1786
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ode to Superstition.

Ode to Superstition; with some other Poems.

Samuel Rogers


Young Samuel Rogers's first, anonymous, poetical publication is a formal Pindaric in nine stanzas: Superstition triumphs in a long catalogue of barbarous rites, until banished by Truth in the last stanza. The obvious sources are Milton's Nativity Ode and several odes by Thomas Gray. The ethnographic details are typical of late-century romanticism, affording enlightened readers a fig leaf of historical respectability while enjoying the vicarious pleasure of gothic horrors. One imagines that "superstition" must have been a frequent topic of conversation in the Unitarian schools in which the poet was educated. Yet Rogers fails to make the attack on the Roman church that was almost obligatory in Spenserian odes to Superstition.

European Magazine: "These poems are evidently the work of Genius and Taste. The Ode, in particular, abounds in those strokes which are the spontaneous offspring of poetical feelings, that unrestricted offspring of thought and boldness of imagery so truly characteristic of this species of poetry. The subject is happily illustrated by the most striking historical events which originated in the ungovernable rage of the daemon Superstition, being placed in full view, and painted in the warmest colouring" 10 (August 1786) 105.

William Enfield: "In these pieces we perceive the hand of an able master. The Ode to Superstition is written with uncommon boldness of imagery, and strength of diction. The Author has collected some of the most striking historical facts, to illustrate the tyranny of the daemon he addresses, and has exhibited them with the fire and energy proper to lyric poetry" Monthly Review 75 (July 1786) 49.

Critical Review: "This exordium, and the other parts of the Ode are not inferior to it, is spirited and harmonious. The lesser poems are elegant and pretty" 61 (June 1786) 467.

William Howitt: "The very first line of criticism applied to the writings of Mr. Rogers was in the Monthly Review, on his Ode to Superstition, with some other Poems, published by Cadell in 1786, and was this — 'In these pieces we perceive the hand of a master.' The master thus discovered in the first essay of his power, has never ceased since to be acknowledged. In 1792, or six years afterwards, he published the Pleasures of Memory, which was received with universal and delighted acclamation. It took hold, at once, of the English heart; and became, and remains, and is likely to remain, one of the classic beauties of our national poetry" Homes and Haunts (1847) 2:369.

Samuel Rogers: "The first poetry I published was the Ode to Superstition, in 1786. I wrote it while I was in my teens, and afterwards touched it up. I paid down to the publisher thirty pounds to insure him from being a loser by it. At the end of four years, I found that he had sold about twenty copies. However, I was consoled by reading in a critique on the Ode that I was 'an able writer,' or some such expression" Table Talk (1856) 16.

Abraham Hayward: "Whoever lived much with him will remember, that any reference to the 'Ode,' was the inevitable prelude to the production of the volume containing the critique, — the Monthly Review, December 1786. It began thus: — 'In these pieces we perceive the hand of an able master. The Ode to Superstition is written with uncommon boldness of language and strength of diction. The author has collected some of the most striking historical facts, to illustrate the tyranny of the demon he addresses, and has exhibited them with the fire and energy proper to lyric poetry. The following stanzas are particularly excellent.' The reviewer then quotes, without remarking the resemblance, the very stanzas or strophes which are most palpably imitated from Gray's Bard. Dryden's magnificent lyrical burst was also copied in parts; and the result recalls the fable of the ambitious frog, or reminds us of 'all the contortions of the Sybil without one particle of her inspiration'" Edinburgh Review 103 (July 1856) 42.

P. W. Clayden: "It is probable that a critic of the present day might make a different selection of stanzas for the purpose of showing the chaste and classical elegance of the poem. But these passages met the taste of the time. There may be no conscious imitation in them, but they are evidently suggested and inspired by Gray's 'Bard.' It is needless to say that this criticism gave the young author great satisfaction and encouragement. He afterwards learned that the writer in the Monthly Review, was the amiable and accomplished Dr. Enfield, compiler of the 'Speaker,' and author of the 'History of Philosophy.' Dr. Enfield had read the poem aloud to his family. Other criticisms were equally encouraging. His school-friend William Maltby writing to him soon after the Ode was published tells Rogers that he has just received a letter from Winchester, with the Poet Laureate's opinion of the Ode: 'He thinks it has a great deal of merit indeed, and that the reviewers have not given it more praise than it justly deserves. He wishes much to know the name of the author.' The Laureate at that time was Thomas Warton, whom Rogers never saw, but whose poem, 'The Suicide' was one of his favourites. Rogers had made the acquaintance of Mr. and Mrs. Barbauld, who had just established themselves at Hampstead, and a copy of the poem was sent to them through the publisher. Mrs. Barbauld writes on the 4th of September, 1786, expressing the hope that she is not wrong in addressing her thanks for the book to Mr. Rogers. She adds, 'Charmed as she was with the picturesque and striking beauties of the poems in question, she wished to have made an earlier acknowledgment of the pleasure she received, if she had known to whom to make it; and was delighted when she learnt that her thanks were due to the same gentleman whose conversation had already engaged her esteem. Mr. Barbauld and herself should be happy to improve an acquaintance which so many concurring circumstances lead them to value.' Rogers was then three-and-twenty, and was already becoming known among his contemporaries for those conversational powers for which he was widely celebrated afterwards" The Early Life of Samuel Rogers (1887) 70-71.

