Monday, 7th November, 2011

Earlier today, somebody asked me why Crabbe should still be read. It’s a fair question, mainly because on the whole he isn’t. There’s a secondary issue, I think, in that if someone is to read Crabbe, they’re likely to encounter the same poems, or the same anthologised sections of his work. Often these show a bias for things that don’t best represent him; they’re extracts of landscape description, aimed to place him within the context of Romantic poetry. The description of ‘The Winter Storm’ has been liberally extracted from ‘Letter I’ of The Borough by successive generations of editor, and whilst it’s an approachable section of Crabbe’s work, it gives no real sense of what the rest of that poem is about, or even like.

In answering the question posed, I found myself turning to something really quite unlikely as evidence of what makes Crabbe remarkable. ‘The Sisters’ is the eighth Book of 1819 poem Tales of the Hall. It’s an absolutely brilliant poem. It has all the plot and excitement of the nineteenth century novel and makes a strong case for the view that Crabbe should not be seen as ‘The Last Augustan’ but rather ‘The First Victorian.

There are obstacles, however, in approaching this work. It is a tale in rhyming couplet (as most of Crabbe’s works are) and for a general reader this is a form of writing that today is fairly unfashionable. It’s more than fashion, however. We shouldn’t overlook that it takes practise to read this sort of verse. If we’re unused to it, there is the trap that we fall into the pattern of the metre and – dedumdedumdedumdedumdedum – three pages on, we realise that we’ve not taken in anything of what has happened in it.

There’s also a problem in that this is but one story contained within a larger narrative about two brothers (George and Richard) and the opening of the poem briefly concerns them. Think The Decameron or The Canterbury Tales. However, as with those, this is a minor issue, and ‘The Sisters’ may be read as a stand-alone poem that is quite remarkable for the general reader. Adapted, it would make extraordinary Sunday night television: the story of two sisters and how they cope with financial ruin – one through perseverance and faith, the other driven mad by until she is under the delusion that she’s Lord Byron.

The poem tells the tale of Jane and Lucy; two sisters of contrasting temperament much in the manner of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. At the centre of the poem is the pair’s financial ruin.  It’s a poem relevant to us today, in part because it explores the dangers of trusting bankers. The sisters are encouraged to entrust their ‘funded source’ to a local financier to invest, only for his bank to fail leaving them with nothing. The poem explores the knock-on effect of the bank’s collapse, showing how it ends, in different ways, both sister’s engagements to their future husbands.

Another consequence of the bank’s collapse is that poverty, and the desertion of her lover, sends Jane into a kind of madness, brought on a ‘loss of all that ever hope possess’d’.[1] Hope is crucial in Crabbe’s worldview. The world might be a dreadful stormy place, but the one anchor the individual could have is the prospect that something better lays ahead that might be lived for. However, Jane’s belief has been based in ‘feeling’ rather than faith until this point – a love of Gothic novels and sensational literature has engendered this: ‘She loved to fancy, and she long’d to prove;’ (155) and for the early part of her life, the comforts she has enjoyed seem to confirm that she is following the right path. The two sisters are contrasted in their religious views, Lucy following the path of belief and Jane steered by religious dissenters to search for proof:

‘Jane borrow’d maxims from a doubting school,

And took for truth the test of ridicule;

Lucy saw no such virtue in a jest,

Truth was with her of ridicule a test.

(‘The Sisters’, 182-185)

 These contrasting positions do not save either sister from financial ruin – despite their beliefs they still both entrust their money in the banker – but do serve them differently once they have failed. Jane is driven madness because after their financial ruin she continues to search for feeling to confirm her faith, though now these feelings are ones of terror:

‘But there are hours when on that bosom steals

A rising terror, – then indeed she feels; –

Feels how she loved the promised good, and how

She feels the failure of the promise now.


The word ‘feel’ takes different meanings here, both of sensory perception in ‘indeed she feels’ and of being consciously aware of her situation that she ‘feels how she loved’. Ironically, ‘the failure’ of feeling comes in the latter sense and not as she perceives it from the former. Jane does not feel the promised good now, not because it is no longer promised, but because her ‘feeling’ that it can be felt is the error of judgement.

