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The Period of the French Revolution
INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.
Crabbe went to Belvoir in or about August, 1782. In May, 1783, the publication of
revealed his peculiar qualities as a poet. The poem had been completed and revised under Burkes guidance, and submitted by Reynolds to Johnson, who declared it original, vigorous, and elegant, and made an alteration which cannot be wholly approved.
The originality of the poem won it immediate success.
Such a work may, almost, be said to have been needed. The taste for pastorals, running down from Elizabethan imitations of Theocritus and Mantuan to Ambrose Philips, Allan Ramsay and Thomson, had worn itself out. Gays
with its parody of Philips, had helped to kill it; and Crabbe, certainly, owed something to the form and tone of Gays poem. Yet, the impulse had continued in another form. Goldsmith, in
The Deserted Village,
and Gray, in
An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,
though completely free from pastoral affectation, had, at any rate in Crabbes opinion, idealised the life and character of the villager. Crabbe, who, perhaps from early youth, had contrasted his knowledge of life round Aldeburgh with the smooth alternate verse read aloud to him by his father, where
fond Corydons complain,
And shepherds boys their amorous pains reveal,
The only pains, alas! they never feel,
conceived the idea of telling the truth about country folk as he saw it. For this task, he was peculiarly well equipped. He knew the life of the country poor by personal experience; and his studies in botany and other branches of natural sciencepossibly, even the mental shortsight which, all his life, kept his vision very close to its objectenabled him to substitute for the graceful vagueness of pastoral poets a background drawn with minute exactness. In seven consecutive lines of
thistles, poppies, bugloss, mallow and charlock are mentioned by name, each in a manner which proves it to have been closely observed; and it is said that Aldeburgh, Great Parham and the country around Belvoir are all recognisable in the several descriptions of scenery. As with his background, so with his persons. The desire to tell the truth as he saw it was the intellectual passion which governed Crabbe in all his mature poetry. The side of truth which he saw was, however, nearly always the gloomy side. Natures sternest painter, yet her best Byron said of him, in a well-known line, of which the first part probably remains true, while the second seems to overlook the fact that even village life has a bright side. This may be found in
The Cotters Saturday Night.
An unhappy youth spent in a rough home may have tinged Crabbes mind; but his sturdy dislike of sentimentalism was an enduring characteristic. So he becomes linked with the realists of later times. Man is not to be served by iridescent visions of what he is not, but by pity awakened by the knowledge of what he is.
In spite of this revolt against sentimentalism,
like Crabbes later poems, shows substantial fairness. Its picture is not all gloom. If we contrast his clergyman with the parson of
The Deserted Village,
the poem is entirely free from the note, to be described, perhaps, as petulant, which occurs more than once in Cowpers satires, which had been published, with not much immediate success, a few months before
The workmanship of
reaches a point which Crabbe never passed. The poem had the advantage, as we have seen, of revision by Burke and Johnson, and the heroic couplets, which were always Crabbes favourite metre, lack the fluency of
and the rugged carelessness of his later poetry. They are sufficiently polished, without losing any of his peculiar sharpness; and his love of epigram and of antithesis, that amounts almost to punning, is kept in check. The originality and vigour, if not the elegance, of the poem, were immediately recognised. Burke put extracts from it into
The Annual Register
for 1783, where Scott read the description of the workhouse so earnestly that he could repeat it more than ten years later. As Horace Walpole wrote to Mason, Crabbe writes lines that one can remember.
1, ll. 1520. Crabbes original lines may be seen in
(1834), 114, n. 4.
. The daring novelty of Crabbes poetic treatment of the poor may be gauged by a curious parallelism between
The Poor and their Dwellings,
and the lines recited by the poet in letter
The Citizen of the World.
Goldsmiths lines were written as burlesque; Crabbes, copied in all seriousness. The present writer is indebted to Canon A. C. Deane of Great Malvern for pointing out this loan.
1. ll. 1214.
INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS
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