Amongst her many gifted daughters there is not one which Ireland has greater reason to feel proud of than the subject of this sketch. There is no record of any other Irishwoman — save the "Speranza" of our own day and the "Psyche" of three-quarters of a century ago — having so successfully wooed the Muse. Few writers have been so fortunate in their literary careers as was Felicia Dorothea Hemans. Adverse or unjust criticism was a thing she had but little experience of, save when — at the early age of eleven — she published her first volume of poems, for in after years the reviewers seemed to have banded together to endeavour to find expressions strong enough illustrative of their admiration of her genius. She was essentially a Christian poet, and in perusing her voluminous works the reader cannot fail to be impressed by her marvellous perception of the true and the beautiful. These attributes, added to her extreme womanliness, constitute the chief charms of her poetry. Whatever subject she descanted upon, or whatever scene she described, her metaphors are always of refined and exceeding beauty. Her moral perceptions were so pure and noble that she seemed to shed a heavenly radiance upon the earthly subjects of her verse. All her poetry — from her very earliest efforts — has a tinge of sadness pervading it; as though she ever realised the fleeting nature of earthly beauty. "She saw the perfectness of the Creator's works in theft most attractive forms; but she also saw that Death was in the world, and that all which was made was subject to the Destroyer."
Feicia Dorothea Browne was born in Duke Street, Liverpool, on the 25th of September, 1794. She was the second daughter of an Irishman named Browne, who carried on an extensive business as a wine merchant. Mr. Browne had married a lady named Wagner, of mixed Venetian and Italian descent, and to this mingling of nationalities. Mrs. Hemans afterwards attributed much of her romantic temperament. Unfortunate pecuniary speculations — joined, it is to be feared, to improvident habits — so reduced Mr. Browne's means that he was obliged to give up his business in Liverpool and retire with his wife and five children to St. Asaph, in Wales. Here they lived in great seclusion, and Mr. Browne dying soon after, his widow and children appeared to have less reason to sorrow for his death than for the destitute condition to which they had been reduced before that event took place.
After the death of her husband, Mrs. Browne, who was a woman of high intellectual acquirements, devoted her time to the education of her children. Nothing pleased her so much as to gather her little ones around her, and to tell them some story culled from the German legends learnt in her own earlier days, or some chivalrous tale of Venetia. Her children fully appreciated her love and tenderness for them, and her anxiety concerning their mental training. All through life her gifted daughter, Felicia, was passionately attached to her, and her first poetical effort, written at the age of eight, was addressed to her mother, and runs thus:—
ON MY MOTHER'S BIRTHDAY.
Clad in all their brightest green,
This day the verdant fields are seen;
The tuneful birds begin their lay,
To celebrate thy natal day.
The breeze is still, the sea is calm,
And the whole scene combines to charm;
The flowers revive, this charming May,
Because it is thy natal day.
The sky is blue, the day serene,
And only pleasure now is seen;
The rose, the pink, the tulip gay,
Combine to bless thy natal day.
The young poetess henceforth constantly expressed her thoughts in verse. All her earlier poems were chiefly addressed to the members of her own family, to familiar friends, or had for their themes some of the objects of interest in the neighbourhood, but seldom dealt with abstract subjects. These poems, written at intervals between her eighth and her thirteenth years, were collected and published in 1808, under the title of Early Blossoms. It was upon this occasion only that she tasted the bitterness of incisive and unsparing criticism. "When the severe sentence thus passed on these childish effusions had been announced," says one of her friends, "their little author was put to bed for several days, weeping, and heart-sick of vexation and disappointment. This was the first and the last time that she tasted the bitterness of criticism."
But these early poems show a prodigality and wealth of fancy and metaphor which justify the criticism being condemned as an unjust one. Her Invocation to the Fairies is a wonderful production to have emanated from the brain of a child; and the following Ode to Liberty" was surely earnest of the genius which expanded so brilliantly and soared to such heights in after years:—
ODE TO LIBERTY.
Where the bold rock majestic towers or high,
Projecting to the sky
Where the impetuous torrent's rapid course
Dashes with headlong force;
Where scenes less wild, less awful, meet the eye,
And cultured vales and cottages appear;
Where softer tints the mellow landscape dye,
More simply beautiful, more fondly dear;
There sportive Liberty delights to rove,
To rove unseen, In the dell or in the grove,
'Midst woodlands green.
