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Samuel Rogers (1763-1855)

This article was written by Richard Garnett and was published in 1897.

Samuel Rogers, a poet, was born at Stoke Newington on 30 July 1763. The family is said to have been originally Welsh, with a dash of French blood through the marriage of the poet's great-grandfather, the first ancestor of whom there is any record, with a lady from Nantes. The poet's father, Thomas Rogers, was son of a glass manufacturer at Stourbridge, Worcestershire, and through his mother was related to Richard Payne Knight; he went in youth to London to take part in the management of a warehouse in which his father was a partner with Daniel Radford of Stoke Newington. In 1760 Thomas married Daniel Radford's daughter Mary, and was taken into partnership in the following year. Daniel Radford, who descended through his mother from Philip Henry, was treasurer of the presbyterian congregation at Stoke Newington, and an intimate friend of Dr. Price and other notable persons connected with it. His son-in-law, whose family connections had been tory and high church, embraced liberal and nonconformist principles, and the children were brought up as dissenters.

Samuel Rogers received his education at private schools in Hackney and Stoke Newington, at the former of which he contracted a lifelong friendship with William Maltby. His Newington master, Mr. Burgh, afterwards gave him private lessons in Islington, and exercised a highly beneficial influence upon him. He lost his mother in 1776. His own choice of a vocation had been the presbyterian ministry, but his father, who had in the meantime become a banker in Cornhill, in partnership with a gentleman of the name of Welch, wished him to enter the bank, and he complied. His intellectual tastes found an outlet in a determination to acquire fame as an author. During long holidays at the seaside, necessitated by indifferent health, he read widely and familiarised himself with Johnson, Goldsmith, and Gray, who remained his models throughout his life. He went, with his friend Maltby, to proffer his personal homage to Dr. Johnson, but the youths' courage failed, and they retreated without venturing to lift the knocker.

In 1781 he contributed several short essays to the Gentleman's Magazine, and the following year wrote an unacted opera, The Vintage of Burgundy, of which some fragments remain. In 1786 he published, anonymously, An Ode to Superstition, with some other Poems. An elder brother, Thomas, died in 1788, and his share in the bank's management and profits became considerable. In 1789 he visited Scotland, where he received especial kindness from Dr. Robertson, the historian, and made the acquaintance of almost every Scottish man of letters, but heard nothing of Robert Burns. In 1791 he visited France, and in 1792 published, again anonymously, the poem with which his name as a poet is, on the whole, most intimately associated, The Pleasures of Memory. The child of The Pleasures of Imagination’ and the parent of The Pleasures of Hope, it entirely hit the taste of the day. By 1806 it had gone through fifteen editions, two-thirds of them numbering from one to two thousand copies each.

Rogers's father died in June 1793. His eldest brother, Daniel, had offended his father by marrying his cousin; the family share in the bank was bequeathed to Samuel, and he found himself possessed of five thousand a year. Without immediately giving up the family house on Newington Green, he took chambers in Paper Buildings, and laid himself out for society. He had already many literary acquaintances; and now constrained by hereditary connections and his own well-considered opinions to chose his friends mainly from the opposition, he became intimate with Fox, Sheridan, and Horne Tooke. Another friend who had more influence upon him than any of the rest was Richard Sharp, generally known as ‘Conversation Sharp,’ one of the best literary judges of his time.

In 1795 Rogers wrote an epilogue for Mrs. Siddons, a sufficient proof of the position which he had gained as a poet, a position which was even raised by the Epistle to a Friend, published in 1798. In 1802 he took advantage of the peace of Amiens to pay a visit to Paris, which exercised an important influence upon a taste which had been slowly growing up in him — that for art. With this he had been inoculated about 1795 by his brother-in-law, Sutton Sharpe, the friend of many painters; and he had already, in 1800, been concerned with others in bringing over the Orleans gallery to England. By 1802 the victories of Bonaparte had filled the Louvre with the artistic spoils of Italy, and Rogers's prolonged studies made him one of the first of connoisseurs. He proved his taste in the following year by building for himself a house in St. James's Street, Westminster, overlooking the Green Park. Flaxman and Stothard took a share in the decoration, but all details were superintended by Rogers, who proceeded to adorn his mansion, modest enough in point of size, with pictures, engravings, antiquities, and books, collected with admirable judgment.

