FELICIA DOROTHEA BROWNE, so well known in the poetical world as Mrs. Hemans, was born on the 25th of September, 1793, in Duke-street, Liverpool, in the house now occupied by Mr. Molineux, where the first five or six years of her infancy and childhood were passed.
Her father, Mr. Browne, was an eminent wine-merchant in that city, and a native of Ireland, of a branch of the Sligo family. He failed in his business, in common with many others engaged in similar speculations during that revolutionary period, and removed with his family into North Wales, where, for the following nine years, they resided at Gwrych, near Abergele, in Denbighshire, in a large old mansion, the greater part of which has since been taken down.
Some years afterwards, Mr. Browne again engaging in commerce, went out to Canada, where he eventually died.
Mrs. Browne, who was of mingled Italian and German descent, was a very superior and accomplished woman, by whom her daughter Felicia was educated, and to whom she was most enthusiastically attached. Felicia Dorothea was the fifth of the seven children of her parents.
The bright and blooming Felicia was richly endowed with talent, beauty, and sensibility. The extraordinary facility with which she acquired information, was only surpassed by the powerful memory which retained what she had learned. Whole pages from her favourite authors she could repeat, after having once perused them; and such was the rapidity with which she read, that a bystander would imagine she was only carelessly turning over the leaves of a book, when, as if by intuition, she had taken in the sense as completely as others would do with the closest attention. She had a taste for drawing, though she had neither time nor opportunity to cultivate that charming art, beyond slightly sketching in pencil or Indian ink. On both the harp and piano she played with feeling and expression, and her voice was sweet, though she was soon obliged to discontinue singing, from a frequent recurrence of affections upon her chest.
As a child she was remarkably beautiful. Her complexion was extremely brilliant, her hair long, curling, and golden, which afterwards deepened into an auburn brown, but to the last remained silken, profuse, and wavy. Her sensitive temperament was evinced by her colour varying with every change of feeling; so much so, that a lady observed of her, in early life, that "she was not born to be happy, for her colour came and went too fast."
English grammar, French, and the rudiments of Latin, were the only things she was ever regularly taught, but such was her progress in the last-mentioned language, that the gentleman who was her instructor used to lament that "she was not a man, to have borne away the highest honours at college." She soon, however, added Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese to her acquirements, and could also read German, though it was not till after years that she fully entered into the beauties of German literature, when it became a favourite study of hers.
The seclusion in which she was brought up, and the somewhat desultory nature of a home education, were probably highly favourable to the early developement of her poetical powers.
Fortunately, Felicia first carolled forth her poetic talents under the animating influence of the smiles of an affectionate and admiring circle. To her mother she confided and addressed her earliest inspirations, and by her the tastes and talents of her highly-gifted daughter were encouraged and appreciated.
Gwrych, an old, large, and solitary mansion, situated close to the sea-shore, and shut in by a picturesque chain of mountains, having the character of being haunted, appears to have had a considerable effect upon the highly imaginative temperament of the youthful poetess, who, in after years, was wont to describe "the strange creeping awe with which the solitude and stillness of the place inspired her, — and to tell how she once sallied forth, by moonlight, to encounter a goblin, which, under the shape of a fiery greyhound, kept watch at the end of the avenue."
The sea-shore was a favourite resort with her; she loved its loneliness and freedom; and whilst yet a child, it was with her a favourite freak, clandestinely to arise, after her careful attendants had seen her safely consigned to her bed, and creeping down to the sea, to indulge in the luxury of moonlight and a stolen bath.
At about the age of eleven, and also in the following year, she passed the winter in London with her father and mother, after which she never again visited the Metropolis, though she always retained a vivid recollection of several of the great works of art she was then taken to see. On one occasion, on entering a gallery of sculpture, she involuntarily exclaimed, "O hush! do not speak!" so intense was her gratification; and her mother used to take pleasure in describing the interest she excited, when visiting the Marquis of Stafford's collection, by her unsophisticated delight, and her familiarity with the mythological and classical subjects of many of the pictures.
She, however, soon ceased to care for sights and plays, and contrasting the confinement of a town life with the freedom of her mountain home, longed to rejoin her younger brother Claude, and her sister Harriet, in their favourite haunts and amusements, — "the nutting wood, the beloved apple tree, the old arbour with its swing, the post-office tree, in whose trunk a daily interchange of family letters was established; the pool where fairy ships were launched, (generally painted and decorated by herself,) and dearer still, the fresh, free ramble on the sea-shore, or the mountain expedition to the signal station, or the Roman encampment."
On one occasion, she expressed her pleasure at the thoughts of returning home, in a poetical epistle, which was among the first of her early published poems, commencing
Happy soon we'll meet again,
Free from sorrow, care, and pain;
and which is an extraordinary production for a child of such tender years. Her choicest recreation, even at six years old, was the reading of Shakspeare, and many hours did she hold communion with the fanciful creations of his brain, in a secret haunt of her own, — a seat among the branches of an old apple tree, — where, revelling in the treasures unfolded to her, she would become wholly absorbed in the imaginative world called up by the poet. To a large, dimly lighted, solitary room, looking upon the sea, she was also fond of repairing, and there she would declaim and recite passages from Douglas, and other poems and plays.
The dreamy, visionary, and poetical sensations which probably are experienced by all young persons of talent, appear to have been felt by her in no ordinary degree from her earliest childhood. A strong tinge of romance pervaded her every thought, and her aspirations after the beautiful, were the most prominent signs of her poetic temperament.
In the year 1808, when but fourteen years of age, a collection of her poems was printed at Liverpool, with a dedication, by permission, to the Prince Regent, entitled Blossoms of Spring, in the then fashionable quarto volume. But though there are some wonderful specimens of early poetic talent, neither the youth nor the sex of the writer saved her from the severe attack of an anonymous reviewer, which was so severely felt by the juvenile poetess, that she for some days kept her bed in consequence. Fortunately, however, for those who have taste and feeling, the youthful poetess, though she quailed under the severity of the criticism, beamed subsequently forth with a strength and brilliancy that must have shamed her reviewer.
