1835 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Felicia Hemans

John Gough Nichols, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 4 (July 1835) 93-96.



May 16. At Dublin, Mrs. F. D. Hemans, the most able of our female poets. For the following memoir of her history and writings we are indebted to the Athenaum.

Felicia Dorothea Brown was born at Liverpool, in the house now occupied by Mr. Molyneux, in Duke Street. Her father was a native of Ireland, her mother a German lady — a Miss Wagner — but descended from, or connected with, some Venetian family, a circumstance which Mrs. Hemans would playfully mention, as accounting for the strong tinge of romance and poetry which pervaded her character from her earliest childhood. When she was very young, her family removed from Liverpool to the neighbourhood of St. Asaph, in North Wales. She married at an early age — and her married life, after the birth of five sons, was clouded by separation from her husband. On the death of her mother, with whom she had resided, she broke up her establishment in Wales, and removed to Wavertree, in the neighbourhood of Liverpool — from whence, after a residence of about three years, she again removed to Dublin, — her last resting-place.

From childhood, her thirst for knowledge was extreme, and her reading great and varied. Those who, while admitting the high-toned beauty of her poetry, accused it of monotony of style and subject, (they could not deny to it the praise of originality, seeing that it founded a school of imitators in England, and a yet larger in America,) little knew to what historical research she had applied herself — how far and wide she had sought for food with which to fill her eager mind. It is true that she only used a part of the mass of information which she had collected, — for she never wrote on calculation, but from the strong impulse of the moment, and it was her nature intimately to take home to herself and appropriate only what was high-hearted, imaginative, and refined. Her knowledge of classic literature, however, may be distinctly traced in her Sceptic, her Modern Greece, and many other lyrics. Her study and admiration of the works of ancient Greek and Roman art, were strengthened into an abiding love of the beautiful, which breathes both in the sentiment and structure of every line she wrote (for there are few of our poets more faultlessly musical in their versification); and when, subsequently, she opened for herself the treasuries of German and Spanish legend and literature, how thoroughly she had imbued with their spirit may be seen in her Siege of Valencia, in her glorious, and chivalric Songs of the Cid, and in her Lays of Many Lands, the idea of which was suggested by Herder's Stimmen der Volker in Liedern.

But though her mind was enriched by her wide acquaintance with the poetical and historical literature of other countries, it possessed a strong and decidedly marked character of its own, which coloured all her productions — a character which, though anything but feeble or sentimental, was essentially feminine. Her imagination was rich, chaste, and glowing; those who only its published fruits, little guessed at the extent of its variety.

It is difficult to enumerate the titles of her principal works. Her first childish efforts were published when she was only thirteen, and we can only name her subsequent poems — Wallace, Dartmoor, The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy, and her Dramatic Scenes. These were, probably, written in the happiest period of her life, when her mind was rapidly developing itself, and its progress was aided by judicious and intelligent counsellors, among, whom may be mentioned Bishop Heber. A favourable notice of one of these poems will be found in Lord Byron's Letters; and the fame of her opening talent had reached Shelley, who addressed a very singular correspondence to her. With respect to the world in general, her name began to be known by the publication of her Welsh Melodies, of her Siege of Valencia, and the scattered lyrics which appeared in the New Monthly Magazine, then under the direction of Campbell. She had previously contributed a series of prose papers, on Foreign Literature, to Constable's Edinburgh Magazine, which, with little exception, are the only specimens of that style of writing ever attempted by her. To the Siege of Valencia, succeeded rapidly, her Forest Sanctuary, her Records of Woman, (the most successful of her works,) her Songs of the Affections (containing, perhaps, her finest poem, The Spirit's Return;) her National Lyrics and Songs for Music, (most of which have been set to music by her sister, and become popular), and her Scenes and Hymns of Life.

We should also mention her tragedy, The Vespers of Palermo, which, though containing many fine thoughts and magnificent bursts of poetry, was hardly fitted for the stage; and the songs which she contributed to Col. Hodges' Peninsular Melodies.

She had been urged by a friend to undertake a prose work, and a series of Artistic Novels, something after the manner of Tieck, and Goethe's Kunst-Romanen, as likely to be congenial to her own tastes and habits of mind, and to prove most acceptable to the public.

"I have now," she says, (in a letter written not long since), "passed through the feverish and somewhat visionary state of mind often connected with the passionate study of art in early life; deep affections, and deep sorrows, seem to have solemnized my whole being, and I now feel as if bound to higher and holier tasks, though I may occasionally lay aside, I could not long wander from without some sense of dereliction. I hope it is no self-delusions, but I cannot help sometimes feeling as if it were my true task to enlarge the sphere of Sacred Poetry, and extend its influence. When you receive my volume of Scenes and Hymns, you will see what I mean by enlarging its sphere, though my plan as yet is very imperfectly developed."

In private life, Mrs. Hemans was remarkable for shrinking from the vulgar honours of "lionism," with all the quiet delicacy of a gentlewoman; and at a time when she wits courted by offers of friendship and service, and homages sent to her from every corner of Great Britain and America, to an extent which it is necessary to have seen to believe, she was never so happy its when she could draw her own small circle around her, and, secure in the honest sympathy of its members, give full scope to the powers of conversation, which were rarely exerted in general society, and their existence, therefore, hardly suspected. It will surprise many to be told, that she might, at any moment, have gained herself a brilliant reputation as a wit, for her use of illustration and language was as happy and quaint, as her fancy was quick and excursive; but she was, wisely for her own peace of mind, anxious rather to conceal than to display these talents. Her sensitiveness on this point, prevented her ever visiting London after her name had become celebrated: and, in fact, she was not seldom reproached by her zealous friends for undervaluing, and refusing to enjoy, the honours which were the deserved reward of her high talents, and for shutting herself up, as it were, in a corner, when she ought to have taken her place in the world of society as a leading star. The few who knew her will long remember her eager child-like affection, and the sincere kindliness with which, while she threw herself fully and frankly on their good offices, she adopted their interests as her own.

Her health had for many years been precarious and delicate: the illness of which she died was long and complicated, but, from the first, its close was foreseen; and we know from those in close connexion with her, that her spirit was placid and resolved, and that she looked forward to the approach of the last struggle without a fear.