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Neil Powell, George Crabbe: An English Life, 1754-1832, Pimlico

The poet George Crabbe is one of those transitional figures in English literary history whose oddity to some degree helps define the conventions of a passing era and those of an emerging one. Most of his work is composed in the heroic couplets that join him to an earlier age of English poetry, of Alexander Pope and the Augustan sensibility of order and decorum. Yet, at his best, he writes with authenticity about people of a class well below either the powerful or the well-educated. He also is able, again, just occasionally, to convincingly plumb the depths of human psychology experienced at its extremes. Such a characteristic shows his poetry has a considerable amount in common with Wordsworth and the Romantics, even if he, born within a working family on the Suffolk coast, speaks more genuinely from the inside. And even if, paradoxically, he was generally unable to unlock the forces of ballad and lyric which still make the Romantics so attractive today.

Most will come to George Crabbe through Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. With a libretto by Montague Slater, this scarcely has the words Crabbe wrote to the poem, but it has kept open a door to Crabbe’s poetry which might easily have shut completely. “Peter Grimes” is, to put it luridly but truthfully, the poetic tale of a serial-killing fisherman. It is well worth seeking out. The subject of Grimes, who murders his young apprentices, clearly has operatic appeal (it can be seen in the similar sinister light of Bluebeard’s Castle for instance), but the poetry also has a near-Shakespearian portrait of a man tortured by the goodness of his father and his own inability to control his malevolence. It is the portrait, too, of a community which tacitly colludes in his crimes.

Neil Powell, in the first biography of Crabbe for several decades, is both a sensitive reader of the poetry and an astute interpreter of the various documents that reveal the life behind the poems. Against the grain of his family’s world of coast and sea, Crabbe was an inland chaplain to the rich and a parson to the poor, usually at the same time. Although this did involve occasional sermons, which he recycled year in year out, he was an absentee from several of his various rural parishes for pretty much most of his life – though he could not neglect his wealthy patrons so easily. It was only in his early sixties, when he was forced to move to the quickly industrialising area of Trowbridge in Wiltshire, that he felt under pressure of actually working for his parishioners. By that time, though, he was able to use his two grown-up sons as curates (their positions essentially bought through patronage), and they took most of the strain. Even his qualifications had been a near-swindle, achieved through the “Lambeth Degree”, a formality then of a casually sat two-hour exam and a nod from the Archbishop.

His books can be seen in the light of other surveys of the time often carried out by parsons and ministers. With books such as The Parish Register and The Borough Crabbe was conducting a poetic statistical account of a kind. John Galt would synthesise document and fiction better in his novel Annals of the Parish (1821), but Crabbe emerges from Powell’s biography as a poet of occasional fascination, well worth a good second look.

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