1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Felicia Hemans

Sarah Josepha Hale, Woman's Record; or, Sketches of all Distinguished Women (1852; 1855) 344-47.



FELICIA DOROTHEA HEMANS was the second daughter and fourth child of a family of three sons and three daughters. She was born in Duke street, Liverpool, on the 25th of September, 1794. Her father, Mr. Browne, was a native of Ireland, and her mother, a Miss Wagner, was of Venetian origin. As a child, Felicia was remarkably beautiful, and she early gave indications of her poetic genius, which was encouraged by her accomplished mother. When Miss Browne was about five years old, domestic embarrassments led her father to remove to Gwrych, in North Wales.

That land of wild mountain scenery, and ancient minstrelsy, was the fitting place to impart sublimity to her youthful fancies, and elevate her feelings with the glow of patriotism and devotion. She began to write when very young; her first printed poems, entitled "Early Blossoms," were issued in 1808, when she was fourteen.

In 1809, her family removed from Gwrych to Bronwylfa, near St. Asaph's, in Flintshire, where she resided for sixteen years, and wrote many of her works. It was during this year, 1809, that the great event of her life took place — her introduction to Captain Hemans. The young poetess was then only fifteen, in the full glow of that radiant beauty which was destined to fade so early. The mantling bloom of her cheeks 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 a gallant captain. And the love on both sides was ardent and sincere; for Captain Hemans, soon after their introduction, was called upon to embark with his regiment for Spain. On his return, in 1812, they were married.

Mrs. Hemans' eagerness for knowledge continued to be intense, and of her industry, volumes, still existing, of extracts and transcriptions, are evidence. The mode of her studies was very desultory to outward appearance, as she loved to be surrounded by books of all sorts and languages, and on every variety of topic, turning from one to another. And this course, it is said, "she pursued at all times — in season and out of season — by night and day — on her chair, her sofa, and bed — at home and abroad — invalid, convalescent, and in perfect health — in rambles, 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."

In the year 1818, Captain Hemans' health requiring the benefit of a warmer climate, he determined upon repairing to the Continent, and eventually fixed his residence at Rome. At this time a permanent separation was not contemplated by either party, and it was only a tacit and conventional arrangement, with a frequent interchange of correspondence relative to the education and the disposal of their children. But years rolled on, and from that time till the hour of her death, Captain and Mrs. Hemans never met again. She continued to reside with her mother at Bronwylfa, and had the five boys left under her care; a sufficient proof that nothing more than incompatibility of pursuits and uncongeniality of temper were the moving causes of the separation.

Notwithstanding the peculiarity of her situation, in consequence of this separation, her talents, her amiable qualities, and the increasing popularity of her writings, continued to secure to Mrs. Hemans the warm attachment of several distinguished friends, among whom were Bishop Luxmoore and Bishop Hsber; with the latter she became acquainted in 1820, and he was the first literary character with whom she ever familiarly associated. To him she submitted the commencement of a poem, entitled "Superstition and Revelation," which was, however, never completed by her, and at his suggestion, she was first led to offer her "Vespers of Palermo" to the stage. This play, completed in June, 1821, was, after many theatrical delays, acted at Covent Garden, m December, 1823, but proved a failure. It, however, led to a correspondence with the poet Milman, who kindly interested himself in its behalf; and it was subsequently acted in Edinburgh with considerable success, — with an epilogue written by Sir Walter Scott.

The death of her beloved mother, which occurred in 1827, was an irreparable loss to Mrs. Hemans; she had now no one to whom she could cling for protection; and her sensitive, dependent nature, made the maternal shelter and security necessary to her happiness — almost to her existence. As the care and education of her five sons now devolved entirely on herself, she was induced to leave Wales, where her heart still clung, and settle at Wavertree, a small village near Liverpool, where she hoped to find superior advantages of education for her boys.

During the many years that Mrs. Hemans resided with her mother, the anxieties and responsibilities of house-keeping had never fallen to her lot, and her time and thoughts might be and were almost exclusively devoted to poetry and literature. But now domestic cares forced themselves upon her attention, and butchers' and grocers' bills intruded, as she observes, "in frightful array." In these household duties she felt but little interest, being, as she playfully describes herself, "little better than a grown-up Rosamond, (Miss Edgeworth's naughty girl,) who constantly lie in bed till it is too late to get up early — break my needles (when I use any) leave my keys among my necklaces — answer all my amusing letters first, and leave the others to their fate." Elsewhere she says, "I am now for the first time in my life holding the reins of government, independently managing a household myself, and I never liked any thing less than "ce triste empire de moi-meme."

