1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Roscoe

Margaret Oliphant, in The Literary History of England (1882) 2:343-45.



Of the same class of cultivated and intellectual minds [as the Aikins], stamped with the peculiar individuality given by the air of the provinces and the atmosphere of Dissent, was William Roscoe, one of the earliest of those commercial magnates whose taste and love of art have given them a distinct place in the world of literature. It is a combination which always has been popular. Great wealth makes great expenditure not only lawful but laudable — and for a man without estates to keep up, or natural dependants to provide for, there is something very seductive in the power of accumulating beautiful things about him, and making the symbols of his money more splendid and graceful than even the stately houses and historical surroundings of the longer-established aristocracy. The inclination which turns the mind of such a man to the glories of the Renaissance, and the citizen-princes who cultivated the genius and enjoyed the luxuries of that impure and cruel, but glorious and gifted age — is a very natural one: and nowhere better could the biographer of Lorenzo the Magnificent be found than in a merchant of Liverpool, then rising into wealth and importance such as all the wealth of the Italian cities could vainly have attempted to rival, yet entirely destitute of that kind of endowment which has made them immortal. The Roscoes — for this refined and intellectual citizen was the father of a family of sons, all intellectual and highly cultivated as became their parentage, and all authors — which perhaps was more than was necessary — were the centre of a lively and clever society in Liverpool, better known than they probably would have been had they been in London itself, and coming into contact as the notabilities of their town with everybody notable that passed that way. We have almost forgotten nowadays how excellent a point of vantage this local reputation is, and how much it enhances the reputation of a writer, who, under the present laws would probably be swallowed up amid the literary circles of London, and fail altogether for want of the pedestal which a big admiring provincial town could give him. Roscoe was a pupil of Mrs. Barbauld in his early years, like the often-quoted William Taylor of Norwich. Both of these men kept a certain nucleus of literary life in their different regions, and derived a sense of greatness and superiority from their position, the pomp of which is sometimes amusing: but no doubt it was a good thing that they were there, leavening the rude energy of a great mercantile community on one hand, and quickening the dulness of provincial life on the other. They were all Dissenters — the Roscoes, the Aikins, the Taylors, and many more — inclining towards Unitarianism, if not going farther in the way of "free thought," — all come of respectable well-to-do families, known to their fellow-townsmen, and thus as good as a certificate in favour of literature, showing that it was not a vagabond profession, as so many good people thought.