The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/Nicholas Rowe

Nicholas Rowe was born at his maternal grandfather's seat, Little Beckford, in Bedfordshire, in 1673. The family from which he descended had long been settled at Lamerton in Devonshire, and the arms they bore had been won for them by a crusader from whom Rowe could trace his descent in a direct line. His father was the first of the house who neglected the cultivation of the ancestral estate, allured by the more brilliant temptations of professional life. He entered at the Middle Temple—rose to the degree of serjeant-at-law, and now lies in the Temple Church. Rowe was first sent to a private school at Highgate, from whence he was removed to Westminster, then flourishing under the rod of Dr. Busby. In 1688 he was elected a king's scholar. He gave early indications of superior ability, and no boy's faculties were allowed to lie dormant under the Doctor's energetic, though kind-hearted, supervision. His academical exercises we are told were above the average merit, and were produced with little labour. At sixteen, his father removed him from Westminster to the Middle Temple, and at that early age he commenced with great resolution the study of the law. He had already made considerable progress in the acquisition of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and had dabbled in poetry. The way in which he applied himself to his legal studies showed that his mind was capable of grasping a large conception, his powers of application were great, and under the superintending advice of his father he might have become a legal luminary. But when he was but nineteen years of age his father died, and accident, indolence, or constitutional bias gave a different direction to his career. He turned aside from the prospects of wealth and eminence that were opening upon him, declined the patronage of Treby, Lord Chief Justice, and devoted himself unreservedly to the cultivation of his literary tastes.

He first came forward as a candidate for poetical fame in his twenty-fifth year, when his tragedy, "The Ambitious Step-mother," was acted at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields. It is a sacred piece, taken from the first Book of Kings, the story turning upon the establishment of Solomon upon the throne. This performance exhibits great strength and sweetness of diction, and a loftiness of sentiment, conspicuous in all the after writings of Rowe, while the characters are maintained with discrimination, and when we reflect that Betterton, Booth, Mrs. Barry, and Mrs. Bracegirdle exerted their rare and varied powers in its representation, we cease to wonder at its decided success. This was followed by "Tamerlane," a political play, acted at the same theatre in 1702. Rowe always regarded this production with the fondest affection, and doubtless it excited the noisiest applause. He had always been a stanch supporter of the Hanoverian succession, and the imaginary virtues with which he encumbered Tamerlane were intended as a compliment to the reigning King, William III. Tamerlane was performed by Betterton, and Bajazet, Emperor of the Turks, in whom it was presumed Louis XIV. was exhibited, by Verbruggen. It was for a time regularly acted every 4th of November, the anniversary of the landing of William III.; but at length, when that King was dead and the two monarchies were at peace, the impropriety of such a distorted caricature of a great, though rival Sovereign, became manifest even to national prejudice, and the representation was discountenanced.

In the following year appeared "The Fair Penitent," the plot taken almost entirely from "The Fatal Dowry" of Massinger. This tragedy was so popular until within a very recent period, that it seems unnecessary to make any observations on its merit. The great fault of the play is that the action terminates with the fourth act. One of the characters, Lothario, was the foundation of the Lovelace of Richardson, which was more familiar to the readers of a past age than "Pendennis" or "Mr. Pickwick" are to those of the present.

A ludicrous incident happened in connection with the performance of this play the first season it was brought out. Lothario, after he is killed by Altamont in the fourth act, lies dead on the stage in the last. Such a situation is of course filled by one of the underlings in a theatre. Powell played Lothario, and Warren, his man, claimed the right of lying for his defunct master, and flattered himself he performed the part in a superior manner. One evening, the fifth act began as usual, and was proceeding successfully, when, about the middle of the distressful pourtrayal, Powell, behind the scenes, called aloud for his man, quite forgetful of the important part he was performing. Warren, from his bier upon the stage, answered instantly, "Here, Sir!" Powell, who was of an impatient temper, annoyed at his non-appearance, vociferated with an insulting expression: "Come here this moment, or I'll break every bone in your skin!" Warren, terrified, jumped up with all his funereal appendages about him, which unfortunately were tied fast to the handles of the bier. The audience burst out into a roar. This only frightened him; he tugged away, threw down Calista (Mrs. Barry), and overwhelmed her with the table, lamp, book, bones, and all the paraphernalia of the charnelhouse. He succeeded at last in breaking away from his trammels, and rushed off the stage; and the play at once ended, amid shrieks of laughter. Even the stately Betterton relaxed from his gravity,

"Smiled in the tumult and enjoy'd the storm."

