Read CHAPTER I - CRABBE of Essays in English Literature‚ 1780-1860 , free online book, by George Saintsbury, on ReadCentral.com.

There is a certain small class of persons in the history of literature the members of which possess, at least for literary students, an interest peculiar to themselves.  They are the writers who having attained, not merely popular vogue, but fame as solid as fame can ever be, in their own day, having been praised by the praised, and having as far as can be seen owed this praise to none of the merely external and irrelevant causes ­politics, religion, fashion or what not ­from which it sometimes arises, experience in a more or less short time after their death the fate of being, not exactly cast down from their high place, but left respectfully alone in it, unvisited, unincensed, unread.  Among these writers, over the gate of whose division of the literary Elysium the famous, “Who now reads Bolingbroke?” might serve as motto, the author of “The Village” and “Tales of the Hall” is one of the most remarkable.  As for Crabbe’s popularity in his own day there is no mistake about that.  It was extraordinarily long, it was extremely wide, it included the select few as well as the vulgar, it was felt and more or less fully acquiesced in by persons of the most diverse tastes, habits, and literary standards.  His was not the case, which occurs now and then, of a man who makes a great reputation in early life and long afterwards preserves it because, either by accident or prudence, he does not enter the lists with his younger rivals, and therefore these rivals can afford to show him a reverence which is at once graceful and cheap.  Crabbe won his spurs in full eighteenth century, and might have boasted, altering Landor’s words, that he had dined early and in the best of company, or have parodied Goldsmith, and said, “I have Johnson and Burke:  all the wits have been here.”  But when his studious though barren manhood was passed, and he again began, as almost an old man, to write poetry, he entered into full competition with the giants of the new school, whose ideals and whose education were utterly different from his.  While “The Library” and “The Village” came to a public which still had Johnson, which had but just lost Goldsmith, and which had no other poetical novelty before it than Cowper, “The Borough” and the later Tales entered the lists with “Marmion” and “Childe Harold,” with “Christabel” and “The Excursion,” even with “Endymion” and “The Revolt of Islam.”  Yet these later works of Crabbe met with the fullest recognition both from readers and from critics of the most opposite tendencies.  Scott, the most generous, and Wordsworth, the most grudging, of all the poets of the day towards their fellows, united in praising Crabbe; and unromantic as the poet of “The Village” seems to us he was perhaps Sir Walter’s favourite English bard.  Scott read him constantly, he quotes him incessantly; and no one who has read it can ever forget how Crabbe figures in the most pathetic biographical pages ever written ­Lockhart’s account of the death at Abbotsford.  Byron’s criticism was as weak as his verse was powerful, but still Byron had no doubt about Crabbe.  The utmost flight of memory or even of imagination can hardly get together three contemporary critics whose standards, tempers, and verdicts, were more different than those of Gifford, Jeffrey, and Wilson.  Yet it is scarcely too much to say that they are all in a tale about Crabbe.  In this unexampled chorus of eulogy there rose (for some others who can hardly have admired him much were simply silent) one single note, so far as I know, or rather one single rattling peal of thunder on the other side.  It is true that this was significant enough, for it came from William Hazlitt.

Yet against this chorus, which was not, as has sometimes happened, the mere utterance of a loud-voiced few, but was echoed by a great multitude who eagerly bought and read Crabbe, must be set the almost total forgetfulness of his work which has followed.  It is true that of living or lately living persons in the first rank of literature some great names can be cited on his side; and what is more, that these great names show the same curious diversity in agreement which has been already noticed as one of Crabbe’s triumphs.  The translator of Omar Khayyam, his friend the present Laureate, and the author of “The Dream of Gerontius,” are men whose literary ideals are known to be different enough; yet they add a third trinity as remarkable as those others of Gifford, Jeffrey, and Wilson, of Wordsworth, Byron, and Scott.  Much more recently Mr. Courthope has used Crabbe as a weapon in that battle of his with literary Liberalism which he has waged not always quite to the comprehension of his fellow-critics; Mr. Leslie Stephen has discussed him as one who knows and loves his eighteenth century.  But who reads him?  Who quotes him?  Who likes him?  I think I can venture to say, with all proper humility, that I know Crabbe pretty well; I think I may say with neither humility nor pride, but simply as a person whose business it has been for some years to read books, and articles, and debates, that I know what has been written and said in England lately.  You will find hardly a note of Crabbe in these writings and sayings.  He does not even survive, as “Matthew Green, who wrote ‘The Spleen,’” and others survive, by quotations which formerly made their mark, and are retained without a knowledge of their original.  If anything is known about Crabbe to the general reader, it is the parody in “Rejected Addresses,” an extraordinarily happy parody no doubt, in fact rather better Crabbe in Crabbe’s weakest moments than Crabbe himself.  But naturally there is nothing of his best there; and it is by his best things, let it be repeated over and over in face of all opposition, that a poet must be judged.

