1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Roscoe

William Maginn, "Gallery of Literary Characters: William Roscoe, Esq." Fraser's Magazine 6 (December 1832) 685.



It is not exactly according to our practice to insert in this gallery of ours eminent persons defunct; but as we happened to have included Roscoe in our original list, we thought it a pity that the accident of his dying before we had time to give him a place, should deprive him of the meditated honour.

He was born in 1753, and died in 1831 — so that he had passed the age assigned by Moses to man by some eight years. When, the close of his life was approaching, he said that he had reason to be grateful for having passed through the world so calmly, and with so many pleasurable sensations and we believe that he spoke with perfect sincerity. He began life as an attorney, and was so successful in his profession, that, after some years of exertion, he was enabled to retire to enjoy his "otium cum dignitate;" from which he was seduced, in an unlucky hour, to join a banking concern, the end of which was bankruptcy. In good or evil fate his moral fame was untouched; and he displayed himself equal to either fortune. His misfortunes did not depress him; and the only expression of regret that we recollect to have escaped from him, was in the beautiful sonnet on the loss of his books.

He was of a class of politicians who were mischievous enough, but he never had power sufficient to effect mischief. He took what is commonly called the liberal side of politics, and wrote trim and pretty common-places against war, slavery, intolerance, &c. &c. without condescending to consider these things as any thing more than words, without reference to the events of real life. Shocked at war, for instance, when it was waged by England against the iron despotism of Napoleon, he saw nothing to shock him when it was waged by Napoleon against us, or against all mankind. Commiserating the condition of the West Indian peasant because he is called slave, he yet assented to, and to the utmost of his power recommended, the philosophy of the Malthusians and others, who have inflicted the reality of slavery on the peasant or manufacturer of Great Britain. In his Leo the Tenth, ready to defend the exertions of the papacy, and its penal enactments, to reduce the spirit of Luther and the other apostles of the Reformation under the bonds of the most grinding ecclesiastical tyranny, he was equally ready elsewhere to denounce as intolerant the laws which curbed the aggressive spirit of popery in Ireland. Such, however, are the ordinary hallucinations, if not something worse, of our Liberals. He was in parliament for one session, but he made no figure. At the next election he was pelted by the populace; and when, in the succeeding one, he stood again for Liverpool, he was beaten on the poll.

His two books, Leo the Tenth and Lorenzo the Magnificent, are the main props of his fame. His poetry, though occasionally graceful, has no stamina to insure it any extended existence. But these volumes are really a present to English — perhaps we might say to European — literature. The Italians themselves were quite enraptured with them, and they have become classical works in Italy. Their faults are numerous and easily pointed out — Sismondi has done so with no very sparing hand; and English critics of a more masculine school than that in which Roscoe was reared, will complain of the nerveless style of wiredrawn elegance in which they are composed. The school of Blair has indeed done much to debase and emasculate the English language. But after making all abatements, they are works which have amply supplied a great desideratum, and did no small service to our literature in turning our attention to the glories of the Italian tongue. To have been the author of such histories is no slight fame, and we do not wonder that Liverpool is proud of having produced Roscoe. Washington Irving's observations, in his Geoffrey Crayon, on the occasion of his landing in that city, and his reflections on the sale of Roscoe's library, will be recollected by all who have any feeling for generous writing. He is, we believe, however, somewhat unjust to Roscoe's creditors, for we understand that a most valuable selection of the books was offered to him, but peremptorily declined.

The picture opposite is a very exact likeness.