Robert Lowth FRS ( 27 November 1710 – 3 November 1787) was a Bishop of the Church of England, Oxford Professor of Poetry and the author of one of the most influential textbooks of English grammar.
Lowth was born in Hampshire, Great Britain, the son of Dr William Lowth. He was educated at Winchester College and became a scholar of New College, Oxford in 1729.
Lowth obtained his BA in 1733 and his Master of Arts degree in 1737. In 1735, while still at Oxford, Lowth took orders in the Anglican Church and was appointed vicar of Ovington, Hampshire, a position he retained until 1741, when he was appointed Oxford Professor of Poetry.
Bishop Lowth made a translation of the Bible. EJ Waggoner said in 1899 that his translation included “without doubt, as a whole, the best English translation of the prophecy of Isaiah.”
In 1750 he was appointed archdeacon of Winchester. In 1752 he resigned the professorship at Oxford and married Mary Jackson. Shortly afterwards, in 1753, Lowth was appointed rector of East Woodhay. In 1754 he was awarded a Doctorate in Divinity by Oxford University, for his treatise on Hebrew poetry entitled Praelectiones Academicae de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum (On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews).
This derives from a series of lectures and was originally published in Latin. An English translation was published by George Gregory in 1787 as “Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews”. This, and subsequent editions include the life of Bishop Lowth as a preface There was a further edition issued in 1815.
This was republished in North America in 1829 with some additional notes. However, apart from those notes, the 1829 edition is less useful to a modern reader. This is because the editor of that edition chose to revert to citing many of the scriptural passages that Lowth uses as examples, and some of the annotations by Michaelis (Johann David Michaelis) and others in Latin.
Lowth was appointed a fellow of the Royal Societies of London and Göttingen in 1765. He was consecrated bishop of St David’s in 1766; however, before the end of the year he was transferred to the see of Oxford. He remained Bishop of Oxford until 1777 when he was appointed Bishop of London as well as dean of the chapel royal and privy councillor. In 1783 he was offered the chance to become Archbishop of Canterbury, but declined due to failing health.
Lowth wrote a Latin epitaph, Cara, Vale on the death of his daughter Maria. It was much admired in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was set to music by the English composer John Wall Callcott.
Lowth died in 1787, and is buried in the churchyard of All Saints Church, Fulham.
Lowth seems to have been the first modern Bible scholar to notice or draw attention to the poetic structure of the Psalms and much of the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. In Lecture 19 he sets out the classic statement of parallelism, which remains the most fundamental category for understanding Hebrew poetry.
He identifies three forms of parallelism, the synonymous, antithetic and synthetic (i.e., balance only in the manner of expression without either synonymy or antithesis). This idea has been influential in Old Testament Studies to the present day.
Lowth is also remembered for his publication in 1762 of A Short Introduction to English Grammar. Prompted by the absence of simple and pedagogical grammar textbooks in his day, Lowth set out to remedy the situation.
Lowth’s grammar is the source of many of the prescriptive shibboleths that are studied in schools, and established him as the first of a long line of usage commentators who judge the English language in addition to describing it. An example of both is one of his footnotes: “Whose is by some authors made the possessive case of which, and applied to things as well as persons; I think, improperly.”
His most famous contribution to the study of grammar may have been his tentative suggestion that sentences ending with a preposition—such as “what did you ask for?”—are inappropriate in formal writing. (This is known as preposition stranding.) In what may have been intentional self-reference, Lowth used that very construction in discussing it.
“This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.”2 Others had previously expressed this opinion; the earliest known is John Dryden in 1672.
Lowth’s method included criticising “false syntax”; his examples of false syntax were culled from Shakespeare, the King James Bible, John Donne, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and other famous writers. His understanding of grammar, like that of all linguists of his period, was influenced by the study of Latin, though he was aware that this was problematic and condemned “forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language”1.
Thus Lowth condemns Addison’s sentence “Who should I meet the other night, but my old friend?” on the grounds that the thing acted upon should be in the “Objective Case” (corresponding, as he says earlier, to an oblique case in Latin), rather than taking this example and others as evidence from noted writers that “who” can refer to direct objects.
Lowth’s dogmatic assertions appealed to those who wished for certainty and authority in their language. Lowth’s grammar was not written for children; however, within a decade after it appeared, versions of it adapted for the use of schools had appeared, and Lowth’s stylistic opinions acquired the force of law in the schoolroom. The textbook remained in standard usage throughout educational institutions until the early 20th century.
Lowth has been regarded as the first imagery critic of Shakespeare’s plays and highlighted the importance of the imagery in the interpretation of motives and actions of characters and dramatic movement of the plot and narrative structure.