1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hannah Cowley

Stephen Jones, in Biographia Dramatica; or, A Companion to the Playhouse (1812) 1:152-54.



MRS. HANNAH COWLEY was the daughter of a Mr. Parkhouse, of Tiverton, Devonshire, where she was born about the year 1743. Her genius may seem to have been hereditary; her grandmother by the father's side having been first cousin to the celebrated poet Gay; by whom she was held in such high estimation that he passed a portion of his time at her house in Barnstaple. Mr. Parkhurst himself had attained a proficiency in classical literature, which gained him the reputation of being an excellent scholar. Under such a tutor were the talents of our fair writer cultivated; and she presented him, in return, with the first fruits of her Muse, by prefixing his name to the poem of The Maid of Arragon, in a dedication, which evinced at once filial gratitude and youthful genius.

About the year 1772, she was married to Mr. Cowley, who died in India, about twelve years ago, a captain in the Company's service, and brother to Mr. Cowley, an eminent merchant in Cateaton Street; by whom she had three children, a son and, two daughters. In the different characters of daughter, wife and mother, Mrs. Cowley's conduct was most exemplary. Her manners were lively and unassuming, and her countenance was peculiarly animated and expressive. Though public as a genius, yet private as a woman, she wore her laurels gracefully veiled: at the theatres, except to oblige others by them, she was never seen; frequently, for years together, she was not there at all. Her dramatic Pieces were brought out under the superintendence of her husband; except, we believe, the last two; he having then joined his regiment in India. In her writings, nothing was laboured; all was spontaneous effusion: she had nothing of the drudge of literature; and fame was not half so much her object as the pleasure of composition. When her fancy had prompted her to the amusement of dramatic, writing, so little sanguine was she in her expectation that her comedy would be accepted by Mr. Garrick, to whom it was sent, that it was not until about twelve months afterwards, that he was informed who had sent it, to him, or was asked what his opinion was. The comedy alluded to was The Runaway; it was written in a fortnight, and its remarkable success many will recollect. It was followed by Who's the Dupe, and The Belle's Stratagem. The latter, on the express permission of the Queen, was dedicated to her, and was performed before the royal family once every season, as long as they attended the theatres. However anxious Mrs. Cowley might be at the moment of writing, her work was no sooner out, than she became regardless of it. It was to domestic life, as we have before observed, that her mind was given; fame appeared to be not at all essential to her happiness. The Siege of Acre would never have appeared, had it not been heard of, asked for, and made a present of to a respectable bookseller, who was a stranger to her. In the course of the last ten years of her life she wrote a few slight poems, in friendship with the families of Lady Carew, Lady Duntze, Mrs. Wood, and other ladies in her neighbourhood, which probably are yet extant. In her latter years, on account of her dislike of cards, and the dress and trouble of evening amusements, she declined all invitations; but received very large parties at her own house. She established a singular custom, of throwing open her house, one morning in a week, for ladies only, and was on those occasions attended by a crowd.

Mrs. Cowley looked forward to the close of her life, with a peculiar degree of religious cheerfulness, and expired at Tiverton, March 11, 1809, in her 66th year; leaving behind her a son, now at the bar; and a daughter, married in India to the Rev. Dr. Brown, provost of the College of Calcutta.

Besides the poems of The Maid of Arragon, and The Siege of Acre, which we have incidentally mentioned, this lady produced a third, excellent in its kind, called The Scottish Village.

The last time her pen was thus employed, was on a poem, given to a poor sexton of the parish, who was distressed by the loss of his property, in the then late floods, and which was restored to him by the douceurs of those to whom he showed the poem for perusal.

To the above we should add, that Mrs. Cowley was the "Anna Matilda," who so long maintained a celebrated poetical newspaper correspondence with "Della Crusca" (the late Mr. Merry); though the parties were, personally, total strangers to each other.

We now subjoin a list of the dramas produced by this elegant writer:

1. The Runaway. C. 8vo. 1776.

2. Who's the Dupe? F. 8vo. 1779.

3. Albina. T. 8vo. 1779.

4. The Belle's Stratagem. C. 1780; 8vo. 1782.

5. The School for Eloquence. I. 1780. N. P.

6. The World as it Goes. C. 1781. N. P. Afterwards acted

under the new title of

7. Second Thoughts are Best. C. 1781. N. P.

8. Which is the Man? C. 8vo. 1782.

9. A Bold Stroke for a Husband. C. 8vo. 1783.

10. More Ways than One. C. 8vo. 178.1.

11. School for Greybeards. C. 8vo. 1786.

12. Fate of Sparta. T. 8vo. 1788.

13. A Day in Turky. C. 8 vo. 1792.

14. The Town before You. C. 8vo. 1795.