1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Roscoe

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:637.



WILLIAM ROSCOE (1753-1831), as the author of the Life of Lorenzo de Medici, and the Life and Pontificate of Leo X., may be more properly classed with our historians than biographers. The two works contain an account of the revival of letters, and fill up the blank between Gibbon's Decline and Fall and Robertson's Charles V. Mr. Roscoe was a native of Liverpool, the son of humble parents, and while engaged as clerk to an attorney, he devoted his leisure hours to the cultivation of his taste for poetry and elegant literature. He acquired a competent knowledge of the Latin, French, and Italian languages. After the completion of his clerkship, Mr. Roscoe entered into business in Liverpool, and took an active part in every scheme of improvement, local and national. He wrote a poem on the Wrongs of Africa, to illustrate the evils of slavery, and also a pamphlet on the same subject, which was translated into French by Madame Necker. The stirring times in which he lived called forth several short political dissertations from his pen; but about the year 1789, he applied himself to the great task he had long meditated, a biographical account of Lorenzo de Medici. He procured much new and valuable information, and in 1796 published the result of his labours in two quarto volumes, entitled The Life of Lorenzo de Medici, called the Magnificent. The work was highly successful, and at once elevated Mr. Roscoe into the proud situation of one of the most popular authors of the day. A second edition was soon called for, and Messrs Cadell and Davies purchased the copyright for £1200. About the same time he relinquished the practice of an attorney, and studied for the bar, but ultimately settled as a banker in Liverpool. His next literary appearance was as the translator of The Nurse, a poem, from the Italian of Luigi Tansillo. In 1805 was published his second great work, The Life and Pontificate of Leo X., four volumes quarto, which, though carefully prepared, and also enriched with new information, did not experience the same success as his life of Lorenzo. "The history of the reformation of religion," it has been justly remarked, "involved many questions of subtle disputation, as well as many topics of character and conduct; and, for a writer of great candour and discernment, it was scarcely possible to satisfy either the Papists or the Protestants." The liberal sentiments and accomplishments of Mr. Roscoe recommended him to his townsmen as a fit person to represent them in parliament, and he was accordingly elected in 1806. He spoke in favour of the abolition of the slave trade, and of the civil disabilities of the Catholics, which excited against him a powerful and violent opposition. Inclined himself to quiet and retirement, and disgusted with the conduct of his opponents, he withdrew from parliament at the next dissolution, and resolutely declined offering himself as a candidate. He still, however, took a warm interest in passing events, and published several pamphlets on the topics of the day. He projected a history of art and literature, a task well suited to his talents and attainments, but did not proceed with the work. Pecuniary embarrassments also came to cloud his latter days. The banking establishment of which he was a partner was forced in 1816 to suspend payment, and Mr. Roscoe had to sell his library, pictures, and other works of art. His love of literature continued undiminished. He gave valuable assistance in the establishment of the Royal Institution of Liverpool, and on its opening, delivered an inaugural address on the origin and vicissitudes of literature, science, and art, and their influence on the present state of society. In 1827 he received the great gold medal of the Royal Society of Literature for his merits as a historian. He had previously edited an edition of Pope, in ten volumes, which led to some controversy with Mr. Bowles, as Mr. Roscoe had formed a more favourable, and, we think, just estimate of the poet than his previous editors.