Nicholas Rowe was born in Little Barford, Bedfordshire, England, son of John Rowe (d. 1692), barrister and sergeant-at-law, and Elizabeth, daughter of Jasper Edwards, on 20 June 1674. His family possessed a considerable estate at Lamerton in Devonshire. His father practised law and published Benlow's and Dallison's Reports during the reign of King James II.
The future English poet was educated first at Highgate School, and then at Westminster School under the guidance of Richard Busby. In 1688, Rowe became a King's Scholar, which was followed by his entrance into Middle Temple in 1691. His entrance into Middle Temple was decided upon by his father, who felt that Rowe had made sufficient progress to qualify him to study law. While at Middle Temple, he read statutes and reports with proficiency proportionate to the force of his mind, which was already such that he endeavoured to comprehend law, not as a series of precedents, or collection of positive precepts, but as a system of rational government and impartial justice.
On his father's death, when he was nineteen, he became the master of an independent fortune. He was left to his own direction, and from that time ignored law to try his hand first at poetry, and then later at writing plays.
Rowe was first married to a woman by the name of Parsons (given name is unknown), with whom he had a son John. His second wife was Anne Devenish, and she bore him a daughter named Charlotte.
Rowe acted as under-secretary (1709–1711) to the Duke of Queensberry when he was principal secretary of state for Scotland. On the accession of George I, Rowe was made a surveyor of customs, and in 1715 he succeeded Nahum Tate as poet laureate.
He was also appointed clerk of the council to the Prince of Wales, and in 1718 was nominated by Lord Chancellor Parker as clerk of the presentations in Chancery. He died on 6 December 1718, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
- The inscription on his tomb reads as follows:
- To the Memory of NICHOLAS ROWE Esq: who died in 1718 Aged 45, And of Charlotte his only daughter the wife of Henry Fane Esq; who, inheriting her Father’s Spirit, and Amiable in her own Innocence & Beauty, died in the 22nd year of her age 1739.
- Thy Reliques, Rowe, to this sad Shrine we trust, and near thy Shakespear place thy honour’d Bust, Oh next him skill’ed to draw the tender Tear, For never Heart felt Passion more sincere: To nobler sentiment to fire the Brave. For never Briton more disdain’d a Slave: Peace to the gentle Shade, and endless Rest, Blest in thy Genius, in thy love too blest; And blest, that timely from Our Scene remov’d Thy Soul enjoys that Liberty it lov’d.
- To these, so mourn’d in Death, so lov’d in Life! The childless Parent & the widow’d wife With tears inscribes this monument Stone, That holds their Ashes & expects her own.
Upon his death his widow received a pension from George I in 1719 in recognition of her husband's translation of Lucan. This verse translation, or rather paraphrase of the Pharsalia, was called by Samuel Johnson one of the greatest productions in English poetry, and was widely read, running through eight editions between 1718 and 1807.