And when placid eve advancing,
Faintly shadows all the ground;
Liberty, with Hebe dancing,
Wanders through the meads around.
Fair wreaths of brightest flowers she loves to twine,
Moss-rose, and bluebell wild;
The pink, the hyacinth with these combine,
And azure violet, Nature's sweetest child!
When the moonbeam, silvery streaming,
Pierces through the myrtle shade;
Then, her eye with pleasure beaming,
She trips along the sylvan glade.
She loves to sing in accents soft,
When the woodlark soars aloft;
She loves to wake the sprightly horn,
And swell the joyful note to celebrate the morn!
In the dell, or in the grove, Liberty delights to rove;
By the ruined moss-grown tower,
By the woodland, or the bower;
On the summit thence to view
The landscape clad in varied hue;
By the hedgerow, on the lawn,
Sporting with the playful fawn;
Where the winding river flows,
And the pensile osier grows,
In the cool impervious grove,
Liberty delights to rove.
The following year Mrs. Browne removed with her family to Bronwylfa, in Flintshire, in order to afford her children additional educational advantages. Here the industrious young poetess pursued her studies indefatigably. French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese were amongst her studies. She had an extraordinary talent for acquiring languages, and there was scarcely a modern European tongue which she could not read fluently. Her numerous translations from the literature of many lands attest this, as does also the remarkable manner in which she catches the spirit of the various poets of whom she has given imitations or translations. She was also a student of German literature; but the warmth of colouring and the halo of romance surrounding the effusions of the Italian and Spanish poets were more congenial to her. Nor were other branches of her education neglected. Felicia Dorothea Browne both drew and painted well; in addition, she evinced a decided taste for music, but never devoted to it the time necessary in order to become a first-rate performer. The influence of her residence in the Principality is very distinctly evinced in Miss Browne's poems written at this period. The grand, lonely, and romantic character of the scenery with which she was surrounded made a deep impression upon her sensitive nature; and many of her best poetical pieces are upon Welsh subjects.
Whilst living at Bronwylfa, the young poetess made the acquaintance of Captain Hemans. She was then but fifteen or sixteen years of age, and in the first flush of that beauty which was destined to fade so early. "The mantling bloom of her cheeks," says Mrs. Hale, "was shaded by a profusion of natural ringlets, of a rich golden brown; and the ever-varying expression of her brilliant eyes gave a changeful play to her countenance, which would have made it impossible for any painter to do justice to it. No wonder that so fair a creature should excite the admiration of the gallant Captain." They were both very much in love with each other; but prudence forbade their immediate marriage. Captain Hemans was suddenly called to Spain with his regiment, and upon his return in 1812 they were married.
The same year, Mrs. Hemans published her poems upon the Domestic Affections. They were the last of what may be termed her juvenile productions; and there are few lines or thoughts in the whole collection which excel any to be found in her earlier volume of poems. The Ruin and its Flowers is by far the best. It was written on an excursion to the old fortress of Dyganwy, the remains of which are situated on a bold promontory near the entrance to the river Conway, and whose ivied walls, now fast mouldering into oblivion, once bore their part bravely in the defence of Wales. They are further endeared to the lovers of song and tradition as having echoed the complaints of the captive Elphin, and resounded to the harp of Taliesin.
Never was there a more ill-assorted marriage than that of Captain and Mrs. Hemans. He was prosaic and practical to a fault; she was equally imaginative and unpractical. She carried her romantic feelings and ideas into the commonest walks of life, where they are not always treated with consideration, and are, moreover, often looked upon as being insupportably tedious. No doubt there were faults upon both sides. She was incapable of conforming to the ordinary rules of dull domestic life; and, from what can be gathered in a fragmentary manner, he seems to have gone into the opposite extreme, and to have made no allowance for her peculiar mental construction. Captain Hemans married a young, lovely, highly-cultured, enthusiastic poetess, and he was disappointed when she did not at once settle down to the very mundane matters of suckling fools and chronicling small-beer. "Almost daily facts," says one of Mrs. Hemans's biographers, "assure us that a female assuming a decided literary character — whether the assumption spring from an early attachment and devotedness to learning, or from the hope of winning without effort the heart of some amateur of the same craft — whether it he adopted before the tender passion buds, or after it has begun to blossom — stands the least chance, in the present state of male opinions on this subject, of accomplishing her object, and becoming a wife of any importance in the world. The present and the past age have been distinguished by females no less honoured for their talents than beloved for their virtues; but most of them either died or are living in single blessedness, while the few who are remembered or known as wives were the least distinguished of the entire class as literary women."
