"The Life of Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe."
MRS. Elizabeth Rowe, not more admired for her fine writings by the ingenious that did not know her, than esteemed and loved by all her acquaintance, for the many amiable qualities of her heart, was born at Ilchester in Somersetshire, Sept. 11., 1674. being the eldest of three daughters of Mr. Walter Singer, a gentleman of good family, and Mrs. Elizabeth Portnell, both of them persons of very great worth and piety. Mr. Singer was not a native of the town now-mentioned, nor an inhabitant, before his imprisonment there for his non-conformity in the reign of K. Charles II. Mrs. Portnell thinking herself obliged to visit those that suffered for the sake of a good conscience, as a testimony of her regard, not to them only, but also to our common Lord, agreeable to the representation he himself makes of such kind and christian offices: It was from hence that acquaintance first commenced between these two virtuous and well-paired minds, which afterwards proceeded to an union that death alone could dissolve. And this it did too soon for the mournful survivor, if the tenderest affection might be judge, and for the world, which can badly bear to lose any, and much more such eminent examples of virtue and religion in the several scenes and relations of life. [Page 2] Till her death Mr. Singer resided at Ilchester, but not long after removed to the neighbourhood of Frome in the same county, where he became so well known and distinguished for his good sense, primitive integrity, simplicity of manners, uncommon prudence, activity and faithfulness in discharging the duties of his station, inflexible adherence to his principles, and at the same time truly catholic spirit, as to be held in high esteem, even by persons of superior rank: My Lord Weymouth, who was reckoned a very good judge of men, not only writing to him, but honouring him with his visits; as did the devout Bishop Kenn very frequently, sometimes once a week; such a charm is there in unaffected goodness, and so naturally do kindred souls, warmed and actuated by the same heavenly passion, and pursuing the same glorious end, run and mingle together with the greatest pleasure, after they are once acquainted, notwithstanding any accidental diversity of sentiments in some smaller things. I mention this to the honour of the venerable Bishop as well as of Mr. Singer. But the public will be best pleased with the character of this good man as drawn by his daughter, after her beautiful and easy manner, in one of her familiar letters to a friend.
'I have ease and plenty to the extent of my wishes, and can form desires of nothing but what my father's indulgence would procure; and I ask nothing of heaven but the good old man's life. The perfect sanctity of his life, and the benevolence of his temper, make him a refuge to all in distress, to the widow and the fatherless: The people load him with blessings and prayers when ever he goes abroad: which he never does but to reconcile his neighbours, or to right the injured and oppressed; the rest of his hours are entirely devoted to his private devotions, and to books, which are his perpetual entertainment.'
He was religiously inclined, as he said himself, when about ten years old, and never from that time neglected prayer; and, as far as he knew his own heart, had sincere- [Page 3] ly endeavoured to keep a good conscience; and he died as he had lived, April 18. 1719. full of that blessed calm and peace of mind, and humble confidence in the mercy of God, thro' a Redeemer (for there was his trust) which a long course of active virtue, and constant lively devotion, joined with the most generous and exalted ideas of the divine goodness, free from all mixtures of a gloomy, sullen superstition, may be expected to produce: For he was not of those who confine that infinite benignity which loves to diffuse itself abroad, unrestrained in its salutary influences by every thing else but the wilful opposition of reasonable and free beings, to the methods used for their recovery and happiness. And this it was that helped, no less than a happy natural temper, to make him so chearful a christian. A worthy and intimate friend of his, and witness to the heroic and christian manner in which he finished life, observes, that he settled his affairs, and took leave of the world with the same freedom and composure, as if he had been setting out on a journey; was peculiarly careful that the widows and orphans, with whose concerns he was entrusted, might not be injured after he was gone; conversed, tho' under great bodily disorders, with those that came to see him, who were not a few, in the easiest, freest manner; spent his time in praising and blessing God, and praying to him; and giving good counsel to those about him; he shewed an uncommon sweetness and patience in his behaviour; and was exceeding thankful to those who did the least thing for him, tho' they owed him a great deal more. In a memorandum, relating to her father's last sickness and death, Mrs. Rowe has these words,
'My father very often felt his pulse, and complained that 'twas still regular, and smiled at every symptom of approaching death: He would be often crying out, Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly; Come, ye holy angels, that rejoice at the conversion of a sinner, come and conduct my soul to the skies, ye propitious spirits, and then would add, [Page 4] But thy time, Lord, not mine, is best. When shall I awake, and be satisfied with thy likeness? What is death? I never made the experiment, and no body about me knows when persons are dying. I have heard of jaws falling, and eye-strings cracking, but where are the tokens? And yet nature fails, and I am dying. I have seen people die without half so much ado, just lean back, and, having fetched a calm sigh, expire.'If I may use the expression, how lovely and tempting is such a death! What an instance of the power of religion, and the true dignity of human nature, when raised and supported by the grace of God, and the hope of immortality! The sight was so affecting, that a person listed among the Freethinkers of the age, as they are pleased to compliment themselves, being present, was exceedingly struck with it, and ready to say, Almost thou perswadest me to be a christian; as every one who rightly considers such examples, and how naturally they arise out of the principles of the gospel, firmly believed, and steadily practised upon, must be entirely perswaded by them; perswaded to embrace it, not merely as a pleasing imagination, but a most sacred truth, which all that allow it to be the former, have reason to wish it may prove; and which no man that wishes it to be true, so far as to examine the evidences of it with candor and sincerity, can pronounce to be false. And thus the supposed confession of the infidel, on like occasion. *
'That, tho' he thought religion a delusion, yet it was the most agreeable delusion in the world; and the men who flattered themselves with those gay visions, had much the advantage of those that saw nothing before them but a gloomy uncertainty, or the dreadful hope of annihilation:'This confession, I say, if he be true to himself, must end in his being a thorough convert to christianity.
I have been the larger in this account of Mr. Singer, not, [Page 5] only in justice to so deserving a character, but because of the singular veneration which the person who is the chief subject of these papers, had for it; which was such that she frequently pleads her relation to it, and, as it were, glories in it, in her private devotions. A single instance may serve for a specimen. †
'I humbly hope I have a rightful claim. Thou art my God, and the God of my religious ancestors, the God of my mother, the God of my pious father: Dying and breathing out his soul, he gave me to thy care; he put me into thy gracious arms, and delivered me up to thy protection: He told me thou would never leave nor forsake me; he triumphed in thy long-experienced faithfulness and truth, and gave his testimony for thee with his latest breath.'
Of Mrs. Rowe's two sisters, one died in childhood; the other survived to her twentieth year, a lovely concurrent in the race of virtue and glory. She had the same extreme passion for books, chiefly those of medicine, in which art she arrived to a considerable insight; and if it could not be said of them in the letter, as of the virtuous woman in the Proverbs, That their candle went not out by night, yet it frequently burnt till after the middle of it; so great was their thirst of knowledge, and the pleasure they had in gratifying it! What from a laudable emulation, from the ties of blood and friendship, and the advantage of perpetually conversing together, the improvements which two such minds received from each other, could not be little; and, had Heaven seen fit to spare both, would have been still growing. But the sovereign Disposer of human affairs hath so ordered it, doubtless in infinite wisdom, that few of our blessings in the present life should be enjoyed without some abatement, was pleased to determine otherwise; yet we have no reason to repine, but with grateful joy should own that goodness which, while it summon- [Page 6] ed one of these seraphic spirits to the skies, continued the other for so many years after, as a ministering angel here below.
Those who were acquainted with this extraordinary person in her childish years, could not but have observed a great many things not common in that age of life, which promised the bright day that afterwards ensued; and it must have been with peculiar satisfaction that Mr. Singer, in whom parental affection, conspired with a penetrating discernment to heighten the pleasure, beheld the early dawnings of a very great and good mind in his charming daughter.
