Rowe, Nicholas (DNB00)
|←Rowe, John (1764-1832)||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 49
ROWE, NICHOLAS (1674–1718), poet laureate and dramatist, born in the house of his mother's father at Little Barford, Bedfordshire, in 1674, was baptised there on 30 June (Genealogica Bedfordiensis, ed. 1890, F. A. Blaydes, p. 16; Gent. Mag. 1819, ii. 230). He was son of John Rowe (1647–1692), who married Elizabeth, daughter of Jasper Edward, at Little Barford on 25 Sept. 1673. His father's family was long settled at Lamerton, Devonshire, and one of his ancestors is said to have been distinguished as a crusader. His father was a London barrister of the Middle Temple and a serjeant-at-law, who published in 1689 Benloe's and Dalison's ‘Reports in the Reign of James II,’ and, dying on 30 April 1692, was buried in the Temple Church. Rowe's mother was buried at Little Barford on 25 April 1679. After attending a private school at Highgate, Nicholas was in 1688 elected a king's scholar at Westminster, where Busby held sway; but, destined for his father's profession, he was soon removed from school, and was entered as a student at the Middle Temple. He was called to the bar, and Lord-chief-justice Sir George Treby noticed him favourably. Law proved uncongenial. From youth he had read much literature, especially dramatic literature, both classical and modern, and he was soon fired with the ambition to try his hand as a dramatist. His father's death in 1692, which put him in possession of an income of 300l. a year, enabled him to follow his own inclinations.
Forsaking the bar, although still residing in the Temple, Rowe early in 1700 saw his blank-verse tragedy, ‘The Ambitious Stepmother,’ produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields. The scene was laid in Persepolis. The characters, which were supposed to be Persian, were not drawn with much distinctness, but the piece was well acted by Betterton, Mrs. Bracegirdle, Mrs. Barry, and others, and answered the company's expectations (Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, 1708, p. 45). Congreve described the play as ‘a very good one,’ and it was published in full—it was somewhat curtailed on the stage—with a dedication addressed to the Earl of Jersey. According to Cibber, Rowe fell in love with Mrs. Bracegirdle, who helped to make the piece a success. Thenceforth Rowe was for some years a professional playwright, and soon gained the acquaintance of the leaders of literary society, including Pope and Addison. In 1702 he produced, again at Lincoln's Inn Fields, his second tragedy, ‘Tamerlane,’ on which ‘he valued himself most’ (Cibber). The hero was intended as a portrait of William III, and was endowed with the most amiable virtues, while his villainous rival, Bajazet, was a caricature of Louis XIV. Gibbon and Prescott both note Rowe's eccentricity in crediting Tamerlane with ‘amiable moderation’ (Decline and Fall, cap. lxv. n.; Mexico, ed. 1855, ii. 152 n.) Although the plot is somewhat congested, the political tone of the play rendered it popular. It at once became a stock piece, and was played annually at Drury Lane Theatre on 5 Nov., the anniversary of William III's landing and of the ‘Gunpowder Plot,’ until 1815. Rowe dedicated it, when published, to William Cavendish (afterwards first Duke of Devonshire).
In 1703 he completed his ‘Fair Penitent,’ a highly sentimental tragedy adapted from Massinger's ‘Fatal Dowry.’ This was produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields. The printed piece was dedicated to the Duchess of Ormonde. Downes pointed out, when describing the first representation, that the interest, which was well maintained in the first three acts, failed in the last two. Sir Walter Scott justly noticed that Rowe's effort fell as far below Massinger's ‘as the boldest translation can sink below the most spirited original’ (Essay on Drama). Dr. Johnson gave it unstinted praise: ‘There is scarcely any work of any poet at once so interesting by the fable and so delightful in the language.’ The playgoing public emphatically approved its pathos. The villain, ‘the gallant, gay Lothario,’ acquired a proverbial reputation. The heroine, Calista, was a favourite character with the chief actresses of the century. Rowe's Lothario and Calista suggested Lovelace and Clarissa Harlowe to Richardson, the novelist. Rowe was less successful in his classical tragedy of ‘Ulysses’ (1706), though, ‘being all new cloathed and excellently well performed,’ it had a successful run at the Queen's Theatre in the Haymarket. Betterton took the title-rôle. Rowe dedicated the published play to Sidney, lord Godolphin.
