1818 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Roscoe

Anonymous, "An Estimate of the Literary Character of Mr. Roscoe" The Monthly Magazine 46 (September 1818) 123-25.



There are men who have as essentially promoted the improvement of mankind by their countenance to the literary character, as many of those who have devoted their lives and talents entirely to the cultivation of knowledge; but, in England, persons of this description are not often met with; and it is still rarer to hear of mercantile men, celebrated for their love of the arts or of literature. On this account we are disposed to rank Mr. Roscoe, independent of his own attainments, among that high class who are peculiarly regarded as public characters, and are decidedly so in the most emphatic sense of the term. His merits, as a literary man, ought not to be estimated merely by what he has published, but also by what he has done in the way of example. Indeed, we think the service which he has rendered to his country in the latter respect, not only beyond what he has conferred as an author, but greatly surpassing that of all his cotemporaries; we even very much doubt if any British merchant, before this distinguished individual, ever united in himself taste so excellent, with such enlarged and generous views of literary attainments. It might be deemed invidious, were we to expatiate at greater length on this eminent merit, — a merit which Mr. Roscoe has the good fortune to see his townsmen acknowledge, by the liberality of their support to his suggestions for facilitating the progress of literature and science. The merchants of Liverpool, the most enterprising community in this country, have set a brilliant example to the whole kingdom; and, however deeply-rooted the prejudices of successful ignorance may be in other places, it is as certain as the progress of the seasons, that they must, in time, be supplanted by sentiments of a very different kind.

As a literary man, Mr. Roscoe may be classed with Mr. Dugald Stewart, whom, allowing for the diversity of their respective pursuits, he much resembles, not only in the degree of talent, but in the faculties of his taste and judgment. He possesses a similar classical tact of propriety in its general sense, as applied to morals and knowledge, and in its particular, as applied to style and the management of his topics. He never surprises his readers either by paradox or by truth, for be uniformly abstains from controverting any of the received notions of mankind, and confines himself only to the development of what was not clearly stated before.

His two great works "Lorenzo de Medici," and "Leo X." are monuments of research and discrimination; but the former, in our opinion, excels the latter in the first particular so much, that we are almost disposed to doubt lithe materials for both were collected by the same mind; meaning, with the same intellectual method. The materials for the Life of Lorenzo de Medici, appear to have been gathered together by some skilful Italian antiquary, and digested into a narrative by another hand; but in "The History of Leo X." the author seems to have commenced his work without any previous general view of the subject, and to have been led from one topic another, not by the historical sequence of events, but by accidental circumstances suggested in the course of proceeding with his composition.

The Life of Lorenzo de Medici, without being either eloquent or profound, is written with so considerable a degree of elegance, that it was, on its appearance, received as one of the classical works of the language. The narrative, however, does not flow smoothly; and the author has adopted more of the laudatory statements of the Florentine writers who were patronised by the illustrious family of his hero, than a historian less solicitous to be an agreeable writer would perhaps have done. It is, doubtless, true that historians are bound to report facts as they find them in the writings of their predecessors; but it is a higher quality of their art to draw those general inferences which, by being interwoven with the narrative, make all the difference that exists between chronology and history. But, if Mr. Rnscoe's work be deficient in this species of moral deduction, it abounds with a pleasing description of reflections, and a spirit of amenity and temperance breathes throughout the whole, that affords a fine contrast to the pompous dogmatism of Gibbon, or the self-satisfied urbanity of Robertson. As a piece of historical biography, we are much inclined to consider this work as entitled to a higher place in English literature than has yet been assigned to it. The style is certainly not very compact, and it is disfigured here and there with ill-assorted metaphors, besides the blemish of occasional specimens of that kind of fine writing which is in general so little to the purpose; still, as a whole, it is a well-written book, and very far superior to Middleton's Life of Cicero; the best work of the same kind that had appeared in the English language before it.

We are much inclined to ascribe to the appearance of the Life of Lorenzo de Medici, the revival of a taste for Italian literature, which had almost become obsolete in this country. After the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in which the peculiar genius and manners of the English nation were at once settled and exemplified, the study of Italian had been gradually abandoned for that of French; and it is a curious fact that, since the revival of the former, there has been a much greater approximation in the style and taste of our literary men, particularly the poets, to those of the great patriarchs and lawgivers of the language who adorned that reign. Whether this has been owing in any degree to the study of the Italian authors we shall not here inquire, but it is a striking proof of the animated genius and force of thought which pervade their writings.

Many of Mr. Roscoe's admirers are of opinion, that the History of Leo X. has not extended his celebrity; but, if it is not any additional proof of the magnitude of his abilities, it is, nevertheless, a meritorious production of a practised hand: if it is inferior to the Life of Lorenzo de Medici, it still cannot detract any thing from the merits of Mr. Roscoe. The excellence of his first production cannot be impaired by any defect in his second; and, if the latter be really an inferior work, it must still be considered as adding to the mass of the author's literary monument.

In these light and general sketches, which pretend to nothing beyond an outline of character, it is not expected that we should particularly criticise the works of those of whom we treat; our design is to form something like an estimate of the powers of authors, rather than to assign a value to their productions; so that, while we venture to deliver an opinion of Mr. Roscoe's talents, it is with a perfect understanding that what we say applies only to what is characteristic. He is, undoubtedly, a man of taste, and of the best order of men of taste; but his style is somewhat verbose, and the method of his narration, particularly in the History of Leo X. consists of a cyclopedian series of biographical dissertations, instead of one broad and comprehensive story. It has, indeed, suggested to us what would be a most useful and beautiful work, — chronological biography, — a biographical dictionary, which, instead of being arranged in alphabetical order, should be classed in periods designated by the reigns of kings, or, what would be more appropriate, by the name of the most popular author of his time. Would it not be a fitter and juster mode of dividing the epochs of literature, to speak of the poets of the age of Shakespeare, rather than of the termagant Elizabeth, — of Milton, rather than of the profligate Charles II. — and of Addison rather than of the tippling Ann, — of the philosophers of Bacon's time, rather than of the pedantic James, — and those of Newton, instead of the ignorant George I. The leading author and artist of his own time is the historical sovereign of his class.

Mr. Roscoe has published several essays in verse, chiefly, however, translations, for he is not naturally a poet. But, although he does not possess the poet's sense in a greater degree than he does the painter's eye, or the musician's ear, whatever he touches receives some tincture of elegance from his pen; and he is, without question, entitled to be considered one of the most refined men of his age, and who, both by precept and example, has done more than any other to diffuse the advantages of knowledge among a great class in this country, long too much disposed to undervalue its importance generally, and to decry literary recreation among themselves.