1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Rogers

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 45 (February 1856) 191-95.



Dec. 18. In St. James's-place, in his 93d year, Samuel Rogers, esq. F.R.S. and F.S.A. the patriarch of English poets, wits, and patrons of art.

Few lives so long protracted as his have afforded less incident, — few may yield so much anecdote to a future biographer of the "Poets of England." It was a life of easy fortunes spent among memorable people, — a life a taste acquired in foreign travel, before foreign travel had ceased to be a luxury, — a life of poetical creations — few, far between, and finished so highly, that the best thoughts and lines in them will not readily perish from among the "pleasures of memory."

Mr. Rogers was born on the 30th July 1763, at Stoke Newington in Middlesex — in a house the first that presents itself on Newington Green, on the west side, proceeding from Ball's Pond. His father Mr. Thomas Rogers, who died June 1, 1793, was a banker in London; he stood an obstinate election contest for Coventry in 1780, and was a man of eminence among the Protestant Dissenters who abounded in the district of Newington-green, in the neighbourhood of the celebrated Dr. Watts, whose hymns gave the boy Samuel his first predilection for poetry. His education was begun at the school of the Rev. Mr. Pickbourne, of Newington-green, where he contracted one or two friendships which lasted almost as long as his own life. When a young man he began to study the world of art and manners in foreign travel. We have, within the last dozen years, heard him describe how he had seen Marie Antoinette dance, and illustrate the same by himself walking a minuet. There is, also, an anecdote of his having left an early poem at Dr. Johnson's door only a day or two before the doctor's death. But that event happened in 1784, and the date of Rogers's first publication, "An Ode to Superstition, and other Poems," was 1786. It is easy to, perceive that he was then fresh from the perusal of Gray, and that "The Bard" and" An Ode to Adversity" were then, as they were through life, favourite compositions with the youthful poet.

In the year 1792 appeared "The Pleasures of Memory," — a poem in two parts, written in our English heroics, with rhyme, and with great elegance of language and great correctness of thought.

A notice or two in the memoirs of the time will show that the writer, besides presenting himself to the public, had time and inclination to wait on those whom Fame had already marked. In 1795, an epilogue which he wrote for Mrs. Siddons was spoken by her at her benefit. In 1798 we find Madame d'Arblay writing to her sister Mrs. Phillips,—

"I learned that Mr. Rogers, author of 'The Pleasures of Memory,' that most sweet poem, had ridden round the lanes about our domain to view it, and stood — or made his horse stand — at our gate a considerable time, to examine our Camilla Cottage, — a name, I am sorry to find Charles, or some one, had spread to him; and he honoured all with his good word."

This humour for pilgrimage, however warped or influenced, lived in Mr. Rogers to the last years of his life. His mind (under conditions) was to the last open to admire and appreciate, and this, perhaps, was one main secret of his poetical success.

The "Pleasures of Memory" was the means of introducing him to Mr. Fox — an introduction that coloured the whole career of the poet. No one could be ten minutes in Mr. Rogers' company without hearing some friendly reference to the name of Fox. He really loved him on this side idolatry, and Mr. Fox is known to have evinced a sincere regard for the poet. Mr. Fox brought him from Ball's-pond and Highbury to the Court end of the town — to Conduit-street and St. James's-place. When Mr. Rogers moved to what is now his far-famed house in St. James's-place, Mr. Fox was the leading guest at the house-warming dinner; and when (1806) Mr. Fox was buried at Westminster Abbey, the poet of "Memory" gave expression to his grief in some of the best turned And most tender of his verses.

His third publication — and his masterpiece, as many consider it — was (1798) his "Epistle to a Friend," of which the design is to illustrate the virtue of True Taste, and to show how little she requires to secure, not only the comforts, but even the elegances of life. True Taste, he very properly observes, is an excellent economist. She confines her choice to few objects, and delights in producing great effects by small means; while False Taste is for ever sighing after the new and the rare; and reminds us in her works of the scholar of Apelles, who, not being able to paint his Helen beautiful, determined to make her fine. The Villa of this Epistle on True Taste differs, of course, in every essential from Timon's Villa of Pope's Epistle on False Taste. Mr. Rogers' villa, to which he invites his friend in this epistle, is a sort of "St. Ann's Hill," charmingly situated in English scenery, which its few apartments, and those furnished with casts from the antique, and engravings from the Italian masters. The dining-room is then described; then the library; then the cold bath. A winter walk and a summer walk succeed. The invitation is renewed, and the poem concludes with sentiments suitable to the occasion. The verse is that of Dryden and Pope; but the execution is more in the manner of Goldsmith and Parnell.