As with Matilda in the poem ‘The Voluntary Insane’, or Catherine Morland in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, it is hinted that Jane’s trust in feeling arises out of her reading of Gothic novels – but in ‘The Sisters’ Crabbe conflates the genre with the excitements of religious conversion: she ‘was pleased to see the beckoning hand, /And trust the magic of the Ratcliffe-wand’ (144-5). Ann Radcliffe’s novels shape her trust that proof is to be found in feeling:

The sisters read, and Jane with some delight,

The satires keen that fear or rage excite,

That men in power attack, and ladies high,

And give broad hints that we may know them by.

She was amused when sent to haunted rooms,

Or some dark passage where the spirit comes

Of one once murder’d! Then she laughing read,

And felt at once the folly and the dread:

As rustic girls to crafty gipsies fly,

And trust the liar though they fear the lie,


 The novel teaches her that folly might be ‘felt’, but when confronted with it in real life in the form of the banker, though she is suspicious that his charms of friendship might be false, as forced as his hot-house fruits (332-6) ­– a contemporary allusion to Satan’s temptation of forbidden fruit – her reading does not serve to warn her of this folly.

She has been taught the correct morals from these novels that would make her aware of the trap she falls into: ‘men in power attack’, that girls ‘trust the liar though they fear the lie’, but superseding all of this is the sense that she would feel the warning of it, as it might be felt by a person reading.

Her error comes that she mistakes the ordered structure of the novel for the disordered nature of life; believing in her reading too much, she feels it informs her faith:

In her religion—for her mind, though light,

Was not disposed our better views to slight—

Her favourite authors were a solemn kind,

Who fill with dark mysterious thoughts the mind;

And who with such conceits her fancy plied,

Became her friend, philosopher, and guide.


The last line here, quoting Pope’s Essay on Man,[2] places the supernatural thoughts Jane has taken from novels as her spiritual guide. This is not in place of the ‘better views’ of heaven, but uses them to inform her faith, in contrast to the position of her sister:

‘She mix’d not faith with fable, but she trod

Right onward, cautious in the ways of God;

Nor did she dare to launch on seas unknown,

In search of truths by some adventurers shown,

But her own compass used, and kept a course her own.


Lucy’s path is fixed on the ‘onward’ view of heaven, ‘cautious’ in her progress with a reservation about claiming to know. Jane’s superstitious novels and enthusiastic feeling are distractions from this straight course, and so when she does become lost, she is unable to steer herself back on course by them.

‘The Sisters’ presents a very stark view of Jane’s mental collapse, but should also be viewed as an important forerunner in the development of social realism. Though the poem explores the disordered mental state of an individual, it differs from works like ‘Sir Eustace Grey’ and ‘The Voluntary Insane’ in that the cause of the madness is predominantly not the individual’s fault. The effects of the banker’s unsound investment do not serve only to ruin a woman’s mind, but are seen to destroy an entire town; giving the poem a clear tone of social commentary akin to that of many novels of the nineteenth century. The gaudy wealth of the banker serves in part to demonstrate the same fault that Jane has: material possessions are a proof that things are going well, and investment has clear parallels to the Christian’s prospection on heaven:

‘A town was near, in which the buildings all

Were large, but one pre-eminently tall—

An huge high house. Without there was an air

Of lavish cost; no littleness was there;

But room for servants, horses, whiskies, gigs,

And walls for pines and peaches, grapes and figs;

Bright on the sloping glass the sun-beams shone,

And brought the summer of all climates on.


Crabbe, a keen botanist who favoured the mosses and lichens in the Suffolk marshes to more exotic plants, here creates a distrust of greenhouse horticulture. The Garden of Eden created by the banker is a false one; this is not really the climate for peaches and soft fruits, but an artificially affected one (as artificial as the safe investment market he depicts). The list of ‘lavish’ detail of the house, suggests wealth, but does not prove it has any foundation. It stands as a metaphor for Jane’s faith, but also creates a grim contrast to the scenes of the town left in ruin after the bank’s collapse. The two sisters, forced to take work in a school, are met with squalor:

With stains the idlers gather’d in their way,

The simple stains of mud, and mould, and clay,

And compound of the streets, of what we dare not say;

With hair uncomb’d, grimed face, and piteous look,

Each heavy student takes the odious book,

And on the lady casts a glance of fear,

Who draws the garment close as he comes near;


It is not explicit that the banker’s ruin has led to these scenes of poverty, but his early boasts ‘to that believing town’ (281) that he would build a canal and ‘they would owe their opulence to him’ (284) creates a note of social responsibility in the poem; a critique of the actions of wealthy.