When she received the first serious impressions of religion, does not appear; not unlikely it might be as soon as she was capable of it, at once perceiving her obligations to the author of her being; and in the same measure, as her opening reason discovered these to her, feeling the force of them. A lady of character for good sense and piety, who began her life with her, thinks so; and in one of her pious addresses she herself thus speaks to God: * 'My infant hands were early lifted up to thee, and I soon learned to know and acknowledge the God of my fathers.' To this, with a prudent and pious education, the felicity of her natural disposition, under the heavenly influence, conspired; for though she had an unusual sprightliness in her temper, which held out to the last, yet she was at the same time blest with a turn of mind to noble and elevated subjects, that gave her a high relish for the pleasures of devotion. It would be exceeding unjust to draw a contrary conclusion from the severity of some expressions concerning herself, that occur in her Devout Exercises; for, besides that this sort of language was dictated by her profound humility, it might partly be owing to a notion of conversion (by which is meant religion's becoming a reigning principle in the mind) [Page 7] not so well grounded as 'tis common, as if it always consisted in a sensible, and sort of instantaneous revolution in the soul, attended with an over-turning of whatever favourable sentiments persons had of themselves, and their condition before; a notion which, for ought I know, might take its rise from not distinguishing between the change which the first converts to christianity underwent, or which passes on those who having lead a vicious life, enter at length into quite a new way of thinking and acting, which hath something of the violence of a storm in it; and that sense of piety which often silently steals upon tender and uncorrupted minds, like the light of the morning, hardly perceivable when it breaks, or in its gradual increase, and yet shining more and more unto the perfect day; and which, I doubt, is not very properly expressed by the word conversion. Nor while the duties of religion are regularly performed, and every thing plainly criminal in the conduct of life is avoided, and this from a principle of conscience, and an inward approbation of what is good; will some little sallies, supposing such occasioned by the vivacity of youth and those passions, which though weaker in elder persons, they find it no easy matter, with all their reason to govern, prove any more than the imperfection of the good principle, which, notwithstanding this, may by many degrees have the superiority in the soul.
There's a story, which, because it has been confidently reported by some, and credited by a great many others, I shall mention for the sake of the reflexion it will afford me, and the opportunity of assuring the world, after enquiring of persons best able to inform me, that it is entirely without foundation; though, were it ever so true, it could not be made an argument against Mrs. Rowe's early piety, as it hath been thought by some to be. The story is this: Mrs. Rowe, then Miss Singer, being dangerously ill, and under visible distress at the apprehension of her approaching change, her sister, who observed it, asked her tenderly, whe- [Page 8] ther she was not willing to die? and Mrs. Rowe frankly confessing she was not, the other said she would retire then, and pray to God that she might be taken in her room, being as willing to leave the world as the other could be to continue in it, which accordingly she did; and the consequence was, that Mrs. Rowe recovered, and her sister sickened and died. Now, supposing the truth of the story, what is there so very wonderful in a young person's being desirous to live longer, if it pleases God, when, with the natural love of life every thing concurs that can render life agreeable, easy circumstances, a good constitution, chearfulness of temper, the love and esteem of friends, and a rising reputation? Or is a modest diffidence of one's self such a crime, as to prove our not being prepared for death, because we doubt whether we are or no? When will persons learn to judge in a more rational way, and by other marks than the uncertain appearances of such mechanical and variable things as the passions, of their own moral state and character and that of others!
There is so great a similitude between painting and poetry, as being each of them a pleasing and judicious imitation of nature, and depending upon the beauty and strength of the imagination, that 'tis no way surprising, one who possessed this faculty in so high a degree of perfection, did very early discover an inclination to these two sister arts; which have often the same followers, perhaps always the same admirers, it having been, I believe, seldom known that those who excelled in one of these arts, have not at least had a taste for the charms of the other, and been qualified to judge of its beauties, whether they have made any attempts in it or no.
She loved the pencil when she had hardly strength and steadiness of hand sufficient to guide it; and in her infancy (one may almost venture to say so) would squeeze out the juices of herbs to serve her instead of colours. Mr. Singer perceiving her fondness for this art, was at the expence of [Page 9] a master to instruct her in it; and it never ceased to be her amusement at times, and a very innocent one it was, till her death. Perhaps (saith an ingenious gentleman, who knew her perfectly well) she liked it the better for the opportunities it yielded her of pleasuring her friends with presents of the best of her drawings, and therein gratifying her beneficent disposition; for she kept very few of them herself, and these only such as she judged unworthy the acceptance of any one else.
She was also, what every one acquainted with her writings will suppose of such a well-tuned soul, very much delighted with music; chiefly of the grave and solemn kind, as best suited to the grandeur of her sentiments, and the sublimity of her devotion.
But her strongest bent was to poetry and writing. Poetry indeed was her favourite employment, in youth, her most distinguished excellence. So prevalent was her genius this way, that her very prose hath all the charms of verse without the fetters, the same fire and elevation, the same bright images, bold figures, rich and flowing diction. She could hardly write a familiar letter but it bore the stamp of the poet. One of her acquaintance remembers to have heard her say, she began to write verses at twelve years old, which was almost as soon as she could write at all. In the year 1696, the 22d of her age, a collection of her poems on various occasions was published at the desire of two of her friends *, which we may suppose did not contain all that she had by her, since the ingenious prefacer gives the reader to hope that the author might in a little while be prevailed with to oblige the world with a second part, no way inferior to the former.
The occasion of her poetical name, Philomela, which, from this time she was known by to the world, and whether she assumed it herself, or was complimented with it [Page 10] by her friends, I have not been able to learn. The latter is most probable, and that it was given her at the publication of her poems, before which her modesty not consenting that her own name should appear, this was substituted in the room of it, as bearing a very easy allusion to it, and happily expressing the softness and harmony of her verses, not less soothing and melodious than the strains of the nightingale, when from some leafy shade she fills the woods with her melancholy plaints. †
Though many of these poems are of the religious kind, and all of them consistent with the strictest regard to the rules of virtue; yet some things in them gave her no little uneasiness in advanced life. To a mind that had so entirely subdued its passions, or devoted them to the honour of its maker, and endued with the tenderest moral sense, what she could not absolutely approve, appeared unpardonable; and, not satisfied to have done nothing that injured the sacred cause of virtue, she was displeased with herself for having writ any thing that did not directly promote it. How were it to be wished, that none of our celebrated poets had any thing worse to answer for than the harmless gaieties of a youthful muse for which too they had atoned by more serious and instructive compositions; or, that after all the guilt they had contracted, by corrupting the manners of the age with their loose productions, they were conscious but of half the remorse the virtuous Philomela felt, for what no ingenuous reader will impute as a reproach to her memory.
What first introduced her into the notice of the noble family at Longleat, was a little copy of verses of her's, with which they were so highly delighted as to express a [Page 11] curiosity to see her; and the friendship that commenced from that time, subsisted ever after; not more to her honour, who was the favourite of persons so much superior to her in the outward distinctions of life, than to the praise of their judgment and taste who knew how to prize, and took a pleasure to cherish such blooming worth. She was not then twenty. Her paraphrase of the 38th chapter of Job was writ at the request of Bishop Kenn, who was entertained in that family, and gained her a great deal of reputation.
She had no other tutor for the French and Italian languages, than the honourable Mr. Thynne, son to the Lord Viscount Weymouth, who willingly took that task upon himself, and had the pleasure to see his fair scholar improve so fast under his lessons, that in a few months she was able to read Tasso's Jerusalem with great ease.
Her shining merit, with the charms of her person and conversation, had procured for her a great many admirers. Among others, 'tis said, the famous Mr. Prior would have been glad to share the pleasures and cares of life with her; so that, allowing for the double license of the Poet and Lover in the manner of expression, the concluding lines in his answer to the pastoral on Love and Friendship, by Mrs. Singer, were not without all foundation in truth*. She was the nameless lady to whom the following copy of verses in the same author is inscribed. But Mr. Thomas Rowe was the person reserved by Heaven to be the happy man; both to be made, and to make happy.
This gentleman was born at London, April 25, 1687. the eldest son of the Rev. Mr. Benoni Rowe, who with a very accurate judgment, and a considerable stock of useful learning, joined the talents of preaching, and a most lively and engaging manner in conversation. By both his pa- [Page 12] rents he was creditably descended *; but as he had too much personal worth to be under a necessity of borrowing from such foreign aids, so he thought too justly to pride himself upon it, being able to say with the Satyrist,
Et genus & proavos, & quae non secimus ipsi,His superior genius, and insatiable thirst after knowledge, made themselves taken notice of at an age when the generality of mankind have scarcely out grown the merely sensitive life. He was able to read as soon almost as he could speak; had such a pleasure in books, as to take none at all in the diversions which children are usually so fond of; and, when he was prevailed on by his companions, which was but seldom, to make one in their little parties at play, his unreadiness and inattention plainly shewed it was not out of choice he engaged, but purely from his good-nature and complaisance, to which he should offer too much violence, always to deny their importunity.
