Robert Lowth in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Now that the DNB is available online, its electronic format allows us to perform searches that would previously have been unthinkable; the experience is similar to when the OED was first published on CD-Rom, in 1989. My full-text search for “Lowth” produced as many as 67 hits, three of which were entries of Robert Lowth (1710-1787), William Lowth, his father, and Simon Lowth, his great-uncle (but mistakenly referred to as his grandfather). In addition, there were 49 hits that refer to the relationship between Robert Lowth and the subject of the entry in question, so that this kind of search facility of the ODNB is of enormous importance in identifying Lowth’s social network as well as in assessing his influence, both as a man of the Church and as a scholar.

Lowth’s reputation as a Hebrew scholar is most frequently referred to (11 hits); most interesting perhaps is the fact that Sir William Jones, probably best known as the man who brought Sanskrit to the attention of scholars in Western Europe, was influenced by reading Lowth’s De sacra poesi Hebraeorum (1753) to the extent that he came “to read the Old Testament as a masterpiece of oriental literature”. Lowth further appears to have “materially supported” the biblical scholar Alexander Geddes in his work, and counted the classicist Jonathan Toup, the religious writer Thomas Townson and the orientalist Charles Godfrey Woide among his scholarly acquaintances. Lowth is mentioned in his capacity as a bishop eight times: he ordained Charles Daubeny and John Eyre as deacons and Thomas Maurice as a priest, he encouraged Sir Herbert Croft to study and take orders, and conferred various church positions upon men like Samuel Horsley, Benjamin Kennicott, William Julius Mickle, Thomas Twining and Joseph Warton. Some of these men were also friends of his; this is how the system of preferment worked in those days.

Quite a few people are referred to as his friends: the physician Nathan Alcock, the religious writer William Bromley Cadogan, the writer and philantrhopist Hannah More, the writer Glocester Ridley, the lawyer Samuel Rose, the classical scholar William Smith (“a lifelong friendship”), the literary scholar and anecdotist Joseph Spence, the writer Thomas Tyers and the poet and literary critic Joseph Warton. The author and literary hostess Elizabeth Montagu is likewise referred to as a friend or an aquaintaince (not in her own own entry but in that of Archibald Alison), and the singer and organist Joseph Corfe is mentioned as a friend of a friend (a second-order contact, in terms of social network analysis). All this shows how varied Lowth’s social network was. Lowth’s name is also mentioned in relation to the marriage of his niece Mary Eden to the banker Ebenezer Blackwell; this seems to be no more than an example of names dropping, as it is in the case of the political writer John Lind, whose “style of writing,” the entry reads, “was much praised by Lord Grenville, Bishop Lowth, and Samuel Parr”. The Lowth–Warburton controversy is referred to three times, in the entries of the author and moralist John Brown, the Hebraist Charles Peters and the religious controversialist John Towne; the latter supported Warburton in the affair.

Lowth’s grammar is referred to no more than four times, twice to indicate its influence, i.e. on Daniel Fenning and Lindley Murray, and once to show what a profitable publication it had been for its publishers: it is listed among the “richest titles” brought out by the bookseller Andrew Millar. The fourth reference to the grammar tells us that the writer Thomas Holcroft had “read such books as Lowth’s grammar and Pope’s translation of Homer”. It would be interesting to study his language for any traces of influence from Lowth’s grammar.

This search of the ODNB suggests that Lowth’s reputation among the general public was that of a Hebrew scholar and professor of poetry in Oxford, in which capacity he was succeeded by William Hawkins. In addition, his influential position as Bishop of London links his name to various people in their careers; the name of John Moore had been suggested by Lowth as the new Archbisop of Canterbury in 1783 and Beilby Porteus succeeded Lowth as Bishop of London upon his death in 1787. But the search also brought to light errors in various entries. Personally, I find it always amusing to see Bishop Lowth being credited with certain facts before he occupied that position, as in the case of Ebenezer Blackwell who, in 1772 “married  the niece of Robert Lowth, bishop of London” (Lowth was appointed Bishop of London in 1777), while Bishop Lowth’s role in the Warburton affair (1765) is referred to in the entry on Charles Peters (Lowth only became a bishop in 1766, first of St David’s and later that year of Oxford). In the entry on Warburton Lowth is said to have been “professor of Hebrew at Oxford”: he was professor of poetry there from 1741 to 1750, and gave lectures on the interpretation of Hebrew poetry. The entry on Samuel Parr mentions Lowth as a former fellow diocesan at Colchester, but as far as I know he never occupied any ecclesiastical function there. I have already referred to the confusion between the Simon Lowth who was his great-uncle (1636–1720) and his great-grandfather (1600–1679) who carried the same name. This mistake is not a new one: on 27 July 1754, Lowth wrote to the historian Philip Morant, also in the ODNB: “Simon Lowth, Author of the Treatise on the Subject of Church Power, nominated to the Deanry of Rochester by King James ye. 2d. just before his Abdication, afterwards a Nonjuror, was my Father’s Uncle”.

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  1. Gillian Ford

    Robert Lowth also ordained (as a deacon, 1769) James Barclay (1749-1771), a poet and writer, who wrote a critique of a treatise against Samuel Johnson’s Shakespeare.

  2. Mel Lowth

    Having researched the name for some 40 years the only pronouncement of the name I have discovered in the Lowth family is LOUTH as in South.
    If you look at the name in England you will find it spelled Lowth, Louth Loweth, Lowthe, Louthe even referring to the same people including Robert Bishop of London

  3. ingrid tieken

    I did! Very often, when I give a paper about Lowth and his work, people ask me why I pronounce his name the way I do (which is not quite right either, I recently discovered). To give an example, at ICEHL-11, in 2000, Robert Stockwell, said that there is only one word in the English that ends in -owth, i.e. growth, and why did I not pronounce Lowth’s name like that?

    Are you, by the way, related to Robert Lowth? If so, how?

  4. Mel Lowth

    Did yo know that Lowth is pronounced Louth as in south?
    Seems most people mistakenly say Low th

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