1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Howitt

Sarah Josepha Hale, Woman's Record; or, Sketches of all Distinguished Women (1852; 1855) 699-701.



MARY HOWITT, is by her mother's side directly descended from Mr. William Wood, the Irish patentee, on account of whose half-pence issued under a contract from the government of George II., Dean Swift raised so much disturbance with his Drapier's Letters. His son, Charles Wood, the grandfather of Mrs. Howitt, and who became assay-master in Ireland, was the first introducer of platinum into Europe. By her father's side she is of an old race of Quakers, many of her ancestors having suffered imprisonment and spoliation of property in the early times when that people produced martyrs. Her childhood and youth were passed in the old paternal mansion in Staffordshire, whence she was married in 1821 to William Howitt, a man of congenial tastes. Of herself she relates — "My childhood was happy in many respects. It was so, indeed, as far as physical health and the enjoyment of a beautiful country, of which I had an intense relish, and the companionship of a dearly beloved sister went — but oh! there was such a cloud over all from the extreme severity of so-called religious education, it almost made cowards and hypocrites of us, and made us feel that if this were religion, it was a thing to be feared and hated. My childhood had completely two phases — one as dark as night — one as bright as day — the bright one I have attempted to describe in 'My Own Story,' which is the true picture of this cheerful side of the first ten years of my life. We studied poetry, botany and flower-painting, and as children wrote poetry. These pursuits were almost out of the pale of permitted Quaker pleasures, but we pursued them with a perfect passion — doing in secret that which we dared not do openly; such as reading Shakspeare, translations of the classics, the elder novelists — and in fact, laying the libraries of half the little town where we lived under contribution.

"We studied French and chemistry at this time, and enabled ourselves to read Latin, storing our minds with a whole mass of heterogeneous knowledge. This was good as far as it went — but there wanted a directing mind, a good sound teacher, and I now deplore — over the secrecy, the subterfuge, the fear under which this ill-digested, ill-arranged knowledge was gained. On my marriage, of course, a new life began. The world of literature was opened to me, and a companion was by my side able and willing to direct and assist."

Soon after the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Howitt, they published, jointly, two volumes of poems, which met with so much success, that they were rapidly followed by a variety of other works, in prose and verse. Partly to perfect themselves in the German language, and partly for the purpose of bestowing upon their children a better education than they could obtain in England, Mr. and Mrs. Howitt, about the year 1835, repaired to Germany, where they remained three years, travelling extensively, and acquainting themselves with the country, its literature, and its people; and pursuing, at the same time, their literary labours. Here Mrs. Howitt first met with the works of Frederika Bremer, which delighted her so much, that she determined to introduce them to the English public by translation. For this purpose, she acquired the Swedish language, to enable her to give them from the original; Miss Bremer's later works having all been translated from the manuscripts. Her acquaintance with the Swedish language induced her to acquire its kindred tongue, the Danish, from which, as well as from the German, she has translated numerous works.

Mrs. Howitt's marriage has been one of singular happiness, and is blessed with children of great promise. In her literary pursuits, she possesses the sympathy and good offices of her husband, himself an extensive and popular writer, and in many of her translations she has been assisted by him. It is to be lamented that talents, worth and industry, like Mrs. Howitt's, should, through unmerited misfortune, have been stripped of all substantial reward, at a period of life when she might naturally have looked for some relaxation of her labours. Mr. Howitt having embarked, under the influence of an artful speculator, as partner in the "People's Journal," was, in a short time, held responsible, by its failure, for debts to a large amount; not a pennyworth of which was originated by him. His financial ruin was the consequence; the copyrights even of his own and his wife's works — the hard-won results of years of labour — were sacrificed, and they were obliged to begin the world anew. That their renewed exertions have met with such happy success as to warrant a hope of the retrieval of their fortunes, we have every reason to believe, and we trust, for the honour of human nature, that such exertions, based upon the honest character and good reputation of a quarter of a century, will he justly estimated, and meet with the reward they merit.

