Elizabeth Rowe Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Elizabeth Rowe 1674–1737

(Also wrote as Philomela and Elizabeth Singer) Early eighteenth-century religious poet and writer.

One of the most popular of the eighteenth-century "learned ladies," Elizabeth Rowe achieved notice and admiration when she was young, and wrote several works which were popular well into the nineteenth-century. Rowe's prose writings show an energetic and romantic imagination, and played a small but important transitional role in the development of eighteenth-century fiction. However, Rowe's writings are primarily poetic in form and religious in subject, and they express an experience of rapture so tied to religion and a view of the world so deliberately turned from the here and now that Rowe's fiction always stands on the verge of enthusiastic religious doctrine—an emphasis that both disqualifies her work from being regarded as strictly novelistic and animates her prose with a fervor that one normally finds only in religious tracts.

Biographical Information

Elizabeth Rowe was born Elizabeth Singer on September 11, 1674, in Ilchester, Somersetshire, England. She was the oldest of three daughters of Walter Singer, a Dissenting minister who had been imprisoned during the reign of Charles II for his religious beliefs. Elizabeth's mother, Elizabeth Portnell, had met Singer in prison while on a charitable visit to the inmates. The principles of religion and the practice of piety were strongly impressed upon Rowe in her formative years and she held to these tenets through her entire life, engaging in regular prayer and frequent meditation on Christian themes. Rowe's formal education was superficial, but she supplemented her accomplishments in drawing and dancing with an ambitious program of reading: her works reveal an unusual knowledge of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary and devotional writers and she makes frequent reference to contemporary English poets, essayists, and dramatists. She also studied French, Italian, and Latin in early adulthood. When Rowe was twelve, she began writing poetry. By the age of seventeen, she had begun to publish in magazines of the Athenian Society, an intellectual and literary group founded in 1691 by the London bookseller, John Dunton. Her poems were immediately popular with members of the Athenian Society and she was encouraged to publish a volume of poetry. Poems on Several Occasions was published in 1696 under the pseudonym Philomela, and many of the poems from this volume were also later anthologized. Rowe was active socially, and perhaps was courted by a number of noteworthy men, including the poet Matthew Prior and the minister and hymnist Isaac Watts. In 1709 she met and fell in love with Thomas Rowe, a classical scholar who came from a long line of Nonconformist ministers. They married in 1710 and were by all accounts very happy until Thomas Rowe died of tuberculosis in 1715. Rowe was inconsolable and retired to the town of Frome where she remained withdrawn from the world. This withdrawal from society served to enhance her reputation for virtue and piety. She continued to mourn her husband, and she wrote poetry celebrating his memory. In 1719, Rowe suffered the death of her father. In 1728, she published Friendship in Death, her first publication in over thirty years. Rowe continued to publish until her death in February 1737. Isaac Watts was named editor of her papers and published later in 1737 a collection of her religious meditations entitled Devotional Exercises of the Heart.

Major Works

The poems collected in her first book, Poems on Several Occasions, remained among her most popular verses both in her lifetime and beyond. The volume includes poems on earthly and divine love, pastoral poems, and poetic paraphrases of Biblical passages. They are marked by a strikingly sensual use of language and a vehemence of address that recalls the work of the English mystical poets. In Friendship in Death. In Twenty Letters from the Dead to the Living, Rowe's tone is decidedly less cheerful, though the work was no less popular. In part an expression of her mourning, Friendship in Death is a short series of letters written by certain souls of the dead to their friends on earth and meant to emphasize the immortality of the soul. The letter writers vary in kind from innocent infants to guilty sisters to reformed rakes, and they tell both of their deaths and of the joy of immortality. The letters are full of purpose, warning the addressees to reform and reminding them of divine mercy. The idea of the dead sending letters to the living was not new, but rather followed the tradition of imitation of Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead, in which the dead carry messages from purgatory to the living. After 1733, Friendship in Death usually appeared with Letters Moral and Entertaining (1728–1733), which includes some actual letters from Rowe's correspondence with Lady Hereford. The Letters continue the themes of love, marriage, death, and the future of the soul in brief mostly unconnected vignettes. In the letters, Rowe's correspondents share with friends and lovers the details of love matches, friendships, and extramarital affairs. As the series of letters progresses, some letters make reference to earlier letters and thus create an element of narrative interest, but most letters are too short and self-contained to have much true novelistic flavor. On the whole, the letters are not easy to classify: they fall somewhere between familiar letters and epistolary fiction, and they demonstrate Rowe's interest in translating "Doctrine" into "serious Entertainment." The last work published by Rowe in her lifetime was The History of Joseph. This was published in 1736 but written some years earlier. A verse retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph, it had admirers and imitators, especially in Germany. In the introduction to Rowe's last work, published posthumously as Devout Exercises of the Heart, the editor Isaac Watts expressed his dismay at the sensuality of her religious language. Indeed the tone and style of these prayers is striking. Both mystical and charged with the power of earthly love, her "secret and intense breathings" after God arrest the reader with an intimacy her fictional prose generally lacks.

Critical Reception

Rowe was widely recognized in her lifetime as a talented writer and as a powerful example and proponent of moral virtue. Her earliest works gained important admirers, and her popularity lasted for generations after her death. All of her works went through many editions for nearly a century. Along with this popular acclaim, many literary men of the time held her in great esteem. Not only did Watts and Prior find her work admirable, but several other contemporary writers in England and Germany were influenced by her. For example, Alexander Pope appended Rowe's elegy to her husband to his 1715 edition of Eloisa to Abelard, and Dr. Johnson remarked that Rowe was the earliest English writer to successfully blend romance and religion. While the style and subject matter of her writings are of limited interest for the modern reader, Rowe is almost universally recognized as having played a distinct, if minor, role in the development of the novel in the eighteenth-century with her use of character sketches and epistolary forms, and in her blending of didacticism with sentimentality.