A fresh, thoroughly enjoyable, and much-needed account of the early English Romantic, a favorite with his fellow poets.
Hailing from storm-tossed coast of East Anglia—his hometown of Aldeburgh now lies beneath the North Sea—Crabbe (1754–1832) was the son of a salt-tax collector with thwarted intellectual ambitions. Unfit for the usual sea-vessel work as a warehouseman, young George was educated first to become a surgeon, at which he did not excel, and then as a Church of England curate. His first attempts at poetry, The Library and The Village, reveal Augustan high-handedness; he was well-steeped in the works of Milton and Pope. But Crabbe was no rationalist son of the Enlightenment: his intense interest in botany (“Give me a wild, wide fen, in a foggy day”), use of opium, gloomy temper, and marriage to a woman inclined toward mental instability all helped produce the astonishing work of Romantic sensibility that would make his name. “Peter Grimes,” a poem about a melancholy old fisherman whose young apprentice boys disappear under suspicious circumstances, went on to haunt the imagination of E.M. Forster and Benjamin Britten, whose opera rescued Crabbe's work from becoming “dead as mutton,” as Somerset Maugham put it. With the death of his wife, Crabbe moved to Trowbridge and developed epistolary flirtations with young ladies; he made friends with Walter Scott and eventually trekked to Scotland. Although Crabbe’s work became unfashionable—and still is; the most recent biography was Neville Blackburne's The Restless Ocean, in 1972—Powell makes a persuasive case for his importance to such later writers as Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy, as well as Philip Larkin in the 20th century.
British poet and biographer Powell (Roy Fuller, not reviewed) displays an impressive knowledge of his subject and a delight in close reading of the texts that make this a surprisingly accessible biography.