Page images
PDF
EPUB

and the most remarkable features of The Scribbler' are the correctness and ease of the language. The author of the 'Table Talk' has reprinted one of the worst Numbers by way of specimen. All are commonplace enough in point of thought and conception, nor would it be difficult to specify the very 'Ramblers' or 'Idlers' which the writer had in his mind's eye whilst composing them; but the one on Fashion' is written with a freedom and rhythmical flow which are rarely found in essayists of eighteen

'Whether she (Fashion) heightened with a pencil the vermilion of her cheek, or clothed her limbs with a tight or flowing vest; whether she collected her ringlets in a knot, or suffered them to hang negligently on her shoulders; whether she shook the dice, waked the lyre, or filled the sparkling glass, — she was imitated by her votaries, who vied with each other in obsequiousness and reverence. All insisted on presenting their offerings; either their health, their fortunes, or their integrity. Though numbers incessantly disappeared, the assembly, receiving continual supplies, preserved its grandeur and its brilliancy. At the entrance I observed Vanity, fantastically crowned with flowers and feathers, to whom the fickle deity committed the initiation of her votaries. These having fluttered as gaily as their predecessors, in a few moments vanished, and were succeeded by others. All who rejected the solicitations of Vanity, were compelled to enter by Ridicule, whose shafts were universally dreaded. Even Literature, Science, and Philosophy were obliged to comply. Those only escaped who were concealed beneath the veil of Obscurity. As I gazed on this glittering scene, having declined the invitation of Vanity, Ridicule shot an arrow from her bow, which pierced my heart: I fainted, and in the violence of my agitation awaked.'

[ocr errors]

To judge from the type in which they were printed, and the places assigned to them in the columns of Mr. Sylvanus Urban, that practised judge of literary merit appears to have attached no great value to the lucubrations of The Scribbler,' and they were discontinued after September 1781. The author of the Table Talk' states that he was present when Mr. Rogers tore to pieces, and threw into the fire, a manuscript operatic drama, the Vintage of Burgundy,' which he had written early in life. He told me he offered it to a manager, who said, "I will bring "it on the stage if you are determined to have it acted, but it "will certainly be damned." Unless this drama was composed - wholly or in part between 1781 and 1786, we must conclude that this interval was employed in preparing for his first public appearance as a poet, which was not unlikely, considering the amount of lima labor et mora that he was wont to devote to his compositions. The 'Ode to Superstition, with some other Poems,' was published in 1786. It was an eighteenpenny quarto of twenty

six pages, after the fashion of the times, when the eye was relieved by rivulets of text running through meadows of margin.' He is reported as saying: 'I wrote it whilst in my teens, and 'afterwards touched it up. I paid down to the publisher 301. to insure him from being a loser by it. At the end of four years, 'I found that he had sold about twenty copies. However, I was 'consoled by reading in a critique on the Ode that I was "an ""able writer " or some such expression.'

[ocr errors]

Whoever lived much with him will remember, that any reference to the Ode,' was the inevitable prelude to the production of the volume containing the critique,—the Monthly 'Review,' December 1786. It began thus:-'In these pieces 'we perceive the hand of an able master. The Ode to Super'stition is written with uncommon boldness of language and 'strength of diction. The author has collected some of the most 'striking historical facts, to illustrate the tyranny of the demon 'he addresses, and has exhibited them with the fire and energy 'proper to lyric poetry. The following stanzas are particularly 'excellent.' The reviewer then quotes, without remarking the resemblance, the very stanzas or strophes which are most pal pably imitated from Gray's Bard. Dryden's magnificent lyrical burst was also copied in parts, and the result recalls the fable of the ambitious frog, or reminds us of all the contortions of the 'Sybil without one particle of her inspiration.' Almost the only lines which do not creak, groan and tremble with the strain, or which bear token of his subsequently matured preference for simple uninverted language, are the following:

[ocr errors]

'Hark? who mounts the sacred pyre,
Blooming in her bridal vest:

She hurls the torch! she fans the fire!

To die is to be blest.

She clasps her lord to part no more,

And sighing, sinks! but sinks to soar.'

Thou spak'st, and lo! a new creation glowed.

Each unhewn mass of living stone

Was clad in horrors, not its own,

And at its base the trembling nations bowed.
Giant Error, darkly grand,

Grasped the globe with iron hand.'

[ocr errors]

The wonder is, that whilst imitating Gray, Rogers was not irresistibly and exclusively attracted by the Elegy. One would have thought that Rogers, of all others, would have been fascinated by the exquisite finish and sober grace of that incomparable performance. But it was easier to mimic the clamour

VOL. CIV. NO. CCXI.

G

of the dithyrambic ode than to catch the pathos and simplicity of the Elegy' or the Ode to Eton College.'

Mr. Rogers's compositions down to this time, both in verse and prose, leave the impression that he was extremely anxious to write without having anything to write about. He had sharpened and polished his tools, and had acquired no slight dexterity in the use of them, but materials were altogether wanting. He had laid up no stock of thought, sentiment, or observation worthy of being worked up or moulded into form; and his attempts to compensate for this deficiency by artificial fire, borrowed movements, and forced enthusiasm, proved about as successful as those of the German baron who jumped over the chairs and tables to acquire vivacity. Rogers, however, was not to be dispirited by failure. He at length hit upon the right vein, and from the moment he discovered that he was destined to excel by grace, elegance, subdued sentiment, and chastened fancy not by fervid passion, lofty imagination, or deep feeling, his poetic fortune was made.