The Early Blossoms, some of which were written when but nine years old, and which were inscribed, in an opening address, to Lady Kirkwall, dated Gwrych, October 1st, 1807, consist chiefly of birthday compliments, affectionate addresses to her friends, and little poems, similar to the first effusions of most young poets.
A second volume of poems, entitled The Domestic Affections, made its appearance in 1812, still bearing the name of Felicia Browne, among which are some of a more heroic character — The Bards to the Soldiers of Caractacus, The Dying Gladiator. That entitled The Ruin and its Flowers, is, in melody and plaintive pathos, far beyond the fugitive poetry of the day, and excels the generality of verses composed at eighteen. They were written on an excursion to the old fortress of Dyganwy, the remains of which are situated on a bold promontory near the entrance of the river Conway, which once echoed to the complaints of the captive Elphin, and resounded to the song of Taliesin, whilst its ivied vales, now fast mouldering into oblivion, formerly bore their part bravely in the defence of Wales.
Some of the happiest days of the young poetess were passed during occasional visits to some friends at Conway, where the charms of the scenery, combining all that is beautiful in wood, water, and ruin, were exactly calculated to kindle her enthusiasm; and the impression then made on her imagination by its lovely scenes were never effaced.
At times she would dream away whole hours in pensive contemplation amidst the remains of this old Welsh edifice, standing in solitary grandeur, and flinging its broad shadow across the waves which wash its foundation; and Miss Joanna Baillie's play of Ethwald, which she first read among the ruins of Conway Castle, was ever pleasingly associated with the recollections of them; so also were the lively chronicles of the chivalrous Froissart, with which she first became acquainted whilst at Conway, and whose pages never lost their hold upon her memory, nor their place in her favour.
With that happy versatility, which appears to have been ever a leading characteristic of her mind, she would, however, readily abandon her poetical reveries, to enter playfully into the enjoyments of a mountain scramble, or a pic-nic water party.
In 1809, her family removed from Gwrych to Bronwylfa, near St. Asaphs in Flintshire, which has since been purchased by, and is now the property of, her eldest brother, Colonel Sir Henry Browne.
In the preceding year she had become acquainted with Captain Hemans, who was then on a visit in the neighbourhood, when a mutual liking took place. He was, however, on the point of embarking with his regiment for Spain; and the friends of both parties hoped that these mutual impressions might be as transitory as they were casual. But though three years elapsed before they again met, Captain Hemans, on his return from Spain, renewed the acquaintance, and their sentiments remaining unaltered, and the happiness of both seeming to depend upon an union, no farther opposition was made upon the score of worldly prudence, and in the summer of 1812, Felicia Dorothea, Browne became the wife of Captain Hemans, then of the Fourth, or King's own Regiment of Infantry.
The etherial nature of Mrs. Hemans must in fact have been but ill calculated to encounter the hardships and difficulties of this "worky-day world;" and indeed, from her own account, she ever seems to have had a distaste to what she termed "the dinner-ordering cares of life;" whilst Captain Hemans, whose health was impaired by the previous vicissitudes of a military life, including a Walcheren campaign, may possibly have required and exacted a more than ordinary attention to his own wants and wishes. Certain it is, however, that the union was not productive of happiness to either party.
On their marriage, however, Captain Hemans having been appointed adjutant to the Northamptonshire local militia, they first took up their abode at Daventry, where they resided for a twelvemonth, and where was born their eldest son, Arthur.
The corps to which Captain Hemans was attached, having been dissolved unexpectedly, the family returned to Wales in the following year, and became domiciled at Bronwylfa, and subsequently, till the death of her mother, Mrs. Hemans was never withdrawn from her maternal care, and here were born her four younger sons.
Mrs. Hemans's eagerness for knowledge continued to be intense, and of her industry, volumes, still existing, of extracts and transcriptions, are evidence. The mode of her studies was very desultory to outward appearance, as she loved to be surrounded by books of all sorts and languages, and on every variety of topic, turning from one to another. And this course, it is said, "she pursued at all times — in season and out of season — by night and day — on her chair, her sofa, and bed — at home and abroad — invalid, convalescent, and ill perfect health — in rambles, journeys, and visits — in company with her husband, and when her children were around her — at hours usually devoted to domestic claims, as well as in the solitude of the study and bower."
At this time, her inspirations were chiefly drawn from classical subjects, and the influence that Greece and Rome held over her mind is evinced in her Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy, Modern Greece, and the poems in the volume entitled Tales and Historic Scenes. A number of translations published in 1818, demonstrate her familiarity with the various authors from whence they were extracted, namely, Camoens, Metastasio, Filicaja, Pastorini, Lope de Vega, Francisco Della Casa, Cornelio Bentivoglio, Quevedo, Torquato and Bernardo Tasso, Gessner, Garcilazo de Vega, Chaulieu, Lorenzini, Petrarca, Pietro Bembo, &c., — names embracing almost every language in Europe in which the muse has found a tongue. Her prize poem, entitled The Meeting of Wallace and Bruce on the Banks of the Carron, appeared in Blackwood's Magazine for September, 1819. A patriotic individual having signified his intention of giving one thousand pounds towards the erection of a monument to Sir William Wallace, and a prize of fifty pounds for the best poem on the subject above alluded to, Mrs. Hemans was recommended to enter the lists as a competitor, and, to her own great surprise, her poem was selected as the best among the overwhelming number of those offered.
In the year 1818, Captain Hemans's health requiring the benefit of a warmer climate, he determined upon repairing to the Continent, and eventually fixed his residence at Rome. At this time a permanent separation was not contemplated by either party, and it was only a tacit and conventional arrangement, with a frequent interchange of correspondence relative to the education and the disposal of their children. But years rolled on, and from that time till the hour of her death, Captain and Mrs. Hemans never met again. She continued to reside with her mother at Bronwylfa, and had the five boys left under her care; — a sufficient proof that nothing more than incompatibility of pursuits and uncongeniality of temper were the moving causes of the separation.
