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UNIDEAL POETRY: CRABBE.*
[January 1859.] The criticism of contemporary art cannot possibly be mature. No reader can avoid being influenced by the point of view from which he contemplates the subject of his observation. And as all art worthy of the name is, to some extent at least, permanent, it will always have a side addressed to ideas other than the prevailing ones of the time when it first appears; and where the poet is of a wider-reaching imagination and insight than his critic, as every great poet almost always will be, this side will probably, for some time at least, be beyond the power of the latter to estimate, perhaps beyond his scope to perceive at all. Every new generation possesses new facilities for the estimation of a true poet. It can ascertain the judgment passed by those who have gone before; and it can bring its own new knowledge and the fresh conditions of its own position to test the permanent truthfulness, wisdom, and beauty of the poems delivered to the ears of generations gone by. The true Temple of Fame is long in building ; every age reviews its proportions, adds a new stone, or tears down an unmerited decoration. Sometimes a hasty Tower of Babel soars into the skies in a brief ecstasy of popular applause, to be scattered for ever in scorn by the next comers; sometimes the moss gathers over a few well-laid stones, destined after long years to be reverentially cleared and made the foundation of a monument lasting as the hea
* Life and Poems of the Rev. George Crabbe. New edition. London: John Murray, 1853.
vens. The criticism of the literature of the day is, no doubt, the more immediate interest of the day; but, even for the purposes of such criticism, it is well to secure those elements of comparison which are to be obtained by the occasional discussion of the productions of other writers than those who now first appear upon the stage. We shall treat these latter more broadly and more justly if we preserve our familiarity with those who have preceded them; and, independently of this, it can never be without interest to record how a great poet appears to each new generation of readers.
Both the biography and the works of Crabbe are less widely read than they deserve to be. The poet in his lifetime enjoyed a wide popularity, which narrowed somewhat suddenly after his decease. His writings, on their first appearance, had an extensive body of readers, and gained the suffrages of the best qualified judges of his day. Burke first distinguished his rising genius. Fox and Johnson read him with pleasure, and condescended to correct him ; for a condescension it was esteemed on both sides, though corrections made under the influence of an external authority of this kind rarely fail to operate as deteriorations. Canning and Dudley North were warm in their admiration; and Wilson and Jeffrey and Gifford agreed to applaud him. Sir Walter Scott, with his openhearted enthusiasm, extolled him as a poet and welcomed him as a friend. Both The Borough and The Village, inferior as they are to The Tales, found readers throughout the breadth of the land ; and Mr. Murray paid him 30001. for The Tales of the Hall and the copyright of the poems already published. But though that work too was well received, the interest in Crabbe's poetry receded so rapidly that the bargain proved more liberal than prudent on the part of the publisher. Most poets experience an ebb of reputation after it has risen to its first height; and, indeed, their fame generally partakes of a periodical rise and fall, during which some are borne higher on every succeeding wave, and others gradually stranded.
It is low tide with Crabbe just at present: the times of late have not been favourable to the appreciation of writers of his school. He may be considered as the last great poet who made man and the lives of men the direct subject of his verse. Modern poetry has occupied itself not with men, but with the ideas, the passions, and the sentiments of men; not with their lives, and not with their characters, but with detached incidents of lives and special traits or sides of character. The concrete man and the actual life have been subordinated to, or displayed only to throw a more vivid light on, the elucidation of feelings and ideas; and often these have been simply the feelings and ideas of the poet himself. The colloquists of The Excursion are not very ingeniously contrived mouthpieces for the contemplative imagination and meditative genius of the author. Byron wrote to vent his own passions—his anger, his wit, his chagrin, his love of beauty; Burns is either lyrical or satirical ; and Shelley, singing like his own skylark
“ Till all the earth and air
With his voice is loud," soars like it too into a region of thin air, native to himself, but removed far away from the working-day aspects and actual arrangements of human affairs. Tennyson, with far more power than any of these of entering into other minds and sympathising with varied feeling, is perhaps still less capable of dealing with complete character. He has painted not men, but present moods, and what may be called attitudes of mind, in men. In the softness of his outlines and the richness of his colouring he is most unlike the daguerreotypist; but he is like the manipulator in his main difference from a great painter. He gives a likeness from a fixed point of view; and, though a complete likeness, yet one of only a single aspect of his subject : while a man like Rembrandt or Sir Joshua Reynolds, poring long upon a face, possesses the magic power of indicating something of the whole character in his one likeness of the countenance. Literary art for some years past, both in verse and prose fiction, has narrowed itself more and more exclusively to the exposition of the feelings and the description of nature. The thought itself which mingles in it is employed in reflecting on the influences of scenery and scrutinising the working of the heart; and character has come to mean less what a man will think and do and appear under given circumstances than what he will feel.
It may be questioned, however, whether a reaction be not at hand. At any rate, we think the world of readers is ripe for it, if any writer shall be found powerful enough to raise the standard of revolt. War has shaken up the energies of the nation ; and we should not be surprised if it and some other influences should be found potent to disperse the too exclusive devotion to the affections which has long distinguished English art. Should our poetry turn to contemplate the more practical and every-day aspects of human life, — should it turn, we mean, from the passions and sentiments on which life revolves to the activities in which it is spent; should it take to scanning moralities rather than feelings, and doings rather than contemplations,—it is probable that Crabbe will gain some meed of real attention more valuable than the uninformed acquiescence in eulogy which is pretty universally conceded to him.
He was born in the year 1754, at Aldborough on the coast of Suffolk. The scene of his birth and early life left an indelible impression on his mind and genius. It was in those days a rude village on the eastern coast, and combined much that is most repulsive in aspect and scenery with that particular picturesqueness, and to some minds even charm, which is often to be found in such situations. The coast for. miles is a long line of rounded
flint shingle, edged at low tide with a narrow belt of sand; on it the waves of the German Ocean, which has an air of grimness and inhospitality beyond most other seas, beat with an irresistible force, and make yearly conquests from the land. Sometimes on the wild winter nights the pilots and fishermen throng the beach, the anxious women clustering round them, and, powerless to carry aid across the curled and grating surges, witness with gloomy eyes the hopeless driving of some dimlydiscerned vessel, whose gleaming lights express the terrors of the hapless wretches on board; and sometimes the danger comes nearer home, and the raging billows, rushing beyond their limits, sweep away whole rows of cottages and plant the sea among their ruins. In a small and gloomy house with overhanging upper story, which has since thus perished, the poet was born.
The Ald, a navigable stream, passes by the little town, but does not there debouch into the sea. Turning southward, it runs parallel to the shore for several miles. The strip that for this distance separates it from the sea is waste and marshy, and the aspect of the whole rural district around is bare and poverty-stricken. It has been described by the poet himself, in lines to whose force and minuteness nothing can be added : “Lo! where the heath, with withering brake grown o'er,
Lends the light turf that warms the neighbouring poor;