1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Roscoe

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (14 December 1833) 849.



Of the historical powers of WILLIAM ROSCOE, critics have spoken sternly as well as kindly. Among the former, was Gifford. "The History of Lorenzo de Medici," he says, "was overrated at its first appearance, but well merits a place in our libraries. What with its classic appearance and valuable information, its English and Italian, its verse and its prose, its uniform composure and not rare affectation, its frontispieces and vignettes, its splendours of type and expanse of margin, it may, perhaps, be characterized, as exhibiting somewhat like that union of neatness, pretension, and cheerlessness, which belongs to the modern idea of a cold collation. The second great attempt of our author on Italian history, proved, by no means equally successful. Its faults were greater, its virtues less; and by a singular infelicity, though it discovered few tokens of spirit or genius, it could still less lay claim to the praise of correct composition. The historian also, somewhat unnecessarily, and beyond doubt somewhat inauspiciously, embroiled himself, to a certain extent at least, with the Reformation — a circumstance, however, for which the subsequent discover of his political tenets may possibly enable us to account; for the reformers of the sixteenth century are in no great favour, we suspect, with those of the eighteenth and the nineteenth. Yet the positive delinquencies which deformed the History of Leo the Tenth, were protected from observation by the negative fault of dulness. It was screened by clouds of its own raising; and the literary character of Mr. Roscoe still continues to be estimated by his first best performance." The party spirit which speaks in this extract was counteracted by the praise of the party to which the historian belonged: he that was trodden into dust by a Tory, as a dull writer, was raised and crowned one of the princes of literature by a Whig: truth was not the object of either. The Quarterly and Edinburgh Reviews exhibited, on paper, the strife which disgraced the Whigs and Tories in Parliament: literature and dignity of the country suffered by the indecent contest.

The merits of Roscoe, as a historian, must be sought for in his works, and neither in the sayings of his friend nor of his enemies. He was one of the first who made use intimately acquainted with the later princes and taste and talent of Italy: before this, we looked upon Rome, and all who sat in the Papal chair, with distrust, if not with fear; and we could scarcely persuade ourselves that the Priest-king of the Vatican might be a person of lofty feelings and fine taste, and who loved mankind. It is true, that, to accomplished scholars and travelled men, Roscoe had not much to tell that was new; but he collected the scattered intelligence with a diligent hand, and wrought it into the historical form in a very graceful and pleasing manner. The image which he gives us of the papal power during the brilliant days of the Medici, is a very characteristic one — and one, too, that will be long liked, though it is neither very vigorous, nor of the epic order. His principal fault is want of original force of thought; he never surprises us with ideas either high or profound; his eye sees but a little way and loves the ground; he is ever equal, ever tranquil, and neither rises nor falls. He discusses the merits of a medal in the same quiet, gentle way that he discourses of the awakening energies of the Reformation. The coming light of that great change is looked on with tranquility, though it threw its rays into the dungeons of St. Angelo, and deprived Leo of some of his fairest kingdoms. Nor is the language in which all this is expressed of a very original kind: it is harmonious and elegant, and seldom obscure; but it wants the fine free English tone — the natural ease and happy carelessness of one more solicitous about his sentiments than his words. It shows much taste, and but little nature — some classic refinement, with a good deal of labour. In short, his style is more remarkable for neatness than force — for being "Florentine and slender," rather than weighty and colossal.

The influence which Roscoe exercised was not confined to Liverpool. His name was carried over the world on the wings of history and philanthropy; the historian of Leo the Tenth was eloquent and zealous in the removal of that dark spot, the Slave Trade, from the otherwise white robe of Britain. He also sympathized deeply in the fortunes of the family of Burns, and upbraided Scotland, in a poem of considerable power, for her unkind conduct to her most gifted son; — nay, so far did he carry this feeling, that he contemplated a new Memoir of the poet, in which the ungenerous and ungentle behaviour of the northern nobles was to be emblazoned in the language of indignant anger. He wrote a small portion of the Memoir, and, probably not much liking what he had done, abandoned the subject for ever. I have seen the little that he did, and cannot commend it. The style was laboured and ornate. The poetical talents of Roscoe have of late been praised by no mean judges. His verses are very fair specimens of that kind of poetry, the excellence of which consists less in strength of wing, than in beauty of plume and lightness of movement. His song is flowing and harmonious rather than energetic. He was one of the kindest and most generous of mankind: his house and his purse were opened to all the children of genius; nor were they shut so long as fortune left the owner aught to bestow. He was of humble origin, and self-educated: nor were his studies confined to literature alone; he was an excellent judge of painting; the friend, and for some time the patron, of Fuseli: in medals, likewise, he was a connoisseur, and extended his studies to all that was polite and elegant.