But he prudently withdrew the play for the remainder of the season.

In 1706, a strange fancy came over our poet. He was of an hilarious disposition, always ready for a laugh, and this propensity he probably mistook for comic power. He accordingly produced his comedy of "The Biter" (a cant term for one who hoaxes), and the dreary production failed ignominiously. Rowe was not at all prepared for such a catastrophe, and himself keenly enjoyed its representation, laughing immoderately at the exquisite jokes with which he fancied it abounded.

In the same year he produced the tragedy of "Ulysses," which was acted at the theatre in the Haymarket, and dedicated to the Lord Godolphin. It was successful at the time, and the character of Penelope, which Mrs. Barry personated, was finely drawn; but it has not escaped the neglect which has attended all attempts in England to give novelty or variety to the stories of the Pagan mythology. "The Royal Convert," acted in 1708, did not meet with much success, though the part of Rodogune, a Saxon Princess, is finely conceived and eminently tragical. Gibbon intimates that Procopius might have afforded Rowe the hint for this character.

Our dramatist had always been an admirer of Shakespeare, and in 1709 he edited his plays, to which he prefixed a life of the poet; Betterton having visited Stratford to collect whatever traditionary matter to the purpose still existed. The edition is without notes, but the text received a careful revision, and contributed to that gradual revolution in public taste which in our day will acknowledge neither rival nor second to the "sweet swan of Avon."

Rowe was not so entirely devoted to his books and his plays as to be inattentive to matters of more worldly import, and when the Duke of Queensbury was made Secretary of State, he consented to act as his under-secretary. The Duke died when he had held his appointment but three years, and he then made some advances to the famous Harley, Earl of Oxford, and a story is told, which places either the urbanity of that minister or the perception of the poet in a somewhat unfavourable light. When he attended to present his respects to the Earl, who was then Lord High Treasurer, he was received with great affability, and in the course of conversation the Earl asked if he understood Spanish. Rowe, with the prospect of some mission to the Peninsula starting involuntarily to his mind, replied in the negative, but hoped in a very short time to be able to understand and speak it with facility. He instantly retired to a country farm-house, applied himself with unremitting assiduity to the language, and at the end of a few months waited again on the Earl, to acquaint him with the success of his industry. "Are you sure," said that nobleman, "you understand it thoroughly?" Rowe answered in the affirmative. "Then," replied the Earl, "how happy are you, Mr. Rowe, in being able to enjoy the pleasure of reading 'Don Quixote' in the original!" The mortified Whig retired, and waited for better times.

In 1714 he produced "Jane Shore," in which Cibber took a part, written professedly in imitation of Shakespeare; though, as Dr. Johnson very justly remarks, in what he thought himself an imitator of Shakespeare it is not easy to conceive. The piece, however, was frequently acted, and with success.

In the following year he produced his last, though by no means his best tragedy, "Lady Jane Grey." A friend of his, a Mr. Smith, of Christ Church, Oxford, whom he terms a very learned and ingenious gentleman, had meditated writing a play on this subject, but died, leaving some papers filled with notes, though in a state of great confusion. Rowe took up the idea, but could only avail himself of one scene, which is that in the third act, in which Lord Guildford persuades Lady Jane to accept the crown. The preface to this piece, the only one he ever wrote, concludes thus: "I shall turn this, my youngest child, out into the world with no other provision than a saying, which I remember to have seen before—one of Mrs. Behn's:

"Va! mon enfant, prend ta fortune."

The accession of George I. (1716) brought Rowe an auspicious gale of worldly success. He was made Poet-Laureate. "I am afraid," says Johnson, "by the ejection of poor Nahum Tate, who died in the Mint, where he was forced to seek shelter by extreme poverty." He likewise became a land surveyor of the Customs in the port of London. The Prince of Wales nominated him Clerk of his Council; and Parker, the Lord Chancellor, on the very day he received the seals, appointed him without solicitation Secretary of the Presentations. He was revolving a tragedy on the story of the "Rape of Lucretia," when death overtook him on the 6th of December, 1718, in the forty-fifth year of his age. He was buried on the 19th in Westminster Abbey, near Chaucer; and his old schoolfellow, Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester and Dean of Westminster, read the funeral service over him. A monument was erected to his memory by his widow, and Pope wrote the following epitaph, which was subsequently altered, though not improved.

