There is a famous story told of the great statesman (and farmer) Marcus Cato. Despite his own fearsome reputation in war and politics, Cato professed to scorn the honor of a physical monument to his achievements. “When any seemed to wonder,” writes Plutarch, “that he should have never a statue, while many ordinary persons had one, ‘I would,’ said he, ‘much rather be asked why I have not one, than why I have one.’ ” It is not hard to imagine that eighteenth-century statesman (and farmer), Edmund Burke, uttering similar sentiments.
Cato did get his statue, nevertheless, and during his lifetime. For Burke, this particular mark of immortality took a little longer, but gradually, over the course of the past two centuries, a number of such memorials have appeared. In Beaconsfield church there is a discreet bronze wall tablet close to the Burkes’ grave. Today, a handsome statue of Burke stands in the grounds of Trinity College, Dublin; there is another in Bristol, and a third in the Houses of Parliament. Washington D.C. boasts a copy of the Bristol statue (along with an Edmund Burke School, by the way).
But monuments do not come only in metal and stone. While Cato left us the earliest Latin treatise on agriculture, De Re Rustica, and fragments of a history of Rome, Burke bequeathed an extraordinary body of literature on practical politics. Cato’s statue doubtless served to inspire certain ideals of public service among those who saw it: Burke left behind a group of disciples who strove actively (if with limited success) to apply his principles to the evolving world of high politics. Cato’s character and personal virtues have been handed down to us through the monumental Lives of Plutarch. Burke’s own character may be traced less through the pages of heroic literature than through the work of writers and artists whom he befriended and took under his
One of the most striking examples of this last type of monument is the brief but fruitful relationship between Edmund Burke and George Crabbe, the “poet of the poor.”
Early in 1781, Crabbe called at Burke’s house in London to deliver a letter seeking financial help and assistance in getting some of his poetry accepted for publication. With the letter he had enclosed samples of his verse, including some early sketches of a poem later to appear as “The Village” and a completed work entitled “The Library.” Just over a year earlier, Crabbe had abandoned his small medical practice in his native village of Aldborough, Suffolk, and had
set out for London with a little money and one small publication to his name, hoping to find an influential patron who would set him up in the literary world. Approaches to Lord North, Lord Shelburne and Lord Thurlow all failed, his money and credit ran out and, almost destitute, he was now facing prison. Burke, whom he had never met, but whose name he must have recognized as one of parliament’s most aspiring orators (and a member of the powerful Rockingham connection to boot), seems to have been his final gamble. “The night after I had delivered my letter at his door,” he wrote later, “I was in such a state of agitation that I walked Westminster Bridge backwards and forwards until day-light.”
The next morning, when he called again, Crabbe was received warmly. Burke gave him money to pay off his immediate debts and selected “The Library” to present to his own publisher, James Dodsley, for publication. Though Dodsley declined to underwrite the cost of this project, the poem appeared, to a promising critical reception, in July 1781.
In addition, aware that writing poetry would not secure a living, Burke helped to arrange for Crabbe’s ordination as a priest in the Church of England, which took place the following year. With the critical success of his second poem, “The Village,” in May 1783, Crabbe’s reputation was established, although now the pressures of his clerical career meant that he was able to communicate only briefly with Burke after that time, and, following the appearance of another poem, “The Newspaper,” in 1785, his literary output dried up until well after his patron’s death. His gratitude to Burke, however, never cooled. In 1791, he christened his fourth son Edmund Burke Crabbe; in 1807 he sent a collection of his verse to Burke’s widow, Jane, at Beaconsfield. (“Your friend,” Jane wrote in her reply, “never lost sight of worth and abilities. He found them in you, and was most happy in having it in his power to bring them forward.”) As late as 1822, he was unable to speak of events forty-one years earlier without emotion: on a visit to Sir Walter Scott at Edinburgh that year, Scott’s biographer, J.G. Lockhart, recalled that “tears stood in his eyes when he talked of Burke’s kindness to him in distress.”
Why was Burke so quickly impressed by Crabbe, and what did he find so appealing in Crabbe’s early verse? These questions are all the more intriguing, and their answers potentially all the more informative, given the abruptness of the introduction between the two men, and the short span of their personal communication.
It is not hard to find answers to the first question. Burke was surely struck by the parallels between the situation of the twenty-six-year-old Crabbe and that which he had experienced himself at a similar age. Both had thrown away careers in the professions to take their chances as writers; both pursued their ambitions far from the provinciality and intellectual restraints of their native areas; both hinted at a need to escape from the presence and expectations of an intimidating father.
