George Crabbe was born in 1754 in the then impoverished village of Aldeburgh where his father pursued that most unpopular of professions: he was a tax collector. George developed a great love of poetry as a child but at the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to a local doctor, medicine being viewed as a much more likely source of regular income than writing verses. However, he gained little medical knowledge in Aldeburgh so he changed masters and moved to Woodbridge where he met his future wife, Sarah Elmy who was to become a life-long encourager of her husband's writing and helped him to overcome the inevitable rejections which writing poetry involves. Like many major poets throughout history, Crabbe decided to self-publish his first collection of poems which met with little attention.
Having completed his medical training, he recklessly decided to abandon a medical career and devote his life to poetry. In 1780, he travelled to London in the hope of gaining a foothold in the literary establishment. After months of virtual destitution, he wrote a pleading letter to the highly influential statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke who, admiring Crabbe's writing, helped him have his long poem, The Library published. It was also Burke who perceived Crabbe's religious sensibility and persuaded Crabbe to enter the church and he was ordained as a clergyman and eventually appointed as chaplain to the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire.
Crabbe's best known works are the long narrative poems, The Village, published in 1783 and The Borough in 1810. Crabbe was a great admirer of Alexander Pope and, like Pope, he preferred to write in rhyming couplets. The Borough is based on Crabbe's early life in Aldeburgh and is written is a series of twenty-four letters, each illustrating a different aspect of village life which is depicted in a realistic and unromantic manner, in sharp contrast to the pastoral tradition of English verse. The character of Peter Grimes who appears in Letter XXII inspired the opera by Benjamin Britten which is regarded as one of the greatest operas of the twentieth century. However, the Peter Grimes of the opera is a more sympathetic figure than in the poem where he is portrayed as a sadistic and pitiless man: Crabbe wrote of him:
The mind here exhibited is one untouched by pity, unstung by remorse, and uncorrected by shame . . his spirit broken by want, disease, solitude and disappointment . . .
Through elegant rhyming couplets, Crabbe depicts a shocking world of poverty and brutality relieved only by the beauties of the natural world. Indeed, Crabbe was a minute observer of nature and wrote a study of insects. At Trowbridge, many of his poems were written while sitting under a mulberry tree in the rectory gardens.
Like many respectable figures of his time, Crabbe imbibed opium throughout his entire adult life with no apparent ill effects although one cannot know what effect this had on his perceptions and on his poetry.
Crabbe gained many notable admirers in his lifetime: he was said to be Jane Austen's favourite poet; he had a profound influence on the poetry and prose of Thomas Hardy. Lord Byron justly said of him that he was nature's sternest painter yet the best.
George Crabbe is buried in the sanctuary of St. James' Church in Trowbridge and there is a memorial to him in the north wall of the chancel.
There is a monument to Suffolk's greatest poet in Aldeburgh which is now also the fitting place for the George Crabbe Competition award ceremony and lunch each October.
Here is an extract from The Borough, Letter XXII, Peter Grimes