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R O W E.
NICHOLAS ROWE was born at Little Beck. ford, 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 first sent to a private school at Highgate; and, being afterwards removed to Westmin
* In the Villare, Lamerton. Dr. J.
ster, was at twelve
* chosen one of the king's scholars. His master was Busby, who suffered none of his scholars to let their powers lie useless; and his exercises in several languages are said to have been written with uncommon degrees of excellence, and yet to have cost him very little labour.
At sixteen he had, in his father's opinion, made advances in learning sufficient to qualify him for the study of law, and was entered a student of the Middle Temple, where for some time he read Statutes and Reports with proficiency proportionate to the force of his mind, which was already such that he endeavoured to comprehend law, not as a series of precedents, or collection of positive precepts, but as a system of rational government, and impartial justice.
When he was nineteen, he was, by the death of his father, left more to his own direction, and
probably from that time suffered law gradually to give way to poetry. At twenty-five he produced The Ambitious Step-Mother, which was received with so much favour, that he devoted himself from that time wholly to elegant literature.
His next tragedy (1702) was Tamerlane, in which, under the name of Tamerlane, he intended to characterize king William, and Lewis the Fourteenth under Bajazet. The virtues of Tamerlane seem to have been arbitrarily assigned him by his poet, for I know not that history gives any other qualities than those which make a conqueror. The fashion, however, of the time was, to accumulate upon Lewis all
* He was not elected till 1688. N.
that can raise horrourand detestation; and whatever good was withheld from him, that it might not be thrown away, was bestowed upon king William.
This was the tragedy which Rowe valued most, and that which probably, by the help of political auxiliaries, excited most applause; but occasional poetry must often content itself with occasional praise. Tamerlane has for a long time been acted only once a year, on the night when king William landed. Our quarrel with Lewis has been long over; and it now gratifies neither zeal nor malice to see him painted with aggravated features, like a Saracen upon a sign.
The Fair Penitent, his next production (1703), is one of the most pleasing tragedies on the stage, where it still keeps its turns of appearing, and probably will long keep them, for there is scarcely any work of any poet at once so interesting by the fable, and so delightful by the language. The story is domestick, and therefore easily received by the imagination, and assimilated to common life; the diction is exquisitely harmonious, and soft or sprightly as occasion requires.
The character of Lothario seems to have been expanded by Richardson into Lovelace; but he has excelled his original in the moral effect of the fiction. Lothario, with gaiety which cannot be hated, and bravery which cannot be despised, retains too much of the spectator's kindness. It was in the power of Richardson alone to teach us at once esteem and detestation, to make virtuous resentment over-power all the benevolence which wit, elegance, and courage, naturally excite; and to lose at last the hero in the villain.
The fifth act is not equal to the former; the events of the drama are exhausted, and little remains but to talk of what is past. It has been observed, that the title of the play does not sufficiently correspond with the behaviour of Calista, who at last shews no evident signs of repentance, but may be reasonably suspected of feeling pain from detection rather than from guilt, and expresses more shame than sorrow, and more rage than shame.
His next (1706) was Ulysses ; which, with the common fate of mythological stories, is now generally neglected. We have been too early acquainted with the poetical heroes, to expect any pleasure from their revival; to show them as they have already been shown, is to disgust by repetition ; to give them new qualities, or new adventures, is to offend by violating received notions.
The Royal Convert (1708) seems to have a better claim to longevity. The fable is drawn from an obscure and barbarous age, to which fictions are more easily and properly adapted; for, when objects are imperfectly seen, they easily take forms from imagination. The scene lies among our ancestors in our own country, and therefore very easily catches attention. Rodogune is a personage truly tragical, of high spirit, and violent passions, great with tempestuous dignity, and wicked with a soul that would have been heroick if it had been virtuous. The motto seems to tell that this play was not successful.
Rowe does not always remember what his characters require. In Tamerlane there is some ridiculous mention of the God of Love; and Rodogune, a sa
vage Saxon, talks of Venus, and the eagle that bears the thunder of Jupiter.
The play discovers its own date, by a prediction of the Union, in imitation of Cranmer's prophetick promises to Henry the Eighth. The anticipated blessings of union are not very naturally introduced, nor very happily expressed.
He once (1706) tried to change his hand. He ventured on a comedy, and produced The Biter; with which, though it was unfavourably treated by the audience, he was himself delighted; for he is said to have sat in the house laughing with great vehemence, whenever he had, in his own opinion, produced a jest. But, finding that he and the publick had no sympathy of mirth, he tried at lighter scenes no more.
After the Royal Convert (1714) appeared Jane Shore, written, as its author professes, in imitation of Shakspeare's style. In what he thought himself an imitator of Shakspeare, it is not easy to conceive. The numbers, the diction, the sentiments, and the conduct, every thing in which imitation can consist, are remote in the utmost degree from the manner of Shakspeare; whose dramas it resembles only as it is an English story, and as some of the persons have their names in history. This play, consisting chiefly of domestick scenes and private distress, lays hold upon the heart. The wife is forgiven because she repents, and the husband is honoured because he forgives. This, therefore, is one of those pieces which we still welcome on the stage.
His last tragedy (1715) was Lady Jane Grey. This subject had been chosen by Mr. Smith, whose