Before Mr. Rogers made his fourth public appearance as a poet he had obtained the friendship of Lord Byron. They met through the instrumentality of Moore. They were prepared for friendship. In his satire of 1809, Byron had described the "Pleasures of Memory," the "Pleasures of Hope," and the "Essay on Man," as the most beautiful didactic poems in our language." The poet himself he called "melodious Rogers." Their meeting was at a reconciliation-dinner with Moore at the table of Mr. Rogers. This was in Nov. 1811, and only four persons were present: Mr. Rogers, the host; Lord Byron, Tom Moore, and Tom Campbell. This was Byron's first introduction to these poets, whose names will honourably survive with his own.

It was known about this time (1812) in poetic and political circles that the poet of the "Pleasures of Memory" had a new poem nearly ready for publication. Great things were promised. It was a fragment it was true, but it was a Torso. Then the name transpired. The subject was the voyage of Columbus — a noble theme and nobly treated, so his admirers affirmed. Expectation was at its height. Since his last appearance, the public had become familiar with Scott, Southey, Coleridge, Campbell, and still more recently with Byron. Rogers was now about to fulfil the promise of his former efforts. He was not one who became a poet by necessity. He had no occasion to write for money. His time was his own — his subject was his own choosing. Too much was perhaps expected, and disappointment was expressed when it was found that the much-talked-about "Columbus" was "suffered to glide into public notice without any of the usual forms of introduction." It was printed at the end of a new edition of his poems, in duodecimo, to which the graceful pencil of Stothard and the spirited graver of Clennell were both called in to contribute. "Columbus" neither engaged the public nor pleased the critics. The Quarterly Review, then the terror of all Whig writers, was hard upon the poet. The critic was the late Lord Dudley, an accomplished scholar, and not wanting either in nicety of discernment or in literary skill. Rogers, always sensitive to adverse criticism, was greatly annoyed.

His feelings were soothed by Byron, in 1813, inscribing to him his tale of The Giaour, "as a slight but most sincere token of admiration for his genius, respect for his character, and gratitude for his friendship." In 1817, Moore dedicated to him his poem of Lallah Rookh.

In August 1814 appeared from the shop of Mr. Murray a thin duodecimo volume, entitled "Lara, a Tale: Jacqueline, a Tale;" the former by Byron, the latter by Rogers. They were soon separated, at the desire of Murray, the publisher.

When in 1814 the Continent was free once more to Englishmen, Mr. Rogers went abroad, chiefly for the sake of seeing that noble collection of works of art which Napoleon had assembled in Paris. Few connoisseurs were better fitted to relish what they saw than Rogers. He was one of our very few poets who have understood painting and sculpture. Gray understood them; so did Thomson; and both had choice collections of prints from the old masters. On this occasion he saw Paestum for the first time, and then (March 4, 1815) wrote those not inappropriate lines which be afterwards introduced into his poem of "Italy."

The fall of Napoleon soon after enabled him to extend his knowledge of continental life, continental scenery, and continental art. He carried with him a manuscript poem, "Human Life," in his favourite form of verse, that of the Pleasures of Memory, and gave his whole leisure to blotting and refining. This he published on his return in 1819, in quarto, with Murray; but it neither roused the critics, nor extended its writer's reputation. The knowledge of human life which it exhibits is restricted to a very narrow and polished circle. He does not deal with human life as Pope deals with man.

His next publication, and it was his last, was his descriptive poem of "Italy," of which he had given foretaste in his lines on "Paestum." It was, it is believed, first privately printed, then published by Murray, afterwards taken to Cadell, and finally, on Cadell's death, to Moxon. The third edition of the first part was published by Murray in 1823. It was read, heard, and dismissed with civility, but was not remunerative.

Of the additions which he made to this poem from first to last, that which will be found to interest the greatest number of readers is his meeting at Bologna, by appointment, with Lord Byron. This was in the autumn of 1821. They visited the Florence Gallery together, and then parted for the last time.

