I am as much ashamed to give you so small an Account, as unwilling to deny you any, upon so earnest a Request, of the Life and Writings of Mr. ROWE. In a Dearth of Wit, it is but a melancholy Reckoning, to tell what has been, and how much our Friend preserved it in an Age not much inclined to encourage it, even in a Genius like his; and which none but he indeed could have made encouraged at all.
To make Amends for the fabulous Derivations of the Ancient Poets, how unfit soever I am to speak of his Works; you may be certain that the following Account of his Family is true.
His Ancestors were Gentlemen thro' many Descents, but I wave the Particulars of them, yet think that Remark not unnecessary, not only for his Honour but that of Poetry, since it is seldom seen that Men have excelled in that way, without owing something to the Blood and Spirit of their Fore-Fathers, as well as to Art, Learning, and Education.
He was born at Little Berkford in the County of Bedford, tho' the Family came originally from Lamerton in Devonshire. It is probable that his Father, who was an Eminent Lawyer, and called to be Serjeant, made that new Purchase in another County, and so transplanted the most remarkable Branch of the Family thither.
As to his Education, I have often heard him say, that it began at a private Grammar-School in Highgate, but the Taste he had there, of the Classic Authors, was improved and finished under the Care of the Great Dr. Busby. I don't know by what Accident it happened that those Studies he so much delighted in were not continued to a University Education, but it is most likely that under the gainful Study of the Law was his Father's best Prospect. Accordingly he was entered of the Middle-Temple, went thro' the usual Studies and Exercises, and was called to the Bar; where he made no mean Figure. But the Spirit of Poetry soon got the better of the Works of Profit, and while he still kept his Chambers, a Play or two of his came upon the Stage with great Success.
In such a private Account as this, you must not expect the Dates of every Action or Performance of Mr. ROWES, my Business being only to tell you that about this time he was distinguished by, and acquainted with the most eminent Personages of both Sexes, and made as handsome a Figure in the World, as a good Man and a good Poet could do. Yet I don't find he was in any publick Employment before the Duke of Queensberry made him his Secretary, with whom he not only lived in an honourable Service, but a near Familiarity and Friendship.
Since His MAJESTY'S Accession he was made Clerk of the Council to His royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Poet Laureat, one of the Land Surveyors of the Customs in the Port of London, and Secretary of the Presentations to the Lord Chancellor.
Mr. ROWE was twice married, first to the Daughter of Auditor Parsons; by whom he has a Son living. His second Wife was Mrs. Devenish, by whom he has left a Daughter.
You see, Sir, this looks like a News-Writer's Account, for which you may thank your own Enquiry, and let me go on to the worst part of it; that after an Indisposition of some Months, he died on the 6th Day of December, 1718, in the forty sixth Year of his Age, was interr'd on the 19th in Westminster-Abbey, and the Bishop of Rochester out of a particular Mark of Esteem for him, as being his School-Fellow, honoured his Ashes by performing the last Offices himself. I dare not venture to give you his Character, either as a Companion, a Friend, or a Poet. It may be enough to say, that all good and learned Men loved him: That his Conversation either struck out Mirth, or promoted Learning or Honour wherever he went: That the Openness of a Gentleman, the unstudied Eloquence of a Scholar, and the perfect Freedom of an Englishman, attended him in all his Actions. His Ashes are too fresh to say any thing more of him which would not look like Flattery, and that is a Task I am as far from, as he was.
His Writings, if I am any Judge of English, have in them Strength, and Purity of Language: A certain Elegance which strikes you at first View, and which all People must own to be natural, because it is easily remembered. As a Poet, he had the Force of Imagination is a great Degree; just Allusions, proper Metaphors, and fine Descriptions, are so common with him, and so much admired, that they are in every Body's Mouth, and need not my Commendation. The frequent and continued Applauses of the Theatre make almost a whole Nation judge with me, and I should be really proud if a sullen Critick or two were to differ from me, to stand by Nature against their Rules, and profess my self his Admirer.
If I were to go on to a particular Detail, I might easily prove what I assert; tho' the modest Apology he makes for himself will satisfy any reasonable Man [author's note: See the Dedication of his Plays to the Earl of Warwick]. "It is not (says he) given to every body to excel; and I hope there may be some kind of Praise reserved for those who only endeavour after it; if not, I must own my Pretensions that way are upon a very ill Foot. However, I believe I shall never be more solicitous about these Matters than they do really deserve. I won't deny but that I have the natural Tenderness of a Parent for these Children of my Brain; and I don't believe I have Philosophy enough to stand by and see 'em misused and murdered, without any lawful Reason: But whenever they shall be found guilty of apparent Treason against the Laws of Parnassus, I shall give 'em up with the Resolution of the first BRUTUS. I believe there might be something said for 'em, if I should take the Liberty of writing Examens, as was done by the elder CORNEILLE upon his own PLAYS. But whatsoever the French thought of these things, I can't help looking on 'em as an insufferable Piece of Vanity: 'Tis making Trifles Matters of the last Consequence and Importance. And yet Apologies and laboured Discourses, have been written upon these Occasions, as if the Fate of a Nation depended upon the regular Conduct of a Poem.
Scilicet id curat Populus.
Tho', by the way, I never heard that the best Writer in Criticism could raise the Reputation of a PLAY that was sunk, by telling the World they ought to have better pleas'd with it; or destroy the Success of one that was well received, by upbraiding Mankind with their Ignorance in these Matters. They are these Petulancies that fix so great a Degree of Contempt upon the Names of Author and Poet; and if they did not fall into these ridiculous Invectives upon one another, the unlearned World would use 'em all with more Reverence and Respect." I hope this is enough at present; but if there should be any farther Occasion, you will find me ready to defend his Writings, as sure as you will always find me
Your Friend and Servant,
St. James's, Dec. the 26th, 1718.