Although Crabbe’s life, save for one dramatic revolution, was one of the least eventful in our literary history, it is by no means one of the least interesting.  Mr. Kebbel’s book gives a very fair summary of it; but the Life by Crabbe’s son which is prefixed to the collected editions of the poems, and on which Mr. Kebbel’s own is avowedly based, is perhaps the more interesting of the two.  It is written with a curious mixture of the old literary state and formality, and of a feeling on the writer’s part that he is not a literary man himself, and that not only his father, but Mr. Lockhart, Mr. Moore, Mr. Bowles and the other high literary persons who assisted him were august beings of another sphere.  This is all the more agreeable, in that Crabbe’s sons had advantages of education and otherwise which were denied to their father, and might in the ordinary course of things have been expected to show towards him a lofty patronage rather than any filial reverence.  The poet himself was born at Aldborough, a now tolerably well-known watering-place (the fortune of which was made by Mr. Wilkie Collins in No Name) on Christmas Eve, 1754.  That not uncommon infirmity of noble minds which seeks to prove distinguished ancestry seems to have had no hold on the plain common sense of the Crabbe family, who maintained themselves to be at the best Norfolk yeomen, and though they possessed a coat-of-arms, avowed with much frankness that they did not know how they got it.  A hundred and forty years ago they had apparently lost even the dignity of yeomanhood, and occupied stations quite in the lower rank of the middle class as tradesmen, non-commissioned officers in the navy or the merchant service, and so forth.  George Crabbe, the grandfather, was collector of customs at Aldborough, but his son, also a George, was a parish schoolmaster and a parish clerk before he returned to the Suffolk port as deputy collector and then as salt-master, or collector of the salt duties.  He seems to have had no kind of polish, and late in life was a mere rough drinking exciseman; but his education, especially in mathematics, appears to have been considerable, and his ability in business not small.  The third George, his eldest son, was also fairly though very irregularly educated for a time, and his father, perceiving that he was “a fool about a boat,” had the rather unusual common sense to destine him to a learned profession.  Unluckily his will was better than his means, and while the profession which Crabbe chose or which was chosen for him ­that of medicine ­was not the best suited to his tastes or talents, the resources of the family were not equal to giving him a full education, even in that.  He was still at intervals employed in the Customs warehouses at “piling up butter and cheese” even after he was apprenticed at fourteen to a country surgeon.  The twelve years which he spent in this apprenticeship, in an abhorred return for a short time to the cheese and butter, in a brief visit to London, where he had no means to walk the hospitals, and in an attempt to practise with little or no qualification at Aldborough itself, present a rather dismal history of apprenticeship which taught nothing.  But Love was, for once, most truly and literally Crabbe’s solace and his salvation, his master and his patron.  When he was barely eighteen, still an apprentice, and possessed, as far as can be made out, of neither manners nor prospects, he met a certain Miss Sarah Elmy.  She was three or four years older than himself and much better connected, being the niece and eventual co-heiress of a wealthy yeoman squire.  She was, it is said, pretty; she was evidently accomplished, and she seems to have had access to the country society of those days.  But Mira, as Crabbe called her, perhaps merely in the fashion of the eighteenth century, perhaps in remembrance of Fulke Greville’s heroine (for he knew his Elizabethans rather well for a man of those days), and no doubt also with a secret joy to think that the last syllables of her Christian name and surname in a way spelt the appellation, fell in love with the boy and made his fortune.  But for her Crabbe would probably have subsided, not contentedly but stolidly, into the lot of a Doctor Slop of the time, consoling himself with snuff (which he always loved) and schnaps (to which we have hints that in his youth he was not averse).  Mira was at once unalterably faithful to him and unalterably determined not to marry unless he could give her something like a position.  Their long engagement (they were not married till he was twenty-nine and she was thirty-three) may, as we shall see, have carried with it some of the penalties of long engagements.  But it is as certain as any such thing can be that but for it English literature would have lacked the name of Crabbe.