Notwithstanding the peculiarity of her situation in consequence of this separation, her talents, her amiable qualities, and the increasing popularity of her writings, continued to secure to Mrs. Hemans the warm attachment of several distinguished friends, among whom were Bishop Luxmoore and Bishop Heber, with the latter of whom she became acquainted in 1820, and who was the first literary character with whom she ever familiarly associated. To him she submitted the commencement of a poem, entitled Superstition and Revelation, which was, however, never completed by her, and at his suggestion, she was first led to offer her Vespers of Palermo to the stage. This play, completed in June, 1821, was, after many theatrical delays, acted at Covent Garden, in December, 1823, but proved a failure. It, however, led to a correspondence with the poet Milman, who kindly interested himself in its behalf; and it was subsequently acted in Edinburgh with considerable success, — with an epilogue written by Sir Walter Scott.
The Sceptic, the only didactic poem ever written by Mrs. Hemans, was published in 1820. Some years afterwards she received a visit from a gentleman, who thanked her earnestly for the benefit he had derived from its perusal, which he stated to have been greatly instrumental in drawing him back from the very verge of infidelity.
In June, 1821, Mrs. Hemans received the prize awarded by the Royal Society of Literature, for the best poem on the subject of "Dartmoor." On hearing of its success, she wrote to a friend, "What with surprise, bustle, and pleasure, I am really almost bewildered. I wish you had seen the children when the prize was announced to them yesterday. Arthur, you know, had so set his heart upon it, that he was quite troublesome with his constant inquiries upon the subject. He sprang up from his Latin exercise, and shouted, 'Now, I am sure mamma is a better poet than Lord Byron.' Their acclamations were really deafening, and George said that 'the excess of his pleasure had really given him a headache.'"
It was about this time that the return of her sister from Germany, bringing with her an ample supply of German books from her eldest brother, then with the embassy at Venice, caused Mrs. Hemans to become an enthusiastic admirer of the literature of that country. She, in general, preferred the works of Schiller to those of Goethe, and to the Stimmen der Volker in Lieder of Herder, was she indebted for the first idea of her own Lays of Many Lands, most of which first appeared, in 1823, in the New Monthly Magazine, then edited by the poet Campbell. She had previously been a contributor to the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, then conducted by the Rev. Robert Morehead, in which periodical appeared several of her poems, together with a series of papers on foreign literature, which were, with a few exceptions, the only prose compositions she ever gave to the world.
The Welsh Melodies, which were composed in the summer of 1822, and which first introduced Mrs. Hemans to the public as a song writer, soon after made their appearance.
In the summer of 1823, The Siege of Valencia, together with The Last Constantine, and other Poems, were published by Mr. Murray, who, the same year, gave her two hundred guineas for the copyright of her Vespers of Palermo.
Several of her poems were written in 1822, in the laundry, a building detached from the dwelling-house at Bronwylfa, where, in consequence of certain alterations and additions that were going on, she was induced to take refuge from the obstreperous din of workmen, and from which locality, she was wont to say, it would be no wonder if mangled lines were to issue.
It was in the autumn of 1824, she began the poem entitled The Forest Sanctuary, relating to the sufferings of a Spanish Protestant, in the time of Philip the Second, supposed to be narrated by the sufferer himself, who escapes to America. In point of finish and consecutiveness, this is considered by some to be her principal work, and she herself inclined to look upon it as her best. Though finished in 1825, it was not published till the following year, when it appeared in conjunction with The Lays of Many Lands, and several miscellaneous poems, which had already appeared in many of the periodicals. She bad already composed a tragedy, entitled, De Chatillon, or the Crusaders, which was published after her death, from the original rough manuscript, the fair copy having been accidentally lost or mislaid.
In consequence of the second marriage of her eldest brother, in the spring of Mrs. Hemans, with her mother, her sister, and her four boys, the eldest being, at school at Bangor, removed from Bronwylfa to Rhyllon, another house belonging to Colonel Browne, and situated on the opposite side of the river Clwyd, about a quarter of a mile from the former place.
Notwithstanding its unpromising aspect, Rhyllon soon became a favourite residence with Mrs. Hemans, and here she passed some of the happiest days of her life. Here were composed the Records of Women, which were published in 1828; and a small woodland dingle was with her a favourite retreat, where she passed many hours of enjoyment with her books, her own sweet fancies, and her children sporting around her, and to which sequestered spot many allusions are made in her subsequent poems.
But the tranquil cheerfulness of this part of Mrs. Hemans's life was to be but of short continuance. Early in 1826, her eldest brother's happiness was clouded by severe affliction, and the impaired health of her mother threatened a fatal termination to her sufferings. Her death, which took place in 1827, was an irreparable loss to her afflicted daughter, who, being without her natural protector, clung with redoubled affection to the maternal society for shelter and security.
Could Mrs. Hemans have found consolation in fame, she might have been comforted, as her reputation as a poetess was now spread far and wide, and the interest she excited in America was so great that a liberal offer of a certain income was made to her, if she could be induced to take up her residence in Boston, for the purpose of conducting a periodical work. Indeed, the admiration felt for her there, as elsewhere, was such that she was repeatedly sought out by travellers from that country, and the homage paid to her, and the expressions of the interest she excited, were occasionally quite whimsical.
Mrs. Hemans's literary friendships and correspondence were now continually on the increase, scarcely a day passing without bringing with it some new communication, interesting either from its originality or from the distinguished name of the writer. With truth and kindness Mrs. Grant of Laggan wrote to her, alluding to Shenstone's lonely existence — "not loved, not praised, not known," — "How very different is your case! Praised by all that read you — loved by all that praise you — and known in some degree wherever our language is spoken."
Among others of her correspondents, who were admired by her, and by whom she was duly appreciated in return, were Miss Joanna Baillie, Miss Mitford, Mrs. Howitt, and Miss Jewsbury.
