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Howarth, Robert Guy (1906–1974)

by Stuart Lee

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Robert Guy Howarth (1906-1974), scholar, literary critic and poet, was born on 10 May 1906 at Tenterfield, New South Wales, second son of native-born parents Arthur Howarth, schoolteacher, and his wife Lucy Elizabeth, née Newling. Guy was educated at Fort Street Boys' High School, Sydney, under A. J. Kilgour and George Mackaness, and was school captain in 1924. He was aged 19 when he married 16-year-old Sylvia Marjorie Beryl Smith, a stenographer, on 27 June 1925 at St Stephen's Anglican Church, Newtown; they were to have three sons before she divorced him in September 1948. He graduated from the University of Sydney (B.A., 1929) with first-class honours, the university medal in English and the Wentworth travelling fellowship. A non-collegiate student attached to St Catherine's Society at the University of Oxford (B.Litt., 1931), he specialized in seventeenth-century poetry. By the time he was appointed lecturer at the University of Sydney in 1933, he had collected, edited and published in London Minor Poets of the 17th Century (for Everyman's Library, 1931), Letters and the Second Diary of Samuel Pepys (1932) and Letters of George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron (1933).

As a teacher, Howarth was quick to recognize and praise the work of students and colleagues, generous in providing opportunities for their advancement and conscientious in his correspondence. His formal lectures read well in print, but were rather too packed to assimilate easily. In later life he was to persuade colleagues to join him in readings of scenes from plays under discussion. He raised some conservative eyebrows in Sydney by introducing his classes to modernist or contemporary writers, including Hopkins, Eliot, the Sitwells, Joyce, Faulkner and Auden, and to Australian writers, among them Joseph Furphy, Shaw Neilson, Kenneth Slessor and Christina Stead. He invited students to convivial meetings in his rooms at the university, and entertained at his modest home in Young Street, Neutral Bay, where visiting writers from overseas, such as Stephen Spender, rubbed shoulders with Slessor, Robert FitzGerald, Douglas Stewart, Miles Franklin and Hal Porter.

Howarth established an international reputation as a specialist in Elizabethan tragedy and Restoration comedy; his contribution to Australian literature was as substantial and enduring as it is underrated. In 1939 he persuaded the Australian English Association to publish under his editorship the journal, Southerly. He judged work solely on the basis of literary quality, and announced that the journal would eschew political and ideological considerations. Not only did Howarth influence Australian writing through deciding who would or would not be published in the 1940s and 1950s, but, as a literary critic for both the Sydney Morning Herald and Southerly, he made decisive assessments of writers as diverse as Christopher Brennan, Hugh McCrae, Furphy, Neilson, Stead and Patrick White.

A 'lyricist, aphorist and satirist', Howarth has been described by Professor A. L. McLeod as a significant Australian poet and a 'master of the ''simple and sensuous" love lyric'. The epigrammatic wit and polish of his better verse is illustrated by lines from poem iv in Spright and Geist (1944).

'Each parting is a little death',
You said, and died.
But I do more than yield my breath—
I'm crucified.

He also edited or wrote introductions for works by McCrae and Furphy, William Hay's The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans (Melbourne, 1955) and—with John Thompson and Slessor—The Penguin Book of Australian Verse (London, 1958).

In 1948 Howarth was appointed reader in English literature. On 12 November that year at the registrar general's office, Sydney, he married Lilian Irene Shephard, née Flynn, a clerk and a divorcee; they were to be divorced in 1964. He was elected a fellow (1952) of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom, and was a foundation member (1954-55) of the Australian Humanities Research Council, a member (1950-55) of the advisory board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund and president (1947-55) of the Sydney branch of the English Association. Bitterly disappointed at his failure to be appointed to the Challis chair of English literature at the University of Sydney, he resigned in 1955 to accept the Arderne chair of English literature at the University of Cape Town.

Awarded grants by the C.L.F. in 1971 and 1972 to prepare an edition of the letters of Norman Lindsay, Howarth returned to Sydney. He suffered a fractured skull when he was struck by a motorcycle in George Street on 30 December 1973 and died on 21 January 1974 in Sydney Hospital; survived by the sons of his first marriage, he was cremated with Anglican rites. He left his will unaltered and his estate to Lilian. She sold his library and manuscripts as a 'collection entire' to the University of Texas, Austin, United States of America. It was a major loss to Australian scholarship. The papers alone fill 75 boxes and the books more than 100 shelves; the collection includes the manuscript of Howarth's magnum opus on the dramatist John Webster. The Letters of Norman Lindsay (1979) was completed by Anthony Barker.

Select Bibliography

  • Southerly, 34, no 2, 1974, pp 107, 112, 34, no 4, 1974, p 385, 49, no 3, 1989, p 363, 49, no 4, 1989, p 649
  • Library Chronicle of University of Texas, 13, 1980, p 68
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Aug 1931, 7 Apr 1933, 12 June 1934, 26 Jan 1952, 21 Dec 1954, 6 Dec 1971, 30 Oct 1972, 23 Jan 1974.

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Citation details

Stuart Lee, 'Howarth, Robert Guy (1906–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/howarth-robert-guy-10555/text18747, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 27 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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