The Borough. Letter XXII: Peter Grimes

Original Text: 
George Crabbe, The Borough: A Poem in Twenty-four Letters (London: J. Hatchard, 1810). B-10 1053 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
2His wife he cabin'd with him and his boy,
3And seem'd that life laborious to enjoy:
4To town came quiet Peter with his fish,
5And had of all a civil word and wish.
6He left his trade upon the sabbath-day,
7And took young Peter in his hand to pray:
8But soon the stubborn boy from care broke loose,
9At first refused, then added his abuse:
10His father's love he scorn'd, his power defied,
11But being drunk, wept sorely when he died.
12     Yes! then he wept, and to his mind there came
13Much of his conduct, and he felt the shame,--
14How he had oft the good old man reviled,
15And never paid the duty of a child;
16How, when the father in his Bible read,
17He in contempt and anger left the shed:
18"It is the word of life," the parent cried;
19--"This is the life itself," the boy replied;
20And while old Peter in amazement stood,
21Gave the hot spirit to his boiling blood:--
22How he, with oath and furious speech, began
23To prove his freedom and assert the man;
24And when the parent check'd his impious rage,
25How he had cursed the tyranny of age,--
26Nay, once had dealt the sacrilegious blow
27On his bare head, and laid his parent low;
28The father groan'd--"If thou art old," said he,
29"And hast a son--thou wilt remember me:
30Thy mother left me in a happy time,
31Thou kill'dst not her--Heav'n spares the double-crime."
32     On an inn-settle, in his maudlin grief,
33This he revolved, and drank for his relief.
34     Now lived the youth in freedom, but debarr'd
35From constant pleasure, and he thought it hard;
36Hard that he could not every wish obey,
37But must awhile relinquish ale and play;
38Hard! that he could not to his cards attend,
39But must acquire the money he would spend.
40     With greedy eye he look'd on all he saw,
41He knew not justice, and he laugh'd at law;
42On all he mark'd he stretch'd his ready hand;
43He fish'd by water, and he filch'd by land:
44Oft in the night has Peter dropp'd his oar,
45Fled from his boat and sought for prey on shore;
46Oft up the hedge-row glided, on his back
47Bearing the orchard's produce in a sack,
48Or farm-yard load, tugg'd fiercely from the stack;
49And as these wrongs to greater numbers rose,
50The more he look'd on all men as his foes.
51     He built a mud-wall'd hovel, where he kept
52His various wealth, and there he oft-times slept;
53But no success could please his cruel soul,
54He wish'd for one to trouble and control;
55He wanted some obedient boy to stand
56And bear the blow of his outrageous hand;
57And hoped to find in some propitious hour
58A feeling creature subject to his power.
59     Peter had heard there were in London then,--
60Still have they being!--workhouse clearing men,
61Who, undisturb'd by feelings just or kind,
62Would parish-boys to needy tradesmen bind:
63They in their want a trifling sum would take,
64And toiling slaves of piteous orphans make.
65     Such Peter sought, and when a lad was found,
66The sum was dealt him, and the slave was bound.
67Some few in town observed in Peter's trap
68A boy, with jacket blue and woollen cap;
69But none inquired how Peter used the rope,
70Or what the bruise, that made the stripling stoop;
71None could the ridges on his back behold,
72None sought his shiv'ring in the winter's cold;
73None put the question,--"Peter, dost thou give
74The boy his food?--What, man! the lad must live:
75Consider, Peter, let the child have bread,
76He'll serve thee better if he's stroked and fed."
77None reason'd thus--and some, on hearing cries,
78Said calmly, "Grimes is at his exercise."
80His efforts punish'd and his food refused,--
81Awake tormented,--soon aroused from sleep,--
82Struck if he wept, and yet compell'd to weep,
83The trembling boy dropp'd down and strove to pray,
84Received a blow, and trembling turn'd away,
85Or sobb'd and hid his piteous face;--while he,
86The savage master, grinn'd in horrid glee:
87He'd now the power he ever loved to show,
88A feeling being subject to his blow.
89     Thus lived the lad, in hunger, peril, pain,
90His tears despised, his supplications vain:
91Compell'd by fear to lie, by need to steal,
92His bed uneasy and unbless'd his meal,
93For three sad years the boy his tortures bore,
94And then his pains and trials were no more.
