LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
Peter William Clayden:
Samuel Rogers and his Contemporaries


Chapter I. 1803-1805.
Chapter II. 1805-1809.
Chapter III. 1810-1812.
Chapter IV. 1813-1814.
Chapter V. 1814-1815.
Chapter VI. 1815-1816.
Chapter VII. 1816-1818.
Chapter VIII. 1818-19.
Chapter IX. 1820-1821.
Chapter X. 1822-24.
Chapter XI. 1825-1827.
Chapter I. 1828-1830.
Chapter II. 1831-34.
Chapter III. 1834-1837.
Chapter IV. 1838-41.
Chapter V. 1842-44.
Chapter VI. 1845-46.
Chapter VII. 1847-50.
Chapter VIII. 1850
Chapter IX. 1851.
Chapter X. 1852-55.

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Samuel Rogers, Lord Byron, and Holland House.

The high estimation in which Lord Byron held Samuel Rogers’ poetry has been regarded as a lapse in judgment. If so it was a delusion widely shared since both the few and the many of Byron’s generation united in placing Rogers among the greatest living poets. Unlike that of Bowles or Hayley or Charlotte Smith, Rogers’ reputation had staying power; it declined not because he was discovered to be second-rate but because subsequent English poetry changed in radical ways. One should not be taken aback by Ruskin’s claim that Rogers’ Italy “determined the main tenor of my life;” Rogers was a considerable figure.

Byron’s relationship with Rogers was more social than personal or literary; it was a relationship that mattered when Rogers was instrumental in reconciling Byron with Thomas Moore, when Byron was wooing and being wooed by the Holland House set, and when Byron subsequently lost his social standing in the wake of the separation. Once Byron was out of the Holland House orbit Rogers, the pink of propriety, became a target of his satire. For his part, Rogers seems to have been remarkably untouched by a poet who was only one of dozens of celebrities he had known.

Social relationships are not unimportant. Samuel Rogers and his circle of acquaintances were the implicit or explicit context for much of what Byron has to say in his poetry and letters, whether it be his scathing satire on English manners or his enduring admiration for liberal politics. The three hundred letters printed in Rogers and his Contemporaries present the Holland House universe as Byron saw it and participated in it—and rather more than that. Since they continue for three decades after Byron’s death one can see whither it all tended in a form of collective autobiography. In Peter Clayden’s pages it is an aged Henry Brougham who has the last word.

Holland House was the London residence of the Foxes, barons Holland. As a young man Samuel Rogers had enjoyed the hospitality of Charles James Fox, the great Whig leader and uncle of the third Lord Holland who was the friend alike of Byron and Rogers. The elder Fox had made Holland House the headquarters of Whig political life, as it would remain long after his death in 1806. It was a social center for opposition politicians and intellectuals. While Lady Holland was not someone that all women would consort with, she was a considerable person, someone to whom otherwise bold men saw fit to offer implicit obedience. Regulars at Holland House were members of an intimate society that was exclusive if also sometimes excluded.

Byron had a title without a fortune and Rogers had a fortune without a title: their acceptance within elite Whig circles was owing to their talent and to their public character (as Byron would discover to his cost). They were admired for being at the top of their profession, for their extravagant displays of generosity, for their charm and amiability, but also it seems for their capacity to inspire fear. “They tell me I say ill-natured things,” said Rogers to Sir Henry Taylor. “I have a very weak voice; if I did not say ill-natured things no one would hear what I said.” Byron’s treatment of Rogers in “Question and Answer” was at once a censure of this behavior and an instance of it: “Little hints of heavy scandals | Every friend in turn he handles.” If one consorted with Rogers and Byron at some personal risk, their real or apparent friendship was perhaps valued all the more for that.

Like Byron’s, Rogers’ character can seem a bundle of contradictions. The Poet of Memory was, like Byron, a miserly spendthrift, a benevolent egoist, a pious sceptic, a snobbish democrat, a political radical enmeshed in the established order. Their physical persons were alike fascinating: Byron’s club foot and Rogers’ repellent physiognomy were frequent subjects of remark. Rogers’ cadaverous appearance and valetudinarianism belied his robust constitution; he would outlive them all. They were interesting men as well as interesting poets.

The odd assortment of qualities and commitments that eventually set Byron apart from polite society played out differently in the case of Rogers, who was a mediator rather than an antagonist. He was called upon to adjudicate quarrels among poets and politicians, to negotiate relationships between writers and publishers, to introduce artists to potential patrons. His long-standing ties to religious dissent and political radicalism did not at all inhibit his personal friendships with peers and prelates: if the social ease with which he moved between contending spheres and competing interests suggests a degree of hypocrisy it also made him extremely useful to those who knew him and relied on his experience and judgment.

