The Books Of Samuel Rogers by Austin Dobson

Story type: Essay

One common grave, according to Garrick, covers the actor and his art. The same may be said of the raconteur. Oral tradition, or even his own writings, may preserve his precise words; but his peculiarities of voice or action, his tricks of utterance and intonation,–all the collateral details which serve to lend distinction or piquancy to the performance–perish irrecoverably. The glorified gramophone of the future may perhaps rectify this for a new generation; and give us, without mechanical drawback, the authentic accents of speakers dead and gone; but it can never perpetuate the dramatic accompaniment of gesture and expression. If, as always, there are exceptions to this rule, they are necessarily evanescent. Now and then, it may be, some clever mimic will recall the manner of a passed-away predecessor; and he may even contrive to hand it on, more or less effectually, to a disciple. But the reproduction is of brief duration; and it is speedily effaced or transformed.

In this way it is, however, that we get our most satisfactory idea of the once famous table-talker, Samuel Rogers. Charles Dickens, who sent Rogers several of his books; who dedicated Master Humphrey’s Clock to him; and who frequently assisted at the famous breakfasts in St. James’s Place, was accustomed–rather cruelly, it may be thought–to take off his host’s very characteristic way of telling a story; and it is, moreover, affirmed by Mr. Percy Fitzgerald[1] that, in the famous Readings, “the strangely obtuse and owl-like expression, and the slow, husky croak” of Mr. Justice Stareleigh in the “Trial from Pickwick ” were carefully copied from the author of the Pleasures of Memory, That Dickens used thus to amuse his friends is confirmed by the autobiography of the late Frederick Locker,[2] who perfectly remembered the old man, to see whom he had been carried, as a boy, by his father. He had also heard Dickens repeat one of Rogers’s stock anecdotes (it was that of the duel in a dark room, where the more considerate combatant, firing up the chimney, brings down his adversary);[3]–and he speaks of Dickens as mimicking Rogers’s “calm, low-pitched, drawling voice and dry biting manner very comically.”[4] At the same time, it must be remembered that these reminiscences relate to Rogers in his old age. He was over seventy when Dickens published his first book, Sketches by Boz; and, though it is possible that Rogers’s voice was always rather sepulchral, and his enunciation unusually deliberate and monotonous, he had nevertheless, as Locker says, “made story-telling a fine art.” Continued practice had given him the utmost economy of words; and as far as brevity and point are concerned, his method left nothing to be desired. Many of his best efforts are still to be found in the volume of Table-Talk edited for Moxon in 1856 by the Rev. Alexander Dyce; or preferably, as actually written down by Rogers himself in the delightful Recollections issued three years later by his nephew and executor, William Sharpe.


1: Recreations of a Literary Man, 1882, p. 137.

2: My Confidences, by Frederick Locker-Lampson, 1896, pp. 98 and 325.

3: The duellists were an Englishman and a Frenchman; and Rogers was in the habit of adding as a postscript: “When I tell that in Paris, I always put the Englishman up the chimney!”

4: It may be added that Mr. Percy Fitzgerald, himself no mean mime, may be sometimes persuaded to imitate Dickens imitating Rogers.

But although the two things are often intimately connected, the “books,” and not the “stories” of Rogers, are the subject of the present paper. After this, it sounds paradoxical to have to admit that his reputation as a connoisseur far overshadowed his reputation as a bibliophile. When, in December 1855, he died, his pictures and curios,–his “articles of virtue and bigotry” as a modern Malaprop would have styled them,–attracted far more attention than the not very numerous volumes forming his library.[5] What people flocked to see at the tiny treasure-house overlooking the Green Park,[6]which its nonagenarian owner had occupied for more than fifty years, were the “Puck” and “Strawberry Girl” of Sir Joshua, the Titians, Giorgiones, and Guidos,[7] the Poussins and Claudes, the drawings of Raphael and Duerer and Lucas van Leyden, the cabinet decorated by Stothard, the chimney-piece carved by Flaxman; the miniatures and bronzes and Etruscan vases,–all the “infinite riches in a little room,” which crowded No. 22 from garret to basement. These were the rarities that filled the columns of the papers and the voices of the quidnuncs when in 1856 they came to the hammer. But although the Press of that day takes careful count of these things, it makes little reference to the sale of the “books” of the banker-bard who spent some L15,000 on the embellishments of his Italy and his Poems; and although Dr. Burney says that Rogers’s library included “the best editions of the best authors in most languages,” he had clearly no widespread reputation as a book-collector pure and simple. Nevertheless he loved his books,–that is, he loved the books he read. And, as far as can be ascertained, he anticipated the late Master of Balliol, since he read only the books he liked. Nor was he ever diverted from his predilections by mere fashion or novelty. “He followed Bacon’s maxim”–says one who knew him–“to read much, not many things: multum legere, non multa. He used to say, ‘When a new book comes out, I read an old one.’”[8]

