Saturday, 13 September 2014

Crabbe and Britten: a Sense of Time, Place and Tradition.

Rev. George Crabbe (1754 – 1832) English poet.

My impression before I began this blog was that relatively few East Anglians had made much impact on the national still less the international scene since the time of Boudica. But the list is longer than I thought: among the major figures are Cardinal Wolsey, Oliver Cromwell, Horatio Nelson and Thomas Paine, the latter perhaps the most important of all. In the artistic world Gainsborough and Constable have a national if not an international reputation. Eupedia's list of famous East Anglians includes a number of modern figures: Diana Princess of Wales, Geoffrey Archer, Bernie Eccleston, Stephen Fry, Richard Attenborough and, from a slightly earlier era and perhaps most significant of all, John Maynard Keynes, but none seen to me to be essentially East Anglian figures.

Perhaps the most important modern figure is Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), whose life and work was rooted in his native Suffolk, and whose return to England was inspired by another Suffolk man, George Crabbe, who does not even appear in Eupedia's list.

BBC Production of Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten centre, Peter Pears on the right

The son of a Lowestoft dentist, educated at Greshams School in Norfolk and the Royal College of Music, the young Benjamin Britten composed over 40 scores for theatre, film and radio in the 1930's. In April 1939 he and his partner Peter Pears followed his friends Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden to America. When war broke out they were advised by the British Embassy that they should stay as artistic ambassadors. Perhaps Britten's most notable achievement in this period was the operetta Paul Bunyan, for which Auden wrote the libretto.

Despite the embassy advice both Pears and Britten had felt they should return home, and when in California in 1941 Britten picked up a copy of the Listener, and read an article about the Suffolk born poet George Crabbe by E.M. Forster, whom Britten knew, the call of home became too strong to resist. Forster's article awakened Britten's longing for that grim and exciting sea coast around Aldeburgh. He obtained a copy of Crabbe's poems, which like most Suffolk people he had never read and perhaps never heard of, and in 1942 set out on a Swedish boat on the rather perilous journey across the Atlantic back home to Suffolk, a plan of the opera Peter Grimes already completed.

For Britten his opera, first performed in 1945, was a manifesto for the reconciliation of art and place.(1) We can view it, along with other works notably including Waugh's Brideshead Revisited which appeared around the same time, and sold out immediately, as the climax of the retreat which artists, architects and writers had over a decade made from abstraction, formalism and the aesthetics of the Bloomsbury critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell, towards the celebration of a national culture rooted in rural England. The same period had seen a new found enthusiasm for Georgian and Baroque architecture, hitherto regarded as alien implants, and even a developing enthusiasm for the Victorian so reviled by Bloomsbury.

Britten's return to Suffolk was part of an established pattern: by the late 1930's most major figures in art and letters were living in the English countryside, in a world they saw as threatened not only by forces from without, but by social, economic and technological changes within. Britten himself made this point when he was granted the freedom of Lowestoft in 1951:

I am firmly rooted in this glorious country and I proved this to myself when I once tried to live somewhere else ... Roots are especially valuable nowadays, when so much that we love is disappearing or being threatened, when there is so little to cling to. (2)

The celebration of rural life and the concerns for its future had begun before the war: in Surrey E.M. Forster, with the aid of Vaughan Williams had staged Abinger Harvest and then in 1938 England's Pleasant Land, a land which had survived threats from Norman knights and enclosing Squires and now from modern developers. Forster's Listener article, which evoked Britten's homesickness, had above all emphasised Crabbe's Englishness:

To talk about Crabbe is to talk about England. He never left our shores and he only once ventured to cross the border into Scotland. He did not even go to London much, but lived in villages and small country towns. He was a clergyman of the English Church. His Christian name was George, the name of our national saint. More than that, his father was called George, and so was his grandfather, and he christened his eldest son George, and his grandson was called George also. Five generations of George Crabbes!(3)

It would be a mistake to think that this cultural conservatism was necessarily accompanied by political conservatism. Benjamin Britten voted only Labour or Liberal throughout his life, and I suspect the same was true of E.M. Forster, but certainly not of Evelyn Waugh! Even Mr "Civilisation" himself, Kenneth Clark, reputedly voted Labour in 1945!


1. Britten's own introduction written for the premiere of Peter Grimes in 1945 is well worth reading.

2. Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns, English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London 2010) p 166.

3. "George Crabbe : the Poet and the Man" By E. M. FORSTER, The Listener, 29 May 1941. I have put the full text of this article in another blog, because it does not appear to be available anywhere else in its entirety, and is an important document, not only because of its impact on Britten but also because of its reflection of a national mood. Radio had become an important medium by the 1930's, and it played an important part in what Alexandra Harris aptly calls "re-antiquating" England.

