1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Rogers

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 48-54.



Samuel Rogers more immediately followed Crabbe — his first production, The Ode to Superstition, having appeared in 1786. It not only smacks of his peculiar genius, but is characterised by that elaboration for which all his subsequent writings are noted; but his reputation was not established until he gave to the world The Pleasures of Memory, a poem exquisite in conception and execution, combining a fine feeling of nature and a high tone of morality, with elegant scholarship, and a nicety of taste approaching to fastidiousness. Nor was it wonderful that it immediately rose into that popular favour which, after a lapse of sixty years, it still deservedly retains; for it is pervaded by beauty and grace of sentiment, and in versification approaches the perfection of art. Although its highest passages are not so high as the finest in The Pleasures of Hope, it is freer from traces of juvenility, and, with less of ardent enthusiasm, may be said to be better sustained throughout. Yet it also has its more prominent passages; and these, as it strikes me, are the twilight landscape with which it opens; the introduction to the tale of Derwent Lake the allusion to the Savoyard Boy leaving the Alps; the apostrophe to the Bee, as illustrative of the powers of memory; the affecting reference to a deceased brother; and the lines on Greenwich Hospital. The concluding paragraph is also apposite and beautiful:—

Hail! Memory, hail in thy exhaustless mine,
From age to age, unnumbered treasures shine;
Thought and her shadowy brood thy call obey,
And Place and Time are subject to thy sway;
Thy pleasures most we feel when most alone,
The only pleasures we can call our own,
Lighter than air Hope's summer visions die,
If but a fleeting cloud obscure the sky;
If but a beam of sober reason play,
Lo! Fancy's fairy frost work melts away!
But can the wiles of Art, the grasp of Power,
Snatch the rich relies of a well-spent hour?
These, when the trembling spirit wings her flight,
Pour round her path a stream of living light;
And gild these pure and perfect realms of rest,
When Virtue triumphs, and her sons are blest!

The Epistle to a Friend, which followed in 1797, was another working out of the same classic vein of thought, imagery, and sentiment — a little inferior, perhaps, in freshness, and a good deal so in general interest. Some of its descriptive sketches are elaborately fine, and not only graceful, but exquisite touches of nature sparkle throughout. A general straining after effect, however, is but too apparent and, in spite of his own anathema against false taste, Rogers here occasionally reminds us of the scholar of Apelles, who, unable to paint his Helen beautiful, was determined to make her fine.

The Fragments of a Voyage of Columbus did not appear for a good many years after, and are of a higher cast than any of his former writings. A deep-toned solemnity pervades the whole, and occasionally we have thoughts that verge on the sublime. But it can only be likened to snatches of a fine melody heard by summer sunset on the sea-beach, or transient glimpses of a magnificent landscape caught through clouds of white rolling mist.

The allusion to Columbus entering the vast Atlantic is full of solemn grandeur:—

'Twas night. The moon, o'er the wide wave, disclosed
Her awful face; and Nature's self reposed;
When slowly rising in the azure sky,
Three white sails shone — but to no mortal eye,
Entering a boundless sea. In slumber cast,
The very ship-boy on the dizzy mast
Half breathed his orisons! Alone unchanged,
Calmly beneath, the great Commander ranged
Thoughtful, not sad.

The work, however, fine as it is in detached portions, is too fragmentary, and rather stimulates curiosity than gratifies expectation.

"Jacqueline" is pitched on quite another and opposite key. It is far less ambitious, and seems an attempt to catch these natural evanescent domestic graces which lie beyond the reach of art. If so, it cannot be said to be quite successful; for, with some touches of simple beauty, it is, to say the best of it, a faint and feeble performance — and, certes, at antipodes to the Lara of Byron, along with which it was originally published. The fastidiousness of Rogers must have ever rendered his success as a narrative writer more than doubtful. "What would offend the eye in a good picture, the painter casts discreetly into shade;" but Rogers would not only have done this, but have blotted out everything save beauties alone, of which, exclusively, no landscape, however fine, can be formed.

