Samuel Rogers 1763-1855
During his lifetime, Samuel Rogers was a successful and popular poet, counting Wordsworth and Byron among his admirers. He was a prominent member of London's literary and cultured society, renowned for his extensive, tasteful collection of art and his conversation laced with sarcastic wit. However, his literary reputation has not endured. Rogers's work, despite its recognized polish and elegance, has been criticized for its antiquated blandness. Since the mid-nineteenth century, most critics have relegated him to the rank of a minor poet, and Rogers is remembered more for his ability as a conversationalist.
Samuel Rogers was born in Newington Green, a London suburb, into an affluent family. From a young age, Rogers harbored poetic aspirations, fondly learning the poems of Gray, Goldsmith, and Dryden, whose influences are evident in his work. After attending school in Hackney, London, Rogers studied in Stoke Newington under the auspices of James Burgh, whose belief in liberty left an enduring impression on his pupil. Rogers supported unpopular causes, such as American independence. At the age of 16 or 17 Rogers entered his father's bank, where he worked as a clerk during the day and filled his evenings with writing. His earliest published works were not poems, but a series of well received short essays in the style of Samuel Johnson that appeared in Gentleman's Magazine. In 1782 Rogers began composing poems. A decade later he paid a publisher, T. Cadell, to publish his first substantial poetic work, The Pleasures of Memory. It earned the praise of critics, contemporary poets, and the public, and gave Rogers the unusual reputation of a banker-poet. The title remained, although Rogers soon ended his banking career and devoted himself to poetry. He moved to London and courted many eminent literati of his day, including Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, and Scott. Rogers became famous as a host and a man of great taste; his conversations were worthy of record and were later published in Alexander Dyce's Recollections and G. H. Powell's Reminiscences, although his fast tongue was too sharp for some. A wealthy and generous man, Rogers often helped needy literary figures; he provided financial support to Thomas Moore and Richard Brinsley Sheridan among others. In 1850 Rogers was offered the position of Poet Laureate, but ailing in health and recognizing a better poet, he relinquished the honor to Tennyson.
Rogers's long life straddled the Augustan, Romantic, and Victorian poetic movements, although most of his work reflected his favored childhood influences, Gray and Goldsmith. Rogers was not a revolutionary or innovative poet; during his lifetime his verse was read for its urbane refinement and elegance. He polished and reworked his poetry, producing only a handful of works and is principally remembered for two: The Pleasures of Memory and Italy. The Pleasures of Memory, published in 1792, established Rogers's reputation as a poet, gaining praise from several literary magazines of the day including the Monthly Review. Inspired by a trip to Italy in 1815, Rogers began composing Italy (1822-28). Written in blank verse that departed from his earlier adherence to iambic meter, the poem marked a mild transition from his earlier highly polished works. The first publications of Italy received little enthusiasm from the public, so Rogers commissioned Turner and Stothard to lavishly illustrate a second edition. The addition of illustrations made the book wildly popular; Rogers sold many copies of the book, although some critics recognized that without the illustrations, the volume held little value.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century Rogers was one of England's most popular poets. Many of Rogers's contemporaries, now considered among England's greatest poets, regarded Rogers as one of their generation's leading poets. Byron so admired Rogers that he chose to publish his Lara with Rogers's Jacqueline (1814), in the hope that the latter's popularity would boost sales. The Pleasures of Memory brought fame, critical acclaim, and respect to Rogers, selling 30,000 copies between 1792 and 1830. His popularity waned with The Voyage of Columbus (1810) and was only renewed with the highly successful Turner and Stothard illustrated editions of Italy. Overshadowed by Romantic greats, Rogers fell quickly to the status of a minor poet. The elegant polish that was appreciated in his lifetime, has been strongly criticized for its lack of originality, critics preferring the emotional intensity of the Romantics. Writing in 1952, Morchard Bishop pronounced that, "His poetry .. . is dead beyond much hope of resurrection," echoing the opinion of most critics in the twentieth century, who have generally ignored Rogers.