Samuel Rogers (1763-1855), the third son of a London banker, was born at Stoke Newington. Shortly after his father's death, in 1793, he withdrew from any active part in the management of the bank, and devoted himself for the rest of his long life to literature, art, and society. In 1803 he moved from chambers in the Temple to a house in St. James's Place, overlooking the Green Park. Here he lived till his death, in December, 1855, and here he gathered round him, at his celebrated breakfasts, the most distinguished men and women of his time. An excellent account of the "Town Mouse" entertaining the "Country Mouse" is given by Dean Stanley (Life, vol. i. p. 298), who met Wordsworth at breakfast with Rogers, in 1841, and describes "the town mouse a sleek, well-fed, sly, white mouse, and the country mouse with its rough, weatherworn face and grey hairs; the town mouse displaying its delicate little rolls and pyramids of glistening strawberries, the country mouse exulting in its hollow tree, its crust of bread and liberty, and rallying its brother on his late hours and frequent dinners."
One of his earliest recollections was the sight of a rebel's head upon a pole at Temple Bar. He had talked with a Thames boatman who remembered Pope; had seen Garrick in The Suspicious Husband; had heard Sir Joshua Reynolds deliver his last lecture as President of the Royal Academy; had seen John Wesley "lying "in state" in the City Road; had gone to call on Dr. Johnson, but, when his hand was on the knocker, found his courage fled. He lived to be offered the laureateship in 1850, on the death of Wordsworth, and to decline it in favour of Tennyson.
"Time was," wrote Mathias (Pursuits of Literature, note, p. 360, ed. 1808), "when bankers were as stupid as their guineas could make them; they were neither orators, nor painters, nor poets. But now ... Mr. Rogers dreams on Parnassus; and, if I am rightly informed, there is a great demand among his brethren for the Pleasures of Memory." Rogers began to write poetry at an early age, and continued to write it all his life. His Ode to Superstition was published in 1786; the Pleasures of Memory, in 1792; the Epistle to a Friend, in 1798; Columbus, in 1812; Jacqueline, in 1813; Human Life, in 1819; Italy, in 1822-34. His later years were occupied in revising, correcting, or amplifying his published poems, and in preparing the notes to Italy, which are admirable studies in compactness and precision of language. A disciple of Pope, an imitator of Goldsmith, Rogers was rather a skilful adapter than an original poet. His chief talent was his taste; if he could not originate, he could appreciate. The fastidious care which he lavished on his work has preserved it. In his commonplace-book he has entered the number of years which he spent in composing and revising his poems. His Pleasures of Memory occupied seven years, Columbus fourteen, and Italy fifteen. An excellent judge of art, he employed Flaxman, Stothard, and Turner at a time when their powers were little appreciated by his fellow-countrymen. Of his taste Byron speaks enthusiastically in his journal (see p. 331). But the following passage (hitherto unpublished) from his Detached Thoughts (Ravenna, 1825) gives his later opinion of the man:—
"When Sheridan was on his death-bed, Rogers aided him with purse and person. This was particularly kind of Rogers, who always spoke ill of Sheridan (to me, at least), but, indeed, he does that of everybody to anybody. Rogers is the reverse of the line—
The best good man with the worst natured Muse,
The worst good man with the best natured Muse.
His Muse being all Sentiment and Sago and Sugar, while he himself is a venomous talker. I say 'worst good man' because he is (perhaps) a good man; at least he does good now and then, as well he may, to purchase himself a shilling's worth of salvation for his slanders. They are so little, too — small talk — and old Womanny, and he is malignant too — and envious — and — he be damned!"
In a manuscript note to these passages Sir Walter Scott writes, "I never heard Rogers say a single word against Byron, which is rather odd too. Byron wrote a bitter and undeserved satire on Rogers. This conduct must have been motived by something or other." Speaking of Rogers and Sheridan, he says, "He certainly took pennyworths out of his friend's character. I sat three hours for my picture to Sir Thomas Lawrence, during which the whole conversation was filled up by Rogers with stories of Sheridan, for the least of which, if true, he deserved the gallows. One respected his committing a rape on his sister-in-law on the day of her husband's funeral. Others were worse."
In politics Rogers was a Whig, in religion a Presbyterian. But he meddled little with either. In private life he was as kindly in action as he was caustic in speech. A sensitive man himself, he studied to be satirical to others. When Ward condemned Columbus in the Quarterly Review, Rogers repaid his critic in the stinging epigram—
Ward has no heart, they say; but I deny it;—
He has a heart, and gets his speeches by it.
Byron warmly admired Rogers's poetry. To him he dedicated The Giaour, in "admiration for his genius, respect for his character, and gratitude for his friendship." The Quarterly Review, in an article on The Corsair and Lara, mentions "the highly refined, but somewhat insipid, pastoral tale of Jacqueline." Byron, on reading the review, said to Lady Byron, "The man's a fool. Jacqueline is as superior to Lara as Rogers is to me" (Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers, p. 554, note). "The Pleasures of Memory," he said (Lady Blessington's Conversations, p. 153), "is a very beautiful poem, harmonious, finished, and chaste; it contains not a single meretricious ornament. If Rogers has not fixed himself in the higher fields of Parnassus, he has, at least, cultivated a very pretty flower-garden at its base." But he goes on to speak of the poem (p. 354) as "a hortus siccus of pretty flowers," and an illustration of the difference between inspiration and versification."
If Rogers ever saw Byron's Question and Answer (1818), he was generous enough to forget the satire. In Italy he paid a noble tribute to the genius of the dead poet—
He is now at rest;
And praise and blame fall on his ear alike,
Now dull in death. Yes, Byron, thou art gone,
Gone like a star that through the firmament
Shot and was lost, in its eccentric course
Dazzling, perplexing. Yet thy heart, methinks,
Was generous, noble — noble in its scorn
Of all things low or little; nothing there
Sordid or servile. If imagined wrongs
Pursued thee, urging thee sometimes to do
Things long regretted, oft, as many know,
None more than I, thy gratitude would build
On slight foundations; and, if in thy life
Not happy, in thy death thou surely wert,
Thy wish accomplished; dying in the land
Where thy young mind had caught ethereal fire,
Dying in Greece, and in a cause so glorious!
They in thy train — ah, little did they think,
As round we went, that they so soon should sit
Mourning beside thee, while a Nation mourned,
Changing her festal for her funeral song;
That they so soon should hear the minute-gun,
As morning gleamed on what remained of thee,
Roll o'er the sea, the mountains, numbering
Thy years of joy and sorrow.
Thou art gone;
And he who would assail thee in thy grave,
Oh, let him pause! For who among us all,
Tried as thou wert — even from thy earliest years,
When wandering, yet unspoilt, a Highland boy—
Tried as thou wert, and with thy soul of flame;
Pleasure, while yet the down was on thy cheek,
Uplifting, pressing, and to lips like thine,
Her charmed cup — ah, who among us all
Could say he had not erred as much, and more?