It is back into reading that Jane’s mind escapes once she has gone mad, in an attempt to control her direction. Her delusion now is that she is a writer, the author of Scott’s Marmion and Byron’s Lara. Her madness has come about through her following the advice of another person, an act akin to the role of the reader, and so now she seeks to write, rather than read, to deliver herself to better prospects:

But most she thinks there will some good ensue

From something done, or what she is to do;

Long wrapt in silence, she will then assume

An air of business, and shake off her gloom;

Then cry exulting, “O! It must succeed,

There are ten thousand readers—all men read;

There are my writings,—you shall never spend

Your precious moments to so poor an end;


The appeal seems at first to simply be financial; that her writings might be sold to the ten thousand readers who will pay for them, but there is also the sense that writing would free her from the shame of her situation: ‘Surely a poet without shame avows’ as the act of writing is outward in its confession rather than inward (810). The act of the writer is one of control, of finding security in ‘works that cannot die’ (818) and so Jane puts herself ‘in the poet’s place’ (820). The realisation of the delusion is painful, as we see the strain that her illness places upon Lucy:

[…] Ah! Sister, do you grieve?

You weep; there’s something I have said amiss,

And vex’d my sister—What a world is this!

And how I wander!—Where has fancy run?

Is there no poem? Have I nothing done?


 Lucy’s reaction is unspoken; we see it only through Jane’s reaction to her grieving, and this delivers a melancholy realisation of the situation. Not only do we learn that Jane has not written and has not found a path out of her madness, but we also witness her making that discovery about herself. Her realisation comes back to proof; the fact that there is no poem. Crabbe writes with sympathy for the two sisters in the poem, whose situation perhaps echoes that of his wife’s sisters: Eleanor, who was considered to be mad, was looked after by Mary. In ‘The Sisters’ Crabbe moves us by Jane’s unspoken support; she grieves, but does not ever complain.

Yet the ending of the poem – an extraordinary moment in Crabbe’s verse – delivers some hope through this delusion and the act of writing. Terence Bareham suggests this passage is ‘the process by which composition and doctrine becomes confused in her mind’[3] yet in many ways it is the moment at which this confusion is reconciled. The real confusion for Jane has been in her youth, in putting too much heed by the Gothic novels she has read; she is much less ‘the victim of circumstance’[4] he suggests and more the moral sleeper upon whom circumstances have acted. In these final lines of the poem, Jane does begin to write, and Crabbe shifts the metre of the poem to reflect this. Bareham notes:

Crabbe is trying to pull off something extremely ambitious and difficult—the fusion of rhythm, ideas, language and sound into the meaning of the poetry. Behind it lies a strong sense of the dramatic.[5]

It is worth examining exactly what lies behind this passage however, because it is not simply brought about to create dramatic effect.

‘Jane, as these melancholy fits invade

The busy fancy, seeks the deepest shade;

She walks in ceaseless hurry, till her mind

Will short repose in verse and music find;

Then her own songs to some soft tunes she sings,

And laughs, and calls them melancholy things;

Not frenzy all; in some her erring Muse

Will sad, afflicting, tender strains infuse:

Sometimes on death she will her lines compose,

Or give her serious page of solemn prose;

And still those favourite plants her fancy please,

And give to care and anguish rest and ease.


‘ “Let me not have this gloomy view,

About my room, around my bed;

But morning roses, wet with dew,

To cool my burning brows instead.

As flow’rs that once in Eden grew,

Let them their fragrant spirits shed,

And every day the sweets renew,

Till I, a fading flower, am dead.


‘ “Oh! Let the herbs I loved to rear

Give to my sense their perfumed breath;

Let them be placed about my bier,

And grace the gloomy house of death.

I’ll have my grave beneath an hill,

Where only Lucy’s self shall know

Where runs the pure pellucid rill

Upon its gravelly bed below;

There violets on the borders blow,

And insects their soft light display,

Till as the morning sun-beams glow,

The cold phosphoric fires decay.


