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HENRY CRABB ROBINSON. 1 (1869.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 5 (Historical & Financial Essays; The English Constitution) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 5.
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HENRY CRABB ROBINSON.1
Perhaps I should be ashamed to confess it, but I own I opened the three large volumes of Mr. Robinson’s memoirs with much anxiety. Their bulk, in the first place, appalled me; but that was by no means my greatest apprehension. I knew I had a hundred times heard Mr. Robinson say that he hoped something he would leave behind would “be published and be worth publishing”. I was aware too—for it was no deep secret—that for half a century or more he had kept a diary, and that he had been preserving correspondence besides; and I was dubious what sort of things these would be, and what—to use Carlyle’s words—any human editor could make of them. Even when Mr. Robinson used to talk so, I used to shudder; for the men who have tried to be memoir-writers and failed, are as numerous, or nearly so, as those who have tried to be poets and failed. A specific talent is as necessary for the one as for the other. But as soon as I had read a little of the volumes, all these doubts passed away. I saw at once that Mr. Robinson had an excellent power of narrative-writing, and that the editor of his remains had made a most judicious use of excellent materials.
Perhaps more than anything it was the modesty of my old friend (I think I may call Mr. Robinson my old friend, for though he thought me a modern youth, I did know him twenty years)—perhaps, I say, it was his modesty which made me nervous about his memoirs more than anything else. I have so often heard him say (and say it with a vigour of emphasis which is rarer in our generation even than in his),—“Sir, I have no literary talent. I cannot write. I never could write anything, and I never would write anything,”—that being so taught, and so vehemently, I came to believe. And there was this to justify my creed. The notes Mr. Robinson used to scatter about him—and he was fond of writing rather elaborate ones—were not always very good. At least they were too long for the busy race of the present generation, and introduced Schiller and Goethe where they need not have appeared. But in these memoirs (especially in the Reminiscences and the Diary; for the moment he gets to a letter the style is worse) the words flow with such an effectual simplicity, that even Southey, the great master of such prose, could hardly have written better. Possibly it was his real interest in his old stories which preserved Mr. Robinson; in his letters he was not so interested and he fell into words and amplifications; but in those ancient anecdotes, which for years were his life and being, the style, as it seems to me, could scarcely be mended even in a word. And though, undoubtedly, the book is much too long in the latter half, I do not blame Dr. Sadler, the editor and biographer, for it, or indeed blame any one. Mr. Robinson had led a very long and very varied life, and some of his old friends had an interest in one part of his reminiscences and some in another. An unhappy editor entrusted with “a deceased’s papers” cannot really and in practice omit much that any surviving friends much want to have put in. One man calls with a letter “in which my dear and honoured friend gave me advice that was of such inestimable value, I hope, I cannot but think, you will find room for it”. And another calls with memoranda of a dinner—a most “superior occasion,” as they say in the North—at which, he reports, “there was conversation to which I never, or scarcely ever, heard anything equal. There were A. B. and C. D. and E. F., all masters, as you remember, of the purest conversational eloquence; surely I need not hesitate to believe that you will say something of that dinner.” And so an oppressed biographer has to serve up the crumbs of ancient feasts, though well knowing in his heart that they are crumbs, and though he feels, too, that the critics will attack him, and cruelly say it is his fault. But remembering this, and considering that Mr. Robinson wrote a diary beginning in 1811, going down to 1867, and occupying thirty-five closely written volumes, and that there were “Reminiscences” and vast unsorted papers, I think Dr. Sadler has managed admirably well. His book is brief to what it might have been, and all his own part is written with delicacy, feeling and knowledge. He quotes, too, from Wordsworth by way of motto—
It was a happy feeling for Mr. Robinson’s character that selected these lines to stand at the beginning of his memoirs.
