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I recently ran across the phrase "Constantine's fatal dower," which sounded like a quotation, so I googled it.


The specific reference to Constantine that started my quest comes from Canto XIX of Dante's Inferno. Of course Dante wrote in Italian and didn't use that phrase exactly — or even close to it, as far as I can tell! Cary (1822) says "plenteous dower." Wright (1833) says "fair domains." Johnston (1867) is maybe the first to use the phrase "fatal dower" in his translation... and I believe he's using the adjective "fatal" only because the phrase "fatal dower" was a handy stock phrase.

Ngram Viewer

My question is, where did this stock phrase come from?


The Fatal Dowry (1632) was a stage play. I'm not sure what the "dowry" was in that case, specifically.

1680 (Dryden's translation of Ovid's Epistles) is the earliest instance of the exact phrase "fatal dower" I can find. In this case, the "fatal dower" is literally a sword, with which Canace's father intends her to kill herself.

Are these the nuptial gifts a bride receives? / And this the fatal dower a father gives?

And then there's nothing until the 1830s, when "the fatal dower of beauty" breaks out all over Google's search results! What happened?

1831, in a marvelously romping critique of William Sotheby's translation of the Iliad:

[Helen's] beauty, like that of Paris, was her fatal dower.

1834: female beauty as fatal dower.

1836, poetically describing a gazelle or musk-deer. Again the idea of "beauty" is coupled with the phrase "fatal dower."

The musk-pod is its fatal dower, / Like beauty, still the prey of power.

1839: female beauty as fatal dower.

1841. In this case I think "fatal dower" just means "undesirable marriage," not literally death-dealing and not literally a dowry-gift, although I didn't read the entire poem to find out.

Chilly smote, at that dread hour, / Th' announcement of her fatal dower
O'er the young heart ...

1865:

There is no city in Europe which inspires its admirers with such passionate affection as Florence. Of the land to whom Fortune has given the fatal dower of beauty it is the eye and the light.

1867: Verdi's Don Carlos has the aria O don fatale ("O fatal dower") — again, female beauty.

1893: female beauty as fatal dower.

And then as we get into the 20th century, the phrase comes loose from its moorings and starts being used for all kinds of random things!

1893: Egypt as "fatal dower" to its masters.

1914: infertility in the male line as fatal dower of the Galton family.

1921, Bret Harte: "knowledge all alone" as fatal dower.

But where did this stock phrase originally come from, and specifically how did it get associated with female beauty?

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  • From the synopsis of The fatal dowry, the dowry seems to have been that the unfaithful bride-to-be was put to death - as in your Dryden example, where Canace has borne a child by incest. – Kate Bunting Sep 12 '19 at 8:46
  • (carrying on from my previous comment) The implication seems to be that great beauty/sexuality can lead to disaster for a marriageable young woman (according to the social conventions of those times). – Kate Bunting Sep 12 '19 at 8:56
  • @KateBunting: That's absolutely an excellent way to convey the gist of the 1830s expression. But currently I doubt that Dryden meant his "fatal dower" to refer to anything except literally the "nuptial gift," the sword, given to the bride by her father with fatal intent. The immediately preceding line in Dryden is, "His present shall be treasur'd in my heart" — again, literally. – Quuxplusone Sep 12 '19 at 22:39

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