Few poets of any note have been so highly favoured by the gifts of fortune as the author of the Pleasures of Memory. He never knew what it was to write for bread or to sing for hire. The power of his strains owes nothing to the stimulus of poverty, not does their plaintiveness owe any thing to its anxieties or humiliations. Born to opulence, educated with care, and passing a life, which has now, in 1838, reached its seventy-sixth year, almost unknown to adversity, and totally exempted from the. persecutions of the world, Samuel Rogers has had every opportunity a poet could wish, of indulging his predilections for song, and of bringing, his effusions, under the best auspices, before the public. Why then, it may be asked, has he produced so little of an effective character? Why is the Pleasures of Memory, written while he was yet in youth, still the best and most popular effort of his genius? The answer is easy; — he was a man of business and of wealth. He inherited the responsibilities and the cares, as well as the splendour and affluence of a great banking establishment, to support the credit and preserve the prosperity of which, as his father had done, was with him, very properly, so much a matter of pride as at all times to absorb the chief portion of his attention. His station, besides, exposed him to the seductions of high society, which was likely to occupy much of the time he could spare from the pursuits of money dealing. What leisure he possessed, he naturally enjoyed, as men of fortune usually do, in relaxation and rest, which scarcely ever fails to engender a habit of languor very unfavourable to the exercise of high intellectual powers, particularly of the poetical kind.
The possession of great wealth has been often pronounced a formidable obstacle to the cultivation of poetical talents, and there is no doubt that the pursuit of traffic is an obstacle still more formidable. The poetical propensity of Rogers had to contend against both these adverse circumstances. It is therefore unnecessary to look for any other causes to account for the paucity and the general placidity of his productions.
Our poet was born in London, in 1762. His father had been an eminent and successful banker, and, as has been already intimated, left his son the inheritor of both his wealth and his business. The education of the latter was conducted under every advantage that abundant means could command and eligible locality afford. He, in fact, became an accomplished scholar; for having naturally, a strong predilection for literature, he failed not to avail himself, with proper diligence, of the many advantages which, fortune had placed within his reach. His manners were, formed in the best society of the British metropolis, at the time when that city excelled, all others in the number and eminence of its illustrious men. From the great whigs of the day, Fox, Sheridan, Lansdowne, Holland, Russell, Grey, &c., he imbibed an attachment to liberal principles in religion and government, untainted with the disorganizing and licentious doctrines with which too many, of the contemporaries of his early life became infected, the fallacy and pernicious tendency of which he perceived from their first introduction to his notice. Unlike many of the rash proselytes of the new doctrines, he has, therefore, never been obliged o abandon any of his early opinions on the great political subjects of the last half century.
In his twenty-fourth year, Mr. Rogers ventured, before the public with a small volume entitled, "An Ode to Superstition and other Poems." This volume does not appear to have drawn much attention. But in the year 1792, he produced a work which was immediately received into public favour, and which to this day retains a popularity likely to continue as long as the language in which it is written. This was the Pleasures of Memory. He exerted extraordinary pains in the composition of this poem. Every sentence, every line, nay, every word, is said to have undergone the most careful and laborious supervision. No poem of the same length, it is believed, ever occupied its author so long in its composition. This extreme fastidiousness, while it resulted in the production of faultless metre, may fairly be considered the main cause of that want of animation and ardour in the poem, of which its readers so generally complain, but which they readily forgive on account of the truly natural strain of the thoughts, the correctness of the diction, and the sweetness and melody of the verse.
It is stated that so anxious was Rogers for the attainment of correctness in this poem, that he repeatedly consulted his literary friends on the subject, and would not be satisfied with any passage, until it had privately passed the ordeal of a variety of critics. Richard Sharpe, a member of parliament, and a man long known and esteemed in the literary circles of London, was a person in whose poetical taste and judgment, Rogers reposed great and merited confidence. This gentleman relates that, not only before the first publication of the poem, but during the preparation of various editions for the press, the author and he read it together several hundred times, at home and on the continent, and in every temper of mind, in order to discover blemishes and make improvements.
