Thursday, January 18, 2007

3 February: Boreham on George Crabbe

The Song of the Soil
George Crabbe, the anniversary of whose death we mark today, has two outstanding claims upon our everlasting gratitude. The first is that, in his own time, he achieved a phenomenal triumph in defiance of the most heartbreaking hindrances and handicaps; and the second is that, if he did not himself attain to the foremost rank among our English singers, he at least blazed a trail along which others—Wordsworth particularly—have made their way to eminence and immortality. At the outset of Crabbe's career, everything militated against aestheticism. In some of his earliest verses he derided the ugliness of his birthplace; and when, later on, the sea swept away the row of cottages that included his childhood's home, he clapped his hands as he saw the hideous structures crumble and collapse.

The son of a customs officer, he aspired to be a doctor, drifted into the ministry and ultimately achieved success as a poet. The surgeon to whom he bound himself apprentice tried to make a doctor of him by allowing him to wash bottles, scrub floors, run errands and perform menial tasks in the garden and on the farm. It was not altogether a success; but, happily, Nature had her eye upon the boy and initiated a programme of her own. She saw to it that he wandered in the woods, learning the lore of birds and of wild flowers; squatted at the feet of old shepherds who poured into his ear weird superstitious tales that had come down from time immemorial; and poked about among the ships at the quay, gathering from the sailors the thrilling narratives of wild adventure—real or imaginary—which had befallen them among pirates and buccaneers at sea and among smugglers and savages ashore. Cardinal Newman used to say that Crabbe's vivid description of his strange boyhood is one of the most affecting documents in the English language.

A Modest Love And An Illustrious Friendship
In spite of everything he became a doctor, and then his troubles began. For, five years before he took his diploma, he had fallen desperately in love with Sarah Elmy, and, since she was four years his senior, he felt that he could not keep her waiting indefinitely. But, his patients being for the most part as poor as church mice, money was pitifully scarce. What was to be done? It happened that his passionate lovemaking had inflamed his genius for versifying. The daring thought flashed upon him that perhaps minstrelsy rather than medicine represented his highway to fame and fortune. He resolved, at the age of 26, to take a tremendous hazard. He would throw up everything and go to London! With a small box of clothes, a case of surgical instruments, a bundle of his sweetly flowing stanzas and three golden sovereigns, he reached the metropolis; and the metropolis welcomed him by swiftly reducing him to the verge of starvation.

In his dire extremity, an audacious impulse proved his salvation. England was ringing with the fame of Edmund Burke. Burke's speeches on American affairs and his pamphlets and current political questions had created an extraordinary sensation throughout the whole country. Crabbe determined, in the hour of his abject wretchedness, to write to Burke. The letter is still in existence. It is a model of beautiful penmanship; its composition is as perfect as its caligraphy; it is marked by modesty, by self-respect, by good sense and by excellent taste. It made an immediate and irresistible appeal to the brilliant and good-natured Irishman. Burke responded in the most generous terms; gave Crabbe expert and valuable advice as to the best way of securing the publication of his poems; introduced him to influential and wealthy friends who were able to render munificent assistance; and—most amazing and most creditable of all—the illustrious statesman even took the poverty-stricken young doctor-poet into his own home. Never, probably, in the age-long history of letter-writing, did any one epistle effect such a startling transformation as did that one. It lifted a worthy suppliant from misery to comfort at a single bound, and it permanently enriched English literature by securing the recognition and coronation of a genuine poet.

Forgetting Past Gloom In Present Glory
From the hour at which, to his eternal honour, Burke lifted the wretched young poet from the gutter, Crabbe never looked back. Acting on Burke's advice, he forsook medicine and entered the ministry. He was appointed private chaplain to the Duke of Rutland and was taken into residence at Belvoir Castle. Later, he was Vicar of Trowbridge in Wilts and Isaac Pitman, of shorthand fame, was one of his Sunday school teachers. Marrying his patient little sweetheart in 1783, he lived for 30 years a life of idyllic domestic felicity. She died in 1813 and when, 20 years later, he followed her, her wedding ring was found in his desk wrapped in a beautiful poetic tribute to her sweetness and charm. From the moment at which Burke introduced him to his public, Crabbe was recognised as a really original genius, a minstrel who could set to music the common life of the common people.

In the days of his renown, Crabbe became the honoured companion of Dr. Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Charles James Fox and Mrs. Siddons, whilst, later on, Byron, Moore, Campbell, Canning and Sir Walter Scott delighted in his society. In his Life of Scott, Lockhart has a particularly beautiful passage telling of the refreshment imparted to the drooping spirits of Sir Walter whenever "that good old man, George Crabbe" visited him. Lockhart loved to watch the pair as, walking affectionately side by side, Crabbe poured into Scott's sympathetic ear the touching story of his early hardships. Among all Sir Walter's friends there were few, if any, whom he held in higher esteem. Crabbe may not merit a place among the great masters; yet, for sincerity, clarity and the realistic portrayal of the stark facts of actual life, he is without a peer, and the world will but reveal its shameful capacity for ingratitude if it ever allows his name to sink into oblivion.

F W Boreham

Image: George Crabbe

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