1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Robert Lowth

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 20:424-32.



ROBERT LOWTH, a very learned and eminent prelate, and second son to the preceding, was born Nov. 27, 1710. He received his education at Winchester-school, and while there gave the first specimen of his great abilities, in a poem, entitled The Genealogy of Christ, as it is represented on the East window of Winchester-college chapel, since inserted in Pearch's Collection of Poems. He also, as an exercise, in 1729, wrote another poem, entitled Catharine Hill, the place where the Winchester scholars are allowed to play on holidays. From Winchester he was elected to New-college, Oxford, in 1730, where he took his degree of M.A. June 8, 1737. At Oxford he was not more distinguished for proficiency in his studies, than for the excellence of his taste, and the politeness of his manners: and being now more immediately under Wykeham's roof, he conceived the design, which he afterwards so ably accomplished, of investigating the history of his college, and writing the life of that wise and munificent founder. The first distinction he obtained in the university was the office of professor of poetry, which was conferred upon him in 1741, on the resignation of his friend Mr. Spence. In performing the duties of this office he struck out a new path, by giving a course of lectures on Hebrew poetry, which have since added so much to his reputation.

In 1746, Mr. Lowth published An Ode to the people of Great Britain, in imitation of the sixth ode of the third book of Horace; a spirited performance, severely reproving the vices of the times. This was afterwards inserted in Dodsley Collection, vol. III. and was followed by his Judgment of Hercules, in his friend Mr. Spence's Polymetis. His first preferment in the church was to the rectory of Ovington, in Hampshire, which he received from bishop Hoadly. In 1748, he accompanied Mr. Legge, afterwards chancellor of the Exchequer, to Berlin, who went to that court in a public character; and with whom, from his earliest years, Mr. Lowth lived on terms of the most intimate and uninterrupted friendship. In the following year he became acquainted with the duke of Devonshire, in consequence of his attending his brothers lord George and lord Frederic Cavendish, on their travels, and especially at Turin, which place was their principal residence during their absence from this country. The duke was so amply satisfied with the conduct of Mr. Lowth, as the travelling, tutor of his brothers, that he afterwards proved his steady friend and patron. In 1750 bishop Hoadly conferred on him the archdeaconry of Winchester, and in 1753, the rectory of East Woodhay, in Hampshire.

In this last mentioned year he published his Poetry-lectures, under the title of De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum Praelectiones academicae, 4to, of which he gave the public an enlarged edition in 1763, 2 vols. 8vo. The second volume consists of additions made by the celebrated Michaelis. To this work, as we have already noticed, the duties of his professorship gave occasion; and the choice of his subject, which lay out of the beaten paths of criticism, and which was highly interesting, not only in a literary, but a religious view, afforded ample scope for the poetical, critical, and theological talents of the author. In these prelections, the true spirit and distinguishing character of the poetry of the Old Testament are more thoroughly entered into, and developed more perfectly, than ever had been done before. Select parts of this poetry are expressed in Latin composition with the greatest elegance and force; the general criticism which pervades the whole work is such as might be expected from a writer of acknowledged poetical genius and literary judgment; and the particular criticism applied to those passages of the original Hebrew, which he has occasion to introduce, in order either to express the sense, or correct the words of it, is a pattern for that kind of sacred literature: nor are the theological subjects which occur in the course of the work, and are necessarily connected with it, treated with less ability. To the Prelections is subjoined a Short Confutation of bishop Hare's system of Hebrew Metre, in which he shows it to be founded on false reasoning, on a petitio principii, that would equally prove a different and contrary system true. This produced the first and most creditable controversy in which Mr. Lowth was engaged. The Harian metre was defended by Dr. Thomas Edwards, of Cambridge, (see his life,) who published a Latin letter to Mr. Lowth, to which the latter replied in a Larger Confutation, addressed to Dr. Edwards in 1766. This Larger Confutation, which from the subject may be supposed dry and uninteresting to the majority of readers, is yet, as a piece of reasoning, extremely curious; for there never was a fallacy more accurately investigated, or a system more completely refuted, than that of bishop Hare.

In July 1754, probably as a reward for the distinguished ability displayed in his Praelectiones, he received the degree of D.D. conferred by the university in the most honourable manner in their power, by diploma; and in 1755 he went to Ireland as first chaplain to the marquis of Hartington (afterwards duke of Devonshire, and then) lord lieutenant. In consequence of this appointment he had the offer of the bishopric of Limeric, but this he exchanged with Dr. Leslie, prebendary of Durham, and rector of Sedgefield, near that place, for these preferments, which were accordingly given to him by Dr. Trevor, bishop of Durham, who was not a little pleased to rank among his clergy a gentleman of such rare accomplishments.

