I cannot claim many similarities with the poet George Crabbe (1754-1832), but we both began our school careers at Bungay in Suffolk. Crabbe was sent as a boarder to Bungay Grammar School from his home in Aldeburgh. I was sent as a day boy to St Mary’s School from my home in Poringland. St Mary’s was not an old-established school; in Crabbe’s time the house would have been newly built as the rectory of St Mary’s parish church. Bungay Grammar School on the other hand was a long-established school, having been founded in the year 1565. St Mary’s School may not have been very old, but the connection of the Grammar School with St Mary’s in one sense goes back to the mid-sixteenth century; the Grammar School was originally set up in St Mary’s churchyard.
What gives me a real sense of identity with George Crabbe however is the fact that from the late sixteenth century, when it left St Mary’s churchyard, until 1925 the Grammar School was in Earsham Street, only a few doors along from St Mary’s rectory (later St Mary’s School). The Grammar School buildings were demolished in 1937 and the Post Office was built there in 1940, where it remains. It is rather rewarding to think of centuries of schoolboys making their way along Outney Road to play on the common. This has ended now as not only is there now no school in Earsham Street but the new bypass has divided the town from the common. I was one of the last schoolboys to play cricket and football there in 1959; as doubtless George Crabbe had played games some 200 years earlier. But we must not get too carried away by the past and by the schools in Bungay. Crabbe was soon moved on the rather grander Grammar School at Stowmarket, and I too moved from St Mary’s to a better known boarding school in Norfolk.
After leaving school George Crabbe did his apprenticeship as a surgeon, but his heart was in the writing of poetry. Poetry however does not pay the rent. He could not find a publisher who was interested in his work, and in desperation he wrote to the politician Edmund Burke. Burke was impressed and promised to help him all he could, and this encouraged the young man. He also suggested that as way of paying his way in the world a career in the church would suit him. Crabbe became Chaplain to the Duke of Rutland.
In due course he found a publisher for his work, and became a confidante of Dr Johnson. This extract is taken from Boswell’s Life of Johnson:
Soon after this time I had an opportunity of seeing, by means of one of his friends, a proof that his talents, as well as his obliging service to authours, were as ready as ever. He had revised “The Village”, an admirable poem by the Reverend Mr Crabbe. Its sentiments as to the false notions of rustick happiness and rustick virtue were quite congenial with his own; and he had taken the trouble not only to suggest slight corrections and variations, but to furnish some lines, when he could give the writer’s meaning better than in the manuscript.
This was written in 1784 near the end of Johnson ‘s life, when he was 74 and Crabbe was a young man of 29. Crabbe’s style of heroic couplets is no longer popular although his subject matter of the lives ordinary people is more so. We would perhaps not be so familiar with his name had not Benjamin Britten taken his character Peter Grimes, from the poem The Borough, as the subject matter for the libretto of his 1945 opera of that name.