Vix ea noftra voco. Juv.
He commenced his acquaintance with the Classics at Epsom, while his father resided there; and by his swift advances in this part of learning, quickly became the delight of his master, a man very able in his profession, and was treated by him, with a very particular indulgence, in spite of the natural ruggedness and severity of his temper. When Mr. B. Rowe removed to London, he placed his son under the care of Dr. Walker, the eminently learned [Page 13] master of the Charter-house school, justly famed for the great numbers of excellent linguists that have received their education in that ancient nursery of polite literature. He was one of those who, the doctor could easily foresee, would do him honour when they should appear abroad in the world, and, we may suppose, did not please him the less on that account. His exercises never failed of being distinguished even among those that had the approbation of the master, who, when he had finished his pupil in the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew tongues, would fain have persuaded his father to send him to one of our English universities. But how honourably soever Mr. Rowe might think of the learning of those noble feats of the muses, not having the same advantageous notion of the principles in too much credit there, he would by no means trust a son of his hopes in such hands; but entered him at first at a private academy in London, and, some time before his death, that he might not want any advantages which the most liberal education could give him, he had determined his going to Leyden, for the last hand of the great masters there. And well did the fruit reward the expence of the culture. For, after having studied Jewish Antiquities under Witsius, Civil Law under Vitriarius, the Belles Lettres under Perizonius, and Experimental Philosophy under Senguerdius, and established a reputation for a capacity, application, and an obliging deportment both among the professors and students; he returned from that celebrated mart of learning with a vast accession of treasure, in books he had purchased, and knowledge he had amassed, and no loss in his morals, which he had preserved as uncorrupt as he could have done under the most vigilant eye and strictest hand, though left without all other restraints but those of his own virtue and prudence.
The love of liberty had been always one of Mr Rowe's most darling passions. 'Twas a kind of ideal mistress, to whose charms no one ever had a soul more sensible than [Page 14] his; the generous inclination beat strong in his breast, and was not to be extinguished but with the vital flame. In these sentiments, so natural to him, he was not a little confirmed by his familiar acquaintance with the history, and the noble authors of ancient Greece and Rome, whose very spirit was transfused into him, and residing so long in a republic, where he had examples continually before him, of the inestimable value of freedom, as the parent of industry, the nurse of arts and sciences, and universal source of social happiness; this made him, with so much anxiety for his native country, not very long after his return thither in the year 1708, observe, that a set of wretched principles, destructive of its liberties and welfare, were growing into fashion under the countenance of some in power. To these he opposed himself with a zeal which might have had more influence indeed in a higher sphere, but could not have been more honest and open. Tyranny of all sorts he most sincerely detested, but most of all ecclesiastical, in every shape; deeming the slavery of the mind, as the most abject and ignominious, so, in its consequences, more pernicious than any other. His Lives will be a glorious monument of his love of liberty and public good; to which may be added his Poems, now first published, and in both which this commendable ardor is visible. From the same cause proceeded his attachment to the illustrious house of Hanover, in which he had the satisfaction to see the protestant succession to the British throne take place before he died, leaving the world more willingly after having been witness to this happy event.
It was with Mr. Rowe, in respect of his learned avarice, as with those that love money; his desires after knowledge enlarged with his acquisitions, instead of abating. All his morning hours, and a large part of the afternoon, were devoted to study, till the time of his being seized with the distemper of which he died. His library, in collecting which he was assisted by his great knowledge of the best [Page 15] editions of books, consisted of a great number of the most valuable authors; and as he was making continual additions to it, amounted at his death to above five thousand volumes.
He was a perfect master of the Greek, Latin, and French languages, and, which is seldom known to happen, had at once such a prodigious strength of memory, and inexhaustible fund of wit, the effect of a lively imagination, as would singly have afforded a stock of reputation for any man to trade upon, and much more united. This, with an easy fluency of words, the frankness and benevolence of his temper, a readiness to communicate of his learned store, and a life and spirit which nature must bestow, since it can be but poorly imitated, made his company universally coveted and prized by those that knew him. 'Twas impossible there should be a drowsy soul where Mr. Rowe was present; he animated the conversation, every one was awake, and every one pleased. He had a penetration, and quickness of thought, hardly to be imagined, so as upon just glancing over an author, to see to the bottom of his sentiments. None of the politer kinds of learning were neglected by him. He was a good judge in poetry, and had it in his power to have been himself an eminent poet; for he had actually the most essential parts belonging to that character, the vivid fire, the rich vein, the copious diction; but as poetry was not his predominant inclination, his genius had not all the polishing which art and constant practice might have added to nature. History was his favourite study, for which his talents of vast memory, before taken notice of, and an exquisite judgment, for one of his years, peculiarly qualified him.
He had formed a design to compile the lives of all the illustrious persons of antiquity, omitted by Plutarch, and for this purpose read the antient historians with great care. This design he in part executed. Eight lives were published since his decease, by way of supplement to that ad- [Page 16] mired biographer; in which, though so young a guide, he strikes out his way like one well acquainted with the dark and intricate paths of antiquity. The style is perfectly easy, yet concise and nervous, the reflexions just, and such as might be expected from a lover of truth and mankind; and the facts interesting themselves, or made so by the skill used in relating them. There's a preface by the reverend and learned Mr. Chandler, writ after the usual manner of that agreeable and lively author, with great spirit and elegance, and worthy of the excellent person for whose memory he expresses so high an esteem.
'He must be insensible to true merit (faith the ingenious prefacer) and to all just regards to the public good, that can look over these valuable remains, without finding in himself a due respect and esteem raised for the author, and his own heart inspired with an encreasing love to the liberties and welfare of his country.'Besides these Lives, the author had finished and fitted for the press the life of Thrasybulus, which being put into the hands of Sir Richard Steele, for his revisal, was, some how or other, unhappily lost, and could never since be recovered. Should this manuscript be yet in being, Mr. Theophilus Rowe, the author's brother, will acknowledge it as a very great favour, if the person into whose hands it is fallen, will be so good as to return it to him, in order to its being communicated to the public. The famous Mr. Dacier having translated Plutarch's lives into French, with remarks historical and critical; the Abbe Bellenger, already known (saith the Journal des Scavans) in the republic of letters, by some works that do him honour, added in 1734. a ninth tome to the other eight, consisting of the life of Hannibal, and Mr. Rowe's lives, made French by that learned Abbe; in the preface to which version he transcribes from the preface to the English edition, the character of the author, with visible approbation; and saith, the Lives were written with taste, though being a posthumous work, the author had not put [Page 17] his last hand to it. We may presume, from the fidelity with which the French translator follows his original, not omitting the freest passages, and boldest strokes against tyranny, or any way qualifying or correcting, and expressing his dissent from them, that he had no aversion to the author's notions of the unalienable rights and liberties of mankind. And I must own, it added not a little to the pleasure this gave me, to find an approbation in form under the hand of the person appointed by the Keeper of the seals, to read that work. It looks as if there were some true Frenchmen still in being, the remains of a 'generous race (to use a warm phrase of Mr. Rowe's) undebauched by slavish sophistry and justly ignorant of any power not guided by the laws, and accountable to them.' May Mr. Rowe's being made to speak French be one means of encreasing the number, and rekindling their zeal in the glorious cause.
On occasion of the honour done the memory of his dear brother, by this learned foreigner, Mr. Theophilus Rowe composed the following lines:
O friend! O brother! can thy dear-lov'd name
Rise to my view, nor pious sorrows claim?
O early fled to thy congenial skies,
E'er I could know thy matchless worth to prize!
Now ripen'd judgement gives that worth to see,
And, next a father lost, I mourn for thee;
For thee, whose friendship had that loss supply'd,
In youth my guardian, and in age my guide.
Thy voice had taught to bend my stubborn will,
Lur'd me to good, and warn'd my wish from ill.
