Procrastination, by George Crabbe
A look at a long 19th-century poem
George Crabbe (1754-1832) is best remembered today as the author of “Peter Grimes”, the poem that inspired Benjamin Britten to compose his greatest opera. Britten admired the poetry of a fellow Suffolk man who was born in Aldeburgh, the coastal town that became Britten’s home, and whose works portrayed the lives of many Suffolk people, both poor and middle class.
Crabbe is regarded by many as a late member of the “Augustan” age typified by poets such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope who used Classical models and forms on which to hang their satires of politics and society. Indeed, Crabbe wrote little that was not phrased in “heroic couplets” of iambic pentameters, which was the verse form used extensively by Pope. However, in terms of his subject matter and poetic purpose Crabbe leant towards the Romantics by exploring the various ways in which human character manifested itself in behaviour. George Crabbe’s poetry can be seen as transitional between the two “schools”.
“Procrastination” is typical of Crabbe’s moral tales that draw a lesson from the perverse actions of imagined characters. His “Tales, 1812” is a sequence of 21 such stories, which are not linked to each other. “Procrastination” is the fourth of the Tales. It is a long poem, at 350 lines, and the action is slow and measured. It is not, therefore, the sort of poem that a modern reader would be attracted to, which is one reason why the poems of writers such as George Crabbe have fallen out of favour.
The story concerns a young couple, Dinah and Rupert, who love each other but are persuaded by her wealthy aunt and guardian to delay their marriage until they are a bit older. This period of waiting grows ever longer, especially when the aunt falls sick and Dinah finds herself acting as companion to her.
Two things happen to add to the “procrastination”. Rupert sails away to fight for his country and seek his fortune abroad, while Dinah becomes enamoured of the rich furnishings and other objects in her aunt’s house, which she inherits when the aunt dies. Her pleasure in wealth takes precedence over her love for absent Rupert, so that when he eventually comes home many years later, having failed to make his own fortune, she rejects him.
“Procrastination” fits the bill as a moral tale and reminds one, to an extent, of a sermon. This should not come as a great surprise, given that George Crabbe was a parish priest who, every Sunday, stood in a pulpit and declaimed to a congregation of the faithful (although he was reputed to be a very tedious preacher who hated writing sermons). The tale therefore begins with an outline of its moral in twelve lines that present, in general terms, what is to follow. For example:
“More luckless still their fate, who are the prey
Of long-protracted hope and dull delay:
‘Mid plans of bliss the heavy hours pass on,
Till love is wither’d, and till joy is gone.”
At the end of the poem the moral is painted in colours that a church congregation would certainly have recognised, namely a reference to the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Who without mercy could on misery look”. Dinah is pictured, in the closing lines of the poem, turning away from Rupert who is utterly distraught by her rejection. The final line is straight out of the parable mentioned above: “She cross’d and pass’d him on the other side”.
A modern reader might be struck by the fact that all the fault is heaped by Crabbe on to Dinah and her sins of pride and avarice. However, is not Rupert also to blame for having disappeared from the scene for many years and then expecting Dinah to welcome him with open arms when he chooses to return? Not knowing that she had been turned aside by the temptations of wealth, Rupert clearly took the line that she would save herself for him and not be tempted into marriage with anyone else, thus sacrificing any chance of raising a family of her own. Surely this would have been a highly unreasonable demand, but this aspect of the story is not explored by Crabbe.
Although “Procrastination” is unsatisfactory from several points of view, such as its slow pace and the moral quandary referred to above, it is worth reading for its telling use of language to make important points. For example, in lines 90 and 91 Crabbe uses alliteration to link three words beginning with “l” that produce a sardonic effect:
“With lively joy those comforts she survey’d
And love grew languid in the careful maid.”
Crabbe is also a master of the use of rhyme to produce couplets that make their point either by drawing analogies between concepts or, in this case (lines 128-9), by indicating an antithesis:
“The thoughts of Rupert on her mind would press,
His worth she knew, but doubted his success.”
This is a couplet that Pope could very easily have written, although the poem as a whole lacks Pope’s incisiveness and high degree of wit. On the other hand, it also lacks Pope’s savagery, which is a plus point in Crabbe’s favour.
By using language in a subtle and almost offhand manner, Crabbe is able to point to Dinah’s hypocrisy and lack of true feeling as line builds on line, as in (lines 140-1):
“She knew that mothers grieved, and widows wept,
And she was sorry, said her prayers, and slept.”
However, Crabbe is also not afraid to have his characters speak their mind and make direct accusations, as when Rupert rounds on Dinah with (lines 267-8):
“Heaven’s spouse thou art not; nor can I believe
That God accepts her who will man deceive.”
Overall, this is a moral tale that avoids being moralistic. Crabbe is really more interested in exploring psychologies than in pointing the finger at sin, which is why his characters (particularly Dinah) are drawn with such care to show how the cumulative effect of years of privilege can warp the mind to produce a situation that is to nobody’s advantage. Neither party has benefitted from the procrastination, with Dinah ending the poem: “afraid / Each eye should see her, and each heart upbraid”.
On one level, “Procrastination” can be read as a development of Herrick’s “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May”, which ends:
“Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.”
In four lines, Herrick said little less than Crabbe did in 350, but Crabbe explored this concept in a way that amuses and gives food for thought, should one be willing to give him the time. This reviewer is of the opinion that the time will be well spent.