Notwithstanding the want of sympathy between them, and the consequent absence of harmony, this unequally-yoked pair lived together for some years, and five sons were born unto them. But even the children were not peacemakers; the breach between husband and wife daily grew wider, and at length they separated with mutual consent. Captain Hemans went to reside at Rome, and his wife, to whom he made a liberal allowance, returned to her mother, with whom she lived until the death of the latter.
At the time of the separation Mrs. Hemans was but six-and-twenty, and her name was already well known and welcomed as a favourite poetess. In 1816 she had published her two first important poems — viz., The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy, and Modern Greece. Few poets of that day, or, indeed, of even later times, have written about these Southern lands without the influence of Byron's works cropping up somewhere. The poems of Mrs Hemans are striking exceptions, for she writes with a loftiness of purpose and a purity of sentiment peculiarly her own. The publication of the two afore-mentioned poems stamped Mrs. Hemans as a poetess of the first order. Indeed, her actual career as an authoress may be said to have commenced when they appeared. Her earlier and very juvenile productions are chiefly matters of curiosity, although giving good earnest of the greater things which followed. Her intellectual career may be divided into three parts — the juvenile, the classical (commencing with the publication of The Restoration of the Works of Art), and the romantic, which commences with The Forest Sanctuary, and includes The Records of Woman, and all the later efforts of her muse.
In Modern Greece Mrs. Hemans displays a chaste splendour of versification and imagery which none of her later works have achieved. Moreover, no other work of hers shows more clearly the wide range of her reading. Ancient and modern history, travels, the literature of other lands, all were laid under contribution. It is doubtful whether Mrs. Hemans ever wrote anything more sublime than her Modern Greece. After recounting in glorious verse the vain struggles of the Greeks for liberty, she says:—
Now is that strife a tale of vanished days,
With mightier things forgotten soon to lie;
Yet oft hath minstrel sung, in lofty lays,
Deeds less adventurous, energies less high.
And the dread struggle's fearful memory still
O'er each wild rock a wilder aspect throws;
Sheds darker shadows o'er the frowning hill,
More solemn quiet o'er the glen's repose;
Lends to the rustling pines a deeper moan,
And the hoarse river's voice a murmur not its own.
For stillness now — the stillness of the dead—
Hath wrapt that conflict's lone and awful scene,
And man's forsaken homes, in ruin spread,
Tell where the storming of the cliffs hath been.
And there, o'er wastes magnificently rude,
What race may rove, unconscious of the chain?
Those realms have now no desert unsubdued,
Where Freedom's banner may be reared again:
Sunk are the ancient dwellings of her fame,
The children of her sons inherit but their name.
Mrs. Hemans was an omnivorous reader. It has been said that the booksellers and librarians of every place she resided in could prove — more by the works they were not able to procure for her than by those they could furnish — the extent and variety of her studies. "She explored every possible and probable source whence she might extract fresh materials to aid and embody her bright imaginings; while her own fancy was rich and glowing, and as her piety advanced essayed more lofty flights, she drew as largely from the stores of others as they could appropriately furnish, or her time and power of thought could enable her to make their best sentiments her own. And this course she pursued at all times, in season and out of season; by night and day; on her chair, and sofa, and bed; at home and abroad; invalid, convalescent, and in perfect health; in rambles, and 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. Could such a mind symbolise with that of a plodding commonplace gentleman, thrown by the cessation of war into a state of official inactivity, and possessing a larger share than usually falls to the lot of one military man in a thousand of the cool, calculating 'utilitarianism' of secluded life?"
In Blackwood's Magazine, for April, 1818, appeared Mrs. Hemans's exquisite Stanzas on the Death of the Princess Charlotte. It is one of the chief works of this period of her career, and is the first poem in which the womanly tenderness of the writer's heart is betrayed. Hitherto her productions had been more platonic and classical, but in these elegiac verses she is all a woman. Upon their publication the name of the author was on every lip. The poem was enthusiastically read, and studied, and wept over; it appealed to the hearts of all, as her former important poems had appealed to the intellects of her readers. Many an one besides he to whom allusion is made in the following lines echoed the sentiment of them:—
Oh! there are griefs for Nature too intense,
Whose first rude shock but stupefies the soul;
Nor hath this fragile and o'erlaboured sense
Strength e'en to feel, at once, their dread control.
