George Crabbe: Poems


Wordsworth predicted that Crabbe's poetry would last "from its combined merits as truth and poetry fully as long as anything that has been expressed in verse since it first made its appearance", though on another occasion, according to Henry Crabb Robinson, he "blamed Crabbe for his unpoetical mode of considering human nature and society." This last opinion was also held by William Hazlitt, who complained that Crabbe's characters "remind one of anatomical preservations; or may be said to bear the same relation to actual life that a stuffed cat in a glass-case does to the real one purring on the hearth." Byron, besides what he said in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, declared, in 1816, that he considered Crabbe and Coleridge "the first of these times in point of power and genius." Byron had felt that English poetry had been steadily on the decline since the depreciation of Pope, and pointed to Crabbe as the last remaining hope of a degenerate age.[70][71][72]

Other admirers included Jane Austen, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott, who used numerous quotes from Crabbe's poems in his novels. During Scott's final illness, Crabbe was the last writer he asked to have read to him.[73][74] Lord Byron admired Crabbe's poetry, and called him "nature's sternest painter, yet the best".[75] According to critic Frank Whitehead, "Crabbe, in his verse tales in particular, is an important—indeed, a major—poet whose work has been and still is seriously undervalued."[76] His early poems, which were non-narrative essays in poetical form, gained him the approval of literary men like Samuel Johnson, followed by a period of 20 years in which he wrote much, destroying most of it, and published nothing. In 1807, he published his volume Poems which started off the new realistic narrative method that characterized his poetry for the rest of his career. Whitehead states that this narrative poetry, which occupies the bulk of Crabbe's output, should be at the center of modern critical attention.[77]

Q. D. Leavis said of Crabbe: "He is (or ought to be—for who reads him?) a living classic." His classic status was also supported by T. S. Eliot in an essay on the poetry of Samuel Johnson in which Eliot grouped Crabbe together favorably with Johnson, Pope, and several other poets.[78] Eliot said that "to have the virtues of good prose is the first and minimum requirement of good poetry." Critic Arthur Pollard believes that Crabbe definitely met this qualification. Critic William Caldwell Roscoe, answering William Hazlitt's question of why Crabbe hadn't in fact written prose rather than verse said "have you ever read Crabbe's prose? Look at his letters, especially the later ones, look at the correct but lifeless expression of his dedications and prefaces — then look at his verse, and you will see how much he has exceeded 'the minimum requirement of good poetry'." Critic F. L. Lucas summed up Crabbe's qualities: "naïve, yet shrewd; straightforward, yet sardonic; blunt, yet tender; quiet, yet passionate; realistic, yet romantic." Crabbe, who is seen as a complicated poet, has been and often still is dismissed as too narrow in his interests and in his way of responding to them in his poetry. "At the same time as the critic is making such judgments, he is all too often aware that Crabbe, nonetheless, defies classification," says Pollard.[79]

Pollard has attempted to examine the negative views of Crabbe and the reasons for limited readership since his lifetime: "Why did Crabbe's 'realism' and his discovery of what in effect was the short story in verse fail to appeal to the fiction-dominated Victorian age? Or is it that somehow psychological analysis and poetry are uneasy bedfellows? But then why did Browning succeed and Crabbe descend to the doldrums or to the coteries of admiring enthusiasts? And why have we in this century (the 20th century) failed to get much nearer to him? Does this mean that each succeeding generation must struggle to find his characteristic and essential worth? FitzGerald was only one of many among those who would make 'cullings from' or 'readings in' Crabbe. The implications of such selection are clearly that, though much has vanished, much deserves to remain."[80]

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