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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

For Crabbe is not a mere realist


Crabbe's

position, independently of the strange gap in his publication (which has been variously accounted for), is not a little singular. The greater and the better part of his work was composed when the Romantic revival was in full swing, but it shows little or no trace of the influence of that revival in versification or diction. His earliest attempts do indeed show the same reaction from Pope to Dryden (of whom we know that he was an eager student) which is visible in Cowper and Churchill; and throughout his work, both earlier and later, there is a ruthless discarding of conventional imagery and a stern attention to the realities of scenery and character. But Crabbe has none of the Grace of the new dispensation, if he has some glimpses of its Law. He sails so close to the wind of poetry that he is sometimes merely prosaic and often nearly so. His conception of life is anti-idealist almost to pessimism, and he has no fancy. The "jewels five words long" are not his: indeed there clung to him a certain obscurity of expression which Johnson is said to have good-naturedly smoothed out in his first work to some extent, but from which he never got quite free. The extravagances as well as the graces of the new poetry were quite alien from him; its exotic tastes touched him not; its love for antiquity (though he knew old English poetry by no means ill) seems to have left him wholly cold. The anxieties and sufferings of lower and middle-class life, the "natural death of love" (which, there seems
some reason to fear, he had experienced), the common English country scenery and society of his time--these were his subjects, and he dealt with them in a fashion the mastery of which is to this day a joy to all competent readers. No writer of his time had an influence which so made for truth pure and simple, yet not untouched by the necessary "disprosing" processes of art. For Crabbe is not a mere realist; and whoso considers him as such has not apprehended him. But he was a realist to this extent, that he always went to the model and never to the pattern-drawing on the Academy walls. And that was what his time needed. His general characteristics are extremely uniform: even the external shape and internal subject-matter of his poems are almost confined to the shape and matter of the verse-tale. He need not, and indeed cannot, in a book like this, be dealt with at much length. But he is a very great writer, and a most important figure at this turning-point of English literature.

Yet, however one may sympathise with Cowper, however much one may admire Crabbe, it is difficult for any true lover of poetry not to feel the sense of a "Pisgah sight," and something more, of the promised land of poetry, in passing from these writers to William Blake and Robert Burns. Here there is no more allowance necessary, except in the first case for imperfection of accomplishment, in the second for shortness of life and comparative narrowness of range. The quality and opportuneness of poetry are in each case undeniable. Since the deaths of Herrick and Vaughan, England had not seen any one who had the finer lyrical gifts of the poet as Blake had them. Since the death of Dunbar, Scotland had not seen such strength and intensity of poetic genius (joined in this case to a gift of melody which Dunbar never had) as were shown by Burns. There was scarcely more than a twelvemonth between their births; for Blake was born in 1757 (the day appears not to be known), and Burns in January 1759. But Blake long outlived Burns, and did not die till 1828, while Burns was no more in July 1796. Neither the long life nor the short one provided any events which demand chronicling here. Both poets were rather fortunate in their wives, though Blake clave to Catherine Boucher more constantly than Burns to his Jean. Neither was well provided with this world's goods; Burns wearing out his short life in difficulties as farmer and as excise-man, while all the piety of biographers has left it something of a mystery how Blake got through his long life with no better resources than a few very poorly paid private commissions for his works of design, the sale of his hand-made books of poetry and prophecy, and such occasional employment in engraving as his unconventional style and his still more unconventional habits and temper allowed him to accept or to keep. In some respects the two were different enough according to commonplace standards, less so perhaps according to others. The forty years of Burns, and the more than seventy of Blake, were equally passed in a rapture; but morality has less quarrel with Blake, who was essentially a "God-intoxicated man" and spent his life in one long dream of art and prophecy, than with Burns, who was generally in love, and not unfrequently in liquor. But we need no more either of antithesis or of comparison: the purely literary matter calls us.


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