1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Rogers

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 13-22.



"De, mortuis nil nisi bonum!" ejaculates Fraser. "There is Sam Rogers, a mortal likeness — painted to the very death!"

Yes, here we have the "Bard of Memory," lean as if he had been fed on bank-notes, and drunk ink: sallow as if he had breathed no air that was not imbued with the taint of gold, — a caput mortuum; — yet another quarter of a century was even yet to pass away before "The weary wheels of life at length stood still" — and Samuel Rogers, so long a symbol of death in life, exchanged, we would trust, for life in death, his fabled wealth, and his Tusculum of St. James's Place, with its pictures, its busts, its gems, its coins, and its books.

Innumerable were the jokes on the "tete morte" of Rogers. Ward, afterwards Lord Dudley, asked him how it was, since he was so well off, he did not set up his hearse; Mackintosh wondered why, when at an election time he could not find accommodation at any hotel in a country town, he did not seek a snug lie down in the churchyard; a French valet, mistaking him for Tom Moore, threw the company into consternation by announcing him as "M. Le Mort;" Scott advised him to try his fortune in medicine in which he would be sure to succeed, if there was any truth in physiognomy, on the strength of his having a perpetual "facies Hippocratica;" Hook, meeting him at Lord Byron's funeral, gave him the friendly caution to keep out of the sight of the undertaker lest that functionary should claim, him as one of his old customers; but the story which caps all is that in the "John Bull," to the effect that when Rogers one night hailed a coach in St. Paul's churchyard, the jarvey cried — "Ho, ho, my man; I'm not going to be had in that way: go back to your grave!"

Like one of olden times: "Longa Tithonum minuit senectus" — the longer he lived the more attenuated he became; the Voltaire of England, — resembling in excessive leanness, cadaveric livor, retention of faculties in extreme senility, and imputed malignity of wit, that great writer, to whose strictures upon Milton's personifications, Young replied by the well-known distich:—

Thou art so witty, profligate and thin,
At once we see the Devil, Death and Sin,—

which reminds me somehow of the bitter couplet attributed to Tom Moore:—

With equal good nature, good grace, and good looks,
As the Devil gave apples, Sam Rogers gives books;

and whose "portrait," as drawn by a contemporary hand, might serve indifferently for either poet:

Spectre vivant, squelette decharne,
Qui n'a rien vu que ta seule figure,
Croirait d'abord avoir vu d'un damne
L'epouvantable et hideuse peinture—

A strangely favoured lot was that of Samuel Rogers. Born at Stoke Newington, July 30, 1763, of opulent parents, he enjoyed for nearly a century, ample leisure and means to indulge his favourite tastes and pursuits. He was the connecting link between the age of Johnson, Goldsmith, Reynolds, and our own. He was eating his eighth birthday pudding on the day that Gray, the poet, died. In the same year that the Ayrshire ploughman canvassed the weavers of Kilmarnock for subscriptions to that volume of Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, which will only perish with the language in which they are written, the London banker took his first verses to Cadell, with a cheque to pay the probable expenses. He had seen, as he related to Mitford, John Wesley lying in state, after death, March 2, 1791, in the eighty-eighth year of his age. He had agitated the "tintinnabulary appendage" at the door of Samuel Johnson, and been blackballed at his club, though proposed by Fox and seconded by Windham; wandered over St. Anne's Hill with Fox and Grattan; dined with Condorcet at Lafayette's in 1789; listened to the trial of Horne Tooke; breakfasted with Robertson, heard Blair preach, taken coffee with the Piozzis, and supped with Adam Smith, all in one day of that same eventful year; met Byron in Italy; and had enjoyed the intimacy of a host of celebrities, whose lives were but ephemeral episodes in his own. The Nestor, — rather, perhaps, the Tithonus, — of our poets, his pleasurable existence was prolonged to his ninety-fourth year, — a length of career only approached, so far as memory serves me, by the poet, Waller, who, coming into existence only two years after the death of Queen Elizabeth, missed but by a few months witnessing the accession of William and Mary. He retained his faculties nearly to the last, thus forming a striking exception to the dictum of Swift, who demurred to the title of "a fine old man," saying, "there is no such thing; if his head and his heart had been good for anything, they would have worn him out long ago."