Forster, Crabbe and Britten: The Listener, 29 May 1941

The Listener, 29 May 1941
This blog consisting solely of an article by E.M. Forster has been posted to accompany a blog on George Crabbe and Benjamin Britten. Britten read this article whilst living in the United States in 1941 and as a result decided to return home to the Suffolk Coast, and to write his first major Opera, Peter Grimes , about the character created by Crabbe. I also think it is superb writing, originally of course delivered as a radio broadcast during the dark days of 1941. That ever present sense of peril, "when England stood alone", and the word "England" itself was virtually synonymous with Britain, would of course have affected Forster's listeners, and those who like Benjamin Britten read the printed version.


George Crabbe : the Poet and the Man

To talk about Crabbe is to talk about England. He never left our shores and he only once ventured to cross the border into Scotland. He did not even go to London much, but lived in villages and small country towns. He was a clergyman of the English Church. His Christian name was George, the name of our national saint. More than that, his father was called George, and so was his grandfather, and he christened his eldest son George, and his grandson was called George also. Five generations of George Crabbes!

Our particular George Crabbe was born (in the year 1754) at Aldburgh, on the coast of Suffolk. It is a bleak little place: not beautiful. It huddles round a flint-towered church and sprawls down to the North Sea -- and what a wallop the sea makes as it pounds at the shingle! Near by is a quay, at the side of an estuary, and here the scenery becomes melancholy and flat; expanses of mud, saltish commons, the marsh-birds crying. Crabbe heard that sound and saw that melancholy, and they got into his verse. He worked as an unhappy little boy on the quay, rolling barrels about, and storing them in a warehouse, under orders from his father. He hated it. His mother had died ; his father was cross. Now and then he got hold of a book, or looked at some prints, or chatted with a local worthy, but it was a hard life and they were in narrow circumstances. He grew up among poor people, and he has been called their poet. But he did not like the poor. When he started writing, it was the fashion to pretend that they were happy shepherds and shepherdesses, who were always dancing, or anyhow had hearts of gold. But Crabbe knew the local almshouses and the hospital and the prison, and the sort of people who drift into them; he read, in the parish registers, the deaths of the unsuccessful, the marriages of the incompetent, and the births of the illegitimate. Though he notes occasional heroism, his general verdict on the working classes is unfavourable. And when he comes to the richer and more respectable inmates of the borough who can veil their defects behind money, he remains sardonic, and sees them as poor people who haven't been found out.

He escaped from Aldburgh as soon as he could. His fortunes improved, he took orders, married well, and ended his life in a comfortable west country parsonage. He did well for himself, in fact. Yet he never escaped from Aldburgh in the spirit, and it was the making of him as a poet. Even when he is writing of other things, there steals again and again into his verse the sea, the estuary, the flat Suffolk coast, and local meannesses, and an odour of brine and dirt --tempered occasionally with the scent of flowers. So remember Aldburgh when you read this rather odd poet, for he belongs to the grim little place and through it to England. And remember that though he is an Englishman, he is not a John Bull, and that though he is a clergyman, he is by no means an 'old dear'.

His poems are easily described, and are easy to read. They are stories in rhymed couplets, and their subject is local scenes or people. One story will be about the almshouses. another about the Vicar, another about inns. A famous one is 'Peter Grimes': he was a savage fisherman who murdered his apprentices and was haunted by their ghosts; there was an actual original for Grimes. Another -- a charming one -- tells of a happy visit which a little boy once paid to a country mansion, and how the kind housekeeper showed him round the picture gallery, and gave him a lovely dinner in the servants' hall; Crabbe had himself been that humble little boy. He is not brilliant or cultivated, witty or townified. He is a provincial; and I am using provincial as a word of high praise.

How good are these stories in verse? I will quote some extracts so that you can decide, Crabbe is a peculiar writer: some people like him, others don't, and find him dull and unpleasant. I like him and read him again and again; and his tartness, his acid humour, his honesty, his feeling for certain English types and certain kinds of English scenery, do appeal to me very much. On their account I excuse the absence in him of a warm heart, a vivid imagination and a grand style: for he has none of those great gifts.

The first extract is from 'Peter Grimes', it shows how Crabbe looks at scenery, and how subtly be links the scene with the soul of the observer. The criminal Grimes is already suspected of murdering his apprentices, and no one will go fishing with him in his boat. He rows out alone into the estuary. and waits there -- waits for what?

