Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Alexander Hay Japp
Mary Howitt (17991888)
MARY HOWITTone of the most graceful, versatile and voluminous writers of the earlier half of the centurywas born at Coleford, in the Forest of Dean, on March 12th, 1799. Her parents were members of the Society of Friends, to which both families had belonged from an early period. Her father, Samuel Botham, had engaged in the iron-working business, but had not been successful, and soon after the birth of Mary, when affairs seemed very hopeless, he returned to Uttoxeter, where he had lived before, and became a land surveyor. By-and-by he was appointed by the Crown one of the surveyors in the disforesting of Needwood, in the county of Stafford; and it is with this district that Mary Howitts first clear recollections were associated. Her father would often take the children with him in his rounds, and thus, even in infancy, she became acquainted, as she says, with the spirit of nature. Of some of these rambles Mary preserved a vivid recollection; in fact, it was on one of them that the first clear consciousness that she could think dawned upon her. She was then only between five and six years old. I remember very well, she says, the new light, the gladness, the wealth of which I seemed suddenly possessed. The stillness of the home, and the isolation in which the children lived combined to throw them in upon themselves; so that nature afforded an early and welcome relief from introspection. Mary was early taught to read by her mother; religious instruction was not neglected, and perhaps it lost little through the Quaker flavour imparted to it by the use of good Robert Barclays Catechism and Confession, though the little Mary was much perplexed sometimes. By-and-by she would read to her father such works as the Imitation of Thomas à Kempis which was a great favourite with him, but not so with her, she admits, as I understood, she explains, the constant exhortation to take up the Cross to refer to using the plain language and plain attire of Friends; and our peculiar garb, many degrees more ungainly than that of most strict Friends, which was already a perfect crucifixion to Anna and me. For a time a governess, Mary Parker, a strict Friend and noble woman, was engaged for the girls, but by-and-by they were transferred to the Friends School, at York, where the utmost strictness and formality obtained. Anna took with her Mrs. Barbaulds Hymns, as these praises of Creation and Nature were very sweet to her, but when amidst new scenes she longed to read those aspirations of a grateful and admiring heart, she sought vainly for the book amid the contents of her trunk! It had been privately removed by our teachers. One of the few pleasures in the life at school was that each girl had her own little garden where she could grow flowers. Mary Botham was very fond of her plot, but she could not be so much beside it as she desired. I feel, she says, a sort of tender pity for Anna and myself when I remember how we were always seeking and struggling after the beautiful and after artistic production, though we knew nothing of art.
In 1817, shortly after her school life was finished, she met William Howitt, at the house of some friends at Leicester. They were mutually attracted to each other by the sense of common interests, sympathies and aspirations; and on April 10th, 1821, they were married, and settled at Hanley, in Staffordshire, where he was then engaged in business. One of the notable things in their early married life was a tour in Scotland, which left its impressions in many ways on them both. The literary instincts of each were sharpened by their constant companionship, with the result not only of productions varied and extensive, but some instances of very happy and successful joint-work, revealing the characteristics of both writers in the happiest union. Scarcely elsewhere, perhaps, is to be found the record of a wedded couple who through so lengthened a life worked more assiduously and successfully together, with less loss of individuality on either side.
In 1824 the Howitts removed to Nottingham, and remained there till 1836; being not only active and productive in literature, but taking a very warm interest in many social and philanthropic movements. In 1827 appeared their first joint volume of poems, which received favourable notice from the press, and brought them many new friends and correspondents. To this period, too, belong The History of Priestcraft by William, The Book of the Seasons, Rural Life in England, and Mary Howitts Sketches of Natural History, one of the first effective popularisations of science in our country.
Then it began to be felt that to be able to take advantage of all opportunities, it was necessary that they should be within easy reach of London. A house was accordingly taken at Esher, in Surrey, which they occupied till 1840. Then from 1840 to 1843 they were in Germanythe life and literature of which they studied with such success, that their visit has left record of itself in many ways in their worksnotably, in Williams picturesque bookStudent Life in Germany. On their return to England they settled in Claptona house which received many visitors of distinction; Hans Christian Andersen (whose earlier works Mary Howitt translated) and Alfred Tennyson amongst them;Mary Howitt having preserved records of his many visitsand here they resided from 1843 to 1848. In 1846 William Howitt became editor of the Peoples Journal; but in 1848 he began to publish, on his own account, a rival serialHowitts Journal, which, however, did not run to more than three or four volumes. They lived in St. Johns Wood, from 1848 to 1852; at Highgate, from 18521866; at the Orchard, Claygate, near Esher, from 18661870; in Switzerland and Italy from 18701871; in Rome from 18711879, and there William died on March 3rd, 1879.
After Williams death, Mary Howitt lived either in the now famous health resort in the Tyrol, Meran, or in Rome, where she found much to engage her sympathies and interest. We have seen how her love of nature, poetry and art, developed even in her childhood, led her to fret at the restrictions of Quakerism, while her strong sense of duty and her keen realisation of the nobility of character formed under it, led her to remain for a long time in formal connection with the society in which she had been brought up. But she was by instinct and nature very fond of symbolism,a vein of sweet mystical fancy often appears in her verse. The presence of this element, we cannot help thinking, had much to do with one incident of her later days, which surprised many people, and was much commented on, both at the time, and later, when her daughter Margaret published her autobiographyher going over to the Church of Rome. She herself declared that she was devoted to the Pope, and not to the papacy, and indeed, stronger personal influences may well have been operative than we know for certain. She enjoyed a calm and placid old age, with love, honour, reverence, troops of friends, and passed away on January 30th, 1888.
Mary Howitts poetical works vary through a wide range. She treated many subjects, and essayed many styles; but one note may be found in alla delightful naturalness, and a graceful fancy. She had the gift of vision; she clearly painted what she saw, and on fitting occasions could command apt and striking figures. She was free from one of the great faults of the earlier schoolshe knew no affectations. She has been most remembered by what are, in some respects, her least artistic productions, those poems which she wrote either primarily for children, or were professedly weighted with a lesson or a purpose; whereas several of her pieces are inspired by a fantastic imagination, by a nimble fancy, and an unexpected power over the weird and wonderful. Such pieces as The Voyage with the Nautilus, and An Old Mans Story, suffice to attest this. Then she can be very daintily fanciful, and gently, lightly humorous, as proved by a large body of poems, of a purely playful or inventive castnot to speak of those parables in dialogue, of which The Spider and the Fly may be cited as the best-known illustration. She wrote many poems, too, to commend the study of nature and the practice of humanity to animals; indeed, viewed from one side, a large section of her poetic work was humanitarian: her special claim to praise is that, whatever the subject, whatever the purpose, she managed in her treatment to infuse into the work so much subdued imaginative colour, that it may well be claimed for her, that however definite her purpose or pronounced her moral aim she very rarely or, indeed, never failed to produce what has the true note of poetry, observation, fancy, and happy, figurative illustration. A rare power of raising the conventional or properly prosaic in subject to a higher level, through the divining presence of imagination,though not perhaps of a very high order,goes with her, gently irradiating whatever she touches. It would be wholly unjust to try many of her pieces, written with an eye to certain evils almost special to the timeby the highest standard of what we nowadays are taught to consider high-art. But one thing is sure. A certain number of the most successful of Mary Hewitts poetic efforts will have the suffrage and favour and gratitude of many generations of young folks yet to come. And in the power which she will thus wield there is an assurance that she not only had a message, but conveyed that message with something of the touch that makes all men (or we may perhaps here say children) kin. That is no slight service to render; no slight fame to have made sure.