Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 11. Crabbe’s Couplets

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

VII. George Crabbe

§ 11. Crabbe’s Couplets

Though Crabbe has paid the penalty of neglect, exacted from all poets who are careless of form, he was undoubtedly wise to keep almost exclusively to his couplets. No metre could be better suited to his close sketches of character or to the level development of his tales. When at its worst, his work is very bad, and an easy prey to clever parodists like the authors of Rejected Addresses, who, in a few trenchant lines, brought all its faults into the light. When at its best, it is more than good narrative verse. In certain passages, particularly in passages of description, it rises to an intense and passionate beauty, all the minute details which Crabbe liked to record being caught up into the dramatic mood of the moment in a manner which, it is sometimes supposed, was unknown before Maud. A notable example of this dramatic propriety may be found in The Patron the fifth of the Tales (ll. 426–433), where the presumptuous protégé’s too happy summer in his patron’s country house is at an end, and his doom is approaching. Save for the word “melancholy,” the passage consists of description which might be termed bald. Crabbe does not make any attempt, as a “pastoral” poet would have done, to explain to his readers the mood inspired by the scene; but the intensity of his observation and his choice of the most effective among the details bring the scene itself vividly to the mind’s eye. A parallel passage, which contains also a touch of poetic magic, is that in Delay has Danger, the thirteenth book of Tales of the Hall (ll. 703–724), where the half-hearted betrothed, already wishing himself free, looks out of his window. Such economy, and the resulting intensity, are rather the exception than the rule with Crabbe. Too often, as in the early part of Amusements, the ninth letter of The Borough, he spoils the effect of beautiful passages of sympathetic description, like that of the boat leaving the ship, by dwelling too long on the “species of the medusa (sea-nettle),” or the “marine vermes,” or other such things, that interested the man of science rather than the poet.