1887 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas James Mathias

P. W. Clayden, in The Early Life of Samuel Rogers (1887) 383-85.



The chief literary excitement of this period was caused by the publication of the satirical poem, "The Pursuits of Literature," which appeared in parts, the first in 1794, the second and third in 1796, and the fourth in 1797. There was nothing in the poem itself to call attention to it. It is a feeble imitation of Gifford. But it was made the vehicle of an immense bundle of Notes, full of personal attacks on all the chief Liberals of the time. The first part of the poem has only two hundred and fifty lines; but there are many pages which contain but one line or two, and all the rest of the page is "notes." In this way the first part swelled to a volume of more than a hundred pages. The authorship of the poem was at first a mystery; and the magazines were full of speculations about it. It was at last discovered to be by T. J. Mathias. He was a friend of Rogers's, though of different politics, and Rogers had a good deal of intercourse with him in succeeding years. It is a testimony to Rogers's literary position that the political satirists of the period usually let him alone. One of the persons attacked in the notes was Dr. Joseph Warton, whose "Life of Pope" was described as "A Commonplace Book upon Pope." He was, himself, spoken of as "drivelling on the page of Pope;" and a dozen pages of notes were devoted, with all the capitals and italics by which feeble writers attempt to make their sentences emphatic, what was intended to be a very severe assault upon him as a poet, a critic, and a biographer. Warton wrote to Rogers about it, speaking of Mathias as his "pious critic," but Rogers agreed with some of the criticism, as Warton had printed some things — such as the "Imitation of the Second Satire of the First Book of Horace" — which Pope had never publicly acknowledged as his own. Nothing in later times has created quite such an excitement and hubbub among literary men as this book. It was an early product of the reaction the French Revolution had produced. Scarcely a single writer who was on the Liberal side escaped, and gross personalities were used in an attempt to throw discredit on them. Rogers, who knew Steevens, used to say that Steevens had said to Mathias: "Well, since you deny the authorship of The Pursuits of Literature, I need have no hesitation in telling you that the person who wrote it is a liar and a blackguard!" Rogers one day asked Mathias whether he had written it, and Mathias replied: "Can you suppose that I am the author of the poem when you are not mentioned in it?" But some time after this Lord Bessborough, who was getting up an illustrated edition with portraits, asked Rogers for his portrait for the purpose. Rogers said "Why — there is no mention in it of me!" Lord Bessborough, however, turned to the note in which the observation is made that: "Time was when bankers were as stupid as their guineas could make them;" but now Mr. Dent is a speaker, "Sir Robert has his pencil and his canvas, and Mr. Rogers dreams on Parnassus, and if I am rightly informed there is a great demand among his brethren for The Pleasures of Memory."