They also shared a complex desire for independence—professional, personal and intellectual. That desire, an unstable mix of emotion and principle, made them restless and sensitive, fearful of becoming captive to petty routine, or cosy self-interest, or moral indifference. “He dearly loved liberty,” wrote Crabbe’s son about his father’s initial pleasure in acquiring a medical practice of his own, yet “his heart was in the land of imagination . . . and it is not wonderful that he soon began to despair altogether of succeeding in his profession.” Before long, he was “brooding . . . over the humiliating necessities of his condition.”
This desire for independence is evident in the way Crabbe put his case to Burke. His letter (which can be read in The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, Volume IV, pp. 337-39) combines to an extraordinary degree the passion of frustrated ambition with the Christian resignation of a sinner. It is a masterpiece of dignified humility. All the more ironic, then, that its purpose was to solicit favour from a politician, and that it came from the same hand that, only months before, had flattered Lord Shelburne in verse with a similar purpose in mind—“Ah! Shelburne, blest with all that’s good or great, / T’adorn a rich or save a sinking state . . .” The piquancy of the situation would not have been lost on the Marquis of Rockingham’s secretary, who evidently sympathized with the stoical spirit of the pleader: “He has the mind and feelings of a gentleman,” Burke observed to Sir Joshua Reynolds, just days after he had met the poet.
Crabbe recalled later in life that it was a passage from “The Village” that convinced Burke of his literary talents. There is a surface plausibility about the claim, as the lines in question evoke the mixed emotions of a man turning his back on the constricting, impoverished but familiar forms of his childhood home: “As on their neighbouring beach yon swallows stand, / And wait for favouring winds to leave the land; / While still for flight the ready wing is spread: / So waited I the favouring hour, and fled . . . ” But Crabbe is almost certainly misremembering, and it is more likely that Burke’s eye was taken by the largely complete, (though nowadays much lesser known,) text of “The Library” that he had to hand. In this work, the theme of independence is as significant as in “The Village,” but it is more subtle.
In “The Library,” the reader is guided through shelves of books on divinity, philosophy, physic, law, history, comedy and romance in a vain attempt to find release from the pains of real life. No flight into bookish wisdom, however, can dispel the clouds of disillusionment, cynicism, pain and sorrow. Knowledge (which is always uncertain) or recourse to the private fairyland of imagination and fiction (which, Quixote-like, only inflames the distemper), are both insufficient to calm our apprehensions. Yet pondering on their insufficiency becomes the key to our enlightenment: for it is precisely in rejecting the illusory independence that they offer, and facing, instead, the reality of the human condition, that a man can break free from the shackles of his passions and the limitations of his intellect. Crabbe is showing us that it is through submitting to the reality of the experiences we hold in common as human beings that we gain the quality of true independence and with it the strength to confront our own complacency or despair.
Although Crabbe consistently rejected “imagination” as a means of communicating truth, we need to understand that he used the word somewhat narrowly, as implying “fancy,” or the flight from reality. To Arthur Pollard, Crabbe was “the realist who recognizes universality in ordinary everyday life,” and his realism was an imagination of sorts, not unlike the faculty that Burke labeled in his Reflections on the Revolution in France the “moral imagination.” “I do not know that I could paint merely from my own fancy,” Crabbe once wrote to a correspondent, “and there is no cause why we should. Is there not diversity sufficient in society? And who can go, even but a little, into the assemblies of our fellow-wanderers from the way of perfect rectitude, and not find characters so varied and so pointed, that he need not call upon his imagination?” The point is well illustrated in “The Village,” much of which Crabbe wrote while staying as a guest of the Burkes.Here, romantic illusions about rural life are mercilessly exposed, and it is clear that this particular “little platoon,” with its narrow horizons, its chronic poverty, and its degrading injustices, is not intended as a paradigm of social order and virtue. But neither are the experiences it furnishes to be shunned by the talented and independent minded. Instead, the “village,” or “little platoon,” in all its stark reality, provides an essential education for the man who would play his part in society at large with wisdom and integrity. Here is a monumental paradox: the truly independent man, the great poet, the wise statesman, remains within his village in the very act of escaping from it.
It is a paradox of which we find strong intimations in the haunting couplet of an aspiring Irish writer, who had arrived in London to achieve his own independence thirty years before George Crabbe:
“In vain we fly from place to place to find
What not in place consists, but in the mind.”
This editorial is from Reflections, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2002), and was first published accompanying Vol. 42, No. 2 of The University Bookman.