion, as he passed through London, to the Burkes. And one day,
seized with an acute attack of the _mal du pays_, he rode sixty miles
to the coast of Lincolnshire that he might once more "dip," as his son
expresses it, "in the waves that washed the beach of Aldeburgh."

In October 1787, Crabbe's household were startled by the news of the
death of his friend and patron the Duke of Rutland, who died at the
Vice-regal Lodge at Dublin, after a short illness, at the early age of
thirty-three. The duke, an open-handed man and renowned for his
extravagant hospitalities, had lived "not wisely but too well." Crabbe
assisted at the funeral at Belvoir, and duly published his discourse
then delivered in handsome quarto. Shortly after, the duchess, anxious
to retain their former chaplain in the neighbourhood, gave Crabbe a
letter to Thurlow, asking him to exchange the two livings in Dorsetshire
for two other, of more value, in the Vale of Belvoir. Crabbe waited on
the Chancellor with the letter, but Thurlow was, or affected to be,
annoyed by the request. It was a thing, he exclaimed with an oath, that
he would not do "for any man in England." However, when the young and
beautiful duchess later appealed to him in person, he relented, and
presented Crabbe to the two livings of Muston in Leicestershire, and
Allington in Lincolnshire, both, within sight of Belvoir Castle, and (as
the crow flies) not much more than a mile apart. To the rectory house of
Muston, Crabbe brought his family in February 1789. His connection with
the two livings was to extend over five and twenty years, but during
thirteen of those years, as will be seen, he was a non-resident. For the
present he remained three years at the small and very retired village of
Muston, about five miles from Grantham. "The house in which Crabbe
lived at Muston," writes Mr. Hutton,[2] "is now pulled down. It is
replaced by one built higher up a slight hill, in a position intended,
says scandal, to prevent any view of Belvoir. Crabbe with all his
ironies had no such resentful feelings; indeed more modern successors of
his have opened what he would have called a 'vista,' and the castle
again crowns the distance as you look southward from the pretty garden."

Crabbe's first three years of residence at Muston were marked by few
incidents. Another son, Edmund, was horn in the autumn of 1790, and a
few weeks later a series of visits were paid by Crabbe, his wife and
elder boy, to their relations at Aldeburgh, Parham, and Beccles, from
which latter town, according to Crabbe's son, they visited Lowestoft,
and were so fortunate as to hear the aged John Wesley preach, on a
memorable occasion when he quoted Anacreon:--

"Oft am I by women told,
Poor Anacreon! thou grow'st old
. . . . .
. . . . .
But this I need not to be told,
'Tis time to _live_, if I grow old."

In 1792 Crabbe preached at the bishop's visitation at Grantham, and his
sermon was so much admired that he was invited to receive into his house
as pupils the sons of the Earl of Bute. This task, however, Crabbe
rightly declined, being diffident as to his scholarship.

In October of this year Crabbe was again working hard at his
botany--for like the Friar in _Romeo and Juliet_ his time was always
much divided between the counselling of young couples and the "culling
of simples"--when his household received the tidings of the death of
John Tovell of Parham, after a brief illness. It was momentous news to
Crabbe's family, for it involved "good gifts," and many "possibilities."
Crabbe was left executor, and as Mr. Tovell had died without children,
the estate fell to his two sisters, Mrs. Elmy and an elderly spinster
sister residing in Parham. As Mrs. Elmy's share of the estate would come
to her children, and as the unmarried sister died not long after,
leaving her portion in the same direction, Crabbe's anxiety for the
pecuniary future of his family was at an end. He visited Parham on
executor's business, and on his return found that he had made up his
mind "to place a curate at Muston, and to go and reside at Parham,
taking the charge of some church in that neighbourhood."