While virtue in thy life to sight confest,
With heav'nly charms had vanquish'd all my breast,
With borrow'd vigour I had learn'd to tread
The path she points, by thy example led:
Now, my guide lost, I trace the arduous way
With feeble step, and scarce forbear to stray.
Oh friend! O brother! – but why thus again
Will these dear names my tortur'd mem'ry pain?
For ever gone, thou wilt not leave the skies
For friendship's wild complaints, or nature's cries.
Ah! what avail'd with studious toil t'explore
What antient wit had taught, or modern lore,
Since not the treasur'd stores of wisdom save
The laurel's head from the devouring grave!
Yet if, blest spirit, minds celestial know
To joy at honour paid their names below,
Hear Philomela's strains rehearse thy praise,
While every muse inspires the moving lays;
Lays that shall last while virtue boasts to warm
The generous breast, or sacred verse can charm:
And see thy works thro' foreign nations known;
France views their worth, and makes thy Lives her own,
And conscious of their right to equal fame,
The rival volume joins to Plutarch's name.
Nunquam ego te vita frater amabilior
Aspiciam posthac? ac certe semper amabo,
Semper moesta tua carmina morte legam. Catull.
Being at Bath in the year 1709, Mr. Rowe was introduced by a gentleman of her acquaintance, into Mrs. Singer's company, who lived in a retirement not far distant from that city. The idea he conceived of her from report, and from her writings, charmed him; but when he had seen and conversed with her, he felt another kind of impression from the presence of so much beauty, wit, and virtue; and the esteem of the Theorist was converted into the rapture of a Lover. During the courtship, he writ a poetical epistle to a friend that was a neighbour of Mrs. Singer, and intimate in the family. I shall take the liberty [Page 19] to quote a few lines out of it, not so much for a specimen of Mr. Rowe's poetical genius (tho' that appears in them too) as his passionate veneration for Mrs. Singer.
Youth's liveliest bloom, a never fading grace,
And more than beauty sparkles in her face;
Yet the bright form creates no loose desires,
At once she gives, and purifies our fires,
And passions chaste as her own soul inspires;
Her soul, heaven's noblest workmanship, design'd
To bless the ruin'd age, and succour lost mankind;
To prop abandon'd virtue's sinking cause,
And snatch from vice its undeserv'd applause.
Mrs. Elizabeth Singer was married to Mr. Thomas Rowe in the year 1710, on which occasion a learned friend of Mr. Rowe's wrote the following beautiful Latin epigram.
In nuptias Thomæ Rowe & Elizabethæ Singer.
Quid doctum par usque tuum, sociosque labores
Fabræ & Dacerii, Gallia vana crepas?
Par majus gens Angla dedit, juvenem atque puellam,
Quos hodie sacro foedere junxit amor.
Namque ea quae nostri Phoebo cecinere docente,
Explicuisse tuis gloria summa soret.
Thus translated by a young gentleman:
On the marriage of Mr. THOMAS ROWE and Mrs. ELIZABETH SINGER.
No more, proud Gallia, bid the world revere
Thy learned pair, Le Fevre and Dacier;
Britain may boast this happy day unites
Two nobler minds in Hymen's sacred rites:
What these had sung, while all th'inspiring Nine
Exalt the beauties of the verse divine;
Those (humble critics of th'immortal strain)
Shall bound their fame, to comment and explain.
Mrs. Rowe's exalted merit and amiable qualities could not fail to inspire the most generous and lasting passion. Mr. Rowe knew well how to value that treasure of wit, softness and virtue, which the divine providence had given to his arms in the most lovely of women, and made it his study to repay the felicity with which she crowned his life. The esteem and tenderness he had for her is inexpressible, and possession seemed scarce to have abated the fondness and admiration of the lover. 'Twas some considerable time after his marriage, that he wrote her a very tender ode, under the name of Delia, full of the warmest sentiments of connubial friendship and affection; in which the following lines may appear remarkable, as it pleased heaven to dispose events in a manner so agreeable to the wishes expressed in them.
So long may thy inspiring page,
And great example bless the rising age!
Long in thy charming prison mayst thou stay,
Late, very late, ascend the well-known way,
And add new glories to the realms of day!
At least heav'n will not, sure, this pray'r deny;
Short be my life's uncertain date,
And earlier far than thine the destin'd hour of fate!
Whene'er it comes, mayst thou be by,
Support my sinking frame, and teach me how to die;
Banish disponding nature's gloom,
Make me to hope a gentle doom,
And fix me all on joys to come!
With swimming eyes I'll gaze upon thy charms,
And clasp thee dying in my fainting arms;
Then gently leaning on thy breast,
Sink in soft slumbers to eternal rest.
The ghastly form shall have a pleasing air,
And all things smile, while heav'n and thou art there.
As Mr. Rowe had not a robust natural constitution, so an intense application to study beyond what the delicacy of his frame would bear, might, perhaps, contribute to that ill-state of health, which allayed the happiness of his marriage-life, during the greater part of it. In the latter end of the year 1714, his weakness encreased, and he appeared to labour under all the symptoms of a consumption. This fatal distemper, after it had confined him some months, cut off the fairest hopes of his doing a great honour and service to his country, and put a period to his life, May 13, 1715, when he was but just past the twenty-eighth year of his age. He died at Hampstead, near London, where he had resided some time for the benefit of the air; and was buried in the vault belonging to his family, in the cemetery in Bunhill-fields; where on his tomb are only marked his name, and the date of his birth and death. But an inscription of greater pomp is rendered unnecessary by the honour Mrs. Rowe did his memory in the Elegy she wrote on his death, which is deservedly ranked among the most admirable of her poetical works.
The exquisite grief and affliction Mrs. Rowe felt for his loss, is described with such beautiful and unaffected eloquence in the poem I have just mentioned, that I shall only add on this subject, that she continued to the last moments of her life to express the highest veneration and affection to his memory, and a particular regard and esteem for his relations, several of whom she honoured with a long and most intimate friendship. 'Twas also but a short time before her death, she shewed how incapable she was of forgetting him, by shedding fresh tears on occasion of the mention of the name.
'Twas only out of regard to Mr. Rowe, that with his society she was willing to bear London during the winter [Page 22] season; and as soon after his decease as her affairs would permit, she indulged her unconquerable inclinations to solitude, by retiring to Frome in Somersetshire, in the neighbourhood of which place the greater part of her estate lay. When she forsook the town, she determined to return to it no more, but to conceal the remainder of her life in an absolute retirement; yet on some few occasions she thought it her duty to violate this resolution. In compliance with the importunate requests of the honourable Mrs. Thynne, she passed some months with her at London after the death of her daughter Lady Brooke; and on the melancholy occasion of the decease of Mrs. Thynne herself, she could not dispute the commands of the Countess of Hertford, who earnestly desired her to reside some time with her at Marlborough, to soften, by her conversation and friendship, the severe affliction of the loss of so excellent a mother: And I think, once or twice more, the power this last illustrious Lady had over Mrs. Rowe, drew her, by an obliging kind of violence, to spend a few months with her at some of the Earl of Hertford's seats in the country. Yet even on these occasions she never quitted her retreat without very sincere regret; and always returned to it again as soon as ever she could, with decency, disengage herself from the importunity of her noble friends.
'Twas in this recess that she composed the most celebrated of her works, Friendship in Death, and the several parts of the Letters Moral and Entertaining.
'The drift of the Letters from the dead is (as the ingenious author of the preface expresses it) to impress the notion of the soul's immortality, without which all virtue and religion, with their temporal and external good consequences must fall to the ground; and to make the mind familiar with the thoughts of our future existence, and contract as it were, an habitual perswasion of it, by writings built on that foundation, and addressed to the affections and imagination.'It may also be added, that the design both of [Page 23] these and the Letters Moral and Entertaining, is, by fictitious examples of the most generous benevolence and heroic virtue, to allure the reader to the practice of every thing that ennobles human nature, and benefits the world; and by just and lively images of the sharp remorse and real misery that attend the false and unworthy satisfactions of vice, to warn the young and unthinking from being seduced by the enchanting name of pleasure, to inevitable ruin; the piety of which design is the more worthy of the highest panegyrics, as it is so uncommon. The greater part of the poets of our country have apparently employed all their wit and art to disguise the native deformity of vice, and strew flowers on the paths to perdition. But this excellent lady (as was observed of an eminent genius of the last age) 'possessed so much strength and firmness of mind, and such a perfect natural goodness, as could not be perverted by the largeness of her wit, and was proof against the art of poetry itself.' The elegant Letters which gave occasion to remark this distinction in Mrs. Rowe's character as a polite writer, are not only chaste and innocent, but greatly subservient to the interest of heaven, and evidently designed, by representing virtue in all her genuine beauty, to recommend her to the choice and admiration of mankind.