And yet in one material respect—in this case perhaps the most material respect—Dr. Sadler has failed, and not in the least from any fault of his. Sydney Smith used to complain that “no one had ever made him his trustee or executor”; being really a very sound and sensible man of business, he felt that it was a kind of imputation on him, and that he was not appreciated. But some one more justly replied, “But how could you, Sydney Smith, expect to be made an executor? Is there any one who wants their ‘remains’ to be made fun of?” Now every trustee of biographical papers is exactly in this difficulty, that he cannot make fun. The melancholy friends who left the papers would not at all like it. And, besides, there grows upon every such biographer an “official” feeling—a confused sense of vague responsibilities—a wish not to impair the gravity of the occasion or to offend any one by levity. But there are some men who cannot be justly described quite gravely; and Crabb Robinson is one of them. A certain grotesqueness was a part of him, and, unless you liked it, you lost the very best of him. He is called, and properly called, in these memoirs Mr. Robinson; but no well-judging person ever called him so in life. He was always called “old Crabb,” and that is the only name which will ever bring up his curious image to me. He was, in the true old English sense of the word, a “character”; one whom a very peculiar life, certainly, and perhaps also a rather peculiar nature to begin with, had formed and moulded into something so exceptional and singular that it did not seem to belong to ordinary life, and almost caused a smile when you saw it moving there. “An aberrant form,” I believe, the naturalists call the seal and such things in natural history; odd shapes that can only be explained by a long past, and which swim with a certain incongruity in their present milieu. Now “old Crabb” was (to me at least) just like that. You watched with interest and pleasure his singular gestures, and his odd way of saying things, and muttered, as if to keep up the recollection, “And this is the man who was the friend of Goethe, and is the friend of Wordsworth!” There was a certain animal oddity about “old Crabb,” which made it a kind of mental joke to couple him with such great names, and yet he was to his heart’s core thoroughly coupled with them. If you leave out all his strange ways (I do not say Dr. Sadler has quite left them out, but to some extent he has been obliged, by place and decorum, to omit them), you lose the life of the man. You cut from the Ethiopian his skin, and from the leopard his spots. I well remember poor Clough, who was then fresh from Oxford, and was much puzzled by the corner of London to which he had drifted, looking at “old Crabb” in a kind of terror for a whole breakfast time, and muttering in mute wonder, almost to himself, as he came away, “Not at all the regular patriarch”. And certainly no one could accuse Mr. Robinson of an insipid regularity either in face or nature.
Mr. Robinson was one of the original founders of University College, and was for many years both on its senate and council; and as he lived near the college he was fond of collecting at breakfast all the elder students—especially those who had any sort of interest in literature. Probably he never appeared to so much advantage, or showed all the best of his nature, so well as in those parties. Like most very cheerful old people, he at heart preferred the company of the very young; and a set of young students, even after he was seventy, suited him better as society than a set of grave old men. Sometimes, indeed, he would invite—I do not say some of his contemporaries, few of them even in 1847 were up to breakfast parties, but persons of fifty and sixty—those whom young students call old gentlemen. And it was amusing to watch the consternation of some of them at the surprising youth and levity of their host. They shuddered at the freedom with which we treated him. Middle-aged men, of feeble heads and half-made reputations, have a nice dislike to the sharp arguments and the unsparing jests of “boys at college”; they cannot bear the rough society of those who, never having tried their own strength, have not yet acquired a fellow-feeling for weakness. Many such persons, I am sure, were half hurt with Mr. Robinson for not keeping those “impertinent boys” more at a just distance; but Mr. Robinson liked fun and movement, and disliked the sort of dignity which shelters stupidity. There was little to gratify the unintellectual part of man at these breakfasts, and what there was was not easy to be got at. Your host, just as you were sitting down to breakfast, found he had forgotten to make the tea, then he could not find his keys, then he rang the bell to have them searched for; but long before the servant came he had gone off into “Schiller-Goethe,” and could not the least remember what he had wanted. The more astute of his guests used to breakfast before they came, and then there was much interest in seeing a steady literary man, who did not understand the region, in agonies at having to hear three stories before he got his tea, one again between his milk and his sugar, another between his butter and his toast, and additional zest in making a stealthy inquiry that was sure to intercept the coming delicacies by bringing on Schiller and Goethe.