But when tis past, that still and speechless hour,
Of the seal'd bosom and the tearless eye,
Then the roused mind awakes, with tenfold power
To grasp the fulness of its agony!
Its death-like torpor vanished — and its doom,
To cast its own dark hues o'er life and Nature's bloom.
And such his lot, whom thou hast loved and left,
Spirit thus early to thy home recalled!
So sinks the heart, of hope and thee bereft,
A warrior's heart! which danger ne'er appalled.
Years may pass on — and, as they roll along,
Mellow those pangs which now his bosom rend;
And he once more, with life's unheeding throng,
May, though alone in soul, in seeming blend;
Yet still, the guardian angel of his mind
Shall thy loved image dwell, in Memory's temple shrined.
How inexpressibly touching is the allusion to the poor mad old king in the following stanza:—
Yet there is one who loved thee — and whose soul
With mild affections Nature formed to melt;
His mind hath bowed beneath the stern control,
Of many a grief — but this shall be unfelt!
Years have gone by, and given his honoured head
A diadem of snow; his eye is dim;
Around him Heaven a solemn cloud hath spread—
The past, the future, are a dream to him!
Yet, in the darkness of his fate, alone
He dwells on earth, while thou, in life's full pride, art gone!
Close upon the publication of the foregoing, followed the longest and most important of Mrs. Hemans's poems, upon Scottish themes. A member of the Highland Society, wishing to raise a suitable national monument to the memory of Wallace, offered prizes for the three best poems upon the subject. This was done with the view of giving popularity to the project. There were many competitors for the prizes, and the judges must have had a no less laborious than amusing task, to wade through the piles of manuscript which they received. One of the contributions is said to have been as long as Paradise Lost! But they set to work; the labour of reading the manuscripts was accomplished, and the first prize unanimously awarded to Mrs. Hemans. She had entered the lists as a competitor, at the earnest solicitation of a friend in Edinburgh, although not in the least sanguine of success. The Ettrick Shepherd was one of the unsuccessful candidates, and forgot his discomfiture in his generous laudation of his rival. "This poem," says he, speaking of his own attempt, "was hurriedly and reluctantly written, in compliance with the solicitations of a friend who would not be gainsaid, to compete for a prize offered by a gentleman for the best poem upon the subject. The prize was finally awarded to Mrs. Felicia Hemans; and, as far as the merits of mine went, very justly, hers being greatly superior both in elegance of thought and composition. Had I been constituted the judge myself, I would have given hers the preference by many degrees; and I estimated it the more highly as coming from one of the people that were the hero's foes, oppressors, and destroyers. I think my heart never warmed so much to an author for any poem that ever was written." What acceptable praise this must have been, coming from such a man as the author of The Queen's Wake!
There were fifty-seven competitors for the prize: that a Scottish prize, for a poem on a subject purely Scottish, should have been awarded to a candidate of another nationality, is a very clear proof of the impartiality and fair dealing of the judges.
"Mrs. Hemans so soon again!" exclaimed the Edinburgh Review, when the result of the competition was known, "and with a palm in her hand! We welcome her cordially, and rejoice to find the high opinion of her genius which we lately expressed so unequivocally confirmed."
About this time Mrs. Hemans made the acquaintance of the celebrated Reginald Heber, famous throughout the world as the author of the well-known missionary hymn, "From Greenland's icy mountains." It is the least meritorious, from a literary point of view, of any of his productions, but upon it his popular fame chiefly rests. Mr. Reginald Heber was the first literary character Mrs. Hemans ever was personally acquainted with; the secluded country life she led, occupied with her literary pursuits, her studies, and her children, debarring her from any intercourse with the great world. Heber admired her classical poems, and sought her out in the hope that she might take for her themes some of the many subjects to be found in Biblical lore. There is no doubt but that his advice exercised an influence upon her later poetry, which soon developed that sacred and seraphic character, by which, amongst female poets, she will ever be distinguished. Acting upon the advice of Mr. Heber, Mrs. Hemans offered her Vespers of Palermo to the stage. It was acted at Covent Garden in 1823, but proved a failure. The poet Milman interested himself in its behalf, and it was subsequently acted in Edinburgh with considerable success, the epilogue being written by Sir Walter Scott.
