1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Nicholas Rowe

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 26:423-26.



ROWE NICHOLAS, an eminent dramatic poet, was the son of John Rowe, esq. serjeant at law, and born at Little Berkford in Bedfordshire in 1673. His family had long possessed a considerable estate, with a good house, at Lambertoun in Devonshire. His ancestor from whom he descended in a direct line, received the arms borne by his descendants for his bravery in the holy war. His father, JOHN Rowe, who was the first that quitted his paternal acres to practise any part of profit, professed the law, and published Benlow's and Dallison's Reports in the reign of James the Second, when, in opposition to the notions then diligently propagated, of dispensing power, he ventured to remark how low his authors rated the prerogative. He was made a serjeant, and died April 30, 1692. He was buried in the Temple church.

Nicholas was sent for education to a grammar-school in Highgate; whence he was removed to Westminster in 1688, where he acquired great perfection in classical literature, under Dr. Busby. To his skill in Greek and Latin he is said to have added some knowledge of the Hebrew; but poetry was his early bent and darling study. His father, designing him for his own profession, took him from that school, when he was about sixteen, and entered him a student in the Middle Temple. Being capable of attaining any branch of knowledge, he made a great progress in the law; and would doubtless have arrived at eminence in that profession, if the love of the belles lettres, and of poetry in particular, had not predominated. At the age of nineteen, he was, by the death of his father, left more to his own direction, and probably from that time gave up all thoughts of the law. When he was five and twenty, he wrote his first tragedy, called "The Ambitious Step-Mother;" and this meeting with universal applause, induced him to devote himself wholly to elegant literature. Afterwards he wrote these following tragedies: "Tamerlane," "The Fair Penitent," "Ulysses," "The Royal Convert," "Jane Shore," "Lady Jane Grey;" and a comedy called "The Biter." He wrote also several poems upon different subjects, but mostly of a temporary kind, which have been published under the title of "Miscellaneous Works," in one volume: as his dramatic works have been in two.

Rowe is chiefly to be considered (Dr. Johnson observes) in the light of a tragic writer and a translator. In his attempt at comedy he failed so much, that he wisely gave up the pursuit of the comic muse, and his "Biter" is not inserted in his works; and his occasional poems and short compositions are rarely worthy of either praise or censure; for they seem the casual sports of a mind seeking rather to amuse its leisure than to exercise its powers. In the construction of his dramas there is not much art; he is not a nice observer of the unities. He extends time, and varies place, as his convenience requires. To vary the place is not (in the opinion of the learned critic from whom these observations are borrowed) any violation of nature, if the change be made between the acts; for it is no less easy for the spectator to suppose himself at Athens in the second act, than at Thebes in the first; but to change the scene as is done by Rowe in the middle of an act, is to add more acts to the play, since an act is so much of the business as is transacted without interruption. Rowe, by this licence, easily extricates himself from difficulties; as in "Lady Jane Gray," when we have been terrified with all the dreadful pomp of public execution, and are wondering how the heroine or poet will proceed, no sooner has Jane pronounced some prophetic rhimes, than — pass and be gone — the scene closes, and Pembroke and Gardiner are turned out upon the stage. "I know not," says Dr. Johnson, "that there can be found in his plays any deep search into nature, any accurate discriminations of kindred qualities, or nice display of passion in its progress; all is general and undefined. Nor does he much interest or affect the auditor, except in 'Jane Shore,' who is always seen and heard with pity. Alicia is a character of empty noise, with no resemblance to real sorrow or to natural madness." It is concluded, therefore, that Rowe's reputation arises principally from the reasonableness and propriety of some of his scenes, from the elegance of his diction, and the suavity of his verse. He seldom moves either pity or terror, but he often elevates the sentiments; he seldom pierces the breast, but he always delights the ear, and often improves the understanding. Being a great admirer of Shakspeare, he gave the public an edition of his plays; to which he prefixed an account of that great man's life. But the most considerable of Mr. Rowe's performances was a translation of "Lucan's Pharsalia," which he just lived to finish, but not to publish; for it did not appear in print till 1728, ten years after his death. It is said he had another talent, not usual with dramatic authors. Mrs. Oldfield affirmed, that the best school she had ever known was, hearing Rowe read her part in his tragedies.

In the mean time, the love of poetry and books did not make him unfit for business; for nobody applied closer to it when occasion required. The duke of Queensberry, when secretary of state, made him secretary of public affairs. After the duke's death, all avenues were stopped to his preferment; and, during the rest of queen Anne's reign, he passed his time in study. A story, indeed, is told, rather an improbable one, which shews that he had some acquaintance with ministers. It is said, that he went one day to pay his court to the lord treasurer Oxford, who asked him, "if he understood Spanish well?" He answered, "No:" but, thinking that his lordship might intend to send him into Spain on some honourable commission, he presently added, "that he did not doubt but he could shortly be able both to understand and to speak it." The earl approving what he said, Rowe took his leave; and, retiring a few weeks to learn the language, waited again on the earl to acquaint him with it. His lordship asking him, "if he was sure he understood it thoroughly," and Rowe affirming that he did, "How happy are you, Mr. Rowe," said the earl, "that you can have the pleasure of reading and understanding the history of Don Quixote in the original!" On the accession of George I. he was made poet laureat, and one of the land-surveyors of the customs in the port of London. The prince of Wales conferred on him the clerkship of his council; and the lord chancellor Parker made him his secretary for the presentations. He did not enjoy these promotions long, for he died Dec. 6, 1718, in his 45th year.

Mr. Rowe was twice married, had a son by his first wife, and a daughter by his second. He was a handsome, genteel man; and his mind was as amiable as his person. He lived beloved, and at his death had the honour to be lamented by Mr. Pope, in an epitaph which is printed in Pope's works, although it was not affixed on Mr. Rowe's monument, in Westminster-abbey, where he was interred in the Poet's corner.