Robert Lowth’s bible: Between seraphic choirs and prophetic weakness

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Between 1741 and 1750 Robert Lowth, Oxford’s fifth chair of poetry, presented a series of groundbreaking lectures that reimagined the Hebrew Bible as literature, emphasizing its artful formal qualities. Today he is best known for rediscovering the parallelism of ancient Hebrew poetry, which he imagined as originating in the responsive singing of the seraphim. At a time when the divine authority of the Bible was waning, the reclassification of large swaths of prophecy as poetry helped Lowth extol the human figure of the prophet as a literary genius. Lowth idealized the prophetic-poetic text as “strong”: artful, controlled, ordered, and balanced. He responded to an anxiety about the place of the Bible and biblical prophecy in eighteenth-century English society by disavowing or minimizing the irregularities, stutters, and fissures in prophecy. But by introducing prophecy into poetry, Lowth—with much ambivalence—also ushered more passion, enthusiasm, and subjectivity into neoclassical English poetry. Despite his attempts to minimize the formal and theological weaknesses he found in the prophetic text, his scholarly project also transmitted them into English literature, allowing Romantic poets like William Blake to draw on biblical prophetic weaknesses in constructing their own complex prophetic positions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-167
Number of pages29
JournalModern Language Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 by University of Washington.


  • Biblical parallelism
  • Isaiah
  • Prophecy
  • Robert lowth
  • William blake

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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