« PreviousContinue »
human. The wisdom of Columbus is neither less venerable nor less his own because it is supposed to flow more directly than that of other wise men from the inspiration of heaven. The mutiny of his seamen is not less interesting or formidable because the poet traces it to the suggestion of those malignant spirits in whom the imagination, independent of all theological doctrines, is naturally prone to personify and embody the causes of evil.
6. Unless, indeed the marvellous be a part of the popular creed at the period of the action the reader of a subsequent age will refuse to sympathize with it. His poetical faith is founded in sympathy with that of the poetical personages. Still more objectionable is a marvellous influence neither believed in by the reader nor by the
like a great part of the machinery of the Henriade and the Lusiad, which, indeed, is not only absolutely ineffective, but rather disennobles heroic fiction, by association with light and frivolous ideas. Allegorical persons (if the expression may be allowed) are only in the way to become agents. The abstraction has received a faint outline of form ; but it has not yet acquired those individual marks and characteristic peculiarities which render it a really existing being On the other hand, the more sublime parts of our own religion, and more especially those which are common to all religion, are too awful and too philosophical for poetical effect. If we except Paradise Lost, where all is supernatural, and where the ancestors of the human race are not strictly human beings, it must be owned that no successful attempt has been made to ally a human action with the sublimer principles of the Christian theology. Some opinions, which may, perhaps, without irreverence, be said to be rather appendages to the Christian system than essential parts of it, are in that sort of intermediate state which fits them for the purposes of poetry ; - sufficiently exalted to ennoble the human actions with which they are blended, but not so exactly defined, nor so deeply revered, as to be inconsistent with the liberty of imagination. The guardian angels, in the project of Dryden, had the inconvenience of having never taken any deep root in popular belief; the agency of evil spirits was firmly believed in the age of Columbus. With the truth of facts poetry can have no concern ; but the truth of manners is necessary to its persons. If the minute investigations of the Notes to this poem had related to historical details, they would have been
insignificant; but they are intended to justify the human and the supernatural parts of it, by an appeal to the manners and to the opinions of the age.
Perhaps there is no volume in our language of which it can be so truly said as of the present that it is equally exempt from the frailties of negligence and the vices of affectation. Exquisite polish of style is, indeed, more admired by the artist than by the people. The gentle and elegant pleasure which it imparts can only be felt by a calm reason, an exercised taste, and a mind free from turbulent passions. But these beauties of execution can exist only in combination with much of the primary beauties of thought and feeling; and poets of the first rank depend on them for no small part of the perpetuity of their fame. In poetry, though not in eloquence, it is less to rouse the passions of a moment than to satisfy the taste of all ages.
" In estimating the poetical rank of Mr. Rogers, it must not be forgotten that popularity never can arise from elegance alone. The vices of a poem may render it popular; and virtues of a faint character may be sufficient to preserve a languishing and cold reputation. But, to be both popular poets and classical writers is the rare lot of those few who are released from all solicitude about their literary fame. It often happens to successful writers that the lustre of their first productions throws a temporary cloud over some of those which follow. Of all literary misfortunes, this is the most easily endured, and the most speedily repaired. It is generally no more than a momentary illusion produced by disappointed admiration, which expected more from the talents of the admired writer than any talents could perform. Mr. Rogers has long passed that period of probation during which it may be excusable to feel some painful solicitude about the reception of every new work. Whatever may be the rank assigned hereafter to his writings, when compared with each other, the writer has most certainly taken his place among the classical poets of his country.”
This was, no doubt, a very acceptable offset to a critique on the same poem which had found its way into the Quarterly Review for the month of March, in the same year. It was written by Mr. Ward, afterwards Lord Dudley, and was alluded to many years afterwards by the Quarterly, as a “ masterpiece of damning by faint * Rogers
praise.” The review nettled the poet not a little, as we learn from a letter of Byron's, written in September :
" Rogers has returned to town, but not yet recovered of the Quarterly. What fellows these reviewers are ! • These boys do fear us all!' They made you fight, and me (the milkiest of men) a satirist, and will end by making Rogers madder than Ajax. I have been reading Memory again, the other day, and Hope together, and retain all my preference of the former. His elegance is really wonderful; there is no such thing as a vulgar line in the book. wants me to go with him on a crusade to the Lakes, and to besiege you on our way. This last is a great temptation, but I fear it will not be in my power, unless you would go on with one of us somewhere no matter where.
- P.S. No letter - n'importe. Rogers thinks the Quarterly will be at me this time ; if so, it shall be a war of extermination quarter. From the youngest devil down to the oldest woman of that review, all shall perish by one fatal lampoon. The ties of nature shall be torn asunder, for I will not even spare my bookseller ; nay, if one were to include readers also, all the better."