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5: The prices obtained confirm this. Thetotaisum realised was L45,188:14:3. Of this the books represented no more than L1415:5.

6: This–with its triple range of bow-windows, from one of which Rogers used to watch his favourite sunsets–is now the residence of Lord Northcliffe.

7: Three of these–the ” Noli me tangere ” of Titian, Giorgione’s “Knight in Armour,” and Guide’s ” Ecce Homo “–are now in the National Gallery, to which they were bequeathed by Rogers.

8: Edinburgh Review, vol. civ. p. 105, by Abraham Hayward.]

The general Rogers-sale at Christie’s took place in the spring of 1856, and twelve days had been absorbed before the books were reached. Their sale took six days more– i.e. from May 12 to May 19. As might be expected from Rogers’s traditional position in the literary world, the catalogue contains many presentation copies. What, at first sight, would seem the earliest, is the Works of Edward Moore, 1796, 2 vols. But if this be the fabulist and editor of the World, it can scarcely have been received from the writer, since, in 1796, Moore had been dead for nearly forty years. With Bloomfield’s poems of 1802, l. p., we are on surer ground, for Rogers, like Capel Lofft, had been kind to the author of The Farmer’s Boy, and had done his best to obtain him a pension. Another early tribute, subsequently followed by the Tales of the Hall, was Crabbe’s Borough, which he sent to Rogers in 1810, in response to polite overtures made to him by the poet. This was the beginning of a lasting friendship, of no small import to Crabbe, as it at once admitted him to Rogers’s circle, an advantage of which there are many traces in Crabbe’s journal. Next comes Madame de Stael’s much proscribed De l’Allamagne (the Paris edition); and from its date, 1813, it must have been presented to Rogers when its irrepressible author was in England. She often dined or breakfasted at St. James’s Place, where (according to Byron), she out-talked Whitbread, confounded Sir Humphry Davy, and was herself well ” ironed “[9] by Sheridan. Rogers considered Corinne to be her best novel, and Delphine a terrible falling-off. The Germany he found “very fatiguing.” “She writes her works four or five times over, correcting them only in that way”–he says. “The end of a chapter [is] always the most obscure, as she ends with an epigram,”[10] Another early presentation copy is the second edition of Bowles’s Missionary, 1815. According to Rogers, who claims to have suggested the poem, it was to have been inscribed to him. But somehow or other, the book got dedicated to noble lord who–Rogers adds drily–never, either by word or letter, made any acknowledgment of the homage.[11] It is not impossible that there is some confusion of recollection here, or Rogers is misreported by Dyce. The first anonymous edition of the Missionary, 1813, had no dedication; and the second was inscribed to the Marquess of Lansdowne because he had been prominent among those who recognised the merit of its predecessor.

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9: Perhaps a remembrance of Mrs Slipslop’s ” ironing.”

10: Clayden’s Rogers and his Contemporaries, 1889, i. 225. As an epigrammatist himself, Rogers might have been more indulgent to a consoeur. Here is one of Madame de Stael’s “ends of chapters”:–” La monotonie, dans la retraite, tranquillise l’ame; la monotonie, dans le grand monde, fatigue l’esprit ” (ch. viii.). But he evidently found her rather overpowering.

