“To talk about Crabbe is to talk about England,” said EM Forster on a radio broadcast in May 1941, but few people today talk about or read about this Suffolk-born poet. This makes Frances Gibb’s slim but in-depth account of the life and work of George Crabbe all the more welcome.
In his time he was considered a leading, if controversial, figure who wrote with startling realism about the spiritually and morally impoverished lives of East Anglian villagers and townspeople, especially the inhabitants of the “venal little burgh of Aldeburgh, where he was born in 1754 and spent an unhappy youth. After failing in his first career as an apothecary-surgeon, he entered holy orders, thanks to the patronage of philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke, who also organized the publication of his protege’s poetry.
Crabbe’s best-known volume The borough was published in 1810 and went through six editions in six years; but by the time he published his last volume in 1819, Tales from the hall, he was superseded by the Romantic poets, and his stubborn adherence to the rhyming couplet was seen as a rather dusty throwback to the Augusti. His popularity never really revived and he is now best known as the author of ‘Peter Grimes’, the poem by The borough which Benjamin Britten used in 1945 as the basis for his first masterful opera. Indeed, he came across Forster’s speech in The listener while living in California, this gave Britten the idea and led him to return to England and settle in Aldeburgh.
Crabbe left Suffolk in 1805 before many of his major poems were published, but, as Forster observed, he remained “one of those poets who are never able to escape from their own corner of England, however far they travel and how much they read”. ‘. A time and a place benefits greatly from Gibb’s knowledge and feeling for Aldeburgh, where his family first arrived in the 1960s. The town faces the North Sea, which has gradually eaten away the coastline and washed away Slaughden Quay, where the young Crabbe was employed to roll barrels of cheese and butter to and from warehouses, overseen by his father.
Britten made brilliant use of the sea as the main motif in his opera; but it’s the town’s curious hinterland that has brought out the best in Crabbe. This is dominated by the River Alde, which winds its way through reeds and wind-bent marshes before suddenly turning south to run parallel to the coast for many miles. “Give me a wide wild swamp on a foggy day, with quaking marshy ground and quivering hills in putrid ground,” wrote Crabbe – and Gibb’s book evokes both the literal and psychological landscapes of the life and work of the poet, in particular these places of ‘moral account’ to which his characters are brought.
There are marvelous passages in ‘Peter Grimes’, where the fisherman, hunted by society on suspicion of having killed his apprentice boys, hides in the fetid estuary of the Aldus, accompanying only the melancholy and the ‘discordant cry’ of the marsh of birds. While paddling these backwaters, Grimes sees the ghosts of his brutal father and two “thin and pale” boys rising from the brackish depths calling for him to join them, a scene which, perhaps surprisingly, has not been included in Britten’s opera, in which Grimes is treated with far more sympathy.
Crabbe was as keen and unsentimental an observer of the flora and fauna of this landscape as he was of its human inhabitants. An amateur botanist, he spent hours looking for plants, and one of the reasons for his failure as an apothecary-surgeon was that his patients felt that because he “got his medicine from the ditches, he could not hardly claim payment”. After changing careers to become a clergyman, he was sent back to Aldeburgh as curate. As Forster said, the local people saw him as someone “who, having failed to heal men’s bodies, offered to interfere with their souls.” No wonder his portrait of the city of The borough was unflattering.
It’s a beautiful irony that when Britten and Peter Pears founded the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, they did so amid the kind of sultry, stifling local resistance that Crabbe would have recognized. It emerges from the superb of Ronald Blythe Aldeburgh’s Anthology (1972) that Crabbe was originally considered central to the festival; but this particular part of Suffolk is now mainly associated with Britten. Gibb acknowledges that Britten has “the biggest name, the loudest voice”, but his book is a useful reminder that it was Crabbe who had the first claim on Aldeburgh, and that his poems provide an unsettling and enduring portrait of a time and a place and its people.