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ART. XI. Poems, by S. Rogers. Small 8vo. pp. 276. London, Cadell. 1813.
THE first poem in this collection does not fall within the province of our criticism. It has been published many years, and has acquired that sort of popularity which is, perhaps, more decisive than any other single test of merit. It has been generally admired, and, what is not always a certain consequence of being admired, it has been generally read. The circulation of it has not been confined to the highly educated and critical part of the public, but it has received the applause which to works of the imagination is quite as flattering-of that far more numerous class, who, withut attempting to judge by accurate and philosophical rules, read poetry only for the pleasure it affords them, and praise because they are delighted. It is to be found in all libraries, and in most parlour windows.
Not that the Pleasures of Memory' entitles its author to a place in the higher class of English poets. But it was published at a moment of great poetical dearth, when the old school (if we may so express ourselves) was drawn almost to its lees, and before the new one had appeared:-the subject was very fortunate, and it was not too long-it abounded in pleasing, though detached pictures and it every where afforded evidence of a highly cultivated and elegant mind.
We have always been desirous to see something more from the hand of an author whose first appearance was so auspicious. But year after year rolled on, and we began to fear that indolence, the occupations of a busy life, or the dread of detracting from a reputation already so high, would for ever prevent our wishes from being gratified. We were therefore both pleased and surprised, when, upon accidentally taking up the last edition of Mr. Rogers's poems, we found that it was enriched, not only with several very elegant wooden cuts, but with an entirely new performance in eleven cantos, called Fragments of a Poem on the Voyage of Columbus.'
The first remark that presents itself to our minds upon reading the title of this work is, that Mr. Rogers has been far less happy than before in his choice of a subject. True it is, that in the whole history of the world we find no greater event than the discovery of America-no more illustrious name than that of the discoverer. Still, however, we have strong doubts whether either the man or the event is well calculated to become the subject of poetical composition. Columbus is a purely historical person. His virtues and actions, though they place him incontestably in the highest class of great men, are not of that sort that ever have been, or ever
can be married to immortal verse.' He was a grave, austere, thinking, scientific personage. He had courage-true manly courage-but it was not of that shewy brilliant kind which seeks out and shines in combats and martial achievements. Inferior to the Achilles, and Orlandos and Marmions, as a theme for epic and romantic song, as much as he is superior to these splendid and mischievous personages in the eye of reason and philosophy, the most brilliant imagination would seek in vain to supply a single trait that should render more striking the simplest tale that can be told of his sufferings and his glories. His severe, awful, and melancholy form, unveiled by the hand of truth, will command the gratitude and veneration of all ages: you only weaken its effect by attempting to hang over it the drapery of fiction.
As the discoverer of America is not a poetical person, so neither is the discovery itself a circumstance capable of much poetical illustration. It is not the mere greatness of an event that renders it fit for verse. The charm of poetry consists in its pictures of external nature, and still more, in its description of the diversities of human character, and the workings of human passions. It is the misfortune of Mr. Rogers's subject that it excludes both. Poetry refuses itself to the melancholy task of detailing the disappointments and humiliations of Columbus wandering from court to court, and beseeching in vain the avaricious or short-sighted sovereigus of Europe to become participators in that glory which he justly and confidently anticipated. Mr. Rogers's good taste has taught him, that though such a topic may be alluded to with grace and pathos, it cannot be dwelt upon without disgust. The voyage too itself is barren of circumstances. Nothing happens in the course of it that either accelerates or retards the catastrophe. It exhibits to our view, one man, and one event--a man who must be pourtrayed in the soberest colours of reality-one event which sinks all the rest into absolute insignificance. The subject is still more unfavourable to description, than it is to narration. It would be idle and tedious to make the voyage of Columbus a vehicle of describing objects common to every voyage whatever; and it affords very little that is peculiar to itself. The new-found world indeed is full of graud, delightful, and curious objects; but you cannot describe them, because the interest of the poem must cease with the discovery.
These are some of the difficulties which we conceive belong to the subject. We must now consider how far Mr. Rogers has been able to overcome them.
The story is strictly confined to the voyage. It begins with the sailing of Columbus, and ends a few hours after he lands. It is supposed to be related, not by the poet, but by one of the compa
nious of Columbus himself, retired to a monastery, where, not kag before his death, he composed this account of the great adFenture in which he had been engaged.
The idea appears to us happy-but we do not observe that much use is made of it. Except for one or two passages, the lay might with equal propriety have been left in the mouth of the minstrel. Those passages, however, are executed with considerable taste and feeling, and it was, perhaps, worth while, even for their sake, to opt a contrivance which, where it does no good, at least does no
Sensible that barrenness is the defect of his subject, Mr. Rogers has called in the aid of invention to supply it with a little more of variety and incident than naturally belong to it. We have, in the bird Canto, an assembly of the Zemi, or evil spirits,' conFoked by their chief Merion,' who acquaints them that the pe
prescribed by Omnipotence to their rule over this part of the gobe is drawing fast to a close, and that they must prepare
Thrones to resign for lakes of living fire,
He determines, however, to make a last effort to counteract the decrees of fate, and, in the fifth Canto, wings his flight in the shape of a condor across the ocean.
In the sixth, he exchanges the form of a condor for that of a vampire, who,
-couched on Roldan's ample breast, Each secret pore of breathing life possessed."