Rowe's ‘Royal Convert,’ based on early British history, was produced at the Haymarket on 25 Nov. 1707. Booth appeared as Hengist, Wilks as Aribert, and Mrs. Oldfield as Ethelreda. The final lines spoken by Ethelreda described the blessing anticipated from the union of England and Scotland, and panegyrised Queen Anne. It was dedicated to Charles, lord Halifax. Of ‘Jane Shore,’ which Rowe professed to write ‘in imitation of Shakespeare's style,’ Pope justly remarked that the only resemblance to Shakespeare he could detect was the single borrowed line—
And so good morrow t'ye, good master lieutenant!
When first produced at Drury Lane, 2 Feb. 1713–14, it ran for nineteen nights, and long held the stage. Rowe dedicated it to the young Duke of Queensberry, and eulogised the young duke's father, who had been a useful patron.
On 20 April 1715 Rowe's last tragedy, ‘Lady Jane Grey,’ saw the light at Drury Lane. It appears that Edmund Smith [q. v.] had designed a piece on the same theme, and on his death Rowe examined his materials, but owed nothing to them. Smith merely projected an adaptation of Banks's ‘Lady Jane Grey.’ Rowe dedicated his play to the Princess of Wales. Pope wrote an epilogue to be spoken by Mrs. Oldfield, who created the part of Lady Jane (Pope, Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope, iv. 419).
Rowe's intimacy with Pope exposed him to venomous attacks from the piratical publisher Curll, and from Curll's hacks. In 1706 there appeared some caustic ‘Critical Remarks on Mr. Rowe's last Play, call'd Ulysses,’ and in 1714 Charles Gildon put forth his ‘New Rehearsal, or Bays the Younger, containing an examen of Seven of Rowe's Plays’ (an appendix denounced Pope's ‘Rape of the Lock’). In 1715 there was issued under like auspices ‘Remarks on the Tragedy of Lady Jane Grey.’ Pope subsequently made Curll remark in his ‘Barbarous Revenge on Mr. Curll,’ that Gildon's onslaught on Rowe ‘did more harm to me than to Mr. Rowe, for I paid him double for abusing him and Mr. Pope’ (Pope, Works, x. 465–6).
Meanwhile Rowe made endeavours in other departments of literature. In 1704 he ventured on a comedy called ‘The Biter,’ which was acted at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Although some of the songs were sprightly, it was ‘a foolish farce,’ wrote Congreve, ‘and was damned.’ But it pleased the author, who sat through the first and only representation, ‘laughing with great vehemence’ at his own wit. The prologue was spoken by Betterton, and the epilogue by Mrs. Bracegirdle. It was published by Tonson in 1705, but was not included in Rowe's collected works. He also cleverly adapted some odes of Horace to current affairs, and published many poems on public occasions. These included ‘Britannia's Charge to the Sons of Freedom’ (1703, s. sh. fol.), ‘the late glorious successes of her Majesty's arms,’ humbly inscribed to the Earl of Godolphin, 1707 (fol.), and ‘Mæcenas,’ verses occasioned by the honours conferred on the Earl of Halifax, 1714 (fol.). He contributed a memoir of Boileau to a translation of Boileau's ‘Lutrin’ (1708), took some part in a collective rendering of Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses,’ prefixed a translation of Pythagoras's ‘Golden Verses’ to an English edition of Dacier's ‘Life of Pythagoras’ (1707), and published translations of De la Bruyère's ‘Characters’ (1708) and Quillet's ‘Callipædia’ (1710).
