Samuel Rogers

Harriet Martineau, Obituary in The Daily News (1855); Martineau, Biographical Sketches (1869) 51-59.

The author of The Pleasures of Memory has died at his house in St. James's-place, in the ninety-sixth year of his age.

Samuel Rogers has been spoken of, ever since anybody can remember, as ''Rogers the Poet." It is less as a poet, however, that his name will live than as a Patron of Literature — probably the last of that class who will in England be called a Mecaenas. His life was a remarkable one, from the great age he attained during a critical period of civilization and his function was a remarkable one — that of representing the bridge over which Literature has passed from the old condition of patronage to the new one of independence. He heard "the talk of the town" (recorded by Dr. Adams) on Johnson's Letter to Lord Chesterfield; and he lived to see the improvement of the Copyright law, the removal of most of the Taxes on Knowledge, and so vast an increase of the reading public as has rendered the function of patron of authorship obsolete. No Patron could now help an author to fame; and every author who has anything genuine to say can say it without dreaming of any application to a rich man. Samuel Rogers lived through the whole period when the publishers were the patrons, and witnessed the complete success of Mr. Dickens's plan of independence of the publishers themselves. He was a youth of fifteen or thereabouts when half "the town" was scandalized at Dr. Johnson's audacity in saying what he did to Lord Chesterfield; and the other half was delighted at the courage of the rebuke. It was not long before that the Letters of Junius had burst upon the political world; and Rogers was quite old enough to understand the nature of the triumph when the prosecution of Woodfall failed, and the press preserved its liberty under the assaults of Royal and Ministerial displeasure. His connections in life fixed his attention full on the persecution of Priestley and other vindicators of liberty of speech; while he saw, in curious combination with this phase, that kind of patronage which even the Priestleys of those days accepted as a matter of course: — Dr. Priestley living with Lord Shelburne, without office; and afterward, his being provided with an income by the subscription of friends, to enable him to carry on his philosophical researches. Then came the new aspect of things: when the Byrons, the Moores, Campbells, and Scotts, were the clients of the Murrays, the Longmans, and the Constables — that remarkable but rather short transition stage when, as Moore said, the patrons learned perforce, through interest, the taste which had not been formed by education. Those were the days of bookselling monopoly, when the Publisher decided what the reading public should have to read, and at what price. Rogers saw that monopoly virtually destroyed; the greatness of the great houses passing away, or reduced to that of trade eminence simply; and author and the public brought face to face, or certain to be so presently. His own function, all the while, was a mixed one, in accordance with the changes of the time. He was, in the course of his long life, both client and patron; and for a great part of it he was both at once. His purse was open to the poor author, and his influence with the great publishers was at his service, while he himself sat at great men's tables as a poet and a wit, more even than as a connoisseur in Art; and certainly much more than as a rich banker. The last character he kept out of sight as much as possible. When, some years since, his bank was robbed to so enormous an amount by the pillage of a safe that everybody supposed it must stop payment; and when it did not stop, and all his great friends testified their sympathy first, and then their joy, it was a curious thing to observe the old poet's bearing, and to hear the remarks upon it. He was wonderfully reserved, and passed off the whole with a few quiet jokes, through which was plainly seen his mortification at being recognized as a banker, in a sphere where he hoped he was known as an associate of the great, and the first connoisseur in pictures in England.

His was not a case of early determination of the course of life. In his early youth, his father one evening asked all his boys what they would be. Sam would not tell unless he might write it down, for nobody but his father to see. What he wrote was, "A Unitarian minister." He was destined for business, however; but his love of literature was not thwarted by it. We have seen Moore die in decrepit old age; yet did Moore, in his boyhood (when he was fourteen), delight in Rogers's Pleasures of Memory — the poem being then so common as to have found its way into schools in class-books and collections. When young Horner came to London to begin his career, he found Rogers a member of the King of Clubs, the intimate of Mackintosh (who was his junior) Scarlett, Sharpe, and others — long gone to the grave as old men — and one, Maltby, who was a twin wonder with himself as to years. The last evening that Mackintosh spent in London before his departure for India was at Rogers's. "Somewhat a melancholy evening" we are told it was; and the host, then between forty and fifty, must have felt the uncertainty of the party reassembling, to spend more such evenings as those that were gone. And some were dead before Mackintosh returned; but the host lived to tell, half a century afterward, of the sober sadness of that parting converse, it was Rogers who "blabbed" about the duel between Jeffrey and Moore, and was the cause of their folly being rendered harmless; and it was he who bailed Moore: it was he who negotiated a treaty of peace between them; and it was at his house that they met and became friends. Such were his services of one kind to literature — using his dignity of seniority to keep these young wits in order. He must have been lively in those days — "the Bachelor," as his name was among his friends; and he never married. Moore names him as one "of those agreeable rattles who seem to think life such a treat that they never can get enough of it." One wonders whether he had had enough of it fifty years later, when Sydney Smith (one of "the agreeable rattles") had long laid down his, after having for some time told his comrades that he thought life "a very middling affair," and should not be sorry when he had done with it. There was much to render life agreeable to a man of Rogers's tastes, it must be owned. He saw Garrick, and watched the entire career of every good actor since. All the Kembles fell within his span. He heard the first remarks on the Vicar of Wakefield, and read, damp from the press, all the fiction that has appeared since from the Burneys, the Edgeworths, the Scotts, the Dickenses, and the Thackerays. As for the poetry, he was aghast at the rapidity with which the Scotts, Byrons, and Moores poured out their works; and even Campbell was too quick for him, — he, with all his leisure, and being always at it, producing to the amount of two octave volumes in his whole life. The charge of haste and incompleteness alleged against his Columbus, in the Edinburgh Review, forty years since, was very exasperating to him; and so absurd that one cannot but suspect Sydney Smith of being the author of it, for the sake of contrast with his conversational description of Rogers's method of composition. Somebody asked, one day, whether Rogers had written anything lately. "Only a couplet," was the reply — (the couplet being his celebrated epigram on Lord Dudley), "Only a couplet!" exclaimed Sydney Smith. "Why, what would you have? When Rogers produces a couplet, he goes to bed, and the knocker is tied, — and straw is laid down, — and candle is made — and the answer to inquiries is, that Mr. Rogers is as well as can be expected." Thus, while he was cogitating his few pages of verse, "daily adding couplets," as Moore said, showing a forthcoming poem in boards, "but still making alterations," he was now and then seeing a whole new world of poetical subject and treatment laid open; and not seldom helping to facilitate the disclosure. Moore always said that he owed to Rogers the idea of Lalla Rookh. Rogers had lingered so long over his story of the Foscari, that Byron did it first, to his great distress; but he received the drama with a very good grace. Meantime, he was always substantially helping poor poets. Besides the innumerable instances, known only to his intimates, of the attention he bestowed, as well as the money, in the case of poetical basket-makers, poetical footmen, and other such hopeless sons of the Muse, his deeds of munificence toward men of genius were too great to be concealed. His aids to Moore have been recently made known by the publication of Moore's Diaries. It was Rogers who secured to Crabbe the 3,000 from Murray, which were in jeopardy before. He advanced 500 to Campbell to purchase a share of the Metropolitan Magazine, and refused security. And he gave thought, took trouble, used influence, and adventured advice. This was the conduct and the method of the last of the Patrons of Literature in England.

