Rowe, Elizabeth Singer (1674–1737)

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Rowe, Elizabeth Singer (1674–1737)

English poet and writer. Name variations: Elizabeth Singer. Born Elizabeth Singer on September 11, 1674, in Ilchester, Somerset, England; died of apoplexy in Frome, Somerset, England, on February 20, 1737; daughter of Walter Singer (a Nonconformist minister) and Elizabeth Portnell; probably educated at a religious boarding school; married Thomas Rowe, in 1710 (died 1715).

Selected writings:

Poems on Several Occasions: Written by Philomela (1696); Friendship in Death (1728); Letters Moral and Entertaining (1729–33); The History of Joseph (1736); Devout Exercises of the Heart (1737); Miscellaneous Works (1739).

Born in 1674 in Somerset, England, Elizabeth Singer Rowe was the eldest of three daughters. Her father Walter Singer was a Nonconformist minister who had once been imprisoned for his religious beliefs; he met his wife Elizabeth Portnell when she visited the prison. Later, Walter became a well-to-do merchant in Frome, in Somerset, England.

Rowe was most likely educated at a local boarding school, where the curriculum, in addition to religious and academic subjects, would have included the usual studies in music and drawing considered indispensable to the educated young woman of the time. She began writing poetry at an early age, and published some poems anonymously in the Athenian Mercury (1694–95), edited by John Dunton. In 1696, Dunton published her Poems on Several Occasions: Written by Philomela. This volume included reprints of several of her initial poems; other early poems were later reprinted in Dunton's Athenian Oracle in 1704. Dunton thought highly of Rowe, calling her "the richest genius of her sex."

Rowe's writing led her to an acquaintance and later friendship with the family of Lord Weymouth, particularly his son Henry Thynne and daughter Frances Seymour , countess of Hertford, later the duchess of Somerset. Writer Matthew Prior met Rowe at Longford, the Thynnes' residence, and reportedly fell in love with her. Although he did not win her heart, he did use his literary influence to help her publish two Latin translations in Tonson's Poetic Miscellanies V in 1704.

In 1709, Rowe met her future husband Thomas Rowe, a classical scholar 13 years her junior who shared her Nonconformist upbringing. They married in 1710, and five years later he died of tuberculosis. Rowe spent the rest of her life in seclusion, devoting herself to charitable work. In 1728, she published her most well-known and popular work, Friendship in Death in Twenty Letters from the Dead to the Living. It went through many editions and was also translated into French and German. Rowe followed this with another heavily moralistic tome, Letters Moral and Entertaining, which appeared in three parts from 1729 to 1733. In 1736, she published a long poem in eight books, The History of Joseph, which was based on the Biblical story.

Elizabeth Rowe died of apoplexy at Frome in February 1737. Before her death, she had requested her friend Isaac Watts to edit a collection of her prayers, and this appeared as Devout Exercises of the Heart later that year. The book was popular enough to merit several editions, one of which was published in America in 1792. The compilation Miscellaneous Works, edited by her brother-in-law Theophilus Rowe, was published in 1739.

Rowe's work was popular, widely read, influential, and frequently reprinted and translated. She was credited with being the first English poet to combine the qualities of romantic and religious verse. She was aware that as a woman writer, she had few predecessors and would not receive as much support as male writers. In her preface to Poems on Several Occasions, Rowe wrote that male writers monopolized the tradition of writing, and fostered the belief that women did not have as much sense or intelligence as they did. She protested these assertions, declaring them "Violations of the liberties of Free-born English women."


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer, Bayville, New York