Best Gift that Heav’n’s Indulgence could bestow!
To Thee our surest Happiness we owe;Thou all the flying Pleasures dost restore,
Which but for Thee, blest MEM’RY! were no more;
For we no sooner grasp some frail Delight,
But ready for its everlasting Flight,
E’er we can call the hasty Bliss our own,
If not retain’d by Thee, it is for ever gone.
Thou to the kind successful Lover’s Heart,
A Thousand melting Raptures dost impart,
When yet more lovely than herself, and kind,
Thou bring’st his fancy’d Mistress to his Mind
The flatt’ring Image wears a livelier Grace,
A softer Mien, and more inticing Face.
Thou from the flying Minutes dost retrieve,
The Joys CLORINDA’s Wit and Beauty give;
Those Joys which I had once possess’d in vain,
Did not the dear Remembrance still remain,
Methinks she speaks, and all my Soul inspires,
Brightens each Thought, and gives my Muse new Fires;
‘Tis she who lends my daring Fancy Wings,
Softens my Lyre, and tunes its warbling Strings.
Thou only to the Guilty art severe,
Who the Review of their past Actions fear;
But to the Innocent and Virtuous Mind,
Art still propitious, smiling still, and kind,
To Thee we all those charming Pleasures owe,
The Pleasures which from gen’rous Actions flow,
They’re still the Noblest we possess below.
Elizabeth Singer Rowe(published in 1737 in Philomela: or, poems by Mrs. Elizabeth Singer, (Now Rowe,) Of Frome in Somersetshire.)
My first introduction to Elizabeth Rowe occurred only recently, whilst sharing a train carriage with Jessica Clement, a PhD student at the University of York whose thesis focuses upon Rowe’s poetry. Her enthusiasm was extremely contagious, & I couldn’t wait to get hold of some of Rowe’s poetry to read it for myself; when I did, I wasn’t disappointed!
Simple, elegant, and often highly poignant, Rowe’s poetry certainly deserves more attention than has traditionally been given to it. Musing upon the abstract concept of memory in the poem above (for once reproduced in its entirety owing to the almost impossibility of finding a reliable copy online), Rowe delicately yet powerfully points out the sheer wonderment of this attribute that so many of us are so used to taking for granted.
Beginning by praising heaven for this ‘Best gift’, Rowe then notes the ability of remembrance to preserve the ‘flying Pleasures […] / Which but for Thee, blest MEM’RY! were no more’. She then proceeds to provide examples of the usefulness and worth of memory, presenting her reader with the image of the lover who is able to use memory to bring ‘his fancy’d Mistress to his Mind’; that he furnishes her with ‘a livelier Grace, / A softer Mien, and more inticing Face’ in the process is simply an added bonus, and also a sly reference to the fallibility of remembrance and the way in which it may appear altered through the distorting lens of the rememberer’s own perspective.
Reference is then made to ‘Clorinda’, presumably a friend (or perhaps a classical pseudonym for a friend’s name) who would appear to have died. The ‘Joys’ of her friendship, Rowe notes, would have been ‘possess’d in vain’ were it not for the fact that she can still remember them and thus receive both pleasure and instruction from her friend even after death. It is the remembrance of this friendship that also provides Rowe with creative inspiration now, as she writes that the memory of her friend ‘lends my daring Fancy Wings’.
Completing her survey of memory, Rowe then turns to those who might not find remembrance such a pleasurable experience. Personifying memory with the pronoun ‘Thou’, she states that ‘Thou only to the Guilty art severe, / Who the Review of their past Actions fear’; that this is morally just is emphasised by her subsequent return to ‘the Innocent and Virtuous Mind’ to whom Memory is ‘still propitious, smiling still, and kind’.
A Note About the Text
The transcription of the poem ‘To Memory’ was taken from the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online digital copy of Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s poems printed in 1737. I hope that its inclusion here will persuade others to uncover more about this fascinating poet, and to subscribe to what is undisputedly the best digital resource for the study of eighteenth-century literature, the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online database.
You can find out more about Elizabeth Singer Rowe:
(Wikipedia! A useful means of finding information about a writer who currently doesn’t seem to have an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica online. Wikipedia certainly has its uses…)
Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
(Yep, this one again – includes a nice little bit about Rowe’s life as well as a few more of her poems)