1873 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Rogers

Joseph Devey, "Classical School. Rogers" A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873) 145-55.



There is no poet of the nineteenth century whom criticism should delight to honour more than Rogers: a gentleman of blameless manners, of tender feelings, a princely Maecenas of letters, a virtuoso of rare taste — possessing a keen sympathy with every institution calculated to promote the well-being of his fellow-creatures. But, I fear, the amiability of the man had largely to do with his defects as a poet. He could not feel, and, therefore, could not awaken, passion in others. He was deficient in that nervous sensibility, which, however morose it may make its victim occasionally appear, is a necessary ingredient in the production of any great work of art. Nor was he possessed of that frowning imagination which delights in the contemplation of the grand and the terrible, and which in so delighting withdraws its possessor from the sunny gaieties of the outer world. Rogers wanted force of nature and persistency of will. He was too weak and languid to exercise that concentrative energy which is required in the production of a great poem. He lived too constantly in the creations of others to flourish very much in his own. Hence he struck out no new line for himself. His "Ode to Superstition" is only a weak reflex of Gray; his short piece on Loch Long is an imitation of Wordsworth. In his "Epistle on Taste," in his "Human Life," and "Pleasures of Memory," he follows Goldsmith; but he follows him with such success, that in some respects he may be said to have equalled his master. He, however, lacks his depth of feeling, and that vigour which occasionally rises into sublimity. The rich banker had never competed with a clown, for the pennies of a gaping crowd, by standing upon his head; he had never played a flageolet at a cottage door for a night's lodgings; he had never looked down from the top of the Alps with blistered feet, and with such ravenous reflection as hungry solitude is calculated to inspire. His experience, therefore, of human suffering was as limited as his acquaintance with the grand and more abrupt features of Nature; and what he could not realize perfectly to himself, he failed to impress upon others. It is very pleasant to be at the head of a large financial establishment; to have an unlimited power of drawing cheques upon the house; to never ride abroad except in luxurious carriages, with india-rubber springs; to feel no want without having it promptly supplied; but the atmosphere of beneficent indulgence is not that in which Genius moults her strongest pinions; and the genius of Rogers was not of such high character as to neutralize, but rather to be impaired by, the disadvantages of his position. Goldsmith could paint from actual experience, familiar as he was with every phase of existence, while Rogers contemplated the most exciting scenes of life, tapestried as in a loom, and then only from the wrong side of the arras.

It has appeared a marvel to some that Rogers, having produced the "Pleasures of Memory" at the outset of his career, did not produce something greater to fulfil the rich promise he thus gave of a splendid maturity. But, I think, the wonder ought, to be, not that he failed to produce anything greater, but that he ever produced anything so good. In the best of his descriptions he never presents anything in a new light; he never scales the heights of genuine sublimity; he never wounds the soul with deep emotions of pity, or intoxicates it with the delights of love. In his episode of "Julia and Florio," as in his stories of "Jacqueline" and "Columbus," he had a wide field for the construction of plot and the delineation of individual character, but he can hardly be said to attempt the one, as he certainly makes a very faint exhibition of the other. He never startles his reader with any bold reflections. He leaves life, with its mysteries, its problems, and its perplexing enigmas, just where he found it. The whole of his talent consists in recalling, by vivid touches, all those sunnier scenes of existence in which the heart is most interested, and over which Fancy loves most to brood. Summoned by his magic pencil, the most charming recollections of the poet troop in palpable array before us, and the mind recurs to them as to a series of pictures interwoven with its own sensations, the fidelity of which has all the stamp of truth. But this talent was not capable of much expansion or variation, its range was limited; it could not be said to grow. And hence Rogers' genius was like the acacia, which bears a profusion of blossom but no fruit.