11: Table-Talk, 1856, p. 258.]

Several of Scott’s poems, with Rogers’s autograph, and Scott’s card, appear in the catalogue; and, in 1812, Byron, who a year after inscribed the Giaour to Rogers, sent him the first two cantos of Childe Harold. In 1838, Moore presents Lalla Rookh, with Heath’s plates, a work which, upon its first appearance, twenty years earlier, had been dedicated to Rogers. In 1839 Charles Dickens followed with Nicholas Nickleby, succeeded a year later by Master Humphrey’s Clock (1840-1), also dedicated to Rogers in recognition, not only of his poetical merit, but of his “active sympathy with the poorest and humblest of his kind.” Rogers was fond of “Little Nell”; and in the Preface to Barnaby Rudge, Dickens gracefully acknowledged that “for a beautiful thought” in the seventy-second chapter of the Old Curiosity Shop, he was indebted to Rogers’s Ginevra in the Italy :–

And long might’st thou have seen
An old man wandering as in quest of something,
Something he could not find–he knew not what.

The American Notes, 1842, was a further offering from Dickens. Among other gifts may be noted Wordsworth’s Poems, 1827-35; Campbell’s Pilgrim of Glencoe, 1842; Longfellow’s Ballads and Voices of the Night, 1840-2; Macaulay’s Lays and Tennyson’s Poems, 1842; and lastly, Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art, 1844, and Carlyle’s Letters and Speeches of Cromwell, 1846. Brougham’s philosophical novel of Albert Lunel; or, the Chateau of Languedoc, 3 vols, 1844, figures in the catalogue as “withdrawn.” It had been suppressed “for private reasons” upon the eve of publication; and this particular copy being annotated by Rogers (to whom it was inscribed) those concerned were no doubt all the more anxious that it should not get abroad. Inspection of the reprint of 1872 shows, however, that want of interest was its chief error. A reviewer of 1858 roundly calls it “feeble” and “commonplace”; and it could hardly have increased its writer’s reputation. Indeed, by some, it was not supposed to be from his Lordship’s pen at all. Rogers, it may be added, frequently annotated his books. His copies of Pope, Gray and Scott had many marginalia. Clarke’s and Fox’s histories of James II. were also works which he decorated in this way.

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As already hinted, not very many bibliographical curiosities are included in the St. James’s Place collection; and to look for Shakespeare quartos or folios, for example, would be idle. Ordinary editions of Shakespeare, such as Johnson’s and Theobald’s; Shakespeariana, such as Mrs. Montagu’s Essay and Ayscough’s Index,–these are there of course. If the list also takes in Thomas Caldecott’s Hamlet, and As you like it (1832), that is, first, because the volume is a presentation copy; and secondly, because Caldecott’s colleague in his frustrate enterprise was Crowe, Rogers’s Miltonic friend, hereafter mentioned. Rogers’s own feeling for Shakespeare was cold and hypercritical; and he was in the habit of endorsing with emphasis Ben Jonson’s aspiration that the master had blotted a good many of his too-facile lines. Nevertheless, it is possible to pick out a few exceptional volumes from Mr. Christie’s record. Among the earliest comes a copy of Garth’s Dispensary, 1703, which certainly boasts an illustrious pedigree. Pope, who received it from the author, had carefully corrected it in several places; and in 1744 bequeathed it to Warburton. Warburton, in his turn, handed it on to Mason, from whom it descended to Lord St. Helens, by whom, again, shortly before his death (1815), it was presented to Rogers. To Pope’s corrections, which Garth adopted, Mason had added a comment. What made the volume of further interest was, that it contained Lord Dorchester’s receipt for his subscription to Pope’s Homer; and, inserted at the end, a full-length portrait of Pope; viz., that engraved in Warton’s edition of 1797, as sketched in pen-and-ink by William Hoare of Bath. Another interesting item is the quarto first edition (the first three books) of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Ponsonbie, 1590: and a third, the Paradise Lost of Milton in ten books, the original text of 1667 (with the 1669 title-page and the Argument and Address to the Reader)–both bequeathed to Rogers by W, Jackson of Edinburgh. (One of the stock exhibits at “Memory Hall”–as 22 St. James’s Place was playfully called by some of the owner’s friends–was Milton’s receipt to Symmons the printer for the five pounds he received for his epic. This, framed and glazeds hung, according to Lady Eastlake, on one of the doors.[12]) A fourth rare book was William Bonham’s black-letter Chaucer, a folio which had been copiously annotated in MS. by Home Tooke, who gave it to Rogers. It moreover contained, at folio 221, the record of Tooke’s arrest at Wimbledon on 16th May, 1794, and subsequent committal on the 19th to the Tower, for alleged high treason.[13] Further notabilia in this category were the Duke of Marlborough’s Hypnerotomachie of Poliphilus, Paris, 1554, and also the Aldine edition of 1499; the very rare 1572 issue of Camoens’s Lusiads; Holbein’s Dance of Death, the Lyons issues of 1538 and 1547; first editions of Bewick’s Birds and Quadrupeds; Le Sueur’s Life of St. Bruno, with the autograph of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and a rare quarto (1516) of Boccaccio’s Decameron.