Although the publication of the Pleasures of Memory secured at once for the author an enviable portion of poetical fame, he does not appear to have been thereby stimulated to much haste in seeking an increase of reputation. It was six years after the appearance of this poem, that he brought out, "An Epistle to a Friend, and other Poems;" and it was after the lapse of fourteen more, namely, in 1812, that he gave to the world, "The Voyage of Columbus." Two years afterwards, in the same volume with Lord Byron's Lara, appeared his agreeable little tale of "Jacqueline." His next poetical publication was a fine composition entitled "Human Life." In 1823, he gave to the world, in a style of remarkable mechanical splendour, his well known poem of "Italy," accompanied with copious notes, some of which are very interesting.
Rogers, like almost every Englishman of fortune and polished taste, has been a continental traveller. He has visited almost every country in Europe, and several of them he has repeatedly made the place of his residence for months together. During these perambulations and sojournings, he formed numerous acquaintances among the literati of foreign countries, many of which he cultivated into intimacies of the closest and most agreeable description. These acquaintances, when added to the many which he possesses at home, render the sphere of his personal knowledge of the leading authors of the age, probably, the most extensive at present enjoyed by any man in Christendom.
There is one passage in the life of Rogers. worthy of the poet who has sung so feelingly of the departed friends of his younger years, and given to the world such lines as the following:—
Hush, ye fond flutterings, hush! while here alone
I search the records of each mouldering stone.
Guides of my life! instructers of my youth!
Who first unveil'd the hallow'd form of truth;
Whose every word enlighten'd and endear'd;
In age beloved, in poverty revered;
In friendship's silent register ye live,
Nor ask the vain memorial art can give.
The passage of our poet's life alluded to, is the generous aid with which, out of his abundance, he so unostentatiously administered to the wants of his illustrious, but poverty-struck friend, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, during the last melancholy scenes of his earthly existence. Public attention was for a time strongly riveted on the death-bed indigence of the great dramatist, orator, and wit, by the rumour that he was ungratefully and barbarously neglected by the boon companions of his happier days. Among others of his summer friends, no less a personage than the late George IV., then Prince of Wales, was charged with being long regardless of the necessities of the dying statesman and author. It was said that the royal sympathy was at length awakened, and that a sum of money was accordingly sent by the order of the prince, which Sheridan returned, observing that it came too late, as a bountiful friend had furnished him with sufficient for the short remainder of his fast closing life. It is true that the prince has been defended from the charge of heartlessness in this transaction, on the ground that he knew not of the distress of his old friend, in time to forestall the bounty of his more successful competitor in affording the necessary relief. A warm controversy, however, took place on the subject, for, in a free country, those high in authority will never be in want of abundance of both, assailants and defenders. It was found, however, that the individual who had thus gloriously outrun royalty in the race of benevolence, was the poet of Memory, and all parties united in awarding him the praise justly due to his well-timed munificence.
Rogers, although still a zealous maintainer of the liberal principles which he espoused in early life, never entered the arena of public politics. A different course might have been expected from him, considering the country and the times to which he belongs, together with his constant intimacy with leading politicians, and the example of his father, who rendered himself conspicuous in the history of parliamentary elections, by obstinately contesting the representation of Coventry with Lord Sheffield. The taste of our poet seems to have been more for the enjoyments of the peace and urbanities of private life, than for the eclat of display in either the legislative or executive council of the nation. He has chosen to be content with the splendid wreath of fame he has won from the hands of the muses, conscious that it is composed of more enduring materials than any that has crowned the brows of the ablest and proudest minister of his times.
Rogers is, on the whole, one of the most amiable and accomplished gentlemen living. His opinion on literary matters is much looked up to by his numerous acquaintances, for as he envies the reputation of no one, his opinions are unprejudiced, and have acquired full credit for impartiality. His peculiarities are but few, either as a man or a poet. In the former character, suavity and good-nature are the traits which predominate; in the latter, accuracy of thought and an extreme polish of versification are the prevailing characteristics.