The enormous number of poems which flowed from the pen of the poetess is quite as remarkable as the great variety of subjects of which they treat. The brightest period of her fame is considered that when she published the Forest Sanctuary, and, above all, her Records of Woman. She was now also in correspondence with some of the most noted literary women of the age: with Johanna Baillie, Anne Grant, Mary Mitford, Caroline Bowles, Mary Howitt, and Mrs. Fletcher — formerly Miss Jewsbury — the latter her devoted and admiring friend. It was certainly the most peaceful portion of her life; but the death of her mother, in 1827, broke up the little Welsh household at St. Asaph, and Mrs. Hemans decided upon removing to Liverpool. Several reasons induced her to come to this determination: her own failing health, for which she thought her native air might prove beneficial; her desire again to see something of society, and her wish to be in the neighbourhood of some good schools for the sake of her children. She took a small house in the suburbs, and lived there during the three most distinguished and important years of her life. The house was "the third of a row," and a friend of hers gives the following graphic account of Mrs. Hemans's visitors:—
"Scarcely had she settled herself at Wavertree than she was besieged by visitors to a number positively alarming; a more heterogeneous company cannot be imagined. Many came merely to stare at the strange poetess, others called on regular morning visits, while a third and worst class brought in their hands small cargoes of cut-and-dry compliment, and, as she used to declare, had primed themselves for their visit by getting up a certain number of her poems. Small satisfaction had they in their visits. They found a lady neither short nor tall, no longer youthful or beautiful in her appearance, yet with hair of the true auburn tinge, and as silken, profuse, and curling as it had ever been; with manners quiet and refined, a little reserved; and one, too, who lent no ear to the news of the day. The ladies, when they departed, had to tell that her room was in a sad litter with books and papers, that the strings of her harp were half of them broken, and that she wore a veil on her head like no one else."
Shortly after fixing her residence at Wavertree, Mrs. Hemans paid her first visit to Scotland. Her fame having already preceded her, she was enthusiastically received. Upon this occasion she was accompanied by two of her children, a circumstance which should be noted by those who are forward in censuring her imputed want of domestic affection. Whilst in Scotland she was lionised as much as ever was Sir Walter Scott or Miss Edgeworth in London. The former invited her to stay at Abbotsford, where she pent a few very happy days. "With him," she says in one of her letters, "I am now in constant intercourse, taking long walks over moor and woodland, and listening to song and legend of other times, till my mind forgets itself, and is carried wholly back to the days of the slogan and the fiery cross, and the wide gathering of border chivalry. I cannot say enough of his cordial kindness to me; it makes me feel when at Abbotsford as if the stately rooms of that ancestral-looking place were old familiar scenes to me." She also informs her correspondent of her having "just become acquainted with the Dominie — the veritable Dominie Sampson-being no other than a clergyman of this neighbourhood, Melrose, a tall man, with long parted hair and a wooden leg. Be it known to you all that the Dominie professeth the most profound admiration for me, after the solemn expression of which you may be well assured that all other homage must be flat and unprofitable."
Her visit to Scotland extended from June to September, and during her stay there she composed many of the Songs of the Affections, notably, The Spirit's Return. Mrs. Hemans always said that she preferred the latter poem to anything she had ever written. "But if there be," she writes, "as my friends say, a greater power in it than I hitherto evinced, I paid dearly for the discovery, and it almost made me tremble as I sounded the deep places of my soul."
I woke to love: — O gentle Friend! to love in doubt and woe,
Shutting the heart the worshipped name above,
Is to love deeply — and my spirit's dower
Was a sad gift, a melancholy power
Of so adoring; — with a buried care,
And with the o'erflowing of a voiceless prayer,
And with the deepening dream, that day by day,
In the still shadow of its lonely sway,
Folded me closer; — till the world held nought,
Save the one Being to my centred thought.
There was no music but his voice to hear,
No joy but such as with his step drew near;
Light was but where he looked-life where he moved—
Silently, fervently, thus, thus I loved.
Oh! but such love is fearful!
* * * *
He died — he died,
On whom my lone devotedness was cast!
I might not keep one vigil by his side,
I, whose wrung heart watched with him to the last!
