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George Crabbe: an English life 1754-1832, Neil Powell

Too bright a light on human frailty

George Crabbe, parson-poet of Suffolk, is one of the great tale-tellers of English verse. He is also one of the more neglected English poets. Why? Although he lived when Wordsworth and Coleridge were in their prime, his writing - almost exclusively in rhyming couplets - appears to hark back to the Augustan age of Pope and Dr Johnson. Yet, as this new biography demonstrates, the matter of his poetry - his gritty social realism; his unidealised portrayal of human hardship - looks forward to Dickens and Hardy rather than back to the 18th century.

Crabbe was the son of a disappointed salt-tax collector on the Suffolk coast. Impractical, bookish, he was apprenticed to a surgeon. Later, he took holy orders, and as a fairly indolent clergyman was known for the habit of vamping old sermons. Meanwhile, he took to versifying with some passion, displaying a dogged ability to find well-placed patrons. Edmund Burke, for example, was an early champion of his poetry.

His greatest work - in such collections of verse tales as The Borough (1810) and Tales (1812) - is stark and painfully realistic in its evocation of those who eked a meagre living from the hard-bitten Suffolk coast and its threatening sea. Crabbe's lines, at their best, have a great tang of authenticity. He writes about what he has really seen. Crabbe was a keen amateur botanist, and few poets have written so memorably or accurately of plants and flowers. Beside Crabbe, Wordsworth seems positively short-sighted and neglectful.

Crabbe's most famous single poem, "Peter Grimes", was the subject of Benjamin Britten's great opera. That tale, of a fisherman who murders his apprentices, shows Crabbe at his best. It deals with a subject which in those days was all but proscribed: shame, guilt, degradation. His critics were quick to denounce Crabbe for being indecent, but he was guilty of nothing more than shining too bright a light on human frailty.

Neil Powell's biography is both a persuasive character study and an astute reading of the poems. He brings Crabbe to life with deft touches of humour: his reckless courage, combined with desperate insecurity; his surprising lack of interest in painting, music, architecture. Powell also quotes copiously from the work, enabling us to test biographical speculation and critical generalisation against the author's words.

At his worst, Crabbe can be tediously moralistic, even didactic, and the movement of his verse monotonous. His tales, Tennyson once wrote, are characterised by a "merciless sledge-hammer thud". That is true in part, and especially so of some later work, when Crabbe, having become prosperous and plump as a parsonical partridge, was setting himself the task of writing 30 lines a day as if engaged in some kind of exercise. But when Crabbe writes of human guilt, and its near-intolerable burden, his writing takes on an intensity that few other writers have equalled.