All who were denizens of London during the twenty years that preceded the last twelve years — no longer ago — met frequently in the aristocratic neighbourhood of St. James's a man evidently aged, yet remarkably active, though with a slight stoop and grizzled hair not, to my thinking, with a pleasant countenance; certainly not with the frank and free expression of a poet who loved and lived with Nature; but rather that of one whose ever-open book was a ledger, and who counted the day, not by sunrise and sunset, but by Consols and Exchequer bills — things inconceivable to the Order to which SAMUEL ROGERS undoubtedly belonged.
The old man moved rapidly, as if pursuing a vain shadow, always.
He did not often smile, and seldom laughed: anything approaching hilarity, aught akin to enthusiasm, to a genuine flow of heart and soul, was foreign to his nature — or, at all events, seemed to be so. Yet, of a surety, he was a keen observer; he looked "quite through the deeds of men;" and his natural talent had been matured and polished by long and familiar intercourse with all the finer spirits of his age. His conversation to his "set" at home was remarkably brilliant, and his wit often pure and original.
It was curious, interesting, and startling to converse — as I did — in the year of our Lord 1855, with a venerable gentleman whose first book of poems was published in 1786 — just sixty-nine years; who had worn a cocked hat when a boy, as other boys did — recollected seeing the heads of the "rebels" upon poles at Temple Bar — had Seen Garrick act — knocked at Dr. Johnson's door in Bolt Court, and chatted there with Boswell — heard Sir Joshua Reynolds lecture, and Haydn play at a concert in a tie wig with a sword at his side — rowed with a boatman who had rowed Alexander Pope — had seen venerable John Wesley lying on his bier "dressed in full canonicals" — had walked with old General Oglethorpe, who had shot snipes where Conduit Street now stands — was the frequent associate of Fox, Burke, Sheridan, Mackintosh, Horne Tooke, and Madame de Stael — and was a man "in years" when Brougham was called to the Bar, John Kemble first played Coriolanus, Walter Scott had not yet issued "Waverley," Byron was writing "Minor Poems," and Ensign Arthur Wellesley was fighting his way to a dukedom and immortality!
It seems to me, while writing a Memory of this veteran of literature — as it will seem to my readers — that although he was with us but yesterday, he belongs to a remote generation: he had seen and known his co-mates in their youth, when the earliest rays of Fame dawned upon them; many of them he had followed to their graves; and few or none of them survived him.
It is a strange story to tell of any man.
There is no biography of him, if we except that written by his nephew, Mr. Sharpe, as a "Preface" to "Recollections," and another which introduces a volume of "Table Talk." Neither of these extends to more than a dozen pages. They are singularly meagre, as if the writers had done the work grudgingly, had no love for the subject, and were content to let the old man say for himself all he had to say. And that was not much. It is, indeed, a marvel that so little was gathered during so long and so full a life; for in these two volumes of "Remains" it would be difficult to find a score of passages that one would not willingly let die. His frequent companion, the publisher Moxon, — one of his executors, who must have known much about his "ways," — has told us nothing concerning him; and such anecdotes as throw any light on his character must be gathered from his contemporaries, who here and there, and but rarely, illustrate and explain the guiding principles of his public and private life. Yet it is stated by the editor of "Recollections" (not recollections of him, but by him), that, "from his first entering into society, he noted down the conversations or remarks of those among his intimate friends in whose company he took the greatest pleasure."
In reference to his Life I received this letter from Mr. Rogers, dated "St. James's Place, January 30th, 1837.
"Believe me when I say I should be happy to comply with your desire if I had any intention of writing my own life.
The only authentic account I can refer you to is to be found, such as it is, in a work published some years ago by Cadell, and entitled, I believe, 'Portraits of Illustrious Persons.'
Most of the circumstances in the Life published by Galignani are utterly without foundation. The 'Pleasures of Memory' (to mention one instance among many) was written in great seclusion under my father's roof; and so far from consulting the gentleman there mentioned on the subject, I was at that time unacquainted with him. He is there said, I think, to have read it over with me, before it appeared, fifty or sixty times.
Yours very truly,
He was born at Stoke Newington (Newington Green), now a suburb of London, on the 30th of July, 1763. His father was an opulent banker, head of the firm of Rogers, Olding, and Co. His first publication — an "Ode to Superstition" — was issued in 1786. In 1792 appeared "The Pleasures of Memory," to which he is mainly indebted for his fame.
He died at his residence, St. James's Place, on the 18th of December, 1855.
His countenance was the theme of continual jokes. It was "ugly," if not repulsive. The expression was in no way, nor under any circumstances, good; he had a drooping eye and a thick under lip; his forehead was broad, his head large — out of proportion, indeed, to his form; but it was without the organs of benevolence and veneration, although preponderating in that of ideality. His features were "cadaverous." Lord Dudley once asked him why, now that he could afford it, he did not set up his hearse; and it is said that Sydney Smith gave him mortal offence by recommending him, "when he sat for his portrait, to be drawn saying his prayers, with his face hidden by his hands."
