A Successful Bachelor

"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."

Crabb Robinson justified his existence if only by the services he rendered Wordsworth. He was an early and discriminating admirer. He championed Wordsworth's poetry at a time when champions were few and not influential. It must have been with special reference to the needs of poets like the author of Lyrical Ballads that the saying "Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you" was uttered. Yet I am not sure but there is a measure of woe in the condition of him of whom all men speak ill.

At a time when critical disapprobation was pretty nearly unanimous Crabb Robinson's was one of the few voices in commendation. It was not a loud voice, but it was clear and impressive.

Friends of Wordsworth's art sometimes express surprise, and even anger, that the public should have been so slow in awaking to the merits of that art. There is at least no occasion for surprise. When one considers the length of time it takes to interest the public mind in the high qualities of a new brand of soap, he may reasonably conclude that it will take even longer to arouse interest in tbe transcendental qualities of a new brand of poetry. Some of Wordsworth's verse was not encouraging. One of the volumes of 1807 contains a poem beginning, "I met Louisa in the shade." This possibly struck readers as grotesque. Such a line provokes to irreverence. It is human nature to laugh and throw the volumes aside. But exactly at this point admirers like Henry Crabb Robinson began to exert their beneficent influence and to pay their unselfish homage.

Two sorts of homage are paid by lesser men to greater. The first sort consists in following one's idol about, noting the externals of his life, his diet, his dress, his gait; being solicitous as to the color of his necktie rather than the measure of his intellect. Homage of this kind seems to proceed on the theory that if you only stare long enough at a man's head, you will presently be rewarded by a sight of his mind. It invokes the aid of photography. The author is exhibited in his study, his pen in hand. An admiring world beholds him in literary surroundings with a flashlight expression of countenance. Perhaps we have him in six different positions, with a quoted remark supposed to be in keeping with each position. He is in the act of telling how his mind rose to the great thought which has made him famous and worthy to be illustrated. He is photographed saying to the camera, "This idea came to me as I was on the way from my front porch to my front gate."

Homage like this, so careful about externals, is not very good for the author, and is apt to be wholly bad in its effect upon the worshiper. Everybody has read Henry James's book entitled Terminations. It contains a story of a young American girl who waited upon a famous English novelist with a very large autograph album, in which she wished him to write a sentiment. I believe it is a quite general practice of young American girls abroad to travel with large autograph albums under their arms. It will be remembered, too, that the novelist's friend gently explained to the fair visitor that true worship of genius does not consist in collecting autographs, but in reading an author's works, in seeking their deeper meaning, and in making those works known in places where they will be understood. And the young lady was persuaded to depart, with tears in her eyes, and without the great novelist's autograph.

Crabb Robinson's way of paying homage was very delicate. I think that it would have met with the hearty approval of even the author of Terminations. He liked Wordsworth's poetry, and he did his unostentatious best to make others like it. He did not cry aloud from the housetop that the messiah of English verse had at last arrived, neither did he found a society. He spoke to people of Wordsworth's verse, got them to read it, occasionally read poems himself to receptive listeners. If people balked at Louisa in the Shade, or were unsympathetic in attitude toward the Spade, with which Wilkinson hath till'd his Lands, he urged upon them the necessity and the wisdom of judging a man by the noble parts of his work, and not by the less fortunate parts. If they had read Wordsworth only to laugh at him, he insisted upon reading to them those poems which compelled their admiration; for there are poems with respect to which the public cannot hold a noncommittal attitude. The public must either admire, or else consent to stultify itself by not admiring.

By this method he did more to advance Wordsworth's reputation than if he had written a dozen eulogistic articles in the great reviews. And we cannot overpraise the single-heartedness of his aim. There was positively no thought of self in it. With many men that which begins as pure admiration of genius ends as a form of self-love. They worship the great man two thirds for his own sake, and one third for the sake of themselves. There is pleasure in being known as the friend of him about whom everybody is talking. But we shall look in vain for any evidence that Crabb Robinson was impelled by motives of this lower sort.