There is no space here to go through the sufferings of the novitiate.  At last, at the extreme end of 1779, Crabbe made up his mind once more to seek his fortune, this time by aid of literature only, in London.  His son too has printed rare scraps of a very interesting Journal to Mira which he kept during at least a part of the terrible year of struggle which he passed there.  He saw the riots of ’80; he canvassed, always more or less in vain, the booksellers and the peers; he spent three-and-sixpence of his last ten shillings on a copy of Dryden; he was much less disturbed about imminent starvation than by the delay of a letter from Mira ("my dearest Sally” she becomes with a pathetic lapse from convention, when the pinch is sorest) or by the doubt whether he had enough left to pay the postage of one.  He writes prayers (but not for the public eye), abstracts of sermons for Mira, addresses (rather adulatory) to Lord Shelburne, which received no answer.  All this has the most genuine note that ever man of letters put into his work, for whatever Crabbe was or was not, now or at any time, he was utterly sincere; and his sincerity makes his not very abundant letters and journals unusually interesting.  At last, after a year, during which his means of subsistence are for the most part absolutely unknown, he, as he says himself, fixed “by some propitious influence, in some happy moment” on Edmund Burke as the subject of a last appeal.

Nothing in all literary history is, in a modest way and without pearls and gold, quite so like a fairy tale as the difference in Crabbe’s fortunes which this propitious influence brought about.  On the day when he wrote to Burke he was, as he said in the letter, “an outcast, without friends, without employment, without bread.”  In some twenty-four hours (the night-term of which he passed in ceaselessly pacing Westminster Bridge to cheat the agony of expectation) he was a made man.  It was not merely that, directly or indirectly, Burke procured him a solid and an increasing income.  He did much more than that.  Crabbe, like most self-educated men, was quite uncritical of his own work:  Burke took him into his own house for months, encouraged him to submit his poems, criticised them at once without mercy and with judgment, found him publishers, found him a public, turned him from a raw country boy into a man who at least had met society of the best kind.  It is a platitude to say that for a hundred persons who will give money or patronage there is scarcely one who will take trouble of this kind; and if any devil’s advocate objects the delight of producing a “lion,” it may be answered that for Burke at least this delight would not have been delightful at all.

The immediate form which the patronage of Burke and that, soon added, of Thurlow took, is one which rather shocks the present day.  They made Crabbe turn to the Church, and got a complaisant bishop to ordain him.  They sent him (a rather dangerous experiment) to be curate in his own native place, and finally Burke procured him the chaplaincy at Belvoir.  The young Duke of Rutland, who had been made a strong Tory by Pitt, was fond of letters, and his Duchess Isabel, who was, ­like her elder kinswoman, Dryden’s Duchess of Ormond ­

    A daughter of the rose, whose cheeks unite     The varying beauties of the red and white,

in other words, a Somerset, was one of the most beautiful and gracious women in England.  Crabbe, whose strictly literary fortunes I postpone for the present, was apparently treated with the greatest possible kindness by both; but he was not quite happy, and his ever-prudent Mira still would not marry him.  At last Thurlow’s patronage took the practical form (it had already taken that, equally practical, of a hundred pounds) of two small Chancellor’s livings in Dorsetshire, residence at which was dispensed with by the easy fashions of the day.  The Duke of Rutland, when he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, did not take Crabbe with him, a circumstance which has excited some unnecessary discussion; but he gave him free quarters at Belvoir, where he and his wife lived for a time before they migrated to a neighbouring curacy ­his wife, for even Mira’s prudence had yielded at last to the Dorsetshire livings, and they were married in December 1783.  They lived together for nearly thirty years, in, as it would seem, unbroken mutual devotion, but Mrs. Crabbe’s health seems very early to have broken down, and a remarkable endorsement of Crabbe’s on a letter of hers has been preserved.  I do not think Mr. Kebbel quotes it; it ends, “And yet happiness was denied” ­a sentence fully encouraging to Mr. Browning and other good men who have denounced long engagements. The story of Crabbe’s life after his marriage may be told very shortly.  His first patron died in Ireland, but the duchess with some difficulty prevailed on Thurlow to exchange his former gifts for more convenient and rather better livings in the neighbourhood of Belvoir, at the chief of which, Muston, Crabbe long resided.  The death of his wife’s uncle made him leave his living and take up his abode for many years at Glemham, in Suffolk, only to find, when he returned, that (not unnaturally, though to his own great indignation) dissent had taken bodily possession of the parish.  His wife died in 1813, and the continued kindness, after nearly a generation, of the house of Rutland, gave him the living of Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, with a small Leicestershire incumbency near Belvoir added, instead of Muston.  At Trowbridge he lived nearly twenty years, revisiting London society, making the acquaintance personally (he had already known him by letter) of Sir Walter, paying a memorable visit to Edinburgh, flirting in an elderly and simple fashion with many ladies, writing much and being even more of a lion in the society of George the Fourth’s reign than he had been in the days of George the Third.  He died on 3rd February 1832.