‘ “That is the grave to Lucy shown,

The soil a pure and silver sand,

The green cold moss above it grown,

Unpluck’d of all but maiden hand:

In virgin earth, till then unturn’d,

There let my maiden form be laid,

Nor let my changed clay be spurn’d,

Nor for new guest that bed be made.

(‘The Sisters’, 825-64)

 Strikingly this passage shifts from the iambic pentameter couplets common to the rest of Tales of the Hall, to mainly tetrameter octaves. Between lines 857-896, these follow the form ababcdcd; a form which is very similar to that used elsewhere by Crabbe to denote madness or dreaming, but with an important difference. The most striking feature of the form elsewhere is the couplet lines four and five, which creates a sense of disorder, of the rhyme being unable to progress beyond itself. Jane’s verse does not have this disorder; the rhyme-scheme moves from one idea to another without returning on itself. The effect of this is to create a sense of escape; finally through writing Jane in some way becomes free of circumstances.

In the form of these lines, Crabbe shows the process of her recovery. Her thinking, though melancholy, now moves on to the matter of salvation; she asks to be taken from ‘a world I hate’ to a ‘heaven of spotless love’ (889-94). Her language transfers into the future tense, asking to ‘be laid’ in the earth; her view now is directed ahead to the vision of heaven beyond. She is asking for salvation in the repetition of the word ‘let’, but does not seek any proof or feeling that this will occur; this is a marked difference from her position at the start of the poem. Crabbe does not indicate that this process is easy. The first of these stanzas takes the form: abababab which indicates Jane’s desire to find new prospects rather than the ‘gloomy view, / About my room, around my bed’. The physical location of this stanza suggests a kind of claustrophobia; her views are internal, trying to, but failing to see much further than her own bed.

In the second stanza she falters further; beginning with the ababcdcd form, she attempts to look beyond ‘the gloomy house of death’ to the hill where she might be buried, only in doing this she centres too much upon the earthly nature of her grave, on the violets and insects that grace it, and the ‘pellucid rill’ that all serve to prove how the grave will be a better place to be than her living state. She focuses on her ‘sense’, on the sensory nature of the landscape which is the distraction from the real purpose of the grave. Through doing this, the stanza extends beyond the hopeful ababcdcd form into a twelve-line stanza: ababcdcddede the lines between five and twelve replicating Crabbe’s form used to portray madness.

The verse here is not simply Crabbe creating the effect of Jane’s inner thoughts; it serves to invent for her a poetic voice. Her writing is more focused on landscape, and Jane is a Romantic in a way that Crabbe is not. The execution of this is unexpected, for we are faced with the poetic vision of a character, expressing her own verse but through Crabbe’s poetic convention. It is this that Bareham describes as ‘the dramatic’; the formation of a distinct speaking character to deliver the narrative. The form serves to show that Jane is not without hope, that through writing she has reengaged with the course toward salvation; it serves to demonstrate that though she appears mad her insistence that she is not mad is perhaps not entirely a delusion (789); yet it offers us no reassurances either. The failure of literature suggested in the poem is to offer a sense that we might know, or feel, the outcome of a character’s story. We are given no such sense from ‘The Sisters’; the poem does not return to the opening dialogue of George and Richard, nor to George’s account of her life. Neither Crabbe’s poem, nor Jane’s, offer us any conclusion about the girls’ fates; the lines merely end in the future tense of what Jane hopes will happen once she dies. As readers we expect a conclusion to the story, but whether Jane is mad or sane – whether she is saved – cannot be known. As L. J. Swingle points out, for readers:

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.[6]

We read by a process of reasoning; attempting to make sense out of ‘all we see’ and seek out from the evidence in the poem some sense of the poet’s plan. What Swingle describes is the change of notions between poems in the same collection; but in these poems addressing madness, the poet’s magnification is drawn in far closer upon the tulip. We are attempting to reason a set of notions upon a person who themself is lost to reason. That Jane looks to heaven in the final stages of the poem indicates no more than that – we may assume no soteriological conclusion, no moral, no feeling about what occurs to her as a character – our focus is drawn in upon the constituent parts of the flower.

[1] ‘The Sisters’, TotH, viii, 727.

[2] ‘Thou wert my guide, philosopher and friend’ Essay on Man, iv, 390.

[3] Bareham, George Crabbe, (London: Vision, 1977), p. 215.

[4] Ibid., p. 186.

[5] Ibid., p. 215-6.

[6] 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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