Wednesday, September 30, 2009

George Crabbe--"The Village" (1783)

George Crabbe, who lived 1754-1832, is sometimes considered to be the last of the true 18th-century, pre-romantic poets. The idea of being the last of a kind has always appealed to me, perhaps because I always seem to be undertaking projects just before cataclysmic changes in the way the things I am doing need to be approached take place, which of course I never see coming, because I was usually already quite a few decades behind current trends even before the really big shift occurs. "The Village" is famous for being a rare unsentimental account of the hardships and inconveniences of the frequently romanticized traditional rural life, which itself was soon to be thrown into upheaval by the continual progression and pressures of the Industrial Revolution. Part I appears in many anthologies, very frequently as the last poem in the book if it is an 18th-century compendium, the literary 18th-century being generally considered to have ended either with Johnson's death in 1784 or perhaps the publication of Boswell's Life in 1791.I thought the poem was an interesting specimen of the national history. It apparently 'led me to ponder the nature of truth', my reasoning being that in taking a poetic form one's ideas always thus deviate from strict truth right off the bat. Yet I also thought there were very few, if any obliquities in the poem, that the idea being set forth was done in a straightforward manner; I evidently had some doubts about its veracity, or at any rate its greater, ultimate veracity.

"What form the real picture of the poor/Demand a song--the Muse can give no more" (Book I ll. 5-6) lays out the unconventional attitude the poem is going to take in a completely conventional-seeming style, which is a technique I admire in all the arts. From there we get an ironic catalogue of the errors the other poets have fallen into, such as "No shepherds now, in smooth alternate verse/Their country's beauty or their nymphs rehearse" (ll. 9-10), "From Truth and Nature shall we widely stray/Where Virgil, not where Fancy, leads the way" (19-20), and "Can poets soothe you, when you pine for bread/By winding myrtles round your ruined shed?" (59-60). After asking where the usual country heroes of pastoral poetry are to be found in the present day, he offers a reality check almost straight out of a rap song (101-108):

"Where now are these?-Beneath yon cliff they stand,
To show the freighted pinnance where to land;
To load the ready steed with guilty haste;
To fly in terror o'er the pathless waste;
Or, when detected in their straggling course,
To foil their foes by cunning or by force;
Or, yielding part (which equal knaves demand),
To gain a lawless passport through the land."

This passage is supposed to refer to smuggling, Crabbe having been born in Aldeburgh in Suffolk, which is located on the sea. The house where he was born was washed away by the sea a long time ago ("Who still remain to hear the ocean roar/Whose greedy waves devour the lessenign shore" [125-6], which prompted my wife to ask if we should have to be photographed out in the water if we ever make a pilgrimage there. As I am generally afraid of water, I said no, the shore will make a nice enough occasion for commemorating old Crabbe.

ll. 172-3: "Ye gentle souls, whom dream of rural ease/Whom the smooth stream and smoother sonnet please..." I think I am being paged here.

ll. 238-9: I like the description of the local populace: "The lame, the blind, and, far the happiest they!/The moping idiot and the madman gay."

306-13: A pleasant existence for the parson anyway, which profession I am pretty sure Crabbe, who published nothing between age 31 and 53, undertook himself:

"A jovial youth, who thinks his Sunday's task
As much as God or man can fairly ask;
The rest he gives to loves and labors light,
To fields the morning, and to feasts the night;
None better skilled the noisy pack to guide,
To urge their chase, to cheer them or to chide;
A sportsman keen, he shoots through half the day,
And, skilled at whist, devotes the night to play."

The much shorter and far inferior Book II is usually excluded from the anthologies. I read it because I like to be thorough, but it really doesn't add anything to the first part that I can see.

Ezra Pound, whose criticism I confess to find interesting, seems to have liked Crabbe a little, and wrote a four-page article about him. This is noteworthy because Pound doesn't like much, and is especially brutal towards the English. Indeed, most of the essay is devoted to bashing people like Tennyson and Wordsworth and the part of the reading public that admires them as intellects. Here of some of his observations on Crabbe, writing in 1917:

"'Since the death of Laurence Sterne or thereabouts (ca. 1768), there has been neither in England or America any sufficient sense of the value of realism in literature, of the value of writing words that conform precisely with fact'...I had forgotten, when I wrote this, the Rev. Crabbe, L.L.B."

"Think of the slobber Wordsworth would have made over the illegitimate infant whom Crabbe dismisses with: 'There smiles your bride, there sprawls your new-born son.'"

"The worst that should be said of him is that he still clings to a few of Pope's tricks, and that he is not utterly free of the habit of moralizing."

"Crabbe is never absolute slush, nonesense or bombast. That admission should satisfy the multitudinous reader, but it will not."

"If the nineteenth century had built itself on Crabbe? Ah, if! But no; they wanted confections."

"Crabbe has no variety of metric, but he shows no inconsiderable skill in the use of his one habitual metre, to save the same from monotony."

"He does not bore you, he does not disgust you, he does not bring on that feeling of nausea which we have when we realize that we are listening to an idiot who occasionally makes beautiful (or ornamental) verses."

"Browning at his best went on with Crabbe's method."

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