Crabbe’s character is not at all enigmatical, and emerges as clearly in those letters and diaries of his which have been published, as in anecdotes of him by others.  Perhaps the famous story of his politely endeavouring to talk French to divers Highlanders, during George the Fourth’s visit to Edinburgh, is slightly embroidered ­Lockhart, who tells it, was a mystifier without peer.  If he did gently but firmly extinguish a candle-snuff while Wordsworth and Sir George Beaumont were indulging in poetic ecstasies over the beautiful undulations of the smoke, there may have been something to say for him as Anne Scott, to whom Wordsworth told the story, is said to have hinted, from the side of one of the senses.  His life, no less than his work, speaks him a man of amiable though by no means wholly sweet temper, of more common sense than romance, and of more simplicity than common sense.  His nature and his early trials made him not exactly sour, but shy, till age and prosperity mellowed him; but simplicity was his chief characteristic in age and youth alike.

The mere facts of his strictly literary career are chiefly remarkable for the enormous gap between his two periods of productiveness.  In early youth he published some verses in the magazines and a poem called “Inebriety,” which appeared at Ipswich in 1775.  His year of struggle in London saw the publication of another short piece “The Candidate,” but with the ill-luck which then pursued him, the bookseller who brought it out became bankrupt.  His despairing resort to Burke ushered in “The Library,” 1781, followed by “The Village,” 1783, which Johnson revised and improved not a little.  Two years later again came “The Newspaper,” and then twenty-two years passed without anything appearing from Crabbe’s pen.  It was not that he was otherwise occupied, for he had little or nothing to do, and for the greater part of the time, lived away from his parish.  It was not that he was idle, for we have his son’s testimony that he was perpetually writing, and that holocausts of manuscripts in prose and verse used from time to time to be offered up in the open air, for fear of setting the house on fire by their mass.  At last, in 1807, “The Parish Register” appeared, and three years later “The Borough” ­perhaps the strongest division of his work.  The miscellaneous Tales came in 1812, the “Tales of the Hall” in 1819.  Meanwhile and afterwards, various collected editions appeared, the last and most complete being in 1829 ­a very comely little book in eight volumes.  His death led to the issue of some “Posthumous Tales” and to the inclusion by his son of divers fragments both in the Life and in the Works.  It is understood, however, that there are still considerable remains in manuscript; perhaps they might be published with less harm to the author’s fame and with less fear of incurring a famous curse than in the case of almost any other poet.

For Crabbe, though by no means always at his best, is one of the most curiously equal of verse-writers.  “Inebriety” and such other very youthful things are not to be counted; but between “The Village” of 1783 and the “Posthumous Tales” of more than fifty years later, the difference is surprisingly small.  Such as it is, it rather reverses ordinary experience, for the later poems exhibit the greater play of fancy, the earlier the exacter graces of form and expression.  Yet there is nothing really wonderful in this, for Crabbe’s earliest poems were published under severe surveillance of himself and others, and at a time which still thought nothing of such value in literature as correctness, while his later were written under no particular censorship, and when the Romantic revival had already, for better or worse, emancipated the world.  The change was in Crabbe’s case not wholly for the better.  He does not in his later verse become more prosaic, but he becomes considerably less intelligible.  There is a passage in “The Old Bachelor,” too long to quote but worth referring to, which, though it may be easy enough to understand it with a little goodwill, I defy anybody to understand in its literal and grammatical meaning.  Such welters of words are very common in Crabbe, and Johnson saved him from one of them in the very first lines of “The Village.”  Yet Johnson could never have written the passages which earned Crabbe his fame.  The great lexicographer knew man in general much better than Crabbe did; but he nowhere shows anything like Crabbe’s power of seizing and reproducing man in particular.  Crabbe is one of the first and certainly one of the greatest of the “realists” who, exactly reversing the old philosophical signification of the word, devote themselves to the particular only.  Yet of the three small volumes by which he, after his introduction to Burke, made his reputation, and on which he lived for a quarter of a century, the first and the last display comparatively little of this peculiar quality.  “The Library” and “The Newspaper” are characteristic pieces of the school of Pope, but not characteristic of their author.  The first catalogues books as folio, quarto, octavo, and so forth, and then cross-catalogues them as law, physic, divinity, and the rest, but is otherwise written very much in the air.  “The Newspaper” suited Crabbe a little better, because he pretty obviously took a particular newspaper and went through its contents ­scandal, news, reviews, advertisements ­in his own special fashion:  but still the subject did not appeal to him.  In “The Village,” on the other hand, contemporaries and successors alike have agreed to recognise Crabbe in his true vein.  The two famous passages which attracted the suffrages of judges so different as Scott and Wordsworth, are still, after more than a hundred years, fresh, distinct, and striking.  Here they are once more: ­

    Theirs is yon House that holds the parish poor,     Whose walls of mud scarce bear the broken door;     There, where the putrid vapours, flagging, play,     And the dull wheel hums doleful through the day; ­     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;     Dejected widows, with unheeded tears,     And crippled age with more than childhood fears;     The lame, the blind, and, far the happiest they!      The moping idiot and the madman gay.

