Cambridge in the Seventeenth Century. Part II.—Autobiography of Matthew Robinson (Edited by J. E. B. Mayor, 1856).
We have not seen Part I. of Cambridge in the Seventeenth Century; but if the entire series is to resemble Part II., we can only hope that there may be many more yet to come. The volume before us is a reprint of one of a great mass of MSS. which lie, in an all but useless condition, in the various college libraries at Cambridge. Such collections must contain much that it is not wise to allow to die, and we are very thankful to Mr. Mayor for his publication. It is prefaced by a somewhat belligerent address to the reader, bitterly complaining of the various evils which infest modern literature; and Mr. Mayor's opinions coincide, in the main, so fully with those which we have always advocated, that it is pleasant to be able, by reference to his pages, to confirm what we have so often repeated. Speaking, for example, of the shoals of “books of the season”—with many of which we have had a painful acquaintance—Mr. Mayor observes:--
‘Some may regard the rage for amusement as itself unworthy of grown men and women . . . . . Surely no man need go out of his way to seek diversion who has facts such as these staring him in the face—that the laboured buffoonery of our comic prints is supplied to order, bought, repeated, and to all appearance relished as genuine wit; and that publishers find their account in recommending substantial treatises on theology or the classics by the solemn approval of provincial newspapers.’Nor is the following less true:
‘The art of writing the story of a life simply and briefly seems to be almost lost. Either the book is swollen to a compass fifty or sixty times greater than the old proportions; or, if it be intended for popular sale, it is seasoned with coarse flattery and seeming-reverent irreverence, which reminds us of Jesuit martyrologies.’We cannot, however, entirely agree with Mr. Mayor in ascribing a great part of the faults of our periodical literature to its anonymous character. All that he says amounts to this— that anonymous writers are exposed to great special temptations. But the same is equally true of all occupations; and the universal adoption of anonymous writing for many purposes, wherever even a moderate degree of political freedom exists, is a sufficient proof that the balance of advantage is generally supposed to be in its favour. Mr. Mayor also seems to us to forget that whatever lowers the character of anonymous writing instantly diminishes its influence, and that the concealment of a well-known name prevents Homer from nodding undetected, whilst the suppression of an obscure name can never give weight to what is intrinsically weak. Nor can we altogether plead guilty to the second count in Mr. Mayor's indictment, which is, that reviewers are forced to write for immediate success—that is, to consult show rather than substance. It is true that the temptation to do so is one to which periodical writers are peculiarly open; but it certainly does not follow that, because a leading article or a review is dependent upon immediate success, it must be ill written. Some of the qualities which command immediate success are amongst the highest which can be displayed in literature. A periodical writer whose heart is in his work will try to command the success on which he depends by point, compression, clearness, and nervousness of style. If he chooses to obtain his end by flashiness and flimsiness, it is his own fault. Of course, a man who aims at adequately criticizing, in two or three columns, and after a couple of days' study, a book which it has taken many laborious years to write, is both foolish and presumptuous; but he may, even after a single perusal of such a book, have things to say about it which will be well worth reading. The mere knowledge of the first impression which such a work makes on an educated man is worth having, whilst a fair account of its contents may be useful to persons who wish to study the subject to which it refers, and interesting to those who do not; and there can be no possible reason why such statements should not be made well rather than ill.
But let us come, as Mr. Mayor says, “to the facts.” The Life of Matthew Robinson is not, strictly speaking, an autobiography. It is rather a Life partly founded on an autobiography, and completed by another person, George Grey—a nephew of the subject of the narrative. The question of authorship we cannot altogether unravel, but we are very sure that we have seldom seen a better book since we read Walton's Lives. It is one of those pithy, spirited sketches which set their subject before us in broad, bold outline, and which make us know a man infinitely better than the bloated inanities which, in these days, record the sayings and doings of so many utterly insignificant persons. We will attempt to give our readers some account of its contents, assuring them that the book itself is one which well deserves a permanent place in literature.
