Friday, September 16, 2011

`He Would Have Received You With All Kindness'

Some writers are part of one’s mental furniture, as solid and dependable as a couch. Others, though fondly recalled, hardly amount to cobwebs on the ceiling, fragile filaments of association with scant content. Such is Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers (1763-1855), an English poet with a nickname worthy of a Mafioso. Nige sits on Rogers’ bench in London and reconjures for me this “poet and conversationalist”:

“Rogers was one of those figures who loom very large in their time, less for what they have written but for their conversation – Rogers’ was sharp, fluent and witty, by all accounts – and their prodigious abilities as mixers. He moved in the highest circles, both literary and social – the kind of man who knew everybody and was invited everywhere.”

Perhaps I read Rogers, or about him, in school, but the memory evaporated like morning dew. Guy Davenport reanimated him for me, as he did so many writers, speaking of him with affection, like an old if not terribly consequential friend. I had noted parenthetical mentions of “Breakfast” in his essays, and asked Davenport about him in 1990 when I visited his home in Lexington, Ky. He recalled Rogers with the fondness we reserve for benign but essentially silly aunts and uncles. In the title essay of The Geography of the Imagination (1980), Davenport writes:

“Shelley had put Petra in a poem as soon as Burckhardt discovered it: it is one of the places the wandering youth visits in Alastor; the others are taken from Volney’s Les Ruines (1791), which had also inspired Queen Mab and The Daemon of the World. [John William] Burgon, stealing half a line from Samuel Rogers’ Italy, makes Petra `half as old as time,’ for creation was still an event dated 4004 B.C.”

In “Travel Reconsidered” (The Hunter Gracchus, 1996) Davenport notes:

“Swiss and French travelers made ruins fashionable and invented Shelley. Wordsworth invented the Alps and taught us that waterfalls are grand. Byron organized these new feelings about travel into so many romantic thrills (`Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,’ 1812) and Samuel `Breakfast’ Rogers organized them (in his poem `Italy,’ 1822) for the less strenuous.”

And in “Horace and Walt in Camden" (The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writing, 2003), Davenport writes:

“Goethe’s Johann Peter Eckermann, Samuel Johnson’s Boswell, Ben Jonson’s Laird of Hawthornden: to all of these interlocutors we are grateful for leaving a record. There are people remembered only for their talk: the infinitely witty Sydney Smith, the champion gossip Samuel `Breakfast’ Rogers; and, to a substantial degree, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Oscar Wilde.”

Rogers was a friend to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Scott, Thackeray, Tennyson and the Duke of Wellington, and best friend to the comparably well-nicknamed Richard “Conversation” Sharp. Charles Lamb wrote a sonnet to him. Dickens dedicated Master Humphrey's Clock and The Old Curiosity Shop to Rogers, who boasted that he had entertained three American presidents in his home – John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren and Millard Fillmore – as well as Daniel Webster, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. Hershel Parker in Herman Melville: A Biography 1819-1851 (1996) reports that the American novelist

“…arose early on [Dec. 20, 1849] to accept the honor of breakfasting alone with Samuel Rogers, whom he found a `remarkable looking old man truly,’ and whose paintings he found superb. Rogers paid him the high compliment of inviting him back to meet some ladies on Sunday.”

My edition of Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers (1856) was published in 1953 by the University of Kansas Press. It begins like this, in the manner of Uncle Toby:

“I was taught by my mother, from my earliest infancy, to be tenderly kind towards the meanest living thing; and, however people may laugh, I sometimes very carefully put a stray gnat or wasp out at the window.—My friend Lord Holland, though a kind-hearted man, does not mind killing flies and wasps; he says, `I have no feeling for insects.’”

The book is full of such tidbits, toothsome if not always filling. (It might be noted that Davenport put out bowls of sugar water to attract bees and wasps, and spare them the fly-swatter.) Rogers is reported saying:

“My friend [William] Maltby and I, when we were very young men, had a strong desire to see Dr. Johnson; and we determined to call upon him and introduce ourselves. We accordingly proceeded to his house in Bolt Court; and I had my hand on the knocker, when our courage failed us, and we retreated. Many years afterwards, I mentioned this circumstance to Boswell, who said, `What a pity that you did not go boldly in! he would have received you with all kindness.’”

Here is a sample of Rogers’ gift for economical storytelling:

“One night, after dining at Kensington Palace, I was sitting in the carriage, waiting for Sir Henry Englefield to accompany me to town, when a sentinel, at about twenty yards distance from me, was struck dead by a flash of lightning. I never beheld anything like that flash : it was a body of flame, in the centre of which were quivering zigzag fires, such as artists put into the hand of Jupiter; and, after being visible for a moment, it seemed to explode. I immediately returned to the hall of the Palace, where I found the servants standing in terror, with their faces against the wall.”

Rogers acquired his nickname for the breakfast gatherings (though he might also have been justly named “Dinner”) he hosted at his house in St. James’s Place – thus, Table-Talk. Go here to see “Samuel Rogers at his Breakfast Table,” an engraving by Charles Mottram in the Tate.

1 comment:

Nige said...

Thanks, Patrick - that fills out the picture beautifully.