Though Rogers's poetic labours may be said to have ceased more than thirty years before his death by the publication of his "Italy," he did not entirely desert, the Muse, but tried his strength once more in some short and graceful copies of verses addressed to Lord Grenville and to Earl Grey. His latest effusion is dated in 1834; and beyond an epithet, or the correction of half a line, his poetic parturitions did not after this extend. He dedicated the remainder of his literary life to the publication of those two beautifully-illustrated volumes, his "Italy," and his "Poems." No one knew better than Rogers how to sustain a reputation, and no one was more desirous than he of leaving a poetic memory behind him. What wealth could accomplish — he is said to have spent ten thousand pounds on two octavo volumes — wealth has accomplished, and what a refined taste could effect in directing wealth, refined taste has effected most exquisitely in these volumes. The graceful Stothard is nowhere seen to greater advantage, and the poetic Turner is nowhere to be found equally poetic on so small a scale.

Setting accessories aside for the moment, a word may be said in regard to the place of Mr. Rogers among modern English poets. His poetry is refined rather than brilliant. He produced very sparingly, — he polished every line with a fastidiousness fatal to vigour, — and seemed so little equal to the labour and fatigue attending on a sustained flight, that two of his poems, on most ambitious subjects, "The Voyage of Columbus" and "Italy," were given forth to the world in the form of fragments. His "Pleasures of Memory" stands midway betwixt Goldsmith and Campbell, though not on the level of either. Measured against that beautiful poem of the affections, Cowper's "Lines on his Mother's Picture," the reminiscences of Mr. Rogers are faint. The heart in them beats languidly, though the music is "tender and gravely sweet." The symmetry of the versification, nevertheless, has installed several passages among our stock quotations. There are lines and cadences in "Jacqueline," slight as is the structure of the story, that take possession of the heart through the ear, and which, by all who are not exclusively given over to the modern style of mystical meaning and rugged versification, will not willingly be let go. Betwixt the indulgent fondness of those to whom these things are already "pleasures of memory," and the recusant spirit of a younger school, too apt to attest its vigour and audacity by undervaluing those who have preceded it, we may stand ill for a fair judgment of these poems. But they will remain, we think, for future critics to test and try, and future lovers of verse to love, in the silver, if not in the "golden" book of English poetry. Again, in the "Italy" of Rogers we have not the Italy of those passions, "sudden and lasting," which Byron sung — nor the Italy of violent words and painfully inconclusive deeds, which has been so sad a sight to more modern pilgrims — but the Italy of "ruins and the vine." The gentler appearances of its "fatal beauty" have rarely been more gracefully sung than by Rogers; and though his pictures may be undervalued as too smooth and feeble on a first reading, there are not a few who after passing the Alps have been surprised, like ourselves, to find how their truth of traits and tones, the quiet musical harmony of some single line, or the sentiment of the entire fragment, summons them up again, as familiar melodies recalled by the sights of the way.

Rogers must be commemorated as one who, for more than half-a-century past, has figured in the foremost rank of London literary society. It may be doubted whether any poet, even in the Augustan age of clubs and chocolate houses, ever lived so much in the eye of the world of me and women as the Banker' Bard of St. James's Place. He had pitched his tent there more than half a century ago. Ere that period, too, he had pronounced himself as a liberal, and the associate of liberals, ins manner which socially cost him dear: as we are reminded by a curious entry in Dr. Burney's Memoirs—

"May 1st, 1804. — I was at the Club, at which Rogers, put up by Courtney and seconded by me, was balloted for, and blackballed: I believe on account of his politics. There can, indeed, be nothing else against him. He is a good poet — has a refined taste in all the arts — has a select library of authors in most languages — has very fine pictures — very fine drawings — and the finest collection I ever saw of the best Etruscan vases — and, moreover, he gives the best dinners, to the best company of men of talents and genius, of any man I know, and with the best wines, liqueurs, &c. He is not fond of talking politics, for he is no Jacobin-enrage — though I believe him to be a principled Republican, and therefore in high favour with Mr. Fox and his adherents. But he is never obtrusive; and neither shuns nor dislikes a man for being of a different political creed to himself; and, in fact, he is much esteemed by many persons belonging to the Government and about the Court. His books of prints of the greatest engravers, from the greatest masters, in history, architecture, and antiquities are of the first class. His house in St. James's Place, looking into the Green Park, is deliciously situated, and furnished with great taste. He seemed very desirous of being elected a member of the club." * * This ostracism, however, was soon annulled.