So great was the enthusiasm felt by the last-named lady for the writings of Mrs. Hemans, that, in the summer of 1828, she took a cottage in her neighbourhood, for the sake of her society, and, notwithstanding the apparent dissimilarity of character, a warm and lasting intimacy was formed between them. Many of Miss Jewsbury's Lays of Leisure Hours, which were dedicated to Mrs. Hemans, were composed at this period, and her picture of "Egeria" in The Three Histories, was avowedly taken from the same original. "Egeria was totally different from any other woman I had ever seen, either in Italy or England. She did not dazzle, she subdued me; other women might be more commanding, more versatile, more acute, but I never saw any one so exquisitely feminine.... Her birth, her education, but, above all, the genius with which she was gifted, combined to inspire a passion for the ethereal, the tender, the imaginative, the heroic — in one word, the beautiful. It was in her a faculty divine, and yet of daily life — it touched all things, but, like a sun-beam, touched them with 'a golden finger.' Anything abstract or scientific was unintelligible and distasteful to her; her knowledge was extensive and various, but, true to the first principle of her nature, it was poetry that she sought in history, scenery, character, and religious belief — poetry that guided all her studies, governed all her thoughts, coloured all her imaginative conversation. Her nature was at once simple and profound; there was no room in her mind for philosophy, nor in her heart for ambition; — the one was filled by imagination, the other engrossed by tenderness. She had a passive temper, but decided tastes; anyone might influence, but very few impressed her. Her strength and her weakness alike lay in her affections; these would sometimes make her weep, at others imbue her with courage; so that she was alternately 'a falcon-hearted dove,' and a 'reed broken with the wind.' Her voice was a sad, sweet melody, and her spirits reminded me of an old poet's description of the orange-tree, with its 'Golden lamps bid in a night of green;' or of those Spanish gardens where the pomegranate grows beside the cypress. Her gladness was like a burst of sunlight; and if, in her depression, she resembled night, it was night bearing her stars. I might describe and describe for ever, but I should never succeed in portraying Egeria; she was a muse, a grace, a variable child, a dependent woman, the Italy of human beings."
Of a peculiarly poetical and imaginative temperament does Mrs. Hemans indeed appear to have been, taking delight in traditions and legends, and an interest in old associations, whilst she revelled in fairy tales, and every thing that partook of the supernatural. Her enjoyment of such fanciful creations was intense, and greatly was she pleased to find such predilections in the congenial minds of Bishop Heber and Sir Walter Scott. For statistics and abstract science she had no turn, and ever appeared to shrink from such topics.
With her intense perception of the sublime and beautiful, she had also a keen sense of the ludicrous, though she never indulged in sarcasm or personalities; and her conversation, with its perpetual flow of allusion and illustration, was as brilliant and playful, as her countenance was interesting and varying in its expression.
About this time the state of Mrs. Hemans's health became so alarming to her friends, that she was prevailed upon to resign herself to medical discipline; and among, other precautionary measures, the adoption of a recumbent posture was prescribed to her. Unfortunately, at the period when she most required quiet care, and attention, the interesting home circle at Rhyllon was broken up by the appointment of her second brother to an official situation in Ireland, and the marriage of her sister, and the sending off her two eldest boys to join their father in Rome; and now, Mrs. Hemans, who had been, as she observes of herself, "all her life a creature of hearth and home," with impaired health and uncertain spirits, had to seek a residence for herself and her three youngest children.
Some friendships she had formed at Wavertree, and its vicinity to Liverpool, from which city it is two or three miles distant, inducing her to anticipate superior advantages there for the education of her boys, and the enjoyment of literary society herself, combined to influence her in selecting that spot for her new abode. But though she derived much pleasure from being near her friends. the Chorleys, the Parks of Wavertree Lodge, and Mrs. Lawrence of Wavertree Hall, she was, on the whole, disappointed in her expectations; and intense was the pain she experienced at quitting the land of her youth, the wild mountains and romantic scenery of Wales being ill exchanged for the comparatively flat and monotonous country about Liverpool. She also, after having long been the inmate of a large family circle, felt deeply the isolation of her present lot, and though necessarily now obliged to attend to her household duties, and to "the dinner-ordering cares of life," in her sister she had lost, as she was wont to observe, "the only real companion she ever had," and she was constantly "haunted," as she plaintively expressed herself, "by the melancholy words of St. Leon's guest, the unhappy old man with his immortal gifts, — alone, alone, alone!"
Her residence at Wavertree seems to have possessed but few recommendations to one of her imaginative temperament. The third of a cluster or row of buildings, close to a dusty road, too small for a house, too townified for a cottage, situated in a small court, gloomy and comfortless, its two small parlours and tiny backrooms, scarcely larger than closets, it required no small ingenuity to render it even habitable; though, under the influence of feminine taste, together with her books and her flowers, it soon attained an appearance of elegance.
The inhabitants of Wavertree, for the greater part, staunch votaries of "sociable tea-parties," had few charms for Mrs. Hemans, who felt no delight in the card-table, and no pleasure in the "comfortable early party." She was, however, the object of much attention, and her house was besieged by morning callers, who overwhelmed her with compliments, and by album-mongers, anxious to possess something from the pen of the poetess, who yet could by no means enter into the fanciful ideas, or sympathise with the lofty conceptions, that distinguished her from the common run of mankind. In her letters she gives many laughable descriptions of the horror she felt at the interruptions she experienced from friendly visitors, who were wont to impose their tediousness upon her, and who, whilst they had no common topics to discuss, could nevertheless observe, "her room was sadly littered with books and papers — the strings of her harp were half broken, and she wore a veil on her head like no one else."
Nor was the society of Liverpool better suited to her feelings. It was too exclusively under the aristocracy of wealth, too much broken up by small distinctions of sect and party, to be calculated for her peculiar tastes. She was, perhaps, too apt to laugh away argument with what might be termed "poetical wit dealing too much in fanciful allusion and brilliant remark, to be thoroughly understood. The less intelligent, the wealthy sons and daughters of commerce, rolling in affluence, "clothed in purple and fine linen, and faring sumptuously every day," who took delight in the pomps and vanities of society, in formal dinner-parties, crowded rooms and ceremonious routs, were of course wholly unsuited to one of her intellectual tastes; and in return, they stood aloof from "a lady living on a limited income, in a small house." On the whole, Wavertree proved an unsatisfactory residence for her; though it may here be mentioned, that the society of the celebrated Mr. Roscoe, in which, when his health permitted, she was occasionally indulged, formed one of her greatest enjoyments, during her sojourn in the neighbourhood of Liverpool.
