« PreviousContinue »
MEMOIR OF SAMUEL ROGERS.
SAMUEL ROGERS was born at Newington Green, a village now forming part of London, about the year 1763, and is now (1854) upwards of ninety-one years of age. His birth-place was in a locality distinguished by many associations of interest. "In this neighborhood," says William Howitt, in his entertaining work on the Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets, "the Tudor princes used to live a good deal. Canonbury, between this green and Islington, was a favorite hunting-seat of Elizabeth, and no doubt the woods and wastes extended all round this neighborhood. There is Kingsland, now all built on, there is Henry VIII.'s walk, and Queen Elizabeth's walk, all in the vicinity; and this old, quiet green seems to retain a feeling and an aspect of those times. It is built round with houses, evidently of a considerable age. There are trees and quietness about it still. In the centre of the south side is an old house standing back, which is said to have been inhabited by Henry VIII. At the end next to Stoke Newington stands an old Presbyterian chapel, at which the celebrated Dr. Price preached, and of which, afterward, the husband of Mrs. Barbauld was the minister. Near this chapel De Foe was educated, and the house still remains. In this green lived, too, Mary Wolstoncroft, being engaged with another lady in keeping school. Samuel Rogers was born in the stuccoed house at the south-west corner, which is much older than it seems. Adjoining it is a large, old garden. Here his father, and his mother's father, lived before him. By the mother's side he was descended from the celebrated Philip Henry, the father of Matthew
Henry, and was therefore of an old non-conformist family. Mr. Rogers' grandfather was a gentleman, pursuing no profession, but his father engaged in banking." In the banking-house the elder Rogers amassed considerable wealth, which with his business descended to his son.
But little is known of the early life of the poet. His education was liberal, and from an early age he was familiar with the best society of the metropolis. In the year 1786 he published his first volume, with the title of "An Ode to Superstition, and other Poems," in which a critic of the time, writing in the Monthly Review, thought he perceived the "hand of a master."
Six years afterwards he published The Pleasures of Memory, a poem that attained an immediate popularity, both in England and in this country. This poem was elaborated with the most consummate care and art. He submitted it very freely to the censure of his friends before publication, one of whom, Mr. Richard Sharpe, since member of Parliament, has said that during the preparation of the first and second editions he had read it with the poet several hundred times, at home and on the continent, and in every temper of mind that varied company and varied scenery could produce. "To the spirit of original observation," says Mr. Allan Cunningham of this poem, in his History of British Literature, " to the fine pictures of men and manners, and to the remarks on the social and domestic condition of the country, which mark the disciples of the newer school of verse, are added the terseness, smoothness and harmony, of the old. The poem abounds with capital and brilliant hits; with passages which remain on the memory, and may be said to please rather than enchant one, to take silent possession of the heart, rather than fill it with immediate rapture. Hazlitt, with some of that perverseness which even talent is not without, said the chief fault of Rogers was want of genius and taste. Perhaps in the whole list of living men of genius no one can be named whose taste in poetry is so just and delicate. This is apparent in every page of his compositions; nay, he is even fastidious in his taste, and rejects much, in the pictures of manners and feelings which he paints, which other authors, whose taste is unquestioned, would have used without scruple. His diction is pure, and his language has all the necessary strength, without being swelling or redundant: his words are always
in keeping with the sentiment. He has, in truth, great strength; he says much in small compass, and may sometimes be charged with a too great anxiety to be brief and terse. It was the error of the school in which his taste was formed to be over anxious about the harmony and polish of the verse; and he may be accused of erring with his teachers. Concerning the composition of The Pleasures of Memory, it is related that he corrected, transposed and changed, till he exhausted his own patience; and then, turning to his friends, he demanded their opinions, listening to every remark, and weighing every observation. This plan of correction is liable to serious objections. The poet is almost sure of losing in dash and vigor more than what he gains by correctness; and, as a whole, the work is apt to be injured, while individual parts are bettered. Poetry is best hit off at one heat of the fancy; the more it is hammered and wrought on, the colder it becomes. The sale of The Pleasures of Memory continued to be large, though The Pleasures of Hope came into the market."
This production gave its author a high position among the men of letters who flourished in London during the early part of the present century. Cumberland, the dramatic author, in the supplement to his Memoirs, published nearly half a century ago, advised Moore, who was then known as the translator of Anacreon and the author of Little's Poems, to "subject his composition to the review of his correct and judicious friend, Mr. Rogers, (and when so done) he may surrender himself without fear to the criticism of the world at large." "I can visit," said the veteran reminiscent, "the justly-admired author of The Pleasures of Memory, and find myself with a friend who together with the brightest genius possesses elegance of manners and excellence of heart. He tells me he remembers the day of our first meeting at Mr. Dilly's; I also remember it, and, though his modest, unassuming nature held back and shrunk from all appearances of ostentation and display of talents, yet even then I take credit for discovering a promise of good things to come, and suspected him of holding secret commerce with the Muse, before the proof appeared in shape of one of the most beautiful and harmonious poems in our language. I do not say that he has not ornamented the age he lives in, though he were to stop where he is; but I hope he will not so totally deliver himself over to the arts, as to neglect
the Muses; and I now publicly call upon Samuel Rogers to answer to his name, and stand forth in the title-page of some future work, that shall be in substance greater, in dignity of subject more sublime, and in purity of versification not less charming, than his poem above mentioned."
In November, 1805, Moore wrote to his mother, "I am just going to dine third to Rogers and Cumberland: a good poetical stepladder we make; the former is past forty, and the latter past seventy." It was in the pages of the Anthologia Hibernica, for the months of January and February, 1793, that Moore first read, as a schoolboy, Rogers' Pleasures of Memory, little dreaming that he should one day become the intimate friend of the author; and such an impression did it then make upon him, as he tells us in his Memoirs, that the particular type in which it is there printed, and the very color of the paper, were through life associated with every line of it in his memory.
Rogers was an early friend of Lord Byron. The noble poet had excepted him from the somewhat indiscriminate abuse of the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, and had complimented him in lines which will well bear transcription :
"To the famed throng now paid the tribute due,
Come forth, O Campbell !* give thy talents scope;
Recall the pleasing memory of the past.
Assert thy country's honor and thine own."
This eulogy Moore thinks the disinterested and deliberate result of the young poet's judgment, as at that time he had never scen Rogers
* It would be superfluous to recall to the mind of the reader the authors of "The Pleasures of Memory" and "The Pleasures of Hope," the most beautiful didactic poems in our language, if we except Pope's "Essay on Man;" but so many poetasters have started up, that even the names of Campbell and Rogers are become strange. - Byron's Note.