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considered as trite rather than paradoxical) in respect to the composition of tales in general, they are surely so in a peculiar degree when applied to tales composed in verse. It has been said of Chaucer by an eminent judge, that he was the first who taught his native language to express itself poetically, and that this was chiefly done by him in his tales. If for this we are to thank and commend the father of English poetry, we must, to be consistent, condemn those who, in this same walk of literature, force the muse to tread back her steps, and descend into that unconsecrated region where poets seek only to come intelligibly to the point, express themselves like men of-business, and relate their unvarnished tales, as honest men deliver matters of fact.
We have now brought our observations to a point, and we are sorry to say they center in the production which now lies before
We are the more sorry to say it, because, from the specimens which this gentleman has heretofore given us of his poetry, we are impressed with a very high respect for his genius and talents. In the present work his object seems to have been to secure himself on the side of rhyme and metre, and to leave, every thing else to chance. His poems remind us of the imitations of our English gardens, which we have formerly .observed upon the continent, in which the ingenious owners, having no conception of any mode of controuling or regulating nature but by coercing her into quincunxes and parterres, contented themselves with paling in an area of ground, and then leaving its rambling vegetation to grow up at its leisure into a forest or wilderness. We are far from intending any reflection on Mr. Crabbe's general taste, or to compare him generally with the misjudging persons to whom we have alluded; but we mean by the similitude to mark in a strong manner our sense of the mistake into which we think he has been carried, by a love somewhat too undistinguishing of nature and simplicity. In the area which Mr. Crabbe has inclosed, his most careless progress could not fail to leave the vestiges of genius, and many a magnificent feature would be sure to attest the creative hand of the proprietor.
We differ from some of his critics, who have blamed in very general terms the selection of his subjects. Fiction is not the only province of poetry. Some of its best energies have been displayed on the familiar incidents of domestic detail, the delineation of common character, and the vicissitudes of vulgar happiness and sorrow. It cannot, however, be denied, that there are some realities of existence so gross, or so trivial, as to be fairly out of the jurisdiction of the poet, and flatly incapable of any interest or embellishment. And we doubt whether it may not
with justice be imputed to Mr. Crabbe, that, without suflicierit consideration of these radical differences in the character of the subjects, which life in its ordinary walks suggests to the poet's search, he has regarded nothing as too low, too particular, too obscure, or too minute, to be swept into the inventory of his busy muse. The amiable maxim in the play “ Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” he seems to apply to himself in his character of poet.
Independently of this objection, we really feel obliged to Mr. Crabbe for giving us a little of truth instead of fiction in his poetry. We have been so long assailed by the wonderful and terrific in the poems and romances of the present day; our tranquillity has been so long disturbed by knights and wizards, by Saracens and magicians, that it is some comfort to feel ourselves with Mr. Crabbe in a whole skin among beings like ourselves, and without a hippogryph or dragon at our elbow.
If Mr. Crabbe cannot claim an equal rank with Chaucer in the variety and compass of his powers, and is below him in bold delineation of character, he has in these tales proved himself happy in seizing the little peculiarities of mind, and those strong though small complexional tints and shades, which discriminate the heroes of the cottage and the counter. For descriptive imagery his subjects have afforded him but little opportunity, but those local characteristics and striking appearances of nature or art which are connected with the interest of his narrative, he knows well how to present in their most affecting forms.
There is one distinction between the performance of Mr. Crabbe and those of the writers (we except of course the other sex) who have trod the same path before him, which we should notice as reflecting no small honour upon
muse, if we did not recollect the sacred function with which he is invested. His tales are free from every stain of indecency. In his closest copies of life he has not disgusted us with any gross exhibitions, or for the sake of gratifying a too numerous class of readers, has stooped to the indignity of titillating a loose imagination by allusions, jests, or descriptions of a vitiating or prurient tendency. We have so often spoken out upon this subject, that our readers will not be surprized at our now declaring, that with all our love of poetry and homage of genius, we would gladly consent to have all that now lives in verse of Chaucer and Prior blotted out of existence, if so we might be rid of the filthy tales which they have produced to the disgrace of their own memories, their own times, and of literature in general.
