Thursday, 5th November, 2009

pearls

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.

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