Matthew Robinson was born near Bernard Castle, in Rokeby, on the confines of the North Riding of Yorkshire, in December, 1628. His father was “a stout and popular gentleman,” who took part with Lord Fairfax and others in the civil war. He died when his son was twelve years old, by which time the boy was so good a Latin scholar, that he “would nick off the very sense of difficult passages wherein others, three or four '' older, could do nothing.” In his fourteenth year, he had added some Greek to his accomplishments, and his master pressed his mother to send him to the university; but the civil war was then at its height. Oxford was the head-quarters of the King, and Cambridge a garrison of the Parliament; so young Robinson was sent to Edinburgh, “on a bad horse, which no soldier would take, with near thirty broad pieces of gold sewed up in private parts of his clothes.” At Edinburgh, he entered under “a regent of good note,” and his daily employment was “to write a body of logic dictated by the regent, wherein five hours per day, if not six, were spent in writing, but little time in expounding or examining what was writ.” It is no wonder that Mr. Robinson found this course “very dull, and of slow progress.” A drearier form of penal servitude it would certainly be hard to imagine. After some months, it was terminated by a lighter affliction. The plague broke out, and drove the English students home, with but “one bad horse to two men.” “One of the horses breaking casually his leg, and that incurably, was left to die;” and the three youths and their three men were left with only two, one of which carried the luggage, and the other its owners, two at a time. In this dismal manner they travelled fifty miles through Northumberland in one day, being “packed out of Newcastle” as infected persons, and forced to march on to Chester-le-Street. After staying at home for two months, “reading over his tedious notes,” Robinson “took his venture for Hull, designing to slip to Cambridge through the marshes of Lincolnshire—the higher road, by Lincoln Heath, being much infested by the raparees of Newark.” On Caster Heath the party had to ride for their lives, being pursued for many miles by a party of Newarkers; but they got safely into Horncastle, and continued their journey over “ferries in that marshy country where enemies could not pass.” At Croyland, Robinson was safe from raparees, but was grievously afflicted by “swarms of night enemies, the gnats and hummers.” At Peterborough, he was again alarmed by the Royalists, yet at last he arrived safely at Cambridge. “But he had not settled himself many nights in quiet till the King's army broke into the associated counties, took Huntingdon, and in parties came near to Cambridge, on which alarum the bells rung backwards, and the beacons were fired.” We are sorry to add that, “in four hours' time, the Cantabrigian students were all fled, two or three on a horse.” Robinson “betook himself to his old stratagem, flying into marshy countries, and making to the Isle of Ely, where enemies' horse could not come but by boat.” However, the people of the country round were called in, under pain of death, to defend the town, and Robinson was brought back by a “rude rabble, who stopped him flying, and beat his companion;” and though they escaped two or three times, “other rustics treated them in like manner.” Finding that there was no help for it, he determined to fight before running away again, and accordingly joined the garrison of Cambridge Castle, then commanded by “a Master of Arts and a captain.” There, till the retreat of the royal forces, he was on guard every night, “with sword, firelock, and bandoliers,” whilst he went by day into college with his gown.
Quieter times succeeded. Robinson read steadily seven hours a-day; and “one week in three months he set apart to town visits, and then he spared no money, appearing always abroad in excellent clothes.” He became an admirable scholar, and passed his time quietly at the University till the King's trial. His feelings upon this subject are curious in one so closely connected with the Parliamentary party. “He so passionately resented” it “that he forthwith left the University, going to London, which he had never visited before, to await the tragical issue. There, during the King's trial, he joined with those who kept solemn days of fasting for the averting that national sin and judgment. But the King being sentenced to death, he had not the heart to stay the execution, but posted home to his friends in the North, that, under his guard, he might see what God would do to the city.” At home he employed himself in preparation for the profession of medicine, which he intended to pursue; and during his residence there he was chosen an honorary Fellow of Christ's College, and afterwards, by the favour of a man whom he had considered his enemy, was elected a Fellow of his own college, St. John's. Here he passed above two years, principally in the study of anatomy, or, as his contemporaries irreverently called it, “dogflaying.” He was a great man for vividisections, and “no augur ever was more familiar with bowels than he.” In these studies he was much advised and aided by the famous Dr. Browne, of Norwich, the author of the Religio Medici.
In August, 1651, when Robinson was about twenty-three, the family living of Burneston fell vacant, and he somewhat reluctantly gave up his chosen profession to accept it. He passed some time between his college and his living, which he was on the point of resigning, when the Barebone Parliament—“that Parliament of Anabaptists”—was chosen; but on their resignation of their power to the Protector, he resumed his place. To fit himself for his duties, he studied theology with great care; but as his medical skill brought him into great practice, not only amongst his parishioners, but also amongst “some dukes and peers, with many baronets, knights, and great men,” three or four days a-week were so occupied, that he could only keep up his theological studies by reading morning and evening, and on the road as he travelled. He seems, indeed, to have been a kind of universal referee in his own country, “his affairs still growing upon him both at home and abroad, by his many affairs and many trusts reposed in him;” but at last, about the fifty-fourth year of his age, it “pleased God to give him a writ of ease, smiting him with the stone in the bladder, which disabled him quite from walking or riding, and by this so chargeable a release, he obtained his desired liberty of perfecting for ever his studies in divinity, devoting himself to the sacred Word wholly.” In the midst of constant and grievous pain, he wrote a commentary, which still remains in MS., on the whole Bible, which he finished in six years, “writing every day one sheet or more of paper,” though, when he began it, he did not expect to finish the Book of Genesis. When unable to stand in the pulpit he sat, and always managed to preach twice on the Sunday, though he was usually forced to go to bed four or five times a-day.