Like Dryden, and very unlike the majority of poets, Rogers gradually went on, surpassing himself as he grew older; for his Human Life and his Italy are his best works. In the former we have, along with much of the same mellow colouring and delicacy of conception which distinguished The Pleasures of Memory, the outpourings also of a richer and deeper vein of feeling — a contemplation more grounded on experiences. Even more than its precursor, The Pleasures of Memory, it has all the high finish of a cabinet picture. Italy, to our mind, however, is the freshest and finest of all the compositions of its author — the one most unequivocally his own; and the one whose passages must frequently recur to mind, from their peculiar graces of style and language. Its blank verse is not that of Milton, or Thomson, or Akenside, or Cowper, or Wordsworth. It is pitched on a less lofty key than any of these — nay, occasionally almost descends to a conversational tone, but without ever being commonplace in thought, or lax in diction. It is full of the easy elegance of the author's mind, and forms an admirable vehicle for those delightful glimpses of Ausonian life and natural scenery, which he has tinted with that exquisite grace inseparable from his pencil. Several of its descriptions, as those of Paestum, of the Great St. Bernard, and of Venice, are inimitable; and its episode of Ginevra touches on a hidden spring, which finds a response in every heart.

I know not which is more exquisite, her picture or her story. The first is a Sir Peter Lely in words:—

She sits, inclining forward as to speak,
Her lips half open, and her finger up,
As though she said, "Beware!" Her vest of gold,
Broidered with flowers, and clasped from head to foot—
An emerald stone in every golden clasp;
And on her brow, fairer than alabaster,
A coronet of pearls. But then her face,
So lovely, yet so arch, so full of mirth,
The overfiowings of an innocent heart;—
It haunts me still, though many a year hath fled,
Like some wild melody.

Now for the latter:—

She was an only child — her name Ginevra,—
The joy, the pride of an indulgent father;
And in her fifteenth year became a bride,
Marrying an only son, Francesco Doria,
Her playmate from her birth, and her first love.

Just as she looks there in her bridal dress,
She was all gentleness, all gaiety,
Her pranks the favourite theme of every tongue.
But now the day was come, the day, the hour;
Now frowning, smiling, for the hundredth time,
The nurse, that ancient lady, preached decorum;
And, in the lustre of her youth, she gave
Her hand, with her heart in it, to Francesco.

Great was the joy; but at the nuptial feast,
When all sate down, the bride herself was wanting.
Nor was she to be found Her father cried,
"'Tis but to make a trial of our love!"
And filled his glass to all; but his hand shook,
And soon from guest to guest the panic spread.
'Twas but that instant she had left Francesco,
Laughing, and looking back, and flying still,
Her ivory tooth imprinted on his finger.
But now, alas! she was not to be found;
Nor from that hour could anything be guessed,
But that she was not!

Weary of his life,
Francesco flew to Venice, and, embarking,
Flung it away in battle with the Turks.
Orsini lived; and long might you have seen
An old man wandering as in quest of something—
Something he could not find — he knew not what.
When he was gone, the house remained awhile
Silent and tenantless, then went to strangers.

Full fifty years were past, and all forgotten,
When on an idle day, a day of search,
'Mid the old lumber in the gallery,
That mouldering chest was noticed; and 'twas said,
By one as young, as thoughtless as Ginevra,
"Why not remove it from its lurking-place?"
'Twas done as soon as said; but on the way
It burst, it fell; and to! a skeleton,
With here and there a pearl, an emerald-stone,
A golden clasp, clasping a shred of gold.
All else had perished — save a wedding-ring
And a small seal, her mother's legacy,
Engraven with a name, the name of both, "Ginevra."

There then had she found a grave!
Within that chest had she concealed herself,
Fluttering with joy, the happiest of the happy;
When a spring-lock, that lay in ambush there,
Fastened her down for ever!

Whatever portion of the writings of Samuel Rogers may die, this tale cannot. His minor poems are all elaborately graceful and elegant; but, save in one or two instances, possess little originality, and never once rise into lyrical grandeur. The best are The Alps at Daybreak, To the Torso, the Lines written in the Highlands of Scotland, and the Verses in Westminster Abbey.

The reader of Rogers ever finds that he is on secure ground, that his author is in earnest, and that his afflatus is the true inspiration. The feast spread for him has all the marks of cost and care it is the result of choice study, of nice observation, of fine feeling, of exquisite fancy, of consummate art; and the exuberances of the more bard are everywhere toned down by the graceful tact of the scholar. Among great or original minds Rogers scarcely claims a place — nay, his genius may not seldom he said to glow with something of a reflected light; but, in this age of slovenly prolixity, where elaboration is held at a discount, and volume after volume, sparkling with something good, is poured forth in its crudity, only to be sighed over and forgotten, I look upon his example of elegance and correctness as quite invaluable.