« ElőzőTovább »
Am. VIII.—Life and Poetical Works of the Reverend George Crabbe, in 8 vols. 12mo. Vol. I. containing the Life of Crabbe. By his Son. London. 1834.
HPHIS is the first of a series of eight volumes, in which we -*- are about to have before us the life, journals, and annotated poems of Mr. Crabbe, in the same portable shape, and at the same rate of cost, as the Life and Works of Lord Byron, and the poetry of Sir Walter Scott; illustrated, moreover, in the same exquisite manner, by designs from our best artists. We hardly doubt that this attempt to extend the circulation of Crabbe's poetry, especially among the less affluent classes of the community, will be attended with as much success as either of the previous adventures to which we have alluded. Placed by Byron, Scott, Fox, and Canning, and, we believe, by every one of his eminent contemporaries, in the very highest rank of excellence, Crabbe has never yet become familiar to hundreds of thousands of English readers well qualified to appreciate and enjoy his merits. 'The poet of the poor,' as his son justly styles him, has hitherto found little favour except with the rich; and yet, of all English authors, he is the one who has sympathized the most profoundly and tenderly with the virtues and the sorrows of humble life—who has best understood the fervours of lowly love and affection—and painted the anxieties and vicissitudes of toil and penury with the closest fidelity and the most touching pathos. In his works the peasant and the mechanic will find everything to elevate their aspirations, and yet nothing to quicken envy and uncharitableness. He is a Christian poet—his satire is strong, but never rancorous—his lessons of virtue are earnest but modest—his reprehensions of vice severe but brotherly. He only needs an introduction into the cottage, to supplant there for ever the affected sentimentality and gross sensualism of authors immeasurably below him in vigour and capacity of mind, as well as in dignity of heart and character, who have, from accidental circumstances, outrun him for a season iu the race of popularity.
When about seven-and-twenty years ago, Crabbe, after half a lifetime spent in retirement and silence, broke upon the world for the second time in his Parish Register and Sir Eustace Grey, a great deal of very pretty writing was bestowed on the illustration of three deep propositions:—namely, (this was not a very novel one,) that poetry is read for the sake of the excitement it gives to our minds and feelings; that painful emotions are more energetic and exciting than pleasurable ones; and that, as Mr. Crabbe dealt more exclusively than any other modern poe( jn sad and dismal subjects, he
must must eventually, of course, outstrip all his rivals in popular favour. The world has outlived all reverence for such juvenile pedantry as made the staple and glory of the school of criticism we have been alluding to: in other words, it has come to be the fashion to test metaphysical generalizations (as they were called) by fact; and the slightest application of that criterion must be sufficient for the utter demolition of the ingenuities in question. Every man that lays his hand on his own breast, knows perfectly well that painful emotions are not necessarily more powerful than pleasurable ones. Is there anything of pain in the enthusiasm of the chase ; or
'In the stern joy which warriors feel In foemen worthy of their steel;' or in the rapture of successful love, or the generous glow of active benevolence? And then, as to the probable ultra-popularity of a poet whose claim should be founded on his exclusive devotion to themes of woe and calamity, is it not wonderful that it should not have occurred even to a metaphysician to ask who, de facto, are the most universally popular of the great poets of past ages? Is Homer less popular than Euripides? Who is, and ever has been, the most popular of all Roman writers ?—who but the one that has hardly one touch of melancholy in his composition—the most thoroughly worldly, shrewd, good-humoured painter of life and manners that ever handled a pen—Horace? Is Dante more popular than Ariosto? Racine than Rabelais? Calderon than Cervantes? or Klopstock than Goethe? Here, at home, who are and ever will be the most popular of our own poets? Speaking of works of any considerable bulk, which can be named beside those of Shakspeare and Pope? And will any man pretend that Shakspeare's tragedy has at any time enjoyed more favour than his comedy, or that Pope has counted one worshipper of his pathos for a hundred admirers of his wit? We need not go into the works of Mr. Crabbe's own contemporaries. If he himself were never to gain general favour except by reason of the painful emotions he excites, we should still despair of his fate ; but the truth is, Crabbe can hardly be said to deal more largely in such emotions than either Byron, or Wordsworth, or Moore; and indeed, no poet ever was, or ever will be, popular in this country that deals exclusively in such materials. The national taste is, on the whole, a manly one ; it is felt that life is made up of light and shadow in pretty equal proportions—and the only art that can permanently fix and please us, is that which has scope enough to reflect life in its own contrasts. Crabbe's deep, and sometimes dreadful pathos, tells on us a thousand times more than it would otherwise have done, by reason of the wit, the humour, the playful humanity with which he relieves lieves it. A short piece of thorough anguish is very well; but we venture to say that the habitual readers of Crabbe (and most of those who read him at all have him constantly in their hands) do not turn the most frequently to Sir Eustace Grey, or Peter Grimes. We should as soon expect to be told that Allan's ' Pressgang' has been more liked than his ' Shepherds' House-heating,' or that Wilkie's ' Distraining for Rent' has been a more lucrative print than ' Blindman's Buff' or ' The Chelsea Pensioners.'