I might not once his fainting head sustain,
Nor bathe his parched lips in the hour of pain,
Nor say to him "Farewell." — He passed away—
Oh! had my love been there, its conquering sway
Had won him back from death! — but thus removed,
Borne o'er the abyss no sounding line hath proved,
Joined with the unknown, the viewless, — he became
Unto my thoughts another, yet the same—
Changed — hallowed — glorified! — and his low grave
Seemed a bright mournful altar — mine, all mine:—
Brother and Friend soon left me that sole shrine,
The birthright of the Faithful! — their world's wave
Soon swept them from its brink. — Oh! deem then not
That on the sad and consecrated spot
My soul grew weak! — I tell thee that a power
There kindled heart and lip; — a fiery shower
My words were made; — a might was given to prayer,
And a strong grasp to passionate despair,
And a dread triumph! — Knowest thou what I sought?
For what high boon my struggling spirit wrought?—
Communion with the dead!
During the same year Mrs. Hemans had many applications from editors and others to contribute something, were it ever so little, to various magazines and annuals. In her endeavours to keep her numerous engagements she quite overworked herself, and the winter of 1829 saw her again in delicate health, and seemingly but little benefited by her tour to Scotland. Some of the better known and more popular of her poems were composed during these few months — namely, The Lady of Provence, The Child's First Grief, The Better Land, numerous shorter poems upon various subjects, and her exquisite Ode to a Wandering Female Singer. In 1830 the Songs of the Affections were published; and whilst they were yet in the press the health of their author again broke down, and she was forced to try the effects of change of air and scene. Mrs. Hemans had long been an admirer of Wordsworth's poems, and now, taking advantage of her enforced holiday, she visited the veteran poet at Rydal Mount. She resided in the vicinity of Windermere for several months, having hired a tiny cottage called Dove's Nest, beautifully situated in a romantic spot near Ambleside.
Wordsworth and his family paid her much attention, and in her letters written from Dove's Nest she constantly speaks of the unremitting kindness and sympathy of the poet. To him, in 1834, Mrs. Hemans dedicated her Scenes and Hymns of Life, in "token of deep respect for his character and fervent gratitude for moral and intellectual benefit derived from reverential communion with the spirit of his poetry." Such was the dedication which went forth to the world, prefixed to the first volume of the work. After her death, however, a letter was found bearing the inscription — "Intended Dedication of the Scenes and Hymns of Life, to William Wordsworth, Esq." This letter, in which Mrs. Hemans had given free scope to her sentiments, not only of veneration for the poet, but of deep and grateful regard for the friend, was never published, but its substantial ideas are conveyed in the brief dedication before quoted. Towards the conclusion of this letter Mrs. Hemans says: — "May I be permitted on the present occasion to record my unfading recollections of enjoyment from your society — of delight in having heard from your own lips, and amidst your own lovely mountain land, many of those compositions, the remembrance of which will ever spread over its hills and waters a softer colouring of spiritual beauty. Let me also express to you, as to a dear and most honoured friend, my fervent wishes for your long enjoyment of a widely-extended influence, which cannot but be blessed — of a domestic life encircling you with yet nearer and deeper sources of happiness; and of those eternal hopes, on whose foundation you have built, as a Christian poet, the noble structure of your works."
A desire to economise, and to give her younger sons the advantages of an university education, combined with an imperative necessity for change of air, induced Mrs. Hemans to leave Wavertree in 1831, and to take up her residence in Dublin. She made a short tour through the land of her fathers during the summer, and finally fixed her residence in the Irish capital. New scenes gave her new themes for her facile pen; as numerous songs, lyrics, and other shorter pieces attest. Many of these poems are memorials of the various places she visited in Ireland. Amongst varied scenes of interest she singles out for especial mark of her regard, the tomb of Mrs. Mary Tighe, the author of Psyche. After visiting it Mrs Hemans wrote her Grave of a Poetess, one of the most touching poems in her Records of Women. Later on we find another poem upon the same subject, entitled Written after Visiting a Tomb, near Woodstock, in the County of Kilkenny:—
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.
And she, that voiceless below me slept,
Flowed not her song from a heart that wept?
O, Love and Song! though of heaven your powers,
Dark is your fate in this world of ours.
Yet, are I turned from that silent place,
Or ceased from watching thy sunny race,
Thou, even thou, on those glancing wings
Didst waft me visions of brighter things!