It was affirmed by some of his friends that "his purse was ever open to the distressed," and that he was liberal of aid to struggling and suffering genius. That belief, however, is not sustained by evidence. From him to whom much is given, much is expected; the widow's mite was a larger, as well as a more acceptable, gift to the treasury than the Pharisee's contribution of the tithe of all he possessed. Rogers was rich, had few claimants on his "much," and his personal wants were limited. He seems, indeed, to have had no great relish for the luxuries that money supplies, and which it is a duty to obtain on the part of those to whom wealth is allotted. He saw little company at his own house; giving breakfasts frequently, the cost of which was small, and seldom entertaining at dinner above two or three at a time. Moreover, they were dinners of no very recherche character; at all events, none of his guests ever spoke of them as the feasts of a Sybarite. He never, I believe, kept a carriage — certainly, if he did, he seldom used it. On occasions when he attended meetings of the Royal Society, and other assemblages of that kind, at the close, let the night be ever so severe, if rain or snow were falling, he was invariably seen buttoning up his greatcoat in preparation for a walk home. On one occasion I ventured to say to him (it was at an Evening at Lord Northampton's, in Connaught Place), "Mr. Rogers, it is a very wet night; I have a fly at the door: may I have the honour to leave you at your house?" but the invitation was declined; the old man faced the weather, from which younger and stronger men would have wisely shrunk.
I cannot find evidence to sustain an impression that he was other than by fits and starts generous; that it was not an impulse, but a whim, that induced him occasionally to give a little of his "much." There are certainly a few records of his liberality — and but a few: none are related in the two volumes of "Table Talk" and "Recollections." Moore spoke of him to me, and no doubt to others, as a man with an open purse; but I do not find that he ever did more for the poet than lend him a sum that was repaid with interest.
His charities were certainly often based on calculation. "He did nothing rash," Mr. Hayward states. "I am sure," said one of his friends, "as a baby, he never fell down unless he was pushed; but walked from chair to chair in the drawing-room steadily and quietly, till he reached a place where the sunbeam fell on the carpet." And Byron, writing to Bernard Barton, asks, "To what does Rogers owe his station in society, and his intimacy in the best circles?" Not to his profession as an author, but "to his prudence and respectability."
No; "to do good and to distribute" was not the motto of the banker-poet, although some may have tasted of his bounty.
No doubt he was often worried by applications for aid; some from fraudulent petitioners, but some from persons to whom timely helps might have been great blessings — probably saved the lives, possibly the souls, of those who asked it.
He writes — "The letters I receive from people of both sexes (people I have never heard of) asking me for money, either as a gift or a loan, are really innumerable;" but it is evident from the context that such "begging epistles" produced no results to the writers. It is recorded that Murphy owed him £200; the poet became "uneasy," and accompanied Murphy to his chambers to be paid. Once there, however, Murphy, instead of paying the existing debt, laboured hard to borrow more — an attempt which the poet successfully resisted. Rogers afterwards took as security an assignment of the whole of Murphy's works (including his "Tacitus"), but found they had been previously disposed of to a bookseller. And in the "Table Talk" there is a note that Shelley called upon Rogers — introducing himself — to request the loan of some money which he wished to present to Leigh Hunt, offering Rogers a bond for it. Rogers says, "Having numerous claims upon me at that time, I was obliged to refuse the loan."
It is reported of him that once he loved; at least, that, when a young man, he sedulously sought the society of the most beautiful girl he thought he had seen. At the end of the London season, at a ball, she said, "To-morrow I go to Worthing: are you coming there?" Some months afterwards, being at Ranelagh, he saw the attention of many drawn towards a lady who was leaning on the arm of her husband. Stepping forward to see this wonderful beauty, he found it was his old flame. She merely said, "You never came to Worthing!" Who shall say that the selfish cynic might not have been another man — a better and a far happier man — if he had gone to Worthing?
Moore, one of the few of his friends who really regarded Rogers, thus writes in a letter to Lady Donegal: — "I felt as I always feel with him — that the fear of losing his good opinion almost embitters the possession of it; and that, though in his society one walks upon roses, it is with constant apprehension of the thorns that are among them."
And subsequently Moore thus alludes to Rogers as a critic: — "He only finds fault with every part in detail; and this you know is the style of his criticism of characters." And Lady Donegal, in reply, speaks of his "sickly and discontented turn of mind, which makes him dissatisfied with everything, and disappointed in all his views of life;" alluding, also, to his "unfortunate habit of dwelling upon the faults and follies of his friends."
