1796 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Rogers

Samuel Parr to Samuel Rogers, 14 June 1796; P. W. Clayden, The Early Life of Samuel Rogers (1887) 220-33.



Hatton: June 14, 1796.

Dear Sir, — With pleasure — no it was often with delight, it was sometimes even with ecstasy, it was with approbation almost always, that I have read your poem on Memory. The topics are, indeed, chosen most pertinently and even happily. The imagery is rich and varied, the versification is near perfection — and so near that I must entreat you with a little revisal and a little effort to make it quite perfect. Your Muse is so gay without levity, and so serious without gloominess, that she would have tamed the surly genius of Johnson himself. She holds, and has a right to hold, converse with the spirits of Shenstone and Goldsmith and Gray. Believe me, dear sir, when I tell you that my mind, jaded as it has been even to indifference and insensibility upon the common objects of poetry when treated of by common minds, was roused and refreshed by the uncommon excellencies of your most charming poem. I love the work and I love the artist so well that without further preamble I will tell him of the passages which do not satisfy me.

Page 15: "resigned" is surely a feeble epithet to happiness, nay, it is an improper one. Resignation may make us happy, but happiness does not make us resigned.

Page 17. What do you mean by "the Sybil's muttered call," and who is the Sybil? And by "muttered" call do you mean a call that was given in a muttering tone? To me this is quite enigmatical.

In the same page—

To learn the colour of my future years.

Does the word "learn" quite harmonise with the word "colour"? Each expression is good by itself, but they are not well joined together here, and the transition is too violent from a dignified literal word "learn" to the vivid metaphorical word "colour." Page 18:—

Unconscious of the kindred earth
That faintly echoed to the voice of mirth.

I really do not know what you mean by "the kindred earth" which faintly echoes, &c. Page 19:—

—whose every word enlightened.

The use of "every" is rather too pretty; and, indeed, is the only prettyism I have seen, and therefore it strikes the more, as being more contrary to the general purity and elegance of the style. Page 21:—

—yet all with magic art
Controul the latent fibres of the heart.

The philosophy is here better than the poetry, each thought "stamps its image," each "brightens or fades." Here we have imagery, very just and distinct and yet varied. But is not the imagery rather too remote from that which precedes, when we are told that thoughts "controul the latent fibres"? My friend, you do not lead my fancy but you drag it after you here. Perhaps, too, I am not quite pleased with the word "dispense" as applied to the "varied avenues of sense" — avenues do not dispense.

Page 24:—

All touched the talisman's resistless spring.

This line, though intelligible, is obscure. I have many objections and will state them to you. In the two preceding lines we have ornamental description and ornament, too, which throws over the mind many strong images, well adapted to the scenery, as it affects the senses; but, my friend, is there not danger of confusion, when, having recalled such images so pleasing to the senses, you proceed in bold metaphor to speak of the operations of the mind? To me it is quite enigmatical. And consider, too, after the metaphor of the talisman we have another metaphor of "busy tribes" that are "on the wing," and do you think that touching a spring leads us to think of beings on the wing? I think these metaphors do not follow one another well, and when two metaphors immediately succeed such vivid description of natural scenery I feel my mind confounded and fatigued. Page 26:—

When at his feet ... the sage ... reposed.

If you use "when" it should be when Tully found him reposing; if you put "where" the passage will be right. Perhaps you were frightened by seeing the word "where" follow so close in the next sentence. I am not quite satisfied with the line where you say that "his youth in sweet delusion hung." To hang in delusion is at least unusual, and though it be a fact that this happened when Cicero was young, yet the circumstance of youth does not add to the effect; therefore I would have avoided. the word "youth" and have endeavoured to express it in a plainer way as that which happened while he was young. His mind felt the charming delusion when he was young.

Page 27:—

What though the fiend's torpedo-touch arrest!

