This excellent poet was descended from an ancient family in Devonshire, which had for many ages made a very good figure in that county, and was known by the name of the Rowes of Lambertowne. Mr. Rowe could trace his ancestors in a direct line up to the times of the holy war, in which one of them so distinguished himself, that at his return he had the arms given him which the family has born ever since, that being in those days all the reward of military virtue, or of blood spilt in those expeditions.
From that time downward to Mr. Rowe's father, the family betook themselves to the frugal management of a private fortune, and the innocent pleasures of a country life. Having a handsome estate, they lived beyond the fear of want, or reach of envy. In all the changes of government, they are said to have ever leaned towards the side of public liberty, and in that retired situation of life, have beheld with grief and concern the many encroachments that have been made in it from time to time.
Our author was born at Little Berkford in Bedfordshire, at the house of Jasper Edwards, Esq; his mother's father, in the year 1673. He began his education at a private grammar-school in Highgate; but the taste he there acquired of the classic authors, was improved, and finished under the care of the famous Dr. Busby of Westminster school; where, about the age of 12 years, he was chosen one of the King's scholars. Besides his skill in the Latin and Greek languages, he had made a tolerable proficiency in the Hebrew; but poetry was his early bent, and darling study. He composed, at different times, several copies of verses upon various subjects, both in Greek and Latin, and some in English, which were much admired, and the more so, because they were produced with so much facility, and seemed to flow from his imagination, as fast as from his pen.
His father, who was a Serjeant at Law, designing him for his own profession, took him from that school when he was about sixteen years of age, and entered him a student in the Middle Temple, whereof himself was a member, that he might have him under his immediate care and instruction. Being capable of any part of knowledge, to which he thought proper to apply, he made very remarkable advances in the study of the Law, and was not content to know it, as a collection of statutes, or customs only, but as a system founded upon right reason, and calculated for the good of mankind. Being afterwards called to the bar, he promised as fair to make a figure in that profession, as any of his cotemporaries, if the love of the Belles Lettres, and that of poetry in particular, had not stopped him in his career. To him there appeared more charms in Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, than in all the records of antiquity, and when he came to discern the beauties of Shakespear and Milton, his soul was captivated beyond recovery, and he began to think with contempt of all other excellences, when put in the balance with the enchantments of poetry and genius. Mr. Rowe had the best opportunities of rising to eminence in the Law, by means of the patronage of Sir George Treby, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, who was fond of him to a very great degree, and had it in his power to promote him, but being overcome by his propensity to poetry, and his first tragedy, called the Ambitious Step-mother, meeting with universal applause, he laid aside all thoughts of the law The Ambitious Step-mother as our author's first attempt in the drama, written by him in the 25th year of his age, and dedicated to the earl of Jersey. "The purity of the language (says Mr. Welwood) the justness of his characters, the noble elevation of the sentiments, were all of them admirably adapted to the plan of the play."
The Ambitious Step-mother, being the first, is conducted with less judgment than any other of Rowe's tragedies; it has an infinite deal of fire in it, the business is precipitate, and the characters active, and what is somewhat remarkable, the author never after wrote a play with so much elevation. Critics have complained of the sameness of his poetry; that he makes all his characters speak equally elegant, and has not attended sufficiently to the manners. This uniformity of versification, in the opinion of some, has spoiled our modern tragedies, as poetry is made to supply nature, and declamation characters Whether this observation is well founded, we shall not at present examine, only remark, that if any poet has a right to be forgiven for this error, Mr. Rowe certainly has, as his cadence is the sweetest in the world, his sentiments chaste, and his language elegant. Our author wrote several other Tragedies, but that which he valued himself most upon, says Welwood, was his Tamerlane; acted at the Theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields, and dedicated to the marquis of Hartington.
In this play, continues Welwood, "He aimed at a parallel between the late king William and Tamerlane, and also Bajazet, and a monarch who is since dead. That glorious ambition in Tamerlane, to break the chains of enslaved nations, and set mankind free from the encroachments of lawless power, are painted in the most lively, as well as the most amiable colours. On the other side, his manner of introducing on the stage a prince, whose chief aim is to perpetuate his name to posterity, by that havock and ruin he scatters through the world, are all drawn with that pomp of horror, and detestation, which such monstrous actions deserve. And, since nothing could be more calculated for raising in the minds of the audience a true passion for liberty, and a just abhorrence of slavery, how this play came to be discouraged, next to a prohibition, in the latter end of queen Anne's reign, I leave it to others to give a reason."
