Elizabeth Rowe (16741737)



  • Author


  • Elizabeth Rowe
  • Elizabeth Singer

Biographical details

Note: the 19th-century biography below preserves a historical record. We welcome submissions of new biographies that reflect 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

ROWE, Mrs. ELIZABETH (1674–1737), author, born at Ilchester, Somerset, on 11 Sept. 1674, was eldest of the three daughters of Walter Singer, a nonconformist minister, by his wife, Elizabeth Portnell. The father, who had a competent estate in the neighbourhood of Frome, had been in prison at Ilchester in early life for nonconformity, and first met his wife while she was visiting the prisoners as an act of charity. He died on 18 April 1719. Elizabeth, although educated religiously, practised music and drawing with much success, and wrote verse from a youthful age. In 1696 she published ‘Poems on several occasions by Philomela’ (reissued in 1709 and 1737). The effort attracted favourable notice. The family of Lord Weymouth at Longleat patronised her, Henry Thynne, Lord Weymouth's son, taught her French and Italian, and at the request of Lord Weymouth's chaplain, Bishop Ken, she afterwards paraphrased in verse the thirty-eighth chapter of Job. Ken paid a weekly visit to her father's house in order to cultivate her society. Matthew Prior was also attracted by her poetry. Not only did he print with his own collected poems her ‘Love and Friendship, a pastoral,’ but appended to it verses declaring himself desperately in love with her. At the same period she became known to Dr. Isaac Watts, who, on 19 July 1706, wrote some lines ‘on her divine poems.’ In 1709 she was introduced, while at Bath, to an accomplished and serious-minded young man, Thomas Rowe, and next year she married him.

Thomas Rowe (1687–1715) was his wife's junior by thirteen years, having been born in London on 25 April 1687. His father, Benoni Rowe, son of John Rowe (1626–1677) [q. v.], and brother of Thomas Rowe (1657–1705) [q. v.], was a nonconformist minister of Devonshire origin. Thomas had studied classics first at Epsom, afterwards under Dr. Walker, master of the Charterhouse, and finally at the university of Leyden. He combined with his scholarship an ardent love of political and religious liberty, and, to gratify simultaneously his literary and political predilections, he designed a series of lives of classical heroes who had been overlooked by Plutarch. He completed eight biographies (Æneas, Tullus Hostilius, Aristomenes, Tarquin the elder and Junius Brutus, Gelo, Cyrus, and Jason), and his work was published, with a preface by Samuel Chandler, in 1728, after his death. A life of Thrasybulus, which he sent for revision to Sir Richard Steele, was never heard of again. A French translation of his lives by Abbé Bellenger was appended to Dacier's French translation of Plutarch in 1734, and was frequently republished with it. Rowe also wrote some English poems, both original and translated from the classics. The former included some frigid ‘Odes to Delia.’ Rowe's verse was published in the collected edition of his wife's works in 1739. He died of consumption at Hampstead on 13 May 1715, and was buried in Bunhill Fields.

Mrs. Rowe wrote an elegy on her husband which was at the time credited with almost infinite pathos, although the rhyming heroics in which it is penned give it in modern ears a somewhat conventional ring. Pope did Mrs. Rowe the honour not only of imitating some lines in his own poems, but of printing the elegy in 1720 as an appendix to his ‘Eloisa and Abelard’ (2nd edit.). Mrs. Rowe never completely recovered from the grief of her bereavement. Retiring to Frome, where she inherited a small property from her father, she devoted herself to pious exercises, occasionally varied by literary work or sketching. She seldom left home except to visit her friend, the Countess of Hertford, afterwards Duchess of Somerset, at Marlborough (the daughter of her early patron, Henry Thynne of Longleat), but she maintained intimate relations with many other friends and acquaintances through a voluminous correspondence. Her correspondents included the Earl of Orrery, James Theobald, and Mrs. Elizabeth Carter. She died of apoplexy on 20 Feb. 1736–7, and was buried in the meeting-house at Frome. Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, among others, wrote eulogistic verses to her memory.

Mrs. Rowe's most popular literary compositions took an epistolary form, which she employed with much skill. In 1728 she published ‘Friendship in Death, in twenty Letters from the Dead to the Living’ (3rd edit. 1733, 5th edit. 1738, and many other editions until 1816). Here she gave a curiously realistic expression to her faith in the soul's immortality. ‘Thoughts on Death, translated from the Moral Essays of Messieurs de Port Royal,’ was appended. A second epistolary venture, ‘Letters Moral and Entertaining’ (pt. i. 1729, pt. ii. 1731, and pt. iii. 1733), was undertaken with the pious intention of exciting religious sentiment in the careless and dissipated. But the frankness with which Mrs. Rowe's imaginary characters acquaint each other with their profane experiences lends her volumes some secular interest. Dr. Johnson, while commending Mrs. Rowe's ‘brightness of imagery’ and ‘purity of sentiment’ in this work, describes the author as the earliest English writer to employ with success ‘the ornaments of romance in the decoration of religion.’ ‘The only writer,’ Dr. Johnson adds, who had made a like endeavour was Robert Boyle, in the ‘Martyrdom of Theodora;’ and he failed (Boswell, Life of Johnson, i. 312). In 1736 she published ‘The History of Joseph,’ a poem which she had written in her younger years (4th edit. 1744; Boston, U.S.A. 1807). After her death Isaac Watts, in accordance with her request, revised and published in 1737 prayers of her composition, under the title of ‘Devout Exercises of the Heart in Meditation and Soliloquy, Praise and Prayer.’ A second edition was called for within a year, and many others appeared in London until 1811. Outside London, editions were issued at Newry (1762), Edinburgh (1766 and 1781), Dublin (1771), and Windsor, U.S.A. (1792). In 1739 Mrs. Rowe's ‘Miscellaneous Works in Prose and Verse’ were published in 2 vols. 8vo; a full account of her life and writings by her brother-in-law, Theophilus Rowe, was prefixed, and her husband's poems were printed in an appendix. A portrait of Mrs. Rowe, engraved by Vertue, formed the frontispiece. These volumes were reissued in 1749, 1750 (with ‘History of Joseph’), 1756, and 1772. A completer collection appeared in 4 vols. in 1796. Mrs. Rowe is represented in ‘Poems by Eminent Ladies,’ 1755, ii. 271. ‘Hampden,’ an unpublished poem by her, is in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 29300 f. 112). Dr. Johnson declared that human eulogies of two such saintly writers as Mrs. Rowe and Dr. Watts were vain; ‘they were applauded by angels and numbered with the just.’ Abroad Mrs. Rowe excited hardly less enthusiasm. Two French translations of her ‘Friendship in Death’ were published—at Amsterdam in 1740 and at Geneva in 1753. Her poems were translated into German in 1745, and achieved much popularity. The German poets Klopstock and Wieland vied with each other in the praises they lavished on her poetic fervour and devotional temperament. ‘Die göttliche Rowe’ and ‘Die himmlische und fromme Singer’ are phrases to be frequently met with in Klopstock's private correspondence.

[The full life prefixed to Mrs. Rowe's Miscellaneous Works (1739) was issued separately in 1769, and was included in Thomas Jackson's Library of Christian Biogr. 1837, vol. x. It is summarized in Cibber's Lives of the Poets and in Noble's Biogr. Hist. iii. 309–10. The most scholarly biography is Die göttliche Rowe von Theodor Vetter, Zürich, 1894; see also Plumptre's Thomas Ken, ii. 172 seq., and Correspondence of John Hughes, esq., 1773, i. 166, 177.]

S. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.240
N.B.— f.e.. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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