Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Weeds don’t spoil

‘My [90th] birthday. [. . .] It is unusual, I believe, for persons of this age to retain possession of their faculties, or so much of them as I do. The Germans have an uncomplimentary saying : “Weeds don’t spoil” ’. This is Henry Crabb Robinson, one of the most interesting and entertaining of 19th century diarists, who was born 240 years ago today. He trained as a lawyer, but an inheritance left him wealthy enough to pursue a life of cultured leisure. He was a great theatre-goer, knew a lot of literary types - was on very good terms with Wordsworth, for example, with whom he travelled often - and was one of the first to recognise William’s Blake’s genius.

Robinson was born in Bury St Edmunds on 13 May 1775, the son of a tanner. He attended private schools, and was articled to a lawyer in Colchester when 15, and subsequently to another in London. In 1796, he was left an inheritance which allowed him to travel to the Continent frequently. Between 1800 and 1805 he studied in Germany, meeting, among others, Goethe and Schiller. He operated as a war correspondent for The Times for a short while during the Peninsular War, and, on his return to London, finished his legal training and was called to the bar.

Through an old friend, Catherine, who had married the writer and abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, Robinson was introduced into London literary society; and, in time, his own breakfast parties became famous. After retiring in 1828, he continued to take part in public affairs and to travel often. In 1828 he was one of the founding members of London University; and, in 1837, he revisited Italy on a tour with the poet William Wordsworth. He never married, but lived to an old age, dying in 1867. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies, the UCL Bloomsbury Project, or Peter Landry’s Bluepete website. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has a good short biography (but requires a login).

Robinson left behind a large amount of papers including the following: brief journals covering the period to 1810, a much fuller home diary (begun in 1811, and continued to within five days of his death - 35 volumes), and a collection of 30 tour journals. The papers were edited by Thomas Sadler and published by Macmillan in 1869 in three volumes as Diary, Reminiscences and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson. And it is thanks largely to these volumes that Robsinson is remembered today, for his diaries are full of important detail about the central figures of the English romantic movement, not only Wordsworth, but Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and William Blake. Of the latter, he was an early admirer, writing in his diary: ‘Shall I call Blake artist, genius, mystic or madman? Probably he is all’. Moreover, his diaries are also prized for their information about the London theatre in the first half of the 19th century (see the Society for Theatre Research’s 1966 volume: The London theatre 1811-1866: Selections from the diary of Henry Crabb Robinson.)

All three volumes of Diary, Reminiscences and Correspondence can be read at Internet Archive (Vol 1, Vol 2, Vol 3). Here are a few extracts.

7 December 1831
‘Brighton. Accompanied [John James] Masquerier [a British painter] to a concert, which afforded me really a great pleasure. I heard Paganini [Niccolò Paganini, an Italian musician and composer]. Having scarcely any sensibility to music, I could not expect great enjoyment from any music, however fine; and, after all, I felt more surprise at the performance than enjoyment. The professional men, I understand, universally think more highly of Paganini than the public do. He is really an object of wonder. His appearance announces something extraordinary. His figure and face amount to caricature. He is a tall slim figure, with limbs which remind one of a spider; his face very thin, his forehead broad, his eyes grey and piercing, with bushy eyebrows; his nose thin and long, his cheeks hollow, and his chin sharp and narrow. His face forms a sort of triangle. His hands the oddest imaginable, fingers of enormous length, and thumbs bending backwards.

It is, perhaps, in a great measure from the length of finger and thumb that his fiddle is also a sort of lute. He came forward and played, from notes, his own compositions. Of the music, as such, I know nothing. The sounds were wonderful. He produced high notes very faint, which resembled the chirruping of birds, and then in an instant, with a startling change, rich and melodious notes, approaching those of the bass viol. It was difficult to believe that this great variety of sounds proceeded from one instrument. The effect was heightened by his extravagant gesticulation and whimsical attitudes. He sometimes played with his fingers, as on a harp, and sometimes struck the cords with his bow, as if it were a drum-stick, sometimes sticking his elbow into his chest, and sometimes flourishing his bow. Oftentimes the sounds were sharp, like those of musical glasses, and only now and then really delicious to my vulgar ear, which is gratified merely by the flute and other melodious instruments, and has little sense of harmony.’