As Rogers enjoyed the most refined society of his long day — that of the frequenters of his ever memorable breakfasts, so did he live surrounded with the choicest memorials of past and present literature and art. His walls were hung with rare specimens of the older masters, and the brighter "aquarelles" of Turner and Stothard. The mantel-piece in his drawing-room was designed by Flaxman; in his library were stored the MSS. of Gray, in their exquisite calligraphy, and the celebrated agreement between Milton and Samuel Simmons, the publisher (April 27, 1667), for the copyright of Paradise Lost; there was Roubiliac's clay model for a bust of Pope, by whose side his father had stood when the artist was modelling the drapery; there was a sketch by Raphael for which the Marquis of Westminster had offered him enough land to build a villa on; and there was a piece of amber enclosing a fly, which as Sydney Smith hinted, might have buzzed in the ear of Adam. As Byron wrote in his diary; "if you enter his house — his drawing-room — his library — you, of yourself, say this is not the dwelling of a common mind. There is not a gem, a coin, a book, thrown aside on his chimney-piece, his sofa, his table, that does not bespeak an almost fastidious elegance in the possessor."

Rogers made a good use of his wealth, which has, however, been overstated. It probably was never much above 5000 a year, of which he spent a fourth part in charity. It was to him that Sheridan addressed the last letter he ever wrote, begging for assistance, to prevent the very bed on which he was dying from being torn from under him by the bailiffs; and the answer was a cheque for 150, — not the first, by the way, in the same direction, It was he who helped Moore in his Bermudan difficulties; and lent Campbell 500 to enable him to purchase a share in the Metropolitan; and it was under his patronage that Moxon commenced business as a publisher, as, under the auspices of Pope, Dodsley had started in business-life a century before.

As a proser, — take the word in any sense, — Rogers commenced his literary career, as Dr. Johnson had done before him, when he was still in his teens (1781), by contributing a series of essays, eight in number, entitled The Scribbler, to the Gentleman's Magazine. He was not, however, an admirer or imitator of the lexicographer's "turgid style;" and his prose notes, or episodical and illustrative narratives appended to Italy and Poems, which he continued to polish and augment as long as his faculties lasted, have been said on high authority to constitute the choicest collection of anecdotes and quotations, and some of the most exquisite pieces of prose compositions in the language. Of these, indeed, Mackintosh used to cite the short essay on "National Prejudices" in Italy as absolutely perfect, both in thought and style.

The epoch of his advent as a poet was favourable to his fame; a small taper is conspicuous in a dark room. Gray, Goldsmith, Akenside and Churchill were dead. Burns had not appeared; Cowper and Crabbe were but yet little known; the audience of Darwin was fit but few; Dr. Walcott ("Peter Pindar") held the day with his coarse and vigorous satires; and Hayley was lord of the ascendant in his vapid and polished mediocrity. The rest of the field was occupied by poets of the softer sex, — Hannah More, Anna Seward, Lucy Aikin, and Helen Maria Williams. The" Ode to Superstition" appeared in 1786; then the Pleasures of Memory, — its every line redolent of Goldsmith in structure and diction, — tender, classical and refined, it is true, but with little of the divine afflatus of original genius, — inferior in power to the Pleasures of the Imagination of Akenside, which preceded it, and in episodic beauty to the Pleasures of Hope of Campbell, which it suggested. The Italy, — ascribed to Southey on its first anonymous appearance, — gemmed with charming descriptions of Ausonian life and scenery, and exquisite graces of style and language; Human Life, warm in colour, deep in feeling, tender in conception and Columbus, a fragmentary epic, which obscure, inelegant in machinery, wanting in ease and spontaneity, and harsh in transition, hardly perhaps merited the severe castigation which it received in the Quarterly Review at the hands of Lord Dudley, the corrosive sublimate of whose bitter article the retaliative poet sought to neutralize by an epigram, which in its manifestation of the true Greek talent of expressing by implication what it wishes to convey, may be pronounced one of the best in the English language

Ward has no heart, they say; but I deny it,—

He has a heart, — he gets his speeches by it!

When the "estro" of composition was over, — the muse of Rogers was hard-bound, gave birth but seldom, and was long in travail — the poet sat down to perfect the material form of his darling offspring. Stothard, with his tender and graceful pencil, — our English Raphael, — and Turner, the northern Claude, with his rainbow-tinted palette, — were summoned to collaborate. The production of the two volumes, Poems, and Italy, published by Moxon, 1830-4, is said to have cost their author between 10,000 and 12,000; and as they have never been excelled in beauty and taste by any books anywhere or any when, — and as, moreover, the art of the painter and the poet is so happily married as to be indivisible, — it is possible that there may be some applicability in the wicked parody of Pope's distich:—

See where the pictures for the page atone,
And Sam is saved by beauties not his own,

or the wickeder couplet:—

Of Rogers's Italy Luttrell relates
That 'twould have been dished, were it not for the plates!

