Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753)

The Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, by Robert Lowth, were originally delivered, in Latin, as lectures at the University of Oxford, beginning in 1741. The lectures were collected and published as De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum in 1753, and translated into English by G. Gregory in 1787. This is an electronic transcription of the public domain text, based on the fourth edition of the English translation, published in 1839, as it is reproduced in Kessinger Publishing’s facsimile reprint (ISBN 0-7661-8855-8).

The transcription is still very much incomplete. We have placed online the sections that we have finished in the hope that it will be useful.


  1. Lecture I. Of the Uses and Design of Poetry. The purpose of Poetry is to instruct while it gives pleasure; instruction being the end, and pleasure the means—Illustrated by examples from different species of Poetry—The Didactic—Epic—Tragic—Lyric—the lighter kinds of Poetry, which are calculated as well for the amusement of our leisure as for the the ornament and improvement of literature—Sacred Poetry; whence a transition to the immediate object of these Lectures.

  2. Lecture II. The Design and Arrangement of these Lectures. The dignity of the subject, and its suitableness to the design of the Institution—That Poetry which proceeds from divine inspiration is not beyond the province of criticism—Criticism will enable us to account for the origin of the art, as well as to form a just estimation of its dignity; that the opinion of the divine origin of Poetry was common in Greece—This work purely critical; and consequently theological disquisitions will be avoided—The general distribution of the subject into three parts; the nature of the verse, the style, and the arrangement.

  3. The First Part. Of the Hebrew Metre.

    1. Lecture III. The Hebrew Poetry is Metrical. The necessity of inquiring into the nature of the Hebrew Verse—The Hebrew Poetry provided to be metrical from the alphabetical poems, and from the equality and correspondence of the sentiments; also from the poetical diction—Some of the most obvious properties of the verse—The rhythm and mode of scanning totally lost; proved from facts—The poetical conformation of the sentences—The Greek and Latin Poetry materially different from the Hebrew, from the very nature of the languages—Hence a peculiar property in the prose versions of the Hebrew Poetry, and the attempts to exhibit this Poetry in the verse of other languages.

  4. The Second Part. Of the Parabolic or Poetical Style of the Hebrews

    1. Lecture IV. The origin, use, and characteristics of the parabolic, and also of the sententious style. The Poetic Style of the Hebrews bears the general title of Parabolic—Its constituent principles are the sententious, the figurative, and the sublime——The source of the Parabolic Style, and its original use: among other nations; among the Hebrews—Certain examples of it preserved from the first ages in the writings of Moses: I. The sententious kind; its nature and effects.

    2. Lecture V. Of the Figurative Style, and its Division. II. The Figurative Stlye; to be treated rather according to the genius of the Hebrew Poetry, than according to the forms and arrangements of Rhetoricians—The definition and constituent parts of the Figurative Style, Metaphor, Allegory, Comparison, Personification—The reason of this mode of treating the subject—Difficulties in reading the Hebrew Poetry which result from the Figurative Style; how to be avoided—1. Of the Metaphor, including a general disquisition concerning Poetic Imagery; the nature of which is explained, and four principal sources pointed out: Nature, Common Life, Religion, History.

    3. Lecture VI. Of Poetic Imagery from the Objects of Nature. The frequent use of the Metaphor renders a style magnificent, but often obscure; the Hebrew Poets have accomplished the sublime without losing perspicuity—Three causes assigned for this singular fact; first, the imagery which they introduce is in general derived from familiar objects; again, in the use and accommodation of it they pursue a certain custom and analog; lastly, they make the most free use of that which is most familiar, and the nature and extent of which is most generally known—These observations confirmed by examples, (1.) from natural objects; such as are common to mankind in general,—such as are more familiar to the Hebrews than to others,—and such as are peculiar to them.

    4. Lecture VII. Of Poetic Imagery from Common Life. Examples of Poetic Imagery from common life—The habits of life extremely simple among the Hebrews, whose principle employments were agriculture and pasturage—The dignity of these employments; and the splendour of the imagery which is borrowed from them: Threshing, and the threshing instruments—The sublimity of the imagery which is taken from familiar objects results from its propriety—The poetic hell of the Hebrews explained; the imagery of which is borrowed from their subterraneous sepulchres and funeral rites.

    5. Lecture VIII. Of Poetic Imagery from Sacred Topics. Imagery which is borrowed from the rites and ceremonies of religion, peculiarly liable to obscurity and mistake—Instances of expressions which appear uncommonly harsh; and of others, the principal elegance of which would be lost, unless we adverted to the nature of the sacred rites—The exordium of the hundred-and-fourth Psalm explained.

    6. Lecture IX. Of Poetic Imagery from the Sacred History. The Imagery from the sacred history is the most luminous and evident of all—The peculiar nature of this kind of metaphor explained, as used by the Hebrew Poets—The order of the topics which commonly furnish them: the Chaos and Creation; the Deluge; the destruction of Sodom; the emigration of the Israelites from Egypt; the descent of God upon Mount Sinai—This species of metaphor excellently adapted to the sacred poetry, and particularly to the prophetic; not easy to form any comparison between the sacred and profane poetry in this respect.

    7. Lecture X. Of Allegory. Three forms of Allegory: 1. Continued Metaphor; which is scarcely worth distinguishing from the simple Metaphor—The freedom of hte Hebrews in confounding the forms of the Metaphor, Allegory, and Comparison: a more perfect form also of Allegory instanced—2. The Parable; and its principal characteristics: that it ought to be formed from an apt and well-known image, the signification of which is obvious and definite; also from one which is elegant and beautiful; that its parts and adjuncts be perspicuous, and conduce to the main object; that it be consistent, and must not confound the literal and figurative meaning—The Parables of the Prophets, and particularly of Ezekiel, examined according to this standard.

    8. Lecture XI. Of the Mystical Allegory. The definition of the Mystical Allegory—Founded upon the allegorical or typical nature of the Jewish religion—The distinction between this and the two former species of Allegory; in the nature of the materials: it being allowable that the former to make use of imagery from indifferent objects; in this, only such as is derived from things sacred, or their opposites: in the former, the exterior image has no foundation in truth; in the latter, both images are equally true—The difference in the form or manner of treating them—The most beautiful form is when the corresponding images run parallel through the whole poem, and mutually illustrate each other—Examples of this in the 2nd and 72nd Psalms—The Parabolic Style admirably adapted to this species of Allegory; the nature of which renders it the language most proper for prophecy—Extremely dark in itself, but it is gradually cleared up by the series of events foretold, and more complete revelation; time also, which in the general obscures, contributes to its full explanation.

To be continued…