In 1758 he published that admirable specimen of recondite biography, his Life of William of Wykeham, 8vo, founder of Winchester and New colleges. It is collected from authentic evidences, and affords the most certain information of the manners of the times, and of many of the public transactions in which Wykeham was concerned, with such an account of the origin and foundation of his college, as was scarcely to be supposed recoverable at so remote a period. This work has gone through three editions. In the dedication to bishop Hoadly, Dr. Lowth gives the sanction of his approbation to a decision which Hoadly, as visitor, had recently made respecting the wardenship of Winchester college. This produced a sarcastic address to him, which he replied to in a pamphlet entitled An Answer to an anonymous Letter to Dr. Lowth concerning the late Election of a Warden of Winchester college. This was written in his usual masterly manner.

The next work of importance with which he favoured the public was his Short Introduction to English Grammar, first published in 1762, and which has since gone through numerous editions. It was originally designed only for domestic use; but its utility in recommending a greater attention to grammatical form and accuracy in our language than had hitherto been observed in it, and the many judicious remarks which occur, fully justified the publication, as well as the favourable reception it has met with.

In 1765 Dr. Lowth was elected a fellow of the royal societies of London and Gottingen; and in the same year was involved in a controversy with bishop Warburton. On this subject we shall be brief, but we cannot altogether agree with former biographers of Lowth and Warburton, in considering them as equally blamable, and that the contest reflected equal disgrace on both. In all contests the provoking party has more to answer for than the provoked. We lament that it was possible for Warburton to discover in the amiable mind of Lowth that irritability which has in some measure tainted the controversy on the part of the latter; and we lament that Lowth was not superior to the coarse attack of his antagonist; but all must allow that the attack was coarse, insolently contemptuous, and almost intolerable to any man who valued his own character. Lowth had advanced in his Prelections an opinion respecting the Book of Job, which Warburton considered as aimed at his own peculiar opinions. This produced a private correspondence between them in 1756, and after some explanations the parties seem to have retired well satisfied with each other. This, however, was not the case with Warburton, who at the end of the last volume of a new edition of his Divine Legation, added An appendix concerning the Book of Job, in which he treated Dr. Lowth with every expression of sneer and contempt, and in language most grossly illiberal and insolent. This provocation must account for the memorable letter Dr. Lowth published entitled A Letter to the right rev. author of the Divine Legation of Moses demonstrated, in answer to the Appendix to the fifth volume of that work; with an appendix, containing a former literary correspondence. By a late professor in the university of Oxford, 8vo. Few pamphlets of the controversial kind were ever written with more ability, or more deeply interested the public than this. What we regret is the strong tendency to personal satire; but the public at the time found an apology even for that in the overbearing character of Warburton, and the contemptuous manner in which he, and his under-writers, as Hurd and others were called, chose to treat a man in all respects their equal at least. It was, therefore, we think, with great justice, that one of the monthly critics introduced an account of this memorable letter, by observing, that "when a person of gentle and amiable manners, of unblemished character, and eminent abilities, is calumniated and treated in the most injurious manner by a haughty and over-bearing colossus, it must give pleasure to every generous mind to see a person vindicating himself with manly freedom, resenting the insult with proper spirit, attacking the imperious aggressor in his turn, and taking ample vengeance for the injury done him. Such is the pleasure which every impartial reader, every true republican in literature, will receive from the publication of the letter now before us."

This was followed by Remarks on Dr. Lowth's Letter to the bishop of Gloucester, anonymous, but now known to have been written by Mr. Towne, archdeacon of Stow in Lincolnshire; to which is annexed The second epistolary Correspondence between Warburton and Lowth, in which Warburton accuses Lowth of a breach of confidence in publishing the former correspondence. A more petty controversy arose from Dr. Lowth's letter, between him and Dr. Brown, author of Essays on the Characteristics, who fancied that Lowth had glanced at him as one of the servile admirers of Warburton. He therefore addressed A Letter to the Rev. Dr. Lowth; which was answered in A Letter to the Rev. Dr. Brown, written in a polite and dispassionate manner. It was followed by two anonymous addresses to Dr. Brown, censuring him for having introduced himself and his writings into a dispute which had nothing to do with either.