W. J. Courthope: "He was educated in the Nonconformist's favourite school at Newington Green. Though desirous of being ordained as a preacher, he yielded to his father's wish that he should enter the Bank; but in the midst of business he never ceased to cultivate the taste for literature which he had exhibited, as early as his eighteenth year, in an Essay written for The Gentleman's Magazine. In 1786 he published a volume of poems, most of which were imitations of the styles of Gray and Goldsmith. This was followed in 1792 by the work with which his name is chiefly associated, The Pleasures of Memory" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 6:95.

C. S. Northrup: "Samuel Rogers's Ode to Superstition, written in 1785, and published in 1786, is closely modeled after Gray [The Bard]" Bibliography of Gray (1917) 65.

Eric Partridge: "Samuel Rogers had published as early as 1786 his Ode to Superstition, and other Poems, and in 1792 the Pleasures of Memory. Of the pieces in the 1786 volume, Edward Bell acutely wrote: 'They contain distinct evidence of [Rogers'] admiration for Gray's poems. The Ode to Superstition, for instance, may be compared with The Bard and ... The Sailor is in the same metre as the celebrated Elegy ... ; but at the same time there is a total absence of anything like plagiarism either of ideas or expressions.' The Ode to Superstition ought, morever, to be compared with Collins' Ode on superstitions in the Highlands" Eighteenth-Century English Romantic Poetry (1924) 227.

The sale catalogue of Rogers's vast library includes the 1590 Faerie Queene, the Faerie Queene edited by Upton (1758), Mathias's Italian translation of the Faerie Queene, the 1750 reprint of Hughes's Spenser and the Todd edtion of 1805; see A. N. L. Munby, Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons (1971-75) 2:256, 276, 277.



I. 1.
Hence, to the realms of Night, dire Demon, hence!
Thy chain of adamant can bind
That little world, the human mind,
And sink its noblest powers to impotence.
Wake the lion's loudest roar;
Clot his shaggy mane with gore,
With flashing fury bid his eye-balls shine,
Meek is his savage sullen soul to thine!
Thy touch, thy dead'ning touch, has steel'd the breast,
Where, thro' her rainbow-shower, soft Pity smil'd;
Has clos'd the heart each godlike virtue blest,
To all the silent pleadings of his child.
At thy command he plants the dagger deep,
At thy command exults, tho' Nature bid him weep!

I. 2.
When, with a frown that froze the peopled earth,
Thou dartest thy huge head from high,
Night wav'd her banners o'er the sky,
And, brooding, gave her shapeless shadows birth.
Rocking on the billowy air,
Ha! what withering phantoms glare!
As blows the blast with many a sudden swell,
At each dead pause, what shrill-ton'd voices yell!
The sheeted spectre, rising from the tomb,
Points at the murderer's stab, and shudders by:
In every grove is felt a heavier gloom,
That veils its genius from the vulgar eye:
The spirit of the water rides the storm,
And, thro' its mist, reveals the terrors of his form.

I. 3.
O'er solid seas, where Winter reigns,
And holds each mountain-wave in chains,
The fur-clad savage, ere he guides his deer
By glist'ring moon-light thro' the snow,
Breathes softly in her wond'ring ear
Each potent spell thou badst him know.
By thee inspir'd, on India's sands,
Full in the sun the Bramin stands,
And, while the panting tygress hies
To quench her fever in the stream,
His spirit laughs in agonies,
Smit by the scorchings of the noontide beam.
Mark who mounts the sacred pyre,
Blooming in her bridal vest:
She hurls the torch! she fans the fire!
To die is to be blest:
She clasps her lord to part no more,
And, sighing, sinks! but sinks to soar.
O'ershadowing Scotia's desert coast,
The Sisters sail in dusky state,
And, wrapt in clouds, in tempests tost,
Weave the airy web of fate;
While the lone shepherd, near the shipless main,
Sees o'er her hills advance the long-drawn funeral train.

