1896 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Howitt

Evelyn Noble Armitage, in Quaker Poets (1896) 141-43.



RICHARD HOWITT was born at Heanor in Derbyshire, in 1799. His sister-in-law, Mary Howitt, says of him in her autobiography: — "This younger brother of my husband was my contemporary, and at the time of which I am writing (1823), our fellow-inmate. He possessed a most poetical, sensitive mind; was caustic, humorous, a quiet punster, deeply versed in nature, and sympathising in all noble movements and vital human interests. Although thoroughly awake in congenial society, he would lose himself in some poetical dream when uninterested in his companions. This reminds me that once a very ordinary individual walked with Richard from Nottingham to Heanor, and asked him suddenly, 'What bird that was?' No reply was vouchsafed for the distance of several miles, then without uttering another word, the wished-for information was given. He was well versed in literature, and was fond of old-fashioned poetry, but it must be choicely good."

Richard Howitt, at first in partnership with his brother William, and afterwards alone, conducted a chemist's and druggist's business in Parliament Street. Here Wordsworth once visited him, here also came James Montgomery and John Edwards, here Thomas Bailey showed him his son's MS. of "Festus," and here constantly came Millhouse, Henry Wild, Thos. Miller and Sidney Giles, Danby and Samuel Plumb, and all the celebrated characters and oddities the neighbourhood possessed. Richard Howitt never married, having, Spencer T. Hall says, been twice disappointed in love. After a time he retired to Edingley, where he had a small farm, and lived in great seclusion. Mary Howitt says, "The young clodhoppers helping him at his work thought him a strange man, and one of them observed to the housekeeper, 'He fancied Mester completely lost, for when plucking the orchard fruit he would give no reply, and often pause as if going asleep.' If silent and meditative, he was active and eloquent in the service of the careworn and oppressed. When elected guardian of the poor by a large majority, blue and white flags fluttered gaily from the cottage windows, and for more than an hour the church bells of his village were merrily rung."

He published in 1830, a volume of poems called Antediluvian Sketches, which won high praise, and in 1840 were followed by The Gipsey King. Many of his poems appeared first in Tait's Magazine, and Dearden's Miscellany. In 1839, Richard Howitt, with his brother, Dr. Godfrey Howitt, emigrated to Australia, where the latter remained and settled at Melbourne; Richard, however, returned in 1844, and published his Impressions of Australia Felix, Notes of a Voyage round the World, Australian Poems, etc, a miscellany of prose and verse.

In 1868, he published Wasp's Honey, and in 1869, he died at Edingley. Mary Howitt thus speaks of his funeral: — "On February 5th, 1869, Richard Howitt breathed his last. His tenants and his poorer neighbours, according to country custom, one by one visited their old friend and champion, as he lay robed for the tomb; and as they stood beside the coffin, each one laid his or her hand in blessing upon the cold brow, in the belief that this 'laying on of hands' gives rest to the dead. His relatives accompanied his revered remains, in a mist of soft rain, across the district of old Sherwood Forest to his grave in the burial-ground of the Society of Friends at Mansfield."

Richard Howitt was a fine poet. With a decided lyrical faculty, he united deep thought and noble idealism; and many of his poems, impressive by their transparent simplicity, will be remembered when the more ambitious work of his brother and sister, William and Mary, are forgotten. In reading his poems we are frequently met by snatches of delicious music, breath of pure poetry, beautiful thought embalmed in amber-clear language, such as the following, quoted almost at random:—

No matter where his labours close
No matter where his ashes lie:
A breath, the odour of the rose—
Will breathe about him from the sky.
A gladsome sight it is to see,
In blossom thy mimosa tree.
Like golden moonlight doth it seem,
The moonlight of a heavenly dream;
A sunset lustre, chased and cold,
A pearly splendour, blent with gold;
That in its loveliness profound,
The waters have a mellower sound.
A lovely sisterhood of nuns ye seem,
White-hooded, in your cloister of the snow....

Some of his sonnets, as the one just quoted from, Snowdrops, are very beautiful, and many of the lines cling to the memory almost with the persistent force and haunting melody of Wordsworth's.