Soon after their arrival at Wavertree, as if to increase the troubles of housekeeping, the three boys fell ill with the hooping cough, shortly after which, Mrs. Hemans was herself seized with this tedious and harassing complaint, and very probably it proved highly detrimental to her already impaired health. Change of air being recommended, the whole party, in the spring of 1829, repaired for a short time to Seacombe, a small bathing place on the Cheshire side of the Mersey, where they speedily enjoyed, in recovered health and improved spirits, all the benefits they had anticipated.
During the many years that Mrs. Hemans resided with her mother, the anxieties and responsibilities of housekeeping had never fallen to her lot, and her time and thoughts might be and were almost exclusively devoted to poetry and literature. But now domestic cares forced themselves upon her attention, and butchers' and grocers' bills intruded, as she observes, "in frightful array." In these household duties she felt but little interest, being as she playfully describes herself, "little better than a grown-up Rosamond, (Miss Edgeworths naughty girl,) who constantly lie in bed till it is too late to get up early — break my needles (when I use any) — leave my keys among my necklaces — answer all my amusing letters first, and leave the others to their fate." Elsewhere she says, "I am now for the first time in my life holding the reins of government, independently managing a household myself, and I never liked anything less than "ce triste empire de moi-meme."
The few fragments of her letters which have been published, just sufficient to make us wish for more, are singularly playful and easy, full of fanciful allusions, and elegant badinage, presenting a singular mixture of sweetness of temper and deep feeling, mingled with a laughable and laughing irritability at the intrusions and persecutions to which she was exposed, from those who were ambitious of a personal acquaintance with, and of possessing the autograph of, the poetess.
In one place she writes "They had an album with them — absolutely an album! You had scarcely left me to my fate — Oh, how you laughed the moment you were set free! — when the little woman with the inquisitorial eyes, informed me that the tall woman with the superior understanding — Heaven save the mark! — was ambitious of possessing my autograph, and out leaped the album; a most evangelical and edifying book it is truly; so I, out of pure spleen, mean to insert in it something as strongly savouring of the Pagan miscellany, as I dare. 'O the pleasure of fame' — I wish I were the little girl at the top of the apple tree again."
Notwithstanding the generally melancholy strain of her poems, there was in Mrs. Hemans's conversation and letters a buoyancy of spirits that contrasted strongly with the pathos of her poetry; though so keenly averse to what was coarse, as to cut out of her books anything of the kind, few surpassed her in varied badinage and sportive allusion. But it was only to the chosen few that she thus gave the rein to her spirits: in general society, she appeared quite a different being.
One of the features of the increased sensitiveness of her temperament at this time was an awakened enthusiasm for music, which now amounted with her to an absolute passion, and was, indeed, a source of as much pain as pleasure. During the winter and spring she applied herself with some diligence to its study, under the instruction of M. J. Zeugheer Herrmann, who, as she wrote, "comes to me twice every week, and I should like him as a master exceedingly, were it not that I am sure I give him the tooth-ache whenever I play a wrong note, and a sympathising pang immediately shoots through my own compassionate heart."
She frequently indulged herself in the composition of songs, some of which were set to music by her sister and other friends, and occasionally by herself. The ease with which she wrote them amounted almost to inspiration. The Peninsular Melodies, however, did not meet with great success, from the circumstance of many of the airs being wholly unsuited to the words.
It was in the summer of 1829, that, urged by repeated invitations, Mrs. Hemans, accompanied by her two sons, Charles and Henry, Claude being left with her friends at Wavertree Lodge, paid a visit to Scotland, where her name was highly popular.
She had for some time corresponded with Mr. Hamilton, the author of Cyril Thornton, &c., who was then residing with his lad at Chiefswood, near Abbotsford, at both of which places she spent some time, and where, in Sir Walter Scott, she found a truly congenial mind. In bidding her farewell, when she left him, he said, "There are some whom we meet, and should like ever after to claim as kith and kin, and you are one of these." On one occasion he observed, "One would say you had too many accomplishments, Mrs. Hemans, were they not all made to give pleasure to those around you." On another, at Newark Tower, when two tourists made a precipitate retreat from them, be smilingly said, "Oh, Mrs. Hemans, they little know what two lions they are running away from."
At Edinburgh, she made some interesting and valuable acquaintances, — Mrs. Grant of Laggan, Captain Basil Hall, and Mr., now Lord Jeffrey, at whose house she dined, and whose conversation she states to have been "such mental champagne as she never tasted before, rich, full of imagery, playful, energetic." She was also introduced to Mr. Alison, and paid a visit to Mackenzie, the "Man of Feeling." Though then but the wreck of his former self, it carried her back, as she said, half a century, to hear anecdotes of Hume, Robertson, Gibbon, and other intellectual giants of old. She also spent some little time at Milburn Tower near Edinburgh, the seat of Sir Robert Liston, where her bust was taken by Mr. Angus Fletcher, and in one of her letters, she playfully describes her dismay at beholding in his sculpture room, "six Mrs. Hemans, placed as if to greet her in every direction." She continues, "there is something absolutely frightful in this multiplication of one's self to infinity."
At Lady Wedderburn's, the sister of the late Viscountess Hampden, to whose house in Edinburgh they proceeded from Abbotsford, Mrs. Hemans and her children were received with the utmost warmth of welcome.
Soon after her return to her little dwelling at Wavertree, Mrs. Hemans had a visit from her friend, Miss Jewsbury, who was struck with her improved spirits, and gave the following pleasing sketch of their evening group. "When night comes, and the darling boys are arrived from school, and the candles are lighted, and the doors shut, our cabinet room would make a charming cabinet picture."