95     "How died he, Peter?" when the people said,
96He growl'd--"I found him lifeless in his bed;"
97Then tried for softer tone, and sigh'd, "Poor Sam is dead."
98Yet murmurs were there, and some questions ask'd,--
99How he was fed, how punish'd, and how task'd?
100Much they suspected, but they little proved,
101And Peter pass'd untroubled and unmoved.
102     Another boy with equal ease was found,
103The money granted, and the victim bound;
104And what his fate?--One night it chanced he fell
105From the boat's mast and perish'd in her well.
106Where fish were living kept, and where the boy
107(So reason'd men) could not himself destroy:--
108     "Yes! so it was," said Peter, "in his play,
109(For he was idle both by night and day,)
110He climb'd the main-mast and then fell below;"--
111Then show'd his corpse and pointed to the blow:
112"What said the jury?"--they were long in doubt,
113But sturdy Peter faced the matter out:
114So they dismiss'd him, saying at the time,
115"Keep fast your hatchway when you've boys who climb."
116This hit the conscience, and he colour'd more
117Than for the closest questions put before.
118     Thus all his fears the verdict set aside,
119And at the slave-shop Peter still applied.
120     Then came a boy, of manners soft and mild,--
121Our seamen's wives with grief beheld the child;
122All thought (the poor themselves) that he was one
123Of gentle blood, some noble sinner's son,
124Who had, belike, deceived some humble maid,
125Whom he had first seduced and then betray'd:
126However this, he seem'd a gracious lad,
127In grief submissive and with patience sad.
128     Passive he labour'd, till his slender frame
129Bent with his loads, and he at length was lame:
130Strange that a frame so weak could bear so long
131The grossest insult and the foulest wrong;
132But there were causes--in the town they gave
133Fire, food, and comfort, to the gentle slave;
134And though stern Peter, with a cruel hand,
135And knotted rope, enforced the rude command,
136Yet he considered what he'd lately felt,
137And his vile blows with selfish pity dealt.
138     One day such draughts the cruel fisher made,
139He could not vend them in his borough-trade,
140But sail'd for London-mart: the boy was ill,
141But ever humbled to his master's will;
142And on the river, where they smoothly sail'd,
143He strove with terror and awhile prevail'd;
144But new to danger on the angry sea,
145He clung affrighten'd to his master's knee:
146The boat grew leaky and the wind was strong,
147Rough was the passage and the time was long;
148His liquor fail'd, and Peter's wrath arose,--
149No more is known--the rest we must suppose,
150Or learn of Peter;--Peter says, he "spied
151The stripling's danger and for harbour tried;
152Meantime the fish, and then th' apprentice died."
153     The pitying women raised a clamour round,
154And weeping said, "Thou hast thy 'prentice drown'd."
155     Now the stern man was summon'd to the hall,
156To tell his tale before the burghers all:
157He gave th' account; profess'd the lad he loved,
158And kept his brazen features all unmoved.
159     The mayor himself with tone severe replied,
160"Henceforth with thee shall never boy abide;
161Hire thee a freeman, whom thou durst not beat,
162But who, in thy despite, will sleep and eat:
163Free thou art now!--again shouldst thou appear,
164Thou'lt find thy sentence, like thy soul, severe."
165     Alas! for Peter not a helping hand,
166So was he hated, could he now command;
167Alone he row'd his boat, alone he cast
168His nets beside, or made his anchor fast;
169To hold a rope or hear a curse was none,--
170He toil'd and rail'd; he groan'd and swore alone.
171     Thus by himself compell'd to live each day,
172To wait for certain hours the tide's delay;
173At the same times the same dull views to see,
174The bounding marsh-bank and the blighted tree;
175The water only, when the tides were high,
176When low, the mud half-cover'd and half-dry;
177The sun-burnt tar that blisters on the planks,
178And bank-side stakes in their uneven ranks;
179Heaps of entangled weeds that slowly float,
180As the tide rolls by the impeded boat.
181     When tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
183Which on each side rose swelling, and below
184The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;
185There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
186There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
187In its hot slimy channel slowly glide;
188Where the small eels that left the deeper way
189For the warm shore, within the shallows play;
190Where gaping mussels, left upon the mud,
191Slope their slow passage to the fallen flood;--
192Here dull and hopeless he'd lie down and trace
193How sidelong crabs had scrawl'd their crooked race;
194Or sadly listen to the tuneless cry
195Of fishing gull or clanging golden-eye;
196What time the sea-birds to the marsh would come,
197And the loud bittern, from the bulrush home,
198Gave from the salt-ditch side the bellowing boom:
199He nursed the feelings these dull scenes produce,
200And loved to stop beside the opening sluice;
201Where the small stream, confined in narrow bound,
202Ran with a dull, unvaried, sadd'ning sound;
203Where all, presented to the eye or ear,
204Oppress'd the soul with misery, grief, and fear.