In the "Pleasures of Memory" Rogers was singularly happy in the choice of a subject which just suited the range of his powers; and it cannot be denied that, with the exception of the wretched episode in the second part, his treatment of it would have done justice to an artist of even greater abilities. To a comprehensive grasp of the subject, he unites skilful delineation of parts and elaborate finish of the minuter points of detail more perfectly than has been accomplished in any other poem of similar compass. He not only invests these recollections with the freshest colours, which time has obscured, but which fancy has endeared to most of us; but he selects from a wide range of extraneous objects those scenes illustrative of his subject which are most calculated to awaken the purest sympathies of our nature. Whether he pourtrays the dove flying homeward to the famished garrison, with its message of deliverance tied under its wing, only to be devoured by those to whom it brings unexpected tidings of relief; or the nun in her convent gloom recalling the dearest blandishments of the world she has forsworn; or the Swiss peasant journeying over the Alps, with the storm-cloud under his feet and the prattle of his babes haunting his ear across the roar of the waterfall; — the sketch is drawn with a simplicity and a natural truthfulness which must always enchant the mind:—

The beauteous maid, who bids the world adieu,
Oft of that world will snatch a fond review;
Oft at the shrine neglect her beads, to trace
Some social scene, some dear, familiar face:
And ere, with iron tongue, the vesper bell
Bursts thro' the cypress walk, the convent cell,
Oft will her warm and wayward heart revive,
To love and joy still tremblingly alive;
The whispered vow, the chaste caress prolong,
Weave the light dance, and swell the choral song;
With rapt ear drink the enchanting serenade,
And, as it melts along the moonlight glad;
To each soft note returns as soft a sigh,
And bless the youth that bids her slumbers fly.

The itinerant Savoyard leaving his native mountains is no less forcibly presented to us:—

Where the blithe son of Savoy, journeying round
With humble wares and pipe of merry sound,
From his green vale and sheltered cabin hies,
And scales the Alps to visit foreign skies;
Tho' far below the forked lightnings play,
And at his feet the thunders die away,
Oft, in the saddle rudely rocked to sleep,
While his mule browses on the dizzy steep,
With Memory's aid, he sits at home, and sees
His children sport beneath their native trees,
And bends to hear their cherub-voices call,
O'er the loud fury of the torrent's fall.

Even when he describes some abstract operation of memory, he borrows his illustration from attachments, having indeed little, if any, relation with the subject, but which are calculated to touch a sympathetic chord in the dullest breast:—

Ah! who can tell the triumphs of the mind,
By truth illumined and by taste refined?
When age has quenched the eye, and closed the ear,
Still nerved for action in her native sphere,
Oft will she rise, with searching glance pursue
Some long-loved image vanished from her view;
Dart thro' the deep recesses of the past,
O'er dusky forms in chains of slumber cast,
With giant-grasp fling back the folds of night,
And snatch the faithless fugitive to light.
So thro' the grove the impatient mother flies,
Each sunless glade, each secret pathway tries;
Till the thin leaves the truant boy disclose,
Long on the wood-moss stretched in sweet repose.

I readily allow that these descriptions do not belong to a very high order of art, that they suggest too many comparisons with Goldsmith, that they only present the most glaring and most easily to be pourtrayed examples of his subjects; still they have the rare merit of going directly to the heart, and of engaging it to take a lively interest in the simplest objects, unadorned with any tints except those reflected from nature. The charm of material delineation is striking in itself, but this is only made the medium of reflecting back on the soul the sunniest associations of its own existence, sometimes with double fore, as mirrored in the experience of others. Rogers had a genuine love for the artistic phase of every sort of existence. Nothing seemed to interest him till it was invested with that colouring which made the object rather a spiritual embodiment than a material picture; but that spiritual embodiment was not derived from the lofty nature of ideal conception, but from the quieter affections of the human breast. As such, he is entitled to a place in the same division of poets as Goldsmith; but from his want of imaginative conception, from the predominance of mere fancy in his works, rather combining the thoughts of others than originating any of his own, his position will naturally fall among the lowest group.

Though Rogers came before the world on five different occasions after his "Pleasures of Memory," to challenge attention for his muse, it was rather to decrease than enhance his reputation. Indeed, his debut and exit as an author were alike fatal. His "Ode to Superstition" requires a painful effort to read. His "Italy" few would dream of opening, were it not for the divine etchings of Stothard and Turner. In his "Epistle on Taste," published in 1796, and in his "Human Life," written twenty-three years afterwards, we find something like the same vigour as in his great poem; but the public expected to encounter greater beauties; and when they discovered he had hardly equalled, the intensity of their disappointment led them to believe he had fallen far below, his previous effort. But these two poems evince great merit, simply because the author confines himself within the limited range of his powers, and does not break away from the ground which he occupies with such force in his "Pleasures of Memory." Indeed, these two poems would require very little adaptation to fit into the frame work of their predecessor. In that on "Human Life," we get hardly anything else than a succession of pictures illustrating the various affections as imaged in the different stages of being which impart to them vitality. He throws no light on the grand problems of existence. On one occasion only does he become psychological, and then merely to dish up a hackneyed argument for the immortality of the soul:—

