It’s the vilest thing in the world to have but one coat

George Crabbe by Henry William Pickersgill
NPG 1495 © National Portrait Gallery, London

George Crabbe was determined to become a successful poet. So much so that in April of 1780, aged twenty-five, he left his career in medicine and moved to London where he could focus entirely on the craft he so wanted to master. It was at this moment that he began a journal in which to chart his progress, addressed to—and mainly for the benefit of—his long-suffering fiancee, Sarah ‘Mira’ Elmy, and during the three months it lasted, he wrote entertainingly of the daily grind. This entry came a month in—a difficult day on which he was selling his surgical instruments to raise money and attempting to fix his only coat.

The Diary Entry

18 May—A day of bustle—twenty shillings to pay a tailor, when the stock amounted to thirteen and three-pence. Well—there were instruments to part with, that fetched no less than eight shillings but twenty-one shillings and three-pence would yet be so poor a superfluity, that the Muse would never visit till the purse was recruited; for, say men what they will, she does not love empty pockets nor poor living. Now, you must know, my watch was mortgaged for less than it ought; so I redeemed and repledged it, which has made me—the tailor paid and the day’s expenses—at this instant worth (let me count my cash) ten shillings—a rare case, and most bountiful provision of fortune!

It’s the vilest thing in the world to have but one coat. My only one has happened with a mischance, and how to manage it is some difficulty. A confounded stove’s modish ornament caught its elbow, and rent it halfway. Pinioned to the side it came home, and I ran deploring to my loft. In the dilemma, it occurred to me to turn tailor myself; but how to get materials to work with puzzled me. At last I went running down in a hurry, with three or four sheets of paper in my hand, and begged for a needle, &c., to sew them together. This finished my job, and but that it is somewhat thicker, the elbow is a good one yet.

These are foolish things, Mira, to write or speak, and we may laugh at them; but I’ll be bound to say they are much more likely to make a man cry, where they happen—though I was too much of a philosopher for that, however, not one of those who preferred a ragged coat to a whole one.

On Monday, I hope to finish my book entirely, and perhaps send it. God Almighty give it a better fate than the trifles tried before!

Sometimes I think I cannot fail; and then, knowing how often I have thought so of fallible things, I am again desponding. Yet, within these three or four days, I’ve been remarkably high in spirits, and now am so, though I’ve somewhat exhausted them by writing upwards of thirty pages…

Further Reading

George Crabbe’s three month journal was posthumously discovered by his son, who reprinted it in the biography he wrote of his father in 1834, two years after his death. That book can be found at the Internet Archive.

Crabbe eventually made it as a poet, his verses praised by the likes of Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen. For more on Crabbe, Wikipedia is a good place to start.

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