1853 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Felicia Hemans

Frederic Rowton, in Female Poets of Great Britain (1853) 386.



It would be as much out of good taste as it is unnecessary, to prefix a memoir of Mrs. Hemans to this brief estimate of her writings. The melancholy circumstances connected with her history are too generally known already, and should be screened rather than unveiled.

Suffice it say, therefore, that Mrs. Hemans was born in 1793, of a highly respectable family; that she was married early in life to Captain Hemans, from whom she subsequently separated; and that, after a life of singular purity and goodness, she died in 1835.

I think there can be no doubt that Mrs. Hemans takes decidedly one of the most prominent places among our Female Poets. She seems to me to represent and unite as purely and completely as any other writer in our literature the peculiar and specific qualities of the female mind. Her works are to my mind a perfect embodiment of a woman's soul: — I would say that they are intensely feminine. The delicacy, the softness, the pureness, the quick observant vision, the ready sensibility, the devotedness, the faith of woman's nature find in Mrs. Hemans their ultra representative. The very diffuseness of her style is feminine, and one would not wish it altered. Diction, manner, sentiment, passion, and belief are in her as delicately rounded off as are the bones and muscles of the Medicean Venus. There is not a harsh or angular line in her whole mental contour. I do not know a violent, spasmodic, or contorted idea in all her writings; but every page is full of grace, harmony, and expressive glowing beauty.

In nothing can one trace her feminine spirit more strikingly than in her domestic home-loving ideas. Her first volume, written before she was fifteen, is chiefly about home: it is entitled The Domestic Affections; and is full of calm sweet pictures of most gentle and refining tendency.

I would particularly refer the reader to that exquisite passage in the poem where Domestic Bliss is compared to the Violet, smiling in the vale. The image is very purely conceived, and the spirit and treatment of it are most spiritual and elevating.

No where, indeed, can we find a more pure and refined idea of home than that which pervades Mrs. Hemans's writings on the subject. She reproduced the conception in very many instances, and always with the same chasteness. The beautiful lines entitled The Homes of England, in which every class is made to participate in domestic pleasures; those called A Domestic Scene, where the father is represented as reading the evening Psalms in the soft sunset, while on his face shines—

A radiance all the spirit's own,
Caught not from sun or star;

and many more passages of similar character, might be cited in illustration.

And not only of the homes of earth has Mrs. Hemans a fervent and beautiful conception; but of a

home more pure than this
Set in the deathless azure of the sky,—

she fails not to speak also. The Temporal home suggests the Spiritual. The Mortal's resting-place on Earth prefigures the Immortal's resting-place in Heaven. The idea of heaven as a home is beautifully wrought out in her lines called The Two Homes, wherein a desolate stranger has a glowing picture of a happy home placed before him, and then is asked to describe his own. How touching is the sadness of the reply!—

In solemn peace 'tis lying
Far o'er the deserts and the tombs away;
'Tis where I, too, am loved with love undying,
And fond hearts wait my step: — But where are they?

Ask where the earth's departed have their dwelling,
Ask of the clouds, the stars, the trackless air;
I know it not, yet trust the whisper, telling
My lonely heart that love unchanged is there.

In another very important respect Mrs. Hemans finely represents the pure sentiment of her sex: I mean in her sensitive, deep, and clinging sense of affection. Her lovingness of feeling is exquisite. To passion she is well nigh a stranger; but it may be questioned whether passion ever proceeds from so great or so true a love as that more pervading and more sympathetic feeling which expresses itself less wildly. Passion may be said to be a sort of madness, resulting from an overpowering sense of beauty or desire; and seems to have in it but little of the true nature of love at all. Real affection is ever mild, ever gracious and benign. It never raves till it becomes selfish; and then it ceases to be love, and grows into a kind of guilt.

Byron is a poet of passion — indeed, of all others, the poet of passion. Love is with him a selfish and unrestrainable idolatry — wild and mighty, but fickle and forgetful. It is, while it lasts, a tempest, a hurricane, and it scathes where it alights; but its force is soon spent, and then there is no trace of it, but in the ruin it has wrought.

Far different is Mrs. Hemans. Affection is with her a serene, radiating principle, mild and ethereal in its nature, gentle in its attributes, pervading and lasting in its effects. Her soul is full of sympathies; and the refusal of sympathy seems to her almost the height of crime [excerpts and additional commentary omitted].

But, after all, it is chiefly in the strength of her religious sentiment that Mrs. Hemans most completely typifies and represents her sex. It has not now to be proved, I imagine, that in simple steadfastness of faith, in gentle calmness of hope, and in sweet enthusiasm of piety, woman far surpasses man. She has more awe, more reverence, more reliance, more implicitness, than he: and hence her greater fervour of religion. The mild, forgiving, loving doctrines of the Man of Sorrows, too, find a readier home in her heart than in man's: and hence her prominence in all works of charity and goodness. But for this, man, with his wars, strifes, and passions, would long since have turned this earth into a hell.

Mrs. Hemans, I repeat, embodies woman's religious excellence most completely. Religion is with her both an intellectual conviction and a moral persuasion. We may see here how she argues on the subject [excerpt from The Sceptic omitted].