Samuel Rogers: A Passion for Little Girls

By Vail, Jeffery | Wordsworth Circle, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Samuel Rogers: A Passion for Little Girls


Vail, Jeffery, Wordsworth Circle


Samuel Rogers (1763-1855) was known for writing chaste and decorous verse, yet he had a proclivity for "little girls" that. was considered unusual even in an age when the sexual use and abuse of the very young was not uncommon. The author of The Pleasures of Memory (1792), The Voyage of Columbus (1810), Jacqueline (1814), Human Id] (1819), and Italy (1822), Rogers was prominent. enough to be offered the Poet Laureateship upon Wordsworth's death in 1850 (he declined it, in favor of Tennyson). He was famous for his art collection at his home at 22 St.. James's Place, and for his breakfasts, at which he entertained many personalities, politicians, and writers over several decades. A wealthy banker, writer, connoisseur, and patron of the arts, Rogers was acquainted with a long list of famous literary names. He was also notoriously acerbic and liked to mock, criticize, and spread malicious gossip about his friends, which sometimes led to estrangements, especially in the case of Byron, who began his career praising Rogers but eventually satirized hint. When he died at age ninety-two, Rogers was unmarried, though he did make at least one offer of marriage when he was young (Clayden 1:6)

In the Byron Journal (1989), William St. Clair published a new version of a letter of July 10, 1817 from Byron to Thomas Moore, copied from a Regency-era scrapbook. This text differs from the only previously available version, Moore's transcription, published in his 1830-31 biography of Byron. Discussing some magazine extracts from Moore's new poem Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance (1817), according to Moore's text, Byron wrote: "There is a simile of an orange-tree's 'flowers and fruits,' which I should have liked better, if

I did not believe it to be a reflection on * * * * * * * *" (Byron Letters 5:230). St. Clair's uncensored version reveals the joke behind the asterisks: "There is a simile of an orange tree's flowers and fruits which I should like more if I did not believe it to be a reflection on the companions of Rogers playing with children 'Age at play with infancy.'" St. Clair assumes it is an "in-joke" but, he writes, "it is difficult now to be sure of what. Byron intended, but Rogers, who was an old bachelor, illustrated his books of poems with podgy little boys reminiscent of Italian putti, and there may be some reference to that." (53-54). In fact Byron's joke was intended to cut more deeply than that.

The reference to Lalla Rookh is clear enough; the relevant lines are: "Just then beneath some orange trees,/ Whose fruit and blossoms in the breeze/ Were wantoning together, free,/ Like age at play with infancy" (212-15). Byron's syntax is confusing because of the lack of punctuation (which might be the fault of he scrapbook transcriber): does Byron mean that the "companions of Rogers" are "playing with children," or that the companions of Rogers arc children with whom he plays? The apparent logic of the joke would suggest the latter, especially because of the reference to "age"--Rogers was fifty-four in 1817, but by all accounts looked many years older (Byron thought Rogers was fifteen years older than he actually was [Byron Letters 8:100]). Many of Rogers's acquaintances made jokes, preserved in diaries, letters and anecdotes, about his pale skin, quiet voice, and wrinkled, cadaverous appearance, and over time Rogers came to be known by cruel nicknames like "the Dug-up Dandy." "Age," then, but why "at play with infancy?"

A startling passage in the unexpurgated edition of the diaries of Charles Cavendish Fulke Greville (1794-1865) provides a clue. On December 16, 1835, Greville, dining with Whig luminaries Lord and Lady Holland, Lord Melbourne, Dr. John Allen, and others, reported:

  Luttrell was talking of Moore and Rogers--the poetry of the former
  so licentious, that of the latter so pure; much of its popularity
  owing to its being so carefully weeded of everything approaching to
  indelicacy; and the contrast between the lives and works of the two
  men--the former a pattern of conjugal and domestic regularity, the
  latter of all the men He had ever known the greatest
  sensualist. … 

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