Because of his passion for literature and metaphysics, and his special affinity for knowing those men of his time who were worth knowing, Henry Crabb Robinson managed to encompass in his person many of the significant intellectual trends of the first half of the nineteenth century. His DIARY reveals him as a highly characteristic post-Enlightenment mind; his encounters with German, French, and particularly English literary figures have produced a mine of information about the special temper of exuberance during the period; yet there emerges from the work as well the picture of a modest and engaging man. While still a young man, having turned to the Law for a living, he realized he could never become great; but he never ceased to follow the lure of the controversial ideas and outstanding men of his age. His mild demeanor, his exquisite tact and generosity, made him the friend of writers as various as Goethe, Wordsworth, Blake, Lamb, Landor, and Coleridge.
Robinson’s life as he recorded it in the DIARY was outwardly uneventful, yet full of pleasurable transitions from introspection to social intercourse. He never married, but the range of his acquaintances and friendships was enormous, as was the extent of his correspondence. Yet we also have frequent glimpses of the solitary Robinson, alone in a room reading voluminously in the philosophy and literature of his contemporaries, cultivating his DIARY, or traveling on the Continent to improve his mind.
Robinson was born on May 13, 1775, at Bury St. Edmunds. His childhood was a happy one; however, because the Robinsons were Dissenters he was excluded from education at a public school or a university, and at age fifteen he was articled as a law clerk to a Colchester attorney. During the next few years he went to see John Wesley preach, rejoiced at the outbreak of the French Revolution, became a Jacobin, and read Godwin’s POLITICAL JUSTICE. Then after an unsettled life in London during the closing years of the eighteenth century, a time when he began in earnest his reading and theater-going habits and developed a mature interest in politics, he went to Germany in 1800 with money from a legacy. The next five years of independent travel and study in Germany were the crucial period of his life. With no settled plans, he began to absorb the German language and culture. By the time he returned home, he had traveled widely in Germany, had read deeply in its literature and in the emerging transcendental philosophy, had known Weimar in its great days and talked with Goethe, Schiller, Brentano, Voss, and many others. With Coleridge and Carlyle, he became one of the first English Germanophiles, an extremely eloquent advocate, for example, of the strengths and beauties of Goethe in literature and of Kant in philosophy. If the formative influence of Germany on English thought during the period between 1810 and 1850 can hardly be overrated, Robinson himself deserves much of the credit.
At Frankfurt, his first major stop, Robinson became acquainted with the poet Clemens Brentano. In July, 1801, he moved on to Grimma where, with great difficulty, he began reading Kant in earnest. After meeting Goethe and Herder at Weimar, he remarked on Goethe’s immense dignity and oppressive handsomeness. Finally he settled at Jena, enrolled in the University there, and began studies in Latin and Greek and in contemporary German writing. He heard Schelling’s lectures on aesthetics and thought them obscure; his acute sympathetic insight and strength of mind won him an intimacy with von Knebel; while at the same time he indulged in some good-natured student clowning, got into trouble for parodying an inept professor named Eichstadt, and was friendly enough with his fellow students to learn a good deal about their secret dueling societies. In 1804 he met Mme. de Stael. Not knowing Parisian customs, he was puzzled to be shown into her bedroom to meet the great lady as she sat decorously in her bed. In return for her introductions to many of the literary giants of Weimar, Robinson gave her lucid explanations of current German philosophies. He...
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