A Blupete Biography Page

[Back To Fiction Writers]

Henry Crabb Robinson

Crabb Robinson's life makes for an interesting study. Not so much that he was a front rank thinker, critic or writer; but rather, mainly because of his connections with the age and the fact that he kept a detailed diary throughout most all of his life. He read voraciously; he traveled extensively; and he counted among his friends and acquaintances the likes of Goethe and Wordsworth.

Henry Crabb Robinson was born on May 13th, 1775 at Bury St Edmunds, a community 65 miles north-east of London and some 25 miles east of Cambridge. He had two brothers: Thomas who ran a tannery at Bury, and, Habakkuk ("Hab") who was in a not too successful timber business at Bagshot. As a boy growing up, Crabb Robinson had the good fortune, though she be "several years older" than him, to become close to the sister to one of his playmates, Catherine Buck.

"She [Catherine] adopted him as a kind of younger brother and exerted very great influence on him. She felt it to be 'a prodigious disadvantage to a man not to have had a sister' and she did her utmost to make up the deficiency - not merely by improving his dress and correcting his manners, but also by influencing his opinions."1
Crabb Robinson, in later years was himself to recognize the debt he had to Catherine:
"She lent me books, made me first acquainted with the new opinions that were then afloat, and was my oracle, till her marriage [in January 1796] with the then celebrated Thomas Clarkson, the founder of the society for the abolition of the slave trade... Our friendship never ceased... Catherine Buck was the most eloquent woman I have ever known, with the exception of Madame do Staël. She had a quick apprehension of every kind of beauty and made her own whatever she learned."2
Because he was a "dissenter" Robinson (Unitarian) never went off to a public school or to an English university. At the age of 15, in 1790, Crabb Robinson articled himself to a Mr. Francis, an attorney at Colchester (a community some 30 miles south of his home town). Tiring of the work he had with Mr. Francis, Robinson made his way to the big city of London, where, in April of 1796, he found a position as a clerk in another lawyer's office. He soon leaves the drudgery that existed in a legal office back in those days, thanks to his deceased uncle who leaves him a legacy of €100 per year.

In 1800, Crabb Robinson took himself off to Germany and there he remained until 1805. Here, in Germany, after he had passed the entrance requirements, Robinson attended university. While in Germany he met many of the German thinkers of the time, Goethe and Schiller being among them. The universities in Germany in those days (may still be the same for all I know) were different than those found in England as typically represented by Cambridge and Oxford. Crabb Robinson explains the difference:

"[They] are not like the English, seats of discipline, a sort of school for grown gentlemen... They have very few public buildings and often no point of corporate union. They have no prayers, no costume, no obligation to attend lectures, no tests, few examinations, and those only when degrees are conferred, and they deserve the names of Universities much better than the English Colleges, as all the practical sciences are introduced."3
After his five year stay, Crabb Robinson came home from Germany in 1805. Before the year was out, however, Robinson was packing his bags again. On 23rd July, 1808, Robinson embarked at Falmouth in a government vessel, Black Joe and landed at Corunna, Spain.4 He went there to cover the battle fronts in Spain as the world's first war correspondent; he is working for The Times. On January 23rd, 1809, after a five day channel crossing from Corunna, Robinson arrived back at Falmouth. By that autumn his association with The Times ended, it being felt, given that his role as a foreign correspondent had ended, that he did not possess the "talents and qualifications"5 needed to be a regular writer for the paper. By November of 1809, we see where Robinson was taking "his dinners at the Middle Temple." Having completed his articles of clerkship with a barrister by the name of Littledale, Robinson was admitted in 1813. Robinson gave his reasons for becoming a barrister:
"My object in being called to the Bar was to acquire a gentlemanly independence, such at least as would enable a bachelor, of no luxurious or expensive habits, to enjoy good society with leisure. And having about €200 per annum, with the prospect of something more, I was not afraid to make known to my friends that, while I deemed it becoming in me to continue in the profession till I was fifty years of age and until I had a net income of €500 per annum, I had made up my mind not to continue longer, unless there were other inducements than those of mere money making."6
Robinson gives his reasons for leaving the bar; he left after fourteen years of practice, in 1828:
"I never knew any law, sir, but I knew the practice... I left the bar because I feared my incompetence might be discovered. I was a tolerable junior; but I was rising to be a leader, which I was unfit to be; and so I retired, not to disgrace myself by some fearful mistake."7
Though absent from England for a couple of stretches of time, Robinson maintained his friendship with Catherine Buck who by then was known as Catherine Clarkson, having married Thomas Clarkson8 in 1796. Catherine, because of her marriage, had become well known in London society. The intellectual part of that group was much interested in the cultural movement that was then unfolding in Germany, to become known as Romanticism and with which Robinson was much imbued. (It seems it might be argued that Romanticism got its start in Germany and spread to England.) Well, Catherine Clarkson had someone to show off. Crabb Robinson, this well traveled man9 had met all of the intellectual lights then shining brightly in Germany, such as Goethe and Madame de Staël. So too, he was familiar with the latest war news from Spain. It was Catherine who introduced Robinson to the literary circle then in London. One of the first was Charles Lamb, and then later came introductions to the Wordsworth and Coleridge.

