When a poet has become a poet of the past and in the natural course of things his poetry has ceased to be talked about, it is not easy to ascertain how far it may or may not have ceased to be read. Has it ceased to be bought? The answer to that question might be accepted in most cases as answering the other. But in the case of Rogers an element of ambiguity was introduced long since. When a well-known firm some fifty years ago expressed a doubt whether the public would provide a market for a volume he wished them to publish, Rogers, in a tone half serious, half comic, said — "I will make them buy it;" and being a rich man and a great lover of art, he sent for Turner and Stothard, and a volume appeared with such adornments as have never been equalled before or since. It was called by a sarcastic friend of mine "Turner illustrated."
The Pleasures of Memory is an excellent specimen of what Wordsworth calls "the accomplishment of verse"; and it was well worthy to attract attention and admiration at the time when it appeared; for at that time poetry, with few exceptions, was to be distinguished from prose by versification and little else. The Pleasures of Memory is an essay in verse, not wanting in tender sentiment and just reflection, expressed, gracefully no doubt, but with a formal and elaborate grace, and in studiously pointed and carefully poised diction, such as the heroic couplet had been trained to assume since the days of Pope. In 1793 very different days were approaching — days in which poetry was to break its chains, and formality to be thrown to the winds. The didactic dullness of the eighteenth century was presently to be supplanted by the romantic spirit and easy animation of Scott, the amorous appeals of Moore, and the passion of Byron; whilst mere tenderness, thoughtfulness and grace were to share its fate, and be trampled in the dust.
An author's name will generally continue long to be associated with that of the work which has first made him known to the world, whether or not it be his best. The Pleasures of Memory is probably to this day the best known by name of the author's principal poems. They were seven in number — an Ode to Superstition, The Pleasures of Memory, A Epistle to a Friend, Columbus, Jacqueline, Human Life, and Italy; and they were written, the earliest at twenty-two years of age, the latest at seventy-one.
Human Life is a poem of the same type as The Pleasures of Memory, and in the same verse. The fault of such poems is that they are about nothing in particular. Their range and scope is so wide that one theme is almost as apposite as another. The poet sets himself to work to think thoughts and devise episodes, and to give them what coherency he can; the result being, that some are forced and others commonplace. But if such poems are to be written by a poet who is not a philosopher, they could not well be executed by any one with more care and skill than by Rogers.
The subject of Italy was better chosen. The poet travels from Geneva to Naples; and his itinerary brings picturesque features, alternately with romantic traditions and memorable facts in history, into a natural sequence of poetic themes. They are described and related always in a way to please, often with striking effect; and any one who travels the same road and desires to see with the eyes of a poet what is best worth string, and to be reminded of what is best worth remembering, can have no better companion.
The heroic couplet, moreover, is left behind. For before the first of the fifteen years occupied in the composition of Italy (1819-34) Spenserian stanzas, ottava rima, octosyllabic verse, blank verse, any verse, had found itself to be more in harmony with the poetic spirit of the time. Italy is the longest of the author's poems; and for a poem of such length, blank verse is best. It is a form of verse which, since the Elizabethans, no poet except Milton had hitherto used with what could be called signal success; and the abrupt contrasts and startling significance of which it was capable in their hands, will always find a place more naturally in dramatic than in narrative poetry. But the blank verse written by Rogers, though not very expressive, flows with an easy and gentle melody, sufficiently varied, and almost free from faults.
Of the other poems, the Epistle to a Friend will perhaps be read with the most pleasure. It is short, familiar, and graceful. The subject is entirely within his powers, though wholly remote from his experience. "Every reader," he says in the preface, "turns with pleasure to those passages of Horace, Pope, and Boileau, which describe how they lived and where they dwelt; and which, being interspersed among their satirical writings, derive a secret and irresistible grace from the contrast, and are admirable examples of what in painting is termed repose;" and he proceeds to describe a sort of Sabine Farm in which he supposes himself to pass his days in studious seclusion and absolute repose. His real life was the reverse of all this. His house in St. James's Place did indeed exemplify the classic ideal described in his poem; it was adorned with exquisite works of art, and with these only; rejecting as inconsistent with purity of taste all ornaments which are ornaments and nothing more; and in its interior it might be said to be a work of art in itself. But his life was a life of society; and in the circles which he frequented, including all who were eminent in literature as well as celebrities in every other walk of life, he was more conspicuous by his conversation and by his wit, than admired as a poet. He had kindness of heart, benevolence, and tender emotions: but his wit was a bitter wit; and it found its way into verse only in the shape of epigrams, too personal and pungent for publication. It may be matter of regret that he did not adopt the converse of the examples he quotes, of Horace, Pope, and Boileau, and intersperse some satirical writings amongst his other works. His poetic gifts were surpassed by half a dozen or more of his contemporaries; his gift of wit equalled by only one or two. His deliberate and quiet manner of speaking made it the more effective. I remember one occasion on which he threw a satire into a sentence: — "They tell me I say ill-natured things. I have a very weak voice: if I did not say ill-natured things, no one would hear what I said."
If it is true that he said ill-natured things, it is equally so that be did kind and charitable and generous things, and that he did them in large measure, though, to his credit, with less notoriety.