12: It was, no doubt, identical with the “Original Articles of Agreement” (Add. MSS. 18,861) between Milton and Samuel Symmons, printer, dated 27th April, 1667, presented by Rogers in 1852 to the British Museum. Besides the above-mentioned L5 down, there were to be three further payments of L5 each on the sale of three editions, each of 1300 copies. The second edition appeared in 1674, the year of the author’s death.

13: He was acquitted. His notes, in pencil, and relating chiefly to his Diversions of Parley, were actually written in the Tower. Rogers, who was present at the trial in November, mentioned, according to Dyce, a curious incident bearing upon a now obsolete custom referred to by Goldsmith and others. As usual, the prisoner’s dock, in view of possible jail-fever, was strewn with sweet-smelling herbs-fennel, rosemary and the like. Tooke indignantly swept them away. Another of several characteristic anecdotes told by Rogers of Tooke is as follows:–Being asked once at college what his father was, he replied, “A Turkey Merchant.” Tooke pere was a poulterer in Clare Market.]

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But the mere recapitulation of titles readily grows tedious, even to the elect; and I turn to some of the volumes with which, from references in the Table-Talk and Recollections, their owner might seem to be more intimately connected. Foremost among these–one would think–should come his own productions. Most of these, no doubt, are included under the auctioneers’ heading of “Works and Illustrations.” In the “Library” proper, however, there are few traces of them. There is a quarto copy of the unfortunate Columbus, with Stothard’s sketches; and there is the choice little Pleasures of Memory of 1810, with Luke Clennell’s admirable cuts in facsimile from the same artist’s pen-and-ink,–a volume which, come what may, will always hold its own in the annals of book-illustration. That there were more than one of these latter may be an accident. Rogers, nevertheless, like many book-lovers, must have indulged in duplicates. According to Hayward, once at breakfast, when some one quoted Gray’s irresponsible outburst concerning the novels of Marivaux and Crebillon le fils, Rogers asked his guests, three in number, whether they were familiar with Marivaux’s Vie de Marianne, a book which he himself confesses to have read through six times, and which French critics still hold, on inconclusive evidence, to have been the “only begetter” of Richardson’s Pamela and the sentimental novel. None of the trio knew anything about it. “Then I will lend you each a copy,” rejoined Rogers; and the volumes were immediately produced, doubtless by that faithful and indefatigable factotum, Edmund Paine, of whom his master was wont to affirm that he would not only find any book in the house, but out of it as well. What is more (unless it be assumed that the poet’s stock was larger still), one, at least, of the three copies must have been returned, since there is a copy in the catalogue. As might be expected in the admirer of Marivaux’s heroine, the list is also rich in Jean-Jacques, whose ” gout vif pour les dejeuners,” this Amphitryon often extolled, quoting with approval Rousseau’s opinion that ” C’est le temps de la journee ou nous sommes le plus tranquilles, ou nous causons le plus a noire aise. ” Another of his favourite authors was Manzoni, whose Promessi Sposi he was inclined to think he would rather have written than all Scott’s novels; and he never tired of reading Louis Racine’s Memoires of his father, 1747,–that ” filon de l’or pur du dix-septieme siecle “–as Villemain calls it–” qui se prolonge dans l’age suivant. ” Some of Rogers’s likings sound strange enough nowadays. With Campbell, he delighted in Cowper’s Homer, which he assiduously studied, and infinitely preferred to that of Pope. Into Chapman’s it must be assumed that he had not looked–certainly he has left no sonnet on the subject. Milton was perhaps his best-loved bard. “When I was travelling in Italy (he says), I made two authors my constant study for versification,–Milton and Crowe ” (The italics are ours.) It is an odd collocation; but not unintelligible. William Crowe, the now forgotten Public Orator of Oxford, and author of Lewesdon Hill, was an intimate friend; a writer on versification; and, last but not least, a very respectable echo of the Miltonic note, as the following, from a passage dealing with the loss in 1786 of the Halsewell East Indiaman off the coast of Dorset, sufficiently testifies:–

