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BoRN A. D. 1677.— DIED A. D. 1719.
This ingenious writer was educated at the same academy with Isaac Watts and Samuel Say. On the peace of Ryswick, he presented him self to public notice by publishing a poem in celebration of that event; he subsequently commemorated the leading public events in a series of odes, most of which owed their fame with the public to the exquisite music which was composed for them by such masters of the art as Purcell, Pepusch, and Handel. His dramatic piece, entitled 'The Siege of Damascus,' is his best known work. He also published a very spirited translation of the tenth book of Lucan. Addison appears to have entertained a very high idea of Hughes's poetical powers, for he at one time wished him to write the fifth act of' Cato.' He was an extensive contributor to the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian.
EoRN A. D. 1673. DIED A. D. 1719.
Nicholas Rowe, the son of John Rowe, Esq. sergeant at law, was born at Little Berkford, in Bedfordshire, in 1673. He obtained the prior part of his education at a private school in Highgate, and was afterwards removed to Westminster, where, under the care of the celebrated Dr Busby, he made a rapid progress in the acquisition of the learned languages, and at the age of fifteen was elected one of the king's scholars.
His father, who had destined him to the study of the law, thought him qualified, when sixteen, for a student of the Middle Temple; and for some years he prosecuted the initiatory studies of his profession with so much zeal and ability, as to promise the attainment of considerable eminence as a barrister. The death of his father, however, which took place when he had reached his nineteenth year, relaxed his efforts; and a partiality for elegant literature, and especially for poetry, which he had early imbibed with enthusiasm during his residence at Westmin ster, began to share, and at length to occupy the whole of his time.
The fruit of this change in the direction of his pursuits, was, at the age of twenty-five, the production of a tragedy, under the title of ' The Ambitious Step-Mother,' and which being received with very general applause, fixed him for ever in the service of the Muses. He relinquished, therefore, entirely any further attention to his profession; and we are to view him, for some years, as almost exclusively occupied in writing for the stage.
We shall therefore proceed to notice briefly his dramatic pieces without interruption from intervening events; they form the prominent feature of his life and character, and upon them his reputation with posterity is, in a great measure, built. In 1702, four years after the appearance of his first play, he brought forward a second tragedy,
named 'Tamerlane;' and which, from its allusion to personages then acting an important part on the political stage, met with more applause than it intrinsically merited. When it was known that Tamerlane was drawn for King William, and Bajazet for Lewis the Fourteenth, nothing at that time was wanting to render it a favourite with the public
To this popular production succeeded, in 1703, the tragedy of the 'Fair Penitent,' which, from the beauty and melody of the versification, the sweetness of the diction, and the interesting conduct of the fable, still continues to attract, with power equal to what it first possessed, the lovers and admirers of the drama. It has had the merit, likewise, of furnishing to Richardson the bases on which he has constructed the highly-finished character of Lovelace.
The next two tragedies of Rowe; the 'Ulysses' acted in 1706, and the 'Royal Convert' in 1708, met with a very cold reception on the stage, and are now no longer remembered. The poet, however, made ample atonement for these failures by the composition of his ' Jane Shore,' the best and most pathetic of his plays, and which, together with his 'Fair Penitent,' will remain a durable monument of his genius. The last dramatic effort of our author was 'Lady Jane Grey,' greatly inferior in every respect to its immediate predecessor, and which seems to have excited little attention, either on its first appearance, or since.
Rowe, as a dramatic poet, has not attained the highest excellencies of his art; he is not distinguished for his powers of exciting either pity or terror, nor are his characters boldly or accurately discriminated; in these respects, which form the essential virtues of the tragic bard, he is not only inferior to Shakspeare, with whom competition may be pronounced nearly hopeless, but to Fletcher, to Massinger, and to Otway. The qualities which have enabled Rowe to maintain his station on the stage are, the dignity and melody of his verse; the amatory softness which breathes through many of his scenes; the beauty of his sentiments, and the interesting construction of his fables.
Not content with the cypress wreath of Melpomene, our poet ventured, in 1706, to court the Muse of Comedy, and brought forward at the theatre at Lincoln's-inn-fields a piece of this description, in three acts, called 'The Biter.' It was, however, so completely deficient in the vis comica, that, though it is recorded of its author that he sat laughing almost convulsively in the house at what he deemed incomparable strokes of wit, the audience unanimously, and very seriously and indignantly, condemned it to perpetual oblivion.