. . . . .

Anon, a figure enters, quaintly neat, All pride and business, bustle and conceit; With looks unaltered by these scenes of woe, With speed that, entering, speaks his haste to go, He bids the gazing throng around him fly, And carries fate and physic in his eye:  A potent quack, long versed in human ills, Who first insults the victim whom he kills; Whose murderous hand a drowsy Bench protect, And whose most tender mercy is neglect.  Paid by the parish for attendance here, He wears contempt upon his sapient sneer; In haste he seeks the bed where Misery lies, Impatience marked in his averted eyes; And some habitual queries hurried o’er, Without reply he rushes on the door:  His drooping patient, long inured to pain, And long unheeded, knows remonstrance vain, He ceases now the feeble help to crave Of man; and silent, sinks into the grave.

The poet executed endless variations on this class of theme, but he never quite succeeded in discovering a new one, though in process of time he brought his narrow study of the Aldborough fishermen and townsfolk down still more narrowly to individuals.  His landscape is always marvellously exact, the strokes selected with extraordinary skill ad hoc so as to show autumn rather than spring, failure rather than hope, the riddle of the painful earth rather than any joy of living.  Attempts have been made to vindicate Crabbe from the charge of being a gloomy poet, but I cannot think them successful; I can hardly think that they have been quite serious.  Crabbe, our chief realist poet, has an altogether astonishing likeness to the chief prose realist of France, Gustave Flaubert, so far as his manner of view goes, for in point of style the two have small resemblance.  One of the most striking things in Crabbe’s biography is his remembrance of the gradual disillusion of a day of pleasure which, as a child, he enjoyed in a new boat of his father’s.  We all of us, except those who are gifted or cursed with the proverbial duck’s back, have these experiences and these remembrances of them.  But most men either simply grin and bear it, or carrying the grin a little farther, console themselves by regarding their own disappointments from the ironic and humorous point of view.  Crabbe, though not destitute of humour, does not seem to have been able or disposed to employ it in this way.  Perhaps he never quite got over the terrible and, for the most part unrecorded, year in London:  perhaps the difference between the Mira of promise and the Mira of possession ­the “happiness denied” ­had something to do with it:  perhaps it was a question of natural disposition with him.  But when, years afterwards, as a prosperous middle-aged man, he began his series of published poems once more with “The Parish Register,” the same manner of seeing is evident, though the minute elaboration of the views themselves is almost infinitely greater.  Nor did he ever succeed in altering this manner, if he ever tried to do so.

With the exception of his few Lyrics, the most important of which, “Sir Eustace Grey” (one of his very best things), is itself a tale in different metre, and a few other occasional pieces of little importance, the entire work of Crabbe, voluminous as it is, is framed upon a single pattern, the vignettes of “The Village” being merely enlarged in size and altered in frame in the later books.  The three parts of “The Parish Register,” the twenty-four Letters of “The Borough,” some of which have single and others grouped subjects, and the sixty or seventy pieces which make up the three divisions of Tales, consist almost exclusively of heroic couplets, shorter measures very rarely intervening.  They are also almost wholly devoted to narratives, partly satirical, partly pathetic, of the lives of individuals of the lower and middle class chiefly.  Jeffrey, who was a great champion of Crabbe and allotted several essays to him, takes delight in analysing the plots or stories of these tales; but it is a little amusing to notice that he does it for the most part exactly as if he were criticising a novelist or a dramatist.  “The object,” says he, in one place, “is to show that a man’s fluency of speech depends very much upon his confidence in the approbation of his auditors”:  “In Squire Thomas we have the history of a mean, domineering spirit,” and so forth.  Gifford in one place actually discusses Crabbe as a novelist.  I shall make some further reference to this curious attitude of Crabbe’s admiring critics.  For the moment I shall only remark that the singularly mean character of so much of Crabbe’s style, the “style of drab stucco,” as it has been unkindly called, which is familiar from the wicked wit that told how the youth at the theatre

    Regained the felt and felt what he regained,

is by no means universal.  The most powerful of all his pieces, the history of Peter Grimes, the tyrant of apprentices, is almost entirely free from it, and so are a few others.  But it is common enough to be a very serious stumbling-block.  In nine tales out of ten this is the staple: ­

    Of a fair town where Dr. Rack was guide,     His only daughter was the boast and pride.