Thou that dost image the freed soul's birth,
And its flight away o'er the mists of earth,
Oh! fitly thy path is through flowers that rise
Round the dark chamber where Genius lies!
Whilst residing in Dublin one of Mrs. Hemans's chief pleasures was to attend the choral services at St. Patrick's Cathedral. She has recorded her impressions of it in a little poem, entitled The Music of St. Patrick's. There was one anthem, frequently heard within those ancient walls, of which Mrs. Hemans used to speak with peculiar enthusiasm — that from the 3rd Psalm, "Lord, how are they increased that trouble me." The symphony to the fifth verse — "I laid me down and slept" — with its soft, dreamy vibrations, almost "steep the senses in forgetfulness," when a sudden outbreak, as it were, of life and light bursts forth with the glad announcement, "I awaked for the Lord sustained me." No marvel that it made a deep impression upon the sensitive mind of the poetess; that grand old anthem once heard resounding through those dim ancient arches on a Sunday afternoon in winter, could never he effaced from the memory of any one who had listened to it.
Mrs. Hemans now wrote incessantly, notwithstanding her rapidly-failing health. Pecuniary considerations are supposed to have actuated her to do so at this period of her literary career, more than at any other time. She had a limited income, was anxious to educate her sons well, and her weak physical state required those considerations which make money a necessity. From poetry she turned her attention to prose, and in May, 1834, published a paper on Tasso, in the New Monthly Magazine. Scarcely were the proofs corrected when she was seized with fever, and during her convalescence was again obliged to seek change of air and scene. She visited Wicklow a second time, residing in the neighbourhood of the lovely valley of the Dargle, which she has immortalised in verse. Whilst staying in the County Wicklow she made a pilgrimage to Rosanna, once the residence of the author of Psyche, in memory of which gifted singer she wrote the following lines in the album there:—
Ohl lightly tread, through these deep chestnut-bowers,
Where a sweet spirit once in beauty moved!
And touch with reverent hand those leaves and flowers.
Fair things, which well a gentle heart hath loved!
A gentle heart, of love and grief th' abode,
Whence the bright stream of song in tear-drops flowed.
And bid its memory sanctity the scene!
And let th' ideal presence of the dead
Float round, and touch the woods with softer green,
And o'er the streams a charm, like moonlight, shed,
Through the souls depths in holy silence felt—
A spell to raise, to chasten, and to melt!
Upon her return to Dublin Mrs. Hemans was seized with an attack of ague; and this insidious and harassing complaint continued its visitations for several weeks, reducing her poor, wasted form to the most lamentable state of debility, and at length retiring only to make way for a train of symptoms still more fatal and distressing. The following graphic account of Mrs. Hemans's situation at this time, is from the pen of her sister:—
"While the work of decay was going on thus surely and progressively upon the earthly tabernacle, the bright flame within continued to burn with a pure and holy light, and, at times, even to flash forth with more than wonted brightness. The lyric of Despondency and Aspiration, which may he considered as her noblest and highest effort, and in which, from a feeling that it might be her last work, she felt anxious to concentrate all her powers, was written during the few intervals accorded her from acute suffering or powerless languor. And in the same circumstances she wrote, or rather dictated, the series of sonnets called Thoughts during Sickness, which present so interesting a picture of the calm, submissive tone of her mind, whether engaged in tender remembrances of the past, or in solemn and reverential speculations on the future. The one entitled Sickness like Night, discloses a view no less affecting than consolatory of the sweet and blessed peace which hovered round the couch where — "Mutely and hopelessly she lay reposing." The last sonnet of the series, entitled Recovery, was written under temporary appearances of convalescence, which proved as fugitive as they were fallacious."
The following months of November and December were spent by Mrs. Hemans at Redesdale, a country seat of Dr. Whately, then Archbishop of Dublin. Here she gave herself up to absolute quiet, and returned to Dublin much improved in health. But this slight return of strength was only fleeting, for early in the spring of 1835 her debility rapidly increased, and she felt herself that her days were numbered. One of her friends thus describes her state at this time: — "Mrs. Hemans was now too ill to leave her room, and was only laid upon a couch during the daytime, 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 seashore — 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.' At times her spirit would seem to be already half etherealised, 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.'"
