Crabbe describes the unfruitful fields overgrown by weeds: even though mallows and poppies may look colourful, there are really just symptoms of how poor the land is. He compares the fields to a girl splendidly dressed, but who has been betrayed by a man and her face is sad. The local people look sullen and suspicious. Forget about Goldsmith’s swains engaging in sports after work: these people spend their evenings and nights helping smugglers. Crabbe compares himself to a swallow waiting on a beach for favourable wind: he also fled this place as soon as he had a chance, feeling sorry for those who had to stay and surely will be reduced to poverty, and when the sea erosion destroys their houses, to begging from people hardly less poor than themselves. But is life better in other, more fertile lands? Maybe it is, but only for the select rich few, while others, working for them, are like slaves working in gold mines, who cannot reap the full benefit of their labour. He also has no time for the idea that peasants are healthy: they are worn down by their work and those who are physically weaker, trying to keep up with the pace of the work and feeling ashamed to admit to their weakness, sicken and die sooner. And the idea that peasant food is simple but good is also ridiculous, as none of the pastoral poets would even touch the actual peasant fare. So all these “gentle souls, who dream of rural ease” should actually have a look not only at the peaceful outside, but at the miserable inside of a peasant cottage.
I have this tendency of thinking about many historical people as if they belonged only to one cultural era: if somebody was born in the age of powdered wigs, they surely should die before 1800 at the latest. But of course it’s not true, and some people’s lives span at least two periods: Lorenzo Da Ponte, who outlived Mozart and died as a professor of Italian in New York in 1838; George Cruikshank, who started as the author of scabrous political caricatures and ended up as a serious illustrator of Dickens and a militant tee-totaller; and George Crabbe, who started his poetic career in the age of Johnson and outlived many of the second-generation Romantic poets, such as Byron (who admired him).
George Crabbe was born in a poor family in Aldeburgh, on the southern shores of Britain. Aldeburgh used to be a thriving seaport in the 16th c., but by the time Crabbe was born, it was degraded to the status of a struggling fishing village because ships got too big for its bay. (It didn’t revive until the 19th c., when seaside tourism was invented.) So he justifiably felt he knew how to write about the village life from the viewpoint of its poorer inhabitants, not the imagination of a city dweller or pleasant memories of childhood spent in a rural vicarage. In The Village Crabbe drives a stake through the heart of pastoral poetry. Even though there are no shepherd poets nowadays, he claims, the poets still feel they can imitate Vergil and write the same old stuff about shepherds and nymphs, while they have no idea about life in the country. The only one who could write about such matters was Stephen Duck. And the reason why they all pick this subject it’s because it’s easy. Of course “fields and flocks have charms”, but mostly to the animals or their owners themselves, not so much to the sweating shepherds who have to work hard. So Crabbe is going to write about cottages “as Truth will paint it, and as bards will not.”
The poet depicts the inhabitants of Auburn leaving their village, casting one last look. He describes them by their familial roles: the father, leaving as the first of his family, the dutiful daughter following him, the wife crying and holding her babies, the husband trying to comfort her, although he himself is silently grieving. He returns to the motive of luxury as something unnatural: kingdoms fuelled by it are like over-fertilized plants, because they grow quickly, but they die as fast. In a scene parallel to the scene of villagers leaving England, he imagines various virtues sch as Loyalty, Piety and Love, emigrating from England too. In a somewhat self-centred move, he imagines among them also Poetry, the “source of all my bliss, and all my woe”, which is leaving England as well. He hopes that in the faraway countries, where she is going to settle, she is still going to teach man how corrupting and fleeting luxury is. In the last four lines, written by Dr Johnson, Trade is compared to a breakwater, swept away by a storm, while self-dependency is like the rocky shore, resisting the waves. Dr Johnson apparently didn’t realize that erosion is a thing.
We kick off with Johnson’s very enjoyable hatchet job on “Lycidas”, which offended a lot of Milton’s fans, both his contemporaries and later. The excerpt begins with a claim that technically “Lycidas” is no good, so whatever beauty there is, should be looked for in the sentiments it expresses – but it has no real passion, because a poet feeling real grief has no time to look for learned images from classic mythology. “In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting”, fulminates Johnson. He proves it by quoting as an example three particularly tortuous lines in which Milton compares himself and Edward to King to two shepherds tending their flocks. Johnson thinks this simile is so distant from the actual lives of these men it’s useless. The whole pastoral machinery of nymphs and ancient gods is dismissed by Johnson as stale. He also finds it irreverent that Milton mixes his metaphors, comparing King both to a real shepherd – well, to as real shepherd as can be found in pastoral poetry and to a shepherd in the spiritual sense, meaning he was a clergyman and thus a pastor. But Johnson admits this irreverence could be an unwitting mistake on Milton’s part. He thinks “Lycidas” is praised only because Milton is considered to be a great poet on the strength of his later works and he delivers this final blow: “Surely no man could have fancied that he read “Lycidas” with pleasure had he not known its author.”