His younger brother, Henry, now relieved him almost entirely of business cares, and he henceforth lived wholly for letters, art, and society. Except for the absence of domestic joys, which he afterwards lamented, his position was enviable. He had won, in the general opinion, a high place among the poets of his age, not indeed without labour, for no man toiled harder to produce less, but with more limited productiveness than any poet of note, except the equally fastidious Gray and Campbell. He might have found it difficult to maintain this position but for the social prestige which came to him at a critical time through his new house and his refined hospitality. ‘Rogers's first advances to the best society,’ says Mr. Hayward, ‘were made rather in the character of a liberal host than of a popular poet.’ Gradually he came to be regarded as a potentate in the republic of letters. Except when violent political antipathies intervened, every one sought his acquaintance; and the more age impaired his originally limited productive faculty, the more homage he received as the Nestor of living poets. Apart from the exquisite taste, artistic and social, which distinguished both his house and the company he gathered around him, his influence rested mainly upon two characteristics, which at first sight seemed hardly compatible — the bitterness of his tongue and the kindness of his heart. Everybody dreaded his mordant sarcasm; but everybody thought first of him when either pecuniary or personal aid was to be invoked. When some one complained to Campbell of Rogers's spiteful tongue, ‘Borrow five hundred pounds of him,’ was the reply, ‘and he will never say a word against you until you want to repay him.’ Campbell did not speak without warrant; his experience of Rogers was equally honourable to both poets.

The history of Rogers's life henceforth, apart from his travels and the gradual growth of his art collections, is mainly that of his publications and of his beneficent interpositions in the affairs of clients and friends. The latter are more numerous than his verses. He soothed the last illness of Fox; he was the good angel of the dying Sheridan; he reconciled Moore with Jeffrey, and negotiated his admission as a contributor to the Edinburgh Review; under his roof the quarrel between Byron and Moore was made up; he procured Wordsworth his distributorship of stamps by a seasonable hint to Lord Lonsdale; he obtained a pension for Cary (the translator of Dante, who had renounced his acquaintance), and regulated as far as possible the literary affairs of that impracticable genius, Ugo Foscolo. In comparison with these good deeds the acerbity of his sarcasms appears of little account. Sometimes these were prompted by just resentment, and in other cases it is usually evident that the incentive to their utterance was not malice, but inability to suppress a clever thing. It would no doubt have been an ornament to Rogers's character if he had possessed in any corresponding measure the power of saying amiable and gracious things, and his habitually censorious attitude fully justified the remark of Moore, a sincere friend, not unconscious of his obligations: ‘I always feel that the fear of losing his good opinion almost embitters the possession of it.’ How generous Rogers could be in his estimate of the productions of others appears from his declaration to Crabb Robinson, that every line of Wordsworth's volume of 1842, not in general very enthusiastically admired, was ‘pure gold.’ He could be equally kind to young authors coming into notice, such as Henry Taylor. So unjust was Lady Dufferin's remark that he gave what he did not value — money — but withheld what he did value — praise. Rogers's poems met with respectful treatment from his contemporaries, Byron, in particular, claiming him, with several other much stronger poets, as a champion of sound taste against the Lake school, now a conspicuous example of a verdict reversed.

His first production of importance after settling in Westminster was his fragmentary epic on Columbus (1810, but privately printed two years earlier). The subject was too arduous for him, and the poem was placed by himself at the bottom of his compositions. It shows, however, that he was not unaffected by the spirit of his age, for the versification is much freer than in The Pleasures of Memory. It was severely castigated by William Ward, third viscount Dudley, in the Quarterly, and Rogers retorted by the classical epigram:

Ward has no heart, they say; but I deny it.
He has a heart —he gets his speeches by it.