Crabbe's son, with the admirable frankness that marks his memoir
throughout, does not conceal that this step in his father's life was a
mistake, and that he recognised and regretted it as such on cooler
reflection. The comfortable home of the Tovells at Parham fell somehow,
whether by the will, or by arrangement with Mrs. Elmy, to the disposal
of Crabbe, and he was obviously tempted by its ampler room and pleasant
surroundings. He would be once more among relatives and acquaintances,
and a social circle congenial to himself and his wife. Muston must have
been very dull and lonely, except for those on visiting terms with the
duke and other county magnates. Moreover it is likely that the
relations of Crabbe with his village flock were already--as we know they
were at a later date--somewhat strained. Let it be said once for all
that judged by the standards of clerical obligation current in 1792,
Crabbe was then, and remained all his life, in many important respects,
a diligent parish-priest. Mr. Hutton justly remarks that "the intimate
knowledge of the life of the poor which his poems show proves how
constantly he must have visited, no less than how closely he must have
observed." But the fact remains that though he was kind and helpful to
his flock while among them in sickness and in trouble--their physician
as well as their spiritual adviser--his ideas as to clerical absenteeism
were those of his age, and moreover his preaching to the end of his life
was not of a kind to arouse much interest or zeal. I have had access to
a large packet of his manuscript sermons, preached during his residence
in Suffolk and later, as proved by the endorsements on the cover, at his
various incumbencies in Leicestershire and Wiltshire. They consist of
plain and formal explanations of his text, reinforced by other texts,
entirely orthodox but unrelieved by any resource in the way of
illustration, or by any of those poetic touches which his published
verse shows he had at his command. A sermon lies before me, preached
first at Great Glemham in 1801, and afterwards at Little Glemham,
Sweffling, Muston, and Allington; at Trowbridge in 1820, and again at
Trowbridge in 1830. The preacher probably held his discourses quite as
profitable at one stage in the Church's development as at another. In
this estimate of clerical responsibilities Crabbe seems to have remained
stationary. But meantime the laity had been aroused to expect better
things. The ferment of the Wesley and Whitefield Revival was spreading
slowly but surely even among the remote villages of England. What Crabbe
and the bulk of the parochial clergy called "a sober and rational
conversion" seemed to those who had fallen under the fervid influence of
the great Methodist a savourless and ineffectual formality. The
extravagances of the Movement had indeed travelled everywhere in company
with its worthier fruits. Enthusiasm,--"an excellent good word until it
was ill-sorted,"--found vent in various shapes that were justly feared
and suspected by many of the clergy, even by those to whom "a reasonable
religion" was far from being "so very reasonable as to have nothing to
do with the heart and affections." It was not only the Moderates who saw
its danger. Wesley himself had found it necessary to caution his more
impetuous followers against its eccentricities. And Joseph Butler
preaching at the Rolls Chapel on "the Love of God" thought it well to
explain that in his use of the phrase there was nothing
"enthusiastical." But as one mischievous extreme generates another, the
influence of the prejudice against enthusiasm became disastrous, and the
word came too often to be confounded with any and every form of
religious fervency and earnestness. To the end of his days Crabbe, like
many another, regarded sobriety and moderation in the expression of
religious feeling as not only its chief safeguard but its chief
ornament. It may seem strange that the poetic temperament which Crabbe
certainly possessed never seemed to affect his views of life and human
nature outside the fields of poetic composition. He was notably
indifferent, his son tells us, "to almost all the proper objects of
taste. He had no real love for painting, or music, or architecture, or
for what a painter's eye considers as the beauties of landscape. But he
had a passion for science--the science of the human mind, first; then,
that of nature in general; and lastly that of abstract qualities."

If the defects here indicated help to explain some of those in his
poetry, they may also throw light on a certain lack of imagination in
Crabbe's dealings with his fellow-men in general and with his
parishioners in particular. His temperament was somewhat tactless and
masterful, and he could never easily place himself at the stand-point of
those who differed from him. The use of his imagination was mainly
confined to the hours in his study; and while there, if he had his
"_beaux moments_," he had also his "_mauvais quarts d'heure_."

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