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.

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.

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