Two works which employed much of Mr Rowe's time and attention remain to be noticed. The first is an edition of Shakspeare's plays, which he published in 1709, with a short life of Shakspeare prefixed. He appears not to have been well qualified for this task; "Rowe," says Mr Capell, "went no further than to the edition nearest to him in time, which was the folio of 1685, the last and worst of these impressions: this he republished with great exactness; correcting here and there some of its grossest mistakes, and dividing into acts and scenes the plays that were not divided before. The second is a version of Lucan's Pharsalia, in the rhymed couplet of ten syllables, which, though finished before, was not published until ten years after his death. This is a very successful attempt, and exhibits the spirit and genius of the Boman bard with great energy and fidelity The versification, if not equal, in point of vigour, richness, and variety, to that of Pope, or Mickle, as it appears in the Iliad and Lusiad, is rarely defective in smoothness and modulation, and sometimes displays a considerable portion of melody and beauty. The miscellaneous poems of Rowe, published in the editions of the British Poets, are, with the exception of 'The Despairing Shepherd,' of little value.
The pecuniary circumstances of our author, which had been originally independent, were in the latter part of his life augmented to affluence by places under government. In the reign of Queen Anne, he had been appointed by the duke of Queensberry, secretary for public affairs; and upon the death of his grace, it is related that, with a view to preferment, he frequently attended the levees of the earl of Oxford, where at length an incident of rather a ludicrous nature put an end to his assiduities. "Mr Rowe," says the writer of his life in the Biographia Britannica, "going one day to pay his court to the earl, then advanced to be lord-high-treasurer, was courteously received by his lordshp, who asked him if he understood Spanish well? He answered no; but thinking that the earl might intend to send him into Spain on some honourable commission, he presently added, that he did not doubt in a short time both to understand and speak it: and the treasurer approving of what he said, Mr Rowe took his leave, and immediately retired to a private country farm-house; where in a few months having learnt Spanish, he waited again upon the earl, to acquaint him with his diligence; whereupon his lordship asking if he was sure he understood the language thoroughly, and our author answering in the affirmative, that fathomless minister burst out into the following exclamation: 'How happy are you, Mr Rowe, that you can enjoy the pleasure of reading and understanding Don Quixote in the originalI'"
For the disappointment which he thus suffered he was liberally consoled on the accession of George I. when he was immediately made poet-laureat, and one of the land-surveyors of the customs in the port of London. To these not very congenial employments were shortly afterwards added the clerkship of the council to the prince of Wales, and the secretaryship of the presentations, to which, without any solicitation on his part, he was instantly appointed by the lord-chancellor Parker on his receival of the seals.
His enjoyment of these promotions was, however, but of short duration ; for he died on the sixth of December, 1718, aged forty-four, and was buried on the nineteenth of the same month in Westminster-abbey.
Mr Rowe twice entered into the conjugal state, and had a son by his first, and a daughter by his second, wife. He was a man elegant in his person and manners, of a lively and amiable temper, yet partial to occasional solitude; he therefore frequently retired into the country, where, according to the relation of his friend, Dr Welwood, he usually employed his time in the study of divinity and ecclesiastical history. He was not only well-acquainted with the learned languages, but familiar with French, Italian, and Spanish, the first of which he spoke with fluency.1
1 We are indebted for the above memoir to Dr Drake's elegant sketches of our periodical essayists.
BORN A. D. 16C4-. DIED A. D. 1721.
Matthew Prior was the son of George Prior, citizen of London. and was born in the year 1664. His father dying when he was very young, left him to the care of an uncle, a vintner near Charing-cross, who discharged the trust that was reposed in him with a tenderness truly paternal, as Prior always acknowledged with the highest professions of gratitude. He received part of his education at Westminste' school, where he greatly distinguished himself; but was afterwards taken home by his uncle in order to be bred up to his trade.
Notwithstanding the mean employment to which Prior seemed now doomed, yet, at his leisure hours, he prosecuted the study of the class ics, and especially his favourite Horace, which led to his being taken notice of by the polite company which resorted to his uncle's house. It happened one day that the earl of Dorset being at this tavern with several gentlemen of rank, the discourse turned upon the odes of Horace; and the company being divided in their sentiments about a passage in that poet, one of the gentlemen said, "I find we are not likely to agree in our criticisms; but, if I am not mistaken, there is a young fellow in the house who is able to set us all right;" upon which he named Prior, who was immediately sent for, and desired to give his opinion of Horace's meaning in the ode under consideration. This he did with great modesty, and so much to the satisfaction of the company that the earl of Dorset determined to remove him to some station more suited to his genius; and accordingly sent him, at his own expense, to St John's college, Cambridge, where he took his degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1686, and afterwards became a fellow of the college.