Do what he will, man cannot realize
Half he conceives — the glorious vision flies.
Go where he may, he cannot hope to find
The truth, the beauty pictured in the mind.
But if, by chance, an object strike the sense,
The faintest shadow of that excellence,
Passions, that slept, are stirring in his frame
Thoughts undefined, feelings without a name;
And some, not here called forth, may slumber on,
Till this vain pageant of a world is gone;
Lying too deep for things that perish here,
Waiting for life, — but in a nobler sphere.

The picture of the true wife, drawn with more completeness and originality, furnishes a contrast to the mere woman of fashion, in his Epilogue for Mrs. Siddons:—

His house she enters, there to be a light,
Shining within, when all without is night;
A guardian angel o'er his life presiding,
Doubling his pleasures, and his cares dividing;
Winning him back, when mingling in the throng,
From a vain world we love, alas too long,
To fireside happiness and hours of ease,
Blest with that charm, the certainty to please.
How oft her eyes read his; her gentle mind
To all his wishes, all his thoughts inclined;
Still subject, ever on the watch to borrow
Mirth of his mirth, and sorrow of his sorrow.
The soul of music slumbers in the shell,
Till waked and kindled by the master's spell;
And feeling hearts — touch them but rightly — pour
A thousand melodies unheard before!

Though this is genuine poetry, it is not of a high class; but Rogers falls miserably below this standard when he has to describe scenes in which deep passion ought to be evoked. The weak lines exemplifying filial affection in the meeting of Mary Roper with her venerable father on his way to the scaffold, are ill redeemed by such verses as the following, even had they the poor merit of originality:—

To her, methinks a second youth is given,
The light upon her face is light from heaven!
An hour like this is worth a thousand passed
In pomp or ease. 'Tis present to the last;—
Years glide away untold: 'tis still the same.

In the psychological argument the execution is better than the conception; but in the following the conception is better than the execution:—

Through the wide world he only is alone
Who lives not for another. Come what will,
The generous man has his companion still:
———*———*———*———*———
Even in an iron cage condemned to dwell,
The cage that stands within his dungeon cell,
He feeds his spider — happier at the worst
Than he at large who in himself is curst!

It is only when the poet resumes his old task of pourtraying the sunnier aspects of humanity that vigour of thought is united with charm of expression, as in his picture of a mother fondling her baby-boy:—

As with soft accents round her neck he clings,
And cheek to cheek her soothing song she sings,
How blest to feel the beatings of his heart!
Breathe his sweet breath, and kiss for kiss impart;
Watch o'er his slumbers like the brooding dove,
And, if she can, exhaust a mother's love!

The "Epistle on Taste," though a far more unique production, does not increase our admiration of the poet to anything like the same degree as it raises our estimation of the man. Its principal charm consists in the combination of two contrasts — that of the lettered ease and rustic enjoyments of a country villa with the bustling importunities of civic strife, in which, indeed, the poet had his model in Horace; and the other of artistic refinement and aesthetic luxury, rather heightened than impaired by the humble resources of cottage life, which, while it serves to set them off as a foil, imparts to them a zest they would not otherwise possess. Here the poet had no model at all but that supplied by his own good nature, which loved to place itself in a position attainable by most of his fellow-creatures, in order to show them that the most refined pleasures were not the appanage merely of the wealthy, but were like light, ready if not intercepted by the cloud of ignorance, to pour their sunshine on the multitude. With this design the poet lets us peep into his bath, his bedroom, and his study, each, though humble in themselves, embellished with ,,appropriate pictures, which breathe a soul into the silent walls, and with busts which exhibit in their features all the noblest thoughts of the characters they represent. But these ornaments, not being originals, are inexpensive; for the poet, instead of littering his rooms with the works of inferior artists, prefers to surround himself with cheap copies of the best masters. By this means the poet enforces the doctrine, which derives double force from the advocacy of a millionnaire, that the perfection of taste consists in producing the greatest effects by the smallest means:—

