“Selected shelves shall claim thy studious hours;
There shall thy ranging mind be fed on flowers!
There, while the shaded lamp's mild lustre streams,
Read antient books, or woo inspiring dreams;
And, when a sage's bust arrests thee there,
Pause, and his features with his thoughts compare.
—Ah, most that Art my grateful rapture calls,
Which breathes a soul into the silent walls;
Which gathers round the Wise of every Tongue,
All on whose words departed nations hung;
Still prompt to charm with many a converse sweet;
Guides in the world, companions in retreat!”
Only now have I read the entire poem, published by Rogers in 1798 and dedicated to his friend Richard “Conversation” Sharp, and it reads like a posthumous message of indeterminate meaning. David was anti-Romantic and largely unsentimental. Last February, after a grim report from his oncologist (“The doc gives me 18 months, 24 if I’m lucky” – he had seven), he wrote to me: “Prayers, at this point, are probably useless. Financial advice for my kids--that's what I need now!” In his verse letter to Sharp, Rogers is describing what we would call the good life, drawing up a prescription for happiness. In his prose preface to the poem, in which he acknowledges Horace, Pope and Boileau as models, Rogers writes:
“It is the design of this Epistle to illustrate the virtue of True Taste; and to shew how little she requires to secure, not only the comforts, but even the elegancies of life. True Taste is an excellent Economist. She confines her choice to few objects, and delights in producing great effects by small means…”
David was contemptuous of taste as a serious arbiter of literary matters. He was after something less likely to shift on a whim. Everyone has opinions (the least important and most tedious things we can know about each other), and most are trifling expressions of vanity. I like the image in the second line of Rogers’ poem quoted above – books as flowers on the “selected shelves.” This hints at ἀνθολογία, “a collection of flowers,” our notion of an anthology. Even better is the final line, Rogers’ metaphors for the books we keep on those shelves, the volumes that sustain us: “Guides in the world, companions in retreat!” David probably would have approved of that much.