During his residence at the university, he contracted an intimate friendship with Charles Montague, Esq. afterwards earl of Halifax; in conjunction with whom he wrote a very humorous piece, entitled, * The Hind and the Panther trans versed to the story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse,' printed in 1687, in 4to, in answer to Dryden's 'Hind and Panther,' published the year before.
Upon the Revolution, Mr Prior was brought to court by his great patron, the earl of Dorset, by whose interest he was introduced to public employment; and, in the year 1690, was made secretary to the earl of Berkley, plenipotentiary at the Hague. In this station he acquitted himself so well, that King William, desirous at this time to keep hhn near his person, made him one of the gentlemen of his bedchamber. He was afterwards appointed secretary to the earls of Pembroke and Jersey, and Sir Joseph Williamson, ambassadors and plenipotentiaries at the treaty of Ryswick, in 1697; the same year he was nominated principal secretary to the embassy to the court of France. He continued in this station during the two embassies of the earls of Portland and Jersey.
In 1699 King William sent him from England to hold a private con- 1 ference with him at his palace at Loo, in Holland; and, upon his re
turn, he was made under-secretary of state in the earl of Jersey's office, who was principal secretary of state for the northern provinces. He afterwards went to Paris, where he had a principal share in negotiating the partition-treaty. In 1700 he was created Master of Arts by mandamus, and appointed one of the lords-commissioners of trade and plantations, upon the resignation of Mr Locke. He was also chosen member of parliament for East Grimsted in Sussex.
Upon the success of the war with France after the accession o( Queen Anne, Prior exerted his poetical talents in honour of his country; first in his letter to Boileau, the celebrated French poet, on the victory at Blenheim in 1704; and again in an ode on the success of her majesty's arms in 1706. In 1710 he was supposed to have had a share in writing ' The Examiner,' and particularly a criticism in it upon a poem of Dr Garth's to the earl of Godolphin. About this time, when Godolphin was defeated by Oxford, and the tories began again to rally, Prior and Garth espoused opposite interests; Prior wrote for, and Garth against, the court.
While Prior was thus early initiated into public affairs, and continued in the hurry of business for many years, it must appear not a little surprising that he should find sufficient opportunities to cultivate his poetical talents as he did. In his preface to his poems, he says, "that poetry was only the product of his leisure hours; that he had commonly business enough upon his hands, and was only a poet by accident." Bolingbroke, who, notwithstanding the many exceptions to his conduct and sentiments in other instances, must be allowed to be an accomplished judge of fine talents, entertained the highest esteem for Prior's abilities. In a letter dated 10th September, 1712, addressed to Mr Prior, while he was the queen's minister and plenipotentiary at the court of France, his lordship pays him the following compliment: "For God's sake, Matt, hide the nakedness of thy country, and give the best turn thy fertile brain will furnish thee with to the blunders of thy countrymen, who are not much better politicians than the French are poets." His lordship thus concludes his epistle: "It is near three o'clock in the morning. I have been hard at work all day, and am not yet enough recovered to bear much fatigue; excuse, therefore, the confusedness of this scroll, which is only from Harry to Matt, and not from the secretary to the minister. Adieu; my pen is ready to drop out of my hand, it being now three o'clock in the morning. Believe that no man loves you better, or is more faithfully yours, &c."
Prior is represented by contemporary writers as a gentleman who united the elegance and politeness of a court with the habits of a scholar and a man of genius. This representation may be just; yet it is generally true that they who rise from low life always retain some traces of their original. There was one particular in which Prior verified this remark. The same woman who could charm the waiter in a tavern, still maintained her dominion over the minister in France. The Chloe of Prior, it seems, was a woman in his own station of life; but he never forsook her in the height of his promotions. One would imagine, however, that this woman—who is said to have been a butcher's wife,—Spence calls her "a poor mean creature,"—must either have been very handsome, or have had something about her superior to people of her rank, yet it seems the case was otherwise, and no better