In the year 1736, the importunity of some of Mrs. Rowe's acquaintance, who had seen the History of Joseph in manuscript, prevailed on her (though not without real reluctance) to suffer it to be made public. She wrote this piece in her younger years, and when first printed, had carried it on no farther than the marriage of the hero of the poem; but at the request of her friends (particularly of an illustrious lady, to whom she could scarce refuse any thing) that the relation might include Joseph's discovery of himself to his brethren; she added two other books, the composing of which, I am informed, was no more than the labour of three or four days. This additional part, [Page 24] which was her last work was published but a few weeks before her death.
This grand event, to prepare for which she had made so much the business of her life, befel her, according to her wish, in her beloved recess. She was favoured with an uncommon strength of constitution, and had passed a long series of years with scarce any indisposition severe enough to confine her to her bed. But about half a year before her decease, she was attacked with a distemper, which seemed to herself as well as others, attended with danger: Though this disorder (as she expressed herself to one of her most intimate friends) found her mind not quite so serene, and prepared to meet death, as usual; yet when, by devout contemplations on the atonement and mediation of our blessed Redeemer, she had fortified herself against that fear and diffidence, from which the most exalted piety does not always secure in such an awful hour, she experienced such divine satisfaction and transport, that she said, with tears of joy, 'She knew not that she had ever felt the like in all her life;' and she repeated, on this occasion, Mr. Pope's verses, entitled, The Dying Christian to his Soul, with an air of such intense pleasure, as evidenced that she really felt all the elevated sentiments of pious extasy and triumph, which breathe in that exquisite piece of sacred poetry. After this threatening illness, Mrs. Rowe recovered her usual good state of health; and though at the time of her decease she was pretty far advanced in age, yet her exact temperance, and the calmness of her mind, undisturbed with uneasy cares and passions, encouraged her friends to flatter themselves with a much longer enjoyment of so valuable a life, than it pleased heaven to allow them. On the day in which she was seized with that distemper, which in a few hours proved mortal she seemed, to those about her, to be in perfect health and vigour. In the evening of it, at about eight of the clock, she conversed with a friend with all her wonted vivacity, and not without laugh- [Page 25] ter; after which she retired to her chamber. At about ten, her servant hearing some noise in her mistress' room, ran instantly into it, and found her fallen off the chair on the floor, speechless, and in the agonies of death. She had the immediate assistance of a physician and surgeon, but all the means used were without success; and after having given one groan, she expired a few minutes before two of the clock, on Sunday morning, Feb. 20. 1736-7. Her disease was judged to be an apoplexy. A pious book was found lying open by her, as also some loose papers, on which she had wrote the following unconnected sentences.
O guide, and counsel, and protect my soul from sin!
O speak, and let me know thy heav'nly will,
Speak evidently to my list'ning soul!
O fill my soul with love, and light, and peace,
And whisper heav'nly comfort to my soul!
O speak, celestial Spirit, in the strain
Of love and heav'nly pleasure to my soul!
Thus it appeared, that in reading pious meditations, or forming devout ejaculations for the divine favour and assistance, Mrs. Rowe made the last use of the powers of reason below the skies.
As she was greatly apprehensive that the violence of pain, or languors of a sick-bed, might occasion some depression of spirits, and melancholy fears, unsuitable to the character and expectations of a christian, her manuscript book of devotions contains frequent petitions to heaven, that she might not, in this manner, dishonour her profession; and to her friends she often expressed herself desirous of a sudden removal to the skies, as it must necessarily prevent any such indecent behaviour in her last moments: So that the suddenness of Mrs. Rowe's death may be interpreted as a reward of her singular piety, and a mark of the divine favour in answer to her prayers. Indeed (to borrow Mr. [Page 26] Grove's expressions in a letter wrote to a friend, soon after this lady's decease)
'Though her death be universally lamented, yet the manner of it is rather to be esteemed a part of her happiness. One moment to enjoy this life, the next, or after a pause we are not sensible of, to find ourselves got beyond not only the fears of death, but death itself; and in possession of everlasting life and health and pleasure: This moment to be devoutly addressing ourselves to God, or employed in delightful meditations on his perfections; the next in his presence, and surrounded with scenes of bliss perfectly new, and unspeakably joyous; is a way of departing out of this life to be desired, not dreaded by ourselves, and felicitated, not condoled by our surviving friends. When all things are in a readiness for our removal out of the world, 'tis a privilege to be spared the sad ceremony of parting, and all the pains and struggles of feeble nature.'
Mrs. Rowe seemed, by the gaiety and chearfulness of her temper, to be peculiarly fitted to enjoy life, and all its innocent satisfactions; yet, instead of any excessive fondness for things present and visible, her contempt for what she used to term a low state of existence, and a dull round of insipid pleasures, and the ardor with which she breathed after the divine enjoyments of a future world, were inconceivably great. When her acquaintance expressed to her the joy they felt at seeing her look so well, and possessed of so much health as promised so many years to come, she was wont to reply, 'That it was the same as telling a slave his fetters were like to be lasting; or complimenting him on the strength of the walls of his dungeon.' And the fervor of her wishes to commence the life of angels, irresistibly broke from her lips in numberless other instances. The satiety of all things beneath the skies, and impatience after the perfect fruition of God, might, perhaps, be the occasion, that in several periods of her life she had flattered herself that she was near that blessed state on which she [Page 27] had fixed all her hopes. And in particular, a little time before her death, she expressed to several of the her friends, her firm persuasion that her continuance on earth would be very short; but without assigning any peculiar reason for this opinion. I would not presume to lay any stress on such supposed presages; but as they have already been related to the public, I thought not proper to omit all mention of them.
She was buried, according to her request, under the same stone with her father in the meeting place at Frome; on which occasion her funeral sermon was preached to a very crowded auditory, by the revered and worthy Mr. Bowden. Her death was lamented with very uncommon and remarkable sorrow, by all who had heard of her virtue and merit; but particularly by those of the town where she had so long resided, and her most intimate acquaintance. Above all, the news of her death touched the poor and distressed with inexpressible affliction; and at her doors, and over her grave, they bewailed the loss of their benefactor, poured blessings on her memory, and recounted to each other the gentle and condescending manner with which she heard their requests, and the numerous instances in which they had experienced her unexampled goodness and bounty.
In Mrs. Rowe's cabinet were found the following letters to several of her friends, for whom she had an high esteem and affection, which she had ordered to be delivered to the persons to whom they were directed, immediately after her decease, and by their obliging permission, I communicate them to the public. [Page 28]
To the Countess of HERTFORD.
THIS is the last letter you will ever receive from me; the last assurance I shall give you, on earth, of a sincere and stedfast friendship. But when we meet again, I hope it will be in the heights of immortal love and extasy. Mine, perhaps, may be the first glad spirit to congratulate your safe arrival on the happy shores. Heaven can witness how sincere my concern for your happiness is: Thither I have sent my ardent wishes, that you may be secured from the flattering delusions of the world; and after your pious example has been long a blessing to mankind, may you calmly resign your breath, and enter the confines of unmolested joy.
I am now taking my farewel of you here, but 'tis a short adieu; for I die with the full perswasion that we shall soon meet again. But oh! in what elevation of happiness! In what enlargement of mind, and perfection of every faculty. What transporting reflexions shall we make on the advantages of which we shall find ourselves eternally possessed! To him that loved, and washed us in his blood, we shall ascribe immortal glory, dominion and praise for ever.
