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NICHOLAS ROWE (1673-1718)

The following biography is reprinted from A Complete Manual of English Literature. Thomas B. Shaw. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1867.

In success in life and social position, Nicholas Rowe was a happy contrast to the wretched career of many dramatists by no means his inferiors in talent. He was born in 1673, and studied in the Temple, employing his leisure hours in writing for the stage. He was cordially received in the brilliant and literary society which surrounded Pope, Swift, Arbuthnot, and Prior, and who were bound together by such strong ties of intimacy and friendship. It is said, however, that Rowe, though much admired for his social accomplishments, was regarded as of a somewhat cold and selfish nature; in short, there seem to be many elements of his character in common between him and Congreve. He was not only in possession of an independent fortune, but was splendidly rewarded for his literary exertions by the gift of many lucrative places in the patronage of Government. Thus he was Poet Laureate and Surveyor of the Customs, Clerk of the Council in the service of the Prince of Wales, and Clerk of the Presentations. He was an example of that mode which for some time was general in England, of rewarding with profitable or sinecure appointments merit of a literary kind. The profession of letters enjoyed a transient gleam of prosperity and consideration; the period preceding and that following this epoch being remarkable for want of social consideration--nay, the degradation attaching to the author's profession. It was not till the vast extension of the reading public, by offering the writer the most honorable form of recompense and the purest motives for exertion, that he could be relieved from the humiliation of a servile dependence on individual patrons on the one hand, and the fluctuations of temporary success and prevailing poverty, on the other. Rowe was the first who undertook an edition of Shakespeare upon true critical and philological principles; and, though his work is marked by the inevitable deficiency of an age when the art of the commentator, as applied to an author of the sixteenth century, was still in its infancy, yet his edition gives some earnest of better things, and has, at all events, the merit of exhibiting a profound and loyal admiration of the great poet's genius. Rowe died in 1718.

His dramatic productions amount to seven, the principal being Jane Shore, The Fair Penitent, and Lady Jane Grey, all, of course, tragedies. Tenderness is Rowe's chief dramatic merit; in the diction of his works we incessantly trace the influence of his study of the manner of the great Elizabethan playwrights. This imitation is often only superficial; and in some cases, as, for example, in Jane Shore, extends little farther than an aping of the quaintness of the elder authors; but in many points Rowe did all that a nature, I suspect not very impressionable, could do to catch some echo of those deep tones of pathos and passion that thrill through the writings of the great elder dramatists. In The Fair Penitent we have an almost intolerable load of sorrow accumulated on the head of the heroine. It is curious that the character of the seducer in this play, "the gallant, gay Lothario," should have become the proverbial type of the faithless lover--just as Don Juan has been in our own time--and should have furnished Richardson with the outline which that great painter of character afterwards filled up so successfully in his masterly portrait of Lovelace.

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