Now that is unexceptionable verse enough, but what is the good of putting it in verse at all?  Here again: ­

    For he who makes me thus on business wait,     Is not for business in a proper state.

It is obvious that you cannot trust a man who, unless he is intending a burlesque, can bring himself to write like that.  Crabbe not only brings himself to it, but rejoices and luxuriates in the style.  The tale from which that last luckless distich is taken, “The Elder Brother,” is full of pathos and about equally full of false notes.  If we turn to a far different subject, the very vigorously conceived “Natural Death of Love,” we find a piece of strong and true satire, the best thing of its kind in the author, which is kept up throughout.  Although, like all satire, it belongs at best but to the outer courts of poetry, it is so good that none can complain.  Then the page is turned and one reads: ­

    “I met,” said Richard, when returned to dine,     “In my excursion with a friend of mine.”

It may be childish, it may be uncritical, but I own that such verse as that excites in me an irritation which destroys all power of enjoyment, except the enjoyment of ridicule.  Nor let any one say that pedestrian passages of the kind are inseparable from ordinary narrative in verse and from the adaptation of verse to miscellaneous themes.  If it were so the argument would be fatal to such adaptation, but it is not.  Pope seldom indulges in such passages, though he does sometimes:  Dryden never does.  He can praise, abuse, argue, tell stories, make questionable jests, do anything in verse that is still poetry, that has a throb and a quiver and a swell in it, and is not merely limp, rhythmed prose.  In Crabbe, save in a few passages of feeling and a great many of mere description ­the last an excellent setting for poetry but not necessarily poetical ­this rhythmed prose is everywhere.  The matter which it serves to convey is, with the limitations above given, varied, and it is excellent.  No one except the greatest prose novelists has such a gallery of distinct, sharply etched characters, such another gallery of equally distinct scenes and manner-pieces, to set before the reader.  Exasperating as Crabbe’s style sometimes is, he seldom bores ­never indeed except in his rare passages of digressive reflection.  It has, I think, been observed, and if not the observation is obvious, that he has done with the pen for the neighbourhood of Aldborough and Glemham what Crome and Cotman have done for the neighbourhood of Norwich with the pencil.  His observation of human nature, so far as it goes, is not less careful, true, and vivid.  His pictures of manners, to those who read them at all, are perfectly fresh and in no respect grotesque or faded, dead as the manners themselves are.  His pictures of motives and of facts, of vice and virtue, never can fade, because the subjects are perennial and are truly caught.  Even his plays on words, which horrified Jeffrey ­

    Alas! your reverence, wanton thoughts I grant     Were once my motive, now the thoughts of want,

and the like ­are not worse than Milton’s jokes on the guns.  He has immense talent, and he has the originality which sets talent to work in a way not tried by others, and may thus be very fairly said to turn it into genius.  He is all this and more.  But despite the warnings of a certain precedent, I cannot help stating the case which we have discussed in the old form, and asking, was Crabbe a poet?

And thus putting the question, we may try to sum up.  It is the gracious habit of a summing-up to introduce, if possible, a dictum of the famous men our fathers that were before us.  I have already referred to Hazlitt’s criticism on Crabbe in The Spirit of the Age, and I need not here urge at very great length the cautions which are always necessary in considering any judgment of Hazlitt’s. Much that he says even in the brief space of six or eight pages which he allots to Crabbe is unjust; much is explicably, and not too creditably, unjust.  Crabbe was a successful man, and Hazlitt did not like successful men:  he was a clergyman of the Church of England, and Hazlitt did not love clergymen of the Church of England:  he had been a duke’s chaplain, and Hazlitt loathed dukes:  he had been a Radical, and was still (though Hazlitt does not seem to have thought him so) a Liberal, but his Liberalism had been Torified into a tame variety.  Again, Crabbe, though by no means squeamish, is the most unvoluptuous and dispassionate of all describers of inconvenient things; and Hazlitt was the author of Liber Amoris.  Accordingly there is much that is untrue in the tissue of denunciation which the critic devotes to the poet.  But there are two passages in this tirade which alone might show how great a critic Hazlitt himself was.  Here in a couple of lines ("they turn, one and all, on the same sort of teasing, helpless, unimaginative distress”) is the germ of one of the most famous and certainly of the best passages of the late Mr. Arnold; and here again is one of those critical taps of the finger which shivers by a touch of the weakest part a whole Rupert’s drop of misapprehension.  Crabbe justified himself by Pope’s example.  “Nothing,” says Hazlitt, “can be more dissimilar.  Pope describes what is striking:  Crabbe would have described merely what was there....  In Pope there was an appeal to the imagination, you see what was passing in a poetical point of view.”