"And in the course of a few days, viz., on the 15th [this would be, by the context, in May of 1812], I was introduced to Wordsworth. I breakfasted with him at Lamb's and I accompanied him to Mr. Hardcastle's, Hatcham, Deptford, with whom Mrs. Clarkson was on a visit. I was received by him very cordially, owing, I have no doubt, to a very favourable introduction by Mrs. Clarkson, aided, of course, by my perfect agreement with him in politics. And my enthusiastic and unconcealed admiration of his poetry of course gave me speedy admission to his confidence... Wordsworth at my first tête-à-tête with him spoke freely and praisingly of his own poems, which I never felt to be unbecoming but to the contrary."10
Throughout his life, Crabb Robinson "was distinguished by his outspoken honesty and his readiness to serve friends and acquaintance ungrudgingly and to the last of his ability."11 To everyone, it seems, Robinson was a friend:
"Nor was he ever slow to exercise the more difficult charity which entailed personal trouble and self-sacrifice. He would unhesitatingly upset his plans to please his brother or a friend, or even a stranger; he would travel from one end of England to the other to try to adjust the family disputes of quarrelsome acquaintance; would undertake the uncongenial duties of an executor or a trustee, alter his holiday projects to suit a changeable companion - Wordsworth was a notorious but by no means the only offender in this respect - would negotiate and make himself responsible for a meeting such as that he arranged for his widowed old friends, Mrs. Wordsworth and Mrs. Clarkson, would act as chaperon to a young girl who had no other travelling companion, visit home-sick schoolchildren or the relatives of an unsatisfactory clerk or servant. No service was too great or too small to be cheerfully undertaken and conscientiously performed."12
In a letter to his sister, a German supporter writes of Robinson:
... no other young man possessing of similar combination of mental strength, capacity for friendship, and sympathetic insight into the feelings of other people. Though Crabb Robinson may sometimes appear rough in manner, he is invariably obliging and good-natured. He never finds it inconvenient to do a good turn for a friend, and his sincerity is universally acknowledged.13
Like so many of the young English thinkers of the age, Robinson had been an admirer of the spirit and ideals which brought on the French Revolution, however, upon his return from Germany in 1805, Robinson "had lost his former admiration of the French and he loathed Napoleon and all his ways."14 (Goethe, it should be noted, was also no admirer of the French Revolution and its bloody outcomes.)

As for the value of Robinson as a Romantic Figure: As stated in the introduction of this piece Henry Crabb Robinson was not, as a historical figure -- a front rank thinker, critic nor writer. He was noteworthy because of his connections with his age and particularly with the luminaries the Romantic Period both in Germany and in England. The people whom he found himself in company with were, on his own admission, mentally superior to him. That he sought these people out and made the best of his opportunities, should be no surprise; the question is what made Robinson attractive to them? And the answer is was that his judgment was never dazzled. He was able to give a fair critical judgment of every one he met.

