1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Roscoe

Anonymous, "William Roscoe, Esq." Ladies' Monthly Museum S3 21 (January 1825) 1-5.



The subject of our present Memoir was born at Liverpool, in the year 1755. — His parents, being of humble rank, had no higher ambition than making our youthful hero a proficient in writing and arithmetic, and well versed in his native tongue. Through an obstinacy of temper, however, which, in many minds, is the forerunner of genius, young Roscoe could not be prevailed upon to submit to the tame drudgery of scholastic discipline; and, consequently, he did not avail himself even of the limited advantages of education, which his parents were able to afford him. Indolence, however, was not the character of his mind; and, though he would not attend school, he studied assiduously at home. He began early to perceive the advantages of thinking for himself on every occasion, and his habits of thought and mental application soon gave evidence of that genius, which has since shone forth with so bright a lustre.

As present enjoyment was the secret magnet by which he was attracted, he totally neglected the acquisition of languages, in the progress of which, there is but little to gratify or enchant the youthful mind. A knowledge of Greek and Roman literature is an endless source of pleasure to him who possesses it; but until that knowledge be acquired, this pleasure can have no existence. Roscoe entered only into those regions of science, where every prospect presented some present romantic imagery. He was awoke, however, from his fairy dreams, by more active pursuits. He was articled to Mr. Eyes, a respectable Attorney in Liverpool; and now for the first time, was made acquainted with the difference between practical and speculative acquirements. A clerk in the office boasted, one day, of having read Cicero de Amicitia, and commented largely on the classic elegance and simplicity of the illustrious Roman; Roscoe, though much more deeply versed in general literature, was obliged to remain silent, under a conscious sense of his own inferiority. He felt his situation very poignantly, but it was not a feeling that remained dormant in his breast. He found a new passion awaken in his bosom, and henceforward he was no longer prompted, to study by that spirit of idle curiosity, which proposes to itself no definite object. Pride and ambition took immediate possession of his soul, and he thenceforth yielded to their restless, but inspiring influence. He now thirsted after knowledge, because he felt its value, and he spurned that effeminacy which delights to linger in the softer retreats of science, and dares not pursue her to her most difficult retreats. He immediately procured a copy of Cicero de Amicitia, and, by a perpetual recurrence to his grammar and dictionary, soon became acquainted with those elegancies of style, and beauties of diction, which no art could transfer to his native tongue. He did not rest his career, however, till he became a perfect master of the Roman language, and intimately acquainted with the best Latin poets and historians.

A knowledge of the Latin tongue, was not, however, sufficient to satisfy his ambition. He now applied himself to the study of French and Italian; in the latter of which, he is universally allowed to be as profoundly versed as the most distinguished of its native writers. When we reflect that he acquired this knowledge during the intervals of business, and that he never absented himself from the duties of his office, we must acknowledge it is an instance of application which has few parallels in the history of literature.

His first passion for poetry and works of imagination, though it was moderated for a time by the toil of more rigid pursuits, assumed its original strength and energy, after he because acquainted with the Latin, French, and Italian poets. His first production, accordingly, was a brilliant effusion of imagination. "Mount Pleasant," was written in his sixteenth year; and few poems composed at so early a period, combine such fertility of idea with such correctness of taste.

After the expiration of his clerkship, Mr. Roscoe was taken into partnership by Mr. Aspinwall, a respectable attorney of Liverpool; and the entire management of an office, extensive in practice, and high in reputation, devolved upon him alone, in this situation, he conducted himself in such a manner, as to gain universal respect; for, notwithstanding his various pursuits, he paid strict attention to his profession, and acquired a liberal and minute knowledge of law. In clearness of comprehension and rapidity of dispatch, he had few equals.

About this time he formed an intimacy with the late Dr. Enfield, who was then tutor in the Belles Lettres, at the academy of Warrington. When he published his "Speaker," Mr. Roscoe supplied him with an "Elegy to Pity," and "An Ode to Education." About the same period, he also became acquainted with the late Dr. Aikin, who was then a resident practitioner at Warrington. These gentlemen were not less admirers of his refined and elegant manner as a writer, than of his pure and classical taste in painting and sculpture. In December, 1773, he recited, before the society formed in Liverpool, for the encouragement of drawing, painting, &c. an Ode, which was afterwards published with "Mount Pleasant." He also, occasionally, gave lectures on subjects connected with the object of this institution, and was a very active member of the society. He also wrote the Preface to Dalby's Catalogue of Rembrandt's Etchings, in which he displayed not only an original view of engraving and painting, but an intimate acquaintance with the opinions of the best writers on the subject.

