Elizabeth Singer Rowe (1674-1737)

Elizabeth Singer Rowe was originally from Ilchester, where her father Walter Singer, had been a nonconformist minister before becoming a clothier. In 1692 he moved his two surviving daughters (his wife was also now deceased) to a farm near Frome, Somerset, where his family became intimate with the family of Thomas Thynne, a relationship that probably led to some educational advantages for Elizabeth in the acquisition of several languages other than English. She may have attended a boarding school prior to that time and had already shown abilities in literature and expressions of deep piety. By the time she arrived in Frome she was already contributing verses to John Dunton’s Athenian Mercury under the noms de plume Philomela and Pindarick Lady, continuing in that capacity into 1696. This work led to her first book, Poems on Several Occasions: Written by Philomela (1696), a book of conventional poetry for that period, both religious and secular in nature, with tendencies at times looking back at the English mystical poets.

Among her religious and literary (and, in some cases, romantic) acquaintances at that time and in subsequent years were the clergyman Benjamin Colman of Boston, the poet Matthew Prior, the clergyman and hymn writer Isaac Watts. Her next two publications were Divine Hymns and Poems on Several Occasions . . . by Philomela, and Several Other Ingenious Persons (1704), and a second edition, A Collection of Divine Hymns and Poems (1709). That year she met her future husband, Thomas Rowe (1687-1715), a poet and historian himself who was 13 years her junior. They married in 1710 and moved to Hampstead, where he composed eight lives for his ambitious project of biographies of classical heroes. His poetry was published posthumously in some editions of his wife’s poetry. He died of consumption in May 1715, after a short but apparently happy marriage. After his death, Elizabeth left Hampstead and returned to Frome, where she visited her old friend, now the Countess of Hertford (Frances Thynne) at Marlborough. She published a poetic tribute to her husband, “On the Death of Mr. Thomas Rowe” that appeared in Lintot’s Poems on Several Occasions (1717).

Rowe’s father died in 1719 and she inherited his estate, giving much of the proceeds to charity and spent the remaining years of her life composing religious prose and verse. Her publications included Friendship in Death: Twenty Letters from the Dead to the Living (1728), dedicated to Edward Young, followed by Letters Moral and Entertaining (1729-32), a three-part work devoted to such topics as love, marriage, and death, with some letters near verbatim copies of actual letters that passed between her and Lady Hertford, interlaced with poetry. Her final publication was The History of Joseph (1736; second and expanded edition in 1739), a long poem in eight books drawn from Genesis chapters 37-45. There was also Edmund Curll’s imprint, Poems by Mrs. Elizabeth Singer [now Rowe] of Frome (1737). Rowe died in February 1737 in Frome and buried in the Rook Lane (Independent) Church burial ground. She had left a manuscript with Isaac Watts and he published it that year, Devout Exercises of the Heart in Meditation and Soliloquy, Prayer and Praise (1737) (Watts thought he style somewhat too intense for most readers), with a 2nd edition in 1738 and some fifty more throughout the century in England, Scotland, Ireland, and America. This was followed by her popular posthumous collection, The Miscellaneous Works in Prose and Verse of Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe (2 vols, 1739), which included her first biographical notice, compiled by Henry Grove and Theophilus Rowe, along with 64 soliloquies, many composed in blank verse, and a collection of previously unpublished letters involving comments upon a number of literary figures. Throughout the 18th and much of the 19th centuries, Rowe was held in great esteem for her piety and religious verse and letters, models of devotion as well as grace of style. Though living a fairly isolated life in Frome, she did not isolate herself from intellectual or many social and religious pursuits and activities, including Whitefield’s orphanage in Georgia.

For more on Rowe, see H. S. Hughes, “Elizabeth Rowe and the countess of Hertford,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 59 (1944), 726–46; H. F. Stecher, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, the Poetess of Frome: A Study in Eighteenth-Century English Pietism (Bern, 1973); M. F. Marshall, ‘Elizabeth Singer Rowe’, Eighteenth-Century British poets: first series, ed. J. Sitter, Dictionary of Literary Biography 95 (1990), 248–56; R. Lonsdale, “Elizabeth Rowe (née Singer),” Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, ed. R. Lonsdale (Oxford, 1989), 45–6, Sarah Prescott, “Elizabeth Singer Rowe: Gender, Dissent, and Whig Poetics,” in “Cultures of Whiggism”: New Essays on English Literature and Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century, ed. David Womersley (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005), 173-99; and idem, “Provincial Networks, Dissenting Connections, and Noble Friends: Elizabeth Singer Rowe and Female Authorship in Early Eighteenth-Century England,” Eighteenth-Century Life 25 (2001), 29-42.