1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Roscoe

Anonymous, "Biographical Sketch of Mr. Roscoe" Imperial Magazine 3 (January 1821) 42-48.



The history of the Author of the Life of Lorenzo de Medicis, evinces the wonderful effects which result from assiduous industry, superadded to the rapidity of genius. Favoured by no advantages of education, fostered by no patronage, raised by the native energies of his mind alone, Mr. Roscoe has reached a pitch of literary eminence, which is rarely attained even by those who have made the best use of the privileges of academic instruction.

His parents moved in the humbler sphere of life; they were, of course, precluded by their circumstances from giving their son a very extensive education; and, with a strange perverseness of temper, he himself obstinately refused to attend at the day-school where his father wished him to be taught writing and arithmetic. In consequence of this untoward event, he did not enjoy even the common opportunities of acquiring knowledge, usually possessed by those of the same station in life as himself. He was thus fated to be the architect of his own fame.

But though he threw off the trammels of the, school, he was not idle: — he read much, and thought more.

At an early age he was articled as clerk in the office of Mr. Eyes, an attorney, in Liverpool. Soon after this period, he was stimulated to undertake the study of the Latin language, by one of his companions boasting that he had read Cicero de Amicitia, and speaking in high terms of the elegance of the style and sentiments of that celebrated composition. Mr. Roscoe immediately procured the treatise in question; and smoothing his difficulties by perpetual reference to his grammar, as well as to his dictionary, he drudged through the task 'which emulation had incited him to undertake. The success experienced in his first effort prompted him to proceed; and he did not stop in his career till he had read the most distinguished of the Roman classics. In this pursuit he was encouraged by the friendly intercourse of Mr. Francis Holden, an eccentric but excellent scholar.

Having made considerable progress in the Latin language, Mr. Roscoe, still without the assistance of a master, proceeded to the study of French and Italian. The best authors in each of these tongues soon became familiar to him; and it is supposed, that few natives of the country possess so general and recondite a knowledge of Italian literature, as the subject of the present memoir.

During the whole of this period, Mr. Roscoe regularly attended at the office: his seasons of study were the intervals of business.

His attachment to the muse was of a very early date. While yet a boy he read with avidity the works of the best English poets. Of their beauties he had an exquisite sense; and it may easily be imagined that the first of his compositions was of the poetical class. "Mount Pleasant," a descriptive poem, which he wrote in his sixteenth year, is a record not only of the fertility of his genius, but of the correctness of his taste.

Soon after the expiration of his clerkship, Mr. Roscoe was taken into partnership by Mr. Aspinwall, a very respectable attorney of the town 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 professions and acquired a liberal and minute knowledge of law. In short, in clearness of comprehension, and rapidity of dispatch, he had few equals.

About this time he commenced an acquaintance with the late Dr. Enfield, and the present Dr. Aikin, both of whom were then residents at Warrington, the former being tutor in the belles lettres in the academy there, and the latter established as a surgeon in that town. These gentlemen were early sensible of his surprising talents, and they contracted with him a friendship which was sure to be lasting, as it was built on the solid basis of mutual esteem.

Mr. Roscoe seems to have been early gifted with a correct taste in the arts of painting and statuary. On the 17th of December, 1773, he recited before the Society formed in Liverpool for the encouragement of designing, drawing, painting, &c. an Ode, which was afterwards published, together with his poem entitled Mount Pleasant. Of this Society he was a very active member, and occasionally gave public lectures on subjects appropriate to the object of the institution.

When the voice of humanity was raised against the slave-trade, Mr. Roscoe, fearless of the inconvenience to which the circumstances of his local situation might expose him, stood forth a zealous and enlightened advocate for the abolition of that inhuman traffic. In his boyish days, indeed, he had expressed his feelings on this subject, in the following charming lines, which are extracted from the poem already alluded to, page 40:—

There Afric's swarthy sons their toils repeat,
Beneath the fervors of the noon-tide heat;
Torn from each joy that crown'd their native soil,
No sweet reflections mitigate their toil;
From morn to eve, by rigorous hands opprest,
Dull fly their hours, of every hope unblest:
Till broke with labour, helpless and forlorn,
From their weak grasp the ling'ring morsel torn;
The reed-built hovel's friendly shade deny'd;
The jest of folly, and the scorn of pride;
Drooping beneath meridian suns they lie,
Lift the faint head, and bend th' imploring eye;
Till death, in kindness, from the tortur'd breast
Calls the free spirit to the realms of rest.
Shame to mankind! but shame to Britons most,
Who all the sweets of liberty can boast,
Yet, deaf to every human claim, deny
That bliss to others which themselves enjoy;
Life's hitter draught with harsher bitter till,
Blast every joy, and add to every ill;
The trembling limbs with galling iron bind,
Nor loose the heavier bondage of the wind.

Thus by his own reflections, Mr. Roscoe was prepared to enter with ardour into the views of the friends of suffering humanity, he had frequent conversations with Mr. Clarkson, who first drew the attention of the kingdom at large to this national disgrace. A specious pamphlet was published in defence of the trade, entitled, "Scriptural Researches into the Licitness of the Slave Trade," and written by a Spanish Jesuit of the name of Harris. Mr. Roscoe answered it with great spirit and acuteness, in a counter-pamphlet, called "A Scriptural Refutation of a Pamphlet lately published by time Rev. Raymund Harris."

But this copious and interesting subject awaked all his sympathies, and the public were gratified by a most affecting poem, entitled, "The Wrongs of' Africa," which Mr. Roscoe intended to complete in three parts. The two first appeared in 1787, and 1788, but the lovers of genuine poetry have to lament that he has not yet fulfilled his promise of favouring them with the third. During several years, expectation was kept alive; but circumstances have still occurred, to diminish the hopes that were once entertained.

