1787 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Robert Lowth

Anna Seward to George Gregory, 13 November 1787; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 1:354-56.



I often wonder how it is possible to accomplish the very transcribing such volumes as these [Lowth's Lectures on Hebrew Poetry], amidst the engrossing business, and society of a life like yours; — but I congratulate you upon having completed a great work, useful and delightful to unborn ages. I hope the good Bishop saw a large part of it, at least, before the eyes of his understanding grew dim. If so, he must have felt great pleasure in perceiving the strength, the spirit, and grace of his work transfusing, with undiminished excellence, into his native language. I never saw a translation, which more perfectly possessed the dignity of ease, the perspicuity, and glow of original composition.

The fine print of the Bishop, prefixed, is a treasure, augmenting, by the penetrating and benevolent expression of the countenance, the delight with which we listen to the opinions of so learned, so wise, so great, so good a man, on a subject universally interesting and important, where there is any taste for literature.

He has thrown a large quantity of new, and very brightening light upon the Hebraic poetry, which certainly abounds in pathetic and sublime passages; — yet I must think our right reverend author considerably prejudiced, when he asserts, that, considered merely as poetry, nothing amongst the ancient and modern classics approaches it, as to pathos and sublimity; and very much indeed do I think him mistaken when he tells us, in the first lecture, that poetry, on an other than religious subjects, seems out of character. Is poetry out of character in the Plays of Shakespeare, the Epistles of Pope, and the Odes of Gray?

Poetry is doubtless well adapted to prophetic denunciation, and to promissory blessings, where he that breathes them believes himself inspired; to religious apostrophe, to deprecation, and to triumphant praise; but surely it is not suited to the humble, chastised sensations with which prayers should be offered, and which ought to characterize a Christian's supplicatory devotion.

Luxuriance of imagination is essential to poetry; and in these days that is surely out of place when it wantons with sacred subjects. The rational mind feels a sort of horror and disgust, in perusing the extravagant hymns of some of our Christian enthusiasts, even those of the pious Watts; and along the extended course of the mournful, and angry Night Thoughts, noble and sublime as they are, through at least half their progress; till, by dwelling too long on the subject, important and fruitful as it was, pious ardour degenerated into rant and extravagance. We intuitively feel that ungoverned rapture, and ungoverned indignation violate alike that awe-struck deference, which ought to guard our adoration and our zeal.