[ocr errors]

During the six years that elapsed before he again ventured into print, he visited Paris and Edinburgh, conversed with some who were acting as well as with those who were writing history, and indefinitely extended his knowledge of books, of external nature, of social systems, and of mankind. The firstfruits were the Pleasures of Memory,' published with the name of the author in 1792.

The epoch was fortunately hit upon or judiciously chosen. The old school was wearing out, and the new had not commenced. The poem struck into the happy medium between the precise and conventional style, and the free and natural one. The only competitor formidable from newly acquired popularity, was Cowper. Crabbe's fame was then limited: Darwin never had much and Burns, incomparably the greatest poetic genius of his generation (1759-1796), was not appreciated in England in his lifetime, or something better than an exciseman's place would have been bestowed upon him. We are therefore not surprised at the immediate success of Rogers's second and better calculated experiment on the public taste. Yet with undeniable merits of a high order, it had little of the genuine inspiration of original genius. The strongest proof of its deficiency in this respect is that, although it has long taken its place as an English classic, none of its mellifluous verses or polished images are freshly remembered, like The coming events cast their 'shadows before,' of Campbell: or the Oh, woman in our hours ' of ease,' of Scott; or the Oh, ever thus from childhood's hour,' of Moore; or the He who hath bent him o'er the dead,' of

[ocr errors]

6

[ocr errors]

Byron; or the Creature not too bright or good,' of Wordsworth. Any zealous admirer of these writers will be ready at any moment to justify his or her admiration, by quoting passage after passage. Where is the zealous admirer of Rogers's poetry, who feels qualified, without adequate preparation, to recite six consecutive lines from the Pleasures of Memory?' Yet the most cursory reader will light upon many passages of great elegance of expression, impaired by unmeaning antithesis and incessant alliteration, and seldom relieved by originality of thought or novelty of metaphor. The commencement, and indeed almost everything rural or pastoral in the poem, is too redolent of Goldsmith; and in minute description, Rogers provokes compromising comparisons with Crabbe; but he has never been excelled in the art of blending fancy and feeling with historic incident and philosophical reflection, as in the passage beginning

'So Scotia's Queen, as slowly dawned the day,
Rose on her couch, and gazed her soul away.'

The next line is spoiled by an inversion, and we pass on to -
Thus kindred objects kindred thoughts inspire,

As summer clouds flash forth electric fire.
And hence this spot gives back the joys of youth,
Warm as the life, and with the mirror's truth.
Hence homefelt pleasure prompt the Patriot's sigh,
This makes him wish to live and dare to die.

And hence the charm historic scenes impart;

Hence Tiber awes, and Avon melts the heart;
Aërial forms, in Tempe's classic vale,

Glance through the gloom, and whisper in the gale,
In wild Vaucluse with love and Laura dwell,
And watch and weep in Eloisa's cell.'

The fondness for alliteration displayed in this poem attracted the attention of the critics; and Rogers used to say that a proposed emendation in the second of the following lines, which form the commencement of the second part, was the best suggestion he ever received from a reviewer

'Sweet Memory, wafted by thy gentle gale,
Oft up

the stream of Time I turn my sail.'

The critic's suggestion was that, to complete the alliteration, the line should stand thus

'Oft up the stream of Time I turn my tail.'

The Pleasures of Memory' ends thus:

'Hail, Memory, hail! in thy exhaustless mine.
From age to age unnumbered treasures shine:
Thought and her shadowy brood thy call obey,
And Place and Time are subject to thy sway;
Thy pleasures most we feel, when most alone,
The only pleasures we can call our own.
Lighter than air, Hope's summer visions die;
If but a fleeting cloud obscure the sky;
If but a beam of sober reason play,
Lo, Fancy's fairy frost work melts away!
But can the wiles of Art, the grasp of Power,
Snatch the rich relics of a well-spent hour?
These, when the trembling spirit wings her flight,
Pour round her path a stream of living light;
And gild those pure and perfect realms of rest,
Where Virtue triumphs, and her sons are blest.'

These are the lines which Mackintosh, thereby giving the measure of his own poetic feeling, used to say were equal to the closing lines of the Dunciad. This was like saying that Virgil's apostrophe to Marcellus is equal to Homer's battle of the gods, the style being essentially distinct; and the only real question is, whether any given degree of grace or sentiment can be placed on a level with the corresponding degree of grandeur or sublimity. We are by no means sure that, if it were necessary to challenge a comparison with Pope, we should not rather rely on one of the passages in which Rogers, by dint of finely-shaded language and felicitous illustration, invests the description of a familiar phenomenon in mental philosophy with the most seductive charms of sensibility and poetry. For example:

'Ah! who can tell the triumphs of the mind,

By truth illumined, and by taste refined?

When age has quenched the eye, and closed the ear,
Still nerved for action in her native sphere,

Oft will she rise-with searching glance pursue
Some long-loved image vanished from her view;
Dart thro' the deep recesses of the past,
O'er dusky forms in chains of slumber cast;
With giant grasp fling back the folds of night,
And snatch the faithless fugitive to light.
So thro' the grove the impatient mother flies,
Each sunless glade, each secret pathway tries;
Till the thin leaves the truant boy disclose,

Long on the wood-moss stretched in sweet repose.'

Why verses like these should have failed to lay fast and durable hold on the public imagination, is a problem well worthy

« PreviousContinue »