1902 Encyclopedia > Samuel Rogers

Samuel Rogers
English poet

SAMUEL ROGERS (1763-1855), the "melodious Rogers " of Byron, the " memory Rogers " of the general reader, has a unique reputation among English men of letters. Not only was he a poet of sufficient mark to be hailed by Byron—with perverse but sincere admiration—_ as one of the few men of genuine weight in an age of scribblers, but he was also for fifty years the most cele-brated entertainer of celebrities in London. From 1803, when he removed from his chambers in the Temple, till the last year of his long life, his house, 22 St James's Place, was the common meeting-ground of men of distinc-tion in every walk of life. Hence, though his poems are no longer read except by the student, his name is kept alive in the letters and diaries of associates whose works are more permanent than his own,—kept alive, too, not merely as that of a cultured Amphitryon but as that of a conversational wit whose tart sayings are worthy of record.

He was born at Newington Green (London) on 30th July 1763, the son of a wealthy London banker, and re-lated on the mother's side to the celebrated Nonconformist divines Philip and Matthew Henry. Dr Price, the Unitarian, Burke's antagonist, was the family pastor and a frequent visitor at his father's house. The influence of this writer's philosophy can be traced in Rogers's poems. Rogers was educated at the famous Nonconformist academy at Newington Green, where Defoe had been a pupil a hundred years before. Attention to English studies had been a distinct object in this school from its foundation, and Rogers, his youthful ambition awakened, rushed into print as an essayist in the Gentleman's Magazine at the age of eighteen. His main desire then was to be a preacher like Dr Price; but he yielded to his father's advice and entered the paternal bank. But he was far from abandoning his love for literature. He read Gray and Goldsmith on his way to the bank, and in 1786 proved his admiration for these exemplars in a volume containing some pretty imitations of Goldsmith and a wildly apostrophic Ode to Superstition after the manner of Gray. This volume contains one of the few passages of his that are often quoted—

" There's such a charm in melancholy, I would not, if I could, be gay."

Following Gray's example, the youthful poet took great pains with his verses, and, after nine years' maturing, published in 1792 a more elaborate and more successful bid for poetic laurels, The Pleasures of Memory. This poem may be regarded as the last blaze of the poetic diction of the 18th century before its final extinction. We see here carried to the extremest pitch the theory of elevating and refining familiar themes by abstract treat-ment and noble imagery. So simple an act as that of trying to remember a half-forgotten fact or fancy is elabo-rately and beautifully compared to the search of an im-patient mother for a child lost in a forest. The common organ-grinder becomes " the blithe son of Savoy," and as such is presented in a most romantic situation as an object for refined sympathy. The good familiar creature memory itself is transfigured into a gracious personification of most benignant and wide-reaching power. In this art of "raising a subject," as the 18th century phrase was, the Pleasures of Memory is much more perfect than Campbell's Pleasures of Hope, published a few years later in imitation. Byron's criticism is complete,—" there is not a vulgar line in the poem." This is the acme of positive praise for the fashionable serious poetry of the 18th century: when this can be said of a poet, he has reached the perfection of its ideal of poetic diction. In this poem the characters of the school can be analysed in cold blood, for there is not much excitement in laboured reflexions on the pleasures of memory. Human interest is at a minimum in such frigid exercises; it is almost entirely an affair of diction. The chief feeling excited is astonishment at the pains taken by the poet to provide thick and showy wrappages for such starveling little children of thought.