"It is this quality of balanced critical appreciation which makes Crabb Robinson an interesting figure: it is undoubtedly also this quality which, throughout his long life, brought him into touch with the men who were accomplishing great things in various spheres of activity. He managed to know the people who were most worthwhile, and he managed to do so without becoming either a toady or a snob, and without losing his admirable sense of proportion."15
Walter Bagehot makes the point:
"Mr. Robinson had known nearly every literary man worth knowing in England and Germany for fifty years and more. He had studied at Jena in the 'great time,' when Goethe, and Schiller, and Wieland were all at their zenith; he had lived with Charles Lamb and his set, and Rogers and his set, besides an infinite lot of little London people; he had taught Madame de Staël German philosophy in Germany, and helped her in business afterwards in England; he was the real friend of Wordsworth, and had known Coleridge and Southey almost from their 'coming out' to their death. And he was not a mere literary man. He had been a Times correspondent in the days of Napoleon's early German battles, now more than 'seventy years since'; he had been off Corunna in Sir John Moore's time; and last, but almost first it should have been, he was an English barrister, who had for years a considerable business, and who was full of picturesque stories about old judges. Such a varied life and experience belong to very few men, and his social nature - at once accessible and assailant - was just the one to take advantage of it."16
Our interest in Henry Crabb Robinson arose because of the connections he had to the English Romantic writers in the first third of the 19th century; he lived for years after that, continuing to keep his diary and espousing the causes he held dear. He kept his diary17 all along with his last entry on January 31st, 1867. In writing about a writer of the time (I believe Matthew Arnold): "During the last two days [here he is 91 years old] I have read the first Critical Essay on the qualification ... He thinks of Germany as he ought, and of Goethe with high admiration. On this point I can possibly give him assistance which he will gladly ..." It is at this point that Robinson leaves off, with a last parenthetic note: "But I feel incapable to go on." This was, as I say his last entry. Five days later, on February 5th, 1867, Henry Crabb Robinson died.

Crabb Robinson in his life had three great causes and while he was noted for his patience and as a lawyer was use to listening to all sides, to those against these three causes he showed no patience: slavery, the greatness of Goethe and the poetry of Wordsworth. Robinson led the crusade to get legislated relief to those who were subject to various and galling legal disabilities, all, simply, because they were not members of the Church of England. He was up against some very influential opponents; his dear friend, Wordsworth, being among them. Earlier we saw that there was a connection, one that developed early, with Thomas Clarkson who led a life long crusade for the abolition of the African slave trade. Undoubtedly Robinson was influenced by Clarkson, as so many people who made Clarkson's acquaintance were. In any event, Crabb Robinson's views on the subject of slavery were unshakable.

"... he would avoid intercourse with any one who admired Napoleon; he found it hard to tolerate the wrong-headedness of those who failed to acknowledge the outstanding genius of Goethe, or to realize the greatness of Wordsworth's poetry. Slavery was among the undebatable subjects, and unenlightenment concerning the was to Crabb Robinson a sign of unforgivable moral turpitude. Thus his whole attitude towards the United States of America and to individual Americans was coloured by the existence of slavery in the States.18

Found this material Helpful?


§ Born at Bury St Edmunds.
§ Thomas Clarkson is at Cambridge (St John's College) where in 1785 he writes a prize winning essay on slavery.
§ Articled with an attorney at Colchester.
§ In April of 1796 Crabb goes off to London and there finds a position (a mechanical writing-clerkship) with in a lawyer's office, a position he apparently keeps until his uncle leaves him a legacy of €100 per year.
§ Catherine Buck marries Thomas Clarkson.
§ Crabb Robinson is in Germany where he meets Goethe and Shiller, among others.
§ During January of 1804 Crabb Robinson meets Madame de Staël and through her gets introduced into the best of circles.
§ On September 17th, 1805, Crabb Robinson, traveling through French lines, arrives back home in England. While at first going back home, Robinson soon comes to London and associates with the Unitarian circles at Hackney. Mrs. Clarkson introduces him into literary circles then in London.
§ He is now living with the family of his friend J. D. Collier.
§ Thomas Clarkson publishes a history on slavery.
§ On 23rd July, Robinson embarks at Falmouth in a government vessel, Black Joe, and lands at Corunna, Spain. He is sent to cover the battle fronts in Europe as the world's first war correspondent; he is working for The Times.
§ On January 23rd, 1809, after a five day channel crossing from Corunna, Robinson arrives back at Falmouth; by the autumn his association with The Times ends, it being felt, given that his role as a foreign correspondent had ended, that he did not possess the "talents and qualifications" needed to be a regular writer for the paper.
§ By November of 1809, Robinson is taking "his dinners at the Middle Temple."
§ During this time, 1810, Robinson was visiting
Godwin at his bookshop at London.
§ During the summer Robinson, on a visit back to Bury, first meet Dorothy Wordsworth, who at the time was staying with the Clarksons.
§ On January 20th, 1812, Robinson becomes a pupil to a barrister by the name of Littledale.
§ For the followers of Robinson's life, this year, 1812, is very significant; he began to keep a detailed diary, something he did then for the rest of his life.
§ Madame de Staël is in London on a visit.
§ Robinson called to the bar.
§ After a 13 year absence, Robinson returns to Germany for a visit.
§ Anti-slavery Society is formed.
§ Went off on an Irish tour (he was sympathetic to Irish emancipation).
§ Robinson becomes one of the founding members of London University.
§ Robinson retires from the bar.
§ Robinson goes to stay in Italy; spends time in Florence (makes the acquaintance of Landor); tours to the south of Italy including a journey across Sicily. On his way to Italy he stopped by Weimar and looked up and paid a visit to the 80 year old Goethe.
§ Not sure for what period of time, but Robinson lived in Russell Square.
§ Crabb Robinson dies.


