George Crabbe (1754-1832)
From 18th Century Literary Anecdotes

ONE gloomy day in 1779; as Crabbe strolled up the bleak and cheerless cliff at Aldeburgh, he stopped opposite a muddy piece of water, and taking it for the waters of Helicon, said, 'I will go to London.' To effect this, he applied himself to his neighbour, the late Mr. Dudley North, for the loan of £5, which was immediately sent, and after paying his debts, he found £3 in his pocket when he set off to make his fortune in the metropolis. 'Without black velvet breeches what is man?' says the author of The Man of Taste; but let us ask what was man in Crabbe's day without a tie-wig? Accordingly, our youthful bard, not wishing to meet the Muses in an undress, out of his £3 purchased a fashionable tie-wig, and then took lodgings at Mr. Vickery's, opposite the Exchange.

Here he lived in great seclusion, and in great privation of course; but steadily pursuing his inflexible purpose of improving his talents, preserving the most honourable feelings of independence, and keeping his wig in excellent buckle. Sometimes he was reduced even to a very few shillings, and was in much woeful perplexity. He wrote to Lord Shelbourne, who did not answer him, and to Lord Thurlow, who did. He tried Messrs. Dodsley and Beckett in vain, and he must either have starved, or parted with his peruke, or returned to Slaughden and the butter firkins, when he fortunately thought of addressing himself to Edmund Burke. This was in 1781. Politics were raging, the blazing fires of London were scarcely extinct in their ashes, and Burke was employed in 'wielding the wild democracy of the House'— but he heard the youthful Poet with smiles of benevolence — he attended to his history with patience and benignity — he encouraged him, advised him, soothed his misfortunes, opened his house, and spread his table for him — made Dodsley publish his poem, The Library, and got him into orders. Crabbe was a long and frequent guest at Beaconsfield, and nothing could exceed the friendly hospitality, and the delicate and polite attentions which he received there.

We must give an instance that may be instructive to some great Persons of our acquaintance in their treatment of poets.

'One day some company of rank not having arrived as expected, the servants kept back some costly dish that had been cooked. Mrs. Burke asked for it. The butler said, "It was kept back, as the company had not come." — "What, is not Mr. Crabbe here? Let it be brought up immediately." ' Now, if this is not real politeness, arising from delicacy of mind, good feeling, and a genuine sense of what is right and decorous, we never met with it.'

Abstracted from The Life of George Crabbe, By his Son ( Reverend George Crabbe) (1834),
by a reviewer in the Gentleman's Magazine, New Series i. (1834), 257-8.

Numberless were the manuscripts which he completed; and not a few of them were never destined to see the light. I can well remember more than one grand incremation — not in the chimney, for the bulk of the paper to be consumed would have endangered the house — but in the open air — and with what glee his children vied in assisting him, stirring up the fire, and bringing him fresh loads of the fuel as fast as their little legs would enable them. What the various works thus destroyed treated of, I cannot tell; but among them was an Essay on Botany in English; which, after he had made great progress in it, my father laid aside, in consequence merely, I believe, of the remonstrance of the late Mr. Davies, vice-master of Trinity College, Cambridge, with whom he had become casually acquainted, and who, though little tinged with academical peculiarities, could not stomach the notion of degrading such a science by treating it in a modern language. My father used to say that, had this treatise come out at the time when his friend arrested its progress, he might perhaps have had the honour of being considered as the first discoverer of more than one addition to the British Flora, since those days introduced to notice, classed and named, by other naturalists.... But among other prose writings of the same period some were of a class which, perhaps, few have ever suspected Mr. Crabbe of meddling with, though it be one in which so many of his poetical contemporaries have earned high distinction. During one or two of his winters in Suffolk, he gave most of his evening hours to the writings of Novels, and he brought not less than three such works to a conclusion. . . . I forget the title of his third novel; but I clearly remember that it opened with a description of a wretched room, similar to some that are presented in his poetry, and that, on my mother's telling him frankly that she thought the effect very inferior to that of the corresponding pieces in verse, he paused in his reading, and, after some reflection, said, 'Your remark is just.' The result was a leisurely examination of all these manuscript novels, and another of those grand incremations which, at an earlier period, had been sport to his children.

The Life of George Crabbe, By his Son (1834; Cresset Press edition, 1947), pp. 116, 143-144.

WE happened to be on a visit at Aldeburgh, when the dread of a French invasion was at its height. The old artillery of the fort had been replaced by cannon of a large calibre; and one, the most weighty I remember to have seen, was constantly primed, as an alarm gun. About one o'clock one dark morning, I heard a distant gun at sea; in about ten minutes another, and at an equal interval a third; and then at last, the tremendous roar of the great gun on the fort, which shook every house in the town. After inquiring into the state of affairs, I went to my father's room, and, knocking at the door, with difficulty waked the inmates, and said, 'Do not be alarmed, but the French are landing.' I then mentioned that the alarm gun had been fired, that horsemen had been dispatched for the troops at Ipswich, and that the drum on the quay was then beating to arms. He replied, 'Well, my old fellow, you and I can do no good, or we would be among them; we must wait the event.' I returned to his door in about three-quarters of an hour, to tell him that the agitation was subsiding, and found him fast asleep. Whether the affair was a mere blunder, or there had been a concerted manoeuvre to try the fencibles, we never could learn with certainty; but I remember that my father's coolness on the occasion, when we mentioned it next day, caused some suspicious shakings of the head among the ultra-loyalists at Aldeburgh.

The Life of George Crabbe, By his Son (1834; Cresset Press edition, 1947), p. 153.

WOULD the reader like to follow my father into his library?—a scene of unparalleled confusion—windows rattling, paint in great request, books in every direction but the right—the table—but no, I cannot find terms to describe it, though the counterpart might be seen, perhaps, not one hundred miles from the study of the justly-famed and beautiful rectory of Bremhill. Once, when we were staying at Trowbridge, in his absence for a few days at Bath, my eldest girl thought she should surprise and please him by putting every book in perfect order, making the best bound the most prominent; but, on his return, thanking her for her good intention, he replaced every volume in its former state;

'for', said he, 'my dear, grandpa understands his own confusion better than your order and neatness'.

The Life of George Crabbe, By his Son (1834; Cresset Press edition, 1947), pp. 228-229.

« NEXT » « 18th Century Anecdotes » « All Anecdotes » « Humour » « Library »