Mrs. Hemans was at this time engaged composing her Songs of the Affections, some of which bad previously, made their appearance in Blackwood's Magazine. The principal poem, A Spirit's Return, had been suggested to her, in a familiar conversation about ghosts, stories of which seem to have been a favourite amusement with her little coterie at Liverpool. It was one evening discussed, what would be the feelings of any one visited by a spirit, supposing such a visit possible. She spoke enthusiastically and eloquently on the subject, and from this conversation arose the poem in question, which, at that time, was preferred by herself to anything she had ever written. The Songs of the Affections were published in the year 1830, and dedicated to Sir Robert Liston.
In the month of June in the same year, Mrs. Hemans put into execution her long-cherished plan of making a tour to the lakes of Westmoreland, whither she was accompanied by her youngest son Charles, her "little carlo dolce," as her friends were wont to term him; the two others, Henry and Claude, joining her subsequently when settled at Dove's Nest. She spent a fortnight with the poet Wordsworth, whom, she describes as "a most benignant old man," and his residence, Rydal Mount, as "a lovely cottage-like building, almost hidden by a profusion of roses."
In conversing with her on Moore's theory of the unfitness of genius for domestic happiness, Wordsworth remarked, "It is not because they possess genius that they make unhappy homes, but because they do not possess genius enough; a higher order of mind would enable them to see and feel all the beauty of domesticies." Of himself she says, "He has been singularly fortunate in long years of almost unlimited domestic peace and union."
So much pleased was she with the lakes, that, on leaving Rydal Mount, she was induced to hire Dove's Nest, beautifully situated on the banks of Windermere, which she thus describes: "The house was originally meant for a small villa, though it has long passed into the hands of farmers, and there is, in consequence, an air of neglect about the little demesne, which does not at all approach desolation, and yet gives it something of touching interest. You see everywhere traces of love and care beginning to be effaced — rose-trees spreading into wildness — laurels darkening the windows with their luxuriant branches; — and I cannot help saying to my self, 'Perhaps some heart like my own in its feelings and sufferings has here sought refuge and found repose.' The ground is laid out in rather an antiquated style, which, now that nature is beginning to reclaim it from art, I do not at all dislike. There is a little grassy terrace immediately under the window, descending to a small court with a circular grass-plot, in which grows one tall white rose-tree. You cannot imagine how I delight in that fair, solitary, neglected-looking tree. I am writing to you from an old-fashioned alcove in the little garden, round which the sweetbriar and moss-rose tree have completely run wild; and I look down from it upon lovely Windermere, which seems at this moment even like another sky, so truly is every summer cloud and tint of azure pictured in its transparent mirror."
Even in this sequestered spot her celebrity had preceded her, and tourists from America and visiting cards found their way to her. They brought credentials that she could not but acknowledge, and, as she playfully observes, "an album was levelled at her, like a pocket-pistol, before all was over."
In the middle of August, Mrs. Hemans was prevailed upon to make a second visit to Scotland, in compliance with the urgent entreaties of her friend Sir Robert Liston, and at Milburn Tower she formed an acquaintance with the family of the late J. C. Graves, Esq., of Dublin, who were Sir Robert Liston's guests at the same time with herself, which, ripening into friendship, induced her to take Dublin in her way to Wales from Scotland; and being much pleased with that city, where, with the advantages of education for her boys, she would also be in the vicinity of her brother, Major Browne, she eventually resolved upon settling in Ireland.
She had at one time contemplated taking up her abode in Scotland, but Edinburgh was too cold for her now seriously impaired health, and she had long been troubled and annoyed with advice and prognostications of evil, resulting from what she termed her "incorrigible perverseness with regard to sage advice," adding, "whenever my death, from neglect of fur-cloaks and flannel-wrapping gowns, comforters, and hare-skins, does really take place, as the fulfilment of a thousand prophecies, I have the pleasure of thinking that it will be a matter of general satisfaction."
Late in the autumn, on her way back to Wavertree, she paid her last visit to Bronwylfa, and bade a second adieu to the "Green land of her childhood, her home, and her dead;" and in the spring of 1831, she finally left Wavertree, which had ever been distasteful to her, possessing neither the pleasures of a town, nor the retirement of the country, to take up her abode in Ireland.
In the latter end of April she quitted England for ever, and after spending a few weeks in Dublin, proceeded to visit her brother, then residing at the Hermitage, near Kilkenny. "This," she wrote, "is a very pretty little spot, and I should be really sorry that my brother is to leave it in two or three months, were it not that the change will be one of great advantage to himself, as he is appointed to a trust of high responsibility. I have a blue mountain chain in sight of my window, and the voice of the river comes in to me delightfully. My health has been very unsettled, yet my friends are surprised to see me looking so well. I think that on the whole the soft climate agrees with me; my greatest foe is 'the over-beating of the heart.' My life in Dublin was what might have been expected — one of constant excitement, and more 'broken into fragments' than ever."
Of this beating of the heart Mrs. Hemans had had very serious admonitions from her medical attendant, who told her that "nothing but great care and perfect quiet would prevent its assuming a dangerous character." "I told him," said she, "that he might as well prescribe for me the powdered diamonds which physicians of the olden time ordered for royal patients. I must own that this has somewhat deepened the melancholy impression under which I am going to Ireland, for I cannot but feel assured that he is right."
But Mrs. Hemans was not fated to enjoy the quiet prescribed to her in Ireland, where, as everywhere else, she found herself the object of curiosity, attention, and remark, which, to one of her sensitive and retiring nature, was disagreeable and almost painful. When she went to see Woodstock, where formerly dwelt, and where then lay buried, her sister poetess, Mrs. Tighe, and where she wished to have been alone with nature and her thoughts, she found herself the object of quite a reception. "There was no help for it, though I never felt," she observes, "so much as if I wanted a large leaf to wrap me up and shelter me. Still one cannot but feel grateful for kindness, and much was shown me."
In Mrs. Tighe she had ever felt a deep interest, on account of a fancied similarity between their destinies, and her visit to her tomb was commemorated in some touching lines, published in the National Lyrics:
I stood where the lip of song lay low,
Where the dust had gathered on beauty's brow,
Where stillness hung on the heart of love,
And a marble weeper kept watch above.
