Samuel Rogers By Frank Stone

Poems by Samuel Rogers


Biography of Samuel Rogers



Samuel Rogers (30 July 1763 – 18 December 1855) was an English poet, banker, and patron of the arts.

Rogers was son of a London banker. He received a careful private education, and entered the bank, of which, upon his father’s death, he became the principal partner. From his early youth he showed a marked taste for literature and the fine arts, which his wealth enabled him to gratify; and in his later years he was a well-known leader in society and a munificent patron of artists and men of letters, his breakfasts, at which he delighted to assemble celebrities in all departments, being famous. He was the author of the following poems: The Pleasures of Memory (1792), Columbus (1810), Jacqueline (1814), Human Life (1819), and Italy (1822). Roger was emphatically the poet of taste, and his writings, while full of allusion and finished description, rarely show passion or intensity of feeling; but are rather the reflections and memory-pictures of a man of high culture and refinement expressed in polished verse. He had considerable powers of conversation and sarcasm. He was offered, but declined, the laureateship.

During his lifetime Rogers was 1 of the most celebrated English poets, although his fame has long since been eclipsed by his Romantic colleagues and friends Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron. His recollections of these and other friends such as Charles James Fox are key sources for information about London artistic and literary life, with which he was intimate, and which he used his wealth to support. He made his money as a banker and was also a discriminating art collector.


London 1763

I thought that Rogers was Jewish (Jews take names of the peoples and tribes they settle amongst and prey upon), since there were already Jewish bankers mingling with English financiers (Jews were conditionally let back into England around 1666, and began to move into the land in the early 1700s), but I was wrong since the family seems to have been originally Welsh, with a dash of French blood through the marriage of the poet’s great-grandfather, the 1st 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.

Youth and education

Rogers was born at Stoke Newington on 30 July 1763. He 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.[2]

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 familiarized 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.

Banker and poet

Samuel Rogers

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 Samuel’s share in the bank’s management and profits became considerable. In 1789 he visited Scotland, where he received special 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.

In 1792 he 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 15 editions, 2/3 of them numbering from 1,000 to 2,000 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 5,000 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 choose 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.[2]

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 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 an early connoisseur.

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.


Man of letters

Samuel Rogers 2

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.[4]

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 labor, 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, everyone 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 2 characteristics, which at 1st sight seemed hardly compatible — the bitterness of his tongue and the kindness of his heart. Everybody dreaded his mordant sarcasm; but everybody thought of him when either pecuniary or personal aid was to be invoked.

When someone 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 Thomas Moore with Francis 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.

His earliest production of importance after settling in Westminster was his fragmentary epic on Columbus (1810, but privately printed 2 years earlier).[3] 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, 3rd 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.[4]

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 4th 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.[4]

No such mystery, however, attended the publication of the 2nd 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 7,000l. 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.”

Last years
In 1844 the placid course of Rogers’s existence was perturbed by a startling blow, a robbery at his bank. 40,000 pounds in notes and 1,000 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 2 years the notes themselves were recovered by a payment of 2,500l. 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.”[4]

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 50,000l. (see ‘Sale Catalogue’ and ‘Catalogue of Purchasers’ by M. H. Bloxam, in the British Museum)[4].

Byron, in particular, claimed Rogers, with several other much stronger poets, as a champion of sound taste against the Lake school, now a conspicuous example of a verdict reversed.[3]

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. His position is due in great measure to 2 fortunate accidents: the establishment of his reputation before the advent,[4] or at least the recognition, of more potent spirits, and the intimate association of his name with that of greater men.

He has, however, a 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.[5]

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 someone who has learned and reflected, and the pathos of someone who has felt and suffered.

Critical introduction

by Sir Henry Taylor

When a poet has become a poet of the past and in the natural course of things his poetry has ceased to be talked about, it is not easy to ascertain how far it may or may not have ceased to be read. Has it ceased to be bought? The answer to that question might be accepted in most cases as answering the other. But in the case of Rogers an element of ambiguity was introduced long since. When a well-known firm some 50 years ago expressed a doubt whether the public would provide a market for a volume he wished them to publish, Rogers, in a tone half serious, half comic, said — “I will make them buy it;” and being a rich man and a great lover of art, he sent for Turner and Stothard, and a volume appeared with such adornments as have never been equalled before or since. It was called by a sarcastic friend of mine “Turner illustrated.”

