1887 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Robert Lowth

Charles J. Abbey, in The English Church and its Bishops (1887) 2:211-13.



Few names of English bishops in the eighteenth century are so well remembered as that of Robert Lowth (St. David's 1766, Oxford 1766-77, London 1777-87). The pure and elegant Latin of his Praelectiones permanently secured his fame as a scholar; his learning as a Hebraist is still more firmly established by his valuable works on the sacred poets of the Hebrews. An amiable and accomplished man, of deep unaffected piety, he would have been in any age an ornament to his Church. He was also an excellent preacher. Somerville speaks with much admiration of "his manner, grave and solemn; his style, perspicuous, pure, and nervous." Another writer extolled him as an excellent judge of merit, and a liberal rewarder of it. Warburton, fancying that some remarks in one of his works were directed against him fell upon him with all the ferocity with which he was accustomed to meet an adversary. No one could justly blame Lowth for the keen and polished sharpness of his retort. Yet it was regrettable that he should have allowed himself to be dragged into a war of words, and that a man who in all respects stood so deservedly high in repute should have given occasion for the sarcasm, that it was hard to say whether he or Warburton called names best. It was little merit to any to vie with Warburton in his worst characteristic.

Lowth was sometimes charged with weakness and inconsistency on the ground that he had first encouraged the revisionists and had then forsaken them. That he did so seems to be certainly true. He was at one time inclined to think very favourably of the propositions made for reviewing Church formularies. In one of his visitation sermons he said that "the light which arose upon the Christian world at the Reformation hath still continued to increase, and, we trust, will still shine more unto the perfect day. Much has been done in the great work of reformation, and much still remains to be done; and this work deserves our most earnest regard, the studies, assistance, and encouragement of all." The party for revision universally accepted such words as intimating approval of their purpose, and were proportionately disappointed when he refused to take any part in the Feathers Tavern declaration. But there was good cause for holding back, or at least for being cautious. There were many liberal Churchmen engaged in the project with whom Lowth might have gladly cooperated, but there were others whose designs were of a much more doubtful kind. It was quite reasonable that the bishop, however willing he might be in the abstract to promote seasonable reforms, might shrink from acting with men who, in some instances, would have made revision an occasion for departing widely from the accustomed spirit and ancient doctrines of the English Church.

Lowth showed no inconsiderable poetical power. Indeed Cowper thought very highly of it. There is much merit in some of his versions of the Psalms, and great spirit in a poetical address in 1745 To the People of Great Britain, beginning

Did not high God of old ordain,
When to thy grasp he gave the sceptre of the main,
That empire in this favoured land
Fixed on religion's solid base should stand?