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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Samuel Rogers (1763–1855)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
LATE in the eighteenth century a young man started out one day to call upon the great Dr. Johnson. He himself was nursing literary ambition, and he felt a vast veneration for successful authorship. He rang the bell; then fancying he heard the Doctor’s own steps approaching, he lost courage and ran away. Young Samuel Rogers hardly foresaw that he too was to be a literary lion of London, his favor eagerly sought by tyros in writing.  1
  For over half a century his home in St. James’s Place was a rendezvous for poets and artists, statesmen and musicians; for English men and women of note, and for distinguished people from abroad. Here almost daily he entertained five or six at breakfast, and talked with them through the morning hours. Here art and politics were discussed, bons-mots originated, and entertaining anecdotes retailed. This English “autocrat of the breakfast table,” whose keen ugly face, high brow, and striking pallor, had a cadaverous effect provoking much witticism, was himself an able story-teller. Sometimes his wit grew caustic, and his almost ferocious frankness inspired terror. But in spite of surface crabbedness he was philanthropic and personally generous. He was a faithful friend not alone to Sheridan through his wretched last years of poverty, but to many another unfortunate, author or not. Keenly appreciative rather than creative, the practical adviser of Wordsworth and the other “Lake poets,” as well as their admiring auditor, he was the friend of poets to a greater extent than a considerable poet himself. Perhaps his greatest hindrance was his continuous prosperity. From the beginning to the end of his life he was quite too comfortable for poetic thrills. His poems have no intensity; they are gentle moralizings and appreciations of moral and physical beauty,—the fruit more of refinement and cultivation than of irresistible poetic impulse,—and bear no very strong individual stamp.  2
  There is idyllic charm about Rogers’s early life. Fortunate son of a loving if austere father and a beautiful sprightly mother, he was born at Stoke Newington, a suburb of London, on July 30th, 1763. His parents were people of refined and liberal tastes, who constantly received in their hospitable mansion a circle of delightful friends, among them Dr. Priestley. There with his brothers and sisters, ten in all, Samuel was carefully trained by private tutors. Good Dr. Price, the clergyman, dropping in of an evening in dressing-gown and slippers to chat with the children before their bedtime, was an important factor in their daily life. At this home Rogers learned to appreciate social intercourse; and there in leisure hours he pored over Pope and Goldsmith, and took their poems as models. When he was sixteen or seventeen his father placed him in the London bank of which he himself was head; and he remained in connection with it all his life, as clerk, partner, or director. In London he found a helpful friend in Miss Helen Williams, an intellectual woman, at whose literary parties he heard brilliant conversation and formed congenial friendships. In 1793, when he was about thirty, his father’s death left him with an income of £5,000. Ten years later he fitted up comfortable bachelor quarters in St. James’s Place; where, following his own recipe for long life, “temperance, the bath and flesh-brush, and don’t fret,” he lived to the age of ninety-two, dying in 1855.  3
  Rogers’s first literary efforts were short sketches, signed “The Scribbler,” which appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine, and were the tentative work every young poet must practice his hand on.  4
  In 1786 the ‘Ode to Superstition,’ appearing in a time of comparative poetic dearth and of metrical trivialties, was greatly admired. Rogers loved music; and his ear for harmonious sound guided him to a pleasing choice of word and measure. At its best, his verse is as trim and gently smooth as a Kentish landscape. He was reared in the traditions of an era of common-sense and well-regulated emotions. Grace of workmanship is the predominating characteristic of the banker-poet; he had nothing in common with the passion of his younger friend Byron. The ‘Pleasures of Memory,’ published in 1792 (doubtless suggested by Akenside’s ‘Pleasures of Imagination’), and ‘Human Life,’ have the same leisurely, meditative quality. At the same time, the usual fling that Rogers owed all his contemporary repute to his social and business position is unjust and untrue. He was a welcome member of the literary group, as a distinguished component of it, before he had any such position.  5
  Travelers in Italy soon grow familiar with often quoted lines from his long poem upon Italy. In 1814 he spent eight months in Italy; and he worked over material gathered there until 1822, when the first part of the poem appeared. It was a failure; and the author burned the unsold copies, and set about a careful revision. A second edition, beautifully bound, and so profusely illustrated that an ill-natured critic called it “Turner illustrated,” had more success, though public taste was already demanding something different. The very fact, however, that a century after it was written it is still quoted from, shows that it has some enduring quality; for poems on Italy have been written and forgotten by the thousand, and there is nothing to keep Rogers’s alive but its own merit. What that is, our extract will indicate.  6
  Rogers was a link between the forms of thought and expression before and after the French Revolution. A disciple of Pope, intimate with the Barbaulds and the Burneys, with Joanna Baillie, Mrs. Siddons, Fox, and Sheridan, he saw the revival of the poetry of the soul, knew Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byron and Scott, and lived on to know Dickens and Thackeray.  7
 
 
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