- On the Margin of Sea and Society:Peter Grimes and Romantic Naturalism
A literary critic approaching the history of the composition of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes encounters a somewhat unusual circumstance. Normally critics arrive late in the game, and often their task, like that of an eighteenth-century doctor, is either to cure the patient or, failing that, to kill him. As often as not, they follow Mark Antony's motto: 'I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.' Peter Grimes is unusual because the first germ of the opera was provided by the novelist and critic E.M. Forster in a radio talk on the English poet George Crabbe that Britten came upon in a 1941 issue of the Listener. Although Crabbe wrote about the same part of England in which Britten had grown up, the composer was unfamiliar with his work. Britten was at that time living in California, and Forster's talk evoked, he writes in his Introduction to the opera, 'such a feeling of nostalgia for Suffolk, where I had always lived, that I searched for a copy of [Crabbe's] works, and made a beginning with The Borough' (148). Britten read Crabbe through the eyes of Forster, who was himself looking through the lens of 130 years of criticism. Since that reading is very much at the heart of the opera, and shaped Britten's understanding of why he should return to England, ultimately to settle in Crabbe's hometown, Aldeburgh, perhaps a literary critic can provide a little insight into some of the features of this opera that a musicologist might miss. Given that a literary critic helped serve as a midwife to this opera, the demands of symmetry almost require that I perform a burial, but I will avoid the temptation.
Forster wrote that Crabbe 'never escaped from Aldeburgh in spirit, and it was the making of him as a poet' (3). The opera similarly emphasizes the importance of place. When Balstrode suggests to Peter Grimes that he should leave the Borough and join the navy or merchant marine, Grimes answers that he cannot because 'I am native, rooted here.' 'Rooted by what?' Balstrode quite reasonably asks: 'By familiar fields, marsh and sand, ordinary streets, prevailing wind' (107-9). The conflicts within the character of Grimes shape this drama, but these psychological conflicts seem in many ways to reflect the harsh forces at work in his social and physical environment. Throughout the opera, Britten uses all the stage and musical resources of opera, including extensive interludes, to produce this particular environment, for more was at stake for him than the opera itself. Knowing that Aldeburgh had been central to the making of Crabbe as a poet, he must have also realized that this opera was also in many ways autobio-graphical, [End Page 636] about his own self-making. Britten faced a more difficult choice than did Grimes, for having left England, he had to decide whether to return, and the complexity of this choice is very much the mainspring of the musical and dramatic action of the opera. The composer was under no illusion about the nature of these roots, for they grew out of pain and suffering. Ellen declares to the apprentice-boy John, 'Child - you're not too young to know where the roots of sorrow are. Innocent you've learn'd how near life is to torture' (261-62). There are deep ironies in the fact that Britten would justify his own return to Aldeburgh by recounting the story of a man who fails to maintain his hold upon the land. Unable to conform to the Borough's conceptions of order and respectability, Peter Grimes takes his boat beyond the sight of land and scuttles it.
'Neglect Crabbe,' wrote Desmond Shawe-Taylor in his review of the 1945 premiere of the opera: 'If you have not just been reading "Ellen Orford" and "Peter Grimes," you will find it much easier to see these characters from the composer's standpoint; and you will be able to appreciate the libretto for the very skilful piece of work it is' (158). Shawe-Taylor was right about this...