1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Felicia Hemans

Henry Fothergill Chorley, "Mrs. Hemans" The Authors of England (1838) 1-7.



Whether in recognition of the popularity which attended her poems in her own country and America (they are, as yet, too little known on the Continent), or in honour of the earnest and generous devotion to her art, which was the moving principle of her life, Felicia Hemans claims a place of honour among the modern Authors of England.

She was born in Duke Street, Liverpool, on the 25th of September, 1794: her father, Mr. Browne, a merchant of that town, was related to the Sligo family. On her mother's side, she could claim the ancestry of a noble and distinguished Venetian house, whose high name, Veniero, had been of late generations corrupted into Wagner. Felicia Dorothea (the latter name was wholly dropped by her as she grew up) was the second daughter, and the fourth child of a family of three sons and as many daughters. From her earliest infancy she gave token of being possessed of many good gifts — of a temperament quick and affectionate, a memory singularly retentive, and an imagination which instinctively attached itself to and appropriated every thing that was noble and beautiful. She had an ear for music — an eye for drawing: nor was personal loveliness wanting to her; her complexion was remarkable for its delicacy and brilliance — her hair for its profusion and golden hue. Who can wonder that, thus endowed, she should be the object of more than ordinary attachment and anticipation?

The derangement of Mr. Browne's affairs, which took place at a very early period of her life, was followed by the removal of his family from Liverpool to a retreat in North Wales — a circumstance likely, beyond all others, to develope the peculiar natural gifts with which she was endowed. She was thus entirely left under the care of her mother — herself an elegant and accomplished woman; and, at an age when other girls are for the most part forced through the mechanical routine of boarding-school training, she was educating herself, by becoming a diligent and passionate student of our old English poets — gathering up half a dozen languages, no one knew how; and, better still, unconsciously filling her mind with a thousand sights, and sounds, and associations connected with the scenery among which her youth was spent. Her residence, Grwych, near Abergele, was a solitary house on the sea-shore. It was affecting, in the last hours of her life, to perceive with what tenderness and minute remembrance she spoke of this place, and of the vague, restless yearnings, which had there passed through her mind: had she lived, she would have embodied these in a prose work, which was to be called "Recollections of a Poet's Childhood." Few better than herself could have traced back the bewildering unfolding of powers, the unconscious formation of habits, which, alien to, and apart from this world's wisdom and prudence, too often mark their possessor — more especially if she belong to the gentler sex — for a life in which fame and sorrow have an equal share.

Another circumstance which tended to give its peculiar direction to her genius, was the engagement of both of her brothers in the Peninsular campaign. In her earliest volume of poems, published by subscription when she was only thirteen, we find little but sweet birthday verses, fairy songs, and the like; but in the second, which followed shortly after, are to be discerned strong traces of the kindling of that chivalresque and romantic spirit which made "My Cid" one of her favourite heroes in after years, and a cross of the Legion of Honour, a trophy from a Spanish battle-field, an ornament proudly worn and reverently cherished. One of her early poems, "England and Spain," was translated into Spanish; and though the volume in question bears the gentle title of "The Domestic Affections," it contains a large share of verses on warlike and heroic themes. The same instinct towards the picturesque made her early an enthusiastic admirer of works of art, particularly of sculpture. "Her first works," to quote the Memorials recently published, "are purely classical, or purely romantic; their poems may be compared to antique groups of sculpture, or the mailed monumental figures of the Middle Ages set in motion." Besides the two volumes here mentioned, there are a few other single and fugitive poems bearing this early date; they are, however, remarkable for little save for that smoothness of versification and selectness of language which she afterwards carried to such perfection.