9 June 1833
‘Liverpool. At twelve I got upon an omnibus, and was driven up a steep hill to the place where the steam-carriages start. We travelled in the second class of carriages. There were five carriages linked together, in each of which were placed open seats for the traveller, four and four facing each other; but not all were full; and, besides, there was a close carriage, and also a machine for luggage. The fare was four shillings for the thirty-one miles. Everything went on so rapidly, that I had scarcely the power of observation. The road begins at an excavation through rock, and is to a certain extent insulated from the adjacent country. It is occasionally placed on bridges, and frequently intersected by ordinary roads. Not quite a perfect level is preserved. On setting off there is a slight jolt, arising from the chain catching each carriage, but, once in motion, we proceeded as smoothly as possible. For a minute or two the pace is gentle, and is constantly varying. The machine produces little smoke or steam. First in order is the tall chimney; then the boiler, a barrel-like vessel; then an oblong reservoir of water; then a vehicle for coals; and then comes, of a length infinitely extendible, the train of carriages. If all the seats had been filled, our train would have carried about 150 passengers; but a gentleman assured me at Chester that he went with a thousand persons to Newton fair. There must have been two engines then. I have heard since that two thousand persons and more went to and from the fair that day. But two thousand only, at three shillings each way, would have produced £600! But, after all, the expense is so great, that it is considered uncertain whether the establishment will ultimately remunerate the proprietors. Yet I have heard that it already yields the shareholders a dividend of nine per cent. And Bills have passed for making railroads between London and Birmingham, and Birmingham and Liverpool. What a change will it produce in the intercourse! One conveyance will take between 100 and 200 passengers, and the journey will be made in a forenoon! Of the rapidity of the journey I had better experience on my return; but I may say now, that, stoppages included, it may certainly be made at the rate of twenty miles an hour!

I should have observed before that the most remarkable movements of the journey are those in which trains pass one another. The rapidity is such that there is no recognizing the features of a traveller. On several occasions, the noise of the passing engine was like the whizzing of a rocket. Guards are stationed in the road, holding flags, to give notice to the drivers when to stop. Near Newton, I noticed an inscription recording the memorable death of Huskisson.’

26 December 1836
‘Brighton. This was a remarkable day. So much snow fell, that not a coach either set out for or arrived from London - an incident almost unheard of in this place. Parties were put off and engagements broken without complaint. The Masqueriers, with whom I am staying, expected friends to dinner, but they could not come. Nevertheless, we had here Mr Edmonds, the worthy Scotch schoolmaster, Mr and Mrs Dill, and a Miss Robinson; and, with the assistance of whist, the afternoon went off comfortably enough. Of course, during a part of the day, I was occupied in reading.’

28 December 1836
‘The papers to-day are full of the snow-storm. The ordinary mails were stopped in every part of the country.’

3 May 1850
‘I read early a speech by [Frederick William] Robertson [a charismatic preacher] to the Brighton Working Class Association, in which infidelity of a very dangerous kind had sprung up. His speech shows great practical ability. He managed a difficult subject very ably, but it will not be satisfactory either to the orthodox or the ultra-liberal.

I went to Mr Cookson, who is one of the executors of Mr Wordsworth, and with whom I had an interesting conversation about Wordsworth’s arrangements for the publication of his poems. He has commissioned Dr Christopher Wordsworth to write his Life, a brief Memoir merely illustrative of his poems. And in a paper given to the Doctor, he wrote that his sons, son-in-law, his dear friend Miss Fenwick, Mr Carter, and Mr Robinson, who had travelled with him, “would gladly contribute their aid by communicating any facts within their knowledge.” ’

18 February 1851
‘At Masquerier’s, Brighton. We had calls soon after breakfast. The one to be mentioned was that of [Michael] Faraday, one of the most remarkable men of the day, the very greatest of our discoverers in chemistry, a perfect lecturer in the unaffected simplicity and intelligent clearness of his statement; so that the learned are instructed and the ignorant charmed. His personal character is admirable. When he was young, poor, and altogether unknown, Masquerier was kind to him; and now that he is a great man he does not forget his old friend.’

29 November 1852
‘I went to Robertson’s, and had two hours of interesting chat with him on his position here in the pulpit; also about Lady Byron. He speaks of her as the noblest woman he ever knew.’

17 August 1853
‘Dr King wrote to me, informing me of the death of Robertson, of Brighton. Take him for all in all, the best preacher I ever saw in a pulpit; that is, uniting the greatest number of excellences, originality, piety, freedom of thought, and warmth of love. His style colloquial and very scriptural. He combined light of the intellect with warmth of the affections in a pre-eminent degree.’

13 September 1853
‘Brighton. Dr King called, and in the evening I called by desire on Lady Byron - a call which I enjoyed, and which may have consequences. Recollecting her history, as the widow of the most famous, though not the greatest, poet of England in our day, I felt an interest in going to her; and that interest was greatly heightened when I left her. From all I have heard of her, I consider her one of the best women of the day. Her means and her good will both great. “She lives to do good,” says Dr. King, and I believe this to be true. She wanted my opinion as to the mode of doing justice to Robertson’s memory. She spoke of him as having a better head on matters of business than any one else she ever knew. She said, “I have consulted lawyers on matters of difficulty, but Robertson seemed better able to give me advice. He unravelled everything and explained everything at once as no one else did.” ’

13 May 1865
‘My birthday. To-day I complete my ninetieth year. When people hear of my age, they affect to doubt my veracity, and call me a wonder. It is unusual, I believe, for persons of this age to retain possession of their faculties, or so much of them as I do. The Germans have an uncomplimentary saying : “Weeds don’t spoil.” ’

The Diary Junction

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