Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 5. The Parish Register

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

VII. George Crabbe

§ 5. The Parish Register

At length, in October, 1807, at the age of nearly fifty-three, he published another volume, which contained, besides reprints of The Library, The Village and The Newspaper, some new poems. Of these, the longest and most important, The Parish Register, develops the theme of The Village and first brings Crabbe into prominence as a teller of stories. A country clergyman (such is the scheme of the poem) is looking through his registers, and utters the reflections and memories stirred in him, in turn, by the entries of births, marriages and deaths. Crabbe’s desire to be just is evident from his inclusion of certain happy scenes (suggested, probably, rather by his own parishes than by his recollections of Aldeburgh) and of fortunate people; but the bent of his mind is equally evident in his manner of turning away from the description of the charming cottage, with its pictures, its books and its garden,

  • To this infected row we term our street.
  • The Parish Register contains some of the best and the bestknown passages in Crabbe’s poems, notably the story of Phoebe Dawson, which touched the heart of Fox during his lingering death in the autumn before its publication. Meeting Crabbe at Dudley North’s house, Fox urged him to publish more poetry, and offered to read and revise his manuscript. The Parish Register, then, had the benefit of Fox’s advice, as The Village had enjoyed that of Burke and Johnson; and Crabbe, as he tells us in his preface to the volume, had followed it scrupulously—doubtless to the advantage of the couplets. In subject and treatment, the poem was sufficiently novel to create some stir. It has been pointed out that the impulse given to English fiction by the Roger de Coverly papers in The Spectator was exhausted. With the exception of Miss Edgeworth, there was not any novelist then telling stories that approached the truth about humble and ordinary folk; and, in The Parish Register, Crabbe revived an impulse that passed on, in course of time, to George Eliot and, after her, to living writers.

    As in all his poetry, the moral purpose is made very clear. Most of the unhappiness related is ascribed to the ungoverned passions or the weaknesses of the characters, to the lack of that prudence, moderation and self-control which he consistently advocated, in matters temporal and spiritual. He desires to warn all who might find themselves in like circumstances, and, at the same time, to rouse pity in the minds of his readers for sinning and suffering humanity. The first requisite for a poet with these aims is a sympathetic understanding; and Crabbe, later, was to show, even more clearly than he shows in The Parish Register, his mastery of what novelists know as psychology.