205     Besides these objects, there were places three,
206Which Peter seem'd with certain dread to see;
207When he drew near them he would turn from each,
209     A change of scene to him brought no relief;
210In town, 'twas plain, men took him for a thief:
211The sailors' wives would stop him in the street,
212And say, "Now, Peter, thou'st no boy to beat":
213Infants at play, when they perceived him, ran,
214Warning each other--"That's the wicked man":
215He growl'd an oath, and in an angry tone
216Cursed the whole place and wish'd to be alone.
217     Alone he was, the same dull scenes in view,
218And still more gloomy in his sight they grew:
219Though man he hated, yet employ'd alone
220At bootless labour, he would swear and groan,
221Cursing the shoals that glided by the spot,
222And gulls that caught them when his arts could not.
223     Cold nervous tremblings shook his sturdy frame,
224And strange disease--he couldn't say the name;
225Wild were his dreams, and oft he rose in fright,
226Waked by his view of horrors in the night,--
227Horrors that would the sternest minds amaze,
228Horrors that demons might be proud to raise:
229And though he felt forsaken, grieved at heart,
230To think he lived from all mankind apart;
231Yet, if a man approach'd, in terrors he would start.
232     A winter pass'd since Peter saw the town,
233And summer-lodgers were again come down;
234These, idly curious, with their glasses spied
235The ships in bay as anchor'd for the tide,--
236The river's craft,--the bustle of the quay,--
237And sea-port views, which landmen love to see.
238     One, up the river, had a man and boat
239Seen day by day, now anchor'd, now afloat;
240Fisher he seemed, yet used no net nor hook;
241Of sea-fowl swimming by no heed he took,
242But on the gliding waves still fix'd his lazy look:
243At certain stations he would view the stream,
244As if he stood bewilder'd in a dream,
245Or that some power had chain'd him for a time,
246To feel a curse or meditate on crime.
247     This known, some curious, some in pity went,
248And others question'd--"Wretch, dost thou repent?"
249He heard, he trembled, and in fear resign'd
250His boat: new terror fill'd his restless mind;
251Furious he grew, and up the country ran,
252And there they seized him--a distemper'd man:--
253Him we received, and to a parish-bed,
254Follow'd and curs'd, the groaning man was led.
255     Here when they saw him, whom they used to shun,
256A lost, lone man, so harass'd and undone;
257Our gentle females, ever prompt to feel,
258Perceived compassion on their anger steal;
259His crimes they could not from their memories blot,
260But they were grieved, and trembled at his lot.
261     A priest too came, to whom his words are told
262And all the signs they shudder'd to behold.
263     "Look! look!" they cried; "his limbs with horror shake.
264And as he grinds his teeth, what noise they make!
265How glare his angry eyes, and yet he's not awake:
266See! what cold drops upon his forehead stand,
267And how he clenches that broad bony hand."
268     The priest attending, found he spoke at times
269As one alluding to his fears and crimes:
270"It was the fall," he mutter'd, "I can show
271The manner how--I never struck a blow":--
272And then aloud--"Unhand me, free my chain;
273An oath, he fell--it struck him to the brain:--
274Why ask my father?--that old man will swear
275Against my life; besides, he wasn't there:--
276What, all agreed?--Am I to die to-day?--
277My Lord, in mercy, give me time to pray."
278     Then, as they watch'd him, calmer he became,
279And grew so weak he couldn't move his frame,
280But murmuring spake,--while they could see and hear
281The start of terror and the groan of fear;
282See the large dew-beads on his forehead rise,
283And the cold death-drop glaze his sunken eyes;
284Nor yet he died, but with unwonted force
285Seem'd with some fancied being to discourse:
286He knew not us, or with accustom'd art
287He hid the knowledge, yet exposed his heart;
288'Twas part confession, and the rest defence,
289A madman's tale, with gleams of waking sense.
