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Rowe [née Singer], Elizabethlocked

(1674–1737)
  • Jonathan Pritchard

Rowe [née Singer], Elizabeth (1674–1737), poet and devotional writer, was born on 11 September 1674 at Ilchester, Somerset, the eldest of the three daughters of Walter Singer (d. 1719) and his wife, Elizabeth Portnell. Her father had been a nonconformist minister, and during the reign of Charles II was imprisoned for his religious beliefs in Ilchester, where he first met his wife, on a charitable visit to the gaol. He later became a prosperous clothier. After the death of his wife he moved about 1692 with his two surviving daughters to Eggford Farm at Frome, Somerset. (One daughter had died in childhood, while another died at nineteen or twenty.) At Frome he enjoyed the acquaintance of influential figures: Thomas Thynne, first Viscount Weymouth, of Longleat, Wiltshire, became a friend; his son, Henry, later acted as Elizabeth's tutor in Italian, French, and possibly Latin; and Henry's daughter Frances became her lifelong confidante. (The two families may have been introduced by Thomas Ken, the nonjuring former bishop of Bath and Wells who since 1691 had been living in retirement at Longleat.) Singer is said to have attended a boarding-school in the country, and at home her interests in music, painting, and literature were encouraged by her father. His greatest influence, however, was in the witness of piety; the importance of the principles, and the practice, of religious devotion was impressed upon her throughout her childhood.

Singer began writing at the age of twelve and by 1691, probably without her parents' knowledge, was contributing verses to John Dunton's periodical, the Athenian Mercury, under the noms de plume Philomela and the Pindarick Lady. From October 1693 to January 1696 she was the principal contributor of verses to the magazine. In 1695 she revealed her identity to Dunton, who during their brief, self-consciously platonic friendship urged her to collect her work. Introduced with a vigorous preface by Elizabeth Johnson, Poems on Several Occasions: Written by Philomela (1696) was a small but various collection (none of whose items was reprinted in later editions); the volume includes pieces on earthly and divine love, a number of pastorals and odes, and paraphrases from Ovid and the Bible. Singer's strikingly sensual diction and vehemence of address recall earlier English mystical poets.

Several of the friends Singer made through her writing have been identified—with varying degrees of plausibility—as possible suitors. She met Benjamin Colman, a clergyman from Boston, Massachusetts, at Bath about 1696; he continued to visit the family until his return to North America in 1699, and they corresponded until her death. The poet Matthew Prior, a colleague of Lord Weymouth at the Board of Trade and Plantations, made a number of half-serious declarations of love, which she rejected. She had met him at Longleat in 1703 and used his influence to place one of her translations of Tasso, among other pieces, in Tonson's Poetical Miscellanies: the Fifth Part (1704). Isaac Watts, a kindred spirit, the dissenting minister and hymn writer, addressed a poem to her, dated 19 July 1706, in the second edition of his Horae lyricae (1709), which may suggest that much of her verse circulated in manuscript. She continued to publish in periodicals, and new devotional works appeared in Divine hymns and poems on several occasions … by Philomela, and several other ingenious persons (1704) and its heavily revised second edition, A Collection of Divine Hymns and Poems (1709).

In 1709 at Bath Singer was introduced to Thomas Rowe (1687–1715), a poet and biographer who was her junior by thirteen years. They married in the following year and moved to Hampstead. Rowe was born on 25 April 1687 in London, the eldest son of Benoni Rowe, a nonconformist minister from Devon, and Sarah (née Rowe). He was educated at Epsom, then under Dr Walker, master of the Charterhouse, and finally at the University of Leiden. He wrote verses on political and religious liberty and planned a series of lives of classical heroes who had been neglected by Plutarch. He completed eight biographies, which were published posthumously, with a preface by Samuel Chandler, in 1728. A life of Thrasybulus, the Athenian general, which he sent for revision to Sir Richard Steele, was never heard of again. A French translation of the lives by the Abbé Bellenger was appended to Dacier's rendering of Plutarch in 1734 and was frequently reprinted with it. Rowe's verse, including both original compositions and versions of the classics, was gathered in the collected edition of his wife's works. Their marriage was happy but brief: after a long illness Rowe died of consumption on 13 May 1715 at Hampstead and was buried in Bunhill Fields. He was twenty-eight.

Heartbroken, Elizabeth Rowe retired to her father's house in Frome, where, apart from occasional excursions to Marlborough to visit Frances Thynne (who, after her marriage to Algernon Seymour, had become countess of Hertford), she lived for the rest of her life. She celebrated her husband's memory in letters and elegiac verses, of which the most remarkable were her lines 'On the death of Mr Thomas Rowe'. This work was first published in Lintot's Poems on Several Occasions (1717). Pope so admired the elegy that he appended it to the second edition of Eloisa to Abelard (1720). After her father's death in 1719 Rowe inherited substantial properties in Frome and Ilchester, half of whose annual income she gave to charity. Her remaining years were spent in pious devotions and their literary expression. Friendship in Death: in Twenty Letters from the Dead to the Living (1728), dedicated to Edward Young, was a sequence of novellas (purposeful letters written by innocent infants, guilty sisters, reformed rakes, and the like) which takes sensual pleasure in the prospect of a Christian afterlife. To the volume was appended 'Thoughts on death', translated from Pierre Nicole's Essais de morale (1672–80). Although twentieth-century criticism characterized it as 'an aggressively didactic work' (Richetti, 245), for many years the title was widely read and highly regarded; there were almost sixty editions in the eighteenth century.