1 Edith J. Morley in her biographical introduction to The Life and Times of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Dent, 1935), hereinafter referred to as "Morley," at pp. 1-2. Whether Crabb was looking for an older sister might be questioned, more likely looking for a mother replacement, as, Robinson's mother, a Crabb, died when our hero was but seventeen years old.

2 As quoted by Morley.

3 As quoted by Morley at p. 18.

4 It was in July of 1808, in support of a Spanish rising, that Arthur Wellesley (later to become known as the Duke of Wellington) led the first small British force of 9000 men into the Peninsula of Spain; a gate into the hostile fortress of Napoleonic Europe. Seven years later, Napoleon was finally beaten by Wellington in the fields near Waterloo, Belgium.

5 Morley at p. 54.

6 See Morley at pp. 59-60.

7 See Morley at p. 192.

8 Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) had gone up to Cambridge (St John's College) where, in 1785, he had written a prize winning essay in Latin, "Is it right to make slaves of others against their will?" There was no looking back for him after that. In 1787, Clarkson with the help of others established the abolition campaign. Except for a ten year hiatus that followed after his marriage, Clarkson devoted his entire life to the campaign. He was a sympathizer for the French Revolution's fight for 'freedom and equality.' When Britain went to war with France in 1793, the civil rights movement (of which the abolition of slavery was only a part), came to halt as the entire country became devoted to defeating Napoleon, a job which was not completed until 1815. The popularity of the campaign that Clarkson was running waned and was overshadowed by the war. In any event Clarkson could not have kept up his hectic schedule, as by 1794 he was "suffering from exhaustion and ill health, he took temporary retirement from the cause at the farm of his Quaker friend Thomas Wilkinson in Penrith."
(http://www.garstangfairtrade.org.uk/thomas_clarkson.htm : 7/2/2004 12:13PM)
Like so many visitors to the area, Clarkson fell in love with the Lake District; and, as it turned out, with a young woman, too. In 1796, Thomas Clarkson married Catherine Buck; and the pair, for the next eight years, lived a simple life in the cottage they named Eusemere Hill. It was during this time that Clarkson "became great friends with the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge." In 1804, Clarkson turned back to his work in the abolition campaign which had been pretty much dormant in the intervening years. British parliamentarians, three years later, on the 24th of February, 1807, abolished the slave trade. (The vote was 283 in favour, 16 against.) Clarkson was to live to see the actual abolishment of slavery and the emancipation of slaves in 1833.

9 Robinson's travels as a young man in Germany gave him, it seems, a taste for travel -- throughout his life. He traveled covering countries which included: France, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Spain, and Scandinavia. Because he "laboriously acquired and conversed and read in foreign languages" and because he "possessed in an unusual degree the faculty of getting into conversation with strangers," Crabb Robinson had friends all over.

10 Robinson, as quoted by Morley at p. 49.

11 Morley, at footnote on p. 34.

12 Morley at p. 181.

13 Morley, at footnote on p. 34.

14 Morley at p. 38.

15 Morley at p. 32

16 In Bagehot's article on Robinson, as published in the Fortnightly Review August 1869 and as is set out in Appendix A, p. 185, Morley.

17 Selections from Robinson's diary (I read where in its original form it consists of 35 volumes; his Journals, 30 volumes; his Letters and Reminiscences, 36 volumes) was published, Diary, Reminiscences and Correspondence ... was published (Boston: Fields, Osgood, & Co., 1869); the selections and edits were by Thomas Sadler; in two vols. Also, in addition to The Life and Times of Henry Crabb Robinson to which we have referred earlier in these notes, Edith Morley saw to the publication of a separate work, On Books and Their Writers (London: Dent, 1938), 3 vols., in which Robinson's diary is set out with an index; notes; and extensive cross-tables of references to persons, events, dates and alike.

18 Morley, pp. 110-11.



2012 (2019)

Peter Landry