However this may be, there is little doubt that the marvellous engravings from Turner's exquisite drawings, and Stothard's pure and graceful designs have done much to perpetuate the poems which they so happily illustrate. The successive issues are numerous between 1830 and 1859; but it is of course the early copies of the first edition, — identified by the head and tail-pieces to the Poem on a Tomb being worked off in wrong positions, — which are most highly prized by the cognoscenti. Any, however, are better than none; Ruskin enjoins the student of drawing to "possess himself first of the illustrated edition."

For the drawings, Turner was to have received 50 apiece; but as it was represented to him that the poet had miscalculated the probable returns, he consented, it is said, to take them back, and charge 5 each for their use. They are now, with the exception of the second vignette, the "Hospice of St. Bernard," in the National Gallery. The engravers received sixty guineas a plate.

One of the most interesting episodes in the life of Rogers was his intimacy with Byron. This took place, through the introduction of 1809 had called the poet Moore, in Nov. 1811. Byron in his satire of 1809 had called the poet "melodious Rogers," and classed the Pleasures of Memory with the Essay on Man, and the Pleasures of Hope, as the most beautiful didactic poems in the language. In 1813, Byron dedicated to him his poem, The Giaour, "as a slight but most sincere token of admiration for his genius, respect for his character, and gratitude for his friendship;" and wrote on a blank leaf of the Pleasures of Memory, the charming lines:

Absent or present, still to thee,
My friend, what magic spells belong!
As all can tell, who share like me,
In turn thy converse or thy song.

But when the dreaded hour shall come,
By friendship ever deem'd too nigh,
And Memory o'er her Druid's tomb
Shall weep that aught of thee can die;

How fondly will she then repay
Thy homage offered at her shrine,
And blend, while ages roll away,
Her name immortally with thine.

After this, the poets met by appointment at Bologna, in the autumn of 1821; visited the Florence Gallery together; and parted, never to meet again in this world. Rogers had found Byron had grown grey-headed in the five years that had passed since they had met before, though only in his thirty-third year; and saw little to

—recall the youth that swam
From SESTOS to ABYDOS.

The poets sat "far, far into the night conversing;" and the elder bard has left a charming account of the interview, as one of the episodes in his Italy (p. 97).

It is sad to know that such a friendship, so begun, and between two such men, should be marred in its remembrance. How it came about is not known. Whether Byron, as has been said, had received annoyance by the minute and fastidious dilletanteism of Rogers, and his unseasonable visits when in Italy; or whether as seems more probable, some one of those sarcastic and personal remarks in which the latter was wont to indulge at the expense of his most intimate associates had been conveyed to the poetic pilgrim at Ravenna by one of the good-natured friends who are ever ready to charge themselves with such missions, — it appears that he (Byron) revenged himself by the composition of a satire, which has been said to be "the greatest of modern satirical portraits in verse," and "not surpassed for cool malignity and happy imagery in the whole compass of the English language." It was composed, it would appear, at Venice before the final meeting of the poets at Bologna, but was never published by its author. Its appearance was posthumous; and as it is not included in the Poetical Works, and is but little known, it must find a place here:

QUESTION.
Nose and chin would shame a knocker,
Wrinkles that would puzzle Cocker;
Mouth which marks the envious scorner,
With a scorpion in each corner,
Turning its quick tail to sting you
In the place that most may wring you;
Eyes of lead-like hue and gummy,
Carcass pick'd out from some mummy;
Bowels (but they were forgotten
Save the liver, and that's rotten).
Skin all sallow, flesh all sodden,—
Form the Devil would fright God in.
Is't a corpse stuck up for show,
Galvanized at times to go?
With the Scripture in connexion,
New proof of the resurrection,
Vampire, ghost, or ghoul, what is it?
I would walk ten miles to miss it.