In June 1766 Dr. Lowth was promoted to the see of St. David's, and about four mouths after was translated to that of Oxford. In this high office he remained till 1777, when he succeeded Dr. Terrick in the see of London. In 1778 he published the last of his literary labours, entitled Isaiah: a new Translation, with a preliminary dissertation, and notes, critical, philological, and explanatory. His design in this work was not only to give an exact and faithful representation of the words and sense of the prophet, by adhering closely to the letter of the text, and treading as nearly as may be in his footsteps; but to imitate the air and manner of the author, to express the form and fashion of the composition, and to give the English reader some notion of the peculiar turn and cast of the original. For this he was eminently qualified, by his critical knowledge of the original language, by his understanding more perfectly than any other writer of his time the character and spirit of its poetry, and by his general erudition, both literary and theological. In the preliminary dissertation the form and construction of the poetical compositions of the Old Testament are examined more particularly, and at large, than even in the Prelections themselves; and such principles of criticism are established as must be the foundation of all improved translations of the different, and especially of the poetical books of the Old Testament. In this instance the translation of the evangelical prophet, who is almost always sublime or elegant, yet often obscure notwithstanding all the aids of criticism, was executed in a manner adequate to the superior qualifications of the learned prelate who undertook it; and marked out the way for other attempts of a like kind, at a time when the hopes of an improved version was cherished by many, and when sacred criticism was cultivated with ardour. In our account of Michael Dodson we have mentioned an attempt to censure some part of this admired translation, which was ably repelled by the bishop's relative, Dr. Sturges.

When archbishop Cornwallis died, the king made an offer of the archiepiscopal see to Dr. Lowth; but this dignity he declined. He was now advanced in life, and was tormented by a cruel and painful disorder, the stone, and had recently experienced some severe strokes of domestic calamity. Mary, his eldest daughter, of whom he was passionately fond, died in 1768, aged thirteen. On her mausoleum the doctor placed the following, exquisitely beautiful and pathetic epitaph:

Cara, vale, ingenio praestans, pietate, pudore,
Et plusquam natae nomine, care, vale!
Cara Maria, vale ! at veniet felicius aevum,
Quando iterum tecum, sim modo dignus, ero.
Cara redi, laeta tum dicam voce, paternos
Eja age in amplexus, care Maria, redi.

Which has been thus translated by Mr. Duncombe:

Dearer than daughter, parallel'd by few
In genius, goodness, modesty,—adieu
Adieu! Maria — till that day more blest,
When, if deserving, I with thee shall rest.
Come, then thy sire will cry, in joyful strain,
O! come to my paternal arms again.

His second daughter, Frances, died as she was presiding at the tea-table, in July 1783; she was going to place a cup of coffee on the salver. "Take this," said she, "to the bishop of Bristol;" immediately the cup and her hand fell together upon the salver, and she instantly expired. His eldest son also, of whom he was led to form the highest expectations, was hurried to the grave in the bloom of youth. Amid these scenes of distress, the venerable bishop, animated by the hopes which the religion of Jesus alone inspires, viewed, with pious resignation, the king of terrors snatching his dear and amiable children from his fond embrace, and at length met the stroke with fortitude, and left this world in full and certain hope of a better. He died Nov. 3, 1787, aged seventy-seven, and was buried at Fulham.

Dr. Lowth married, in 1752, Mary, the daughter of Lawrence Jackson, of Christ Church, in the county of Southampton, esq. by whom he had two sons and five daughters, of whom two only, a son and daughter, survived him. Mrs. Lowth died March 14, 1803.

Several occasional discourses, which the bishop was by his station at different times called upon to deliver, were of course published, and are all worthy of his pen. That On the Kingdom of God, preached at a visitation at Durham, was most admired for liberality of sentiment, and went through several editions. Some of his poetical effusions have been already mentioned, and others appear in Dodsley's and Nichols's Collections, the Gentleman's Magazine, &c. With such various abilities, equally applicable either to elegant literature or professional studies, bishop Lowth possessed a mind that felt its own strength, and decided on whatever came before it with promptitude and firmness; a mind fitted for the high station in which he was placed. He had a temper, which, in private and domestic life, endeared him in the greatest degree to those who were most nearly connected with him, and towards others produced an habitual complacency and agreeableness of manners; but which, as we have seen, was susceptible of considerable warmth, when it was roused by unjust provocation or improper conduct.