Dear sir, this line shocked me. The character of a fiend is accompanied by an idea of violence with which "torpedo-touch" ill accords; and again I do not like the word "arrest" as joined to "torpedo-touch" — for surely to arrest suggests some notion of vehemence and force which is very ill-connected with the touch of a torpedo. No touch can arrest, so far as touch is a slight operation; and then a torpedo-touch conveys to me, as I told you before, an idea of benumbing properties rather than of those which arrest or seize, and by seizing stop the motions of the mind. I know you can say that a torpor seizes, but I should not say the touch of a torpor seizes, nor should I choose to say that this act of seizing had checked any preceding emotion, whether habitual or not. When we so use the word "seize," we mean to express the suddenness of the effect, rather than the vehemence of the cause. Again, in the same page I do not find the word "erase" very appropriate to the word "school," though it agrees well enough with the epithet "iron." Still, my friend, you must not have the properties of the subject merged in the properties of the adjunct; and wishing the subject were better adapted to the action of erasing, I must beg leave to express my doubt on the propriety of the epithet "iron" as applied under any circumstances to the subject "school." I cannot admit the transposition of "iron school of war" for the "school of iron war" except in dithyrambic, nonsensical, meteoric odes.

Page 30:—

And win each wavering purpose to relent
With warmth so mild, so gently violent.

I don't understand these two lines. We generally say that a stubborn, not a wavering, purpose relents; and pray what do you mean by "with warmth so mild, so gently violent"? I am all confusion about it.

Page 31:—

These, when to guard Misfortune's sacred grave,
Will firm Fidelity exult to brave.

The first line is obscure. You mean to say when employed, or when designing, to guard the grave, but you have not said it; and after not finding your meaning in the first line we expect to find it in the second, and expecting to find it — [not finding it, is clearly the meaning] — in the second we are driven back to the first, and even there we cannot find it without an effort — without supplying something which is not expressed. This effort is made more painful from the structure of the second line, which is very artificial. "These, will firm Fidelity exult to brave," I could understand pretty well, if the other construction, when to guard Misfortune's sacred grave" did not intervene. But the passage so intervening makes me look for aid from the second, which aid is not furnished; and the second, where the ideas are thrown at a distance from the subject to which it relates, finds embarrassment upon embarrassment — embarrassment from the intervening passage, and embarrassment from its own inverted position in tracing its way back to that which Fidelity exults to brave. Besides, my friend, I do not relish the personification of Fidelity, nor do I much admire the epithet "firm," nor do I much approve of the word "exult." Do you think that exultation is a very obvious property of fidelity? And if it is not obvious what are the circumstances which make it propel on this occasion? I see none. Pray reconsider the lines.

Page 45:— "presumes its base control." Is this quite accurate? I think otherwise. Page 50:—

So richly cultured, every native grace
Its scanty limits he forgets to trace.

My ear is hurt with its scanty "limits," and my understanding is totally at a loss to conjecture what you mean.

Time's sombrous touches soon correct the piece,
Mellow each tint, and bid each discord cease;
A softer tone of light pervades the whole,
And breathes a pensive languor o'er the soul.

