1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Felicia Hemans

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 134.



FELICIA DOROTHEA BROWNE was born in Liverpool, on the 21st of September, 1793. Her father was Irish, and her mother German; — much or the romance which pervaded her character from earliest childhood may be traced to this mixed descent. Her first youth was passed among the mountains and valleys of North Wales: scenes so fertile in sublimity and beauty produced their natural effects; the earnest and continual study of Shakspeare led to the power of giving language to thought, — and before she had entered her thirteenth year, a printed collection of her Juvenile Poems was actually before the world. From this period to the close of her life she continued to send forth volume after volume, — each surpassing the other in sweetness and power: it seemed as if the intellectual mine was inexhaustible, and perhaps her last production, of any length, will be considered her best. She married early: her marriage was not a happy one. Into the cause of her husband's estrangement, after she had borne him five sons, it is not our province to inquire; but it is impossible not to feel that the circumstance contributed to produce that sadness, which, as an under-current, runs through all her works:

Have I not tried, and striven, and failed to bind
One true heart unto me, whereon my own
Alight find a resting place?

She resided several years at St. Asaph, then removed to Wavertree, near Liverpool, and finally to Dublin, where she died on the 16th of May, 1835.

The character of Mrs. Hemans is in beautiful keeping with her poetry. Like the sweetest of all singing birds she was often heard but rarely seen. After her name became familiar to every reader in England, she shrunk from the public gaze, — and, we believe, never visited the Metropolis. We have, however, the testimony of more than one intimate and loving friend, that her unwillingness to enter general society arose from no unworthy disrelish for it. All her sympathies were in common with mankind. She is said to have possessed considerable beauty in youth: but thought and anxiety had done the work of years, — and it had passed long before its time. Her form was exceedingly delicate; her countenance was gentle, yet full of expression and intelligence; and her long hair of silken auburn continued to the last remarkably profuse. Her manners were unassuming: she was reserved to strangers — but among her friends cheerful even to playfulness. We have heard one of the most beloved of all her familiar associates — a kindred spirit, also too early lost — speak of her with the most earnest and devoted affection. She described her conversation as singularly fascinating, — full of rich poetry; and Mr. Chorley, who loved her when living, and honoured her memory when dead, relates that some of her poems, were printed almost exactly as they were spoken.

The poetry of Mrs. Hemans will endure as long as the language in which it is written. It is essentially feminine. A tone of gentle, unforced, and persuasive GOODNESS pervades it: it displays no fiery passion, and resort, to no vehement appeal; — it touches upon nothing degraded or unnatural; it is often sad, but never exhibits "a discontented or repining spirit;" and though it affords continual proofs of an eager longing for a "better land," and a mournful consciousness that her "Soul's lofty gifts" were insufficient "To quench Its panting thirst for happiness;" it manifests no unwillingness to bear meekly patiently, and trustingly, the thousand ills that flesh is heir to. Few Poets, living or dead, have written so much, and written so well. There is not, indeed, one among her productions that we might cast from us with indifference, or "willingly let die." Her diction is harmonious and free; her themes, though infinitely varied, are all happily chosen, and treated with grace, originality, and judgment. Her poetry is full of images — but they are always natural and true: it is studded with ornaments — but they are never unbecoming; she selected and distributed them with singular felicitiy. Though rarely energetic, she is never languid, — her tenderness never wearies; her piety — one of the chief sources of her power and her success-never degenerates into bitterness, but is at all times fervid and humanizing. The poetry of Mrs. Hemans, indeed, may be likened to a Cathedral chaunt, — deep, solemn, and impressive; entrancing rather than exciting — and depressing rather than elevating the spirits of those whose "spirits are attentive."