Thursday, 13th May, 2010

“The Interdicted Space”: Dreaming and Madness in the Poetry of George Crabbe

mp3 of conference paper

[…] a melancholy or half-mad person is somewhat in the same condition with him who, not being thoroughly awake, is doubtful whether his dream be not true or something real. The difference between dreaming and madness, (which is nothing material in the present case) seems to be only this; that the bodily organs […] of mad-men are shattered, or put out of their natural frame and order: in dreamers, there is a stupor which possesseth them. But the effects are the same […]

Zachary Mayne, Two Dissertations Concerning Sense, and the Imagination: With an Essay on Consciousness,
(London: J. Tonson, 1728), p.188.

Come near,—I’ll softly speak the rest!—
Alas! ‘tis known to all the Crowd,
Her guilty Love was all confest;
And his, who so much Truth avow’d,
My faithless Friends.—In Pleasure proud
I sat, when these curs’d Tidings came;
Their Guilt, their Flight was told aloud,
And Envy smil’d to hear my Shame!

I call’d on Vengeance; at the Word
She came:—Can I the Deed forget?
I held the Sword, th’accursed Sword,
The Blood of his false Heart made wet;
And that fair Victim paid her Debt,
She pin’d, she died, she loath’d to live;—
I saw her dying—see her yet:
Fair fallen Thing! my Rage forgive!

‘Sir Eustace Grey’, 116-131.

Those Cherubs still, my Life to bless,
Were left: Could I my Fears remove,
Sad fears that check’d each fond Caress,
And poison’d all parental Love;
Yet that, with jealous Feelings strove,
And would at last have won my Will,
Had I not, Wretch! Been doom’d to prove
Th’ Extremes of mortal Good and Ill.

In Youth! Health! Joy! In Beauty’s Pride!
They droop’d: as Flowers when blighted bow,
The dire Infection came:—They died,
And I was curs’d— as I am now——
Nay, frown not, angry Friend, — allow,
That I was deeply, sorely tried;
Hear then, and you must wonder how
I could such Storms and Strifes abide.

‘Sir Eustace Grey’, 132-146.

Then I was cast from out my State;
Two Fiends of Darkness led my Way;
They wak’d me early, watch’d me late,
My dread by Night, my Plague by Day!
Oh! I was made their Sport, their Play,
Through many a stormy troubled Year,
And how they us’d their passive Prey;
Is sad to tell: but you shall hear.

‘Sir Eustace Grey’, 164-179.

There are two senses, tho’ very nearly allied, in which the expression Darkness and Light are to be understood: Darkness signifying to us the dominion of ignorance and sin, and Light that of wisdom and virtue; and in a second though closely connected sense, the evil spirits, and above all the first and greatest of these are called the powers of darkness, and the Prince of these powers. While the heavenly company of angels and ministering spirits are the children of light.

National Library of Scotland, John Murray Archive, MS. 42099.

A task very difficult, and if the presumption of the attempt may find pardon, it will not be refused to the failure of
the poet. It is said of our Shakespeare, respecting madness;

“In that circle none dare walk but he:”–

yet be it granted to one, who dares not pass the boundary fixed for common minds, at least to step near to the tremendous verge and form some idea of the terrors that are stalking in the interdicted space.

Preface, Poems, (1807)

I returned late last night, and my reflections were as cheerful as such company could make them, and not, I am afraid, of the most humiliating kind; yet, for the first time these many nights, I was incommoded by dreams, such as would cure vanity for a time in any mind where they could gain admission. Some of Baxter’s mortifying spirits whispered very singular combinations. None, indeed, that actually did happen in the very worst of times, but still with a formidable resemblance.

George Crabbe, 21st July 1817, in Selected Letters and Journals of George Crabbe, p. 211.

Sunday, 12th July, 2009


from ‘The World of Dreams’

And is thy soul so wrapt in sleep?
Thy senses, thy affections, fled?
No play of fancy thine, to keep
Oblivion from that grave, thy bed?
Then art thou but the breathing dead:
I envy, but I pity too:
The bravest may my terrors dread,
The happiest fain my joys pursue.

Soon as the real World I lose,
Quick Fancy takes her wonted way,
Or Baxter’s sprites my soul abuse –
For how it is I cannot say,
Nor to what powers a passive prey,
I feel such bliss, I fear such pain;
But all is gloom, or all is gay,
Soon as th’ ideal World I gain.

Come, then, I woo thee, sacred Sleep!
Vain troubles of the world, farewell!
Spirits of Ill! your distance keep –
And in your own dominions dwell,
Ye, the sad emigrants from hell!
Watch, dear seraphic beings, round,
And these black Enemies repel;
Safe be my soul, my slumbers sound!

In vain I pray! It is my sin
That thus admits the shadowy throng.
Oh! now they break tumultuous in –
Angels of darkness fierce and strong.
Oh! I am borne of fate along;
My soul, subdued, admits the foe,
Perceives and yet endures the wrong,
Resists, and yet prepares to go.

Where am I now? and what to meet?
Where I have been entrapt before:
The wicked city’s vilest street,–
I know what I must now explore.
The dark-brow’d throng more near and more,
With murderous looks are on me thrust,
And lo! they ope the accursed door,
And I must go – I know I must!

That female fiend! – Why is she there?
Alas! I know her. – Oh, begone!
Why is that tainted bosom bare,
Why fix’d on me that eye of stone?
Why have they left us thus alone?
I saw the deed – why then appear?
Thou art not form’d of blood and bone!
Come not, dread being, come not near!

