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Alfred Ainger
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 172 pages of information about English Men of Letters.
friend, Newton, in the Preface he wrote for his first volume, claimed for the poet that his satire was “benevolent.”  But it was not always discriminating or just.  The satirist’s keen love of antithesis often weakens the moral virtue of Cowper’s strictures.  In this earliest volume anger was more conspicuous than sorrow, and contempt perhaps more obvious than either.  The callousness of public opinion on many subjects needed other medicine than this.  Hence was it perhaps that Cowper’s volume, which appeared in May 1782, failed to awaken interest.  Crabbe’s Village appeared just a year later (it had been completed a year or two earlier), and at once made its mark.  “It was praised,” writes his son, “in the leading journals; the sale was rapid and extensive; and my father’s reputation was by universal consent greatly raised, and permanently established, by this poem,” The number of anonymous letters it brought the author, some of gratitude, and some of resentment (for it had laid its finger on many sores in the body-politic), showed how deeply his touch had been felt.  Further publicity for the poem was obtained by Burke, who inserted the description of the Parish Workhouse and the Village Apothecary in The Annual Register, which he controlled.  The same pieces were included a few years later by Vicesimus Knox in that excellent Miscellany Elegant Extracts.  And Crabbe was to learn in later life from Walter Scott how, when a youth of eighteen, spending a snowy winter in a lonely country-house, he fell in with the volume of The Annual Register containing the passages from The Village; how deeply they had sunk into his heart; and that (writing then to Crabbe in the year 1809) he could repeat them still from memory.

Edmund Burke’s friend, Edward Shackleton, meeting Crabbe at Burke’s house soon after the publication of the poem, paid him an elegant tribute.  Goldsmith’s, he said, would now be the “deserted” village.  Crabbe modestly disclaimed the compliment, and assuredly with reason Goldsmith’s delightful poem will never be deserted.  For it is no loss good and wise to dwell on village life as it might be, than to reflect on what it has suffered from man’s inhumanity to man.  What made Crabbe a now force in English poetry, was that in his verse Pity appears, after a long oblivion, as the true antidote to Sentimentalism.  The reader is not put off with pretty imaginings, but is led up to the object which the poet would show him, and made to feel its horror.  If Crabbe is our first great realist in verse, he uses his realism in the cause of a true humanity. Facit indignatio versum.

FOOTNOTES: 

[Footnote 1:  I cannot deny myself the pleasure of here acknowledging my indebtedness to a French scholar, M. Huchon of the University of Nancy.  M. Huchon is himself engaged upon a study of the Life and Poetry of Crabbe, and in the course of a conversation with me in London, first called my attention to the volume containing this letter.  I agree with him in thinking that no previous biographer of Crabbe has been aware of its existence.]

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