There is an anecdote recorded by Lady Holland in her Memoirs of her father, Sydney Smith, that, perhaps more than any other, illustrates the character of Rogers; it is this: — "One day Rogers took Moore and my father home in a carriage from a breakfast, and insisted on showing them, by the way, Dryden's house in some obscure street. It was very wet; the house looked much like other old houses; and having thin shoes on, they both remonstrated; but in vain. Rogers got out, and stood expecting them. 'Oh! you see why Rogers doesn't mind getting out,' exclaimed my father, laughing and leaning out of the carriage; 'he has got goloshes on!'"
When Turner illustrated his poems, the artist was to have received £50 apiece for the drawings. But Rogers objected to the price, which he had "miscalculated," and Turner agreed to take them all back, receiving £5 each for the use of them. The banker did not foresee a time when the purchase would have been a very good speculation indeed: if he had, there is little doubt that he would have paid for them. He made other bargains that were more remunerative: the famous "Puck" of Sir Joshua Reynolds he purchased for £215 5s.
The house in which he passed so many years of his life — from the year 1803 to its close — in St. James's Place, is still there; but it is not a shrine that any pilgrim will much care to visit. Few great men of the age have excited so little hero-worship; those who would have been mourners at his funeral had preceded him to the tomb; he left none to honour or to cherish his memory. His house had been full of art-luxuries, gathered by judicious expenditure of wealth, and by highly-cultivated taste; they were scattered by the hammer of the auctioneer after his death, and are the gems of a hundred collections. Yet the house will be always one of the memorable dwellings of London. "It was," I borrow the eloquent words of Mr. Hayward, "here that Erskine told the story of his first brief, and Grattan that of his last duel; that Wellington described Waterloo as a 'battle of giants;' that Chantrey, placing his hand on a mahogany pedestal, asked the host he then honoured by his presence — 'Do you remember a workman who, at five shillings a day, came in at that door to receive your orders? I was that workman!' There had assembled Byron, Moore, Scott, Campbell, Wordsworth, Washington Irving, Coleridge, Sydney Smith, Sheridan, and a host of other immortal men, who gave renown to the nineteenth century."
No; the aged banker-poet who had lived so long, seen so much, been intimate with so many of the great men and women of the epoch, who had all his life held "in trust" a huge amount of wealth, with its weighty responsibilities, has not bequeathed to us a "Memory" that may be either venerated or loved. From no "sort of men" did he gather "golden opinions;" his heart was in a perpetual solitude; he seemed, continually to quail under the burden of "a discontented and repining spirit," although God had been specially bountiful to him in all the good things of earth. He might have been a vast blessing to thousands: those who owed him aught that was not repaid may surely be counted by units. In all I have heard and read concerning him I cannot find evidence that he had, at any time, "learned the luxury of doing good."
He himself states that Madame de Stael once said to him, "How very sorry I am for Campbell! His poverty so unsettles his mind that he cannot write." This was the answer of Rogers: — "I replied, 'Why does he not take the situation of a clerk? He could then compose verses during his leisure hours;'" and he adds, "I shall never forget the delight with which, on returning home [from his bank to his mansion], I used to read and write during the evening;" moralising thus: "When literature is the sole business of life, it becomes a drudgery: when we are able to resort to it only at certain times, it is a charming relaxation."
Ah! had he but known what it is to "sweat the brain" not only all day long, but far into midnight; to toil when the hand shakes and the head aches from overwork — when the labour of today must earn the sustenance of tomorrow, and not always that; to work, work, work, and be sent by nature, hungry, to sleep that is not rest; to endure far worse than these physical sufferings — "the proud man's contumely," the consciousness of power while fetters gall and fret; heart-sick from hope deferred; a gleam of far-off glory that scorches the brow; the thousand ills that "unsettle the mind," so that the hand cannot write! Ay, authorship may be "a pleasant relaxation" when it is not a means by which men live; when, well or ill, sad or merry, in joy or in sorrow, prosperous or afflicted — no matter which — there is that to be done which must be done, and which may not be postponed because it is "a drudgery."
When Rogers uttered these words in protest against the generous sympathy of Madame de Stael, there were men starving in London streets, whose minds were pregnant with even greater creations than the "Pleasures of Memory" or "Human Life," and who gave them to the world before they left it. Crabbe may, by that time, have found means to buy, and pay for, food and clothes; Campbell may have been on the eve of rescue from poverty by the pension he earned and gained; Southey may have had his home fireside cheered by a remittance from Murray; and Leigh Hunt may have stayed the cravings of angry creditors by aid of some sympathising friend; but there were scores of great men obscurely hidden in mighty London, whose struggles with penury would appal those whom "pleasure, ease, and affluence surround" — enduring "all the sad varieties of woe," some of whom may have made their wants known, while others triumphantly averted the bitter end, though others were voluntary victims before their work was half done.
It might have been the glory of Samuel Rogers to have helped them out of the Slough of Despond.