ANSWER.
Many passengers arrest one,
To demand the same free question.
Shorter's my reply and franker—
That's the Bard, the Beau, the Banker.
Yet if you could bring about,
Just to turn him inside out,
Satan's self would seem less sooty,
And his present aspect — Beauty.
Mark that (as he masks the bilious
Air, so softly supercilious)
Chasten'd bow, and mock humility,
Almost sicken'd to servility;
Hear his tone (which is to talking
That which creeping is to walking;
Now on all-fours, now on tip-toe);
Hear the tales he lends his lip to:—
Little hints of heavy scandals;
Every friend in turn he handles;
All which women, or which men do
Glides forth in an innuendo,
Clothed in odds and ends of humour—
Herald of each paltry rumour,
From divorces down to dresses,
Women's frailty, men's excesses,
All which life presents of evil
Make for him a constant revel.
You're his foe, for that he fears you,
And in absence blasts and sears you.
You're his friend, for that he hates you;
First caresses, and then baits you:
Darting on the opportunity
When to do it with impunity.
You are neither, — then he'll flatter
Till he finds some trait for satire;
Hunts your weak point out, then shows it
When it injures to disclose it,
In the mode that's most invidious,
Adding every trait that's hideous,
From the bile, whose blackening river
Rushes through his Stygian liver.
Then he thinks himself a lover:—
Why I really can't discover
In his mind, age, face, or figure:
Viper-broth might give him vigour:
Let him keep the cauldron steady,
He the venom has already.
For his faults, he has but one—
'Tis but envy when all's done.
He but pays the pain he suffers,
Clipping, like a pair of snuffers,
Lights which ought to burn the brighter
For this temporary blighter.
He's the cancer of his species,
And will eat himself to pieces
Plague personified and famine;
Devil, whose sole delight is damning!

For his merits, would you know 'em?
Once he wrote a pretty poem!

These bitter lines were written in 1818. They are said to have been in Moore's hands; but he suppressed them, probably because their publication would have excluded him from Rogers's breakfasts; and they first appeared, with annotations, "supplied by the great literary characters who annotate the new edition of Lord Byron," in Fraser's Magazine, No. xxxvii. p. 81. It is of these that Maginn elsewhere (Dub. Univ. Mag, Jan., 1844, p. 86) says that they "are well worth five dozen Parasinas and Prisoners of Chillon." The satire is indeed a literary curiosity of the highest interest, exceeding in cool and concentrated venom everything that has appeared since the days of Swift, except perhaps Gifford's truculent Epistle to Peter Pindar. "I would give a trifle," in no creditable spirit said Maginn, "to have seen Sam's face the morning that satire was published." The victim, we are told, thought of buying up all the copies of the magazine, but he was dissuaded by a cooler friend, who convinced him of the futility of such a step. Crabb Robinson called it in his Diary, a vile lampoon, and tells on the authority of W. S. Landor and Lady Blessington, of the heartless glee with which Byron boasted that he made Rogers sit down on the very cushion beneath which the doggrel catilinary was written, — "never," said he to Lady Blessington, "in the whole course of my existence did I feel more exquisite satisfaction than when I saw the ugly creature sitting upon my satire."

Rogers took no ostensible revenge; but we can fancy that a sad feeling of desecrated friendship was in his heart when he penned in a copy of Byron the following lines, which saw the light for the first time in the Dublin University Magazine, for May, 1857:—

When I beheld thee, light and gay,
The idol of the passing day;
The god of fools who never knew
The worth of him they cringed to;—
When I beheld thee, proud and young,
Despise the tribute due thy song;
While thy high spirit kept away
Sages from converse, souls astray:—
When nature show'd the bitter mind
Fraught with ill-will to all mankind;—
I wept that genius had been given
To one who thus could lead so far from heaven.

Maginn brings the easy accusation of "petty larceny" against the poet. This charge is probably, in part at least, based upon the assertion of Coleridge, in his first volume of verse, that Rogers stole the tale of Florio from the Lochleven of Michael Bruce. Lamb wrote to Coleridge, denouncing the charge as utterly unfounded; and Coleridge, in the second edition of his volume, took occasion to "expiate a sentence of unfounded detraction by an unsolicited and self-originating apology." Rogers was satisfied, and thus the matter ended.

The face of Rogers is said to have been pleasing, and even handsome, in youth. The painting by Hoppner (aetat. 46), and the drawing by Sir Thomas Lawrence, alike lend credence to the belief. Then there is the oil-painting by the latter, "in middle life," of which a wood-cut is given in the Illustrated London News, Dec. 20, 1855, side by side with one from a photograph by Paine, representing the banker-poet at the age of ninety-two. But the fact is there is no good likeness of him, for the simple reason that he would not allow one to be taken. There is one drawn on stone in 1838, by Mrs. Geale, a niece of Lady Morgan, which would have been excellent if the artist had ventured to give her subject his actual age. The portrait by Meyer, from a sketch by Baron Denon, is not satisfactory. Dantan's bust is hardly a caricature, and for that reason was held by Rogers in especial horror. The sketch of Maclise before us is, perhaps, the best, and most faithful of all, — though we can understand how Goethe, in distant Weimar, — as Thackeray wrote to G. H. Lewes, — looked upon it with a natural horror, as "a ghastly caricature," exclaiming, as he shut up the book and put it away in anger: "They would make me look like that!"