Be mine to bless the more mechanic skill,
That stamps, renews, and multiplies at will;
And cheaply circulates thro' distant climes,
The fairest relics of the purest times.
Here from the mould to conscious being start
Those finer forms, the miracles of art;
Here chosen gems, imprest on sulphur, shine,
That slept for sages in a second mine;
And here the faithful graver dares to trace
A Michael's grandeur and a Raphael's grace!
Thy gallery, Florence, gilds my humble walls,
And my low roof the Vatican recalls!
———*———*———*———*———
Tho' my thatch'd bath no rich mosaic knows,
A limpid spring with unfelt current flows.
Emblem of life which, still as we survey,
Seems motionless, yet ever glides away;
The shadowy walls record, with Attic art,
The strength and beauty which its waves impart.
Here Thetis, bending, with a mother's fears,
Dips her dear boy, whose pride restrains his tears;
There Venus, rising, shrinks with sweet surprise,
As her fair self reflected seems to rise!

The contrast between the pleasures which the poet enjoys in this remote retreat and the bustling importunities of town life, if not brought out with the bold outline and caustic irony of Horace, it is because the silkiness of the poet's nature leads him to avoid the more striking for the quieter lights and shades of the picture:—

Far from the joyless glare, the maddening strife,
And all the dull impertinence of life,
These eyelids open to the rising ray,
And close, when nature bids at close of day.
Here, at the dawn, the kindling landscape glows;
There, noonday levees call from faint repose.
Here, the flushed wave flings back the parting light;
There, glimmering lamps anticipate the night.

Rogers thus sketches himself in the fields:—

When Spring bursts forth in blossoms thro' the vale,
And her wild music triumphs on the gale,
Oft with my book I muse from stile to stile;
Oft in my porch the listless noon beguile,
Training loose numbers, till declining day,
Thro' the green trellis shoots a crimson ray;
Till the west-wind leads on the twilight hours,
And shakes the fragrant bells of closing flowers.

With his own quiet pursuits, the author contrasts those of the furred beauty who comes emblazoned with her jewels to startle midnight in Grosvenor Square:

There let her strike with momentary ray,
As tapers shine their little lives away;
There let her practise from herself to steal,
And look the happiness she does not feel;
The ready smile and bidden blush employ,
At Faro routs, that dazzle to destroy;
Fan with affected ease the essenced air,
And lisp of fashions with unmeaning stare:
Be thine to meditate an humbler flight,
When morning fills the fields with rosy light;
Be thine to blend, without one vulgar aim,
Repose with dignity; with quiet, fame.

But these by no means present the most startling contrasts which his subject placed within his reach, and which the poet judiciously avoided from his want of sustained force and vigour. Even the sketches he presents in "The Epistle" lack completeness, while those in the poem on human life, though more finished, are arranged without order, as they group themselves in the poet's fancy, without reference to any philosophical principle whatever. These poems, therefore, only confirm the estimate already formed of Rogers' powers, as one possessing all the catholic tenderness of Goldsmith, without his vigour, and Cowper's keen perception of natural beauties, without his felicity of expression. But these qualities were materially enhanced by aesthetic culture and a world-embracing circle of heartfelt sympathies, equally beyond both. It is these sympathies which ennoble the humblest of his performances, and which will obtain for him readers when the works of some of the more ostentatious of his contemporaries are neglected.

Of the minor pieces of Rogers, with the exception of "Loch Long," one or two short ditties, and the charming Epilogue, in which he dashes off with great spirit the five stages in the life of a woman of fashion, I can only say it would have been much better had they not been written; or, if written, that they had not been flouted in the face of posterity. There is, however, among them, a sonnet to the torso of Hercules, which, in the gardens of the Vatican, had often caught the admiring gaze of Michael Angelo, Raphael, and the two Caracci, and which in turn was destined to inspire the English poet with the noblest lines he ever wrote:—

And dost thou still, thou mass of breathing stone
(Thy giant limbs to night and chaos hurled),
Still sit as on the fragment of a world
Surviving all, majestic and alone?
What tho' the spirits of the North, that swept
Rome from the earth, when in her pomp she slept,
Smote thee with fury; and thy headless trunk
Deep in the dust 'mid tower and temple sunk;
Soon to subdue mankind 'twas thine to rise
Still, still unquelled thy glorious energies!
Aspiring minds, with thee conversing, caught
Bright revelations of the good they sought;
By thee that long-lost spell, in secret given,
To draw down gods, and lift the soul to heaven!