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Rog ERs's HUMAN LIFE. 39 |
Human Life: a Poem. By SAMUEL Rogers. 4to. pp. 94. London: 1819.
THESE are very sweet verses. They do not, indeed, stir the spirit like the strong lines of Byron, nor make our hearts dance within us, like the inspiring strains of Scott: but they come over us with a bewitching softness that, in certain moods, is still more delightful — and soothe the troubled spirits with a refreshing sense of truth, purity, and elegance. They are pensive rather than passionate; and more full of wisdom and tenderness than of high flights of fancy, or overwhelming bursts of emotion — while they are moulded into grace, at least as much by the effect of the moral beauties they disclose, as by the taste and judgment with which they are constructed. The theme is HUMAN LIFE – not only “the subject of all verse”—but the great centre and source of all interest in the works of human beings—to which both verse and prose invariably bring us back, when they succeed in rivetting our attention, or rousing our emotions—and which turns every thing into poetry to which its sensibilities can be ascribed, or by which its vicissitudes can be suggested ' Yet it is not by any means to that which, in ordinary language, is termed the poetry or the romance of human life, that the present work is directed. The life which it endeavours to set before us, is not life diversified with strange adventures, embodied in extraordinary characters, or agitated with turbulent passions—not the life of warlike paladins, or desperate lovers, or sublime ruffians — or piping shepherds or sentimental savages, or bloody bigots or preaching pedlars – or conquerors, poets, or any other species of madmen — but the ordinary, practical, and amiable life of social,
392 Rogers — contemplative AND INDULGENT.
intelligent, and affectionate men in the upper ranks of society—such, in short, as multitudes may be seen living every day in this country—for the picture is entirely English—and though not perhaps in the choice of every one, yet open to the judgment, and familiar to the sympathies, of all. It contains, of course, no story, and no individual characters. It is properly and peculiarly contemplative — and consists of a series of reflections on our mysterious nature and condition upon earth, and on the marvellous, though unnoticed changes which the ordinary course of our existence is continually bringing about in our being. Its marking peculiarity in this respect is, that it is free from the least alloy of acrimony or harsh judgment, and deals not at all indeed in any species of satirical or sarcastic remark. The poet looks here on man, and teaches us to look on him, not merely with love, but with reverence; and, mingling a sort of considerate pity for the shortness of his busy little career, and the disappointments and weaknesses by which it is beset, with a genuine admiration of the great capacities he unfolds, and the high destiny to which he seems to be reserved, works out a very beautiful and engaging picture, both of the affections by which Life is endeared, the trials to which it is exposed, and the pure and peaceful enjoyments with which it may often be filled. This, after all, we believe, is the tone of true wisdom and true virtue—and that to which all good natures draw nearer, as they approach the close of life, and come to act less, and to know and to meditate more, on the varying and crowded scene of human existence.—When the inordinate hopes of early youth, which provoke their own disappointment, have been sobered down by longer experience and more extended views—- when the keen contentions and eager rivalries which employed our riper age, have expired or been abandoned—when we have seen, year after year, the objects of our fiercest hostility, and of our fondest affections, lie down together in the hallowed peace of the grave—when ordinary pleasures and amusements begin to be insipid, and the gay
A GENTLE MORALIST. 393
derision which seasoned them to appear flat and importunate—when we reflect how often we have mourned and been comforted — what opposite opinions we have successively maintained and abandoned—to what inconsistent habits we have gradually been formed — and how frequently the objects of our pride have proved the sources of our shame! we are naturally led to recur to the careless days of our childhood, and from that distant starting place, to retrace the whole of our career, and that of our contemporaries, with feelings of far greater humility and indulgence than those by which it had been actually accompanied:— to think all vain but affection and honour – the simplest and cheapest pleasures the truest and most precious—and generosity of sentiment the only mental superiority which ought either to be wished for or admired. We are aware that we have said “something too much of this;” and that our readers would probably have been more edified, as well as more delighted by Mr. Rogers's text, than with our preachment upon it. But we were anxious to convey to them our sense of the spirit in which this poem is written; – and conceive, indeed, that what we have now said falls more strictly within the line of our critical duty, than our general remarks can always be said to do; — because the true character and poetical effect of the work seems, in this instance, to depend much more on its moral expression, than on any of its merely literary qualities. The author, perhaps, may not think it any compliment to be thus told, that his verses are likely to be greater favourites with the old than with the young; – and yet it is no small compliment, we think, to say, that they are likely to be more favourites with his readers every year they live; – And it is at all events true, whether it be a compliment or not, that as readers of all ages, if they are any way worth pleasing, have little glimpses and occasional visitations of those truths which longer experience only renders more familiar, so no works ever sink so deep into amiable minds, or recur so often to their remembrance, as those which embody simple,
394 ROGERS - A TEACHER OF TRUE WISDOM.
and solemn, and reconciling truths, in emphatic and elegant language – and anticipate, as it were, and bring out with effect, those salutary lessons which it seems to be the great end of our life to inculcate. The pictures of violent passion and terrible emotion — the breathing characters, the splendid imagery and bewitching fancy of Shakespeare himself, are less frequently recalled, than those great moral aphorisms in which he has so often
Told us the fashion of our own estate,
and, in spite of all that may be said by grave persons, of the frivolousness of poetry, and of its admirers, we are persuaded that the most memorable, and the most generally admired of all its productions, are those which are chiefly recommended by their deep practical wisdom; and their coincidence with those salutary intimations with which nature herself seems to furnish us from the passing scenes of our existence. The literary character of the work is akin to its moral character; and the diction is as soft, elegant, and simple, as the sentiments are generous and true. The whole piece, indeed, is throughout in admirable keeping; and its beauties, though of a delicate, rather than an obtrusive character, set off each other to an attentive observer, by the skill with which they are harmonised, and the sweetness with which they slide into each other. The outline, perhaps, is often rather timidly drawn, and there is an occasional want of force and brilliancy in the colouring; which we are rather inclined to ascribe to the refined and somewhat fastidious taste of the artist, than to any defect of skill or of power. We have none of the broad and blazing tints of Scott—nor the startling contrasts of Byron — nor the anxious and endlessly repeated touch of Southey — but something which comes much nearer to the soft and tender manner of Campbell; with still more reserve and caution, perhaps, and more frequent sacrifices of strong and popular effect to an abhorrence of glaring beauties, and a disdain of vulgar resources. The work opens with a sort of epitome of its subject
HIS FOUR AGES. 395 ->
—and presents us with a brief abstract of man's (or at least Gentleman's) life, as marked by the four great eras of—his birth —his coming of age—his marriage— and his death. The comprehensive picture, with its four compartments, is comprised in less than thirty lines.— We give the two latter scenes only.
“And soon again shall music swell the breeze;
“And once, alas! nor in a distant hour,
“And such is Human Life! So gliding on,
After some general and very striking reflections upon the perpetual but unperceived gradations by which this mysterious being is carried through all the stages of its fleeting existence, the picture is resumed and expanded with more touching and discriminating details. Infancy, for example, is thus finely delineated:–
“The hour arrives, the moment wish'd and fear'd :
“Her by her smile how soon the Stranger knows ;