One of Rowe's chief achievements was an edition of Shakespeare's works, which he published in 1709, with a dedication to the Duke of Somerset (6 vols.). This is reckoned the first attempt to edit Shakespeare in the modern sense. In the prefatory life Rowe embodied a series of traditions which he had commissioned the actor Betterton to collect for him while on a visit to Stratford-on-Avon; many of them were in danger of perishing without a record. Rowe displayed much sagacity in the choice and treatment of his biographic materials, and the memoir is consequently of permanent value. As a textual editor his services were less notable, but they deserve commendation as the labours of a pioneer. His text followed that of the fourth folio of 1685; the plays were printed in the same order, but the seven spurious plays were transferred from the beginning to the end. Rowe did not compare his text with that of the first folio or the quartos, but in the case of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ he met with an early quarto while his edition was passing through the press, and inserted at the end of the play the prologue which is only met with in the quartos. He made a few happy emendations, some of which coincide accidentally with the readings of the first folio; but his text is deformed by many palpable errors. His practical experience as a playwright induced him, however, to prefix for the first time a list of dramatis personæ to each play, to divide and number acts and scenes on rational principles, and to mark the entrances and exits of the characters. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar he corrected and modernised (Cambridge Shakespeare, pref. p. xxv). For his labours Rowe received the sum of 36l. 10s. (Nichols, Lit. Anecdotes, v. 597). A new edition of his Shakespeare appeared in 1714 (8 vols. 12mo). By way of completing this edition, Curll issued an unauthorised ninth volume, containing Shakespeare's poems and an essay on the drama by Gildon. Rowe is said to have projected an edition of Massinger's works, but apparently contented himself with plagiarising Massinger's ‘Fatal Dowry’ in his ‘Fair Penitent.’
Rowe interested himself in politics, as an ardent whig. On 5 Feb. 1708–9 he became under-secretary to the Duke of Queensberry, secretary of state for Scotland, and held office till the duke's death in 1711 (Luttrell, vi. 404). Although it is stated that Rowe's devotion to the whigs was so great that he declined to converse with men of the opposites party, Pope relates the anecdote that he applied to Lord Oxford for employment, that Oxford advised him to learn Spanish, and that after Rowe had at much pains followed the advice, he received from Oxford only the remark, ‘Then, sir, I envy you the pleasure of reading “Don Quixote” in the original’ (Spence, Anecdotes, p. 178). At the accession of George I, Rowe obtained the recognition he sought. On 1 Aug. 1715 he was made poet laureate in succession to Nahum Tate. He was also appointed in October one of the land surveyors of the customs of the port of London. The Prince of Wales chose him to be clerk of his council, and in May 1718, when Thomas Parker, first earl of Macclesfield [q. v.], became lord chancellor, he appointed Rowe clerk of the presentations.
His literary work in later life included a tame series of official new year odes addressed to the king; ‘Verses upon the Sickness and Recovery of Robert Walpole’ in a volume called ‘State Poems’ (1716, not collected); an epilogue for Mrs. Centlivre's ‘Cruel Gift’ (Drury Lane, 17 Dec. 1716); and a prologue, in which he denounced Jacobitism, for Colley Cibber's ‘Nonjuror’ (Drury Lane, 6 Oct. 1717). At the same time he completed a verse translation of Lucan's ‘Pharsalia.’ The ninth book he had already contributed to Tonson's ‘Miscellanies’ (vol. vi.) in 1710 (cf. Pope, Works, vi. 63 et seq.). The whole was published immediately after his death, with a laudatory memoir by Dr. Welwood and a dedication to George I by Rowe's widow. The translation exhibits much of ‘the spirit and genius of the original,’ although it is a paraphrase rather than a literal translation. Warton deemed Rowe's version superior to the original. Rowe died on 6 Dec. 1718, and was buried thirteen days later in the Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey. Rysbrack executed the bust which adorns the elaborate monument. Pope wrote an epitaph, which is extant in two forms. In Pope's published ‘Miscellanies’ it fills eight lines; that on the abbey tomb extends to fourteen (cf. Pope, Works, viii. 82). Rowe's will, which Pope witnessed, is printed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ 1822, i. 208. He distributed his property among his wife, son, daughter, and sister (Sarah Peele). Elegies, by Charles Beckingham, Nicholas Amhurst, Mrs. Centlivre, and T. Newcomb were collected by Curll in a volume, entitled ‘Musarum Lachrymæ, or Poems to the Memory of Nicholas Rowe, Esq.’ (1719); there was a dedication addressed to Congreve, and a memoir by Hales.
Rowe is described by Welwood as graceful and well made, his face regular and of a manly beauty. Lewis says he was ‘a comely personage and a very pretty sort of man’ (Spence, p. 257). His portrait was twice painted by Kneller; the pictures are now at Knole Park, Sevenoaks, and at Nuneham respectively. A mezzotint by Faber is dated 1715.