Rasselas hears about a holy hermit living somewhere up the Nile and wants to go and meet him. Imlac and Rasselas’s sister decide to accompany him. On their way they pass through a country with many shepherds. Imlac tells his charges that pastoral life was often praised by poet as the ideal one, so they have a chance to check whether it is true. The shepherds in conversation turn out to be rude and malevolent people, oppressed by hard labour and envying those above them. The princess says she does not want to spend a moment longer with them, but she is still loath to think that all the poets were lying, so she imagines a Marie-Antoinette kind of pastoral project, where she would retire to a nice place with some of her BFFs (not that any have ever been mentioned). On their way, they seek shade in a wood and find that it is very well maintained, a kind of English park. They soon reach a palace, where they are greeted by the owner. He invites them and treats them very generously for a few days. Rasselas says that he must be the truly happy man, because not only he but also his servants are happy. Alas! the owner of the palace says that the Bassa (Pasha) of Egypt hates him and envies him his wealth. So far, he’s been protected by his powerful friends, but this can change any minute. He sent his riches to a distant country and he’s ready to abscond any minute, leaving his palace to the rapacious viceroy. All his guests are very sorry to hear that, the princess so much so that she has to retire to her room. The next day they are on their way.
In The Thresher’s Labour Stephen Duck made some disparaging remarks about lazy women and Mary Collier’s Woman’s Labour is a spirited retort. She was a working-class woman from Hampshire and she knew what she was writing about. Women work as hard as men, they have to take care of their babies while at work and they actually work two jobs, one in the fields and the other at home. Duck wrote how men coming back home from the fields are so tired they have to stop at every stile, but women have no such luxury. If men had so many duties, they would think of the way to get rid of them. This is not great poetry, but it’s energetic and it’s hard to disagree with its message. Both Duck and Collier use some unorthodox rhyming (Collier for instance thymes “go” with “you”) and I wonder whether it’s their lack of technical finesse or the influence of their native dialects.
The 9th edition of the NAEL contains a section on “working-class geniuses”, which is extremely interesting. There was indeed a kind of vogue in the 18th-c. Britain for “natural” poets, the people who with immense amount of determination and work managed to get enough education to start writing. Sometimes they even managed to get some kind of patronage, but usually their patrons got bored with them or died, and they found themselves left to their own devices. Stephen Duck, who started life as an agricultural labourer in Wiltshire, managed to learn enough in his charity school and on his own to start composing poetry, attracting the attention of some local clergymen and eventually Queen Caroline, the wife of George II. The Queen gave him a pension and small house, and he pursued his studies and became a priest, but apparently the life in-between the worlds (always treated as a kind of funny curiosity in the fashionable world, with Pope and Swift making fun of him behind his back, and not accepted any more among his working-class peers), he became depressed and committed suicide.
The Thresher’s Labour” was Duck’s first big success, an anti-pastoral poem written by an actual farm hand, who knows that farm work is hard, back-breaking and not at all graceful when you have to perform it, not just observe it. The fragment describes the threshers gathered to work on the corn. They strip and start to work in steady rhythm, like the cyclops working in Vulcan’s smithery. Soon they start to sweat, but there is no chance of a break, as any lull in the work can be heard immediately. They have no chance, Duck writes ironically, to play songs like the shepherds in the pastoral. There are no pleasant landscapes, warbling birds or murmuring fountains, but only heavy and unattractive work, during which one is unable even to think, let alone compose poetry.
“On Mites, to a Lady” asks the addressee whether she had a chance to look through the microscope at the mites on a piece of rotten cheese. One can see them there puffed with pride and probably believing that the cheese is the whole world and they are its masters. Men are just the same, thinking that the objects in the sky are just there for them to please their eyes. Even though Swift made fun of Duck, this realization how all size is relative and only a matter of scale, sounds awfully like something from Gulliver’s Travels.