Robert Lowth's Hebraic Sublime and the "Ample Field of Poetry"

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deTombe, Jon
romanticism , sublime , eighteenth century , aesthetics , poetry , bible , robert lowth , christopher smart , william blake , criticism , prophecy
This dissertation is a study of Robert Lowth’s theorizing of the Hebraic sublime and its posterity in the second half of the eighteenth century. I begin with an exploration of Lowth’s description of the sublime across Lectures XIV-XVII, showing how, counter to his own claims about copying Longinus, the principle that underlies his sublime rhetoric— figurative dissimilarity—is the opposite of the principle that Longinus repeats several times in the Peri Hypsous. Whereas Longinus argues that figures and tropes should be used inconspicuously, Lowth argues from the Hebrew Scriptures that the conspicuity of the rhetorical construction is key to the excitation of the passions that follows the sublime encounter. Seeking to contextualize Lowth’s theorizing within intersecting critical, social and literary discourses, I investigate Lowth’s differing opinions of the concept of enthusiasm. Though he preached against it as a bishop in 1767, his earlier, positive images of enthusiasm in the Lectures reflect the influence of John Dennis’s Grounds of Criticism. Having contextualized Lowth’s theorizing, I turn to explore his influence on Christopher Smart and William Blake. Both poets, bearing a strong individual poetic vision, find in Lowth’s Lectures a sublime rhetorical toolkit as well as a model of prophetic authority. Their relation to Lowth can be traced on a trajectory: while Smart shares Lowth’s commitment to the church as an institution without his conservative theology, Blake uses biblical language and imagery but rejects both orthodoxy and the church as an organization. This trajectory ends with Percy Bysshe Shelley, who affirms the prophetic authority enabled by Lowth’s Hebraic sublime, but without the rhetoric he described nor the Christianity that motivated his study.
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