We do not know if this review prompted a celebrated epigram upon its author by the offended poet, or if the epigram prompted the review. From an allusion to it in Medwin's Conversations with Lord Byron, we should imagine that the poet revenged himself by the satire ; but from an allusion in the Quarterly Review we infer that Rogers was the first offender. Rogers is the only man,” said his lordship to Captain Medwin, “who can write epigrams, and sharp bone-cutters, too, in two lines.” For instance, that on an M.P. who had reviewed his book, and said he wrote very well for a banker :
66 Ward has no heart, they say, but I deny it
He has a heart, and gets his speeches by it."
The Quarterly says that Ward would sometimes quote this distich, admit the point, and return usually a Roland for an OliverBut even Mr. Ward did not fail to recognize the position which the poet had already secured by The Pleasures of Memory.
6. The first poem in this collection,” he says, “ does not fall within the province of our criticism. It has been published many years, and has acquired that sort of popularity which is, perhaps, more decisive than any other single test of merit. It has been generally admired, and, what is not always a certain consequence of being admired, it has been generally read. The circulation of it has not been confined to the highly-educated and critical part of the public, but it has received the applause which to works of the imagination is quite as flattering, -of that far more numerous class, who, without attempting to judge by accurate and philosophical rules, read poetry only for the pleasure it affords them, and praise because they are delighted. It is to be found in all libraries, and in most parlor windows." In another part of the review, the critic says,
66 Endowed with an ear naturally correct, and attuned by practice to the measures of his favorite masters, nice to the very verge of fastidiousness, accurate almost to minuteness, habitually attentive to the finer turns of expression and the more delicate shades of thought Mr. Rogers was always harmonious, always graceful, and
often pathetic. But
his beauties are all beauties of execution and detail, arising from the charm of skilful versificationnemannviosa felicitas of expression, culled with infinite care and selection, and applied with no vulgar judgment, and with the refined tenderness of a polished and feeling mind."
We must now cite a few sentences in a different vein, to show how far the Quarterly was right in its estimate of this critique, and to what extent it might well have annoyed the poet. “We have always been desirous,” says the reviewer, after alluding to the poet's early productions, “ to see something more from the hand of an author whose first appearance was so auspicious. But year after year rolled on, and we began to fear that indolence, the occupations of a busy life, or the dread of detracting from a reputation already so high, would forever prevent our wishes from being gratificd. We were, therefore, both pleased and surprised when, upon accidentally taking up the last edition of Mr. Rogers' poem, we found that it was enriched, not only with several very elegant wooden cuts, but with an entirely new performance in eleven cantos, called • Fragments of a Poem on the Voyage of Columbus.'"
After a minute analysis of the poem, the critic thus sums up its merits and faults : “ Still, however, and with all its defects both of subject and of execution, the poem is by no means undeserving attention. Mr. Rogers has not been able to depart from his former manner, that which use had made natural to him, so much as he, perhaps, intended. He is often himself, in spite of himself. Habit, good taste and an exquisite ear, are constantly bringing him back to the right path, even when he had set out with a resolution to wander from it. Hence, though the poem will not bear to be looked at as a whole, and though there runs through it an affectation of beauties which it is not in the author's power to produce, yet it contains passages of such merit as would amply repay the trouble of reading a much larger and more faulty work. It will be the more pleasing part of our task to select a few of them, with an assurance to our readers that they are not the only ones, and with a strong recommendation to read the whole, a recommendation with which they will very easily comply, as the poem does not exceed seven or eight hundred lines."
In this connection the following contemporaneous memoranda of Lord Byron's, touching the poet and his critic, will be read with interest :
“Nov. 22, 1813.- Rogers is silent; and, it is said, severe. When he does talk, he talks well ; and, on all subjects of taste, his delicacy of expression is pure as his poetry. If you enter his house, his drawing-room, his library, you of yourself say, this is not the dwelling of a common mind. There is not a gem, a coin, a book thrown aside on his chimney-piece, his sofa, his table, that does not bespeak an almost fastidious elegance in the possessor. But this very delicacy must be the misery of his existence. O, the jarrings his disposition must have encountered through life!
6. Nov. 23. Ward. I like Ward. By Mahomet ! I begin to think I like everybody,- a disposition not to be encouraged; a sort of social gluttony that swallows everything set before it. But I like Ward. He is piquant; and, in my opinion, will stand very high in the house, and everywhere else, if he applies regularly. By the by, I dine with him to-morrow, which may have some influence on my opinion. It is as well not to trust one's gratitude after dinner. I have heard many a host libelled by his guests, with his Burgundy yet reeking on their rascally lips."
In 1814 the poem of Jacqueline appeared, in the same volume with the Lara of Lord Byron.