“After more than usual ceremony, or more abundant conviviality, I have heard him speak of the relief and pleasure of wandering through the deep glades and secluded paths of the woods, catching beetles, moths, and butterflies, and collecting mosses, lichens, or other botanical specimens; for this employment carried his imagination to those walks in which he had wandered so frequently…”
Crabbe’s imagination straddled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Augustan and Romantic. How many poets were prized and praised by both Dr. Johnson and Lord Byron? (Not to mention Burke, Scott, Wordsworth and T.S. Eliot. Jane Austen claimed he was her favorite poet.) Donald Justice, while a student at Stanford University in the late nineteen-forties, remembered his first class with Yvor Winters, who read a passage from one of Crabbe’s poems – nature description, heroic couplets -- and instructed his students to write a poem in Crabbe’s manner. Justice completed the assignment effortlessly and wrote “Et Cetera” beneath the poem, implying that Crabbe’s style was formulaic and simple to imitate. Winters, reportedly, was not amused. [Story recounted in For Us, What Music?: The Life and Poetry of Donald Justice, by Jerry Harp]
No one reads Crabbe today. Or Cowper or Collins (William, that is, not Billy). The loss is ours. If it helps, think of him as Sherwood Anderson in verse – frequent conventional phrasing, drabness of sentiment, little formal invention. Then he sketches a life in miniature, a moment two centuries old, as when the “youth of slender frame,” like the “Before” picture in the old Charles Atlas ads, wants to join the bruisers in the fields, as in The Village: a Poem (1783):
“His cheerless spouse the coming danger sees,
And mutual murmurs urge the slow disease.”
A man with the eye to capture and identify seventy species of beetles can see the vanities and small sins of men. Crabbe was born on this date, December 24, in 1754, and died Feb. 3, 1832.