A mind so active and generous as Mr. Roscoe's, could not remain uninterested in that stupendous event, the French revolution. He of course caught the enthusiastic glow that warmed the breasts of the friends of freedom, while they beheld a mighty nation throwing off the fetters of despotism; and fondly hoped that the consequences of their exertions would be lasting peace, good order, and equal laws. He even tuned the lyre on this bewitching theme, and proclaimed the praises of Freedom in a translation of one of Petrarch's Odes, which found its way into the Mercurio Italico; a song entitled, "Millions be Free;" and the famous poem, "The Vine-covered Hills," which may be classed among the most finished compositions in the English language.

During the season of tumult and discord, which succeeded the attempt of the combined powers to reinstate, in the plenitude of its authority, the despotism of France, (an attempt, in which this country, fatally to itself, perhaps too cordially united,) Mr. Roscoe was busily employed in writing the History of Lorenzo de Medicis. This work was begun about the year 1790, and published early in 1796.

On its first appearance, public opinion proclaimed in its favour; and this was confirmed by the decisions of criticism, through the ordeal of which it quickly passed. Since that period, the literary world have had time to recover from the dazzle of surprise; and the buzz of ignorant applause, raised by the leaders of literary fashion, is now still. The sentence of sober judgment confirms the verdict which was pronounced according to the dictates of first impressions. The liberal acumen of Parr has assayed the Life of Lorenzo, and has found it sterling gold. Its dignity and grace have shielded its author from the merciless tomahawk of the writer of the Pursuits of Literature; and we may fairly presume, that its rank is fixed among the most splendid ornaments of English composition.

The admiration with which the public have been affected by the perusal of this work will, no doubt, be increased by a knowledge of the circumstances in which it was composed. At the time when it was projected, Mr. Roscoe 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 the morning and afternoon; his evenings alone, he was 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 interruptions. 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 bands; and in order that it might be printed under his own immediate inspection, he established an excellent press in the town of Liverpool, and submitted to the disgusting toil of correcting the proofs.

Soon after the appearance of his history, Mr. Roscoe relinquished he profession of an attorney, and entered himself at Gray's inn, with a view of becoming and acting as a barrister.

He took advantage of the leisure which the relinquishment of business afforded him, to enter upon the study of the Greek language; in which, according to the report of his intimate friends, he has made considerable progress.

The literary public had been so much gratified by the perusal of Mr. Roscoe's Life of Lorenzo de Medicis, that they unanimously called upon him for the life of the son of that distinguished patron of letters and learned men, the celebrated Pontiff Leo X. The undertaking of this work was entirely congenial with Mr. Roscoe's taste and wishes, and he soon commenced its composition with his usual zeal and industry. In the year 1805, it was published in four volumes in quarto. Its reception was not quite so favourable as that which was experienced by the Life of Lorenzo de Medicis. The charm of surprise was diminished; and by his strictures on the conduct of some of our early reformers, who, "though they had suffered persecution, had not learned mercy," Mr. Roscoe gave umbrage to ecclesiastical bigotry. It soon, however, came to a second edition, and competent judges recognize in it the same fidelity in the narration of facts, the same taste in the line arts, as characterised its precursor; expressed in a tone of style more nervous and compressed, than its author had hitherto exhibited.

Whilst employed in the arrangement of the materials for this work, Mr. Roscoe was invited to take the situation of chief and active partner in the banking-house of Clarke and Sons, which had been long established in Liverpool; a situation which, with much reluctance, and, as the event proved, unfortunately for himself, his family, and the public, he accepted.

During the whole of his life, Mr. Roscoe had been an ardent admirer of the political principles of Mr. Fox; and whilst the last Whig Administration were in office, he was solicited by the friends of that administration in Liverpool, and by many others of different political sentiments, on the dissolution of parliament in the year 1806; to stand candidate for the representation of his native town. After an arduous struggle, he was returned at the head of the poll. But when his friends retired from office, he experienced the mutability of popular favour, and found the probability of support so much diminished on the dissolution of parliament, which took place in 1807, that he declined standing another contest.

It was, however, a high gratification to him, that during the short period of his parliamentary life, it was his lot to assist in the proscription of that blot on the national character, the African slave trade. On one of the debates on the bill, for the abolition of that odious traffic, he made a speech marked by firmness, good sense, and good feeling.

Mr. Roscoe seems to have brought with him, on his return from public to private life, a taste for political discussion, which he evinced in the publication of a few pamphlets on the topics of the day. These, as might be expected, were received with much commendation by one party, and with much abuse by the other. Whatever may be their merits or demerits in other respects, it was universally acknowledged, that they were written in a spirit of urbanity which political writers in general would do well to imitate.

The sequel of Mr. Roscoe's history cannot be narrated without pain. Whilst he was engaged in the pursuits of elegant literature, and in deeds of active benevolence, a series of untoward events compelled the banking establishment, in which he was concerned, to suspend its payment. By the liberality of the creditors, indulgence was afforded to enable it to retrieve its affairs; but the difficulties of the times precluded the possibility of this, and Mr. Roscoe, and his partners, were obliged to submit to the process of bankruptcy.

To a man of Mr. Roscoe's temperament, this calamity, as affecting the interests of others, is no doubt extremely grievous. As to himself, we are confident that he will bear misfortune with firmness. In the hour of his adversity he will be consoled by the sympathies of friendship; and the activity of his mind will discover in the wide field of science and literature, objects, the contemplation of which will beguile the sense of affliction.