It was when she was only eighteen, with a mind as full of the romance of youthful poetry as it was untutored in worldly experience, that Miss Browne married Captain Hemans, of the Fourth Regiment. The result might have been easily foreseen. After a few years spent together, in which each party, probably, became more and more alive to the mistake of such an union, than to the mutual concessions which might have rendered it as happy as fancy had promised, Captain Hemans went abroad, shortly before the birth of his fifth son. It would be fruitless to dwell upon the details of this separation, which, however, it must be added, contributed largely to give their peculiar colour and tendency to Mrs. Hemans' feelings and thoughts during the remainder of her career — to increase her disposition to dwell upon the sacrifices and regrets of life in preference to its more cheerful scenes. Many of her poems, indeed, are little more than so many varied utterances of the thought so beautifully put by Cooper into the mouth of one of his Indian characters, "Let not my child be a girl, for very sorrowful is the life of a woman." In all of them there breathes an aspiration towards that future state of spiritual existence, where

there are none that die,
And none that weep, and none that say "Farewell;"

—where the yearnings of human affection will be satisfied, the dreams of imagination fulfilled — which could hardly have been the pervading feeling of one who had enjoyed domestic happiness and protection, who had been wisely and kindly taught that a cheerful and healthy familiarity with the small duties and self-denials of common life, exalts rather than enfeebles the poet — enlarges his sympathies, instead of, as some have morbidly complained, wearing them down and ultimately destroying them.

After the departure of her husband, Mrs. Hemans still continued to reside under her mother's roof, dividing her leisure between the study of all such authors as could minister to her peculiar tastes and desires, and her own compositions, which were numerous and progressively successful — each of them being less coldly classical, more individual than its predecessor. By degrees, too, she attached to herself a small circle of literary friends, among whom must be mentioned the names of Heber and Milman; and it must not be forgotten, that she was sought out in her retreat by Shelley, whom the fame of her talents and beauty had reached, and who addressed a singular series of letters to her. It was during these years that she successively published her prize poems, "Wallace" and "Dartmoor" (the latter gained its honour from the Royal Society of Literature in 1821), the "Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy," "Modern Greece," "Tales and Historic Scenes," and the "Sceptic." Besides these, many fragments of poems and plans of works never completed, remain to attest the eagerness with which her mind was busying itself in the reproduction of the thoughts and images of beauty, which she could not refrain from storing up. It was by the advice of Bishop Heber, who was then occasionally resident in St. Asaph, that she next engaged in a labour more arduous than any she had hitherto undertaken, — the composition of a tragedy. This, "The Vespers of Palermo," after the usual delays and difficulties, was brought forward at Covent Garden in the month of December, 1823, with but partial success. The story was somewhat impracticable for stage purposes; and the play was endangered, if not sacrificed, by the lady to whom the part of the heroine was entrusted. In many letters, written while she was enduring a suspense of two years' length with respect to the fate of her first drama, Mrs. Hemans showed a patience and good humour which are not very common among authors in similar circumstances; and there is something very sweet and feminine in her manner of contriving to extract even comfort out of her disappointment. She says, in one letter, that she can hardly regret the failure of the tragedy, as it was the means of arousing a near and dear member of her family from the state of depression into which he had been plunged by a recent domestic bereavement.

"The Siege of Valencia," was published in the course of the year 1825. Independently of the power and passion displayed by its author in working out the fine chivalrous tale upon which this dramatic poem is founded, particularly in the management of its two female characters, Elmina and Ximena, the volume which contained it was attractive, as also including the glowing and picturesque "Songs of the Cid" and the "Voice of Spring." The latter must be pointed out as one of the first of those fanciful lyrics, which, in their form, at least, are peculiar to Mrs. Hemans; and which, yet more than her elaborate poems, contributed to gain for her a wide and genial reputation. The "Welsh Melodies" had already made her known as a song-writer; but it is from the appearing of the volume in question, and the "Lays of Many Lands," at first singly published in the New Monthly Magazine, that her popularity is to be dated. She had already made friendship with many of her sister writers; the public now began to look to her as one of the most gifted of the number. Every periodical of any respectability (and that was the golden time of magazines and annuals), became eager to secure her services; and while "The Treasures of the Deep," and "The Cross in the Wilderness," and "The Sicilian Captive," made her beloved and admired in England, as one who had more than fulfilled the promise of her youth, her ballad of "The Pilgrim Fathers" had crossed the Atlantic, and made her name a household word in America. A school of imitators immediately sprung up there; and of all the flatteries and offers of service which were showered and pressed upon her, none were more highly prized, because none were more genuine, than the warm-hearted and universal sympathy which her works excited on the other side of the Atlantic. A most liberal invitation indeed was sent to her, to induce her to take up her residence in America, for the purpose of conducting a periodical there. This, it is almost needless to add, she declined.