The vulgar impression that Crabbe is throughout a gloomy author, we ascribe to the choice of certain specimens of his earliest poetry in the ' Elegant Extracts'—the only specimens of him that had been at all generally known at the time when most of those who have criticised his later works were young. That exquisitely-finished, but heart-sickening description, in particular, of the poor-house in 'The Village,' fixed itself on every imagination; and when the Register and Borough came out, the reviewers, unconscious perhaps of the early prejudice that was influencing them, selected quotations mainly of the same class. Generalizing critics are apt to think more of their own theory than of their author's practice; and we assert, without hesitation, that it would be easy to select from Crabbe a volume at least of most powerful, most exciting, and most characteristic poetry, which should hardly, in a single line, touch on any but the pleasurable emotions of our nature; of cunning but altogether uiwenomed ridicule; of solemn but unsaddeuing morality; and of that gentle pathos which is a far more delicious luxury than ever sprung from gaiety of spirit. But we had no intention to say one word at this moment on Crabbe's poetry; a fit occasion for taking up that wide and interesting subject will be presented when his son has published the volume of new tales which the venerable bard left in readiness for the press. Our present business is with this most artless and affecting sketch of his personal history and domestic habits—an unpretending volume, which no lover either of genius or of virtue wiil fail to read through at a sitting—and which will for ever dissipate every notion that the dark, the savage, the rueful, the harrowing emotions of the heart, were the habitual elements of Crabbe's thought and reflection.
There is, as it seems to us, something better than graceful in the manner of opening this filial narrative. The curate of Pucklechurch has drawn, without intending it, his own character almost as fully as his father's; and we think no one will lay dow n bis book without feeling ever afterwards a cordial interest in the fortunes of the man that penned it. He says,—
'The present writer has every reason to consider with humble
thankfulness thankfulness the period and circumstances of his father's departure. The growing decline of his bodily strength had been perceptible to all around him for several years. He himself had long set the example of looking forward with calmness to the hour of his dissolution; and if the firmness and resignation of a Christian's deathbed must doubly endear his memory to his children, they also afford indescribable consolation after the scene is closed. At an earlier period, Mr. Crabbe's death would have plunged his family in insupportable suffering: but when the blow fell, it had many alleviations.
'With every softening circumstance, however, a considerable interval must pass before the sons of such a parent can bear to dwell on the minor peculiarities of his image and character;—a much longer one ere they can bring themselves to converse on light and ludicrous incidents connected with his memory. The tone of some passages in the ensuing narrative may appear at variance with these feelings; and it is therefore necessary for me to state here, that the design of drawing up some memoirs of my father's life, from his own fireside anecdotes, had occurred to me several years ago, and that a great part of what I now lay before the public had been committed to writing more than a twelvemonth before his decease. At the time when I was thus occupied, although his health was evidently decaying, there was nothing to forbid the hope that he might linger for years among us, in the enjoyment of such comforts as can smooth the gradual descent of old age to the tomb; and I pleased myself with the fond anticipation, that when I should have completed my manuscript, he himself might be its first critic, and take the trouble to correct it wherever I had fallen into any mistakes. But he was at last carried off by a violent illness, of short duration—and thus ended for ever the most pleasing dream of my authorship.'—p. 3.
To those who, like ourselves, only remember Mr, Crabbe as a septuagenarian, of noble and dignified aspect, and with the manners of a perfect gentleman of the old school, mixing in general society with cheerful grace, and often delighting a circle with quiet humour and polished wit—fhe picture now given of his original connexions and situation must have a startling effect. Perhaps no mau of origin so very humble ever retained so few traces of it as he did, in the latter years, at least, of his long and chequered life. There was no shade of subserviency in his courtesy, or of coarseness in his hilarity; his simplicity was urbane;—the whole demeanour exactly what any one would have pronounced natural and suitable in an English clergyman of the highest class, accustomed, from youth to age, to refined society and intellectual pursuits—gentle, grave, and venerable—and only rendered more interesting by obvious unfamiliarity with some of the conventional nothings of modern town-bred usage. He was born, however, on the Christmas eve of 1754, in a very poor family, hardly raised a step above the common fishermen of Aldborough, in a mean cottage on u squalid
shore . i shore; and bred up from infancy to boyhood with no ambition on the part of his parents higher than that of seeing him established in life as an exciseman, or perhaps a clerk in the custom-house of an insignificant sea-port. The original position even of Bums (born, by the way, jive years after him !) was scarcely below that of Crabbe.
The poet's father, after having been a schoolmaster and parishclerk at Norton in Norfolk, married, and finally settled in his native Aldborough (or, as it is more correctly written, Aldeburgh), Suffolk; and became, in course of time, collector of the salt duties there, or salt-master. 'He was,' says our author, ' a man of strong and vigorous talents, distinguished in particular for an extraordinary faculty of calculation;' and sober and industrious during middle life. But afterwards his talents recommended him to the notice of a candidate for the representation of the borough; he became a keen and active agent of the Whig party there—and from that time his family dated a miserable change in his manners. He saw early, and did more than he could well afford to cultivate, the abilities of his eldest boy, who said, 'to me he was ever substantially kind;' but he seems to have broken the heart of an affectionate wife by tavern dissipations, and to have been in many respects a degraded man before his son outgrew his authority. lie had seven children —one of whom dieil in infancy: and our author quotes from a MS. work the following lines, referring to the feelings with which, in the darkening evening of life, the poet still recurred to that domestic distress:
'But it was misery stung me in the day
'The seeond of these couplets has sad truth in every word. The fears of the future poet were as real as the tears of his mother, and the " terrors " of his father. The salt-master was a man of imperious temper and violent passions; but the darker traits of his character had, at this period, showed themselves only at rare intervals, and on extraordinary occasions. He had been hitherto, on the whole, an exemplary husband and father; and was passionately devoted to the little girl whose untimely death drew from him those gloomy and savage tokens of misery, which haunted, fifty years after, the memory of his gentler son.'—p. 8.