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From the archives:
"The Wifely Duty" (January/February 2003)
Marriage used to provide access to sex. Now it provides access to celibacy. By Caitlin Flanagan
"Mr. Goodbar Redux" (January 2002)
Illusions. Affectation. Lies. This is the insidious and incapacitating legacy of modern dating books. By Cristina Nehring
"Wooed by Freedom" (October 2000)
Why the young distrust love and fear commitment. By Peter Berkowitz
"Uncertain Objects of Desire" (March 2000)
A look at matrimonial ads in The Times of India. By Chitra Divakaruni
"The Plight of the High-Status Woman" (December 1999)
Recent fiction, essays, and self-help books (Dumped!, for one) suggest that a harsh new mating system is emerging. By Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
"De Sade's Daughters" (February 1997)
In the new erotic writing by women, sex is a cruel, even murderous business, and men, for the most part, are brutes. By Lee Siegel
"Love in America" (May 1938)
"The American woman entertains the delightful illusion that there must be some man on this earth who can understand her." By Raoul De Roussy De Sales
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Truth About Love" (February 14, 2003)
A collection of Atlantic articles offers a counterpoint to fairy-tale depictions of love.
Interviews: "In Search of Mr. Right" (December 18, 2002)
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the author of Why There Are No Good Men Left, discusses the challenges facing today's single women, and argues that the contemporary courtship system needs to be transformed.
Interviews: "What We Owe" (February 20, 1997)
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead discusses the urgent need to end America's "divorce culture."
The Atlantic Monthly | June 1898
A Successful Bachelor
by Leon H. Vincent
EW 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."
f 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."
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."
rabb 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."
he 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.
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Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1898; A Successful Bachelor; Volume 81, No. 488; page 805.