Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Clarke, Charles Cowden

CLARKE, CHARLES COWDEN (1787–1877), author, musician, and lecturer, was born at Enfield, Middlesex, on 15 Dec. 1787, on the site (now occupied by the railway station) of the schoolhouse kept by John Clarke, his father. John Clarke had been a lawyer's clerk at Northampton, and afterwards an usher in a school in the same town, where Charles Lamb's friend George Dyer was his colleague. He died in December 1820. The picturesque front of the Enfield schoolhouse was so fine an example of ornamental brickwork that it has been preserved in the South Kensington Museum. John Keats (b. 1795) was a pupil at the elder Clarke's school when six or seven years old, and Charles, a lad of fourteen or fifteen, taught the child almost his first letters, and afterwards taught him to love and appreciate poetry, a fact affectionately attested in Keats's 'Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke.' Charles Lamb, with whom Clarke was in friendly relationship for many years, took a house at Enfield in 1827, and wrote a humorous letter about the school to Clarke, dated 26 Feb. 1828: 'Traditions are rife here of one Clarke, a schoolmaster, and a runaway teacher named Holmes [i.e. Edward Holmes, one of Keats's fellow-pupils], but much obscurity hangs over it. Is it possible they can be any relations?' While a schoolboy Clarke was passionately devoted to the theatre, and would walk of an evening from Enfield to London and back to witness the performance of Mrs. Siddons, Miss O'Neil, or Edmund Kean. For some time after reaching manhood Clarke continued to live with his father and mother, who retired about 1810 from the school at Enfield, and took a house at Ramsgate. He made, however, frequent visits to London, where two married sisters had settled; had the good fortune to be introduced at a London party to Leigh Hunt, with whose literary and political opinions he completely sympathised; came to know Vincent Novello; met Shelley and Hazlitt at Leigh Hunt's cottage at Hampstead; visited Charles and Mary Lamb when they were staying at Margate; and first appeared in print as a contributor of some essays on 'Walks round London' to Leigh Hunt's 'Literary Pocket Book' in 1820. About the same time Leigh Hunt visited Clarke at Ramsgate before starting for Italy, and in 1821 Clarke introduced himself to Coleridge, whom he met by accident on the East Cliff, Ramsgate. His father's death in 1820 broke up the establishment at Ramsgate: his mother went soon afterwards to live with a daughter in the west of England, and he himself settled in London. He engaged in business as a bookseller and publisher on his own account, but before long entered into partnership as a music publisher with Alfred Novello, Vincent Novello's son.

In the 'Novello circle' Clarke found his wife. On 5 July 1828 he married Mary Victoria (b. 1809), the eldest daughter of his friend Vincent Novello, whom he had first met when a little girl at Leigh Hunt's cottage ten years earlier. The honeymoon was spent at Enfield. The marriage was exceptionally happy. For some years the Clarkes lived with the Novello family at Craven Hill Cottage, Bayswater, and a year after the marriage Mrs. Cowden Clarke began her invaluable 'Concordance to Shakespeare's Plays,' produced after sixteen years' labour in 1845. Both husband and wife mixed largely in literary society. Clarke was with William Hazlitt shortly before his death in 1830; the acquaintance with Charles Lamb was strengthened by visits to Enfield or Edmonton. Through the Novellos Clarke came to know musicians like John Cramer and F. B. Mendelssohn, and added after 1830 to his list of acquaintances Douglas Jerrold, Macready, and Charles Dickens.

From 1825 Clarke contributed for some years articles, chiefly on the fine arts and the drama, to the 'Atlas' newspaper and the 'Examiner.' In 1828 he issued 'Readings in Natural Philosophy.' In 1883 he published 'Tales from Chaucer' (new ed. 1870), which was followed in 1835 by the 'Riches of Chaucer' (new ed. 1870), and forms a good example of his love of literature and knowledge of the poets. In 1833 he edited Nyren's 'Young Cricketers' Tutor,' and in 1834 wrote ' Adam the Gardener,' a boys' book.

