Графични страници
PDF файл
ePub

something of the same native sweetness, and mother-wit, literature might have been enriched with an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century renewal of the pageant of the Canterbury Pilgrimage. Alas for the difference in the atmosphere ! But blackness of the tragic element does not explain why he has never been genuinely popular. It is not that he is saturnine ; for in reality he is not. A main reason is the pervading, depressing tint of neutral grey. Cursory readers are apt to suspect that, because he is calm, he must be indifferent to the gloom of the drama he is representing. That is, however, an injustice. He is disposed to accept the general unkindliness of human existence as inevitable. Its aspect had been sombre to the povertystricken doctor, and continued to be sombre to the beneficed clergyman. One personal experience of life, when in the making, had been wellnigh fatal. A prophet always unhonoured at home, he must, but for the heart, the insight, of Edmund Burke, have perished in the wilderness of London by his own hand, or of hunger. His theory, deliberate or not, of literary duty itself disinclined him to much intermixture of moralizing with description. His primary obligation he considered, or acted as if he considered, was to report what he saw; and he saw for the most part impurity, dullness, and uncharitableness.

When he came upon generosity, dignity, repentance, self-restraint, mutual kindness among men, as sometimes, he gave them, as in Isaac Ashford, their noble due. He takes any opportunity of giving credit even for belated remorse ; as in the terrible tale, when Isaac Fletcher, his wife's timid, mean tool, after repaying unstinted bounty as Regan and Goneril repaid Lear's, is conscience-stricken to find in the cheerless attic, untended, except by a pitying child :

Oh God! my brother dead !?

So with his scenery. He is a faithful painter of the rare cottage, sheltered but sunny, where, without, the woodbine climbs, and, within,

Around the walls are heroes, lovers, kings,

The print that shews them, and the verse that sings, with, beside the cuckoo-clock, food for the mind; wondertales—Thumb the Great, Hickathrift the Strong, and Jack the Giant Killer—the Bible, bought by sixpence weekly saved, with prints and notes, the Pilgrim's Progress, Hermit Quarll, and the Wandering Jew : and, outside, the plot of garden-ground, rich in roots, and fruits, and pungent herbs, and glorious with blossoms—all the cotter's own '—where

on Sunday-eve, when service ends,
Meet and rejoice a family of friends ;
There still the welcome and the words are old,
And the same stories are for ever told ;
Yet theirs is joy that bursting from the heart,
Prompts the glad tongue these nothings to impart;
That talks or laughs or runs or shouts or plays,

And speaks in all their looks and all their ways. 8
His more habitual acquaintance was with the

infected Row we term our street; with the birthplace of the forsaken girl's nameless babe in the hovel :

Where blinks through paper'd panes the setting sun ;' and with the wide, waste, level fen, and its marsh soured by salt springs :

Beneath an ancient bridge, the straiten'd flood
Rolls through its sloping banks of slimy mud;
Near it a sunken boat resists the tide;
That frets and hurries to th' opposing side;
The rushes sharp, that on the borders grow,
Bend their brown flow'rets to the stream below;
The few dull flowers that o'er the place are spread
Partake the nature of their fenny bed ;

9

10

Here on its wiry stem, in rigid bloom,
Grows the salt lavender that lacks perfume ;
Here the dwarf sallows creep, the septfoil harsh,
And the soft slimy mallow of the marsh;
Low on the ear the distant billows sound,
And just in view appears their stony bound;
No hedge nor tree conceals the glowing sun,
Birds, save a wat’ry tribe, the district shun,

Nor chirp among the reeds where bitter waters run.! Melancholy and dreary themes were not of his selection, but the lot of his Muse; and he, being he, had to depict them.

I do not suppose he was of the stuff to have led a crusade; the prosaic hardnesses of his early years had worn down the edge of enthusiasm ; it was a defect in him that he never rose to a consciousness that there was greatness in him ; that he might be a power in the world. But his instincts were righteous, and he hated cruelty and unkindness. There was, if no impulsive tenderness, no sternness in the man, He never dissembled his indignation at injustice, whether the work of individuals, or of laws and institutions. He protests against the evil consequences of game-preserving, the brutalities of the press-gang, the workhouse,

a prison with a milder name. When, however, he was telling a tale, his business, he assumed, no longer was to protest, but to narrate; and he fulfilled that mandate with singleness of heart.

That his lines were cast thus in his receptive years amidst squalor and ugliness, and that the reflection of them through him is squalid and ugly, doubtless then is the cause why he no longer is largely read, if he ever were. Whether he will hereafter be I do not know. am not certain that he could be expected to be. But I am sure that no

student of literature who considers him dispassionately, having overcome the natural distaste for flat, boorish sadness and sin, will find any difficulty in replying to the queries I originally put, whether he were a poet, and of what rank. Let a reader mark the reality of the subjectmatter with which this artist in black and white deals, the justness of proportion, the remorseless strength of the treatment, the natural subtlety; and he will wonder, like myself, how any one could ever have doubted. Both questions will be unhesitatingly answered as Byron and as Scott answered them : 'Yes ; a poet, and a great one !'

The Poetical Works of the Rev. George Crabbe, edited by his Son. Eight vols. John Murray, 1834.

1 The Poor (The Borough), Letter 22.
2 Baptisms (The Parish Register, Part I).
3 Ruth (Tales of the Hall, Book V).

4 Ibid.
5 The Brother Burgesses (Posthumous Tales), Tale 12.
6 Burials (The Parish Register, Part III).
? The Brothers, Tale 20.
8 Introduction (The Parish Register, Part I).
• Baptisms (The Parish Register, Part I).
10 The Lover's Journey (Tales), Tale 10.

[merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

A POET-PROPHET, who sang and prophesied for fifty years to a stone-deaf people. Mighty bards came into being and fame, when he had been singing and prophesying for a generation. Not a word from them, from Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Landor, is on record to show that any one of the number knew of his existence. When his name began to circulate, it was as that of an artist of ungoverned, almost hysterical, fancy. Then two or three short poems, phenomena, strange if beautiful, emerged into a half-light. They made their gradual way into anthologies ; not he among the poets; scarcely even now into any recognized rank. Neither in diction, nor in imagery, is he faultless; yet, for what he attempted, for a combination of high thought, metrical music, passion, magic, within the narrow lines in which he worked, he had, and has, few equals, no superior.

With various moods, impulses, powers, he had one predominantly developed, the faculty of wonder. He wondered at everything; at life, its beginning, progress, end, and future; at fate and eternity; good and ill ; infancy and age ; man and beast ; flower and weed ; beauty and deformity, vice and virtue, Heaven and Hell. All surprised him; and he thirsted for clues to the legion of enigmas. The craving revealed to him that he possessed the gift of verse, and that it offered the natural medium for the expression of his astonishment. He versified from no covetousness of public admiration, from no wish to please others, or even himself. Many, not among the

« ПредишнаНапред »