Early in the autumn of 1831, Mrs. Hemans took up her abode in Dublin, where she first resided in Upper Pembroke-street, the two elder boys of those under her care being at school, at the Rev. Dr. Gwynne's, of Castle-knock, and the youngest having his education superintended by the Rev. R. P. Graves, of Trinity College. Though she entered but little into the gaiety and general society of Dublin, she still enjoyed a kindly intercourse with a few intimate friends, amongst whom may be mentioned the Graves family, and their relations Dr. and Mrs. Percival; Colonel D'Aquilar, the brother of Mrs. Lawrence of Wavertree Hall; Professor, now Sir William Hamilton; but above all, the Archbishop of Dublin and Mrs. Whately, together with their then inmate, Mr. Blanco White. Indeed, few individuals appear to have been blessed with more zealous and devoted friends than Mrs. Hemans, independent of her own immediate family, by whom she appears to have been almost idolized.
In the course of the autumn she paid a visit to the county of Wicklow, where, though her ill health prevented her enjoying its wild beauties so much as she otherwise might have done, she made excursions to the Devil's Glen, Lake Glendalough, and the Vale of the Seven Churches. In following the course of a little waterfall, she received from the guide, a female, the very flattering compliment of being the most "courageousest" and lightest-footed lady she had ever conducted there.
On her return home, she became a sufferer from a very severe attack of heart palpitation, accompanied with fainting fits and in describable languor. She was shortly after attacked with a low fever, "during part of which time," she tells her friends, "when I could neither read nor listen to reading, I lay very meekly upon the sofa, reciting to myself almost all the poetry I had ever read. I composed two or three melodies also, but having no one here to catch the fugitives, they have taken flight irrecoverably. I have lately written what I consider one of my best pieces, A Poet's Dying Hymn. It appeared in the last number of Blackwood."
With regard to her Melodies, she had for some time been sensible of a newly-awakened power in herself, of inventing airs, adapted to the words of her own lyrics, which proved a source of great delight to her, though she found some difficulty in the mechanical part of noting down, or what she called "caging," her musical fancies. In this task she was kindly assisted by Mr. Lodge, to whom she was also indebted for the symphonies and accompaniments of some of her songs. Latterly, however, she seldom played, excepting for the amusement of her friends, music, making her so sorrowful as to be quite painful to her. Indeed, her altered health, and the presentiments which silently arose in her mind, appear to have greatly affected her spirits, her playful vivacity by degrees subsiding into a more subdued and serene frame of mind, whilst she took increased delight in sacred literature, and earnestly and diligently studied the Holy Scriptures.
The awful visitation of the cholera in Dublin in the summer of 1832, was a striking and impressive lesson to all; but though she felt the solemnity of "the presence of this viewless danger," she nevertheless did not take flight from the city, as was done by many families. She could however, even now, still occasionally laugh at the ludicrous homage paid to her talents, "the gentlemen treating her as if she were the muse Calliope, with solemn reverence and constant allusions to poetry; and the ladies, as if they expected sparks of fire to proceed from her lips, as from those of the sea princess in Arabian fiction."
She still sought for relaxation from her more serious studies, — the works of Bishop Hall, Leighton, and Jeremy Taylor, — in the pages of her favourite Wordsworth, and in all such works as describe the appearances of nature, Gilpin's, White's "Selborne," Miss Mitford's, the Howitts', &c., which she was wont fancifully to term "her green books."
About this time she removed to 36, Stephen's Green, partly for the sake of having back rooms, as she suffered greatly from the noises in the street, where she had previously been living; for such was now the state of nervous suffering to which she was reduced, that it was, as she expressed herself, "as if she felt, and more particularly heard, everything with unsheathed nerves." "In my literary pursuits, she observes, "I fear I shall be obliged to look out for a regular amanuensis. I sometimes retain a piece of poetry several weeks in my memory from actual dread of writing it down."
Unfortunately, her maternal anxiety, and the enormous expenses attendant upon the education of, and the establishment of young men in the world, appear at this time to have stimulated her to exertions for which her strength was but little calculated; for though not absolutely compelled from her circumstances to make her poetical talent a source of profit, it probably was expedient, and in one of her latest letters to Mrs. Lawrence, she laments the not having been able to devote herself to some great work — "It has ever been one of my regrets, that the constant necessity of providing sums of money to meet the exigencies of the boys' education, has obliged me to waste my time in what I consider mere desultory effusions,
Pining myself away,
As a wild bird, amidst the foliage, turns
That which within him thrills, and beats, and burns,
Into a fleeting lay.
My wish ever was to concentrate all my mental energy in the production of some more noble and complete work, something of pure and holy excellence, (if there be not too much presumption in the thought,) which might permanently take its place as the work of a British poetess. I have always, hitherto, written as if in the breathing time of storms and billows."
She was gratified in seeing several of her sons provided for during her own short career upon earth. George Willoughby, lately returned from the military college at Soreze, was now engaged in the Ordnance Survey in the north of Ireland, and with maternal pride she wrote, "His superiors make the best reports of him. He never loses an opportunity of writing to me the most affectionate letters, and takes a delight in my poetry, which, I trust, may be attended with better and higher results than those of mere delight."
An opening presenting itself for one of her sons in a mercantile pursuit, her son Claude sailed about this time for America, and, as she says, "she the less regretted his destination thitherward, as his inclinations had always decidedly pointed to that country." Her latter days were also considerably cheered by her "dear Henry," then of an age to enter upon the active duties of life, receiving an appointment from Sir Robert Peel to a clerkship in the Admiralty, accompanied with a munificent donation, through the exertions of her friend Mrs. Lawrence; a circumstance as honourable to the heart of the patron, as it was gratifying to the maternal feelings of the mother, to find that she had herself been the cause of her son's early success in life.
The spring of 1833 found Mrs. Hemans established in No. 20, Dawson-street, Dublin, the last of her earthly homes; and here she devoted herself to the preparation for the press of her Hymns for Childhood, and her National Lyrics, — which were brought out in the following year by Messrs. Curry, of Dublin. The former had been written some years before, and had indeed been previously printed at Boston, New England, in 1827, at the recommendation, and under the kind auspices of her friend and admirer, Professor Norton, to whom they had been sent for the use of his own children.
