Crowe, William (1745-1829) (DNB00)

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CROWE, WILLIAM (1745–1829), poet and divine, was born at Midgham, Berkshire, and baptised 13 Oct. 1745, but his father, a carpenter by trade, lived during Crowe's childhood at Winchester, where the boy, who was endowed with musical tastes and possessed a rich voice, was occasionally employed as a chorister in Winchester College chapel. At the election in 1758 he was placed on the roll for admission as a scholar at the college, and was duly elected a ‘poor scholar.’ He was fifth on the roll for New College at the election in 1764, and succeeded to a vacancy on 11 Aug. 1765. After two years of probation he was admitted as fellow in 1767, and became a tutor of his college, in which position his services are said to have been highly valued. On 10 Oct. 1773 he took the degree of B.C.L. His fellowship he continued to hold until November 1783, although, according to Tom Moore, he had several years previously married ‘a fruitwoman's daughter at Oxford’ and had become the father of several children. In 1782, on the presentation of his college, he was admitted to the rectory of Stoke Abbas in Dorsetshire, which he exchanged for Alton Barnes in Wiltshire in 1787, and on 2 April 1784 he was elected the public orator of his university. This position and the rectory of Alton Barnes Crowe retained until his death in 1829, and the duties attaching to the public oratorship were discharged by him until he was far advanced in years. According to the ‘Clerical Guide’ he was also rector until his death of Llanymynech in Denbighshire, worth about 400l. per annum, from 1805, and incumbent of Saxton in Yorkshire, valued at about 80l. a year, from the same date. A portrait of Crowe is preserved in New College library. A grace for the degree of D.C.L. was passed by his college on 30 March 1780, but he does not seem to have proceeded to take it. Many anecdotes are told of his eccentric speech and his rustic address, but Crowe's simplicity, says Moore, was ‘very delightful.’ In politics he was ‘ultra-whig, almost a republican,’ and he sympathised with the early stages of the French revolution. His expenditure was carefully limited, and he was accustomed to walk from his living in Wiltshire to his college at Oxford. Often was he noticed striding along the roads between the two places, with his coat and a few articles of underclothing flung over a stick, and with his boots covered with dust. Graduates of the university extending their afternoon walks a few miles into the country might see him sitting on a bench outside a village inn correcting the notes of the sermons which he was to deliver at St. Mary's, or of the orations with which he was to present to his university the chief personages in Europe. Nevertheless his appearances in the pulpit or in the theatre at Oxford were always welcomed by the graduates of the university. His command of the Latin language was readily acknowledged by his contemporaries, and his Latin sermons at St. Mary's or his orations at commemoration, graced as they were by a fine rich voice, enjoyed great popularity. He was interested in architecture, and occasionally read a course of lectures on that subject in New College hall. The merits of his lectures at the Royal Institution on poetry are extolled by Dr. Dibdin. When he visited Horne Tooke at Wimbledon, a considerable portion of his time was spent in the garden, and horticulture was the theme on which he dilated. Owing to the skill in valuing timber, which he had acquired from the farmers with whom he had been associated for so many years, he was always selected by the fellows at New College as their woodman. His peculiarities marked him out as a fit subject for caricature, and his portrait as ‘a celebrated public orator’ was drawn by Dighton January 1808 in full-length academicals and with a college cap in his hand. After a short illness he died at Queen Square, Bath, in which city he had been recommended for the previous two years to pass the winter months, 9 Feb. 1829, aged 83. Crowe and Samuel Rogers were intimate friends, and when the latter poet was travelling in Italy he made two authors, Milton and Crowe, his constant study for versification. ‘How little,’ said Rogers on another occasion, ‘is Crowe known, even to persons who are fond of poetry! Yet his “Lewesdon Hill” is full of noble passages.’ That hill is situated in the western part of Dorsetshire, on the edge of the parish of Broadwindsor, of which Tom Fuller was rector, and near Crowe's benefice of Stoke Abbas. The poet is depicted as climbing the hill-top on a May morning and describing the prospect, with its associations, which his eye surveys. The first edition, issued anonymously and dedicated to Shipley, the whig bishop of St. Asaph, was published at the Clarendon Press, Oxford, in 1788. A second impression, with its authorship avowed, was demanded in the same year, and later editions, in a much enlarged form, and with several other poems, were published in 1804 and 1827. Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Bowles, like Rogers, have recognised its value as an admirable description in harmonious blank verse of local scenery, and Tom Moore confessed that some of its passages were ‘of the highest order.’ Crowe's other works attracted less attention. They were:

  1. ‘A Sermon before the University of Oxford at St. Mary's, 5 Nov. 1781.’
  2. ‘On the late Attempt on her Majesty's Person, a sermon before the University of Oxford at St. Mary's, 1786.’
  3. ‘Oratio ex Instituto … Dom. Crew.’ 1788. From the preface it appears that the oration was printed in refutation of certain slanders as to its character which had been circulated. It contained his views on the revolution of 1688.
  4. ‘Oratio Crewiana,’ 1800. On poetry and the poetry professorship at Oxford.
  5. ‘Hamlet and As you like it, a specimen of a new edition of Shakespeare’ [anon. by Thomas Caldecott and Crowe], 1819, with later editions in 1820 and 1832. The two friends contemplated a new edition of Shakespeare, and this volume was published as a sample of their labours, but it had no successor.
  6. ‘A Treatise on English Versification,’ 1827, dedicated to Thomas Caldecott [q. v.], his schoolfellow at Winchester and friend of seventy years' standing.
  7. ‘Poems of William Collins, with notes, and Dr. Johnson's Life, corrected and enlarged,’ Bath, 1828.

Crowe's son died in battle in 1815, and in ‘Notes and Queries,’ 1st ser. vii. 6, 144 (1853), is a Latin monody by his father on his loss. His verses intended to have been spoken at the theatre at Oxford on the installation of the Duke of Portland as chancellor have been highly lauded by Rogers and Moore. The latter poet speaks also of Crowe's sweet ballad ‘To thy cliffs, rocky Seaton, adieu!’ His sonnet to Petrarch is included in the collections of English sonnets by Housman and Dyce.

[Gent. Mag. 1829, pt. i. 642–3; Cox's Recollections of Oxford, 2nd edit. 229–32; Mayo's Bibliotheca Dorsetiensis, p. 120; Hutchins's Dorset (1864), ii. 150–1; Stephens's Horne Tooke, ii. 332; Dyce's Table-talk of Samuel Rogers, pp. 225–9; Dibdin's Literary Life, i. 245–6; Tom Moore's Memoirs, ii. 177–202, 300, v. 60, 112, 277–8, viii. 234, 245; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vi. 42–3 (1858).]

W. P. C.