Under this malignant influence, Roldan forgets his duty to his, heroic chief, and stirs up a mutiny. This, however, is appeased by a pathetic discourse from Columbus, in which (as is historically true) he begs three days more, and the voyage proceeds. Our readers will have already observed that this machinery is quite superfluous—a mere vehicle for fine writing-a contrivance to prevent the poem from ending too soon. The evil spirits do nothing in proportion to the dignity, activity, and malignant ingenuity of such personages. Merion holds a meeting-makes a speech-takes a long aerial journey, and changes his masquerade dress twice, all for a most inadequate effect, that of giving Columbus half an hour's uneasiness. Not only is he unable to prevent the discovery of America, but even to retard it a single moment. Mr. Rogers seems to have forgot that supernatural agency, though sometimes, is not always and necessarily, the most poetical way of accomplishing an event. In this instance, we are inclined to doubt whether the knot was worthy of the divinity. The mutiny, undoubtedly, was too important to be omitted, especially in such a paucity of incidents; but we think that it would have made a better figure if it
VOL. IX. NO. XVII.
had been attributed to mere human causes, suspicion and superstitious fears operating upon ferocious and untractable minds, described as Mr. Rogers is well able to describe them.
In fact, as we have already taken occasion to remark, the strong, distinctive character of the great event which he has chosen to celebrate, is truth and reality. In these consist its interest and its greatness, and we hardly know an instance in which they so absolutely refuse to ally themselves with fable. So that when, in another place, (Canto 6, verse 5,) Mr. Rogers represents his hero as acting by inspiration, he is guilty of a great mistake as to the nature of his subject, and the means it gives him for producing effect. Inspiration finds no more place in the poetry than it has in the history of the discovery. When Virgil guides Eneas by the voice of oracles, and the display of prodigies, through the storms and dangers raised against him by the wrath of hostile deities, he adds to the dignity of his subject; which, when stripped of its marvellous accompaniments, is nothing but the story of an adventurer of royal descent, who, driven from his native country, wanders from shore to shore with his band of companions, till at last he lands in Italy, (a known and not very distant part of the world,) where he makes unjust war upon one of the native chieftains, defeats him in battle, and robs him of his kingdom and of the princess to whom he was betrothed. The interference and sanction of heaven were necessary, both to give dignity to these transactions and to excuse their iniquity.
The voyage to America is a subject of a completely different kind. Columbus ranks with the first of men, but it is not because he was aided directly from above. Providence interfered in this instance, as it usually interferes, through secondary causes. To make him inspired, is to make him great; but with a kind of greatness altogether different from that which really belonged to him. The discovery strikes us most, as being the mightiest and most astonishing of all events purely human-accomplished by human courage, human perseverance, and human sagacity, and uniting in itself by a coincidence for ever singular, the character of an heroic achievement with that of a grand, deliberate, successful experiment in natural science. Columbus dreamed no dreams, and saw no visions; but he became persuaded by reasons drawn from the true theory of the earth, that there must be other regions accessible, but still unknown, to the inhabitants of this; and the design which he had formed with the genius of a philosopher, he executed with the magnanimity of a hero. But to talk of inspiration, is just as idle as it would be, in a philosophical poem, to say that Sir Isaac Newton dreamt the earth was flat at the poles, or that the mathemati cians who were sent to ascertain the truth of his theory, were guided by omens and prodigies to the object of their search.
In the 8th Canto the new world is discovered, and with the discovery the great interest of the subject ends. The poem however is continued through several more cantos. In the 9th, we have the description of Cora,' an Indian girl, who was perhaps intended to become the heroine of some adventure in the 11th, which is wanting. In the 10th, an American banquet, which is a little disturbed by the appearance of the ghost of Cazriva, an old cacique, employed during his life time,' and after his death, to arm his people.' In the 12th, Columbus sees a vision, in which re foretold to him his own misfortunes, the cruelties of the Spamards in Mexico and Peru, the prosperity and glory of the republic founded by General Washington, and the ultimate conversion of the whole continent to Christianity.
From this sketch of the story our readers will perhaps incline to think, with us, that the inherent defects of the subject have not been entirely removed by the skill of the poet, and that the Fragment on the Voyage of Columbus' is deficient (as might reasonably be expected) in that variety of incident, and that display of human characters and feelings, which form the great charm of narrative poetry. If we are reminded that it is only a fragment, we answer, first, that by leaving his work in that imperfect form, the author has only acknowledged, but has not at all surmounted the difficulties arising out of the topic he had chosen; in the next place, we are utterly at a loss to conceive, and we believe he would be equally at a loss to explain, how the lacuna' could be filled up so as to render the narrative more interesting. In fact the story, such as it is, is complete in spite of them. Cora indeed might have made the subject of an episode. But a love-tale about this young Indian lady, however pretty and interesting in itself, would form no very suitable appendage to an account, in verse or prose, of the discovery of America: and it was, perhaps, a recollection of this incongruity which prevented the 11th Canto from seeing the lihtperhaps, from existing at all. We now proceed to a more important point, the execution of it.
It exhibits what we were not at all prepared to expect-evident marks of haste. After a long and profound silence, Mr. Rogers seems to have been seized with a sudden and eager desire to appear again before the public. It is to this cause we ascribe some inaccuracies of which no example is to be found in his earlier performances. What, for instance, but extreme haste and carelessness could have occasioned the author of the Pleasures of Memory to mistake for a verse such a line as,
'There silent sat many an unbidden guest :-Canto X.? er, in the very first line but one of the poem, to use 'possessed' in