One common grave, according to Garrick, covers the actor and his art. The same may be said of the raconteur. Oral tradition, or even his own writings, may preserve his precise words; but his peculiarities of voice or action, his tricks of utterance and intonation,–all the collateral details which serve to lend distinction or piquancy to the performance–perish irrecoverably. The glorified gramophone of the future may perhaps rectify this for a new generation; and give us, without mechanical drawback, the authentic accents of speakers dead and gone; but it can never perpetuate the dramatic accompaniment of gesture and expression. If, as always, there are exceptions to this rule, they are necessarily evanescent. Now and then, it may be, some clever mimic will recall the manner of a passed-away predecessor; and he may even contrive to hand it on, more or less effectually, to a disciple. But the reproduction is of brief duration; and it is speedily effaced or transformed.
In this way it is, however, that we get our most satisfactory idea of the once famous table-talker, Samuel Rogers. Charles Dickens, who sent Rogers several of his books; who dedicated Master Humphrey’s Clock to him; and who frequently assisted at the famous breakfasts in St. James’s Place, was accustomed–rather cruelly, it may be thought–to take off his host’s very characteristic way of telling a story; and it is, moreover, affirmed by Mr. Percy Fitzgerald that, in the famous Readings, “the strangely obtuse and owl-like expression, and the slow, husky croak” of Mr. Justice Stareleigh in the “Trial from Pickwick ” were carefully copied from the author of the Pleasures of Memory, That Dickens used thus to amuse his friends is confirmed by the autobiography of the late Frederick Locker, who perfectly remembered the old man, to see whom he had been carried, as a boy, by his father. He had also heard Dickens repeat one of Rogers’s stock anecdotes (it was that of the duel in a dark room, where the more considerate combatant, firing up the chimney, brings down his adversary);–and he speaks of Dickens as mimicking Rogers’s “calm, low-pitched, drawling voice and dry biting manner very comically.” At the same time, it must be remembered that these reminiscences relate to Rogers in his old age. He was over seventy when Dickens published his first book, Sketches by Boz; and, though it is possible that Rogers’s voice was always rather sepulchral, and his enunciation unusually deliberate and monotonous, he had nevertheless, as Locker says, “made story-telling a fine art.” Continued practice had given him the utmost economy of words; and as far as brevity and point are concerned, his method left nothing to be desired. Many of his best efforts are still to be found in the volume of Table-Talk edited for Moxon in 1856 by the Rev. Alexander Dyce; or preferably, as actually written down by Rogers himself in the delightful Recollections issued three years later by his nephew and executor, William Sharpe.
1: Recreations of a Literary Man, 1882, p. 137.
2: My Confidences, by Frederick Locker-Lampson, 1896, pp. 98 and 325.
3: The duellists were an Englishman and a Frenchman; and Rogers was in the habit of adding as a postscript: “When I tell that in Paris, I always put the Englishman up the chimney!”
4: It may be added that Mr. Percy Fitzgerald, himself no mean mime, may be sometimes persuaded to imitate Dickens imitating Rogers.
But although the two things are often intimately connected, the “books,” and not the “stories” of Rogers, are the subject of the present paper. After this, it sounds paradoxical to have to admit that his reputation as a connoisseur far overshadowed his reputation as a bibliophile. When, in December 1855, he died, his pictures and curios,–his “articles of virtue and bigotry” as a modern Malaprop would have styled them,–attracted far more attention than the not very numerous volumes forming his library. What people flocked to see at the tiny treasure-house overlooking the Green Park,which its nonagenarian owner had occupied for more than fifty years, were the “Puck” and “Strawberry Girl” of Sir Joshua, the Titians, Giorgiones, and Guidos, the Poussins and Claudes, the drawings of Raphael and Duerer and Lucas van Leyden, the cabinet decorated by Stothard, the chimney-piece carved by Flaxman; the miniatures and bronzes and Etruscan vases,–all the “infinite riches in a little room,” which crowded No. 22 from garret to basement. These were the rarities that filled the columns of the papers and the voices of the quidnuncs when in 1856 they came to the hammer. But although the Press of that day takes careful count of these things, it makes little reference to the sale of the “books” of the banker-bard who spent some L15,000 on the embellishments of his Italy and his Poems; and although Dr. Burney says that Rogers’s library included “the best editions of the best authors in most languages,” he had clearly no widespread reputation as a book-collector pure and simple. Nevertheless he loved his books,–that is, he loved the books he read. And, as far as can be ascertained, he anticipated the late Master of Balliol, since he read only the books he liked. Nor was he ever diverted from his predilections by mere fashion or novelty. “He followed Bacon’s maxim”–says one who knew him–“to read much, not many things: multum legere, non multa. He used to say, ‘When a new book comes out, I read an old one.'”