1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Robert Lowth

George Barrell Cheever, "Lowth's Hebrew Poetry" North American Review [Boston] 31 (1830) 370-71, 377-79.



The example of Lowth in this great work pre-eminently shows, how much may be accomplished simply by the patient study of the scriptures. With the cognate dialects of the Hebrew he was perhaps totally unacquainted; nor was he very intimate with the peculiarities of the Oriental world. Yet by the persevering study of the Old Testament he attained a profound knowledge of the Hebrew language; and his discriminating judgment, exquisite taste, and acquaintance with the Hebrew history and antiquities, prevented his criticism from ever becoming loose, indefinite or extravagant, and made him successful in discovering the sources of poetic imagery. There is simplicity and truth in most of his reasonings. He makes no parade of learning, either of that which he really possesses, or of the semblance of that whereof he is destitute. There is nothing labored in his conclusions, nothing affected in his sentiments, nothing arrogant or hasty in his remarks; all is free, gentle and candid. He was making discoveries in a region entirely new, yet he does not announce them with the bold eagerness of an adventurer, but with the mild philosophy of one who is seeking for truth, and with even a painful sense of the delicacy and responsibility of such an office.

A work so important in its connexions, so novel in its character, and conducted with so much learning, modesty and taste, could not fail to arrest the attention of learned men both in his own country and on the European continent. It opened their eyes on a new scene of the most interesting researches, and formed absolutely a new era in intellectual activity. It drew aside the veil, which had so long concealed the grandeur of inspired poetry, and made it to be relished and acknowledged. It threw new light on the explanation of the Old Testament, and introduced a more acute and correct method in the investigation of the sacred poetical books. His lecture on parallelism, — the peculiar characteristic of the Sacred Poets, — was altogether the work of original genius, and suggested a guide for the interpreter, the various uses of which, in discovering the meaning of particular words, in illustrating different forms of expression, in elucidating the sense of obscure places, and in the general critical examination of Hebrew poetry, cannot be imagined by any one who has not experienced its value. He resumed this part of his subject in the preliminary dissertation to Isaiah, where he went into a more full and minute investigation of the nature and principles of the Hebrew parallelism, than his limits as a lecturer would have permitted him to do. This great peculiarity in Hebrew poetry, from an ignorance of which very many of the errors of commentators and critics have originated, had before been scarcely hinted at. Azarias, in the seventeenth century, made some obscure suggestions in regard to it, but no one understood its nature, or had traced it in the Sacred Books, or attempted to deduce from it any practical utility. Schleusner followed Lowth on this subject with great learning and talent....

We have before spoken of Lowth's general character as a scholar. It is impossible, with the meagre biographical outlines which alone remain to us, to do it adequate justice. Whatever he undertook was so performed, that it left very little to be accomplished in the same routine of study and labor. He gave to England the first regular grammar of his native tongue. We are somewhat surprised that Murray's grammar, which is but an enlarged copy of Lowth's, should so generally have occupied its place; and that too with little acknowledgement to the individual, from whom were derived its plan and most of its materials. Although Lowth's treatise was written so early as the year 1758, yet we doubt whether there is at the present day a single work of equal excellence in the same compass.