It was six years before Bogers was ready with another of his elaborate poems,—An Epistle to a Friend (1798). This has at least the advantage of some personal interest. It describes the poet's ideal of a comfortable life, and may be put side by side with Pomfret's Choice for literary comparison, and with the poet's own life for fifty years afterwards. Although for conventional poetic reasons Rogers establishes his ideal house in the country instead of in St James's Place, still the principles of living are the same which afterwards regulated his real life and were carried out with easy steady perseverance. "It is the design of this Epistle to illustrate the virtue of True Taste; and to show how little she requires to secure not only the comforts but even the elegancies of life. True Taste is an excellent Economist." Rogers illustrated this maxim in proceeding to surround himself with rare and beautiful works of art and letters, and to make his house the centre for all that was most distinguished and agreeable in London society. Many persons in his time spent ten times as much in the pursuit of a similar object without one-tenth of the success. " I believe," Mrs Norton wrote, "no man ever was so much attended to and thought of who had so slender a fortune and such calm abilities. His God was Harmony; and over his life Harmony presided sitting on a lukewarm cloud." When he moved to St James's Place in 1803 he withdrew from active concern in the bank, contenting himself with a moderate income as a sleeping partner; and so careful a manager was he of this income that he was able not only to entertain and to buy choice things—his collection, which seems to have contained hardly a particle of rubbish, fetching £50,000 when sold after his death—but also to extend generous help to struggling men of letters. It was Rogers who came to Sheridan's relief in his last days when he was deserted by his titled friends; Moore and Campbell received help in need from him, as munificent as it was delicately offered; and he was always ready to befriend much less distinguished merit in distress. It was perhaps characteristic of a man so cautious, equable, and dispassionate that his wit had a depreciating turn and was often exercised with calm insolence at the expense of fussy pretence. But that the man was on the whole of a kindly and lovable nature was shown by an incident late in his life. His popularity was put to the test of misfortune by the robbery of his bank. Most of the money was recovered, but upon the news of the misfortune several men of wealth and title came forward with large offers of assistance.

Although the laureateship was pressed upon Rogers by the prince consort on Wordsworth's death in 1850, he had not been a prolific poet during his long life of cultured leisure and social enjoyment. He continued his practice of writing little and writing slowly. Fourteen years in-tervened between the Epistle and the publication of the Voyage of Columbus in 1812. In method this poem was a compromise between the old school of reflective poetry and the new school of narrative. The story of Columbus was the theme, but the story was not told : it was only indicated in a series of reflexions on its most striking moments. The experiment helped forward the literary movement; the new school through Byron took the hint, and The Giaour, though interpenetrated with a more vigorous life, was avowedly written on the model of Columbus, and dedicated to Rogers. In his next poem, Jacqueline, which was published in the same volume with Byron's Lara in 1814, much to the benefit of the wits of the time, Rogers may be said to have gone over to the new school, adopting their four-accent measure and show-ing his skill, which was considerable, in pure narrative. His reflective poem on Human Life, though published in 1819, can hardly be described as a reversion, for he had been engaged on it off and on for twelve years. It is much the best of his meditative poems, as elegant and finished in diction as the Memory, and much more incisive in thought and touching in sentiment. His last, longest, and most interesting published work was Italy, the first instalment of which was published in 1821 and the last in 1834. It is said that, when the publisher complained that the public would not buy Italy, Rogers affirmed that he "would make them buy it" ; and, calling in the aid of Turner and Stothard, he produced the sumptuous illus-trated edition at a cost of ¿615,000. Apart from these adventitious charms Italy has much greater general interest than any other of Rogers's poems, and is likely to be read for long, if only as a traveller's companion. The style is studiously simple; the blank verse has quite an Elizabethan flavour, and abounds in happy lines ; the reflexions have a keen point; and the incidental stories are told with admirable brevity and effect. Passages of prose are inter-spersed, wrought with the same care as the verses, and the notes are models of interesting detail concisely put.

For the last five years of his life Rogers, who had been extremely active till his eighty-eighth year, was confined to his chair in consequence of a fall in the street. He died in London on 18th December 1855, in his ninety-third year. Only very fragmentary records are preserved of the brilliant gatherings at breakfast and dinner in his house. Fragments are to be gleaned in the diaries of Byron, Moore, Sydney Smith, and others. Recollections of his table-talk were published in 1856, and a volume of his Recollections of celebrities in 1857. A complete Life is understood (1885) to be in preparation, with Mr P. W. Clayden as editor. Mr Hayward's essay is the most complete account of Rogers hitherto published. (W. M.)

The above article was written by: William Monto, M.A.

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