1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Rogers

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 174.



SAMUEL ROGERS was born in London, in the year 1762: his father was a banker, — and the Poet, it is known, follows the same profitable calling. His first work, an Ode to Superstition, and other Poems, was published in 1786. It met with considerable success; and the appearance of the Pleasures of Memory, in 1792, at once established a reputation, which has continued undiminished for nearly half a century. The Pleasures of Memory was followed by an Epistle to a Friend; The Voyage of Columbus; and Jacqueline, which was originally published in the same volume with Lord Byron's Lara. This was succeeded by Human Life. His last, and we think his greatest, work, Italy, was published in 1823. An edition of this volume, magnificently illustrated by a series of fine engravings, from the designs of Turner and Stothard, appeared in 1830; and, although it was at first considered that the author sought only to indulge his fancy by a large expenditure, for which he did not anticipate a return, we believe the extent of its sale has been so large, that the experiment has been exceedingly lucrative. The other Poems were published on a similar plan, in 1834. The two volumes are, without exception, the most exquisite examples of embellished books which our age, so fertile in such achievements, has yet produced. They afford proof that a judicious employment of capital cannot fail to ensure success. It is scarcely necessary to observe, that the Editor of the Book of Gems is indebted to Mr. Rogers for the suggestion of his work.

Mr. Rogers is now not a young man. He has preserved his fame, notwithstanding that since he obtained it so many new and vigorous competitors have started for the same goal. Portraits of him, in abundance, have been published: they all give us the outlines of a countenance strongly marked, — but not one of them supply us with the smallest notion of the shrewd and observant man, who, through nearly all his life in "populous city pent," has looked much about him, both at home and abroad; has devoted all his leisure to the "proper study of mankind;" and whose natural talent has, been matured and polished by a long intercourse with all the liner spirits of the ape. Few men have been more extensively known, or more universally courted; his conversation is remarkably brilliant, and his wit pure and original.

Mr. Rogers, it is said, writes with labour, and polishes with exceeding care. His poems are not, perhaps, remarkable for passion or vigour; and he does not attempt invention. They are, however, surpassingly sweet, touching, and correct; a false rhyme, or an inharmonious sound, rarely or never occurs in any of his productions. He is the contemplative philosopher, rather than the man of action. It may be that his earnest desire to refine, has often lessened the strength of a thought; and that the melody of his verse has procured him more admirers than the energy of his conceptions; but if the grand object of a writer is to give pleasure to a reader, he has undoubtedly attained it. The Pleasures of Memory has stood the test of time; the grandsires of the present race loved it; and it remains one of the most popular productions of the press. His Italy will for ever hold place among the finest poems in the language. Its leading feature is simplicity. Nature itself is not more free from meretricious and inappropriate ornament. It is the record of a "keen observer" — learned and contemplative — passing through a country, every spot of which has been made familiar to the scholar by his books, telling all he sees, hears, and thinks, in language so unforced and natural, so graceful and impressive, that the people with their habits, and the palaces with their traditions, appear actually before the reader. In a brief preface to the work, he says, "wherever he came he could not but REMEMBER;" — it is, however, in calling actual observation and experience to the aid of memory and reading, that his great excellence consists. His descriptions are marvellously accurate: with a single sentence he pictures a whole scene; the worthy and the unworthy of past ages are brought, as it were, under our very eyes; and the deep pathos with which the legendary tales are told, is singularly affecting. Who that has read the story of Ginevra can ever forget it? How different from — because how much more natural than — the solemn dignity, of Childe Harold, or the impassioned glow of Corinne, is the Italy of Rogers. It is, indeed, a romance without exaggeration; a book of travels, without a tedious detail; a History of classic ground, which may be acquired without struggling to obtain it through the schools; and a poem, with all the best, most exciting, and most attractive attributes of poetry.