He was married twice: first, to Antonia (d. 1706), daughter of Anthony Parsons, one of the auditors of the revenue; and secondly, in 1717, to Anne, daughter of Joseph Devenish of Buckham, Dorset. By his first marriage he had a son John; by his second a daughter, Charlotte (1717–1739), wife of Henry Fane, youngest son of Vere Fane, fourth earl of Westmorland. Rowe's widow married, on 21 Jan. 1724, Colonel Alexander Deanes, a step which offended Pope, and led him to pass some severe strictures on the fickleness of widows (POPE, Dialogue ii. 1738). George I granted her on 8 May 1719 a pension of 40l. a year in consideration of Rowe's translation of Lucan. She died on 6 Dec. 1747, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Rowe was a cultivated man, well acquainted with the classics, and with French, Italian, and Spanish literature. Mrs. Oldfield used to say the best school she had ever known was ‘only hearing Rowe read her part in his tragedies’ (Richardsoniana, p. 77; Spence, p. 380). He was a charming companion, always witty and vivacious. Pope, who called him ‘the best of men,’ delighted in his society both in London and on excursions to the country. Rowe would laugh (Pope declared) all day long (Spence, p. 284). In a ‘Farewell to London,’ dated 1715, Pope spoke of Rowe as often drinking and drolling ‘till the third watchman's toll’ (Works, iv. 482). Addison credited him with too much levity to render it possible for him to become a sincere friend, an opinion with which on one occasion Pope expressed agreement (Ruffhead, Life of Pope). The blank verse in his tragedies is suave, but he showed little power of characterisation. Pope coupled him with Southern as a delineator of the passions. Smollett called him a ‘solid, florid, and declamatory’ playwright. ‘He seldom pierces the breast,’ says Johnson, ‘but he always delights the ear, and often improves the understanding.’
Several of Rowe's tragedies long held the stage. Besides the annual performance of ‘Tamerlane’ at Drury Lane, at the last of which (6 Nov. 1815) Kean was Bajazet, the piece was often performed at Covent Garden; there, on 9 Nov. 1819, Macready played Bajazet, and Charles Kemble Tamerlane. Of the ‘Fair Penitent,’ Genest notices twenty-three revivals up to 1824; at Drury Lane, on 29 Nov. 1760, Garrick played Lothario with Mrs. Yates as Calista; at Covent Garden, on 5 Nov. 1803, J. P. Kemble played Horatio, Charles Kemble Lothario, Mrs. Siddons Calista, and Mrs. Henry Siddons Lavinia; on 2 March 1816 Charles Kemble played Lothario with Miss O'Neill as Calista. Of ‘Jane Shore’ Genest describes twenty-two performances. Mrs. Yates and Mrs. Siddons both acquired much fame in the part of the heroine. ‘Lady Jane Grey’ was occasionally repeated till the end of the eighteenth century. Rowe's tragedies figure in Bell's and Inchbald's ‘Theatrical Collections.’ J. P. Kemble edited revised versions of ‘The Fair Penitent’ (1814) and ‘Jane Shore’ (1815). ‘The Fair Penitent,’ ‘Tamerlane,’ and ‘Jane Shore’ obtained some vogue in France through French translations. The first two are to be found in the ‘Théâtre Anglois’ (1746). ‘The Fair Penitent’ was again rendered into French by the Marquis de Mauprié (Paris, 1750), and ‘Jane Shore,’ after appearing in French verse (London, 1797), was translated by Andrieux for ‘Chefs d'œuvre des Théâtres étrangers’ (1822, vol. ii.), and was freely adapted by Liadières in 1824.
Eight editions of his Lucan (2 vols. 12mo) appeared between its first issue in 1718  and 1807. Among the Royal manuscripts in the British Museum is a presentation copy of Lucan, fairly transcribed, though not in the poet's autograph.
Collected editions of Rowe's works—his plays and occasional poems—appeared in 3 vols. 12mo in 1727 (with portrait and plates), and in 2 vols. in 1736, 1747, 1756, 1766, and 1792. His poems and translations are included in Johnson's, Anderson's, Chalmers's, Park's, and Sanford's collections of British Poets.[Johnson's Lives of the Poets, ed. Cunningham, 1854, ii. 105–16; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill, iv. 36 (notes 3 and 4); Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope; Colley Cibber's Autobiography; Genest's Hist. Account of the Stage; Austin and Ralph's Lives of the Laureates, 1853; Walter Hamilton's Poets Laureate; Vivian's Visitation of Devon, 1896, p. 662; Cat. of Rowe's Library, 1719.]