         When tides were neap, and, in the sultry day, 
         Through the tall bounding mud-banks made their way ...
         There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
         There hang his head,  and view the lazy tide
         In its hot, slimy channel slowly glide;
         Where the small eels that left the deeper way
         For the warm shore,within the shallows play;
         Where gaping muscles, left upon the mud,
         Slope their slow passage to the fallen flood.
How quiet this writing is: you might say how dreary. Yet how sure is his touch; and how vivid that estuary near Aldburgh.
         Here dull and hopeless he'd lie down and trace
         How sidelong crabs had scrawl'd their crooked race;
         Or listen sadly to the tuneless cry
         Of fishing gull or clanging golden-eye;
         What time the sea birds to the marsh would come,
         And the loud bittern, from the bull-rush home,
         Gave from the salt-ditch side the bellowing boom:
         He nursed the feelings these dull scenes produce,
         And loved to stop beside the opening sluice.

Not great poetry, by any means, but it convinces me that Crabbe and Peter Grimes and myself do stop beside an opening sluice, and that we are looking at an actual English tideway, and not at some vague vast imaginary waterfall, which crashes from nowhere to nowhere.

My next quotation is a lighter one. It comes from his rather malicious poem about the Vicar of the Parish 'whose constant care was no man to offend'. He begins with a sympathetic description of Aldburgh church, and its lichen-encrusted tower and now he turns with less sympathy, to the church's recent incumbent. Listen to his cruel account of the Vicar's one and only love affair. He had been attracted to a young lady who lived with her mother; he called on them constantly, smiling all the time, but never saying what he was after; with the inevitable result that the damsel got tired of her 'tortoise', and gave her hand to a more ardent suitor. Thus ended the Vicar's sole excursion into the realm of passion.

         'I am escaped', he said, when none pursued;
         When none attacked him, 'I am unsubdued';
         'Oh pleasing pangs of love', he sang again,
         Cold to the joy and stranger to the pain. 
         Ev'n in his age would he address the young, 
         'I too have felt these fires, and they are strong';
         But from the time he left his favourite maid, 
         To ancient females his devoirs were paid: 
         And still they miss him after morning prayer.

He was always 'cheerful and in season gay', he gave the ladies presents of flowers from his garden with mottoes attached ; he was fond of fishing, he organised charades, he valued friendship, but was not prepared to risk anything for it. One thing did upset him, and that was innovation; if the Vicar discerned anything new, on either the theological or the social horizon, he grew hot, it was the only time he did get hot.

        Habit with him was all the test of truth: 
        'It must be right: I've done it from my youth.' 
        Questions he answer'd in as brief a way: 
        'It must be wrong--it was of yesterday.' 
        Though mild benevolence our priest possess'd, 
        'Twas but by wishes or by words express'd. 
        Circles in water, as they wider flow, 
        The less conspicuous in their progress grow, 
        And when at last they touch upon the shore, 
        Distinction ceases, and they're view'd no more. 
        His love, like that last circle, all embraced, 
        But with effect that never could be traced. 

The Vicar's fault is his weakness, and the analysis and censure of weakness is a speciality of Crabbe's. His characters postpone marriage until passion has died ; perhaps this was his own case, and why he was so bitter about it. Or they marry and passion dies because they are too trivial to sustain it. Or they drift into vice, and do even that too late, so that they are too old to relish the lustiness of sin. Or like the Vicar they keep, to the straight path because vice is more arduous than virtue. To all of them, and to their weaknesses, Crabbe extends, a little pity, a little contempt, a little cynicism, and a much larger portion of reproof. The bitterness of his early experiences has eaten into his soul, and he does not love the human race, though he does not denounce it, nor despair of its ultimate redemption.

But we must get back to the Vicar, who is awaiting his final epitaph in some anxiety

         Now rests our Vicar. They who knew him best, 
         Proclaim his life t'have been entirely rest; ... 
         The rich approved,--of them in awe he stood; 
         The poor admired,--they all believed him good; 
         The old and serious of his habits spoke; 
         The frank and youthful loved his pleasant joke; 
         Mothers approved a safe contented guest, 
         And daughters one who back'd each small request; ...
         No trifles fail'd his yielding mind to please, 
         And all his passions sunk in early ease; 
         Nor one so old has left this world of sin, 
         More like the being that he enter'd in. 
For the Vicar died as a child, who retains his innocence because he has never gained any experience.

Well, the above quotations from Peter Grimes and from the Vicar, one about scenery, the other about character, should be enough for you to find out whether you have any taste for the story-poems of George Crabbe. Do not expect too much. He is not one of our great poets. But he is unusual, he is sincere, and he is entirely of this country. There is one other merit attaching to him. The George Crabbe who was his son wrote his life, and it is one of the best biographies in our language, and gives a wonderful picture of provincial England at the close of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. Even if you are not attracted as much as I am by Crabbe's poetry, you may like to get hold of his life, and read how the poor little boy who rolled barrels on the quay at Aldburgh made good.