The history of the last thirty years of his life would be little more than a series of visits between Bowood and Holland House — of breakfasts given at his own table to every person in England or America in any way eminent, and of dinners at his own house to men like Moore, Sydney Smith, Luttrell, Maltby, and others whom he had known for many years — varied by attendances at auctions of pictures, at meetings of the trustees of the National Gallery, and periodical visits to Broadstairs and Brighton. His hand was his purse immediately in aid of any case of literary or artistic distress. A subscription list for a monument to an author, or an artist, or an actor, was sure to include his name — not for an ostentatious amount, but for a sum commensurate with his means and position. When Moore was in the midst of his Bermuda difficulties the ever-ready Rogers was there to relieve them. When Sheridan was deserted on his death-bed by those who had courted him when he had strength to be of use to them, Rogers was there to arrest an execution and give him the last money he was ever to receive. When Campbell sought assistance in the purchase of a share in the Metropolitan Magazine, he went at once to Rogers and obtained the loan of the five hundred pounds he required for the purchase; and when Moxon, then young and unknown, wished to start for himself as a bookseller, Rogers, who knew nothing more of him than by a poem he had dedicated to him, offered the money that was necessary; and Moxon started as a publisher under the patronage of Rogers, as, a century before, Dodsley had started as a publisher under the patronage of Pope.

In his relations with artists and men of letters, however, his tastes were somewhat influenced by his sympathies. He was one the first English connoisseurs who appreciated the serene and delicate sanctities of Fra Beato. He attached himself earnestly to the genius of Stothard, at a time when a more potent and more technically accomplished arbiter of taste — Sir George Beaumont, was unable to relish the works of the painter of "Canterbury Pilgrimage." But, as years wore on, his fastidiousness became somewhat wayward, and his predilections balanced by antipathies for which no reason could be given. His affection for music was greater than his knowledge of it. This amounted to a gentle dillettantism, recalling that of Gray, writing canzonets to an air by Geminiani, to be sung by Miss Speed; and stopping short of the boldness, romance, and discovery which has marked the art since Beethoven was in his prime. But till an accident confined him to his chair, Mr. Rogers continued to be an attendant at the Opera, the Ancient Concerts, and, when these died out, at the Exeter Hall Oratorios. Till a very late period, he might be seen at midnight feebly hurrying home from these on foot, no matter what the weather, thinly-dressed, and as resentful of the slightest offer of attendance as was "the Duke" when he was scarcely able to mount his horse. The passion for pleasure did not forsake him till a very late period. Only a few years since a street accident, caused by this imprudent manner of wandering home alone (when he was run over by a carriage), sentenced him to a chair for the rest of his days.

A trait has still to be noted, without which no sketch of Rogers, as a man of society, could be complete. Never was host less exclusive in forming his circle; and countless are the acts of substantial kindness which unknown and unfriended persons have occasion to associate with the memory of that breakfast-table in that shaded dining-room, pleasantly described by Sydney Smith, as "a place of darkness where there shall be gnashing of teeth." Rogers took a tender and indulgent notice of children, rather singular in a wit and a bachelor. But, whether as balancing accounts against the myriad courtesies which he did, or whether as involuntarily venting humours which could not be concealed, the author of "The Pleasures of Memory" was also known and noted for the indulgence of a sarcastic spirit, sometimes passing the bounds of what is gracious in wit and permissible in reply. He would conceive an antipathy to look or gesture in an inoffensive person, and pursue the party with an active dislike, which was curious in proportion as it was unreasonable. He was aware of his own propensity, owned it without misgiving, and accounted for it in a manner as ingenious as it was original. "When I was young," he has been heard to say, "I found that no one would listen to my civil speeches, because I had a very small voice: so I began to say ill-natured things, and then people began to attend to me!" The habit grew with time, indulgence, and the considerate politeness of a younger generation, to an occasional excess of irritable severity, of which possibly the wit of St. James's Place was unaware; but in sketching the figure of Rogers as a man long conversant with London society, the keenness of his tongue could no more be omitted or concealed than the extraordinary pallor of his complexion could be overlooked by the painter who professed to offer a record of his expressive but peculiar head. This, by the way, has been done with striking exactness, and of the size of life, by Mr. S. Laurence. In the prime of life his portrait was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, from which there are several engravings.

The funeral of Mr. Rogers took place at Hornsey on the 27th Dec. His body was deposited in a vault in the churchyard where rest the remains of his brother Mr. Henry Rogers, who died about 1833, and of his sister Sarah, who died Jan. 23, 1855. The niece who closed the eyes of the poet is the daughter of his elder brother Daniel; on whose death, March 2, 1829, C. Lamb addressed to Mr. Rogers some beautiful lines, which are printed in Lamb's Works.

(For the contents of this Memoir we are indebted partly to The Atheneum, but principally to The Illustrated London News.)