Mrs. Howitt has written much in prose; her books for children are very attractive, from the sympathy with youthful feelings, which seems to well up in her loving heart as freely as a mountain-spring sends out its pure freshness, after a summer-shower. But these warm sympathies make her more truly the poet; and the acknowledgment of this bias, made by William and Mary Howitt, in the preface of their first joint publication, was certainly true of the wife. They say — "Poetry has been our youthful amusement, and our increasing daily enjoyment in happy, and our solace in sorrowful hours. Amidst the vast and delicious treasures of our national literature, we have revelled with growing and unsatiated delight; and, at the same time, living chiefly in the quietness of the country, we have watched the changing features of nature; we have felt the secret charm of those sweet but unostentatious images which she is perpetually presenting, and given full scope to those workings of the imagination and of the heart, which natural beauty and solitude prompt and promote."

Mrs. Howitt's first prose work was ''Woodleighton," in three volumes, which was exceedingly popular. She next wrote for children the following works, — "Tales in Verse," "Tales in Prose," "Sketches of Natural History," "Birds and Flowers," "Hymns and Fireside Verses;" and also a series of books, which are very popular, called "Tales for the People and their Children," — of these there are, "Strive and Thrive," "Hope on, Hope Ever," "Sowing and Reaping," "Alice Franklin," "Who shall be Greatest?" "Which is the Wiser?" "Little Corn, much Care," "Work and Ways," "Love and Money," "The Two Apprentices," and "My Own Story." After the publication of these, Mrs. Howitt wrote "The History of Mary Leeson," "The Children's Year," and "Our Cousins in Ohio." She published, about 1835, her largest poetical work, "The Seven Temptations." She also edited for three years, "The Drawing-Room Scrap-Book," furnishing for that work a large mass of poetry. About 1848, she collected her fugitive poems in a volume, entitled "Ballads, and other Poems."

Mrs. Howitt has also written Memoirs, in the very kindest spirit, of several Americans; those of Miss Cushman and Mrs. Mowatt we have used in this work.

"The Seven Temptations," the largest and most elaborate of Mrs. Howitt's poetical works, represents a series of efforts, by the impersonation of the Evil Principle, to seduce human souls to his power. Mrs. Howitt, in the preface, remarks: — "The idea of the poem originated in a strong impression of the immense value of the human soul, and of all the varied modes of its trials, according to its own infinitely varied modifications, as existing in different individuals. We see the awful mass of sorrow and of crime in the world, but we know only in part — in a very small degree — the fearful weight of solicitations and impulses of passion, and the vast constraint of circumstances, that are brought into play against suffering humanity. In the luminous words of my motto,

What's done we partly may compute,
But know not what's resisted.

Thus, without sufficient reflection, we are furnished with data on which to condemn our fellow-creatures, but without sufficient grounds for their palliation and commiseration. It is necessary, for the acquisition of that charity which is the soul of Christianity, for its to descend into the depths of our own nature; to put ourselves into many imaginary and untried situations, that we may enable ourselves to form some tolerable notion how we might be affected by them; how far we might be tempted — how far deceived — how far we might have occasion to lament the evil power of circumstances, to weep over our own weakness, and pray for the pardon of our crimes; that, having raised up this vivid perception of what we might do, suffer, and become, we may apply the rule to our fellows, and cease to be astonished, in some degree, at the shapes of atrocity into which some of them are transformed; and learn to bear with others as brethren, who have been tried tenfold beyond our own experience, or perhaps our strength." Thus we see how earnestly the writer sought to do good; the effort was noble, if not entirely successful; many touching incidents give interest to the poem, and the sentiments are uniformly pure, generous and hopeful. But her Ballads are the best exponents of her genius. In these she is unrivalled, except, perhaps, by Mr. Macaulay, in modern times. The play of her warm, rich fancy, is like sunlight on icicles, giving the glow and glory of its own hues to any object, no matter how cold or colourless, it touches. Who ever read her "Midsummer Legend," without believing in fairies? This union of the tenderest human sympathies with the highest poetic faculty — that of creative fancy — is remarkable in some of her smaller poems. She has faith in human progress, and the love which makes her an earnest worker in the field of reform. All her productions manifest "that love of Christ, of the poor, and of little children, which always was, and will be, a ruling sentiment of her soul." She gains the loving admiration and esteem of her readers, and is as popular in America as in her own England. Mrs. Howitt resides in London.