It is said in these memoirs that Mr. Robinson’s parents were very good-looking, and that when married they were called the handsome couple. But in his old age very little regular beauty adhered to him, if he ever had any. His face was pleasing from its animation, its kindness, and its shrewdness, but the nose was one of the most slovenly which nature had ever turned out, and the chin of excessive length, with portentous power of extension. But, perhaps, for the purpose of a social narrator (and in later years this was Mr. Robinson’s position), this oddity of feature was a gift. It was said, and justly said, that Lord Brougham used to punctuate his sentences with his nose; just at the end of a long parenthesis he could, and did, turn up his nose, which served to note the change of subject as well, or better, than a printed mark. Mr. Robinson was not so skilful as this, but he made a very able use of the chin at a conversational crisis, and just at the point of a story pushed it out, and then very slowly drew it in again, so that you always knew when to laugh, and the oddity of the gesture helped you in laughing.
Mr. Robinson had known nearly every literary man worth knowing in England and Germany for fifty years and more. He had studied at Jena in the “great time,” when Goethe and Schiller, and Wieland were all at their zenith; he had lived with Charles Lamb and his set, and Rogers and his set, besides an infinite lot of little London people; he had taught Madame de Stael German philosophy in Germany, and helped her in business afterwards in England; he was the real friend of Wordsworth, and had known Coleridge and Southey almost from their “coming out” to their death. And he was not a mere literary man. He had been a Times correspondent in the days of Napoleon’s early German battles, now more than “seventy years since”; he had been off Corunna in Sir John Moore’s time; and last, but almost first it should have been, he was an English barrister who had for years a considerable business, and who was full of picturesque stories about old judges. Such a varied life and experience belong to very few men, and his social nature—at once accessible and assailant——was just the one to take advantage of it. He seemed to be lucky all through: in childhood he remembered when John Gilpin came out; then he had seen—he could not hear—John Wesley preach; then he had heard Erskine, and criticised him intelligently, in some of the finest of the well-known “State trials”; and so on during all his vigorous period.
I do not know that it would be possible to give a better idea of Mr. Robinson’s best conversations than by quoting almost at random from the earlier part of these memoirs:—
“At the spring assizes of 1791, when I had nearly attained my sixteenth year, I had the delight of hearing Erskine. It was a high enjoyment, and I was able to profit by it. The subject of the trial was the validity of a will—Braham v. Rivett. Erskine came down specially retained for the plaintiff, and Mingay for the defendant. The trial lasted two days. The title of the heir being admitted, the proof of the will was gone into at once. I have a recollection of many of the circumstances after more than fifty-four years; but of nothing do I retain so perfect a recollection as of the figure and voice of Erskine. There was a charm in his voice, a fascination in his eye; and so completely had he won my affection, that I am sure had the verdict been given against him I should have burst out crying Of the facts and of the evidence, I do not pretend to recollect anything beyond my impressions and sensations. My pocket-book records that Erskine was engaged two and a half hours in opening the case, and Mingay two hours and twenty minutes in his speech in defence. E.’s reply occupied three hours. The testatrix was an old lady in a state of imbecility. The evil spirit of the case was an attorney. Mingay was loud and violent, and gave Erskine an opportunity of turning into ridicule his imagery and illustrations. For instance, M. having compared R. to the Devil going into the Garden of Eden, E. drew a closer parallel than M. intended. Satan’s first sight of Eve was related in Milton’s words—
and then a picture of idiotcy from Swift was contrasted. But the sentence that weighed on my spirits was a pathetic exclamation—‘If, gentlemen, you should by your verdict annihilate an instrument so solemnly framed, I should retire a troubled man from this court’. And as he uttered the word court, he beat his breast and I had a difficulty in not crying out. When in bed the following night I awoke several times in a state of excitement approaching fever—the words ‘troubled man from this court’ rang in my ears.
“A new trial was granted, and ultimately the will was set aside. I have said I profited by Erskine. I remarked his great artifice, if I may call it so; and in a small way I afterwards practised it. It lay in his frequent repetitions. He had one or two leading arguments and main facts on which he was constantly dwelling. But then he had marvellous skill in varying his phraseology, so that no one was sensible of tautology in the expressions. Like the doubling of a hare, he was perpetually coming to his old place. Other great advocates I have remarked were ambitious of a great variety of arguments.