This is all my salvation, and all my hope! That name in whom the Gentiles trust, in whom all the family on earth are blessed, is now my glorious, my unfailing confidence; in his merits alone I expect to stand justified before infinite purity and justice. How poor were my hopes, if I depended on those works which my own vanity, or the partiality of men, have called good; and which, examined by divine purity, would prove, perhaps, but specious sins! The best actions of my life would be found defective, if brought to the test of unblemished holiness, in whose sight the heavens are not clean. Where were my hopes [Page 29] but for a Redeemer's merits and atonement! how desperate how undone my condition! With the utmost advantages I can boast, I should start back and tremble at the thoughts of appearing before the unblemished majesty–O Jesus, what harmony dwells in thy name! Celestial joy and immortal life is in the sound! Let angels set thee to their golden harps! let the ransomed nations for ever magnify thee!
What a dream is mortal life! what shadows are the objects of sense! All the glories of mortality, my much-loved friend, will be nothing in your view, at the awful hour of death; when you must be separated from the whole creation, and enter on the borders of the immaterial world.
Something persuades me this will be my last farewell in this world: Heaven forbid that it should be an everlasting parting! May that divine protection, whose care I implore, keep you stedfast in the faith of christianity, and guide your steps in the strictest paths of virtue!
Adieu, my most dear friend, till we meet in the paradise of God.
To the Earl of ORRERY.
THERE seems to be something presaging in the message you ordered me to deliver to your charming Henrietta, when I meet her gentle spirit in the blissful regions, which I believe will be very soon. I am now acting the last part of life, and composing myself to meet the universal terror with a fortitude becoming the principles of christianity. 'Tis only thro' the great Redeemer's merits and atonement, that I hope to pass undaunted through the fatal darkness. [Page 30]Before him death, the grisly tyrant, flies,
He wipes the tears, for ever from our eyes.
All human greatness makes no figure to my present apprehension; every distinction vanishes but those of virtue and real merit. 'Tis this which gives a peculiar regard for such a character as yours, and gives me hopes your example will not fall short of those of your illustrious ancestors. The approaches of death set the world in a true light; its brightest advantages appear no more than a dream, in that solemn period. The immortal mind, perhaps, will quit a cottage with less regret than it would leave the splendour of a palace; and the breathless dust sleep as quietly beneath the grassy turf, as under the parade of a costly monument. These are insignificant circumstances to a spirit doomed to an endless duration of misery, or bliss. 'Tis this important concern, my Lord, that has induced me to spend my time in a peaceful retirement, rather than to waste it in a train of thoughtless amusements. My thoughts are grown familiar with the solemnity of dying, and death seems to advance, not as an inflexible tyrant, but as the peaceful messenger of liberty and happiness. May I make my exit in that elate manner, those charming lines of Mr. Pope describe.The world recedes, it disappears;
Heav'n opens on my eyes, my ears
With sounds seraphic ring:
Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!
O grave! where is thy victory ?
O death! where is thy sting?
The nearer I am approaching to immortality, the more extensive and enlarged I find the principles of amity and good-will in my soul: From hence arise the most sincere wishes for your happiness, and of the charming pledges [Page 31] your lovely Henrietta left. Oh! my Lord, if you would discharge the sacred trust, keep them under your own inspection.
This will not reach you, my Lord, till I am past the ceremony of subscribing
Your humble servant,
To Mr. JAMES THEOBALD.
THE converse I have had with you has been very short, but I hope the friendship begun by it will be transmitted to the regions of perfect amity and bliss. It would not be worth the while to cherish the impressions of a virtuous friendship, if the generous engagement was to be dissolved with mortal life: Such a thought would give the grave a deeper gloom, and add new horrors to the fatal darkness.
But I confess, I have brighter expectations, and am fully perswaded, those noble attachments that are founded on real merit, are of an immortal date. That benignity, that divine charity, which just warms the soul in these cold regions, will shine with new lustre and burn with an eternal ardor in the happy seats of peace and love.
My present experience confirms me in this truth; the powers of nature are drooping, the vital spark grows languid and faint; while my affection for my surviving friends was never more warm, my concern for their happiness was never more ardent and sincere.
This makes me employ some of the last part of my time in writing to three or four persons, whose merit requires my esteem, in hopes this solemn farewel will leave a serious impression on their minds. [Page 32]
I am going to act the last and most important part of human life; in a little time I shall land on the immortal coasts, where all is new, amazing, and unknown. But however gloomy the passage appearsSweet fields, beyond the swelling flood;
Stand dress'd in living green:
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordan roll'd between. Dr. Watts.
Nature cannot but shiver on the fatal brinks, unwilling to try the grand experiment, whilst the hopes of christianity can alone support the soul in this solemn crisis. In this exigence the eternal Spirit whispers peace and pardon to the dying faint, through the atonement, and brightens the shadow of death, with some glimmering of immortal light.
Tell Mrs. Theobald, I hope to meet her in the shining realms of love and unmingled bliss;Where crown'd with joy, and ever-blooming youth,
The jocund hours dance on their endless round.
To Mrs. SARAH ROWE.
My dear Mother,
I AM now taking my final adieu of this world, in certain hopes of meeting you in the next. I carry to my grave my affection and gratitude to your family, and leave you with the sincerest concern for your own happiness, andthe welfare of your family. May my prayers be answered when I am sleeping in the dust! O may the angels of God conduct you in the paths of immortal glory and pleasure! I would collect the powers of my soul, and ask blessings for [Page 33] you with all the holy violence of prayer. God Almighty, the God of your pious ancestors, who has been your dwelling-place for many generations, bless you!
'Tis but a short space I have to measure, the shadows are lengthening, and my sun declining. That goodness which has hitherto conducted me, will not fail me in the last concludinging act of life; that name which I have made my glory and my boast, shall then be my strength and my salvation. To meet death with a becoming fortitude is a part above the powers of nature, and which I can perform by no power or holiness of my own; for oh! in my best estate I am altogether vanity; a wretched, helpless sinner: But in the merits and perfect righteousness of God my Saviour, I hope to appear justified at the supreme tribunal, where I must shortly stand to be judged.
Mrs. Row was not a regular beauty, yet she possessed a large measure of the charms of her sex. She was of a moderate stature, her hair of a fine auburn colour, and her eyes of a darkish grey, inclining to blue, and full of fire. Her complexion was very fair, and a natural rosy blush glowed in her cheeks. She spoke gracefully, and her voice was exceeding sweet and harmonious, and perfectly suited to that gentle language which always flowed from her lips. But the softness and benevolence of her aspect is beyond all description: It inspired irresistible love, yet not without some mixture of that awe and veneration which distinguished sense and virtue, apparent in the countenance, are wont to create.
Her acquaintance with the great, had taught her all the accomplishments of good-breeding, and complacency of behaviour; and without formality or affectation, she practised, in a distant solitude, all the address and politeness of a court; but she learned no more than the real elegancies of grandeur. She was very remote from extrava- [Page 34] gance in habit, and seemed to have perfectly subdued the love of the vain shew of life; in which she may be thought to discover an elevation of soul superior to the natural inclinations of her sex, and great strength of virtue in resisting the general example of the age in which she lived. The labours of the toilette consumed very little of her time: She justly despised the arts of dress and ornament, and endeavoured to infuse the same contempt of them into all her acquaintance; yet without falling into the other extreme of indecent negligence.
The love of solitude, which seems almost inseparable from a poetic genius, discovered itself very early in Mrs. Rowe, and never forsook her but with life itself. Before her marriage, though it cannot be doubted that she was often solicited to quit her beloved obscurity, yet she had only made a short visit to the town of a few weeks. After Mr. Rowe's decease, as a decent retreat seemed to her alone suited to a state of widowhood, her aversion to a public appearance in the world encreased; and the approach of the decline of life determined her more strongly to devote the remainder of her days to retirement; nor could any arguments, or perswasions of her friends, prevail with Mrs. Rowe to alter her sentiments and conduct in this instance.
It has been imputed to persons of recluse and ascetic lives, that though their austere virtue may preserve them from sensual indulgencies, against which they are wont to express the utmost severity; yet they are too frequently apt to sooth themselves in pride, ill-nature, censoriousness, and the like hateful dispositions of the mind. The lustre of Mrs. Rowe's character was not sullied by so great a blemish. She was as exemplary for every social and good-natured virtue, as for the exact sanctity of her manners; and justly thought the sins to which the soul is tempted by its union with the body, attended with less degrees of guilt than those other vices of a graver sort, which she believed, [Page 35] debased human nature into a nearer resemblance to that most evil and malevolent spirit, who is represented, in the sacred writings, as perfectly opposite to the benignity of the supreme Being.