As belonging to the freshest, if not the most active period of her mind's life, must be mentioned the enthusiasm with which Mrs. Hemans threw herself upon the study of German. A thousand traces and reflections of the pursuit will be found in all her poems, published about this time. In her letters she speaks of it "as that rich and affectionate language in which I delight," and she is never wearied of again and again referring to the strength and comfort, and enlargement of her powers, which she found in making herself acquainted with its literature.

"The Forest Sanctuary," Mrs. Hemans' longest poem, — it has been said, her own favourite among her many works, — succeeded the "Siege of Valencia" after but a short interval. Perhaps in her estimate of its merits she was nearer the truth than authors are generally admitted to be. It is needless to remind the English reader that this tale turns upon the fortunes and mental struggles of those embracing the Protestant faith in the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition; its hero being a young nobleman, converted after witnessing the martyrdom of a priest and his two sisters, — imprisoned for his heresy, — afterwards escaping to the New World in company with his faithful and gentle wife; who, with a true woman's devotedness, shares his flight, though she shares not his faith; and dies of the struggle between her love and her conscience. The versification of this legend is varied and musical; some of the descriptions are written in "words that burn," and, themselves the offspring of strong emotion, must excite corresponding feelings in those who read.

The health of Mrs. Hemans, which self-neglect had already impaired, began to be seriously affected by the earnestness with which she threw all her whole soul into her pursuits. These, indeed, were only laid aside when sadder thoughts claimed entrance. She was too wholly absorbed in her art to be either happy or at ease in the world of general society. To the few friends who could take part in her fancies, and to whom she "could show all that was in her heart," she was a fascinating companion; no less fascinating in the play of a quaint and graceful humour, than in the eloquent utterance of the deeper thoughts which breathe through her verse. Among her chief intimates one must not be forgotten — herself a woman of extraordinary attainments and mental gifts. This was Miss Jewsbury, afterwards Mrs. Fletcher, who, unfortunately for the world of female literature, died young: her best works from being chiefly scattered about in different periodicals, have never received any thing beyond the notice or praise of the passing hour. With this lady Mrs. Hemans maintained a confidential and frequent correspondence. "In her private letters, as in her published works, she shows herself high-minded, affectionate, grateful, wayward in her self-neglect, delicate to fastidiousness in her tastes, in her religion fervent without intolerance, eager to acquire knowledge, as eager to impart it to others, earnestly devoted to her art, and, in that art, to the service of all things beautiful and holy."

Such being the woman — and the woman and the poetess being one — the title of her next work, "Records of Woman," is an earnest of its success. It was, indeed, written from the fulness of her heart; and the execution of most of the sketches which it contains admirably seconds the emotions under the strong influence of which it was undertaken and completed. This has been the most popular of Mrs. Hemans' works. The last written of its poems were composed with the depressing prospect before her of a dispersion of the home-circle wherein she had always found shelter, and leisure to pursue her engrossing calling undisturbed — which was to send her forth into the world, for the first time, — alone and as innocent of its ways and wisdom as a child.