“About the same time that I thus first heard the most perfect of forensic orators, I was also present at an exhibition equally admirable, and which had a powerful effect upon my mind. It was, I believe, in October, 1790, and not long before his death, that I heard John Wesley in the great round meeting-house at Colchester. He stood in a wide pulpit, and on each side of him stood a minister, and the two held him up, having their hands under his armpits. His feeble voice was barely audible. But his reverend countenance, especially his long white locks, formed a picture never to be forgotten. There was a vast crowd of lovers and admirers. It was for the most part pantomime, but the pantomime went to the heart. Of the kind I never saw anything comparable to it in after life.”1
“It was at the summer circuit that Rolfe made his first appearance. He had been at the preceding sessions. I have a pleasure in recollecting that I at once foresaw that he would become a distinguished man. In my Diary I wrote, ‘Our new junior, Mr. Rolfe, made his appearance. His manners are genteel; his conversation easy and sensible. He is a very acceptable companion, but I fear a dangerous rival.’ And my brother asking me who the new man was, I said, ‘I will venture to predict that you will live to see that young man attain a higher rank than any one you ever saw upon the circuit’. It is true he is not higher than Leblanc, who was also a puisne judge, but Leblanc was never Solicitor-General; nor, probably, is Rolfe yet at the end of his career. One day, when some one remarked, ‘Christianity is part and parcel of the law of the land,’ Rolfe said to me, ‘Were you ever employed to draw an indictment against a man for not loving his neighbour as himself?’
“Rolfe is, by universal repute, if not the very best, at least one of the best judges on the Bench. He is one of the few with whom I have kept up an acquaintance.”2
Of course, these stories came over and over again. It is the excellence of a reminiscent to have a few good stories, and his misfortune that people will remember what he says. In Mr. Robinson’s case an unskilled person could often see the anecdote somewhere impending, and there was often much interest in trying whether you could ward it off or not. There was one great misfortune which had happened to his guests, though he used to tell it as one of the best things that had ever happened to himself. He had picked up a certain bust of Wieland by Schadow, which it appears had been lost, and in the finding of which Goethe, even Goethe, rejoiced. After a very long interval I still shudder to think how often I have heard that story; it was one which no skill or care could long avert, for the thing stood opposite our host’s chair, and the sight of it was sure to recall him. Among the ungrateful students to whom he was so kind, the first question always asked of any one who had breakfasted at his house was, “Did you undergo the bust?”
A reader of these memoirs would naturally and justly think that the great interest of Mr. Robinson’s conversation was the strength of the past memory; but quite as amusing or more so was the present weakness. He never could remember names, and was very ingenious in his devices to elude the defect. There is a story in these memoirs:—
“I was engaged to dine with Mr. Wansey at Walthamstow. When I arrived there I was in the greatest distress, through having forgotten his name. And it was not till after half an hour’s worry that I recollected he was a Unitarian, which would answer as well; for I instantly proceeded to Mr. Cogan’s. Having been shown into a room, young Mr. Cogan came—‘Your commands, sir?’—‘Mr Cogan, I have taken the liberty to call on you in order to know where I am to dine to-day.’ He smiled. I went on: ‘The truth is, I have accepted an invitation to dine with a gentleman, a recent acquaintance, whose name I have forgotten; but I am sure you can tell me, for he is a Unitarian, and the Unitarians are very few here’.”1
And at his breakfasts it was always the same; he was always in difficulty as to some person’s name or other, and he had regular descriptions which recurred, like Homeric epithets, and which he expected you to apply to the individual. Thus poor Clough always appeared—“That admirable and accomplished man. You know whom I mean. The one who never says anything.” And of another living poet he used to say: “Probably the most able, and certainly the most consequential, of all the young persons I know. You know which it is. The one with whom I could never presume to be intimate. The one whose father I knew so many years.” And another particular friend of my own always occurred as—“That great friend of yours that has been in Germany—that most accomplished and interesting person—that most able and excellent young man. Sometimes I like him, and sometimes I hate him. You,” turning to me, “know whom I mean, you villain!” And certainly I did know; for I had heard the same adjectives, and been referred to in the same manner very many times.