My mind, I am sure, feels here a very strange discord indeed. Again and again I have had occasion to tell authors that one metaphor never can be worked into another. I remember in a famous speech of Lord Mansfield's about Wilkes he was guilty of confounding two metaphors. He spoke of "the colour of his life," and so far was well. But he added to the word colour some other metaphorical term, completely heterogeneous. I forget what it was, and am a dunce for forgetting it, though at this moment I remember a stupid attempt of a stupid antiquarian to vindicate the learned judge by supposing that he alluded to Heraldry. Lord Mansfield's speech was for a time admired, and when I attacked it, I never found a man of sense undertake its defence. Having fetched, like Parson Adams, a stride across the room, and brandished my pipe, I suddenly experience the "Pleasures of Memory." Lord Mansfield's word was "armed" — "has armed the colour of my life." His life might be armed, but the colour of it could not be. I return from Lord Mansfield to a better man and a better writer. My friend, you pass too quickly from painting to music; from the sense of seeing to the sense of hearing. There are, it is true, some words which, belonging originally to one sense, are without violence transferred to another. So, sweet, from taste, is applied to sound; and even to the features of a countenance, so, soft, from feeling is applied both to notes and pictures. I allow much to the laws and even caprices of association; I allow much to the authority of custom, which predominates not only in the cases just now mentioned, but in many other metaphorical words, which having originally a mere literal sense are also used in a metaphorical sense with such frequency that we hardly perceive them to be metaphorical. But none of these concessions will avail towards your justification. My concessions go to single words. But in your poem we have more than single words — we have a train of images, we have a succession of metaphors; and when the first metaphor has been preserved pure many of its appropriate terms are intermingled with a second, and a distinct and quite heterogeneous metaphor. I cannot bear the expression of "a tone of light." A soft tone can, but a soft light cannot, "breathe a pensive languor." Well, but even supposing that you had preserved the second metaphor from sound from all mixture of terms borrowed from music, still I should say that to pass so suddenly from one metaphor to another, from the effects of one sense to the effects of another sense, would be a faulty accumulation of imagery: for you will observe that you are not speaking literally of sound or literally of colours, but of both metaphorically, and according to my judgment metaphors so remote ought not to succeed each other so closely, more especially they ought not, because they are applied to one and the same subject — the mind; and because in truth they are describing one and the same operation or affection of that mind. Take either of them away, leave the picture and remove the music, or leave the music and remove the picture, and in either case you will have sufficiently expressed your meaning. I see what it was which produced this confusion. The unlucky word "discord " has produced all this discord. My friend, I have observed in poets, and indeed in all speakers, that the mention of one metaphorical word leads the writer or speaker into the expansion of the correspondent metaphor at full. Thus in "Cymbeline"—

Second Gentleman. — You speak him far.
First Gentleman. — I do extend him, sir, within himself.
Crush him together rather than unfold
His measure duly.

So in Horace, Sat. i.—

Dum ex parvo nobis tantundem "haurire" relinquas,
Cur tua plus laudes cumeris granaria nostris?

Having dropped the word "haurire" he goes on with the metaphor suggested by it at full—

Ut, tibi si sit opus "liquidi" non amplius "urna,"
Vel cyatho, et dicas; Magno de "flumine" mallem
Quam ex hoc "fonticulo" tantundem sumere.

I could quote you several other instances, but these are enough for my purpose, and will show you the train of your own ideas. What you have in common with Shakespeare and Horace is that one metaphorical term led you on to a complete metaphor. A difference between you is that they preserve the metaphor well and that you have not preserved it. You run on from discordant tints to discordant sounds, to both of which you meant to apply the correction of time, and unfortunately when you got to the sounds you mingled with them the terms which belonged to the tints.

Page 54: — "As the stern" and "as when" in the third line afterwards, seem to me unfinished writing.

Page 59: — "Tenderer tints." The comparative here is very harsh to my ear, and surely it is unusual.

The close of the tale of Florio is admirably to your purpose, and is well told; but the introduction to it is far too long and too much encumbered with circumstantial description. Florio, by accident as it afterwards appears, meets the lady. But what was he doing before? Was he merely wandering? So it should seem. But why, then, so much description lavished on the scenery? There is no interest awakened about Florio for near two pages, because we do not see any purpose he had in view. It is a charming tale; pray reconsider the introductory parts. Page 67:—

Each ready flight at Mercy's call Divine
To distant worlds that undiscovered shine.

What is the meaning of "each ready flight"? To me it is nearly unintelligible. The structure, too, displeases me. My friend, let us suppose this passage right. Every particular introduced by the word "each" has certain effects separately assigned to it. Very well! But when you come to the last line to describe their joint effects my mind is not sufficiently severed from the particular cause and effects immediately preceding, on which you have bestowed three lines. (On looking again I suspect "undiscovered shine" refers to "worlds." Be it so. What is a "ready flight," and how does a flight "fling its living rays?" My mistake is a proof that you have not written clearly). Where the particulars in detail are so fully detailed you should not have included under the same couplet a part of one particular effect, and the aggregate effect of all the preceding particulars. There is something awkward in this. And so much by way of stricture, were I to put my commendations on paper they would fill six sheets.

Not knowing your address I write to you at Dr. Bancroft's, and pray present my best respects to him. I am, most sincerely yours,

S. PARR.