Thus far Dr. Welwood, who has endeavoured, to point out the similarity of the character of Tamerlane, to that of king William. Though it is certainly true, that the Tamerlane of Rowe contains grander sentiments than any of his other plays; yet, it may be a matter of dispute whether Tamerlane ought to give name to the play; for Tamerlane is victorious, and Bajazet the sufferer. Besides the fate of these two monarchs, there is likewise contained in it, the Episode of Moneses, and Arpasia, which is of itself sufficiently distressful to make the subject of a tragedy. The attention is diverted from the fall of Bajazet, which ought to have been the main design, and bewildered in the fortunes of Moneses, and Arpasia, Axalla and Selima: There are in short, in this play, events enough for four; and in the variety and importance of them, Tamerlane and Bajazet must be too much neglected. All the characters of a play should he subordinate to the leading one, and their business in the drama subservient to promote his fate; but this performance is not the tragedy of Bajazet, or Tamerlane only; but likewise the tragedies of Moneses and Arpasia, Axala and Selima. It is now performed annually, on the 4th and 5th of November, in commemoration of the Gun-powder Treason, and the landing of king William in this realm, when an occasional prologue is spoken.
Another tragedy of Mr. Rowe's is the Fair Penitent, acted at the Theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields; and dedicated to the duchess of Ormond: This is one of the most finished performances of our author. The character of Sciolto the father is strongly marked; Horatio's the most amiable of all characters, and is so sustained as to strike an audience very forcibly, in this, as in the former play, Mr. Rowe is guilty of a mis-nomer; for his Calista has not the least claim to be called the Fair Penitent, which would be better changed to the Fair Wanton; for the discovers not one pang of remorse till the last act, and that seems to arise more from the external distress to which she is then exposed, than to any compunctions of conscience. She still loves and doats on her base betrayer. though a most insignificant creature. In this character, Rowe has been true to the sex, in drawing a woman, as she generally is, fond of her seducer; but he has not drawn a Penitent. The character of Altamont is one of those which the present players observe, is the hardest to represent of any in the drama; there is a kind of meanness in him, joined with an unsuspecting honest heart, and a doming fondness for the false fair one, that is very difficult to illustrate: This part has of late been generally given to performers of but very moderate abilities; by which the play suffers prodigiously, and Altamont, who is realty one of the most important persons in the drama, is beheld with neglect, or perhaps with contempt; but seldom with pity. Altamont, in the hands of a good actor, would draw the eyes of the audience, notwithstanding the blustering Lothario, and the superior dignity of Horatio; for there is something in Altamont, to create our pity, and work upon on compassion.
So many players failing of late, in the this character, leaves it a matter of doubt, whether the actor is most mistaken in his performance; or the manager in the distribution of parts.
The next tragedy Mr. Rowe wrote was his Ulysses, acted at the queen's Theatre, in the Hay-Market, and dedicated to the earl of Godolphin. This play is not at present in possession of the stage, though it deserves highly to be so, as the character of Penelope, is an excellent example of conjugal fidelity: Who, though her lord had been ten years absent from her, and various accounts had been given of his death, yet, notwithstanding this, and the addresses of many royal suitors, she preserved her heart for her Ulysses, who at last triumphed over his enemies, and rescued his faithful queen from the persecution of her wooers. — This play has business, passion, and tragic propriety to recommend it.
The next play Mr. Rowe brought upon the stage, was his Royal Convert, acted at the queen's Theatre, in the Haymarket, and dedicated to the earl of Hallifax.
His next was the Tragedy of Jane Shore, written in imitation of Shakespear's stile; acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane, and dedicated to the duke of Queensberry and Dover. How Mr. Rowe could imagine that this play is written at all in imitation of Shakespear's stile, we cannot conceive; for so far as we are able to judge, it bears not the least resemblance to that of Shakespear. The conduct of the design is regular, and in that sense it partakes not of Shakespear's wildness; the poetry is uniform, which marks it to be Rowe's, but in that it is very different from Shakespear, whose excellency does not consist merely in the beauty of soft language, or nightingale descriptions; but in the general power of his drama, the boldness of the images, and the force of his characters.