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The richliest-laden ship
Of spicy Ternate, or that annual sent
To the Philippines o’er the southern main
From Acapulco, carrying massy gold,
Were poor to this;–freighted with hopeful Youth
And Beauty, and high Courage undismay’d
By mortal terrors, and paternal Love, etc., etc.

It is not improbable that Rogers caught the mould of his blank verse from the copy rather than from the model. In the matter of style–as Flaubert has said–the second-bests are often the better teachers. More is to be learned from La Fontaine and Gautier than from Moliere and Victor Hugo.

Many art-books, many books addressed specially to the connoisseur, as well as most of those invaluable volumes no gentleman’s library should be without, found their places on Rogers’s hospitable shelves. Of such, it is needless to speak; nor, in this place, is it necessary to deal with his finished and amiable, but not very vigorous or vital poetry. A parting word may, however, be devoted to the poet himself. Although, during his lifetime, and particularly towards its close, his weak voice and singularly blanched appearance exposed him perpetually to a kind of brutal personality now happily tabooed, it cannot be pretended that, either in age or youth, he was an attractive-looking man. In these cases, as in that of Goldsmith, a measure of burlesque sometimes provides a surer criterion than academic portraiture. The bust of the sculptor-caricaturist, Danton, is of course what even Hogarth would have classed as outre [14]; but there is reason for believing that Maclise’s sketch in Fraser of the obtrusively bald, cadaverous and wizened figure in its arm-chair, which gave such a shudder of premonition to Goethe, and which Maginn, reflecting the popular voice, declared to be a mortal likeness–“painted to the very death”–was more like the original than his pictures by Lawrence and Hoppner. One can comprehend, too, that the person whom nature had so ungenerously endowed, might be perfectly capable of retorting to rudeness, or the still-smarting recollection of rudeness, with those weapons of mordant wit and acrid epigram which are not unfrequently the protective compensation of physical shortcomings. But this conceded, there are numberless anecdotes which testify to Rogers’s cultivated taste and real good breeding, to his genuine benevolence, to his almost sentimental craving for appreciation and affection. In a paper on his books, it is permissible to end with a bookish anecdote. One of his favourite memories, much repeated in his latter days, was that of Cowley’s laconic Will,–“I give my body to the earth, and my soul to my Maker.” Lady Eastlake shall tell the rest:–“This … proved on one occasion too much for one of the party, and in an incautious moment a flippant young lady exclaimed, ‘But, Mr. Rogers, what of Cowley’s property ?’ An ominous silence ensued, broken only by a sotto voce from the late Mrs. Procter: ‘Well, my dear, you have put your foot in it; no more invitations for you in a hurry,’ But she did the kind old man, then above ninety, wrong. The culprit continued to receive the same invitations and the same welcome.”[15]


14: Rogers’s own copy of this, which (it may be added), he held in horror, now belongs to Mr. Edmund Gosse. Lord Londonderry has a number of Danton’s busts.

15: Quarterly Review, vol. 167, p. 512.]

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