II. 1.
Thou spak'st, and lo! a new creation glow'd.
Each unhewn mass of living stone
Was clad in horrors not its own,
And at its base the trembling nations bow'd.
Giant Error, darkly grand,
Grasp'd the globe with iron hand.
Circled with seats of bliss, the Lord of Light
Saw prostrate worlds adore his golden height.
The statue, waking with immortal powers,
Springs from its parent earth, and shakes the spheres;
The indignant pyramid sublimely towers,
And braves the efforts of a host of years.
Sweet Music breathes her soul into the wind;
And bright-ey'd Painting stamps the image of the mind.

II. 2.
Round their rude ark old Egypt's sorcerers rise;
A timbrell'd anthem swells the gale,
And bids the God of Thunder hail:
With lowings loud the captive God replies.
Clouds of incense court thy smile,
Scaly monarch of the Nile!
But ah! what myriads claim the bended knee?
Go, count the busy drops that swell the sea.
Proud land! what eye can trace thy mystic lore,
Lock'd up in characters as dark as night?
What eye those long long labyrinths dare explore,
To which the parted soul oft wings her flight,
Again to visit her cold cell of clay,
Charm'd with perennial sweets, and smiling at decay?

II. 3.
On yon' hoar summit, mildly bright
With purple ether's liquid light,
High o'er the world, the white-rob'd Magi gaze
On dazzling bursts of heavenly fire,
And wildly start at each blue blaze,
Each flame that flits with adverse spire.
But say what sounds my ear invade
From Delphi's venerable shade?
The temple rocks, the laurel waves!
"The God! the God!" the Sybil cries.
Her figure swells to more than mortal size!
Streams of rapture roll along,
Silver notes ascend the skies:
Wake, Echo, wake and catch the song,
Oh, catch it, ere it dies.
The Sybil speaks, the dream is o'er,
The holy harpings charm no more.
In vain she checks the God's controul,
His madding spirit fills her frame,
And moulds the features of her soul,
Breathing a prophetic flame.
The cavern frowns! its hundred mouths unclose,
And, in the thunder's voice, the fate of empire flows.

III. 1.
Mona, thy Druid rites awake the dead!
Rites thy brown oaks would never dare
E'en whisper to the idle air;
Rites that have chain'd old Ocean on his bed.
Shiver'd by thy piercing glance,
Pointless falls the hero's lance.
Thy magic bids th' imperial eagle fly,
And mars the laureate wreath of victory.
Hark, the bard's soul inspires the vocal string!
At ev'ry pause dread Silence hovers o'er:
While murky Night sails round on raven wing,
Deepening the tempest's howl, the torrent's roar;
Chas'd by the morn from Snowden's awful brow,
Where late she sat and scowl'd on the black wave below.

III. 2.
Lo, steel-clad War his gorgeous standard rears!
The red-cross squadrons madly rage,
And mow thro' infancy and age;
Then kiss the sacred dust and melt in tears.
Veiling from the eye of day,
Penance dreams her life away;
In cloyster'd solitude she sits and sighs,
While from each shrine still small responses rise.
Hear, with what heart-felt beat, the midnight bell
Swings its slow summons thro' the hollow pile!
The weak wan votarist leaves her twilight cell,
To woo, with taper dim, the winding isle;
With choral chantings, vainly to aspire
Beyond this nether sphere, on Rapture's wing of fire.

III. 3.
Lord of each pang the nerves can feel,
Hence, with the rack and reeking wheel.
Faith lifts the soul above this little ball:
While gleams of glory open round,
And circling choirs of angels call,
Can'st thou, with all thy terrors crown'd,
Hope to obscure that latent spark,
Destin'd to shine when suns are dark?
Thy triumphs cease! thro' ev'ry land,
Hark! Truth proclaims, thy triumphs cease:
Her radiant form, with cherub hand,
Benignly points to piety and peace.
Flush'd with youth, her looks impart
Each fine feeling as it flows;
Her voice, the echo of her heart,
Pure as the mountain snows:
Celestial transports round her play,
And softly, sweetly die away.
She smiles! and where is now the cloud
That blacken'd o'er thy baleful reign?
Grim Darkness furls his leaden shroud,
Shrinking from her glance in vain.
Her touch unlocks the day-spring from above,
And lo! it visits man with beams of light and love.

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