1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Felicia Hemans

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:437-38.



MRS. HEMANS (Felicia Dorothea Browne) was born at Liverpool on the 25th September 1793. Her father was a merchant; but, experiencing some reverses, he removed with his family to Wales, and there the young poetess imbibed that love of nature which is displayed in all her works. In her fifteenth year she ventured on publication. Her first volume was far from successful; but she persevered, and in 1812 published another, entitled The Domestic Affections, and other Poems. The same year she was married to Captain Hemans; but the union does not seem to have been a happy one. She continued her studies, acquiring several languages, and still cultivating poetry. In 1818 Captain Hemans removed to Italy for the benefit of his health. His accomplished wife remained in England, and they never met again. In 1819 she obtained a prize of £50 offered by some patriotic Scotsman for the best poem on the subject of Sir William Wallace. Next year she published The Sceptic. In June 1821 she obtained the prize awarded by the Royal Society of Literature for the best poem on the subject of Dartmoor. Her next effort was a tragedy, the Vespers of Palermo, which was produced at Covent Garden, December 12, 1823; but though supported by the admirable acting of Kemble and Young, it was not successful. In 1826 appeared her best poem, the Forest Sanctuary, and in 1828, Records of Woman. She afterwards produced Lays of Leisure Hours, National Lyrics, &c. In 1829 she paid a visit to Scotland, and was received with great kindness by Sir Walter Scott, Jeffrey, and others of the Scottish literati. In 1830 appeared her Songs of the Affections. The same year she visited Wordsworth, and appears, to have been much struck with the secluded beauty of Rydal Lake and Grasmere—

O vale and lake, within your mountain urn
Smiling so tranquilly, and set so deep!
Oft doth your dreamy loveliness return,
Colouring the tender shadows of my sleep
With light Elysian; for the hues that steep
Your shores in melting lustre, seem to float
On golden clouds from spirit lands remote—
Isles of the blest — and in our memory keep
Their place with holiest harmonies.

Wordsworth said to her one day, "I would not give up the mists that spiritualise our mountains for all the blue skies of Italy" — an original and poetical expression. On her return from the lakes, Mrs. Hemans went to reside in Dublin, where her brother, Major Browne, was settled. The education of her family (five boys) occupied much of her time and attention. Ill health, however, pressed heavily on her, and she soon experienced a premature decay of the springs of life. In 1834 appeared her little volume of Hymns for Childhood, and a collection of Scenes and Hymns of Life. She also published some sonnets, under the title of Thoughts during Sickness. Her last strain, produced only about three weeks before her death, was the following fine sonnet dictated to her brother on Sunday the 26th of April—

How many blessed groups this hour are bending,
Through England's primrose meadow-paths, their way
Toward spire and tower, 'midst shadowy elms ascending,
Whence the sweet chimes proclaim the hallowed day!
The halls, from old heroic ages gray,
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 bath filled
My chastened heart, and all its throbbings stilled
To one deep calm of lowliest thankfulness.

This admirable woman and sweet poetess died on the 16th May 1835, aged forty-one. She was interred in St Anne's church, Dublin, and over her grave was inscribed some lines from one of her own dirges—

Calm on the bosom of thy God,
Fair spirit I rest thee now!
Even while with us thy footsteps trode,
His seal was on thy brow.
Dust to its narrow house beneath!
Soul to its place on high!
They that have seen thy look in death,
No more may fear to die.

A complete collection of the works of Mrs. Hemans, with a memoir by her sister, has been published in six volumes. Though highly popular, and in many respects excellent, we do not think that much of the poetry of Mrs. Hemans will descend to posterity. There is, as Scott hinted, "too many flowers for the fruit;" more for the ear and fancy, than for the heart and intellect. Some of her shorter pieces and her lyrical productions are touching and beautiful both in sentiment and expression. Her versification is always melodious; but there is an oppressive sameness in her longer poems which fatigues the reader; and when the volume is closed, the effect is only that of a mass of glittering images and polished words, a graceful melancholy and feminine tenderness, but no strong or permanent impression. The passions are seldom stirred, however the fancy may be soothed or gratified. In description, Mrs. Hemans had considerable power; she was both copious and exact; and often, as Jeffrey has observed, "a lovely picture serves as a foreground to some deep or lofty emotion." Her imagination was chivalrous and romantic, and delighted in picturing the woods and halls of England, and the ancient martial glory of the land. The purity of her mind is seen in all her works; and her love of nature, like Wordsworth's, was a delicate blending of our deep inward emotions with their splendid symbols and emblems without.