Saturday, August 20, 2016

`The Once-Loved Works Remain'

Turner Cassity’s aside in Friday’s post sent me back to George Crabbe (1754-1832). It’s revealing that Crabbe’s name first triggers memories of E.A. Robinson’s “George Crabbe” (“Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows”) rather than any work by Crabbe himself. I never read him in school and no one has ever suggested I read him. His reputation, at best, is ghostly, and yet his lines are often better than most poems cranked out today by workshops and “open mic nights.” Here is a sample from his apprentice poem “The Library” (1781):  

“Lo, all in silence, all in order stand,
And mighty folios first, a lordly band;
Then quartos their well-order’d ranks maintain,
And light octavos fill a spacious plain:
See yonder, ranged in more frequented rows,
A humbler band of duodecimos;
While undistinguish’d trifles swell the scene,
The last new play and fritter’d magazine.”

More than two centuries later, Crabbe’s lament on the vanity of bookish wishes remains pertinent. Printed volumes are on a suicide watch in many libraries. Even in Crabbe’s day, the complaint was familiar. Thirty years earlier, in The Rambler #106, Dr. Johnson wrote: “No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue . . .” There was a time when library books were chained in place to discourage theft. Security measures are a waste of time, Crabbe says:

“Ah! needless now this weight of massy chain;
Safe in themselves, the once-loved works remain;
No readers now invade their still retreat,
None try to steal them from their parent-seat;
Like ancient beauties, they may now discard
Chains, bolts, and locks, and lie without a guard.”

Almost invariably, Crabbe writes in heroic couplets, the poetic lingua franca of his day. His lines are as sturdy as first-rate prose. He seldom pads. His tones are nuanced between satirical and melancholy. He captures details of his day, and gives them a twist. This is from “The Newspaper” (1785):  

“I sing of News, and all these vapid sheets
The rattling hawker vends through gaping streets;
Whate’er their name, whate’er the time they fly,
Damp from the press to charm the reader’s eye;
For, soon as morning dawns with roseate hue,
The Herald of the morn arises too;
Post after Post succeeds, and, all day long,
Gazettes and Ledgers swarm, a noisy throng
When evening comes, she comes with all her train
Of Ledgers, Chronicles, and Posts again,
Like bats, appearing, when the sun goes down,
From holes obscure and corners of the town.”

In at least one sense, Crabbe was a pioneer. Years before Coleridge and De Quincey nodded off, Crabbe was an opium user, but with a difference. As Alethea Hayter writes in Opium and the Romantic Imagination (1968): “Crabbe is the most unexpected of opium-addict writers. In his private life he was a respectable, reasonably hard-working country parson, living a regular life with an affectionate family on a sufficient income. . . . Nobody now accepts Hazlitt’s condemnation of Crabbe as a flat unimaginative writer concerned only with drab realistic details; but neither his life nor his poetry suggests at first sight the romantic extravagance usually associated with opium addiction.”

Crabbe had been trained as an apothecary before he became a clergyman. He had a professional understanding of narcotics, and was that rarest of junkies – a regular consumer for forty years who seems to have suffered little from his addiction. We know of his drug use only because his son mentions it in passing in the biography of his father he published after the poet’s death. Crabbe never wrote about, let romanticized, his drug use. I think of Crabbe as a “regular guy” among poets, betraying some kinship with the coming Romantics, but more level-headed and even sober-minded, despite his dependence on dope. And he could be funny. In an 1822 letter to the sculptor Francis Leggatt Chantrey, who the year before had sketched a portrait of the poet, Crabbe examines his own oxymoronic name: 

“I cannot account for the vanity of one of my ancestors who first (being dissatisfied with the four letters which composed the name of `Crab,’ the sour fruit, or `Crab,’ the crusty fish) added his be by way of disguise. Alas! he gained nothing worth his trouble; but he has brought upon me, his descendent after I know not how many generations, a question beyond my abilities to answer.”

1 comment:

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

While undistinguish’d trifles swell the scene,
The last new play and fritter’d magazine.”

Crabbe could have been speaking of the world of Internet blogs. Your blog is one of the very few I have found which deals with poetry, and not just the latest vogue from the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

Do you know Peter Grimes from "The Borough"? Britten wrote a magnificent opera based on it.