"Thy relics, Howe, to this fair urn we trust,
And, sacred, place by Dryden's awful dust.
Beneath a rude and nameless stone he lies,
To which thy tomb shall guide inquiring eyes.
Peace to thy gentle shade, and endless rest!
Bless'd in thy genius—in thy love too blest!
One grateful woman to thy fame supplies
What a whole thankless land to his denies."

He was twice married, his first wife was a daughter of Mr. Parsons, an auditor of the revenue; his second, of Mr. Devenish, a gentleman in Dorsetshire. He left a son by the former, and a daughter by the latter. His translation of Lucan's "Pharsalia," which he lived long enough to complete, though not to publish, was found among his papers after his death, and published by Dr. Welwood, with a short memoir prefixed, from which we make the following extract of his character, drawn with a slightly partial hand.

"His person was graceful and well made, his face regular and of a manly beauty. He had a quick and fruitful invention, a deep penetration and a large compass of thought, with singular dexterity and easiness in making his thoughts to be understood. He was master of most parts of polite learning, especially the classical authors, both Greek and Latin, understood the French, Italian, and Spanish languages, and spoke the first fluently, and the other two tolerably well. He had a good taste in philosophy, and having a firm impression of religion upon his mind, he took great delight in divinity and ecclesiastical history.

"His conversation was pleasant, witty, and learned, without the least tincture of affectation or pedantry; and his inimitable manner of diverting and enlivening the company made it impossible for any one to be out of humour when he was in it. Envy and detraction seemed to be entirely foreign to his constitution; and whatever provocations he met with at any time, he passed them over without the least thought of resentment or revenge."

Pope bears testimony to the vivacity of his disposition. In one of his letters he writes thus: "Mr. Rowe accompanied me, and passed a week in the forest. I need not tell you how much a man of his turn entertained me; but I must acquaint you there is a vivacity and gaiety of disposition almost peculiar to him, which makes it impossible to part from him without that uneasiness which generally succeeds all our pleasures."

Our author had his weaknesses, however, as the following trifling anecdote will show. Strolling one day into the famed coffee-house, "The Cocoa Tree," in St. James's Street, he saw Garth in conversation with two noblemen; and sitting down nearly opposite, attempted to catch the Doctor's eye. Garth perceived his drift, and was obtusely blind to all his advances. At length Rowe summoned a waiter, and sent him to ask Garth for his snuff-box, a valuable one, the gift of some foreign prince. The box was sent, but the lender still appeared absorbed in conversation. The request was repeated two or three times with no better success. At length Garth drew out a pencil, wrote on the lid the two Greek characters, φ. ς. (fie, Rowe), and then sent it across. Rowe rose and left the room in high dudgeon.

He translated the first book of Quillet's "Callipœdia," and the golden verses of Pythagoras.

His powers of elocution were great, and Mrs. Oldfield used to say that the best instruction for an actress was to hear Rowe read her part in any new play.

The biography of such a writer would scarcely seem complete without some slight mention of the actors whose efforts were essential to the popularity of his works. Plays whose chief merit lies in the melody of their versification and in their external structure, depend for their success less upon their intrinsic merit than upon the degree of ability with which they are represented on the stage. Rowe's characters are few, and he was peculiarly fortunate in his actors. Betterton, Booth, and Verbruggen, were generally included in the cast, while Mrs. Barry and Mrs. Bracegirdle invariably performed the female parts, of which very few of his plays had more than two. We append, therefore, the following brief notices of those eminent performers who contributed in such an important degree to our poet's reputation.

Thomas Betterton was born at Westminster in August, 1635. He was apprenticed to Rhodes, the bookseller at Charing Cross, who, in the company he collected previous to the Restoration, had for his principal actors Betterton and Kynaston, another of his apprentices, both of whom eventually became prodigies in their art. In 1663, the former married Mrs. Saunderson, who, according to one report, was the first actress that trod the boards in this country. She excelled in Shakespearian characters, and her Lady Macbeth was one of the finest performances the stage has witnessed.

An outline of the principal events in Betterton's life is elsewhere incidentally given in this work. His joining Davenant's company, succeeding to the principal share of the management, proposing the coalition of the two companies, then heading the revolt, and afterwards transferring his licence to Sir John Vanbrugh. His private character was exemplary in the highest degree. He was kind-hearted, charitable, modest, and sincere. Though his salary was never large, he, with a prudence rare in his profession, contrived to save a moderate competence, which, when about to enjoy the reward of his life's labours, he lost in a commercial speculation, through the culpable persuasion of a friend. That friend, however, he frankly forgave, took charge of his helpless daughter on his death, and reared her as his own.