Shortly after the appearance of what she termed "The Fairy Volume of Hymns," her long-contemplated collection of Scenes and Hymns of Life was published, and inscribed to the poet Wordsworth. Many of these, though equally poetical, are of a more serious turn than some of her preceding poems. She also at this time contemplated a series of German studies, consisting of scenes and passages from some of the most celebrated German authors, introduced and connected by illustrative remarks. But she only lived to complete one of these papers, on Goethe's Tasso, which was published in the New Monthly Magazine for January, 1834, and the language and sentiments of which are as poetical as if they had been clothed in verse.
In the preceding autumn, a happy meeting had taken place between Mrs. Hemans and her sister and brother-in-law, after a separation of five years. Though they found her "sadly worn and faded, and her health very fragile, yet she rallied wonderfully, and was again her former self, under the vivifying influence of their society." With all her own cordial kindness she busied herself in forming various plans for the interest and amusement of her visitors; and many happy hours of delightful converse and old home communion were passed by her and her sister, in her two favourite resorts, the lawn of the once stately mansion of the Duke of Leinster, (now occupied by the Dublin Society,) and the spacious gardens of Stephen's Green, which, at certain periods of the day, are almost as retired as a private pleasure ground. There was something in the antique and foreign appearance of this fine old square, which made her prefer it to all the magnificence of modern architecture, so conspicuous in other parts of Dublin; and she would describe, with much animation, the striking effect she had often seen produced by the picturesque and quaint outlines of its irregular buildings, thrown into dark relief by the fiery back-ground of a sunset sky.
At this time a visit to the lakes of Westmoreland, and another happy re-union there, was projected for the following summer; but in the month of July, Mrs. Hemans was seized with an attack of fever, which so much reduced her strength, that she was reluctantly compelled to abandon her long-cherished scheme. A little excursion into Wicklow, which she made for change of air, was unfortunately productive of the most disastrous effects, as she caught the scarlet fever, at an inn, and was in consequence reduced there to an alarming state of weakness.
On her recovery, she returned to Dublin, where, being recommended to be as much as possible in the open air, she spent the greater part of her time in the gardens of the Dublin Society, where she caught her last and fatal cold. One day, whilst absorbed in a book she was reading, as was her custom, she did not perceive the gradual closing in of an autumnal fog, till its penetrating chill had pervaded her whole frame, and a sort of shuddering thrill accompanied the presentiment that her days were numbered.
The same evening she was attacked with a fit of ague, and her already wasted form was soon reduced to an excessive state of debility, which only gave way to be followed by more alarming symptoms. Country air being recommended, the Archbishop and Mrs. Whately placed at her disposal their country-seat, Redesdale, a delightful retirement, about seven miles from Dublin, where she spent a few months, "receiving kindness truly heart-warm."
But though she derived some temporary benefit from this change, she was in March constrained to return to Dublin, to be near her medical attendants. She had at this time lost the use of her limbs, and had to be lifted in and out of the carriage by her brother, Major Browne, who, with her sister-in-law, now devoted himself to attendance upon her. They were soon joined by her sister and her son Willoughby, who staid till called away by even more imperative claims. Her son Charles had the melancholy pleasure of attending his mother to the last.
Mrs. Hemans was now too ill to leave her room, and was only laid upon a couch during the day-time, occasionally suffering severely. But all was borne with resignation and patience, and when not able to bear even the fatigue of reading, she had recourse to her mental resources, and as she lay on her sofa, she would repeat to herself whole chapters of the Bible, and page after page of Milton and Wordsworth. Her thoughts reverted frequently to the days of her childhood — to the old house by the sea-shore — the mountain rambles — the haunts and the books which had formed the delight of her childhood. She was wont to say to those who expressed pity for her situation, that "she lived in a fair and happy world of her own, among gentle thoughts and pleasant images;" and in her intervals of pain she would observe, that "no poetry could express, nor imagination conceive, the visions of blessedness that flitted across her fancy, and made her waking hours more delightful than those even that were given to temporary repose." Indeed her sister observes, "At times her spirit would appear to be already half-etherialized, her mind would seem to be fraught with deep and holy and incommunicable thoughts, and she would entreat to be left perfectly alone, in stillness and darkness, 'to commune with her own heart,' and reflect on the mercies of her Saviour."
On the 15th of March, after receiving the holy sacrament, she became extremely ill, but a temporary improvement took place, and on the 26th of April, she dictated to her brother, (for she had for some time been constrained to employ an amanuensis,) her Sabbath Sonnet, the last strain of the sweet singer of the hearth, the home, and the affections.
On Saturday , the 26th of May, she sank into a peaceful slumber, which continued all day, and at nine o'clock in the evening her gentle spirit passed away without pain or struggle.
Her remains were deposited in a vault beneath St. Anne's Church, Dublin, almost close to the house where she died. A small tablet has been placed above the spot where she is laid, inscribed with her name, her age, and the date of her death, and with the following lines from a dirge of her own:
Calm on the bosom of thy God,
Fair Spirit! rest thee now!
Ev'n while with us thy footsteps trod,
His seal was on thy brow.
Dust to the narrow home beneath!
Soul to its place on high!
They, that have seen thy look in death,
No more may fear to die.
A similar memorial has also been erected in the cathedral of St. Asaph, bearing the following inscription:
PLACED HERE BY HER BROTHERS,
IN MEMORY OF
WHOSE CHARACTER IS BEST POURTRAYED IN
SHE DIED IN DUBLIN, MAY 16TH, 1835,
Early Blossoms of Spring, 1808.
The Domestic Affections, 1812.
Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy.
Meeting of Wallace and Bruce, 1819.
Tales and Historic Scenes.
Vespers of Palermo, 1823.
The Sceptic, 1820.
Welsh Melodies, 1822.
Siege of Valencia, and the Last Constantine, 1823.
The Forest Sanctuary, 1826.
Records of Women, 1828.
Songs of the Affections, 1830.
National Lyrics, 1834.
Hymns for Childhood, 1834.
Scenes and Hymns of Life, 1834.