Even here (and I have not been able to quote the whole passage) there is one of the flaws, which Hazlitt rarely avoided, in the use of the word “striking”; for, Heaven knows, Crabbe is often striking enough.  But the description of Pope as showing things “in a poetical point of view” hits the white at once, wounds Crabbe mortally, and demolishes realism, as we have been pleased to understand it for the last generation or two.  Hazlitt, it is true, has not followed up the attack, as I shall hope to show in an instant; but he has indicated the right line of it.  As far as mere treatment goes, the fault of Crabbe is that he is pictorial rather than poetic, and photographic rather than pictorial.  He sees his subject steadily, and even in a way he sees it whole; but he does not see it in the poetical way.  You are bound in the shallows and the miseries of the individual; never do you reach the large freedom of the poet who looks at the universal.  The absence of selection, of the discarding of details that are not wanted, has no doubt a great deal to do with this ­Hazlitt seems to have thought that it had everything to do.  I do not quite agree with him there.  Dante, I think, was sometimes quite as minute as Crabbe; and I do not know that any one less hardy than Hazlitt himself would single out, as Hazlitt expressly does, the death-bed scene of Buckingham as a conquering instance in Pope to compare with Crabbe.  We know that the bard of Twickenham grossly exaggerated this.  But suppose he had not?  Would it have been worse verse?  I think not.  Although the faculty of selecting instead of giving all, as Hazlitt himself justly contends, is one of the things which make poesis non ut pictura, it is not all, and I think myself that a poet, if he is a poet, could be almost absolutely literal.  Shakespeare is so in the picture of Gloucester’s corpse.  Is that not poetry?

The defect of Crabbe, as it seems to me, is best indicated by reference to one of the truest of all dicta on poetry, the famous maxim of Joubert ­that the lyre is a winged instrument and must transport.  There is no wing in Crabbe, there is no transport, because, as I hold (and this is where I go beyond Hazlitt), there is no music.  In all poetry, the very highest as well as the very lowest that is still poetry, there is something which transports, and that something in my view is always the music of the verse, of the words, of the cadence, of the rhythm, of the sounds superadded to the meaning.  When you get the best music married to the best meaning, then you get, say, Shakespeare:  when you get some music married to even moderate meaning, you get, say, Moore.  Wordsworth can, as everybody but Wordsworthians holds, and as some even of Wordsworthians admit, write the most detestable doggerel and platitude.  But when any one who knows what poetry is reads ­

    Our noisy years seem moments in the being     Of the eternal silence,

he sees that, quite independently of the meaning, which disturbs the soul of no less a person than Mr. John Morley, there is one note added to the articulate music of the world ­a note that never will leave off resounding till the eternal silence itself gulfs it.  He leaves Wordsworth, he goes straight into the middle of the eighteenth century, and he sees Thomson with his hands in his dressing-gown pockets biting at the peaches, and hears him between the mouthfuls murmuring ­

    So when the shepherd of the Hebrid Isles,     Placed far amid the melancholy main,

and there is another note, as different as possible in kind yet still alike, struck for ever.  Yet again, to take example still from the less romantic poets, and in this case from a poet, whom Mr. Kebbel specially and disadvantageously contrasts with Crabbe, when we read the old schoolboy’s favourite ­

    When the British warrior queen,     Bleeding from the Roman rods,

we hear the same quality of music informing words, though again in a kind somewhat lower, commoner, and less.  In this matter, as in all matters that are worth handling at all, we come of course ad mysterium.  Why certain combinations of letters, sounds, cadences, should almost without the aid of meaning, though no doubt immensely assisted by meaning, produce this effect of poetry on men no man can say.  But they do; and the chief merit of criticism is that it enables us by much study of different times and different languages to recognise some part of the laws, though not the ultimate and complete causes, of the production.