All honor to him for this! But not the less must the drawbacks be brought into the account. In recording the last of any social phase, it is dishonest to present the bright parts without the shadows; and Rogers's remarkable position was due almost as much to his faults as his virtues. He was, plainly speaking, at once a flatterer and a cynic. It was impossible for those who knew him best to say, at any moment, whether he was in earnest or covert jest. Whether he ever was in earnest, there is no sort of evidence but his acts; and the consequence was that his flattery went for nothing, except with novices, while his causticity bit as deep as he intended. He would begin with a series of outrageous compliments, in a measured style which forbade interruption; and, if he was allowed to finish, would go away and boast how much he had made a victim swallow. He would accept a constant seat at a great man's table, flatter his host to the top of his bent, and then, as is upon record, go away and say that the company there was got up by conscription — that there were two parties before whom everybody must appear, his host and the police. Where it was safe, he would try his sarcasms on the victims themselves. A multitude of his sayings are rankling in people's memories which could not possibly have had any other origin than the love of giving pain. Some were so atrocious as to suggest the idea that he had a sort of psychological curiosity to see how people could bear such inflictions. Those who could bear them, and especially those who despised them, stood well with him. In that case, there was something more like reality in the tone of his subsequent intercourse than in ordinary cases. The relation which this propensity of his bore to his position was direct. It placed him at great men's tables and kept him there, more than any other of his qualifications. His poetry alone would not have done it. His love and knowledge of Art would not have done it; and much less his wealth. His causticity was his pass-key everywhere. Except the worship paid to the Railway King for his wealth, we know of nothing in modern society so extraordinary and humiliating as the deference paid to Rogers for his ill-nature. It became a sort of public apprehension, increasing with his years, till it ceased to be disgraceful in the eyes of the coteries, and the flatterer was flattered, and the backbiter was propitiated, almost without disguise or shame, on account of his bitter wit. "Rogers amusing and sarcastic as usual;" — this note of Moore's may stand as the general description of him by those who hoped, each for himself, to propitiate the cynic. As age advanced upon him, the admixture of the generous and the malignant in him became more singular. A footman robbed him of a large quantity of plate and of a kind which was inestimable to him. He was incensed, and desired never to hear of the fellow more, — the man having absconded. Not many months afterward, Rogers was paying the passage to New York of the man's wife and family — somebody having told him that that family junction might afford a chance of the man's reformation. Such were his deeds at the very time that his tongue was dropping verjuice, and his wit was sneering behind backs at a whole circle of old friends and hospitable entertainers. Such was the curious human problem offered to the analyst of character, and such is the needful explanation of the mixed character of client and patron which Rogers sustained to the last.

His celebrated literary breakfasts will not be forgotten during the generation of those who enjoyed them. They became at last painful when the aged man's memory failed while his causticity remained. His hold on life was very strong. He who was an authority on the incidents of the Hastings' trial, and who was in Fox's room when he was dying, — he who saw George III. a young man, and was growing into manhood when Johnson went to the Hebrides, survived for several years being run over by a cab of the construction of the middle of the nineteenth century. His poetry could scarcely be said to live so long as himself; as it was rather the illustrations with which it was graced than the verse itself that kept the volumes on sale and within view. The elegance and correctness of his verse are beyond question; but the higher and more substantial qualities of true poetry will hardly be recognized there. It should be remembered that there is a piece of prose writing of his of which Mackintosh said that "Hume could not improve the thoughts nor Addison the language." That gem is the piece on Assassination, in his Italy. In it may be clearly traced the influence of his early nonconformist education. When he wrote it, half a lifetime ago, worldliness had not quite choked the good seed of early-sown philosophy; and the natural magnanimity of the man was not extinguished by the passions — as strong as any in their way — which spring from the soil of conventionalism. If Rogers is to be judged by his writings, let it be by such fragments as that little essay if further, by his deeds rather than his words. So may the world retain the fairest remembrance of the last English Mecaenas, and the only man among us perhaps who has illustrated in his own person the position at once of patron and of client.