While the combined powers of Europe were engaged in restoring the ancient order of things in France, Mr. Roscoe, animated by the rapid glow of youthful emotions, and the enthusiasm inspired by the love of freedom, attuned his lyre to the cause of liberty, and composed his celebrated pieces, "The Vine-covered Hills," and "Millions be Free." He also translated one of Petrach's odes, which was inserted in the "Mercurio Italico." These compositions are deservedly classed among the most elegant and classical productions in the English language.

In the year 1790, Mr. Roscoe began his great work, "The History of Lorenzo de Medici," which was completed in 1796. Its reputation did not stand in need of adventitious aid. Public feeling had determined its character even before the tribune of criticism had time to pronounce its opinion as to its merits. When he undertook this important work, he lived at the distance of two miles from Liverpool, whither he was obliged daily to repair, to attend the business of his office. The dry and tedious details of law occupied his attention during the whole of his mornings and afternoons; his evenings alone was he able to dedicate to study; and it will be easily conceived, that a gentleman, surrounded by a numerous family, and whose company was courted by his friends, must have experienced, even at these hours, a variety of interruption. No public library provided him with materials. The rare books which he had occasion to consult, he was obliged to procure in London, at a considerable expense. But in the midst of all these difficulties the work grew under his hands; and, in order that it might be printed under his own immediate inspection, he established a press in the town of Liverpool, and submitted to the fatigue of correcting the proofs.

Shortly after the publication of this work, Mr. Roscoe abandoned the profession of an attorney, and entered himself at Gray's-inn, with a view of being called to the bar. Availing himself of the leisure which he derived from this circumstance, he began to study the Greek language, in which he soon made a very considerable proficiency.

The "Life of Lorenzo de Medici," had made too strong an impression on the public mind to suffer its author to pursue in peace the practice of a profession for which nature had never intended him. He was accordingly solicited to write the life of that celebrated patron of literature, "Leo the Tenth," the son of Lorenzo, who was also the Maecenas of his age. Mr. Roscoe engaged in this new work with a sort of filial devotion to the memory of a family, whose fame will descend to the latest posterity. While engaged in the completion of this admirable work, he was invited to become chief partner in the banking-house of Clark and Sons, of Liverpool; a situation, which he reluctantly, and we regret to say, unfortunately, accepted.

In 1806, Mr. Roscoe stood candidate for the representation of his native town, in Parliament. He was triumphantly returned; but his friends in the ministry having retired from office in the following year, he judged it prudent to decline another contest. It should not, however, be forgotten that, during his short parliamentary career, he was very instrumental in abolishing the African slave trade. After retiring from Parliament, he published some political pamphlets, which were ably written, and remarkable for the spirit of moderation and mildness which they displayed, at a period, when party spirit raged with great violence.

While he was thus actively engaged, a series of unforeseen circumstances led the banking-house in which he was engaged, to suspend its payments. The creditors, however, had so much confidence in Mr. Roscoe's integrity, that the bank was allowed time to recover from its embarrassments; and Mr. Roscoe, on first entering the bank, after this accommodation, was loudly greeted by the populace. The difficulties, however, in which the bank was placed, rendered it impossible for the proprietors to make good their engagements. Mr. Roscoe did all that could be expected from an honest man; he gave up the whole of his property. His library, which was very extensive, and consisted principally of Italian works, was the only sacrifice which he had reason to regret; as it deprived him of that intellectual society which he found in communing with, and imbibing, the sentiments of kindred minds.

Mr. Roscoe, when young, was extremely handsome. His countenance was open and generous, and his deportment dignified and majestic. He has long enjoyed the honour of ranking at the head of the circles of science and learning in Liverpool, and he has always evinced himself the friend and patron of genius. Whoever was fortunate enough to receive a letter of recommendation to him, was certain of being noticed and patronized in Liverpool. Though born of humble parentage, Mr. Roscoe has evinced, through life, that unaffected dignity of manner, and that delicate sense of honour, which proved that the principle which constitutes true greatness of mind, is not the exclusive birthright of ancestry. He is a zealous advocate for the rights of mankind, and the voice of freedom inspired him to sing "The Wrongs of Africa," and to pourtray them with a spirit and strength of colouring, that gave a new impetus to the enthusiasm which animated the friends of liberty at the time; and which eventually restored the degraded African to that equal freedom which is the birth-right of the human race.