Now I can only say that Crabbe does not produce, or only in the rarest instances produces, this effect on me, and what is more, that on ceasing to be a patient in search of poetical stimulant and becoming merely a gelid critic, I do not discover even in Crabbe’s warmest admirers any evidence that he produced this effect on them.  Both in the eulogies which Mr. Kebbel quotes, and in those that he does not quote, I observe that the eulogists either discreetly avoid saying what they mean by poetry, or specify for praise something in Crabbe that is not distinctly poetical.  Cardinal Newman said that Crabbe “pleased and touched him at thirty years’ interval,” and pleaded that this answers to the “accidental definition of a classic.”  Most certainly; but not necessarily to that of a poetical classic.  Jeffrey thought him “original and powerful.”  Granted; but there are plenty of original and powerful writers who are not poets.  Wilson gave him the superlative for “original and vivid painting.”  Perhaps; but is Hogarth a poet?  Jane Austen “thought she could have married him.”  She had not read his biography; but even if she had would that prove him to be a poet?  Lord Tennyson is said to single out the following passage, which is certainly one of Crabbe’s best, if not his very best: ­

    Early he rose, and looked with many a sigh     On the red light that filled the eastern sky;     Oft had he stood before, alert and gay,     To hail the glories of the new-born day;     But now dejected, languid, listless, low,     He saw the wind upon the water blow,     And the cold stream curled onward as the gale     From the pine-hill blew harshly down the vale;     On the right side the youth a wood surveyed,     With all its dark intensity of shade;     Where the rough wind alone was heard to move     In this, the pause of nature and of love     When now the young are reared, and when the old,     Lost to the tie, grow negligent and cold:      Far to the left he saw the huts of men,     Half hid in mist that hung upon the fen:      Before him swallows gathering for the sea,     Took their short flights and twittered o’er the lea;     And near the bean-sheaf stood, the harvest done,     And slowly blackened in the sickly sun;     All these were sad in nature, or they took     Sadness from him, the likeness of his look     And of his mind ­he pondered for a while,     Then met his Fanny with a borrowed smile.

It is good:  it is extraordinarily good:  it could not be better of its kind.  It is as nearly poetry as anything that Crabbe ever did ­but is it quite?  If it is (and I am not careful to deny it) the reason, as it seems to me, is that the verbal and rhythmical music here, with its special effect of “transporting” of “making the common as if it were uncommon,” is infinitely better than is usual with Crabbe, that in fact there is music as well as meaning.  Hardly anywhere else, not even in the best passages of the story of Peter Grimes, shall we find such music; and in its absence it may be said of Crabbe much more truly than of Dryden (who carries the true if not the finest poetical undertone with him even into the rant of Almanzor and Maximin, into the interminable arguments of “Religio Laici” and “The Hind and the Panther”) that he is a classic of our prose.

Yet the qualities which are so noteworthy in him are all qualities which are valuable to the poet, and which for the most part are present in good poets.  And I cannot help thinking that this was what actually deceived some of his contemporaries and made others content for the most part to acquiesce in an exaggerated estimate of his poetical merits.  It must be remembered that even the latest generation which, as a whole and unhesitatingly, admired Crabbe, had been brought up on the poets of the eighteenth century, in the very best of whom the qualities which Crabbe lacks had been but sparingly and not eminently present.  It must be remembered too, that from the great vice of the poetry of the eighteenth century, its artificiality and convention, Crabbe is conspicuously free.  The return to nature was not the only secret of the return to poetry; but it was part of it, and that Crabbe returned to nature no one could doubt.  Moreover he came just between the school of prose fiction which practically ended with Evelina and the school of prose fiction which opened its different branches with Waverley and Sense and Sensibility.  His contemporaries found nowhere else the narrative power, the faculty of character-drawing, the genius for description of places and manners, which they found in Crabbe; and they knew that in almost all, if not in all the great poets there is narrative power, faculty of character-drawing, genius for description.  Yet again, Crabbe put these gifts into verse which at its best was excellent in its own way, and at its worst was a blessed contrast to Darwin or to Hayley.  Some readers may have had an uncomfortable though only half-conscious feeling that if they had not a poet in Crabbe they had not a poet at all.  At all events they made up their minds that they had a poet in him.

But are we bound to follow their example?  I think not.  You could play on Crabbe that odd trick which used, it is said, to be actually played on some mediaeval verse chroniclers and unrhyme him ­that is to say, put him into prose with the least possible changes ­and his merits would, save in rare instances, remain very much as they are now.  You could put other words in the place of his words, keeping the verse, and it would not as a rule be much the worse.  You cannot do either of these things with poets who are poets.  Therefore I shall conclude that save at the rarest moments, moments of some sudden gust of emotion, some happy accident, some special grace of the Muses to reward long and blameless toil in their service, Crabbe was not a poet.  But I have not the least intention of denying that he was great, and all but of the greatest among English writers.