FEW books are quite as amusing as the volumes which profess to give advice on how to live peacefully with one's wife or one's husband. Marriage is accounted a serious matter, but advice about marriage is sure to be humorous. Swift, Fielding, and Sterne are good to read, but one cannot read them always; their humor is too robust and virile, they are at times almost painfully intellectual. It is a relief to turn from Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy to those masterpieces of unconscious humor which set forth with the exactness of a newly painted guide-post the order of his going who wishes to achieve happiness in the married state. The contented man laughs as he reads such books, because he knows how independent is his own marital felicity of small rules and infinitesimal plottings. The man who is unhappily married laughs, too; in a way, however, which may mean that he wishes the author of the book had his wife to contend with.
For these Guides to a Prosperous Domestic Career are written by men,—a fact which needs interpretation. Men have always shown a pathetic courage in grappling with such high themes. From John Lyly who maintained that wives should be subdued with kindness, and Jeremy Taylor who took the advanced and perilous position that a husband ought not to beat his wife, down to the latest theorizer who imagines that his placid domestic state is of his own shaping, and who does not perceive how adroitly he is managed by the feminine element of his household, men, and only men, have had the desperate courage to explain to the married world what it must do to be content. And these bold spirits have had their financial reward. There are many roads to fame, but this way fortune lies. If you would be noted,—or quite as likely, notorious,—write a novel. If you would have your human document in the magazines, and your opinions on subjects about which you know nothing set forth in the Sunday newspapers, write a novel. But if you would be rich, write a book which shall instruct married people how to make the best of their uncomfortable situation.
On the whole, it may be conceded that this department of literature is overdone. We want books of quite another description. More interest should be taken in bachelors. Their need is greater, and their condition really deplorable. It is a misfortune to be unhappily married, but it comes near to being a disgrace not to be married at all. Marriage is a perilous undertaking, but what shall be thought of him who hesitates because it is perilous? We may not care to go to the length of affirming that bachelors are cowardly, but we must grant that they are socially nondescript. It is possible to respect a bachelor, but it is impossible to be at ease with him. Not without reason does the world speak of a married man as "settled." There is something final in the condition of a Benedict. You know where to find him, or at least you know where he should be found. But of a bachelor you know nothing. Bachelorhood is a normal condition up to a certain period in a man's life, and after that it is abnormal. He who elects to remain unmarried elects to become queer. It is wonderful how readily most men adapt themselves to the conditions of matrimonial existence. Almost any man can become a fairly respectable husband; but to be a successful bachelor implies unusual gifts. I once met in the Northwest a middleaged writer of verse who gave me four volumes of his works, "composed, printed, and bound" by himself. He said, "This country is crying for a national poet, and I want the job." But he was mistaken. This country is crying for help in taking care of its timid bachelors, help in marrying them off; and if they will not marry, help in getting them well housed and neatly mended. And the greatest need is the book which shall instruct the bachelor how to make glad the desert regions of his solitary existence, how to fill the vacuities with which his life is perforated.
There have been successful bachelors, and among them none more successful than Henry Crabb Robinson. He died in February, 1867, at the age of ninety-two. The inscription on his tomb records the names of eight men of renown to whom he had sustained the relation of "friend and associate." The eight names are Goethe, Wordsworth, Wieland, Coleridge, Flaxman, Blake, Clarkson, and Charles Lamb. The list is striking, and clearly indicates the wide range of Crabb Robinson's sympathies. To each of these men he rendered the tribute of a hearty and discriminating admiration. His place in the world of literature and art was peculiar. He had a strong masculine regard for men of genius because they were men of genius, but no measure of self-interest mixed with this regard. He had not the creative power himself, but he understood that power in others. He was not a mere satellite, for he held distinctly a critical attitude at times; and no commonplace moon ever thinks of passing strictures upon the central sun. We need a word to express the relation. To men of genius he gave the encouragement and stimulus of a dignified admiration based on solid reasons. To the general reading public he was a sort of mentor; his good sense in other matters awakened confidence in the soundness of his judgment; his catholicity of taste operated to allay that prejudice which the mob always conceives against a poet who is both new and queer.