290     "I'll tell you all," he said, "the very day
291When the old man first placed them in my way:
292My father's spirit--he who always tried
293To give me trouble, when he lived and died--
294When he was gone, he could not be content
295To see my days in painful labour spent,
296But would appoint his meetings, and he made
297Me watch at these, and so neglect my trade.
298     "'Twas one hot noon, all silent, still, serene,
299No living being had I lately seen;
300I paddled up and down and dipp'd my net,
301But (such his pleasure) I could nothing get,--
302A father's pleasure, when his toil was done,
303To plague and torture thus an only son!
304And so I sat and look'd upon the stream,
305How it ran on, and felt as in a dream:
306But dream it was not: no!--I fix'd my eyes
307On the mid stream and saw the spirits rise,
308I saw my father on the water stand,
309And hold a thin pale boy in either hand;
310And there they glided ghastly on the top
311Of the salt flood, and never touch'd a drop:
312I would have struck them, but they knew th' intent,
313And smiled upon the oar, and down they went.
314     "Now, from that day, whenever I began
315To dip my net, there stood the hard old man--
316He and those boys: I humbled me and pray'd
317They would be gone;--they heeded not, but stay'd;
318Nor could I turn, nor would the boat go by,
319But gazing on the spirits, there was I:
320They bade me leap to death, but I was loth to die:
321And every day, as sure as day arose,
322Would these three spirits meet me ere the close;
323To hear and mark them daily was my doom,
324And 'Come' they said, with weak, sad voices, 'come'.
325To row away with all my strength I tried,
326But there were they, hard by me in the tide,
327The three unbodied forms--and 'Come', still 'come', they cried.
328     "Fathers should pity--but this old man shook
329His hoary locks, and froze me by a look:
330Thrice, when I struck them, through the water came
331A hollow groan, that weaken'd all my frame:
332'Father!' said I, 'have mercy':--He replied,
333I know not what--the angry spirit lied,--
334'Didst thou not draw thy knife?' said he:--'Twas true,
335But I had pity and my arm withdrew:
336He cried for mercy which I kindly gave,
337But he has no compassion in his grave.
338     "There were three places, where they ever rose,--
339The whole long river has not such as those,--
340Places accursed, where, if a man remain,
341He'll see the things which strike him to the brain;
342And there they made me on my paddle lean,
343And look at them for hours;--accursed scene!
344When they would glide to that smooth eddy-space,
345Then bid me leap and join them in the place;
346And at my groans each little villain sprite
347Enjoy'd my pains and vanish'd in delight.
348     "In one fierce summer-day, when my poor brain
349Was burning hot, and cruel was my pain,
350Then came this father-foe, and there he stood
351With his two boys again upon the flood;
352There was more mischief in their eyes, more glee
353In their pale faces when they glared at me:
354Still did they force me on the oar to rest,
355And when they saw me fainting and oppress'd,
356He, with his hand, the old man, scoop'd the flood,
357And there came flame about him mix'd with blood;
358He bade me stoop and look upon the place,
359Then flung the hot-red liquor in my face;
360Burning it blazed, and then I roar'd for pain,
361I thought the demons would have turn'd my brain.
362     "Still there they stood, and forced me to behold
363A place of horrors--they cannot be told--
364Where the flood open'd, there I heard the shriek
365Of tortured guilt--no earthly tongue can speak:
366'All days alike! for ever!' did they say,
367'And unremitted torments every day'--
368Yes, so they said":--But here he ceased and gazed
369On all around, affrighten'd and amazed;
370And still he tried to speak, and look'd in dread
371Of frighten'd females gathering round his bed;
372Then dropp'd exhausted, and appear'd at rest,
373Till the strong foe the vital powers possess'd:
374Then with an inward, broken voice he cried,
375"Again they come," and mutter'd as he died.


1] The Borough, published in 1810, is a long poem in twenty-four books or letters, These books give successively a detailed description of the place, the church, vicar, curate, sects, elections, professions, trades, amusements, clubs, inns, players, alms-house with accounts of the inhabitants (four books), the hospital with its governors, the poor and their dwellings, various characters (like Peter Grimes) among the poor (four books), prisons and schools. Back to Line
79] Pinn'd. Confined. Back to Line
182] When tides were neap. Soon after the first and third quarters of the moon, when high-water level stands at its lowest point. Back to Line
208] reach. A stretch of a river visible in one view. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
G. G. Falle
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.266.