Similar in its scope and ambition was Letters Moral and Entertaining (1729–32), a three-part series treating of love, marriage, and death; some of the letters, however, were taken from Rowe's actual correspondence with Lady Hertford, and were interspersed with translations of Tasso, devotional verses, and pastorals. The effect is that of an improving, but single-minded, miscellany. The last authorized publication to appear before Rowe's death was The History of Joseph (1736), an eight-book biblical history which she had composed some years earlier, drawing principally on Genesis 37–45, but supplemented by a number of interpolated narratives taken from other books of the Bible; an expanded, ten-book version was published posthumously in 1739. Poems by Mrs. Elizabeth Singer [now Rowe] of Frome (1737 [i.e. 1736]) was Edmund Curll's imprint, tricked out so that it appeared to have been published with her consent.

Rowe died of apoplexy on 20 February 1737 in Frome, having made meticulous preparations for her death and funeral, and was buried in her father's grave in Rook Lane Congregational Church, Frome. She was sixty-two. After her death a series of letters addressed to a number of friends was found. Isaac Watts was one such; to him Rowe entrusted the editing of her religious contemplations, published that same year as Devout Exercises of the Heart in Meditation and Soliloquy, Prayer and Praise. Despite his reservations—he doubts that her fervent style is 'the happiest Language in which Christians should generally discover their warm Sentiments of Religion, since the clearer and more spiritual Revelations of the New Testament' (preface, xiii)—a second edition was called for within twelve months, and over fifty further editions appeared throughout the eighteenth century from presses in Newry, Edinburgh, and Dublin; and, as for Friendship in Death, there were numerous American editions. The Miscellaneous Works in Prose and Verse of Mrs Elizabeth Rowe (2 vols., 1739), to which was appended a collection of her husband's verse, was also popular: five editions were published during the eighteenth century before an enlarged, four-volume edition appeared in 1796. Prefaced by an impressive roster of dedicatory verses from family and friends alike, the 1739 edition includes the first life of the writer, begun by Henry Grove, a cousin of Thomas Rowe's father and friend of Watts, and completed by her brother-in-law, Theophilus Rowe; sixty-four 'Devout soliloquies', two-thirds of which are written in an engagingly baffled, sinewy blank verse; and a variety of unpublished letters revealing a literary intelligence which encompassed Cervantes and Pascal, and Shaftesbury and Berkeley, as well as Milton and Pope.

During her life and for many years after her death Rowe was esteemed as exemplifying piety and devotion; writers as various as Pope, Richardson, and Johnson attest to her particular grace. Indeed, her reverent letters were held in high regard as models of moral prose, for which there continued to be public demand, on both sides of the Atlantic, into the nineteenth century; that her works were also translated into German and French (the latter renderings being published in Amsterdam and Geneva) tells of her further popularity in Europe. The same qualities which distinguish her work (religious fervour, an incandescent otherworldliness) and her continuing attachments to a long-dead father and spouse later helped to characterize Rowe as a widowed recluse eager for her quietus; but from her country retreat she busied herself in diverse temporal concerns, offering financial support for the school in Frome, participating in the affairs of the town's meeting-house and its congregation, maintaining a great many friendships through a voluminous correspondence, and even interesting herself in the colonial settlement of Georgia.

Sources

  • ‘The life of Mrs Elizabeth Rowe’, The miscellaneous works in prose and verse of Mrs Elizabeth Rowe, 2 vols. (1739), vol. 1, pp. i–cxxviii
  • T. Vetter, Die göttliche Rowe (Zürich, 1894)
  • H. F. Stecher, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, the poetess of Frome: a study in eighteenth-century English pietism (Bern, 1973)
  • E. R. Napier, ‘Elizabeth Rowe’, British novelists, 1660–1800, ed. M. C. Battestin, DLitB, 39/2 (1985), 409–13
  • M. F. Marshall, ‘Elizabeth Singer Rowe’, Eighteenth-century British poets: first series, ed. J. Sitter, DLitB, 95 (1990), 248–56
  • R. Lonsdale, ‘Elizabeth Rowe (née Singer)’, Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology, ed. R. Lonsdale (1989), 45–6
  • H. S. Hughes, ‘Elizabeth Rowe and the countess of Hertford’, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 59 (1944), 726–46
  • H. B. Wright, ‘Matthew Prior and Elizabeth Singer’, Philological Quarterly, 24 (1945), 71–82
  • J. J. Richetti, ‘The novel as pious polemic: 2. Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe’, Popular fiction before Richardson: narrative patterns, 1700–1739 (1969), 239–61

Archives

  • Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, MS 110
  • BL, commonplace book, RP2151 [copy]

Likenesses

  • G. Vertue, line engraving, BM, NPG; repro. in ‘The life of Mrs Elizabeth Rowe’, Miscellaneous works

Wealth at Death

see will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/682, sig. 67

Dictionary of Literary Biography