1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Howitt

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1856) 276-79.



In Mary Howitt's first conjunct volume with her husband — The Forest Minstrel — everything had the true flavour of the country. The reader was led entranced through "bosky bournes and bushy dells," the air was redolent of fir-cones; wild roses sprang in every wayside hedge; and you could not peep into a thicket without discovering a bird's nest. The features of all the hours throughout the varying seasons were marked, and no worshipper ever bowed a more faithful knee at the shrine of nature. The Desolation of Eyam, also a conjunct volume, followed at no great distance of time, and evidenced distinct improvement in both writers, alike in style, manner, and precision of imagery. To a simplicity of language and feeling almost amounting to the pastoral, were united a taste and elegance generally supposed to characterise compositions of a more ambitious aim. In their first publication, the authors seemed to pay a divided worship between Keats and Wordsworth. There was much of the deep sense of beauty which enraptured the first, and not a little of that humane philosophic spirit by which the other saw excellencies even in the trivial and apparently mean. But they had now come to think for and to express themselves more independently; and not a few of the ballads and lyrics accompanying the leading poem were of superior excellence, more especially The Highland Group, The Mountain Tombs, Would I had Wist, and, above all, The Two Voyagers, — a most touching theme, exquisitely managed. It was probably her success in it which led Mary Howitt to the fortress of her main strength, ballad poetry, in which she has few cotemporary rivals, whether we regard her pictures of stern wild solitary nature, or of all that is placid, gentle, and benignant in the supernatural. I have only to instance The Hunter's Linn, and A Tale of the Woods, as examples of her success in the former walk, and The Fairies of Caldon Low in the latter.

I hesitate not to say that I like her better in these than in her more ambitions attempt, The Seven Temptations, fine as two of the series of stories are — The poor Scholar, and The Sorrow of Theresa. Indeed the more simple, inartificial, and unaspiring that Mary Howitt is in her themes, the truer she ever is to herself and nature; and hence her success as a writer for the young. Her path there is different from that of the authors of the Hymns for Infant Minds; for her themes are those of natural observation, and innocent mirth, and playful fancy; and few things better in their way have ever been written than the following stanzas, which, although expressly meant for children, may be pondered over with advantage also "by children of a larger growth:—

"Will you walk into my parlour?" said the spider to the fly,
"'Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I've got many curious things to show when you are there."
"Oh no, no," said the little fly, " to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne'er come down again."

"I'm sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high;
Will you rest upon my little bed?" said the spider to the fly;
"There are pretty curtains drawn around; the sheets are fine and thin,
And if you like to rest a while, I'll snugly tuck you in!"
"Oh no, no," said the little fly, "for I've often heard it said,
They never, never wake again, who sleep upon your bed!"

Said the cunning spider to the fly — "Dear friend, what can I do
To prove the warm affection I've always felt for you?
I have within my pantry good store of all that's nice;
I'm sure you're very welcome — will you please to take a slice?"
"Oh no, no," said the little fly, "kind sir, that cannot be,
I've heard what's in your pantry, and I do not wish to see."

"Sweet creature," said the spider, "you're witty and you're wise;
How handsome are your gauzy wings, how brilliant are your eyes!
I have a little looking-glass upon my parlour shelf,
If you'll step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself."
"I thank you, gentle sir," she said, "for what you please to say,
And bidding you good morning now, I'll call another day."

The spider turned him round about, and went into his den,
For well he knew the silly fly would soon come back again;
So he wove a subtle web in a little corner sly,
And set his table ready to dine upon the fly.
Then he came out to his door again, and merrily did sing
"Come hither, hither, pretty fly, with the pearl and silver wing;
Your robes are green and purple — there's a crest upon your head;
Your eyes are like the diamond bright, but mine are dull as lead!"

Alas! alas! how very soon this silly little fly,
Hearing his wily flattering words, came slowly flitting by;
With buzzing wings she hung aloft, then near and nearer drew,
Thinking only of her brilliant eyes, and her green and purple hue—
Thinking only of her crested head — poor foolish thing! At last,
Up jumped the cunning spider, and fiercely held her fast.
He dragged her up his winding stair, into his dismal den,
Within his little parlour — but she ne'er came out again!

And now, dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly, flattering words, I pray you ne'er give heed;
Unto an evil counsellor close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale of the spider and the fly.

There can be no surer proof of the genuineness of the poetical power possessed by Mary Howitt, than the fact that her finer pieces ever recur again and again to the memories of all imaginative readers. This can be only owing to their feminine tenderness, their earnest tone, their gentle music, and their simple but genuine nature. Her style is sometimes careless, and her stories inartificially put together; but we readily forget these and other deficiencies in the truth of her home scenes, and the lonely wildness of her moorland landscapes.