1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Rogers

Thomas Barnes, "Portraits of Authors. Mr. Rogers" The Champion (14 June 1814) 198.



Whoever has seen a little of society, must have observed a class of homunculi, or manikin, who are designated by the title of Ladies' Men. They are remarkable for nicely-cut coats, stiff neckcloths, white gloves, and scented linen: the ingredients which compose the interior part of them, which is by courtesy called their mind, are mostly negative qualities, — no reading, no observation, no thinking. They have, however, all the knowledge which can be picked up at operas and balls: they can criticize a pas de deux, and speculate on the difficulties of an entrechat or a pirouette: they can understand that GRASSINI MAZZANI has a finer person than MARZOCCHI. With these topics they contrive to make themselves agreeable to young ladies in the morning rides, and their evening box, and become almost as necessary out of doors as the confidential maid is at home. It would not be worth while to bestow any ink on these minute persons, if they had not been servilely imitated by a set of coxcombs in the different walks of literature. It seems, that, although there is no royal road to mathematics, there may be a female one: and accordingly the gallantry of French philosophy — (all French philosophers are gallant) — has made even the Newtonian system easy for the Ladies. Addison and Pope affected to write criticism so as to be intelligible to the most feminine capacities, forgetting that their assumed condescension of style was the greatest insult to those fair beings to whom they pretended to appeal as judges. Even chemistry, by the aid of its pretty experiments and smirking professors, is become a lady's amusement, and time may be when we may have a treatise on the Hebrew roots illustrated with vignettes by Stothard, in order to induce young belles to read Solomon's Song in the original language.

Thus it is that there seems to be a general conspiracy against the advancement of the female understanding: women, instead of being regarded as beings of the same capacities as men, have been supposed to be condemned to the most limited quantity of intelligence: and the learned and the scientific, instead of elevating the sex to its possible height, have descended to its its degraded level, and have put women and children on precisely the same footing. Poetry has not been unconcerned in this cruel combination, but has employed much of its pleasing influence to relax and enfeeble the female mind. The French poets have been the most guilty on this score. Their Reynards, their Bernis, the Chaulieus, seem to have thought that a poet could do nothing better than celebrate the whims, caprices, and fantastic sentimentalities, which characterize and delight the weakest of females. Some of our countrymen have followed their plan, though not with equal ingenuity or variety: others have aimed at pleasing them, not so much by the dishonest means of adorning their follies, as by humouring their indolence and their aversion to reflection. This class of poets is distinguished by exceeding softness of style, by the most gentle and innocent sentiments, by a soothing monotony of versification, and by the absence of any thing like profound thinking. The object with them is to compose what may be perused with the least emotion, so that their fair readers may never be at the trouble of laying down their fans, or unfolding their handkerchiefs, or dimming their bright eyes, or wrinkling their polished fronts.

The most conspicuous of these poets is Mr. ROGERS, whose verse is as soft as a swansdown tippet, and as empty as a young lady's purse. Since the days when Mr. Ambrose Philips celebrated the daughter of Lord Carteret, and wrote those pastorals of which a well-bred sheep, not to say, a shepherd, might have been ashamed, nothing has appeared so mild, and sweet, and amiable as the Pleasures of Memory. — Purged of every consonant which might offend a fastidious ear, and of every thought which might excite either feeling or reflection, the couplets absolutely glide off the tongue, being too slippery either for the voice or memory to detain them. They contain all sorts of prettinesses, fit for a young lady to lisp as she lounges on her sofa. First we have "meek twilight," then "sweet delusions," then "feathery surges," then "pensive twilight," in short, everything which is so charming and interesting to little Misses, tickling their fancies with the glimpse of some delightful meaning, and just disclosing enough of intention to satisfy without the trouble of laborious search. For many years Mr. Rogers remained contented with the reputation which this amiable poem conferred upon him. And he had reason: for he was the idol of all young ladies. He had the honor to lie bound in the richest morocco on every toilet, and was shut up in the same cabinet with the rouge and the French essence. He was (I mean his book was) a perfect perfumed bean, and was perhaps even more pleasant to the nose than he was to the understanding. But man is an ambitious animal, and the time was to come when even these honors could not be sufficient, for the desire of Mr. Rogers. Some wag, — I suppose some such person as told Propertius that he could write Aeneids, — advised this gentleman to compose an Epic. In a presumptuous moment he undertakes the task: it never seems to have occurred to him that the writer of smooth thoughtless verses has no business with Epic poetry: that he has no right to read it, much less to attempt to write it. He had, indeed, in his former volume, given some indications, that he had a taste above his powers, by his publication of a noisy rambling non descript, which he called an Ode to Superstition. Still no one suspected that he ever would aspire to enter the lists with Homer and Virgil. He, however, has done so: and what is the consequence? By violent lashings of his genius he has contrived to produce a few fragments, which at once shew his excessive labour and his want of power. If by chance a striking thought comes across him, he is forced to abandon it before it is half completed: if a fine image appears before him, he cannot comprehend it in its full distinctness. It is difficult to say what Mr. Rogers means by pretending that the fragments are translated from the Spanish: it is exceedingly unfair to transfer the risk of blame from himself to to an innocent person who has been dead some centuries. Besides, he has made no use of this foolish fiction: there is no sentiment or incident which might not as well have been written yesterday as a thousand years ago. Let praise, however, be given where praise is due. Mr. Rogers has made immense improvement in his versification. The Pleasures of Memory consisted of a series of unbroken couplets, less varied than the most monotonous passages of Pope. The fragments to which we allude exhibit a very spirited flow of lines, diversified with pauses which shew no ordinary skill and taste. Indeed, if some of these fragments had been published as separate copies, Mr. Rogers might justly have been congratulated on a very general improvement both in style and thinking. But when he presumes to give these disjointed bits as part of an Epic Poem, it is impossible not to reflect a little on the nature of that great work, and on the names of those who have succeeded in it.