“It is strange to think, in an Age so addicted to the Muses, how Pastoral Poetry comes to be never so much as thought upon considering especially, that it has always been accounted the most considerable of the smaller Poems: Virgil and Spencer made use of it as a Prelude to Heroick Poetry. But I fear the Innocency of the Subject makes it so little inviting at present.
There is no sort of Poetry, if well wrought, but gives Delight. And the Pastoral perhaps may boast of this in a peculiar manner. For, as in Painting, so I believe, in Poetry, the Country affords the most entertaining Scenes, and most delightful Prospects.
Gassendus, I remember, tells us, That Perieskius was a great Lover of Musick, especially that of Birds; because their Artless Strains seem to have less of Passion and Violence, but more of a natural Easiness, and therefore do the rather befriend Contemplation. It is after the Same manner that Pastoral gives a sweet and gentle Composure to the Mind; whereas the Epick and Tragick Poem put the Spirits in too great a Ferment by the Vehemence of their Motions.
To see a stately, well built Palace strikes us, indeed, with Admiration, and swells the Soul, as it were, with Notions of Grandeur. But when I view a little Country Dwelling, advantageously situated amidst a beautiful Variety of Fields, Woods, and Rivers; I feel an unspeakable kind of Satisfaction, and cannot forbear wishing that my good Fortune would place me in so sweet a Retirement.
Theocritus, Virgil, and Spencer, are the only writers that seem to have hit upon the true Nature of Pastoral Poems. So that it will be Honour sufficient for me, if I have not altogether failed in my intent.”
Ambrose Philips, Pastorals, (London: H. Hills, 1710), p.2.
A glimpse of pastoral life, a glimpse of any particular quantity – in Crabbe’s artistic terms, a glimpse of any “tale” – encourages a normally functioning, supposedly “properly functioning” mind to build up notions about the essential nature of things, to come away with the belief that something essential has been learned from experience. But in Crabbe’s world, if you’ve seen one tulip, you’ve only seen one tulip. One tale encourages formulation of one set of notions; another tale, another set. Were Crabbe to have written an imitation of Rasselas in accordance with his own late vision, he would have given us only Rasselas experiencing his negative glimpse of pastoral life but also a second hero experiencing an antithetical, positive glimpse of pastoral life; and he would then have allowed both to continue on their separate journeys, each confidently believing he understood Patoral-ness. Each man lives his own, single tale in life; thus he generates his own “essences” and dreams he has found or is now finding stability – until time’s whirligig snaps his head back. In Crabbe, then, we learn to fear not the loss of reason but the reasoning process itself, because it leads a Rasselas (and, behind him, a Johnson) to believe he can understand the Tulip-ness of things. Crabbe’s rewriting of Johnson would, therefore, alter the Johnsonian postulate, substituting: “Of all the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the belief we can reason our way out of some uncertainties.”
L.J. Swingle, ‘Late Crabbe in Relation to the Augustans and Romantics: The Temporal Labyrinth of his tales in Verse, 1812’, in ELH, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Winter, 1975), p.591.