1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Howitt

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 282.



MARY HOWITT was born at Coleford, in Gloucestershire, where her parents were making a temporary residence; but shortly after her birth they returned to their accustomed abode at Uttoxeter, in Staffordshire, where she spent her youth. The beautiful arcadian scenery of this part of Staffordshire was of a character to foster a deep love of the country; and is described with great accuracy in her recent prose work, Wood Leighton. By her mother she is descended from an ancient Irish family, and also from Wood, the ill-used Irish patentee, who was ruined by the selfish malignity of Dean Swift, — from whose aspersions his character was vindicated by Sir Isaac Newton. A true statement of the whole affair may be seen in Ruding's Annals of Coinage. Charles Wood, her grandfather, was the first who introduced platina into England from Jamaica, where he was assay-master. Her parents being strict members of the society of Friends, and her father being, indeed, of an old line who suffered persecution in the early days of Quakerism, her education was of an exclusive character; and her knowledge of books confined to those approved of by the most strict of her own, people, till a later period than most young persons become acquainted with them. Their effect upon her mind was, consequently, so much the more vivid. Indeed, she describes her overwhelming astonishment and delight in the treasures of general and modern literature, to be like what Keats says his feelings were when a new world of poetry opened upon him, through Chapman's Homer, — as to the astronomer, "When a new planet swims into his ken." Among poetry there was none which made a stronger impression than our simple old ballad, which she and a sister near her own age, and of similar taste and temperament, used to revel in, making at the same time many young attempts in epic, dramatic, and ballad poetry. In her twenty-first year she was married to William Howitt, a gentleman well calculated to encourage and promote her poetical and intellectual taste, — himself a Poet of considerable genius, and the author of various well-known works. We have reason to believe that her domestic life has been a singularly happy one. Mr. and Mrs. Howitt spent the year after their marriage in Staffordshire. They then removed to Nottingham, where they continued to reside till about twelve months ago; and are now living at Esher, in Surrey.

Mary Howitt published jointly with her husband two volumes of poems, The Forest Minstrel, in 1823; and The Desolation of Eyam, and Other Poems, in 1827. In 1834, she published The Seven Temptations, a series of dramatic poems; a work which, in other times, would have been alone sufficient to have made and secured a very high reputation: her dramas are full of keen perceptions, strong and accurate delineations, and powerful displays of character. She is now preparing for the press a collection of her most popular ballads, a class of writing in which she greatly excels all her contemporaries; many of them are favourably known to the public through the periodicals in which, at various times, they have appeared. She is also well known to the young by her Sketches of Natural History, Tales in Verse, and other productions written expressly for their and pleasure.

Mrs. Howitt is distinguished by the mild, unaffected, and conciliatory manners, for which "the people called Quakers" have always been remarkable. Her writings, too, are in keeping with her character: in all there is evidence of peace and good will; a tender and a trusting nature; a gentle sympathy with humanity; and a deep and fervent love of all the beautiful works which the Great Hand has scattered so plentifully before those by whom they can be felt and appreciated. She has mixed but little with the world: the home-duties of wife and mother have been to her productive of more pleasant and far happier results than struggles for distinction amid crowds; she has made her reputation quietly but securely; and has laboured successfully as well as earnestly to inculcate virtue as the noblest attribute of an English woman. If there be some of her contemporaries who have surpassed her in the higher qualities of poetry, — some who have soared higher, and others who have taken a wider range, — there are none whose writings are better calculated to delight as well as inform. Her poems are always graceful and beautiful, and often vigorous; but they are essentially feminine: they afford evidence of a kindly and generous nature, as well as of a fertile imagination, and a safely-cultivated mind. She is entitled to a high place among the Poets of Great Britain; and a still higher among those of her sex by whom the intellectual rank of woman has been asserted without presumption, and maintained without display.