Notwithstanding the severity and multiplicity of his studies, no man enjoyed life more heartily and manfully. “He had in his active and youthful years a small pack of beagles, with which he usually hunted once per week; and fine horses being his great delight, he never wanted a choice gelding of great value for his pleasure in galloping, and a beautiful curiously going pad for his saddle-never appearing abroad but rarely mounted, and in rich clothes above the common rate of clergymen, being a companion for gentlemen of the greatest quality, except he saw them given to swearing and debauchery.” He also bred horses largely, keeping four brood mares; “and his eye and judgment was so curious in horses that he would sometimes buy a choice colt fole at twenty guineas, and in less than four years sell him for a hundred.” Walking on foot “was a novelty he much delighted in, for he would sometimes run two or three hares to death on foot.” His accomplishments brought him into the way of Charles II., to whom he was introduced by the Governor of Dover, between whom and the King, he overheard a characteristic conversation, whilst his Majesty was in bed. The governor told his sovereign that “he had brought him a great stranger, the clerical horseman, Dr. Robinson; ‘but, Sir,’ said he, ‘you must not offer him anything but your hand to kiss; for you have nothing that he will either ask or accept. Saith the King, ‘he is to me, the more acceptable for that: give me my nightgown that I may see him.’ ‘Hold, Sir, said the Governor, pleasantly, ‘you must not do so, for he is as compt and fine a clergyman as you have in your dominions.’ ‘Then, saith the King, ‘give me my royal robes, that I may appear finer than he.'" On coming out of his chamber, the King asked his opinion about “the fine horse which he had sent to Newmarket.” Robinson answered that “the horse in reason would neither credit much the breeder nor the owner; for though he was a horse of rare size, colour, beauty, marks, and strength, he was but a half-bred horse in the bottom, out of a Flanders coach mare; and though he had heels for any horse, he was thick-winded and ungovernable, and would soon run himself out; which proving true, the King made a charger of him, and gave him to the Duke of Mon. mouth, “who charged upon him at Bothwell Bridge.” After some more talk about horses, the King “singled out some wanton wit to disport upon,” and the courtiers “made a cock-pit about Mr. Robinson and his Majesty.” He contrived, however, to escape, and would never go to Court again. His opinion of the King was, “that though he had never been born to a crown, any man would take him to be a great gentleman for civility, courtesy, wit, and Pleasantry, but how solid and serious in matters of polity and religion, it belonged not unto him to judge”.
Besides his divinity and medicine, Robinson had a good knowledge of law business. On one occasion, a rascally attorney brought actions against him and most of his parishioners, “upon forged mortgages.” His own interest in the matter was trifling, but for his neighbours' sake he contested the claim; and though it “cost him two assizes and a suit in Chancery, yet at the last he broke the heart and cracked the credit of this attorney, so that he quickly died an errant beggar.” In money matters, Robinson was no less remarkable than in other affairs. His living was worth £80 a-year—his own fortune was about £40l a-year and his wife brought him £800. He lived handsomely, and was so charitable that he gave £150 to found an almshouse, and £1500 more to set up one of his nephews as a merchant in London; yet, though he spent ten per cent. of his income for pious uses, he died worth £20,000. It is very characteristic of a man of this stamp, that “he did all with much ease and without any anxious cares or distractions.” Some property which he inherited he gave away, so that his “great estate was purely the free bounty of his heavenly Father and his own prudential management." What this means we do not know—we suppose it implies that he made his money by practising physic and investing his earnings wisely. For fifteen years before his death, he was afflicted by the painful disease of which he died at last. “He was very often looking into his grave ere he fell into it; witness his frequent sermons on mortality, and his setting of his house and heart in order yearly to prevent all differences and disputes amongst relations.” He died on the 27th of November, 1694, in the sixty-sixth year of his age, and was buried at Burneston, under a marble stone, “which himself had prepared;”—“leaving behind him there many monuments of his good name, never to be forgotten in these parts.” So ends a biography to which we have nothing to add except a hearty testimony to its value and beauty.
The book contains abundant proof of Mr. Mayor's editorial zeal and industry. It is edited as the classics used to be edited— the notes, appendix, index, and glossary, occupying fully two-thirds of the 239 pages of which the volume consists. Of the value of some of the contents of the appendix we do not pretend to judge; but the interest attaching to an ancient and abortive plan for maintaining poor students at the Universities must be chiefly local and antiquarian, nor can we care much about the question between Mr. Crichton and Dr. Brownrig about the Mastership of Catherine Hall in the year 1635.
Saturday Review, October 18, 1856.