Stephen Copley Research Report: Jessica Fay on George Crabbe’s Passion for Particularity

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Here we have the latest report from Jessica Fay, the most recent winner of the Stephen Copley Research Awards, for more information about how to apply, please see here.

George Crabbe is best known for the harsh realities of his long poems The Village (1783) and The Borough (1810). Inhabitants of The Village are subject to punishing working conditions, poverty, and sickness while the characters that populate the fictional Borough, such as Peter Grimes and Ellen Orford (vividly reimagined in Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera), commit and endure extreme cruelty. Heartbreak, loneliness, and ruin pervade the flattest and drabbest of landscapes. This relentless realism puzzled contemporary readers. Crabbe seemed to lack imaginative power; he was simply copying provincial human lives without adding any of the uplifting colour that makes poetry pleasurable.

Commenting on The Village in a letter to Samuel Rogers of 1808, Wordsworth wrote that ‘nineteen out of 20 of Crabbe’s Pictures are mere matters of fact; with which the Muses have just about as much to do as they have with a Collection of medical reports, or of Law Cases’ (29 September 1808). Hazlitt made the same point, complaining that too much ‘literal’ description gives Crabbe’s verse a ‘repining’ dreariness: not only does Crabbe ‘deal in incessant matters of fact, but in matters of fact of the most familiar, the least animating, and the most unpleasant kind’ (‘Living Authors’, London Magazine (May 1821)). But what habits of life and what patterns of observation lay behind this painstaking verse? Thanks to the support of a Stephen Copley Research Award, I have been able to examine a set of working notebooks kept by Crabbe between the 1790s and the 1820s. Their contents has helped me to understand his poetic style in a completely new way.

It is well known that Crabbe was a keen botanist and natural historian, but four notebooks held by Cambridge University Library visibly convey Crabbe’s extraordinary passion for particularity. Two of the notebooks are pocket-sized and were used while Crabbe was traversing roads, fields, beaches, and ditches; two are slightly larger and were probably for desk-use. The pocket-sized notebooks focus on entomology and botany. They contain tabulated inventories of the tiniest features of insects, soils, grasses, flowers, and shells. Crabbe records variations in size, shape, texture, and colour; he is always scanning for new species, always weighing difference against similarity. The larger notebooks seem to have been compiled for reference and they show Crabbe at work as a practising scientist. His notes on ‘Practical Chemistry’, for example, include instructions for making vinegar and gunpowder, for extracting pigments from flowers and berries, for distillation, for dying, and for drawing essential salts out of plants.

Another notebook, held by the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, shows that these interests date back to the 1760s when Crabbe worked as an apothecary in Suffolk. Before Crabbe could afford to buy expensive books of botany—and before he moved to London in pursuit of a career as a poet—he made his own ‘Manual of Natural History’ by copying out over two-hundred pages of notes from borrowed volumes. All five notebooks are incredible to behold. Each page is packed with scrupulously organized information. The script is tiny and (in the main) extremely neat; items entered on narrowly ruled lines are arranged into sections, sub-sections, and numbered lists. The level of detail makes the observations recorded by other writers known for their acute powers of observation, Dorothy Wordsworth for example, look slapdash.

The later notebooks were also used for composing poetry. It’s difficult to imagine most Romantic-period writers crafting lines of verse while crouching in a ditch under a hedgerow at the side of a muddy road, or while experimenting with saline substances. But that is where George Crabbe liked to spend his time. And those are the habits of close observation that give his poetry its character.

I am very grateful to BARS for the Stephen Copley Research Award funding. The insights gained in my research trips to Cambridge and Oxford will underpin a chapter on George Crabbe that will be included in a monograph (currently in progress) on how idiosyncratic ways of looking at landscapes are connected with innovations in literary style.  

Jessica Fay is an Assistant Professor in English Literature at the University of Birmingham.