The private character of Lowth was not less adorned with all the virtues of domestic life, than his public one with the urbanity, the elegance and the elevated dignity of learning and religion. Even his insolent antagonist, Warburton, could admire his amiable manners and the winning modesty of his whole deportment. In one of his letters to Lowth, he observes, "It would answer no end to tell you what I thought of the author of Hebrew Poetry before I saw him. But this I may say, that I was never more surprised when I did see him, than to find him of so amiable and gentle manners, of so modest, sensible and disengaged a deportment. It would not have displeased me to find myself ill used by pedants and bigots; but it grieved me to think I had any thing to explain with such a man." His disposition was every where affectionate and kind; his love to his offspring uncommonly tender. The ties in his family circle were often broken, yet under his severest afflictions he is said to have exhibited the firmness of a christian resignation. His piety was of that kind, which the English church, when her services are not profaned by hypocritical ambition, nor her offices made silken cushions for the repose of a lukewarm indifference, is adapted to foster — it was rational and fervid. Whatever situations he was called to fill, and they were various, he was always scrupulously attentive to the performance of his duties. It was however, in his elevated station as a bishop, that his admirable qualities shone most conspicuously. The rare union of deep learning, true piety, gentleness of manners, modest and dignity of feeling, fitted him to adorn his office in a pre-eminent degree. England can scarcely show, in all the annals of her history, a dignitary of the church, whose character exhibited a combination in all respects so noble, so delightful. Mild as he was, he had a manly, energetic and independent mind, properly conscious of its own powers, and decided in its convictions. Open and free in his inquiries, he was fearless in the declaration of all his opinions. An advocate himself for the most unrestrained investigation in matters of religion, he was willing to extend to others the same privileges he demanded as his own birth-right. He had that liberality and courtesy of mind, which is founded in real benevolence of feeling. We love to turn from the intolerant arrogance of Warburton and Horsley, to the freedom, the charity, the condescension and the genuine kindness of a man, who demanded no deference to his own opinions merely because they were his, and who could recognise and venerate an amiable heart and a virtuous life, though they existed in combination with what he thought erroneous opinions. He had no bigotry; his firmness was conciliating as well as steadfast; mild, indeed, and devoid of bitterness, but much more likely to remain unshaken, than that of more turbulent, haughty, domineering prelates.

Wherever he appeared, he diffused around him a benign influence. In his countenance, manners and whole deportment, benevolence was united with dignity; a union which made his inferiors unembarrassed in his presence, his equals familiar and affectionate, his superiors respectful and courteous. His own politeness, though it had all the elegance of courts, was not born there; it was that of kindly feelings, chastened and not destroyed in the collision and intercourse of society — the politeness of the heart, to which the refinement of places could add nothing. He was altogether a being of a superior order. But his intellectual and moral nature had been finely disciplined and developed; and neither apparently at the expense of the other. His rich and varied attainments as a classical scholar gave a remarkable elegance to his mind, and his soul seemed to have imbibed in no small degree the spirit of simplicity and grandeur belonging to the sacred literature, which he had so deeply studied. He was, indeed, as the venerable Eichhorn styled him in a heartfelt tribute to his memory, a noble Briton; — noble, for the extent, and depth, and modesty of his learning, for his dignified independence and liberality of mind, for his gentleness of mien and generosity of feeling, and above all, for the value which he set upon the noblest prerogatives of his being.

His name is one of those, to which England owes much of her literary glory, without acknowledging from whence it is derived. Volumes upon volumes have been lavished upon memoirs of ordinary men, and reviews upon reviews have been dedicated to the memory of far inferior characters, while that of Lowth, than whom scarce another Englishman could be mentioned, whose name is more venerated on the European continent, has been left to the meagre skeletons of Cyclopedian biographies, or to such a clumsy notice of his life and writings, as the reader may chance to stumble upon in the British Nepos. It is surprising how little the English public, even at this day, when antiquarian and literary curiosity are pushed beyond the limits of useful inquiry in almost every field that can be imagined, are acquainted with the character and labors of this admirable man. Do we err in supposing that the church of England would hardly yet have discovered the merit of his Lectures on the Hebrew Poetry had not Michaelis received their appearance with such enthusiastic congratulation, and excited his own countrymen to follow on in the path, which he had opened? As it is, the church has profited by his labors, without even paying to his character the tribute of a merited applause. He sleeps by the side of Selden, another pillar of English greatness, in the same comparative obscurity and neglect. He is not the only venerable patriarch of English literature, upon whose ashes they that are younger than he have arisen to unmerited distinction. Yet it is not even now too late, and we could wish that some true admirer of his character and genius might leave for a while the task of settling the text of Aristophanes, or writing commentaries on Apollonius Rhodius, or making a book for the Cabinet Cyclopedia, and set himself in earnest to collect the memorials that are fast passing away, and exhibit some tolerable record of his life, some worthy delineation of his merits and his labors.