One of Crabb Robinson's qualifications for successful bachelorhood lay in the fact that he was not good-looking. I have heard men who were handsome complain about it as a positive disadvantage. Tawno Chikno did not find beauty embarrassing; he only regretted that he was not a writer, so that he might tell the world how beautiful he was. Conventional persons would hardly dare to express themselves with the naiveté which characterized the speech of this gypsy gentleman.
Robinson early learned to make the best of his physical disadvantages, and to view himself objectively with an amused interest. When he was in Weimar, in 1829, he spent five evenings with Goethe. Goethe was fond of "portrait memorials," and had several hundred of them. Robinson thought it an "extreme instance" of this taste that the poet should have insisted upon having his portrait. It was done in crayons by "one Schmeller," and must have been a success, for Crabb says, "It was frightfully ugly, and very like." And when he was once complimented on the success of his portrait by Masquerier, and told that it was just the picture one would wish to have of a friend, his "very best expression," Robinson dryly observed, "It need be the best to be endurable."
Walter Bagehot, who used to figure at Crabb Robinson's famous breakfasts, expatiates on Robinson's chin,—"a chin of excessive length and portentous power of extension." The old gentleman "made very able use of the chin at a conversational crisis." "Just at the point of the story he pushed it out and then very slowly drew it in again, so that you always knew when to laugh."
Miss Fenwick (Wordsworth's Miss Fenwick) pronounced Mr. Robinson downright ugly, and underscored the word. It seems that there was a great variety in his ugliness,—"a series of ugliness in quick succession, one look more ugly than the one which preceded it, particularly when he is asleep. He is always asleep when he is not talking." "On which occasions little Willy contemplates him with great interest, and often inquires, 'What kind of face has Mr. Robinson?' 'A very nice face,' is the constant answer; then a different look comes, and another inquiry of 'What kind of face was that?' 'A nice face too.' What an odd idea he must have of nice faces!"1
Miss Fenwick was of the opinion that a man could not preserve kindliness and courtesy in the bachelor state unless he had something the matter with him; that is, unless he was the victim of some misfortune which kept him "humble, grateful, and loving." "I remember," she says in the letter just quoted, "making out to my own satisfaction that old Wishaw preserved his benevolence through the want of his leg, a want that made him feel his dependence on his fellow creatures." And she concludes that "Robinson's ugliness had done for him what the want of a leg had done for old Wishaw."
If one were to take out the important episodes of Crabb Robinson's life, pack them together, suppress the dull passages and the monotonous incidents, it would seem that this man had had a brilliant career. He lived long, which gave him time to see many things; he had good health, which enabled him to enjoy what he saw. Life tasted sweet to him up to the last day, and almost to the last hour. His wholesome curiosity about good books and good people never failed. The effect of reading his Diary is to make one ambitious to live long; and if the book were more generally read, I am sure that longevity would be greatly on the increase among us.
Let us note a few facts which bring out the stretch of time through which his experiences lay. Many men have lived more years than he, but they have not had Robinson's gift for friendship nor Robinson's opportunities. He was born in 1775. In 1790 he heard John Wesley preach "in the great round meeting-house at Colchester." "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." Sixty-two years after this date Crabb Robinson was attending church at Brighton, listening to that gifted man the Reverend Frederick W. Robertson; and when he was told that Robertson unsettled people's minds, he replied that nobody could be awakened out of a deep sleep without being unsettled.
He was able, as a matter of course, distinctly to remember the breaking out of the French Revolution, and the universal rejoicing in it as an "event of great promise." Though he was brought up an orthodox Dissenter, he, like many other orthodox Dissenters, sympathized with Dr. Priestley during the Birmingham riots. At a banquet he defended Priestley. A toast was given "in honor of Dr. Priestley and other Christian sufferers." Some bigot present objected that he did not know the doctor to be a Christian. Young Robinson answered that if this gentleman had read Priestley's Letter to the Swedenborgians he would have "learned more of real Christianity than he seemed to know."