Henry Crabb Robinson in Germany: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Life Writing

Henry Crabb Robinson in Germany: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Life Writing

Henry Crabb Robinson in Germany: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Life Writing

Henry Crabb Robinson in Germany: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Life Writing

Synopsis

Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) spent five years in Germany (1800-1805) and became deeply informed about its Romantic literature and philosophy, then at its height in that country. In the course of his enthusiastic embrace of the German language and culture, Robinson built up an intellectual and literary capital that he would draw on for the rest of his long life. The main thrust of this critical and biographical study is to demonstrate that Robinson is an important nineteenth-century life writer, and that his autobiographical writings, a large portion of which are still in manuscript, deserve to be taken seriously by students and scholars of autobiography, and to be published in a new edition. Since to date no one has focused on Robinson the life writer, this study of Robinson's German years draws on his published letters, diaries, and reminiscences as well as some manuscript material.

Excerpt

To the student of british romanticism, the name henry crabb Robinson registers mostly as that of an early informant about some of its leading writers, especially William Blake and William Wordsworth. His recollections of the former, with whom he met on several occasions in London in the early eighteen hundreds in the last part of Blake’s life, have been a valuable source for Blake scholars beginning with Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist. They include the famous marginalia that Blake wrote in the edition of Wordsworth that Robinson had lent him, and that was returned to him after the poet’s death. Beyond this ancillary or informant role, however, Robinson has been all but forgotten. Perhaps in one sense this is as it should be. the English scholar who devoted the better part of her career to him, Edith J. Morley, wrote in the introduction to her 1935 biography, “no one has ever claimed that Crabb Robinson was in the front rank as a thinker, a critic, or a writer—least of all did he make any such claim himself.” Hence Morley’s book “subordinates [his] biography, as such, to … show him less in himself than in relation to men and things” (Morley 1935, x, xi).

In another sense, however, the marginalization or erasure of Henry Crabb Robinson is unfortunate. When he died in 1867, several months shy of his ninety-second birthday, after a richly productive and intensely sociable life as an inquiring spirit and man of letters, during which “he was more or less intimately connected with most of the outstanding figures of his time in England, in Germany, and to a lesser degree in France and in Italy” (Morley 1935, xi), he left behind him a veritable manuscript hoard that may well be the most extensive life writing collection by a nineteenthcentury English individual on record. Now housed at Dr. Williams’s Library in London, Robinson’s papers include twenty-nine volumes of the diary he began in 1811 and kept until several days before his death in 1867, thirty volumes of travel journals and diaries, four large quarto volumes of Reminiscences (written between 1846 and 1859, based on his diaries and letters), and more than thirty volumes of correspondence.

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