Jacqueline appeared in 1814 in the same volume as Byron's Lara, a questionable companion, the wits declared, for a damsel careful of her character. The poem is of little importance except as proving that Rogers could, when he chose, write in the style of Scott and Byron. Successful, too, was Human Life (1819), which Rogers justly preferred to any of his writings. A visit to Italy in 1815 had suggested to him the idea of a poem descriptive of that country, which Byron had not then handled in the fourth canto of Childe Harold. The poems have nothing in common but their theme; yet it may have been awe of his mighty rival that made Rogers, always cautious and fastidious, so nervous respecting the publication of his Italy. It appeared anonymously in 1822; the secret was kept even from the publisher, and the author took care to be out of the country. No such mystery, however, attended the publication of the second part in 1828. The book did not take. Rogers destroyed the unsold copies, revised it carefully, engaged Turner and Stothard to illustrate it, and republished it in a handsome edition in 1830. The success of this edition, as well as of a similar issue of his other poems in 1834, was unequivocal, and he soon recovered the £7,000 he had expended upon them. The tardy success of the volume occasioned, among many other epigrams, Lady Blessington's mot, that ‘it would have been dished were it not for the plates.’ All his works, except Jacqueline, were published at his own expense.

An interesting incident in Rogers's life was his visit to Italy in 1822, when he spent some time with Byron and Shelley at Pisa. Shelley he respected; Byron fell in his esteem, and would have declined still more if he had then known that Byron had already in 1818 penned a bitter lampoon upon him. Byron boasted that he induced Rogers in 1822 to sit upon a cushion under which the paper containing the malignant lines had been thrust. They partly related to Rogers's cadaverous appearance, the ordinary theme of jest among his detractors, but greatly exaggerated. ‘He looked,’ says the Quarterly reviewer, ‘like what he was, a benevolent man and a thorough gentleman.’

In 1844 the placid course of Rogers's existence was perturbed by a startling blow, a robbery at his bank. Forty thousand pounds in notes and a thousand pounds in gold were abstracted on a Sunday from a safe which had been opened with one of its own keys. The promptitude of the measures taken prevented the cashing of the stolen notes, the bank of England repaid their value under a guarantee of indemnity, and after two years the notes themselves were recovered by a payment of £2,500. Rogers manifested admirable fortitude throughout this trying business. ‘I should be ashamed of myself,’ he said, ‘if I were unable to bear a shock like this at my age.’ He was also consoled by universal testimonies of sympathy: ‘It is the only part of your fortune,’ wrote Edward Everett, ‘which has gone for any other objects than those of benevolence, hospitality, and taste.’ In 1850 he had another proof of the general respect in the offer of the laureateship on the death of Wordsworth, which was declined. Shortly afterwards he met with a severe accident by breaking his leg. From that time his health and faculties waned, but, cheered by the devotion of a niece and the constant attentions of friends, he wore on until 18 December 1855, when he tranquilly expired. He was buried in Hornsey churchyard, with his brother Henry and his sister Sarah, the latter of whom, his special friend and confidant, he survived only a year. His art collections and library, when sold at Christie's after his death, produced £50,000.

Rogers was not a man of exceptional mental powers or moral force, but such of his characteristics as exceeded the average standard were precisely those which contribute most to the embellishment of human life. They were taste, benevolence, and wit. His perception and enjoyment of natural and moral beauty were very keen. In other respects he was the exemplary citizen, neither heroic nor enthusiastic, nor exempt from frailties, but filling his place in the community as became his fortune and position.

Rogers's title to a place among the representatives of the most brilliant age — the drama apart — of English poetry cannot now be challenged, but his rank is lower than that of any of his contemporaries, and his position is due in great measure to two fortunate accidents: the establishment of his reputation before the advent, or at least the recognition, of more potent spirits, and the intimate association of his name with that of greater men. He has, however, one peculiar distinction, that of exemplifying beyond almost any other poet what a moderate poetical endowment can effect when prompted by ardent ambition and guided by refined taste. Among the countless examples of splendid gifts marred or wasted, it is pleasing to find one of mediocrity elevated to something like distinction by fastidious care and severe toil. It must also be allowed that his inspiration was genuine as far as it went, and that it emanated from a store of sweetness and tenderness actually existing in the poet's nature. This is proved by the great superiority of Human Life to The Pleasures of Memory. The latter, composed at a period of life when the author had really little to remember, necessarily, in spite of occasional beauties, appears thin and conventional. The former, written after half a century's experience of life, is instinct with the wisdom of one who has learned and reflected, and the pathos of one who has felt and suffered.

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