In the summer of the year 1828, Mrs. Hemans removed from Rhyllon, in the neighbourhood of St. Asaph, to the village of Wavertree, about three miles distant from Liverpool. There, in a small house, "the third of a cluster or row close to a dusty road," she began to make her acquaintance with the practical duties of life and society. Her new residence was unfortunately chosen. She bore ill with a change from the retirement of the country, to the civilities and constraints of a neighbourhood as unintellectual as it was sociable. Here, too, the inconveniences of celebrity pressed on her most heavily — the constant calls and claims upon her attention, the flatteries written, spoken, and acted, which were intruded upon her, at once excited and annoyed her. In short, during the three years she passed at Wavertree, her mind was more restless, more subject to painful alternations of mood than at any previous or subsequent period; and her lyrics written during this time, though as delicately sweet as her other poems, dwell too exclusively upon the unquiet workings of a feverish and desponding spirit — utter too constantly the melancholy exclamation, "Alone! alone!" of the mysterious guest of St. Leon. While resident at Wavertree, however, she drew round her a small circle of attached friends, and it was in the course of the summers of 1830 and 1831, that she paid those visits to Sir Walter Scott and Mr. Wordsworth which are so delightfully described in her correspondence recently published. The last-named poet she regarded, of later years, almost in the light of a spiritual guide. The only work of any length written by her whilst at Wavertree was the "Spirit's Return," the principal poem in her next collection of Lyrics, the "Songs of the Affections." This was based upon too shadowy and spiritual a theme to become as generally popular as any of the "Records" had been: it contains, nevertheless, some of her loftiest thoughts and most dignified language. About this time, too, she began to take great pleasure in writing expressly for music. The Spanish songs she contributed to Colonel Hodges' "Peninsular Melodies" must not be forgotten; nor the many spirited or melancholy "canzoni" and ballads, which, associated with her sister's music, have been sung from one end of England to the other.

In the year 1831 Mrs. Hemans, being disappointed with Wavertree as a residence, and tempted by the superior advantages which the Irish metropolis afforded in the education of the three sons remaining under her care, removed to Dublin, in which city she continued to reside, with little intermission, till her decease. As heretofore, she shrunk from general society, and confined her intercourse to one or two intimate and attached friends; occupying her mind, more than her rapidly waning health rendered prudent, in a thousand literary plans and schemes; each year a little happier than she had been the last, from an increase of calmness of spirit. It was only shortly before her death that a new feeling of the responsibilities of her art seemed to possess her, that, to use her own words, "having passed through the feverish, and somewhat visionary state of mind often connected with the passionate study of art in early life," she began to conceive herself "bound to higher and holier tasks," to meditate, in short, the application of her rich and various stores of thought and information to the service of the altar. Her wish was to enlarge the sphere of sacred poetry; and in pursuance of this object, the "Scenes and Hymns of Life" were written. These and her collected "National Lyrics and Songs for Music," and a charming little volume of "Hymns for Childhood," appeared in the course of the year 1834; and she was rapidly tracing out the plan of a further series of sacred poems, to be called the "Christian Temple," when her purpose was arrested by rapidly increasing illness. She had been always liable to violent nervous affections, and in addition to these, in the autumn of 1834, was attacked by the scarlet fever; from which, when but imperfectly recovered, an act of personal carelessness brought on a more lingering malady, the ague. Throughout the following winter her mind seemed, as it were, battling with disease; pouring out its last thoughts with a profusion and a fervour which gave no tokens of feebleness or decay. Her last lyric, "Despondency and Aspiration" (published among her "Poetical Remains"), is assuredly her best, whether in its aim, or its imagery, or its versification. She was affectionately tended by those who could do little more than witness her decay-the earlier part of the year 1835 being spent at Redesdale, a country seat belonging to the Archbishop of Dublin. The exertion consequent upon the appointment of her fourth son to a place in a government office increased her malady; in addition to which, serious dropsical symptoms manifested themselves: and after passing through the various stages of disease and decline, with a patience and a willingness to depart, and an unobtrusive but fervent piety, which were as soothing as they were beautiful to witness, she sunk to sleep on the evening of Saturday the sixteenth of May, to awaken in "the better land," of which she had so often sung with a yearning and prophetic fondness!