Oppressed by age and infirmities, he had to return to the stage; and the last character he played was Melantius, in "The Maid's Tragedy." He was then suffering under a severe attack of the gout, but took a repellent medicine, which enabled him to walk in slippers; and he acted with all the fire of his youth and the success of his manhood. But the ringing applause of that evening was his death-knell. The distemper returned with aggravated virulence, and in three days he was no more. He has generally been esteemed as the ablest actor this country has produced. His impersonation of Hamlet has been the theme of universal praise, and no one, before or since, ever approached so near that wondrous ideal. His first interview with the Ghost, a scene generally so tame and ineffective, he managed with such consummate art—so profound was the awe and terror depicted in his countenance—that a shudder would run through the audience as though they also felt the presence of the terrible phantom. And so thoroughly could he identify himself with his part, that, though of a sanguine complexion, he was frequently seen to turn ashy pale through the intensity of his emotion when his father's spirit again enters, and interrupts the dialogue with his guilty mother. Yet such perfection cost many a laborious effort. His figure was not good, his voice was thick and low, and his actions ungainly; but against all these disadvantages he struggled, and achieved so great success.

Barton Booth was honourably descended, and received his education at Westminster. His first predilection for the stage was excited by the applause he received, when a Westminster scholar, on acting Pamphilus, in the "Andrea" of Terence. The inclination ripened into a passion, and when at Cambridge, he boldly defied all consequences, and ran off with a company of strolling players. The distress of his family on hearing of his misconduct was excessive. His mother was attacked with fever, his father became almost frenzied, but all was forgotten when the scapegrace returned home hungry and wet, without money and without clothes. The ill success of his first adventure, however, failed to damp his ardour. He again decamped, appeared on a stage in Bartholomew Fair, and then went over to try his fortune in Ireland. At Dublin, the first character he attempted was Oronooko, and he was well received, though a ludicrous incident moved the audience to laughter when they ought to have been melted into tears. The evening was warm. Booth, forgetful of his blackened face, wiped himself with his handkerchief; and with his visage most grotesquely streaked, returned to the stage, and was astounded at the roar that greeted his re-appearance. He remained in Ireland two years; and his success and pertinacity induced his friends to relent in their opposition to his choice. About 1701, he returned to London, and was introduced to Betterton; and when his former schoolfellow Rowe brought out his "Ambitious step-mother," Booth played the part of Artaban.

He now progressed rapidly, was soon esteemed only inferior to Betterton, and when that great actor died, succeeded him in his principal characters. He was extremely forcible in depicting the passions of rage and grief, and excelled in personating Othello and Jaffier. In private life he was somewhat licentious. He married the daughter of Sir William Barkham, and after her death formed a liaison with Miss Mountfort, whom he deserted for Miss Saintlow, the lady he afterwards married. Miss Mountfort sank into a fit of despondency, and mental derangement ensued. A strange story is related of her while in this state. Ophelia had been one of her favourite characters; and one day, hearing that "Hamlet" was to be performed that evening, she escaped from her keeper, hid herself in the theatre, and pushed on the stage before the actress who was to play that part. There was an actual Ophelia before the spectators, and the way in which she sang her wild snatches of song must have been only too truthful. There is no account of the effect of this incident upon the audience. Whatever pleasure there may be in witnessing such scenes, must consist in a consciousness of the illusion: the sad reality could only cause unmitigated pain.

Booth was the fortunate man selected to play Cato in Addison's famous play, and the auspicious circumstance was the crowning event in his career. It filled his purse, overwhelmed him with popularity, and introduced him to a share in the management of the theatre; but it spoilt him as an actor, and he became so negligent that, while playing Othello one evening, a message was sent to him from a private box, to ask if he was acting merely for his own amusement. In private life he was cheerful, generous, fond of conviviality, though somewhat diffident. In person he was short but well-made, with an air of dignity and the great advantage of large muscles, so that the play of his features was distinctly discernible even in the gallery.

He died in May, 1733, in the fifty-third year of his age, bequeathing all his property to his widow; a sum, however, considerably less than the portion she had brought to him on her marriage.

