1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Nicholas Rowe

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:590.



NICHOLAS ROWE was also bred to the law, and forsook it for the tragic drama. He was born in 1673 of a good family in Devonshire, and during the earlier years of manhood, lived on a patrimony of £300 a-year in chambers in the Temple. His first tragedy, "The Ambitious Stepmother," was performed with great success, and it was followed by "Tamerlane," "The Fair Penitent," "Ulysses," "The Royal Concert," "Jane Shore," and "Lady Jane Gray." Rowe, on rising into fame as an author, was munificently patronised. The Duke of Queensberry made him his secretary for public affairs. On the accession of George I., he was made post-laureate and a surveyor of customs; the Prince of Wales appointed him clerk of his council; and the Lord Chancellor gave him the office of secretary for the presentations. Rowe was a favourite in society. It is stated that his voice was uncommonly sweet, and his observations so lively, and his manners so engaging, that his friends, amongst whom were Pope, Swift, and Addison, delighted in his conversation. Yet it is also reported by Spence, that there was a certain superficiality of feeling about him, which made Pope, on one occasion, declare him to have no heart. Rowe was the first editor of Shakspeare entitled to the name, and the first to attempt the collection of a few biographical particulars of the immortal dramatist. He was twice married, and died in 1718, at the age of forty-five.

In addition to the dramatic works we have enumerated, Rowe was the author of two volumes of miscellaneous poetry, which scarcely ever rises above dull and respectable mediocrity. His tragedies are passionate and tender, with an equable and smooth style of versification, not unlike that of Ford. His "Jane Shore" is still occasionally performed, and is effective in the pathetic scenes descriptive of the sufferings of the heroine. "The Fair Penitent" was long a popular play, and the "gallant gay Lothario" was the prototype of many stage seducers and romance heroes. Richardson elevated the character in his Lovelace, giving at the same time a purity and sanctity to the sorrows of his Clarissa, which leave Rowe's Calista immeasurably behind. The incidents of Rowe's dramas are well arranged for stage effect; they are studied and prepared in the manner of the French school, and were adapted to the taste of the age. As the study of Shakspeare and the romantic drama has advanced in this country, Rowe has proportionally declined, and is now but seldom read or acted. His popularity in his own day is best seen in the epitaph by Pope — a beautiful and tender effusion of friendship, which, however, is perhaps not irreconcilable with the anecdote preserved by Mr. Spence:—

Thy relics, Rowe, to this sad shrine we trust,
And near thy Shakspeare place thy honoured bust;
Oh next him, skilled to draw the tender tear,
For never heart felt passion more sincere;
To nobler sentiment to fire the brave,
For never Briton more disdained 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 removed,
Thy soul enjoys the liberty it loved.