Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Controversial Crabbe: A "Namby-Pamby Mandeville"

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Controversial Crabbe: A "Namby-Pamby Mandeville"

Article excerpt

READERS TODAY HAVE ALL BUT FORGOTTEN THAT THE POETRY OF GEORGE Crabbe was once central in the most important debates shaping British literature. At the end of the twentieth century, critics referred to Crabbe as "the last Augustan," a poet who "[wavered] between Augustan explicitness and nineteenth-century complexity," (1) an "anachronism," (2) "an unpoetical poet," (3) and "a somewhat neglected figure," (4) but these designations overlook the urgent response characteristic of Crabbe's contemporaries. (5) One review of Tales (1812), for example, opens with the bracing claim that "the names of Voltaire and Crebillon never divided the critics of Paris into contrary parties more effectually than this world of ours is now set at variance by the disputed merits of Mr. Crabbe." (6) In 1819, another reviewer claims, "We know no poet more generally read, or made more frequently the topic of interesting and animated conversation. But when we listen to the remarks ... and when we look into the pages of our brother critics ... [we] find so many persons literally writhing under the horrors of the song, and gasping after terms to express their shocked and severely pained feelings." (7)

Like the more famous project of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Crabbe's elicited his own "eddy of criticism" which underscores the pervasive tensions and unresolved confusions accompanying changes in taste and criticism in the early nineteenth century. (8) When a review in 1810 names Crabbe "the poet of reality," it is not immediately clear whether that is a term of approbation or censure. The reviewer claims, "The peculiarity of [Crabbe] is, that he wishes to discard everything like illusion from poetry. He is the poet of reality, and of reality in low life." (9) Crabbe's poems, according to the review, are missing the transporting force of "illusion," and the review considers "discarding illusion" detrimental to poetry, defending "illusion" and "imagination" in poetry on the basis that "it is precisely to escape from the world as it is, that we fly to poetry." (10) Other reviewers, on the contrary, found Crabbe's poetry praiseworthy because it refuses to "escape from the world." One of the most famous instances of such praise is Lord Byron's commemoration of Crabbe as "Nature's sternest painter, yet the best." (11) By the early nineteenth century, Crabbe's reception was polarized by debates hinging upon the positive or negative associations of "reality" in literary art.

But Crabbe himself was not always so controversial among critics; rather it was his poems that were viewed as pleasantly strident. The Village (1783) initiated Crabbe's first claim to literary fame, admired by Burke, edited by Johnson, and largely praised for depicting what it calls the "real pain" of rural life and working conditions. In its most widely-known passages, the poem asserts that describing "reality" poses special problems for the poetic tradition's language and tropic reservoir, and it offers as solution its jarring, localized observations and long passages of gruesome, unpleasant details. In The Village, irresolution and a discomfiting mode of signifying become the poet's best options for getting social "reality" into his poem. Many eighteenth-century critics recognized and appreciated Crabbe's project as a new contribution to the poetic tradition. Much like the work of William Cowper, Crabbe's was perceived as an artistic intervention in debates that had been stirred by Enlightenment interest in the Sciences of Man and continued to be relevant to discussions of social changes underway immediately after the American and French Revolutions. It was at the outset of his second literary career in 1807 (the precise circumstances of which I will say more about below) that critics began to take a noticeably different point of view about Crabbe's project. The scandalous implications of poetic content founded on social "reality" and poetic form that refused the overarching order of tidy narratives and moralistic conclusions made Crabbe an especially controversial poet. …

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