The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VII. George Crabbe

§ 1. Early Life

GEORGE CRABBE was born at Aldeburgh, on the coast of Suffolk, on 24 December, 1754. His father, a collector of salt-duties at the harbour, was a man of both high tastes and low. Rather disreputable in his later years, he had, as a young man, kept school, and used to read Milton, Young and other poets aloud to his family. Destined for the profession of medicine, George was apprenticed to a medical practitioner in Wickhambrook, near Bury St. Edmunds, from whose surgery, three years later, he passed into that of a doctor at Woodbridge. Here he remained from 1771 to 1775, and became acquainted with Sarah Elmy, who, though ten years were to pass before they were married, exercised from the first a softening and brightening influence on the rather grim nature of the unformed youth. Just about the time of their meeting, Crabbe made his first known appearance in print as a poet. In “the poets’ corner” of a ladies’ magazine in 1772 appeared several pieces of verse, some signed “G. Ebbare” and one “G. Ebbaac,” which are held to be by Crabbe. One of these, consisting of two very pretty stanzas, called The Wish, celebrates the poet’s “Mira,” which was the poetical name given by Crabbe to Sarah Elmy.

In 1775, just before the close of his apprenticeship at Woodbridge, Crabbe put his powers to a severe test, by publishing with an Ipswich bookseller a poem, in three parts, entitled Inebriety. From the description of the cottage library in part I of The Parish Register and other references in Crabbe’s works, we know that, in boyhood, his favourite reading had been romantic; but, by the time he wrote Inebriety, he must have made a close study of the poetic dictator of the day, Pope. Much of Inebriety is composed of frank imitation, or parody, of An Essay on Man and The Dunciad; while, here and there, Crabbe proves his knowledge of Gray. Echoes of these poets, being mingled with language drawn by the doctor’s apprentice from his art, and presented in rimed heroic verse, at once laboured and slipshod, leave Inebriety one of the rawest poems ever written. Yet, if there is plenty of affectation about the youthful satirist, it is not sentimental affectation. Crabbe shows signs already of that revolt against idealisation which was to inspire his mature work. To him, inebriety is an evil, and he describes with vigour and point its evil effects in all classes of life.

His apprenticeship over, Crabbe returned home to Aldeburgh, without any prospects and with very little knowledge of the science of healing. Owing to his mother’s illness and his father’s intemperance and violent nature, his home was unhappy. During these years, the iron must have entered into his soul. He tried to practise his profession at Aldeburgh, and was appointed parish doctor. Meanwhile, however, he was studying nature, and especially botany, with results which, if of no service to him as doctor, were to be of great value to his poetry. He continued to read much and to think much, and he found his mind turning definitely to faith and piety. Sarah Elmy was his consolation and hope (many years later, in one of the Tales called The Lover’s Journey, he wrote a famous description of a visit to her); and he went on writing poetry, a little of which has survived. To the years 1775–9 belong several religious poems, an impressive little piece on Mira, which tells how she drew the author from the relief of “false pleasures” to “loftier notions,” and a blank verse work entitled Midnight, which, if very gloomy, ends on a note of sane and sturdy courage.

At length, he could not endure life at Aldeburgh any longer. Towards the end of 1779, he made up his mind to stake his all on literary work in London and, in April, 1780, with assistance from Dudley North, a relative of the prime minister, he set sail from Slaughden quay. In London, he took a lodging close to the Royal Exchange, near some friends of Miss Elmy who lived in Cornhill, and set to work revising a couple of plays and some prose essays which he had brought with him, studying botany and entomology in the country round London, and keeping a journal addressed to Mira. The year was to him one of privation and disappointment. Among the poems that, without success, he attempted to publish were an epistle, in his favourite couplets, to prince William (afterwards William IV), a satirical Epistle from the Devil (apparently a revised version of an earlier poem, The Foes of Mankind) and an Epistle to Mira, in both of which he uses anapaests. No publisher would accept these poems, in spite of a biting introduction by their author, under the pseudonym “Martinus Scriblerus.” Lords North, Shelburne and Thurlow, one after another, turned a deaf ear to the author, though his compliment in verse to Shelburne deserved some reward. And when, probably in August, 1780, he found a printer willing to print two hundred and fifty copies of another poem, it did not bring him in anything but one or two slighting reviews. Crabbe, who, in several works of this period, describes his own feelings and condition, hereupon addressed to “the Authors of the Monthly Review” a letter in verse, in which he practically asks them to advise him whether he should persevere in poetry or not, bestowing on himself, by the way, some satirical advice on the methods that lead to success. There is nothing remarkable about the poem except the amazing simplicity of the idea.