Essay / On This Day

Happy Birthday, Robert Lowth

Robert Lowth (1710-1787) was born this day, November 27.

Lowth (his name rhymes with south) was Bishop of Oxford and later London. He was best known his works on Biblical poetry and English grammar. In the 1740’s he delivered a series of lectures at Oxford that were published in 1753 as De sacra poesi Hebraeorum praelectiones. These lectures are celebrated in the field of Biblical studies for their “discovery of poetry” in the Bible, and the principle of that poetry, what Lowth called “parallelism of members.” Generations of Bible students who learned that Hebrew poetry has three types of parallelism —synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic— have Lowth to thank.

In literary studies, the lectures are celebrated for introducing an alternative to classical theories of poetry, and thus laying the groundwork for the Romantic revolution in poetry. These achievements in defining Biblical poetry and creating a new model of poetry were both byproducts of the central aim of Lowth’s lectures: to demonstrate that the biblical prophets wrote in poetry. The success of his arguments can be measured by opening almost any modern translation of the Bible to the prophetic books. The majority of the text will be printed in individual lines of poetry. Lowth not only made this presentation of the prophets possible; he was the first to carry it out in his 1778 translation of Isaiah, the crowning achievement of his work on prophecy and poetry.

“The prophetic office,” wrote Lowth, “had a most strict connection with the poetic art. They had one common name, one common origin, one common author, the Holy Spirit.” Lowth’s bold identification of the Holy Spirit with the poetic muse required a new understanding of the significance of prophetic inspiration: “to give force and energy to the devout affections was the sublime employment of the sacred Muse.” For 18th century poets, Lowth’s new understanding of inspiration provided a ancient precedent for a poetry of force, energy, affections, and sublimity as an alternative to the neo-classic poetry of decorum, elegance, wit, and culture. It also made the lives of the biblical prophets available as models for poets. In Lowth’s life time, poets like William Blake, Christopher Smart, and William Cowper took up the mantle of the prophet-poet. The lives and poetry of these poets, in turn, provided models for the Romantic poets and men of genius in the 19th Century.

For 18th century biblical critics, Lowth’s understanding of inspiration provided an alternative explanation of prophecy that appealed to an age skeptical about a speaking God. At a time when people were losing confidence in the Bible as a source of historical facts and dogmatic truth, Lowth’s theory made the prophetic books available as sublime literature, the work of great-souled geniuses. Lowth’s work was especially influential in Germany. The lectures were translated into German by the great Orientalist, Michaelis in 1758.

The formative effect of Lowth’s work on German biblical criticism came especially through the work of Johann Gottfried Herder, On the Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (1782), which explicitly drew on and developed Lowth’s lecture. Herder turned Lowth’s intuition that prophetic poetry is an spontaneous creation of a youthful nation into a historical scheme in which the age of poetry and prophecy is followed by an age of prose and law. Herder’s historical scheme provided the basic framework for the reconstruction of Israel’s history and reorganization of books of the Old Testament that were the main product of the 19th century German higher criticism. The outcome can be summed up in Julius Wellhausen’s dictum that “the prophets precede law” and his presentation of the decline of the living religion of Israel into the dead wood of Judaism.

Lowth can hardly be blamed for the dubious fruit of his arguments, and he is certainly to be celebrated for helping readers appreciate the beauty and power of biblical literature. His lectures remain a stimulating, if sometimes unreliable, guide to biblical poetry.

Lowth’s reputation as a guide to English grammar comes from his 1762 work, A Short Introduction to English Grammar. Lowth takes a prescriptive approach that attempts to reform English usage along the lines of Latin grammar. It is this work that introduced the dictum that an English sentence should not end with a preposition. Thus E.B. White has Robert Lowth to thank for the popularity of his story about the man who brings the wrong book upstairs to read to his son. The boy asks: “What did you bring that book I don’t like to be read to out of up for?”

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