She had the happiest command over her passions, and maintained a constant calmness of temper, and sweetness of disposition, that could not be ruffled with adverse accidents, nor soured by the approach of old age itself. It has been questioned whether she was ever angry in her whole life; at least with regard to those little misfortunes, and displeasing incidents, that occur in common life, which, though really of a trivial nature, frequently prove too strong temptations to indecencies of passion; she was only wont to turn these into subjects of mirth, and agreeable raillery. And as persons are apt to be least on their guard against excesses of this kind towards inferiors and domestics, it ought to be observed, that her servant who lived with her nearly twenty years, scarce ever discovered in her mistress, any tendency to anger towards herself, or any warmth of resentment against others, except in the cause of heaven, against great impiety, and flagrant crimes; on which occasions, some degree of indignation is not only irreproachable, but truly deserves the name of commendable and virtuous zeal.
Mrs. Rowe could hardly think any occasion would justify the reporting what was prejudicial to the reputation of another.
'I can appeal to you (says she, in a letter to a lady who had been long and intimately acquainted with her) if you ever knew me to make an envious, or an ill-natured reflexion on any person on earth. The follies of mankind would afford a large and various scene; but charity would draw a veil of darkness here, and chuse to be for ever silent, rather than expatiate on the melancholy theme.'Scandal and detraction appeared to her extreme inhumanity, which no charms of wit and politeness could make tolerable. If she was forced to be present at such [Page 36] kind of conversation, she had sometimes (when the freedom might be decently used) the courage openly to condemn it; and, I think, always the generosity to undertake the defence of the absent, when unjustly accused, and to extenuate even their real faults and errors.
She was as unacquainted with envy, as if it had been impossible for so base a passion to enter into the human mind; and was always forward to do justice to every fine writer, and illustrious character of the age. She exceedingly loved to praise, and never failed to observe and applaud every appearance of merit in those with whom she was acquainted; but over looked all their frailties with more than even the usual partiality of friendship. Yet, though she could have wished to have made no other use of speech than to commend worth and virtue, on some occasions a sense of duty compelled her to reprove; but the seeming severity of this virtue, was tempered by the softest arts of gentleness and goodness. In proof of which, it may not be improper to add the following instance of the honest artifices she used to disguise her admonitions. She has been frequently observed to commend persons of distinguished eminence for one kind of moral worth, before some of her friends, who were deficient in that particular virtue, in hopes they might be struck with the beauty of the example which she proposed to their imitation, in a manner so little apt to give offence.
She had few equals in her excellent turn of conversation. Her wit was inexhaustible, and she expressed her thoughts in the most beautiful and flowing eloquence; and as these uncommon advantages were accompanied with an easy goodness, and unaffected openness of behaviour, she infinitely charmed all who knew her.
Mrs. Rowe's wit, beauty and merit, had even from her youth conciliated to her much compliment and praise, and from such judges of worth as must have made some degree of vanity seem almost pardonable in a lady and [Page 37] an author. Yet, amidst these temptations to pride, she retained all the humility of the meanest and most obscure person of the human race.
She was perfectly untainted with that love of pleasure which has so universally corrupted the present age; and is justly thought to have the most unfriendly influence on the noblest kind of virtue. She was ignorant of every polite and fashionable game. Play, she believed, at best, was but an art of losing time, and forgetting to think; but when she reflected on the fatal consequences that attend a fond attachment to this diversion, she had even an horror for it. Her taste was too refined and delicate to relish those insipid trifles, called Novels and Romances, usually as defective in wit, and true imitation of nature, as replete with indecent images,which pollute the imagination, and shock every chaste mind. She would have esteemed the diversions of English theatre (especially those of the tragic kind) capable of affording the most noble and rational pleasure, if she could have believed them innocent; but so few of them appeared to her inoffensive to virtue, that she thought fit to abstain from those entertainments, which, in her opinion, generally tended to promote impurity of manners, and expose piety to scorn and ridicule. The native grandeur of her soul, preserved her from a fondness from any kind of luxury, judging it much beneath the dignity of a being possessed of reason, and born for immortality. She was always pleased with whatever she found on her table; and neither the nature of her food, nor the manner of dressing it, gave her any uneasiness: For if in either of these respects it was not perfectly agreeable, it only afforded her a subject of wit and pleasantry, instead of occasioning any disgust, or serious resentment. She mixed in no parties of pleasure, and extremely despised the trivial and uninstructive conversation of formal visits, which she avoided, at least, as much as decency would allow; and, indeed (except drawing) she had almost an equal [Page 38] contempt for every thing that bears the name of diversion and amusement, even of the most innocent kind.
The love of money she thought the most sordid and ignoble of passions, and frequently lamented its general prevalence over the human mind. She did not know her own estates from others, till some motives of prudence obliged her to inform herself, when she apprehended she was soon to leave them; and was so far from that rigour in exacting her due, which approaches to inhumanity, that her neglect of her interest may be rather censured as excessive: She let her estates beneath their intrinsic value, as appears by the considerable advance of the rents since her decease; and was so gentle to her tenants, that she not only had no law-suit with any of them, but would not so much as suffer them to be threatned with the seizure of their goods, on the neglect of payment of their rents. When one of them, who owed her an hundred pounds, carried off all his stock in the night, she could not be prevailed on to embrace an opportunity in her power of seizing it afterwards; and if he had not in this manner quitted the estate upon receiving some just menaces without her knowledge, it is more than probable that her excess of goodness would have always prevented her from having recourse to rigorous methods to eject him, and compel him to do her justice. 'Twould be easy to add several other instances highly prejudicial to her interest, in which she voluntarily departed from her right, when she had the highest claim of equity. She could scarce bear the mention of injustice, without trembling; and the tenderness and delicacy of her conscience, with regard to this sin, was so great, that she hardly thought she could keep far enough from it. 'I can appeal to thee (says she in an address to God) how scrupulously I have acted in matters of equity, and how willingly I have injured myself to right others.' She spoke with much warmth of the extreme danger of any dishonest and fraudulent practice, and expressed her wonder, how [Page 39] persons could die with any repose of mind, under the least degree of such a kind of guilt.
Mrs. Rowe declined all honours that might have been paid her, on account of her works, by not prefixing her name to any of them, except a few poems in the earlier part of her life. The same modest disposition of mind appears in the orders that she left in writing to her servant, in which, after having desired that her funeral might be by night, and attended only by a small number of friends, she adds, 'charge Mr. Bowden not to say one word of me in the sermon. I would lie in my father's grave, and have no stone nor inscription over my vile dust, which I gladly leave to oblivion and corruption, till it rise to a glorious immortality.'
Mrs. Rowe was exemplary for every relative duty. Filial piety was a remarkable part of her character. She loved the best of fathers, as she ought, and repaid his uncommon care and tenderness by all just returns of duty and affection. She has been heard to say, 'That she could die rather than displease him;' and the anguish she felt at seeing him in pain in his last sickness was so great, that it occasioned some kind of convulsion, a disorder from which she was wholly free in every other part of her life.
When she was entered into the marriage state, the highest esteem and most tender affection appeared in all her conduct to Mr. Rowe; and by the most gentle and obliging manners, and the exercise of every social and good-natured virtue, she confirmed the empire she had gained over his heart. She complied with his inclinations in several instances, to which she was naturally averse; and made it her study to soften the anxieties, and heighten all the satisfactions of his life. Her capacity for superior things did not tempt her to neglect the less honourable cares which the laws of decency impose on the softer sex in the connubial relation: Much less was she led by a sense of her own merit to assume any thing to herself inconsistent with that du- [Page 40] ty and submission which the precepts of christian piety so strictly enjoin. Mr. Rowe had some mixture of natural warmth in his temper, of which he had not always a perfect command. If at any time this broke out into some little excesses of anger, it never awakened any passion of the like kind in Mrs. Rowe; but on the contrary, she always remained mistress of herself, and studied by the gentlest language and most soothing endearments, to restore Mr. Rowe's mind to that calmness which reason approves. And she equally endeavoured, in every other instance, by the softest arts of persuasion, and in a manner remote from all airs of superiority, to lead Mr. Rowe on towards that perfection of virtue, to which she herself aspired with the truest christian zeal. During his long illness, she scarce ever stirred from him a moment, and alleviated his severe affliction by performing, with inconceivable tenderness and assiduity, all the offices of compassion suited to that melancholy season. She partook his sleepless nights, and never quitted his bed, unless to serve him, or watch by him. And as she could scarce be persuaded to forsake even his breathless clay, so she consecrated her future years to his memory, by honouring his ashes with resolutions of perpetual widowhood, which with more than female constancy she inviolably maintained.