The Canterbury tales of Chaucer, like those of Boccaccio, are held together by a slender kind of connection; being put
into the mouths of persons whom a common object has aģsembled together, and who relate them in turn for the sake of amusement. The Decamerone, most of our readers know, is a collection of a hundred tales written in prose, and supposed to have been told in a little circle of seven gentlemen and three ladies, who are imagined to have retired to a sequestered place, at some distance from Florence, in 1348, for the sake of avoiding the plague, which then raged in that city. The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer may have some little advantage over the stories of Boccaccio in point of machinery. He supposes a small body of pilgrims to the number of thirty, setting out together from the metropolis to do homage at the shrine of St. Thomas of Becket; an occasion which might naturally bring together a very motley group of characters; and so he has described them, and derived from thence a fair opportunity of assorting his stories in a suitable and appropriate manner among the different relaters, each of whom furnishes something to his tale from his own peculiar habit of life, or cast of humour. If this sort of apparatus is of any importance, Gower's plan is inferior to that of either of the two we have just mentioned. His De Confessione Amantis supposes a confession of a lover to a priest of Venus, who, in return, gives the lover a great deal of advice illustrated by a variety of narratives. He is considered, however, as having furnished the hint to Chaucer of constructing a volume of metrical tales. Mr. Crabbe has made no use of any contrivance like those of his predecessors for introducing his stories. And by some, perhaps, this omission may be regretted. For ourselves, we cannot say that we enter into this regret. The manner of relating a story is, without doubt, an important agent in producing its effect upon the hearer, but it looks like a fanciful refinement to consider the reader of a tale as deriving any collateral entertainment from a secret reference in his mind to the supposed character of the narrator.
Our author's stories are all of the most simple structure. Each turns upon a single event, and is designed to impress some useful lesson of prudence, some practical moral, coupled for the most part with a vivid display of contrast in character and manners. The reader is never embarrassed by the intricacy of the narrative; the actors are few; and the hero of the tale is conducted to the catastrophe, not by a series of surprising adventures, or an unexpected coincidence, or the disclosure of a long-buried mystery; but, a character being drawn and stated, and a situation supposed, (which situation is generally a very natural
one, and such as is apt to determine a man's career of action), an ordinary train of consequences is made to follow
in a succession agreeable to experience and the course of human affairs.
It must be confessed, however, that in most of the tales simplicity exceeds its proper measure. They want the necessary stamina of a story, and are incapable of exciting curiosity, or of fixing attention. In one or two of them the main incident is too ordinary, and the moral too trite to be worth the rhymes in which they are conveyed.
Another prevailing fault we are bound to notice, as it characterises more or less every one of the 'tales, we mean an abruptness in passing from one fact, speaker, or scene, to another, leaving the chasm to be supplied by the reader as he can. By this practice, the poet has contrived, notwithstanding the simplicity of the story, to render it obscure, and to create frequent interruptions to the flow of the narrative. We do not say that sometimes this may not be done with good effect; but there is always danger that the facility with which a writer fills up in his
every break or omission, and smooths every transition, may lead him to suppose in the reader a similar promptitude ;-a mistake too obvious to be enlarged upon.
The turn of Chaucer's mind was chearful, and the gaiety of his disposition is reflected in his writings. They possess a festive humour, and a sportive variety of character, which is not found in the productions of Mr. Crabbe. The volume in our hands is not a mirror in which poor human nature, even in the social and educated man, sees a sprightly image of herself; and Mr. Crabbe must forgive us for hoping that the imperfection of the glass gives us back ourselves with some infidelity and distortion, His representation is the more painful, as it imports to be a faithful copy of living manners; and it is difficult to escape from the general sentence of degradation pronounced upon us, but by supposing the writer to speak a language dictated by a partial acquaintance with men, or provoked by particular disappointments. We are not apt to rate our fallen nature too high; but we cannot think the malignancy of conduct and temper which this volume describes so frequent in the present state of humanity, under the influence of religion and education, as to amount to inore than exceptions to a rule, and if properly only exceptions, then it appears to us that they ought not to be exhibited as specimens of human character, unless under such circumstances as make them seem to be forced into existence by extraordinary incidents, encouragements, or provocations. The heart is rather hardened than corrected by these degrading views of its character. A tacit reservation in favour of oneself prevents its operation as a lesson of humility, while it shuts up the fountains of charity and benevolence towards our fellow creatures.
We have before remarked that this volume is free from the slightest tendency to what is immoral or indecent, but we have not remarked it as being extraordinary in a person of the author's holy vocation. It would be satire to remark as extraordinary the respect for religion which appears generally through the book. But as in the other works of Mr. Crabbe, we do not remember that he found an opportunity of making known his impressions on this subject, we were the more pleased at the indications dispersed over these tales, of an union of piety with genius. They meet together with propriety in a poem, which has discarded the illusions of poetry, and undertakes the task of improving us by examples which come home to our business and bosoms.
It is quite impossible to lay a fair specimen of this performance before our readers, without extracting a whole tale or two from the book. This, however, would be a method of doing him justice, which would not leave us room to do justice to the other publications which press upon our attention. By the perusal of the tale called the Mother, the reader will be able to judge of the author's sentiments on the power of religion. The circumstances of the story display no invention, and is far from being the happiest as to style and manner. It contains, however, so pleasing and well wrought a picture of an interesting and vistuous maiden, that our female readers shall have an opportunity of being edified by it.
“A Village-maid unvex'd by want or love,