Of course, a main part of Mr. Robinson’s conversation was on literary subjects; but of this, except when it related to persons whom he had known, or sonnets to “the conception of which he was privy,” I do not think it would be just to speak very highly. He spoke sensibly and clearly—he could not on any subject speak otherwise; but the critical faculty is as special and as peculiar almost as the poetical; and Mr. Robinson in serious moments was quite aware of it, and he used to deny that he had the former faculty more than the latter. He used to read much of Wordsworth to me; but I doubt—though many of his friends will think I am a great heretic—I doubt if he read the best poems; and even those he did read (and he read very well) rather suffered from coming in the middle of a meal, and at a time when you wanted to laugh and not to meditate. Wordsworth was a solitary man, and it is only in solitude that his best poems, or indeed any of his characteristic poems, can be truly felt or really apprehended. There are some at which I never look, even now, without thinking of the wonderful and dreary faces which Clough used to make while Mr. Robinson was reading them. To Clough certain of Wordsworth’s poems were part of his inner being, and he suffered at hearing them obtruded at meal-times, just as a High Churchman would suffer at hearing the collects of the Church. Indeed, these poems were among the collects of Clough’s Church.
Still less do I believe that there is any special value in the expositions of German philosophy in these volumes, or that there was any in those which Mr. Robinson used to give on such matters in conversation. They are clear, no doubt, and accurate; but they are not the expositions of a born metaphysician. He speaks in these memoirs of his having a difficulty in concentrating his “attention on works of speculation”. And such books as Kant can only be really mastered, can perhaps only be usefully studied, by those who have an unusual facility in concentrating their mind on impalpable abstractions, and an uncommon inclination to do so. Mr. Robinson had neither; and I think the critical philosophy had really very little effect on him, and had, during the busy years which had elapsed since he studied it, very nearly run off him. There was something very curious in the sudden way that anything mystical would stop in him. At the end of a Sunday breakfast, after inflicting on you much which was transcendental in Wordsworth or Goethe, he would say, as we left him, with an air of relish, “Now I am going to run down to Essex Street to hear Madge. I shall not be in time for the prayers; but I do not so much care about that; what I do like is the sermon; it is so clear.” Mr. Madge was a Unitarian of the old school, with as little mystical and transcendental in his nature as any one who ever lived. There was a living piquancy in the friend of Goethe—the man who would explain to you his writings—being also the admirer of “Madge”; it was like a proser, lengthily eulogising Kant to you, and then saying, “Ah! but I do love Condillac; he is so clear”.
But, on the other hand, I used to hold—I was reading law at the time, and so had some interest in the matter—that Mr. Robinson much underrated his legal knowledge, and his practical power as a lawyer. What he used to say was, “I never knew any law, sir, but I knew the practice. . . . I left the bar because I feared my incompetence might be discovered. I was a tolerable junior; but I was rising to be a leader, which I was unfit to be; and so I retired, not to disgrace myself by some fearful mistake.” In these memoirs he says that he retired when he had made the sum of money which he thought enough for a bachelor with few wants and not a single expensive taste. The simplicity of his tastes is certain; very few Englishmen indeed could live with so little show or pretence. But the idea of his gross incompetence is absurd. No one who was incompetent ever said so. There are, I am sure, plenty of substantial and well-satisfied men at the English bar who do not know nearly as much law as Mr. Robinson knew, and who have not a tithe of his sagacity, but who believe in themselves, and in whom their clients believe. On the other hand Mr. Robinson had many great qualifications for success at the bar. He was a really good speaker: when over seventy I have heard him make a speech that good speakers in their full vigour would be glad to make. He had a good deal of the actor in his nature, which is thought, and I fancy justly thought, to be necessary to the success of all great advocates, and perhaps of all great orators. He was well acquainted with the petty technicalities which intellectual men in middle life in general cannot learn, for he had passed some years in an attorney’s office. Above all, he was a very thinking man, and had an “idea of business”—that inscrutable something which at once and altogether distinguishes the man who is safe in the affairs of life from those who are unsafe. I do not suppose he knew much black-letter law; but there are plenty of judges on the bench who, unless they are much belied, also know very little—perhaps none. And a man who can intelligently read Kant, like Mr. Robinson, need not fear the bookwork of English law. A very little serious study would have taught him law enough to lead the Norfolk circuit. He really had a sound, moderate, money-making business, and only a little pains was wanted to give him more.