He may, therefore, be imagined as reading Wordsworth's poetry to more or less willing listeners all his life. He had too much tact to overdo it, and he was too catholic in his poetic tastes ever to grow an intolerant Wordsworthian. He was content to sow the seed, and let come of it what would. In his German tour of 1829 he spent a considerable portion of his time in reading poetry with his friend Knebel, "and after all I did not fully impress him with Wordsworth's power." He may even be suspected of having read Wordsworth to Goethe, for in his correspondence with Zelter Goethe speaks of Robinson as "a kind of missionary of English literature." "He read to me and my daughter, together and apart, single poems." In short, the Diary is studded with such entries as: "Took tea with the Flaxmans, and read to them extracts from Wordsworth's new poems." "My visit to Witham was made partly that I might have the pleasure of reading The Excursion to Mrs. W. Pattison." "A call on Blake,—my third interview. I read to him Wordsworth's incomparable ode, which he heartily enjoyed."

Crabb Robinson sacrificed in no degree his independence because of his personal relation to the poet. He regretted that Wordsworth should have reproached the bad taste of the times in his published notes and prefaces; and in a talk over the alterations which had been made in the poems Robinson frankly told Wordsworth that he did not dare to read aloud in company the lines "Three feet long and two feet wide." Wordsworth's reply was, "They ought to be liked."

It is rather a comfort to find from one or two of Wordsworth's letters how thoroughly human he was, even to the extent of getting out of conceit of his own trade, and wishing that petty practitioners in the same trade were out of conceit of it, too. He disliked minor poets. "I am sick of poetry," he says; "it overruns the country in all the shapes of the plagues of Egypt." Wordsworth grew less intolerant, and was more willing to acknowledge the merits of other poets, as he grew older. No one welcomed this change more than Crabb Robinson. It is assuming too much to assume that he was influential in bringing about such modification in the poet's attitude toward men or things, but his influence would be in that direction rather than in any other. In later years Crabb Robinson used regularly to spend his Christmas holidays at Rydal Mount. His presence was regarded as essential to the sober merrymaking of the household there. They had a family saying, "No Crabb, no Christmas."


The Diary is filled with suggestive points. To mention but one out of many. Without intending it Robinson makes clear the almost total extinction of Southey's life in mere books. He was a slave to the printed page. Wordsworth said, "It is painful to see how completely dead Southey is become to all but books." Robinson had himself noticed it. Rogers had noticed it. The talk of it in Dr. Arnold's presence frightened him for his own safety, and he wondered whether he too was in danger of losing his interest in things, and retaining "an interest in books only." Southey made a visit to Paris, but all the time he was there he did not go once to the Louvre; "he cared for nothing but the old book-shops." But he must have gathered a few impressions of the French capital, for he wrote to his daughter, "I would rather live in Paris than be hanged."

I believe that the evidence of the Diary goes to show that Crabb Robinson was able to pronounce upon new poetry. This is one of the most difficult and delicate of undertakings. People with that gift are few. With respect to poetry, most of us follow the hue and cry raised in the newspapers and literary journals. We are able to admire what we are told is admirable. When the road is pointed out for us we can travel it, but we are not able to find the road ourselves. Crabb Robinson placed himself upon record more than once. The most notable entry concerns Keats. In December, 1820, he wrote, "I am greatly mistaken if Keats do not very soon take a high place among our poets."

Of many good books which a man may read, if he will, this Diary of Henry Crabb Robinson is one of the "sweetest and most fortifying." It is a fine illustration of literary sanity. Literary sanity is not entirely fashionable just now, and a perusal of these thirty-years-old volumes may be good for us. Certainly, it is well for us to know about the Diarist himself. A life like his is among the most potent influences for culture. He was modest, unassuming, gentle, and strong. He was a successful bachelor and a good man.

1 Letter from Miss Fenwick to Henry Taylor, January 26, 1839.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In