The formal and the informal, the redacted and the omitted: working with the Henry Crabb Robinson archive

Philipp Hunnekuhl is the author of Henry Crabb Robinson: Romantic Comparatist, 1790–1811, published recently in the Romantic Reconfigurations: Studies in Literature and Culture 1780–1850 series. The book is the first comprehensive study of Robinson’s achievements as a pioneering literary critic and cross-cultural disseminator. In this blog post, Hunnekuhl reflects on working with the manuscripts of the Henry Crabb Robinson archive at Dr Williams’s Library, London, and how these manuscripts help to elucidate Robinson’s publications until the point in time when he commenced his main Diary, in 1811.

The manuscript legacy of Henry Crabb Robinson (1775–1867) seemed barely surmountable when I first encountered it. I was interested in Robinson’s critical commentary on literature, both English and foreign ­­– that much I knew. But I was up against thirty-three volumes of Robinson’s main Diary (1811–67), twenty-nine volumes of Travel Diary (partly in shorthand), fourteen miscellaneous early diaries and pocket ledgers (1790–1810, also partly in shorthand), thirty-two bound volumes of correspondence, four quarto volumes of ‘Reminiscences’, as well as fifteen ‘Bundles’ of assorted manuscripts such as draft articles and reviews, study notes, reading lists, poetry translations, newspaper cuttings, more letters, more ledgers, legal papers documenting the plight of the Dissenters, books with marginalia, and yet more. And that is only Robinson’s informal legacy, not including his many published writings from between 1795 and 1861. It was difficult to determine where to start.

For fear of never reaching the end, I resolved not to start at the beginning. Instead, in order to develop a kind of formal signpost to my research, I thought it best to begin with what had been published, both by Robinson during his lifetime and afterwards, by the posthumous editors of his materials. Most significant with respect to the latter was Edith Morley’s three-volume edition Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and Their Writers (1938). On its perusal, it quickly became evident that Morley appreciated the aptitude and coherence of Robinson’s critical commentary. And yet, probably due to the economy required of print editions as well as the interests of her envisaged audience, Morley’s edition makes accessible only Robinson’s post-1811 records, and also does not include ‘references to books not written in English and to their writers’. (Morley the person was an ardent Fabian cosmopolitan who, like Robinson, had lived in Germany and spoke German as well as French.) In other words, Morley’s edition is heavily redacted, and although it lives up to the criteria she set herself by exhibiting Robinson’s deft commentary on English works and authors, it cannot but give a partial and deferred account of Robinson’s critical treatment of books and their writers overall.

Meanwhile, in order to complement my survey of Robinson’s published works, I transcribed and complemented the catalogue of the Robinson collection at Dr Williams’s Library as a kind of digitally searchable signpost of informality. Around that time, two ground-breaking works on Robinson were published: James Vigus’s edition entitled Henry Crabb Robinson: Essays on Kant, Schelling, and German Aesthetics and Eugene Stelzig’s Henry Crabb Robinson in Germany: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Life Writing. Both works confirmed what I had already been suspecting from Gregory Maertz’s analyses of Robinson’s published articles on Goethe in the Monthly Register (1802–03) – namely that the critical voice that Morley relished so much is a great deal more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than had hitherto been acknowledged, and that this critical voice had consolidated during the years predating the beginning of Robinson’s main Diary in 1811.

With this newfound awareness, I returned to the beginning, as it were – not minded to reach the end, but to treat that beginning in its own right. Working closely with Jane Giscombe, the Conservator at Dr Williams’s, I began to systematically transcribe Robinson’s surviving letters, diaries, and draft articles from before 1811, and then read Robinson’s publications from the same period against this informal backdrop. The results were astonishing. Robinson asserts, for instance, in a 1795 Cambridge Intelligencer article that William Godwin’s philosophy testified to the ‘integrity of conduct and benevolence of feeling […] in the compositions of Poets’ as having a true equivalent in quotidian practical morality. A draft manuscript article from 1798 – a taxonomy of the novel genre composed for the Monthly Magazine but never submitted – then shows that Godwin’s thought pervaded a refined necessitarian theory of literature that Robinson had developed up to this point. The manuscript’s invocations of Voltaire and Friedrich Maximilian Klinger also serve as proof that this theory already comprised comparative elements, while Robinson’s early pocket diaries detail the astonishing breadth of his autodidactic reading during his teenage years. As a Dissenter, he had been excluded from the English universities.

Robinson spent the years 1800–1805 in Germany, initially at Frankfurt and then as a student at the University of Jena. The first two travel diaries and six-weekly letters to his brother in Bury St Edmunds reveal that both Robinson’s comparatism and emphasis on literary ethics were amplified by his ‘conversion’ to Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. From Schiller’s letters ‘On the Aesthetic Education of Man’, Robinson will have gleaned the notion that aesthetic autonomy – art’s detachment from moral purposes and desires, as Kant had argued – was an unattainable ideal, and that a poet should hence feign disinterestedness in order to engage the active moral imagination of her or his readers to a maximum extent. This notion became the underlying principle of Robinson’s literary appreciation and cross-cultural transmissions from late 1802 onwards, and it is what makes his comparatism so pioneering. He spread Goethe’s and Schiller’s epigrammatic poetry along these lines in Britain, and, in the most revolutionary theoretical appreciation of Wordsworth at the time, saw the poet’s turn to nature and unassuming language as a subtle means of professing disinterestedness in human affairs. Wordsworth thus prompts free imaginative engagement with moral concerns among his audience, Robinson found.

Henry Crabb Robinson discussing Lyrical Ballads in a letter to his brother Thomas Robinson, 17 October 1802, Bundle 3.A, Letter 27, DWL. © The Dr Williams’s Trust, London

In such terms, Robinson will have introduced Herder to Lyrical Ballads in 1803, to great admiration, and also disseminated Blake’s poetry in Germany, in an 1811 article in the Vaterländisches Museum. And whereas scholarship has for some time been aware of Robinson’s private tutorials for Madame de Staël in German philosophy and its implications for art in Weimar in early 1804, his hitherto unpublished ‘Notebook for November 1805–December 1806’ suggests that he did the same for William Hazlitt after his return to London in late 1805. The Notebook also testifies that Robinson disseminated Kant’s philosophy in day-to-day conversations, for instance with Anna Letitia Barbauld, Thomas Holcroft, and other prominent figures of London’s literary scene.

James Vigus, in Informal Romanticism, highlights that the Romantics ‘experimented with a great variety of informal modes, including notebook jottings, diaries, letters, travel journals, marginalia in books, and draft reminiscences’. Henry Crabb Robinson is a – perhaps even the – case in point. In his particular case, having recourse to the informal reveals the stunning coherence and previously unknown depth of the critical principles that make Robinson the most pioneering comparatist and cross-cultural transmitter of literature during the early Romantic period.

For more information on Henry Crabb Robinson: Romantic Comparatist, 1790–1811, visit our website.


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