Friday, 10th September, 2010

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been summarizing accounts of writers who claimed Crabbe as an influence. Joyce. Forster. Pound. Most recently I’ve been trying to track down any physical proof of V.S. Pritchett’s claim that Turgenev translated Crabbe into Russian. Turgenev certainly knew of, and liked, Crabbe’s poetry. The Suffolk clergyman had been celebrated in a series of essays by Turgenev’s friend Alexander Druzhinin, who held him up as a model for the Russian writers to emulate:

In order to curb the flood of false naturalness it is most useful to study the genius of the sensible naturalists, among whom Crabbe [...] holds first place.

However, whether or not Turgenev actually translated him, I can find no evidence, and for the moment need to lay the matter to one side.

In a sense it’s a strange thing to be doing, rooting through people’s letters and libraries for evidence of having read one poet. Finding a reference doesn’t necessarily mean they liked him, it certainly doesn’t mean he influenced their work. But in some instances it’s clear; Dickens reworks an entire Crabbe poem into a short story. James Joyce is effusive in his praise. In other cases, George Eliot say, remembering reading him as a youth, you have to recognise that he was just another writer amongst many who may, or may not, have made a mark.

And then you come across something like this, and you wish more people did it, an open admission: future reader, don’t look at me, I know nothing of Crabbe:

And I can’t intend to funk it: I mean I will, if you will permit, be really serious and utter what I have gathered in my journey as to the sad and unillumined thing that is a life devoted to the humaner letters. I don’t know who you are. You may, I mean, be intending to devote yourselves to studious careers— to casting light on the love letters of Keats, the autobiography of Chaucer or the bibliography of Crabbe. In that case I have nothing to say to you: those are, what again the late Mr. James would have called, parages I know nothing of, for I have concerned myself in life solely with literature as a means of expression. So, if you are the future archivists, librarians or text emendators of the world I can be of no use to you. But I hope that some of you – indeed I hope still more that all of you – cherish within your hearts the ambition to hand on the sacred fire of imaginative writing.

“The Literary Life” a lecture given by Ford Madox Ford

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