The Pleasures of Memory is an excellent specimen of what Wordsworth calls ‘the accomplishment of verse’; and it was well worthy to attract attention and admiration at the time when it appeared; for at that time poetry, with few exceptions, was to be distinguished from prose by versification and little else. The Pleasures of Memory is an essay in verse, not wanting in tender sentiment and just reflection, expressed gracefully no doubt, but with a formal and elaborate grace, and in studiously pointed and carefully poised diction, such as the heroic couplet had been trained to assume since the days of Pope.

In 1793 very different days were approaching — days in which poetry was to break its chains, and formality to be thrown to the winds. The didactic dullness of the eighteenth century was presently to be supplanted by the romantic spirit and easy animation of Scott, the amorous appeals of Moore, and the passion of Byron; whilst mere tenderness, thoughtfulness and grace were to share its fate, and be trampled in the dust.

An author’s name will generally continue long to be associated with that of the work which has first made him known to the world, whether or not it be his best. The Pleasures of Memory is probably to this day the best known by name of the author’s principal poems. Those were 7 in number — an “Ode to Superstition,” “The Pleasures of Memory,” “An Epistle to a Friend,” “Columbus,” “Jacqueline,” “Human Life,” and “Italy”; and they were written, the earliest at 22 years of age, the latest at 71.

“Human Life” is a poem of the same type as “The Pleasures of Memory,” and in the same verse. The fault of such poems is that they are about nothing in particular. Their range and scope is so wide that one theme is almost as apposite as another. The poet sets himself to work to think thoughts and devise episodes, and to give them what coherency he can; the result being, that some are forced and others commonplace. But it such poems are to be written by a poet who is not a philosopher, they could not well be executed by any one with more care and skill than by Rogers.

The subject of “Italy” was better chosen. The poet travels from Geneva to Naples; and his itinerary brings picturesque features, alternately with romantic traditions and memorable facts in history, into a natural sequence of poetic themes. They are described and related always in a way to please, often with striking effect; and any one who travels the same road and desires to see with the eyes of a poet what is best worth seeing, and to be reminded of what is best worth remembering, can have no better companion.

The heroic couplet, moreover, is left behind. For before the 1st of the 15 years occupied in the composition of “Italy” (1819–34) Spenserian stanzas, ottava rima, octosyllabic verse, blank verse, any verse, had found itself to be more in harmony with the poetic spirit of the time. “Italy” is the longest of the author’s poems; and for a poem of such length, blank verse is best. It is a form of verse which, since the Elizabethans, no poet except Milton had hitherto used with what could be called signal success; and the abrupt contrasts and startling significance of which it was capable in their hands, will always find a place more naturally in dramatic than in narrative poetry. But the blank verse written by Rogers, though not very expressive, flows with an easy and gentle melody, sufficiently varied, and almost free from faults.

Of the other poems, the “Epistle to a Friend” will perhaps be read with the most pleasure. It is short, familiar, and graceful. The subject is entirely within his powers, though wholly remote from his experience. ‘Every reader,’ he says in the preface, ‘turns with pleasure to those passages of Horace, Pope, and Boileau, which describe how they lived and where they dwelt; and which, being interspersed among their satirical writings, derive a secret and irresistible grace from the contrast, and are admirable examples of what in painting is termed repose;’ and he proceeds to describe a sort of Sabine Farm in which he supposes himself to pass his days in studious seclusion and absolute repose.

His real life was the reverse of all this. His house in St. James’s Place did indeed exemplify the classic ideal described in his poem; it was adorned with exquisite works of art, and with these only; rejecting as inconsistent with purity of taste all ornaments which are ornaments and nothing more; and in its interior it might be said to be a work of art in itself. But his life was a life of society; and in the circles which he frequented, including all who were eminent in literature as well as celebrities in every other walk of life, he was more conspicuous by his conversation and by his wit, than admired as a poet. He had kindness of heart, benevolence, and tender emotions: but his wit was a bitter wit; and it found its way into verse only in the shape of epigrams, too personal and pungent for publication.

It may be matter of regret that he did not adopt the converse of the examples he quotes, of Horace, Pope, and Boileau, and intersperse some satirical writings amongst his other works. His poetic gifts were surpassed by half a dozen or more of his contemporaries; his gift of wit equalled by only one or two. His deliberate and quiet manner of speaking made it the more effective. I remember one occasion on which he threw a satire into a sentence:— “They tell me I say ill-natured things. I have a very weak voice: if I did not say ill-natured things, no one would hear what I said.”

If it is true that he said ill-natured things, it is equally so that he did kind and charitable and generous things, and that he did them in large measure, though, to his credit, with less notoriety.[6]


Rogers was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in November 1796.

In 1850, on Wordsworth’s death, Rogers was asked to succeed him as Poet Laureate, but declined on account of his age.