Tuesday, August 23, 2016

`The Wrong Kind of Rebel'

“Whoever makes an exact image of any thing on the earth, however deformed or insignificant, according to him, must succeed — and he himself has succeeded.”

This is intended by its author, William Hazlitt, to be a damning criticism of its subject, George Crabbe. Hazlitt is misguided and wrong but entertainingly so. Crabbe’s devotion to the ordinary, to the humdrum and non-exalted, is offensive to Hazlitt’s sense of the poet’s role. What some of us find endearing about much of Crabbe’s work -- his attention to the details of village life, the prosiness of his enthusiasms – is precisely   what bothers Hazlitt most in “Mr. Campbell and Mr. Crabbe” (The Spirit of the Age: or Contemporary Portraits, 1825). Consider the opening lines of Book I of Crabbe’s The Village (1783):

“The village life, and every care that reigns
O’er youthful peasants and declining swains;
What labour yields, and what, that labour past,
Age, in its hour of languor, finds at last;
What forms the real picture of the poor,
Demands a song—the Muse can give no more.”

Hazlitt, despite his political affectations, was in no position to give “the real picture of the poor.” Crabbe’s thought is rooted in Christian charity, a virtue Hazlitt may have known from his reading but seldom demonstrated in life. In his critical loves and hates, as in his relations with women, Hazlitt is never less than passionate. No cool assessments for him, no nods to evenhandedness. My favorite line: “. . . the adept in Dutch interiors, hovels, and pig-styes must find in Mr. Crabbe a man after his own heart.” Further on Hazlitt says this of the poet:

“Mr. Crabbe's great fault is certainly that he is a sickly, a querulous, a uniformly dissatisfied poet. He sings the country; and he sings it in a pitiful tone. He chooses this subject only to take the charm out of it, and to dispel the illusion, the glory, and the dream, which had hovered over it in golden verse from Theocritus to Cowper.”

Again, Hazlitt’s vitriol makes for great reading. He is among the prose masters in English, from whom every writer can learn something, but we’re prudent to remember his limitations. One of the reasons critics like to write damning reviews is the opportunity it gives them to be funny and colorful. Praise tends to be dull and is difficult to write convincingly. Here’s an earlier assessment of Crabbe by Hazlitt, from Lectures on the English Poets (1818):    

“He takes an inventory of the human heart in exactly the same manner as of the furniture of a sick room: his sentiments have very much of the air of fixtures; he gives you the petrification of a sigh, and carves a tear, to the life, in stone. Almost all his characters are tired of their lives, and you heartily wish them dead. They remind one of anatomical preservations, or may be said to bear the same relation to actual life that a stuffed cat in a glass-case does to the real one purring on the hearth: the skin is the same, but the life and the sense of heat is gone.”

Has anyone else thought to compare a poet to a taxidermist? In George Crabbe: An English Life 1754-1832 (Pimlico, 2004), Neil Powell defends his poet against Hazlitt’s charges, while admitting that “long before his death, Crabbe had become not merely unfashionable but inimical to the spirit of his age [a nice slap at Hazlitt].” Then he makes a larger point:

“. . . there was nothing wrong with his antennae when it came to the world in which he actually lived. In any case, the idea that a poet must be `alive to the age’ [a repellent idea] is a highly questionable one: mightn’t it be arguable that the most interesting writers are likely to go against the grain of their times, to be awkward individuals rather than subscribers to cultural fashion. Crabbe’s reputation has perversely suffered from the fact that he was the wrong kind of rebel.”

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