Our author afterwards brought upon the stage his lady Jane Grey, dedicated to the earl of Warwick; this play is justly in possession of the stage likewise. Mr. Edmund Smith of Christ's-Church, author of Phaedra and Hyppolitus, designed writing a Tragedy on this subject; and at his death left some loose hints of sentiments, and short sketches of scenes. From the last of these, Mr. Rowe acknowledges he borrowed part of one, and inserted it in his third act, viz. that between lord Guilford, and lady Jane. It is not much to be regretted, that Mr. Smith did not live to finish this, since it fell into the hands of one so much above him, as a dramatist; for if we may judge of Mr. Smith's abilities of writing for the stage, by his Phaedra and Hyppolitus, it would not have been so well executed as by Rowe. Phaedra and Hyppolitus, is a play without passion, though of inimitable versification and in the words of a living poet, we may lay of it, that not the character, but poet speaks.
It may be justly said of all Rowe's Tragedies, that never poet painted virtue, religion, and all the relative and social duties of life, in a more alluring dress, on the stage; nor were ever vice or impiety, better exposed to contempt and abhorrence.
The same principles of liberty he had early imbibed himself, seemed a part of his constitution, and appeared in every thing he wrote; and he took all occasions that fell in his way, to make his talents subservient to them: His Muse was so religiously chaste, that I do not remember, says Dr. Welwood, one word in any of his plays or writings, that might admit of a double meaning in any point of decency, or morals. There is nothing to be found in them, to flatter a depraved populace, or humour a fashionable folly.
Mr. Rowe's Plays were written from the heart. He practised the virtue he admired, and he never, in his gayest moments, suffered himself to talk loosely or lightly upon religious or moral subjects; or to turn any thing sacred, or which good men reverenced as such, into ridicule.
Our author wrote a comedy of three acts, called the Biter. It was performed at the Theatre in Lincolns-Inn-Fields but without success, for Rowe's genius did not lie towards Comedy. — in a conversation he had with Mr. Pope, that great poet advised him to rescue the queen of Scots, from the hands of Banks; and to make that lady to shine on the stage, with a lustre equal to her character. Mr. Rowe observed in answer to this, that he was a great admirer of queen Elizabeth; and as he could not well plan a play upon the queen of Scots's story, without introducing his favourite princess, who in that particular makes but an indifferent figure, he chose to decline it Besides, he knew that if he favoured the northern lady, there was a strong party concerned to crush it; and if he should make her appear less great than she was, and throw a shade over her real endowments, he should violate truth, and incur the displeasure of a faction, which though by far the minority, he knew would be yet too powerful for a poet to combat with.
The late duke of Queensberry, when secretary of state, made Mr. Rowe secretary for public affairs; and when that nobleman came to know him well, he was never more delighted than when in his company: After the duke's death, all avenues were stopt to his preferment; and during the rest of queen Anne's reign, he passed his time with the Muses and his books, and sometimes with the conversation of his friends.
While Mr. Rowe was thus without a patron, he went one day to pay his court to the earl of Oxford, lord high treasurer of England, then at the head of the Tory faction, who asked him if he understood Spanish well? He answered no: but imagining that his lordship might intend to send him into Spain on some honourable commission, he presently added, that in a short time he did not doubt but he should presently be able, both to understand it, and speak it. The earl approving of what he said, Mr. Rowe took his leave, and immediately retired out of town to a private country farm; where, within a few months, he learned the Spanish tongue, and then waited again on the earl to give him an account of his diligence. His lordship asking him, if he was sure he understood it thoroughly, and Mr. Rowe answering in the affirmative, the earl burst into an exclamation; How happy are you Mr. Rowe, that you can enjoy the pleasure of reading, and understanding Don Quixote in the original!
This wanton cruelty inflicted by his lordship, of raising expectations in the mind, that he never intended to gratify, needs only be told to excite indignation.
Upon the accession of king George the 1st. to the throne, Mr. Rowe was made Poet Laureat, and one of the surveyors of the customs, in the port of London. The prince of Wales conferred on him, the place of clerk of his council and the lord chancellor Parker, made him his secretary for the presentations, the very day he received the seals, and without his asking it.
He was twice married, first to a daughter of Mr. auditor Parsons; and afterwards to a daughter of Mr. Devenish of a good family in Dorsetshire. By his first wife, he had a son, and by his second a daughter.
