Robert Lowth learning German

Lowth is well known as a scholar of Hebrew: see for instance the entry in the Dictionary of National Biography on Lowth. And thanks to the kind of education he had received as a boy he was thoroughly acquainted with classical Latin and Greek as well. But he also learnt other languages later in life, such as Spanish and German. On his attempts to learn Spanish, he informed Robert Darley Waddilove, who was chaplain to the British ambassador in Madrid, he wrote: ‘I am become a dabbler in Spanish’ (Lowth to Waddilove, 16 September 1774).

We learn more about his efforts at learning German from his correspondence with Johann David Michaelis (1707-1791), who had published an annoted addition of Lowth’s De Sacra Poesi Hebræorum Prælectiones (Leipzich, 1758-1761). The publication led to a correspondence between the two men, consisting of twenty-two letters, five in Latin and the remaining seventeen in English. The letters are in the Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitäts-bibliothek Göttingen (Cod. MS Michael. 325, ff. 390-442) .

There are various references in the correspondence to the learning of German, which did not come easy to Lowth, at his age. He first informed Michaelis that he had already become interested in the German language during his first visit to Germany during the 1740s:

You are to know then, that when I was inGermany, (I must not say, how many years ago,) I began to apply myself to the German Language & had made some progress, when I was unfortunately interrupted in my studie[s] by being unexpectedly recalled toEngland. However, I had gotten so far, as to be able, with a little Grammatical knowledge of the language, & a pretty good acquaintance with the subject, to read with no great difficulty a Chapter in Luther’s Testament. I have got my Grammar & my Dictionary ready; & shall set myself hard to work, as soon as ever You will do me the honour to furnish me with Your Translation; not as a Judge, hardly as a Reader, but as a very humble Learner (3 February 1770).

He thus renewed his efforts to learn German some thirty years because he wanted to be able to read Michaelis’s Bible translation in the original language, which Michaelis sent to him in instalments. At the age of sixty, however, Lowth did not find this easy, and he informed Michaelis on 28 May of that year that “the German is, I think, a very difficult language”. He continued by

… giving You some account of … my progress in my German studies. I go on & improve in my knowledge of the language; but not so well as I could wish. The truth is, I find my memory much weaker than it was formerly; & when I lay aside my German for a few weeks, as I am sometimes obliged to do, I lose a great deal: I forget words, I cannot get rid of the disagreeable work of frequently turning the Dictionary (28 May 1770).

Five years later, he still hadn’t given up:

I keep up my German; & I find I make some progress, when I can apply to it without interruption; but I still find difficulties, & my Memory fails me (5 June 1775).

Presumably, Lowth’s ability to read German had become quite good, for in 1795, eight years after his death, a translation from his hand of a poem by the German poet Karl Wilhelm Ramler (1725–98) appeared in the Berlinische Monatsschrift. It seems that his lifelong  efforts, from his late thirties onwards, had been well enough spent.

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