Mrs. Hemans seemed to gather some vitality as the spring advanced, but towards the middle of April the former unfavourable symptoms again manifested themselves. On Sunday, the 26th of April, she dictated to her brother the Sabbath Sonnet:—
How many blessed groups this hour are wending,
Thro' England's primrose meadow-paths, their way
Towards spire and tower, 'midst shadowy elms ascending,
Whence the sweet chimes proclaim the hallowed day!
The halls, from old heroic ages grey,
Pour their fair children forth; and hamlets low,
With whose thick orchard-blooms the soft winds play,
Send out their inmates in a happy flow,
Like a freed vernal stream. I may not tread
With them those pathways, to the feverish bed
Of sickness bound; yet, O my God! I bless
Thy mercy, that with Sabbath-peace hath filled
My chastened heart, and all its throbbings stilled—
To one deep calm of lowliest thankfulness.
It was the last strain of the "sweet singer," whose harp was henceforth to be hung on the willows.
Exactly one month later, on the 26th of May, her sorrowing friends saw that the end was near at hand. All day she seemed to be in a stupor, and about nine o'clock in the evening the gentle spirit of Feicia Hemans passed quietly away without a struggle. She died in her house in Dawson Street, Dublin, and her remains were interred in a vault in St. Anne's Church, which is situated close to the house wherein she died. A small tablet in the wall at the right-hand side of the church tells her name, her age, and the date of her death. There are also inscribed upon it some lines from a dirge of her own.
If ever a poetess lived in her own creations it was Felicia Dorothea Hemans. The highest praise that can be accorded to her poetry, is to say that it is exceptionally feminine, and, at the same time, strong, fervid, and impassioned. Her sex could hardly wish for a better representative in the world of letters. All she has written calls for admiration, from the pure and lofty strain which pervades it, and the tone of deep religious feeling which characterizes everything that has come from her pen. A noticeable feature of her poetry is her intense yearning for human affection and sympathy; and many of her sweetest poems tell of wasted feelings and disappointed hopes. Truly, of her it may be said that she "learnt in sorrow" what she "taught in song."
The poetry of Mrs. Hemans possesses three striking characteristics: ideality, picturesqueness, and a wondrous sense of harmony. In her shorter poems, she generally takes some story or incident as a skeleton, and then clothes it with her own ideal and picturesque garments. Nothing can be more polished than her versification. Every poem is like a piece of music, with its eloquent pauses, its rich combinations, and its swelling chords. Mrs. Hemans's gifted contemporary, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, concludes a short retrospect of her works with the following remarks, which also appropriately bring this brief sketch to a close:—
"Mrs. Hemans was spared some of the keenest mortifications of a literary career. She knew nothing of it as a profession which has to make its way through poverty, neglect, and obstacles; she lived apart, in a small, affectionate circle of friends. The high-road of life, with its crowds and contention, its heat, its noise, and its dust that rests oil all, was for her happily at a distance; yet even in such green nest the bird could not fold its wings and sleep to its own music. There came the aspiring, the unrest, the aching sense of being misunderstood, the consciousness that those a thousand times inferior were yet more beloved. Genius places a woman in an unnatural position; notoriety frightens away affection; and superiority has for its attendant fear, not love. Its pleasantest emotions are too vivid to be lasting; hope may sometimes,
Raising its bright face,
With a free gush of sunny tears, erase
The characters of anguish;
but, like the azure glimpses between thunder-showers, the clouds gather more darkly around for the passing sunshine. The heart sinks back on its solitary desolation. In every page of Mrs. Hemans's writings is this sentiment impressed. What is the conclusion of Corinne crowned at the Capitol?
Radiant daughter of the sun!
Now thy living wreath is won.
Crowned of Rome oh, art thou not
Happy in that glorious lot?
Happier, happier far than thou,
With the laurel on thy brow,
She that makes the humblest hearth
Lovely but to one on earth!
"What is poetry, and what is a poetical career? The first is to have an organisation of extreme sensibility, which the second exposes bareheaded to the rudest weather. The original impulse is irresistible — all professions are engrossing when once begun; and, acting with perpetual stimulus, nothing takes more complete possession of its follower than literature. But never can success repay its cost. The work appears — it lives in the light of popular applause; but truly might the writer exclaim:
It is my youth, it is my bloom, it is my glad, free heart,
I cast away for thee — for thee — ill-fated as thou art.
"If this be true, even of one sex, how much more true of the other! Ah! Fame to a woman is indeed but a royal mourning in purple for happiness."