John Verbruggen. The date of this actor's life or death is uncertain. He was hanging about Drury Lane at the time that Cibber was seeking employment there. On the death of Montfort, he succeeded him in his part of Alexander, and was so successful, that he assumed the appellation as a surname for some years. In person he was tall and well-made, with a slight malformation in his knees, which gave him a shambling gait. This defect, however, he turned to his advantage, and rendered positively becoming on the stage. His principal characters were Bajazet, Oronooko, Edgar in "King Lear," Artaxerxes in "The Ambitious Step-mother," Loveless in "The Relapse," Wilmore in "The Rover," Cassius, and others.

The acting of Verbruggen has been contrasted with that of Betterton as the realization of untutored nature in opposition to the perfection of art. However false such a description may be, yet it conveys a tolerably accurate idea of their respective styles. Two of the most exquisite pieces of acting ever beheld on the stage were Verbruggen and Betterton as Cassius and Brutus; and Verbruggen and Mrs. Bracegirdle as Wilmore and Helena in Mrs. Afra Behn's play of "The Rover." In the latter piece, Verbruggen's "untaught airs, and the smiling repartees" of Mrs. Bracegirdle, had an extraordinary effect upon the audience, who appeared in constant fear that the performers were in earnest, and that each moment they would quit the stage.

He married Mrs. Montfort, a beautiful woman, and a most accomplished actress.

Mrs. Barry. A stately person, a graceful carriage, a melodious and powerful voice, and a well-trained understanding constituted Mrs. Barry's inducements to try her fortune on the stage. She was the daughter of Edward Barry, a barrister, afterwards called Colonel Barry, from his having raised a regiment of horse for the service of King Charles. His ruin was involved in that of his royal master, and his family were compelled to trust to their own exertions for their future subsistence. Lady Davenant, who had known the Colonel in his prosperous days, took charge of his daughter Elizabeth, superintended her education, and in the year 1673 obtained her admission into the Duke's company. After a year's trial, her talents were deemed so inferior, and her progress was so slow, that she was discharged as being a burden on the troupe. Through Lady Davenant's interest, she obtained a further trial, and received a second and a third dismissal for the same reasons. Such rebuffs might have daunted the most sanguine mind, but Mrs. Barry had resolved to succeed and did. Her principal defect was in the ear; but by the most untiring assiduity she so far perfected that organ, as to bring it into unison with her other extraordinary faculties, and when Otway brought his "Alcibiades" on the stage, she was included in the cast, and reaped the reward of her labours in the unexpected applause she commanded. Her spirited performance of Mrs. Lovitt, in Etheredge's "Man of the Mode" extorted universal commendation, and in 1680, her Monimia in Otway's "Orphan" fixed her future fame. Her Belvidera in "Venice Preserved," and her Isabella in Southerne's "Fatal Marriage," were exhibitions of the highest art; and the epithet of "famous" was so universally applied to her, that it became her distinguishing title. She was equally eminent in depicting the wildest passion and the most winning tenderness. Her outbursts of resentment or despair were terrible to witness; but when she attuned her voice to the utterance of love, or pity, or virgin sorrow, she laid, as it were, a spell on her audience, and melted or soothed them with the easy mastery of some superior being.

Her private life accorded not with the superiority of her public merits, and there seems little reason to doubt her criminal connection with the notorious Earl of Rochester. Though we cannot palliate, yet we may drop a veil over the errors of a beautiful and gifted woman, exposed to severe temptation; and regret that genius should ever stoop to vitiate its fairest title to respect. She died on the 7th of March, 1713, aged fifty-three, and was buried in the churchyard of Acton.

Mrs. Bracegirdle. But few records remain of the career and the triumphs of Mrs. Bracegirdle. The time and place of her birth are alike uncertain. Her powers as an actress were of the highest order, and her forte lay in genteel comedy. She excelled in male characters, "and her gait or walk," says her biographer, "was free, manlike, and modest in breeches." For years she was a reigning toast, and dramatic writers vied with each other in studying her powers, and in adapting their pieces to her peculiar excellencies. She was included in all the plays of Rowe and Congreve, who each endeavoured to captivate the heart of their idol by love speeches placed in the mouths of her fictitious adorers on the stage.

Her figure was finely proportioned. She was of a dark complexion, with dark brown hair and eyebrows, black eyes, and a most expressive countenance. In private life she was gentle, modest, and charitable. Though surrounded by admirers, scandal has not fastened on any impropriety in her behaviour; and "her virtue had its reward both in applause and specie." She retired from the stage about thirty years before Garrick appeared, induced in a measure by the more general approbation with which a younger rival (Mrs. Oldfield) acted some of her favourite characters. She died on the 12th of September, 1748, after having lived to an advanced age, and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.