For all his banking fortune Rogers was not, by comparison to many of those he consorted with, a wealthy man. He could not afford to host dinner parties for dozens of people or to keep open house at a country home. Neither did he have a spouse to manage his invitations and arrangements. His happy solution was to entertain small parties of friends and social incomers at his famous “breakfasts” which for several decades were an essential part of the literary order in London society. Amid the elegant surroundings of his small house on Green Park a long series of aspiring authors enjoyed intimate conversations in which they were introduced to potential patrons and allies, who in turn were introduced to the new ideas and undiscovered talent.

Notable among these were the American men of letters Rogers was particularly assiduous to cultivate and who reciprocated with the grateful letters of acknowledgement and introduction that occupy a substantial portion of Rogers and his Contemporaries. Edward Everett, president of Harvard University, went so far as to ship a painter to London for the express purpose of painting Rogers’ portrait for the benefit of his American admirers. If these letters do not make for very entertaining reading they do illustrate Rogers’ importance in contracting literary business.

The social services he provided for the Edinburgh Review set were not unlike those performed by John Murray for the Quarterly reviewers. Like Murray Rogers was a political partisan who was willing to cross party lines, as the letters from Scott, Crabbe, and Wordsworth testify. While maintaining close ties to the leading political characters of the age, both maintained a degree of separation from active political engagement. Politics was not, with them, quite an all-consuming passion, inseparable as it was from the literature of the time. Social status plainly was.

Rogers and his Contemporaries was published in 1889 as the two-volume sequel to The Early Life of Samuel Rogers which had appeared two years earlier. In format it is a standard Victorian life-and-letters volume, which is to say that it consists of transcripts of manuscript letters interspersed with connecting biographical material supplied by the editor. As the title implies, it is unusual in the scope of its coverage: more than a hundred different correspondents are represented, a phenomenal number considering that Clayden seems to have been selective in what he decided to include. There are comparatively few letters by Rogers himself, most of those being reports of travels addressed to the poet’s sister Sarah. Rogers himself does not seem to have been much of a letter-writer.

Peter William Clayden (1827–1902) was in several respects the right man for the work. As a Unitarian minister and political journalist he was quite at home with Rogers’ brand of liberalism (Clayden himself had three times been an unsuccessful candidate for Parliament). Before beginning his work on Rogers he had published a biography of Rogers’ nephew, Samuel Sharpe, Egyptologist and Translator of the Bible (1883) which would have introduced him to surviving members of Rogers’ family. Among these would have been Rogers’ great-niece Ellen Sharpe who in 1887 became the second Mrs. Clayden.

These advantages could also be liabilities. If Clayden had access to the family papers he also had family members who needed to be pleased: his biography seems at times like an extended apology for Samuel Rogers. This was in part necessary since the poet’s reputation as wasp and a hypocrite, amplified by Byron’s satire, was becoming a caricature. Yet one rebels at the number of sycophantic letters introduced, wishing for more matter and less flattery. Clayden seems to have found letterhead coronets and celebrity signatures more attractive than epistolary style and substance.

The editor’s focus on politics can also be troublesome. Since Samuel Rogers was a poet and a connoisseur one is disappointed to find so few letters devoted to aesthetic matters (though there are some good ones). A long series of letters from Henry Brougham relating to Napoleon III is likely to seem less “remarkable” to the reader than they did to Clayden and they have nothing to do with Rogers or the narrative. Clayden seems to have had very little interest in the half-forgotten literary figures whose letters one would most wish to have. “Of the vast number he received” we are given only one of Joanna Baillie’s episitles to Rogers. There are, however, fine letters from Conversation Sharp, Uvedale Price, Walter Scott, Charles Lamb, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and of course Byron.

For all its shortcomings (among them the usual lack of annotation and habit of suppressing forenames that leaves Mr. Smith and Miss Brown unidentifiable) Clayden’s biography possesses the compensating virtues of the life-and-letters genre. The pageant of Regency England is displayed through eye-witness accounts of its glitter and genius, its virtue and vanity. Readers of Disraeli’s novels will relish accounts of country house visits and jaunts to Paris and Rome penned by or about the real-life originals of his characters. Rogers lived long enough to know three generations of Holland House Whigs. Not the least interesting thing about this volume is the way in which Byron’s brief career figures as but a passing distraction amid the ongoing rounds of politics and dissipation. So it must have seemed to many who knew him socially.