Sunday, January 24, 2016

all presented to the Eye or Ear / Oppressed the Soul! - notes on George Crabbe

Edwin Arlington Robinson sent me back to George Crabbe, and not just because one of Robinson’s poems is titled “George Crabbe.”  Crabbe is Robinson’s ancestor, the author of a large body of narrative poetry about small town life, going back at least to “The Village” in 1783, the poem that made his reputation, but more to Robinson’s purpose in The Borough (1810), Tales (1812), and other books.

A selection of Crabbe is easily worth reading; The Borough and Tales are worth reading as a whole.  The latter is complete in the Penguin Selected Poems, the former included in excerpts.  It’s most famous parts are the four stories of “The Poor of the Borough,” especially “Peter Grimes.”  Oh yeah, “Peter Grimes.”

The Parish-clerk mere suffers shame and ostracism after he is caught stealing from the collection plate.  Ellen Orford merely suffers the trials of Job (“A Trial came, I will believe, a last; / I lost my Sight, and my Employment gone,” etc., etc. etc., ll. 329-30).  Abel Keene embraces petty vices.  But Peter Grimes is a bad, bad man.

He is a fisherman who hires orphan boys as assistants, knowing that no one cares how badly he treats them.  He treats them so badly that they die, one after the other.  The town authorities forbid Grimes from taking on a new boy.  Something like guilt, not just about the dead boys but also his treatment of his long dead father,  drives Grimes insane.

Crabbe is not as compressed as Robinson.  He needed 375 lines for all this, not a sonnet.

The three men all find themselves, once their crimes or sins are exposed, wandering around by the sea, on the beach or the tidal flat.  The “Peter Grimes” passage is especially intense:

When Tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
Through the tall-bounding Mud-banks made their way,
Which on each side rose swelling, and below
The dark warm Flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from Man to hide,
There hang his Head, and view the lazy Tide
In its hot slimy Channel slowly glide…   (ll. 181-7)

It continues with eels, crabs, and a variety of birds, nature writing that takes a Gothic turn.  Crabbe was in his fifties when he wrote The Borough, much older than his Romantic contemporaries, and the satire and moralism of much of his poetry, not to mention the rhyming couplets and triplets, mark him as a poet of the 18th century, but these great boggy examples of the Intentional Fallacy are brilliant Romanticism.

He nursed the Feelings these dull Scenes produce,
And loved to stop beside the opening Sluice;
Where the small Stream, confined in narrow bound,
Ran with a dull, unvaried, saddening sound;
Where all presented to the Eye or Ear
Oppressed the Soul! with Misery, Grief, and Fear.  (ll. 199-204)

Those last lines are practically a definition of the Pathetic Fallacy.  As in so much great Romantic poetry, the effects of nature of the emotions are psychologically true.  Romanticism is realism.

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