The real reason why he did not take the trouble, I fancy, was that, being a bachelor, he was a kind of amateur in life, and did not really care. He could not spend what he had on himself, and used to give away largely, though in private. And even more, as with most men who have not thoroughly worked when young, daily, regular industry was exceedingly trying to him. No man could be less idle; far from it, he was always doing something; but then he was doing what he chose. Sir Walter Scott, one of the best workers of his time, used always to say that “he had no temptation to be idle, but the greatest temptation, when one thing was wanted of him, to go and do something else”. Perhaps the only persons who, not being forced by mere necessity, really conquer this temptation, are those who were early broken to the yoke, and are fixed to the furrow by habit. Mr. Robinson loitered in Germany, so he was not one of these.
I am not regretting this. It would be a base idolatry of practical life to require every man to succeed in it as far as he could, and to devote to it all his mind. The world certainly does not need it; it pays well, and it will never lack good servants. There will always be enough of sound, strong men to be working barristers and judges, let who will object to become so. But I own I think a man ought to be able to be a “Philistine” if he chooses; there is a sickly incompleteness about people too fine for the world, and too nice to work their way in it. And when a man like Mr. Robinson had a real sagacity for affairs, it is for those who respect his memory to see that his reputation does not suffer from his modesty, and that his habitual self-depreciations—which, indeed, extended to his powers of writing as well as to those of acting—are not taken to be exactly true.
In fact, Mr. Robinson was usefully occupied in University College business and University Hall business, and other such things. But there is no special need to write on them in connection with his name; and it would need a good deal of writing to make them intelligible to those who do not know them now. And the greater part of his life was spent in society where his influence was always manly and vigorous. I do not mean that he was universally popular; it would be defacing his likeness to say so. “I am a man,” he once told me, “to whom a great number of persons entertain the very strongest objection.” Indeed he had some subjects on which he could hardly bear opposition. Twice he nearly quarrelled with me: once for writing in favour of Louis Napoleon, which, as he had caught in Germany a thorough antipathy to the first Napoleon seemed to him quite wicked; and next for my urging that Hazlitt was a much greater writer than Charles Lamb—a harmless opinion which I still hold, but which Mr. Robinson met with this outburst: “You, sir, you prefer the works of that scoundrel, that odious, that malignant writer, to the exquisite essays of that angelic creature!” I protested that there was no evidence that angels could write particularly well; but it was in vain, and it was some time before he forgave me. Some persons who casually encountered peculiarities like these, did not always understand them. In his last years, too, augmenting infirmities almost disqualified Mr. Robinson for general society, and quite disabled him from showing his old abilities in it. Indeed, I think that these memoirs will give almost a new idea of his power to many young men who had only seen him casually, and at times of feebleness. After ninety it is not easy to make new friends. And, in any case, this book will always have a great charm for those who knew Mr. Robinson well when they were themselves young, because it will keep alive for them the image of his buoyant sagacity, and his wise and careless kindness.
[1 ]Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, Barrister-at-Law, F.S.A. Selected and Edited by Thomas Sadler, Ph.D. In Three Volumes. London, 1869.
[1 ] “Excursion,” book vii.
[1 ] “Paradise Lost,” book viii.
[1 ] Vol. i., chap. ii.
[2 ] “Since writing the above, Baron Rolfe has verified my prediction more strikingly by being created a peer, by the title of Lord Cranworth, and appointed a Vice-Chancellor. Soon after his appointment, he called on me, and I dined with him. I related to Lady Cranworth the anecdote given above, of my conversation with my brother, with which she was evidently pleased. Lady Cranworth was the daughter of Mr. Carr, Sol citor to the Excise, whom I formerly used to visit, and ought soon to find some mention of in my journals. Lord Cranworth continues to enjoy universal respect.—H. C. R., 1851.”
[1 ] Vol. ii., chap. vi.