She was a gentle and kind mistress; treating her servants with great condescension and goodness, and almost with the affability of a friend and equal. She caused due care to be taken of them when they were ill; and did not think it misbecome her to sit by the bed of a sick servant to read to her books of piety. Her great humanity would not suffer her to be offended with light faults; and as she never dismissed any one from her family, so I think, none of her servants ever left her, but with a view to the changing of their condition by marriage. She knew when she was well served, and reposed so much trust in those whose fidelity she had experienced, that it might seem to [Page 41] verge towards excess; yet, even such great confidence was hardly more than was due to that servant who was with Mrs. Rowe at the time of her death; whose long and faithful duty to her mistress, and remarkable sorrow for her loss, deserve to be mentioned with honour.
She was a warm and generous friend, just, if not partial to the merit of those whom she loved, and most gentle and candid to their errors. She was always forward to do them good offices; but in a distinguished manner she studied, with infinite art and zeal, to insinuate the love of virtue into all her acquaintance, and to promote their most important interest, by inciting them to the practice of every thing that would recommend them to higher degrees of the divine favour. This she proposed as the best end of friendship.
Mrs. Rowe was not entirely free from the attacks of malice, that she might not be without opportunity to exercise the divine virtue of forgiveness; yet one could scarce have learned from her discourse that she had an enemy; for she was not wont to complain of any indecent conduct or injuries done to herself: So that it was apparent, such things made light impressions on her mind; or that she had endeavoured to efface them with the happiest success.
Her charities were so great, that she devoted the whole of her income, besides what was barely sufficient for the necessities of life, to the relief of the indigent and distressed.
Misery and indigence were a sufficient recommendation to her compassionate regard and assistance; yet she shewed a distinguished readiness to alleviate the afflictions of persons of merit and virtue: And one who had the best opportunities of making this observation, assures me, that she never knew any such apply to Mrs. Rowe, without success, when she had it in her power to relieve their wants. The first time she accepted of a gratification from the bookseller for any of her works, she bestowed the whole sum on a family in distress; and there is great reason to [Page 42] believe that she employed all the money that she ever received on such an account in as generous a manner. And once, when she had not by her a sum of money large enough to supply the like necessities of another family, she readily sold a piece of plate for this purpose. She was accustomed, on going abroad, to furnish herself with pieces of money of different value, that she might relieve any objects of compassion who should fall in her way, according to their several degrees of indigence. She contributed to some designs that had the appearance of charity, tho' she could not approve of them in every respect: For she said, 'It was fit, sometimes, to give for the credit of religion, when other inducements were wanting, that the professors of Christianity might not be charged with covetousness.' A vice which she abhored so much, that scarce any grosser kind of immorality could more effectually exclude from her friendship. 'I never, said she, grudge any money, but when it is laid out on myself; for I consider how much it would buy for the poor.' Besides the sums of money which she gave away, and the distribution of practical books on religious subjects, she employed her own hands in labours of charity to cloath the necessitous. This she did, not only for the natives of the lower Palatinate, when they were driven from their country by the rage of war, which appeared a calamity peculiarly worthy of compassion; but it was her frequent employment to make garments of almost every kind, and bestow them on those who wanted them. She discovered a strong sense of humanity, and often shewed her exquisite concern for the unhappy, by weeping over their misfortunes. These were the generous tears of virtue, and not any feminine weakness; for she was rarely observed to weep at afflictions that befel herself. She was, indeed, so sensibly touched with the miseries of the poor, as not only to send her servant to examine what they stood in need of when they were sick, but often visited them in person, when they were so [Page 43] wretched that their houses were not fit for her to enter into; and even when they were ill of malignant and contagious distempers. One kind of munificence, in which she greatly delighted, was causing children to be taught to read and work: These she furnished with supplies of cloathing, as well as Bibles, and other necessary books of instruction. This she did not only at Frome, but also at a neighbouring village, where part of her estate lay. And when she met in the streets with children of promising countenances, who were perfectly unknown to her, if upon enquiry, it appeared, that through the poverty of their parents they were not put to school, she added them to the number of those who were taught at her own expence. She condescended, herself, to instruct them in the plain and necessary principles and duties of religion; and the grief she felt when any of them did not answer the hopes she entertained, was equal to the great satisfaction she received, when it appeared that her care and bounty had been well placed. She was also a contributor to a charitable institution of this kind at Frome of a more public nature; though, according to the general custom of such schools, all who were educated in it were compelled to worship God in that particular form, from which she herself took the liberty to dissent. But Mrs. Rowe was not corrupted by this example of contracted goodness, which can scarce be reconciled to that universal benevolence the gospel enjoins: Her charities were not confined to those of her own party or sentiments, but bestowed on indigent persons of almost all the sects into which Christianity is divided; and even those whose religious opinions seemed to her of the most dangerous consequence, partook largely of her bounty. Nor was her beneficence limited only to those who in strict terms might be called poor; for as she was wont to say, ''Twas one of the greatest benefits that could be done to mankind, to free them from the cares and anxieties that attend a narrow fortune;' in pursuance of those generous senti- [Page 44] ments, she has been often known to make large presents to persons who were not oppressed with the least extremes of indigence.
'Tis astonishing how the moderate estate Mrs. Rowe was possessed of, could supply such various and expensive benefactions; and her own sense of this once broke out to an intimate friend; 'I am surprized, said she to her, how it is possible my estate should answer all these things! and yet I never want money.' This was only spoke to give honour to the divine blessing, which, as she was wont to acknowledge with great piety, apparently protected her from losses, and prospered all her affairs.
She practised secret prayer three times a-day. She had an high veneration and love to the Lord's day, which she wholly consecrated to piety and devotion. She never neglected any opportunity of partaking in the holy communion, for which she had the highest affection and veneration. She had an inexpressible love and veneration for the Holy Scriptures, and was assiduous in the reading of them, particularly the New Testament, the Psalms, and those parts of the prophetical writings which relate to our blessed Saviour.
She possessed a large measure of that serenity and chearfulness of temper, which seem naturally to flow from conscious virtue and the hopes of the divine favour. Her whole life seemed not only a constant calm, but a perpetual sun-shine, and every hour of it sparkled with good-humour, and inoffensive gaiety.
Her friendships were founded on virtue. She shewed a generous mind, elevated above the mean principles of party and bigotry. She was favoured with the esteem and acquaintance of the Countess of Winchelsea, the Viscountess Weymouth, the Viscountess Scudamore, the Lady Carteret, the Lady Brooke, the honourable Mrs. Thynne, the Earl of Orrery, Dr. Kenn, Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells, Sir Richard Blackmore, Dr. Watts, Mr. Prior, Mr. Grove, the Countess of Hertford, &c.
* Friendship in death, Letter I.
† Vid. Devout Exercises of the Heart, published by Dr. Watts, page 129.
* Devout Exercises, pag. 36.
* Vid. preface to the genuine edition of that collection.
† Qualis populea moerens Philomela sub umbra. Virg.
Sweet bird that shun'st the noise of folly
Most musical, most melancholy. Milton.
* Vid. Prior's Poems, pag. 32. Edit. in 12 mo.
* He was the grandson of William Rowe, Esq; a gentleman of worth and considerable estate, and Alice (a lady of distinguished sense, beauty and virtue) daughter of Thomas Scot, Esq; member of parliament for Ailesbury in the county of Bucks: And by the maternal side he was descended from the Rowes of Devon; some account of which family is given by Dr. Welwood, in his preface to the translation of Lucan by N. Rowe, Esq; folio edit. pag. 18.