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HITHERTO we have spoken of men whose lives were history,flowers, or medicinal plants (for as yet we have encountered no weeds), preserved in a Hortus-siccus, to which we have done our best to restore the lively hue and appropriate aroma. We have now a more delicate task to perform. We speak of a man whose death is a recent sorrow; whose image lives in eyes that have wept for him. The caution and reserve, which honour and duty exact from the biographer of a living contemporary, are more especially required of him who essays to collect the scattered lineaments of one who no longer lives to confute or approve the portrait, which yet may give pain or pleasure to many, who compare the likeness with their own authentic memory.
I never saw Roscoe. I have heard much of him, both from the many who delighted in his praise, and from some who reluctantly assented to it. Unseen, yet not quite unknown of me, he performed his earthly pilgrimage, and went to his reward. If his life were not a theme of commendation,-if, however told, it were not a bright example and an argument of hope to all, who, amid whatever circumstances, are striving to develope the faculties which God has given them, for the glory of the Giver, and the benefit of his creatures,—if there were any thing to tell, or any thing to leave untold, which those who knew him best would rather have forgotten, his life would never have been written by me. I am not ignorant, that one who has an hereditary right to be his Biographer, is even now performing that office. With his filial labours I presume not to interfere. Let the son tell of his father what the son knows of the father. Roscoe, as a scholar, an author, a politician, and a philanthropist, is public: his praise, and if censure were due, his censure, is as much a public property as Westminster Abbey should be. With his more familiar privacy I meddle
no otherwise, than as he who treats of fruits and flowers must necessarily say something of the soil in which they were grown, and the culture by which they were reared to perfection.
Among those men who have attained to literary eminence without the ordinary assistance from their elders, Roscoe was especially distinguished by the variety, and by the elegance of his acquirements. Most of the self-taught have been men of one talent and one idea-one exclusive passion for one sort of knowledge. Their bias has been much more frequently to the mathematics, physics, or mechanics, than to general literature. The poor classics of Scotland and Germany, such as Adams, Heyne, and Winkelman, are not fairly cases in point ; for though they underwent great toil and privation in obtaining tuition, they did obtain it, therefore were not self-taught. As little to the purpose are the instances of uneducated Poets. For we are not speaking of men who have displayed great genius with little culture, but of those who have cultivated their own powers without the customary aids.
With respect to the uneducated Poets, however, not many of them are any thing more than nine-days’-wonders. Some great man, or great lady, finds out that a peasant or menial can tag rhimes; and having at once a most exaggerated notion of the difficulty of rhiming, and a most contemptuous estimate of the faculties of the lower orders, straightway gives information of a self-taught poet, whom patronage is to select for a victim.
But secondly: Far be it from us to deny that there have lived, and are living, true and great poets, who have not only been all but destitute of tuition, but have been very scantily furnished with book-learning. We do not, however, count Shakspeare in the number; for he was manifestly a great and extensive reader, and got from books whatever could have been of any use to him ; his genius, his intuitive knowledge of human nature, concreted by wide and perspicacious observation of human life, his shaping and combining imagination, his electrical fancy, no book could supply. The world is still too much in the habit of confounding the absence of regular tuition, with positive ignorance ; though we do hope, that the preposterous folly of dignifying a little, a very little Latin, and very, very, very little Greek (forgotten long ago), with the exclusive name of learning, is far gone in the wane. Indeed there is more need to assert and vindicate the true value of Greek and Roman lore, than to level the by-gone pretensions of its professors. This age has a sad propensity to slay the slain, to fight with wrath and alarm against the carcase of extinct prejudices, because some two or three men of genius, and perhaps a score of blockheads,
are striving to galvanize them to a posthumous vitality. Admitting, however, that Shakspeare could not, with the assistance of grammar and dictionary, construe an ode of Horace, (which is a pure and rather improbable assertion, for Latin was then taught far more generally than at present), he certainly was not unacquainted with the ancient authors,* most of which were translated early in Elizabeth's reign, rudely and incorrectly enough it may be, (there was little or no accurate scholarship in England before Bentley), but still so, that neither the feelings nor the thoughts were wanting. An uneducated man he was: his mind had never been disciplined, but it was completely armed and ammunitioned. Had he been educated, he would perhaps have avoided some few faults, but he would, in all probability, have fallen considerably short of his actual excellence,—not that his matter would have been less original (Milton, in the true sense of the word, is as complete an original as Shakspeare), but his manner would have been more restrained, more subdued, and therefore would have presented a less exact image of truth; for he was a man modest and gentle by nature, with little of Milton's mental hardihood. It was well for him and for mankind, that he did not know how widely he differed from his great predecessors.