So! all is quiet, calm, serene;
I walk a noble mansion round –
From room to room, from scene to scene,
I breathless pass, in gloom profound:
No human shape, no mortal sound –
I feel an awe, I own a dread,
And still proceed! – nor stop nor bound –
And all is silent, all is dead.

Now I’m hurried, borne along,
All is business! all alive!
Heavens! how mighty is the throng,
Voices humming like a hive!
Through the swelling crowd I strive,
Bustling forth my way to trace:
Never fated to arrive
At the still-expected place.

George Crabbe, ‘The World of Dreams’ in The Complete Poetical Works, ed. by Norma Dalrymple-Champneys and Arthur Pollard, 3 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1988) III, pp.246-255.

Thursday, 9th July, 2009


“I returned late last night, and my reflections were as cheerful as such company could make them, and not, I am afraid, of the most humiliating kind; yet, for the first time these many nights, I was incommoded by dreams, such as would cure vanity for a time in any mind where they could gain admission. Some of Baxter’s mortifying spirits whispered very singular combinations. None, indeed, that actually did happen in the very worst of times, but still with a formidable resemblance. It is doubtless very proper to have the mind thus brought to a sense of its real and very possible alliances, and the evils it has encountered, or might have had; but why these images should be given at a time when the thoughts, the waking thoughts, were of so opposite a nature, I cannot account. So it was. Awake, I had been with the high, the apparently happy: we were very cheerful. Asleep, all was misery and degradation, not my own only, but of those who had been. — That horrible image of servility and baseness — that mercenary and commercial manner! It is the work of imagination, I suppose; but it is very strange. I must leave it.”

George Crabbe, journal entry of 21st July 1817, in Selected Letters and Journals of George Crabbe, ed. by Thomas C. Faulkner, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 221.

Tuesday, 7th July, 2009


The purpose of this blog, when it first occurred to me that it should come into being, was to be a repository for things that I come across while working that interest me and seem crucial in the formation of other ideas. It was also to serve as a backdrop to various different projects, as a place to reflect on them.

So far, it has concentrated exclusively in the former, and specifically in texts relating to the discussion of dreaming in the eighteenth century. However, I’m still going to try and reflect from time to time, and to make clear the distinction; these posts shall appear in a mossy green text.

The concern with dreaming is largely what I’ve been working on at the moment, and it’s a wide and fascinating discussion, which gives a sense of the background upon which Crabbe was writing, thinking, and indeed dreaming.

One of the greatest discoveries during this work has been Lucia Dacome, who has written intelligently and passionately on the subject. It has been instructive to read her, especially in the points she makes on the close parallels between views on dreaming, madness and religious enthusiasm held at this time. That she makes the firm connection between madness and dreaming, is the point that I was fumbling towards, but this all fits with Crabbe’s unease with enthusiasm, too – there is a murmur of that in ‘Eustace Grey’, a poem which deals primarily with madness and waking apparitions, but I still need to examine it more closely to work through that zealous vein.

Dacome’s writing has also been quite encouraging in verifying what I hoped was right. Down to finding that I’d selected the same passages from Locke to concentrate on as her, it’s nice to feel like you’ve been pointing in the right direction.

What’s interesting at the moment is how little the thinking on this subject seemed to have moved on during the C18. The majority of the discussion occurs in the 1730s, but by the 1820s, Crabbe and Coleridge were both still turning to Andrew Baxter’s Enquiry into the Nature of the Human Soul (1737) as a means of explaining their troubled dreams. It’s partly that Baxter’s views seem crudely superstitious against a lot of Crabbe’s other thinking which makes it so surprising, but it’s also the progression of time, that in a hundred years, we expect the thinking on psychology to have developed more. Yet our own views on the subject are probably only subtle progressions on Freud’s. I quite like the thought that in a couple of hundred years someone would look back on our own conceptions of the world and the mind – which we firmly believe (and have to believe) now to be more-or-less correct, only lacking the bits we’re yet to find out – and think how quaintly naïve, how fundamentally superstitious, the 21st century thinker was.

Monday, 29th June, 2009


“[…] when all is at rest and silent, and the impressions on the sensory designedly sealed up from the view of the mind; it is easy […] to make new and foreign impressions on the sensory; nothing else acting upon it at the same time. And these impressions must be perceived; for the soul is still active and percipient; and its perceptivity is now no other way solicited by any thing external. And the register of former impressions being sealed up from its view, these new impressions must be perceived without memory of what hath passed before: and therefore they must be perceived as caused by real external objects, such as usually make impressions upon the sensory.


“A set of new objects is immediately presented to it, and that succeeded by another, and that still by another, with greater variety and latitude of nature, than what it perceives by the in-let of the senses; for a new creation of things, of different species and other natures, really beyond the licence of the Painter or the Poet’s imagination, is now offered to it, or forced upon it.

“To say the soul acts without willing the action, hath been shewn […] to be repugnant: and since willing is one species of consciousness, or thinking; not to be conscious of our own willing, is not to be conscious of our own consciousness.”

Andrew Baxter, An Enquiry into the Nature of the Human Soul: Wherein the Immateriality of the Soul is evinced from the Principles of Reason and Philosophy, 2nd edn, 2 vols (London: A. Miller, 1737) II, pp. 8-14

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