Mr. Rowe died the 6th of December 1718, in the 45th year of his age, like a christian and a philosopher, and with an unfeigned resignation to the will of God: He preserved an evenness of temper to the last, and took leave of his wife, and friends, immediately before his last agony, with the same tranquillity of mind, as if he had been taking but a short journey.
He was interred in Westminster-Abbey, over against Chaucer; his body being attended with a vast number of friends, and the dean and chapter officiating at the funeral. A tomb was afterwards erected to his memory, by his wife, for which Mr. Pope wrote an epitaph, which we shall here insert; not one word of which is hyperbolical, or more than he deserves.
EPITAPH ON ROWE, BY MR. POPE.
Thy reliques, Rowe! to this sad shrine we trust,
And near thy Shakspear place thy honour'd bust,
Oh next him skill'd, to draw the tender tear,
For never heart felt passion more sincere:
To nobler sentiment to fire the brave,
For never Briton more disdain'd a slave!
Peace to thy gentle shade, and endless rest,
Blest in thy genius, in thy love too blest!
And blest, that timely from our scene remov'd
Thy soul enjoys the liberty it lov'd.
To these, so mourn'd in death, so lov'd in life!
The childless parent and the widow'd wife
With tears inscribes this monumental stone,
That holds their ashes and expects her own.
"Mr. Rowe, as to his person, was graceful and well made, his face regular and of a manly beauty; he had a quick, and fruitful invention, a deep penetration, and a large compass of thought, with a singular dexterity, and easiness in communicating his opinions. He was master of most parts of polite learning, especially the Classic Authors, both Greek and Latin; he understood the French, Italian and Spanish languages. He had likewise read most of the Greek and Roman histories in their original languages; and most that are written in English, French, Italian and Spanish: He had a good taste in philosophy, and having a firm impression of religion upon his mind, he took delight in divinity, and ecclesiastical history, in both which he made great advances in the times he retired to the country, which were frequent. He expressed upon all occasions, his full perswasion of the truth of revealed religion; and being a sincere member of the established church himself, he pitied, but condemned not, those who departed from him; he abhorred the principle of persecuting men on account of religious opinions, and being strict in his own, he took it not upon him to censure those of another persuasion. His conversation was pleasant, witty, and learned, without the least tincture of affectation or pedantry and his inimitable manner of diverting, or enlivening the company, made it impossible for any one to be out of humour when he was in it: Envy and detraction, seemed to be entirely foreign to his constitution; and whatever provocation he met with at any time, he passed them over, without the least thought of resentment or revenge. There were not wanting some malevolent people, and some pretenders to poetry too, that would sometimes bark at his best performances, but he was too mach conscious of his own genius, and had so much good-nature as to forgive them, nor could however be tempted to return them an answer."
This is the amiable character of Mr. Rowe, drawn by Mr. Welwood, to which we shall add the words of Mr. Pope, in a letter to Edward Blount, Esq; dated February the 10th, 1715. "There was a vivacity and gaiety of disposition almost peculiar to Mr. Rowe, which made it impossible to part with him, without that uneasiness, which generally succeeds all our pleasures."
It would perhaps be injurious to the memory of Rowe, to dismiss his life, without taking notice of his translations of Lucan, and Quillet's Callipaedia; the versification in both is musical, and well adapted to the subject; nor is there any reason to doubt but that the true meaning of the original, is faithfully preserved throughout the whole. These translations, however, with Mr. Rowe's Occasional Poems, and Birth-day Odes, are but little read, and he is only distinguished as a dramatist; for which we shall not pretend to assign a reason; but we may observe, that a Muse capable of producing so many excellent dramatic pieces, cannot be supposed to have executed any plan indifferently; however, it may charm a reader less than that kind of composition, which is set off on the Theatre, with so many advantages.
He published likewise an edition of the works of Shakspeare, and prefixed the life of that great man, from materials which he had been industrious to collect, in the country where Shakespear was born, and to which, after he had filled the world with admiration of his genius, he retired.
We deem it unnecessary to give any specimen of Mr. Rowe's poetry; the most celebrated speeches in his plays, which are beautifully harmonious; are repeated by every body who reads poetry, or attends plays; and to suppose the reader ignorant of them, would be to degrade him from the rank of intelligence, without which he can be little illuminated by perusing the Lives of the Poets.