1887 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Rogers

P. W. Clayden, in The Early Life of Samuel Rogers (1887) 57-61.



In the next year, 1782, we find him already engaged in poetical composition. From the first he had poetry in view, and his love of poetry, even his desire to be a poet, had been known and recognised from comparatively early years. In 1775 Mason published the "Life and Letters of Gray," with an edition of his poems, and Samuel Rogers, then twelve years old, read them with delight. Some years later, when he went to business, he walked to town in the morning with Gray's poems in his hand, and could repeat them all. He admired the letters as much as the poems. They had for him, he said, an inexpressible charm. He thought them to be as witty as Walpole's and to have what he thought Walpole's wanted — true wisdom. But Gray was not his earliest teacher. In 1771, the year in which Gray died, and when Wordsworth was but twelve months old, the first and best part of Beattie's "Minstrel" appeared. Rogers was then a boy, and it was probably a year or two later, when on a summer evening he took down the volume from the library shelf and read the story of "Edwin" with that kindling sympathy which was the stirring within him of his own share in the divine gift of genius. He never forgot that first experience of the poet's spell. It might be described in Wordsworth's lines in his autobiographical poem—

Twice five years
Or less I might have seen, when first my mind
With conscious pleasure opened to the charm
Of words in tuneful order; found them sweet
For their own sakes, a passion and a power.

This seems to have been the dawn of his genius. It woke up the love of song, and sent him to study with enthusiasm the chief poets of the time. He soon turned from Beattie to Goldsmith, and from Goldsmith to Gray. Goldsmith's, "Traveller" was published in the year after Rogers was born, and the "Deserted Village" in 1770; and these were among the poems on which his youthful fancy was fed. He soon went back, of course, to older and even greater masters; but his boyhood's love of poetry was nourished by the popular poets of the time. One of the sweetest bits of early praise which reached his ears was the description of him as "a child of Goldsmith." But he was something more. It is needless to say that a young man of poetical ambition in the second half of the eighteenth century was a careful student of Pope and Dryden. Rogers sat at the feet of both these great men, but his preference was for Dryden. His father advised him to study Pope's "Homer," but, with all his love and reverence for the poet of the "Dunciad" and the "Essay on Man," he could never like Pope's translation of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey." When Cowper's version of "Homer" appeared in 1791 he admired it greatly and read it again and again. The gentle singer of "John Gilpin" and the "Task" was, however, a contemporary of Rogers, and cannot be numbered among his early teachers. Those teachers were Gray and Goldsmith, Dryden and Pope; but the influence which the elders in the brotherhood of genius possess over its younger sons, was exerted in Rogers's case chiefly by Gray and Goldsmith. Gray inspired him first and Goldsmith afterwards, but he was himself from first to last. In his imaginative boyhood when, like Beattie's Edwin, though for reasons of health, rather than of feeling—

Concourse and noise and toil he ever fled,
Nor cared to mingle in the clamorous fray—

he may have thought himself to be not unlike that hero of his favourite poem. The excitement with which he first read the "Minstrel" was due to the sympathy he felt with Edwin's dreams. Such revelations of intellectual kinship come to every boy of sensitive nature in whom the first movements of great faculties take the shape of ambitious hopes and plans. He does not merely follow the great examples he admires but catches inspiration from them. He does not consciously imitate them, but hears and obeys the call of innate powers to go and do likewise. This was Rogers's case. In some lines written in earlier days, but added to the second part of his "Italy" and dated 1839, when he was seventy-six years old, he says of himself—

Nature denied him much
But gave him at his birth what most he values,
A passionate love for music, sculpture, painting,
For poetry, the language of the Gods,
For all things here, or grand or beautiful:
A setting sun, a lake among the mountains,
The light of an ingenuous countenance,
And what transcends them all, a noble action.

Nature denied him much but gave him more
And ever, ever grateful should he be
Though from his cheek ere yet the down was there
Health fled; for in his heaviest hours would come
Gleams such as come not now, nor failed he then
(Then and through life his happiest privilege)
Full oft to wander where the Muses haunt
Smit with the love of song.

There was not much opportunity to wander where the Muses haunt in those early days. Nor was there the slightest prospect at this time of that dignified leisure in which his long life was to be spent.