In 1834 Clarke began the great work of his life—the public lectures on Shakespeare and other dramatists and poets. A taste for lectures was arising, and Clarke won great popularity. His lecturing career, which began in 1834, ended in 1856, his first lecture being delivered at the Mechanics' Institute, Royston, on Chaucer, and his farewell lecture at the Mechanics' Institution of Northampton on Molière. He made a number of friends in nearly every provincial town, and lectured for twenty successive years at the London Institution. His lectures were most carefully prepared and clearly written in the old-style ‘round hand’ which Lamb admired, and described as ‘the clear, firm, impossible-to-be-mistaken schoolmaster text-hand.’ The lecturer had a pleasant, cheery, ruddy face, a charming humour of expression, a clear, pleasant voice, and a heartiness and drollness of manner which won the audience as soon as he appeared. His lectures were the results of long and patient study, and full of acute and subtle criticism. He attracted audiences who never entered a theatre, and stimulated the popular interest in the study of Shakespeare. Without attempted dramatic personation, be was as accomplished a reader as Dickens, and especially skillful in bringing out the comic force of Shakespeare and Molière.

Many of Clarke’s lectures were published,and are very readable, even when deprived of the personal charm of delivery. Among these were ‘Shakespeare Characters, chiefly those Subordinate’ (1863), a storehouse of minute and curious criticism; ‘Moliere Characters’ (1865), a popular sketch for English readers; and also a long series of lectures on ‘Shakespeare’s Contrasted Characters,’ one on ‘Shakespeare Numskulls,’ four on the ‘British Poets,’ three on the ‘Poets of the Elizabethan Era,’ three on the ‘Poets of Charles II to Queen Anne,’ four on the ‘Poets of the Guelphic Era,’ three on the ‘Poetry by the Prose Writers,’ four on the ‘ Four Great European Novelists: Boccaccio, Cervantes, Le Sage, and Richardson,' four on ‘Schools of Painting in Italy,’ and others on ‘Ancient Ballads and on ‘Sonnet Writers,’ In 1859 Clarke published a little volume of original poems called ‘Carmina Minima.’ In 1863 he edited the poems of George Herbert, and between that ear and the date of his death saw through the press new editions of nearly all the English poets. He contributed a series of papers on the English comic poets to the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ for 1871.

The joint productions of Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke have been remarkable and important, one of the most valuable being the ‘Shakespeare Key: Unlocking the treasures of his Style, elucidating the peculiarities of his Construction, and displaying the beauties of his Expression’ (1879), forming a valuable supplement to the ‘Concordance, as a sort of index to Shakespeare’s works. The editions of Shakespeare’s works, with annotations and story of life (1869), and with glossary and chronological table (1864), were reissued in 1875, and under the title of ‘Cassell’s Illustrated Shakespeare’ in 1886. ‘Recollections of Writers’ 1878) was also a joint work, with many pleasant letters and memoirs of Keats, Leigh Hunt, the Lambs, and other famous men and women. Husband and wife also prepared an illustrated volume, ‘Many Happy turns of the Day; a Birthday Book’ (1847; other eds. 1860 and 1869).

In the autumn of 1856 the Novello family (Mr. Alfred and Miss Sabilla) and Mr. and Mrs. Cowden Clarke retired to Nice, where they remained till 1861, and then removed to Genoa, where, after sixteen years of quiet life, enjoying his garden and his books, Clarke died on 13 March 1877. His grave is in the cemetery of Staglieno, near Genoa, with his own charming lines, ‘Hic jacet,’ inscribed on the stone.

From his youth Clarke had been a great lover of music. In his early days he had a sweet tenor voice, and used to sing Moore’s ‘Irish Melodies’ to his own accompaniment on the pianoforte. Even in later life he would sometimes delight his friends by Canning’s ‘University of Gottingen,’ or some of Hood’s verses, and every year a family chorus sang his own song, ‘Old May Morning.' At the Villa Novello, near Genoa, a ‘Grace,’ in strict canon, and a ‘Thanksgiving’ were daily sung for many years.

[Personal knowledge; Recollections of Writers, by Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke (1878); Athenæum, 24 March 1877; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

S. T.