1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Nicholas Rowe

Isaac D'Israeli, in Review of Spence's Anecdotes, Quarterly Review 23 (July 1820) 421-22.



Rowe, the tragic poet, was a delightful laughing creature, and Pope always considered him as a charming companion; but he mistook the gaiety of disposition for comic genius: his comedy was a total failure, yet it delighted the author, who, while the audience were unanimously condemning the piece, was vehemently laughing at his own jests. Pope repeated to Spence this ludicrous distich, (to us wretched enough,) which Rowe made on Frowd when he was writing his tragedy of Cinna.

Frowd for his precious soul cares not a pin-a,
For he can now do nothing else but Cin-na.

On which Spence, who knew nothing of the personal character of the tragic bard, observed, "I thought Rowe had been too grave to write such things." "He!" replied Pope, "why he would laugh all day long! he would do nothing else but laugh!" This perfectly agrees with what Pope writes to his friend Blount. "I am just returned from the country, whither Mr. Rowe accompanied me, and passed a week in the Forest. I need not tell you how a man of his taste entertained me; but I must acquaint you there is a vivacity, and gaiety of disposition almost peculiar to him, which makes it impossible to part from him without that uneasiness which generally succeeds all our pleasures." This apparent singularity in the tragic bard is not unusual in the poetical character; and it may be added as another illustration to Mr. D'Israeli's chapter on the Literary Character.

On the subject of Rowe, Pope has most unjustly incurred from Mr. Bowles the odium of "sparing neither friend nor foe," by "declaring that Rowe had no heart;" and poor Spence is anathematized for what he stands quite innocent of. Warton, in his note on Rowe's epitaph by Pope, quotes an anecdote as transcribed from Spence, where, however, it will not be found; it came from Warburton, and is in Ruffhead's Life of the poet. When Addison had estranged himself from Rowe, who felt the loss of such a friend severely, Pope kindly took the opportunity of Addison's promotion to renew their old acquaintance, and mentioned Rowe's regret at his displeasure, and satisfaction at his good fortune, which he believed sincere. Addison replied, "I do not suspect that he feigned; but the levity of his heart is such, that he is struck with any new adventure, and it would affect him just in the same manner if he heard I was going to be hanged. Mr. Pope said he could not deny that Mr. Addison understood Rowe well." At this Warton expresses his astonishment: "Pope! who it was always understood had a sincere regard for Rowe;" and Mr. Bowles pours his indignation on Spence for telling what Pope said. In this cause Spence must be instantly discharged; for he proves a clear alibi. Mr. Bowles's denouement we have already given; it is thus continued. — "It makes the heart almost sick to think how often Pope has altered his tone, and that the BEST MAN in the world with him, one moment, has afterwards NO HEART! Poor Rowe is the man whose amiable disposition and warm feelings Pope so eloquently described in his letters. But I am weary of contemplating this part of Pope's character."

Mr. Bowles has often hinted that the accounts we receive concerning persons and circumstances come from Pope himself, and must be considered as ex-parte evidence; he has particularly urged this point in his defence of Addison. In the present case we have not to defend the veracity of the poet; indeed, there is strong circumstantial evidence in the expression, that "Rowe had no heart," to prove that it was Addison's; for we find in Spence that it was his favourite expression — just as "it makes the heart sick" is Mr. Bowles's. "On Parnell's having been introduced into Lord Bolingbroke's company, and speaking afterwards of the great pleasure he had in his conversation, Mr. Addison came out with his usual expression, 'If he had as good a heart as he had a head.'" Pope, therefore, can only incur the odium so uncandidly attached to him, by having agreed in opinion with Addison, on the natural character of Rowe. And why should he not agree with him? Rowe was, in the mind of Pope, the same delightful, gay, laughing companion as ever; and such tempers often turn about with that levity of feeling which Addison so justly remarked, and Pope so frankly allowed. There are many of "the best men in the world," using the phrase according to its current value, who, like Rowe, may be declared to have "no heart;" their feelings are too rapid and vivacious to mix with profound impressions and acute sympathies.