If Rogers has not come down to us as a modern Joe Miller, it is not the fault of Dr. Maginn and Theodore Hook. He had a knack of uttering pointed epigrammatic sayings and smart repartees; but, as the case of Selwyn, Luttrell, Sheridan, Walpole, Jekyll, Rose and others — not to mention honest "Joe" himself, — hundreds of jokes have been fathered upon him, of whose paternity he was guiltless. In the early days of the "John Bull" it was the fashion to lay every foundling witticism at the door of Sam Rogers; and thus the refined poet and man of letters became known as a sorry jester, — just as Virgil was held to have been a great magician, in the dark ages; the grave philologist Meursius is chiefly known to the present generation as the author of one of the most obscene books ever written, of which he is altogether innocent; Aristotle himself enjoys, in the bucolic mind, at least, the reputation of a circumforaneous quack; and the learned George Buchanan, "lumen Scoliae," who whipped Latin fundamentally into James I., is only known to chap-book students as "the King's Fool"! Maginn gives a happy, if outrageously extravagant, illustration of our poet's alleged reputation for humour, when he says: — "Joe vails his bonnet to Sam Rogers; in all the newspapers, not only of the kingdom but its dependencies, — Hindostan, Canada, the West Indies, the Cape, from the tropics, — nay, from the Antipodes to the Orkneys, Sam is godfather-general to all the bad jokes in existence. The Yankees have caught the fancy, and from New Orleans to New York it is the same, — Rogers is synonymous with a pun. All British-born or descended people, — yea the very negro and the Hindoo — father their calembourgs on Rogers. Quashee, or Ramee-Sanice, who knows nothing of Sir Isaac Newton, John Milton, or Fraser's Magazine, grins from ear to ear at the name of the illustrious banker, and with gratified voice exclaims, 'Him dam funny, dat Sam!'"

It was to Rogers that Moore dedicated his Lalla Rookh; Byron inscribed his name at the summit of a literary pyramid of contemporary poets, while he put Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey nearly at the base. Leigh Hunt, on the other hand with better judgment, in his clever Feast of the Poets, admits four only to dine with Apollo, — Scott, Southey, Campbell and Moore; — while Rogers is merely asked to tea. "You might have given him supper," wrote Byron to Hunt, " If only a sandwich;" and Moore pointed out what he thought an injustice.

Dr. Beattie, his medical attendant, who was with him when he died, wrote: — "a more tranquil and placid transition I never beheld." Memory had long deserted her chosen bard, and he fell into that state which Juvenal depicts as sadder than all the other infirmities of age:—

—omni
Membrorum damno major dementia, quae nec
Nomina servorum, nec vultum agnoscit amici
Cum quo praeterita caenavit nocte, nec illos
Quos genuit, quos eduxit.

Still, almost to the very last, he remembered and would fondly repeat some beautiful lines by Charles Mackay, — worth, he was wont to say, all the fine writing the world ever produced, — and which, published in a juvenile volume of poems, and presented to Rogers, had gained for their writer his acquaintance and friendship:

When my soul flies to the first great Giver,
Friends of the Bard, let my dwelling be,
By the green bank of that rippling river,
Under the shade of that tall beech tree
Bury me there, ye lovers of song,
When the prayers for the dead are spoken,
With my hands on my breast,
Like a child at rest,
And my lyre in the grave unbroken.

Among the most constant guests at the memorable breakfasts of Rogers was the Rev. Alexander Dyce. This gentleman — who himself died May, 1869, — had been in the habit, from his first introduction to the poet, and with his knowledge and sanction, of recording the various sayings and anecdotes with which the conversation of his host abounded. These, or rather a selection from them, he subsequently published under the title of Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers (Moxon, 1856, 8vo), a volume which received an unfavourable notice in the Edinburgh Review, No. ccxi., p. 73. Another little volume, with a biographical preface, is entitled Recollections of Samuel Rogers (Longmans, 1859, small 8vo). The editor of this was William Sharp, a nephew of the poet, one of whose brothers, Samuel Sharp, is author of a privately printed memoir, Some Particulars of the Life of Samuel Rogers (1859, 8vo, pp. lxiv.)