The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 1. Rogers

IN two well-known lines of the dedication of Don Juan, Byron, pursuing his quarrel with the lake poets, or, rather, with Southey, but grouping the three in a common disparagement, laid it down that

  • Scott, Rogers, Campbell, Moore, and Crabbe will try
  • ’Gainst you the question with posterity.
  • It is needless to say that posterity has decided that question, group for group, in a sense opposite to the noble poet’s real or apparent anticipation. Southey, indeed, may have been “knocked out” of the competition, on the one side, in the general opinion, and Scott and Crabbe, on the other, may hold their ground, though with considerably fewer points to their credit than Wordsworth and Coleridge. But something like critical unanimity or, at least, a vast majority of critical votes, would disallow, despite admitted merits, the possibility of Rogers, Campbell and Moore continuing the fight on anything like even terms. Still, the grouping remains; and, as Scott falls out of any possible treatment in such a chapter as this and Crabbe has received his measure already, the remaining poets of Byron’s fancy may properly occupy us first, to be followed by a large and, in few cases, quite uninteresting or undistinguished train of poets, sometimes of rare excellence in special lines, but, now for this reason now for that, not classable or, at any rate, not generally classed, among the greater singers. The whole body will represent, in some cases with a little overflow, the time before the appearance of distinctly Victorian poets—the time, for the most part, anterior to that most noteworthy “Lament for Dead Makers” which Wordsworth, less happily than Dunbar, called An Extempore Effusion on the Death of James Hogg, which mentions other and greater writers than the Ettrick shepherd, and which actually marks an important dividing line between the dead and the living poets of the earlier nineteenth century, when a full third of that century had passed.

    The “knock-out” above suggested in Southey’s case might or might not really have surprised Byron; for it is clear that it was Southey’s principles and personality, rather than his poetry that annoyed his assailant. But he might have been much more certainly disappointed at the corresponding drop in the public estimation of Rogers. At the present time, it is probably a very exceptional thing to find anyone who, save in a vague traditional way, thinks of the author of The Pleasures of Memory as a poet at all; and, even where that tradition survives, it is extremely questionable whether it is often supported by actual reading. At one time, of course, Rogers was quite a popular poet; and it is a task neither difficult nor disagreeable for the literary historian to trace the causes of his popularity. He had, like Campbell, the very great advantage of beginning at a dead season and, again like Campbell, he had the further, but more dangerous, advantage of writing in a style which, while thoroughly acceptable to established and conventional criticism, had certain attractions for the tastes, as yet undeveloped, which were to bring about new things. He kept this up later, with some deliberate heed to younger tastes, in Italy and Jacqueline, thus shifting, but still retaining, his grasp. His wealth left him free to write or not, exactly as he pleased: and, in the famous case of Italy itself, to reinforce his work in a manner which appealed to more tastes than the purely literary by splendid presentation with the aid of great pictorial art. If he had a sharp tongue, and perhaps, not exactly a kind heart, he had a very generous disposition; and he was most powerfully assisted by the undefinable gift, by no means a necessary consequence of his affluence, which enabled a parvenu to become something like a master of society. He really had taste of various kinds: he might have been a greater poet if he had hadless. And so he hit the bird of public taste on several of its many wings.

    But the greater number, if not the whole, of these attractions have now ceased to attract; like the plates of Italy itself, they have generally become “foxed” with time. We ask, nowadays, simply, “Was Rogers a poet?” and, if so, “What sort of a poet was he?” There cannot, for reasons above glanced at, be many people whose answer to this question would be worth much, unless it is based on a dispassionate re-reading of the documents in the case. Such a re-reading may, to some extent, qualify earlier and more impulsive judgments of the same critic; but it is not likely, whatever power of correcting his impressions that critic may possess, to produce any very material alteration of opinion. For Rogers, very distinctly and unmistakably, comes on one side of the dividing line which marks off sheep from goats in this matter; though, on which side the goats are to be found and on which the sheep will depend entirely on the general and foregone attitude of the investigator of poetry. Rogers’s subjects are good; his treatment of them is scholarly, and never offends against the ordinary canons of good taste; his versification is smooth and pleasing on its own limited scale; from some points of view, he might be pronounced an almost faultless writer. But will all this make him a poet? If it will not, we might, perhaps, explain the failure worse than by applying to him that opposition of “quotidian” and “stimulant” which his very near contemporary William Taylor of Norwich devised as a criterion; which Carlyle laughed at; which Taylor himself made somewhat ridiculous in application; but which has something to say for itself, and which will not be found quite useless in regard to many, if not most, of the subjects of this chapter.

    Rogers is always quotidian. You may read The Pleasures of Memory at different times of life (and the more different these periods and the longer the intervals the better). It is not difficult or unpleasant to read; and though, if not at first, certainly a little later, you may feel pretty sure that, if Akenside, on the one hand, and Goldsmith, on the other, had not written, The Pleasures of Memory might never have been, this is far from fatal. The question is “What has it positively to give you?” Here is one of its very best couplets:

  • Ethereal Power! who at the noon of night
  • Recallst the far-fled spirit of delight.
  • That is good; “far-fled spirit of delight” is good. But is it, to borrow once more La Rochefoucauld’s injurious comparison, “delicious”? Is it even satisfying? Could you not very well do without it? Now, the phrases of a real poet, though there are, fortunately, thousands and myriads of them, are always delicious; they are always satisfying; and no one of them will enable you to do without any of the others.

    Let us try another text and test. The duke of Wellington (as Rogers himself most frankly records in a note to the poem) had told Rogers, with his usual plainness of speech and absence of pose, a striking story, how, when he went to sleep after the great slaughter of Assaye,

  • whenever I woke, which I did continually through the night, it struck me that I had lost all my friends: nor could I think otherwise till morning came and, one by one, I saw those that were living.
  • We know vaguely what mighty use the poets, the real poets, from Shakespeare (one might even say from Chaucer) to Shelley would have made of this. If the comparison with these be thought unfair, we can guess from isolated touches in poems like Lochiel and Lord Ullin’s Daughter what a contemporary, a companion in Byron’s group and, as we may say, a “schoolfellow” like Campbell could have made of it. This is the commonplace and conventional generality which it suggested to Rogers:
  • Where many an anxious, many a mournful thought,
  • Troubling, perplexing, on his heart and mind
  • Preyed, ere to arms the morning trumpet called.
  • With equal frankness (it would be unkind to call it insensibility), he wrote Italy partly in verse partly in prose; and there must have been some, perhaps many, to whom the illiberal but critical thought must have suggested itself, “Why not all in prose?” The somewhat famousstory of Ginevra would have lost little; and, perhaps, only one piece, and that the best of all, “The Campagna of Rome,” might be saved, in almost its own figure, by the lines
  • Once again
  • We look; and lo! the sea is white with sails
  • Innumerable, wafting to the shore
  • Treasures untold; the vale, the promontories
  • A dream of glory; temples, palaces,
  • Called up as by enchantment; acqueducts
  • Among the groves and glades, rolling along
  • Rivers on many an arch high overhead—
  • And in the centre, like a burning sun
  • The Imperial City.
  • Let us leave Rogers with that line and a half and with only a historical, not a spiteful, reference to Paradise Regained; for hardly anywhere else, in short poem or in long, has he come so near the “poetic moment,” even if he has come near, also, to Milton in more senses than one.