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

VII. George Crabbe

§ 3. The Village

Crabbe went to Belvoir in or about August, 1782. In May, 1783, the publication of The Village revealed his peculiar qualities as a poet. The poem had been completed and revised under Burke’s guidance, and submitted by Reynolds to Johnson, who declared it “original, vigorous, and elegant,” and made an alteration which cannot be wholly approved. The originality of the poem won it immediate success. Such a work may, almost, be said to have been needed. The taste for pastorals, running down from Elizabethan imitations of Theocritus and Mantuan to Ambrose Philips, Allan Ramsay and Thomson, had worn itself out. Gay’s Shepherd’s Week, with its parody of Philips, had helped to kill it; and Crabbe, certainly, owed something to the form and tone of Gay’s poem. Yet, the impulse had continued in another form. Goldsmith, in The Deserted Village, and Gray, in An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, though completely free from pastoral affectation, had, at any rate in Crabbe’s opinion, idealised the life and character of the villager. Crabbe, who, perhaps from early youth, had contrasted his knowledge of life round Aldeburgh with the “smooth alternate verse” read aloud to him by his father, where

  • fond Corydons complain,
  • And shepherds’ boys their amorous pains reveal,
  • The only pains, alas! they never feel,
  • conceived the idea of telling the truth about country folk as he saw it. For this task, he was peculiarly well equipped. He knew the life of the country poor by personal experience; and his studies in botany and other branches of natural science—possibly, even the mental shortsight which, all his life, kept his vision very close to its object—enabled him to substitute for the graceful vagueness of pastoral poets a background drawn with minute exactness. In seven consecutive lines of The Village, thistles, poppies, bugloss, mallow and charlock are mentioned by name, each in a manner which proves it to have been closely observed; and it is said that Aldeburgh, Great Parham and the country around Belvoir are all recognisable in the several descriptions of scenery. As with his background, so with his persons. The desire to tell the truth as he saw it was the intellectual passion which governed Crabbe in all his mature poetry. The side of truth which he saw was, however, nearly always the gloomy side. “Nature’s sternest painter, yet her best” Byron said of him, in a well-known line, of which the first part probably remains true, while the second seems to overlook the fact that even village life has a bright side. This may be found in The Cotter’s Saturday Night. An unhappy youth spent in a rough home may have tinged Crabbe’s mind; but his sturdy dislike of sentimentalism was an enduring characteristic. So he becomes linked with the “realists” of later times. Man is not to be served by iridescent visions of what he is not, but by pity awakened by the knowledge of what he is.

    In spite of this revolt against sentimentalism, The Village, like Crabbe’s later poems, shows substantial fairness. Its picture is not all gloom. If we contrast his clergyman with the parson of The Deserted Village, the poem is entirely free from the note, to be described, perhaps, as petulant, which occurs more than once in Cowper’s satires, which had been published, with not much immediate success, a few months before The Village.

    The workmanship of The Village reaches a point which Crabbe never passed. The poem had the advantage, as we have seen, of revision by Burke and Johnson, and the heroic couplets, which were always Crabbe’s favourite metre, lack the fluency of The Library, and the rugged carelessness of his later poetry. They are sufficiently polished, without losing any of his peculiar sharpness; and his love of epigram and of antithesis, that amounts almost to punning, is kept in check. The “originality and vigour,” if not the “elegance,” of the poem, were immediately recognised. Burke put extracts from it into The Annual Register for 1783, where Scott read the description of the workhouse so earnestly that he could repeat it more than ten years later. As Horace Walpole wrote to Mason, Crabbe “writes lines that one can remember.”