But though we except Shakspeare from the list of unlearned authors, we admit that there have been, and are, men who, with no assistance from teachers, and little from books, have justly earned the name of Poets. But they are men with whom poetry is a passion, or a con
* Dr. Farmer is supposed to have settled the question as to Shakspeare's learning by proving (as far as the matter is capable of proof), that he used the translated, not the original classics. As it is always delightful to trace the reading of great men, Dr. Farmer's work is as pleasing as it is ingenious and satisfactory. But the inference, that Shakspeare, because he read Seneca done into English, and Dr. Philemon Holland's translation of Amyot's translation of Plutarch, (the best by the way that has appeared, far better than Langhorne's,) had never learned hic, hæc, hoc, that his ignorance extended from Alpha to Omega, we reject without hesitation. Why might not Shakspeare, like a gentleman as he was, have learned Latin and forgotten it again? How many Eton scholars can read a page of Virgil, taken haphazard, with any degree of facility or pleasure at forty? Not more than could help to win a cricket match in their grand climacteric. Professional scholars, school-masters, &c. of course are excepted.
The question cannot be called uninteresting, for it regards Shakspeare; but it is of no sort of consequence.—Small Lalin and less Greek, especially when forgotten, being for all purposes of wonder and astonishment, quite as good as none. Nor would it detract an atom from Shakspeare's fame, were he proved to have been a perfect Porson. But there are certain people who had rather look upon genius as something monstrous and magical, than as a healthy human power, effecting a noble end by intelligible means.
solation, and their excellence will be found to consist in short effusions of natural feeling, in descriptions of what they have actually seen or experienced, and in records of the manners, devotions, loves, and superstitions of those among whom they have been bred up. It is, moreover, doubtful how far extensive reading of any sort is beneficial to any but a very great Poet: that indiscriminate reading of vernacular poetry is prejudicial to poetic powers, there can be no doubt at all. Any but a surpassing genius, who has the “British Poets," or even the “Elegant Extracts,” by heart, must either become a mere compiler, in despair of novelty, or must go out of his way, to avoid saying what has been said before. And here we perceive the true reason why the greatest poets generally appear in the early stages of literature; or if, like Wordsworth and Byron, they are products of a later age, they are yet the earliest great poets of their kind. Here, too, we find the main value of a skill in ancient or foreign languages, whereby the mind is enriched with thoughts which it is in a manner compelled to make its
But Roscoe's passion was knowledge in general, with a peculiar bias to the beautiful in art and nature. Perhaps it was in some measure owing to the universality of his studies, that he was never tempted to neglect or discard his professional duties; for had he devoted himself exclusively to any one study, it would most likely have gained so entire a dominion over his imagination, as to render business an insupportable distraction.
WILLIAM Roscoe was born on the 8th of March, 1753. The house in which he first drew breath is standing still, but instead of a rural retirement, is now a tavern, in a crowded and almost central street of Liverpool, recording, by its name of Mount Pleasant, its former suburban rusticity. So mightily is the inundation of brick and mortar spreading, uniting village after village to the great centres of population, as the ocean
all the little rills :” overrunning fields, and parks, and gardens, which, like the political institutions of a decaying nation, bear names to testify what they have been, and are not.
The house in which Roscoe was born is now known as the “Old Bowling-green House,” and is well represented in an engraving by Austin.
Mr. Roscoe's parents were persons in humble but respectable circumstances. Having lived together as domestics with a worthy old bachelor, they formed an attachment, and married with their master's approbation. By their own savings, and probably with the assistance of the same benevolent gentleman (who is said to have left the bulk of his property to the subject of this memoir), they were enabled to rent