Week 188: From ‘Peter Grimes’, by George Crabbe

I tend to think of George Crabbe (1754-1832) as predominantly an eighteenth-century poet, though in fact he was active into the nineteenth, was on friendly terms with Wordsworth and the Lake poets, and was much approved by Byron. Now, I confess that the feeling I get from much eighteenth-century verse is one of claustrophobic brilliance: so deft, so accomplished, so narrowly social – you want to shout ‘Hey, guys, there’s a world out there, what about it?’. Well, with Crabbe you get the world out there all right, but the claustrophobia doesn’t get any less. In ‘Peter Grimes’ the Suffolk coastal landscape is used to devastatingly oppressive effect to mirror the entrapment of a soul damned by its own devices. This passage in particular has always seemed to me quite extraordinary in its use of that favourite eighteenth-century form, the heroic couplet, matching Pope for fluency, Swift for mordancy, yet reaching beyond both to a Shakespearean richness of language and perception.

When tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
Through the tall bounding mudbanks made their way,
Which on each side rose swelling, and below
The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide;
Where the small eels that left the deeper way
For the warm shore, within the shallows play;
Where gaping mussels, left upon the mud,
Slope their slow passage to the fallen flood;
Here dull and hopeless he’d lie down and trace
How sidelong crabs had scrawled their crooked race;
Or sadly listen to the tuneless cry
Of fishing gull or clanging goldeneye;
What time the sea birds to the marsh would come,
And the loud bittern, from the bulrush home,
Gave from the salt-ditch side the bellowing boom.
He nursed the feelings these dull scenes produce,
And loved to stop beside the opening sluice,
Where the small stream, confined in narrow bound,
Ran with a dull, unvaried, saddening sound;
Where all presented to the eye or ear
Oppressed the soul with misery, grief, and fear.

George Crabbe


2 thoughts on “Week 188: From ‘Peter Grimes’, by George Crabbe

  1. I can appreciate this; and take what you say in agreement.
    I’m no stranger to George Crabbe, but it has indeed been too long since we met. Thank so much for this.
    Against our contemp background of writersclamouring for notice, these quiet, steady, sturdy writers keep us level, on course. To use the metaphors.

  2. “neap” – low. Since the tides were low that explains the “tall bounding mudbanks” and the “gaping mussels, left upon the mud”? The passage contains two triplets: hide/tide/glide and come/home/boom.

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