From the French Revolution and the sufferings of English sympathizers therewith down to our American civil war is a long stretch, not by years alone, but by the multitude of changes which have on the whole bettered the conditions of human life. Crabb Robinson appears to have followed the events of the American struggle with keen interest, and on March 19, 1865, he writes to a friend: "Nothing has brought me so near to being a partisan of President Lincoln as his inaugural speech. How short and how wise! How true and how unaffected! It must make many converts. At least I should despair of any man who needs to be converted."
Crabb Robinson was past his majority when Lyrical Ballads was published. He outlived Wordsworth by twenty-seven years, and Coleridge by thirty-three years. He had seen Matthew Arnold as a boy in his father's house. In 1866, meeting Arnold at the Athenæum, he asked him for the name of his most remarkable book. The author of Essays in Criticism denied having written anything remarkable. "Then," said Robinson, "it must be some other Matthew Arnold whom they are talking about." Subsequently Arnold sent the old gentleman the volume of his essays, and the last note in the Diary records the interest he took in reading the essay on the Function of Criticism at the Present Time.
These facts bring out the limits of Robinson's experiences. He was eleven years old when Burns printed his poems at Kilmarnock, sixteen years old when Boswell's Life of Johnson was published, twenty-three when the Lyrical Ballads appeared, and he lived into the very year which saw the publication of William Morris's Jason and Swinburne's Song of Italy. Between these extremes lay his intellectual life; and there were few things worth knowing of which he did not know something, and few people worth cultivating whom he had not cultivated. It is a temptation to roll the great names of great people as sweet morsels under the tongue.
In early life Robinson studied in Germany. He met Goethe and Schiller. He saw a performance of Wallenstein's Tod at the court theatre of Weimar, both the great poets being present; Schiller in his seat near the ducal box, and Goethe in his armchair in the centre aisle. Robinson declared that Goethe was the most oppressively handsome man he had ever seen. He met Wieland, who told him that Pilgrim's Progress was the book in which he had learned to read English. He heard Gall lecture on craniology, "attended by Spurzheim as his famulus." He met Wolf and Griesbach, and also Herder, to whom he loaned the Lyrical Ballads. He saw Kotzebue, the dramatist, who was a star of considerable magnitude in those days. Robinson describes him as "a lively little man with black eyes." Another star rose above the Weimar horizon in the year 1803, and it was Madame de Staël. Robinson helped her in getting materials for her book on Germany, notably for the portions which related to German philosophy. Some years later, he was able to render her a considerable service in coming to terms with her English publisher.
When he returned to England to live he lost in no degree his "facility in forming acquaintance." He knew everybody outside of the circles which were purely fashionable. Being born a Dissenter, his "Dissenting connection" (I believe that is the phrase) would be very large. His attitude in this matter of the Church and Dissent was unusual, but easy to comprehend. He said he liked Dissent better than the Church, but he liked Churchmen better than Dissenters.
To mention but a few of the interesting people with whom he had personal relations. He knew Wakefield and Thelwall. He had an early passion for the writings of Godwin, used to see him occasionally, and once met Shelley at Godwin's house. He was interested in some plan to relieve Godwin from his financial difficulties, being one of many friends who were imposed upon by Godwin's incapability for doing anything financially productive.
He had been a Times correspondent in 1807, and his friendship for Walter was an undying one. In Walter's parlor he used to meet Peter Fraser, who in those days wrote the great leaders, the "flash articles which made the sensation." There it was that he saw old Combe, whose Dr. Syntax rich book-collectors still buy under the impression that it has something to do with literature. He used to play chess and drink tea with Mrs. Barbauld, and drink tea and play whist with Charles and Mary Lamb. One of his early loves was William Hazlitt, whom he pronounced clever before other people had learned to say it. He knew Coleridge, Southey, Flaxman, and Blake. His accounts of Coleridge give us some of the best side-lights that have been thrown upon that brilliant genius. He once heard Coleridge talk from three o'clock in the afternoon until twelve at night.
He knew Walter Savage Landor in Florence. Landor told him that he could not bear contradiction. "Certainly I frequently did contradict him," says Robinson. "Yet his attentions to me were unwearied." Landor gave Robinson a good word in a letter to a friend. It runs thus: "I wish some accident may have brought you acquainted with Mr. Robinson, a friend of Wordsworth. He was a barrister, and notwithstanding, both honest and modest,—a character I never heard of before." One of the prettiest incidents in the Diary is of Landor's sending his mastiff dog to take care of Crabb Robinson when he returned from Fiesole to Florence after midnight. "I could never make him leave me until I was at the city gate; and then on my patting him on the head, as if he were conscious his protection was no longer needed, he would run off rapidly."