In the summer of 1829 she visited Scotland, where she was cordially received by many distinguished persons, among others, by Sir Walter Scott, with whom she spent two or three weeks very delightfully. When bidding her farewell, he said: "There are some whom we meet, and should like ever after to claim as kith and kin, and you are one of these." On one occasion he observed: "One would say you had too many accomplishments, Mrs. Hemans, were they not all made to give pleasure to those around you." In 1830, Mrs. Hemans visited the Lakes, where she formed a personal acquaintance with Wordsworth, whose writings she had always admired. Mrs. Hemans was delighted with the scenery at Rydal Mount, and concluded to hire a residence called Dove's Nest, beautifully situated in a very romantic spot on the banks of Windermere; she thus describes it in one of her letters:

"The house was originally meant for a small villa, though it has long passed into the hands of farmers, and there is, in consequence, an air of neglect about the little demesne, which does not at all approach desolation, and yet gives it something of touching interest. You see everywhere traces of love and care beginning to be effaced — rose-trees spreading into wildness — laurels darkening the windows with their luxuriant branches — and I cannot help saying to myself; 'Perhaps some heart like my own in its feelings and sufferings has here sought refuge and found repose.' The ground is laid out in rather an antiquated style, which, now that nature is beginning to reclaim it from art, I do not at all dislike. There is a little grassy terrace immediately under the window, descending to a small court with a circular grass-plot, in which grows one tall white rose-tree. You cannot imagine how I delight in that fair, solitary, neglected-looking tree I am writing to you from an old-fashioned alcove in the little garden, round which the sweetbriar and the moss-rose tree had completely run wild; and I look down from it upon lovely Windermere, which seems at this moment even like another sky, so truly is every summer cloud and tint of azure pictured in its transparent mirror."

In 1831 she left England with her children, to take up her residence permanently in Dublin. The next four years were passed busily and rather pleasantly by Mrs. Hemans, who continued to write unceasingly, though a gradual decline in her health was perceptible to her friends. At the close of the year 1834 her health became very precarious, and the following spring brought symptoms of her approaching dissolution. The closing scene has been impressively described by one of her friends:

"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 boar oven 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 sea-shore — 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." Indeed her sister observes, "At times her spirit would appear to be already half-etherealized, her mind would seem to be fraught with deep and holy and incommunicable thoughts, and she would entreat to be loft perfectly alone, in stillness and darkness, 'to commune with her own heart,' and reflect on the mercies of her Saviour."

On the 15th of March, after receiving the holy sacrament, she became extremely ill, but a temporary improvement took place, and on the 26th of April, she dictated to her brother, (for she had for some time been constrained to employ an amanuensis,) her "Sabbath Sonnet," the last strain of the sweet singer of the hearth, the home, and the affections.

On Saturday, the 26th of May, she sank into a peaceful slumber, which continued all day, and at nine o'clock in the evening her gentle spirit passed away without pain or struggle.

Her remains were deposited in a vault beneath St. Anne's Church, Dublin, almost close to the house where she died. A small tablet has been placed above the spot where she is laid, inscribed with her name, her age, and the date of her death, and with the following lines from a dirge of her own;

Calm on the bosom of thy God,
Fair Spirit! rest thee now:
Ev'n while with us thy footsteps trod,
His seal was on thy brow.
Dust to the narrow home beneath!
Soul to its place on high;
They, that have seen thy look in death,
No more may fear to die.

In perusing the poems of Mrs. Hemans, we are struck with her wonderful perception of the beautiful! This seems to be her peculiar gift. Whatever be the scene described, the character or object introduced, she always gathers around her images and allusions of exceeding beauty; and these selected with a moral taste so pure and refined, that it seems to have shed the lustre of heaven upon the things of earth.

And yet, over these bright visions, incomparable in loveliness as they are, is the blending of human cares and sorrows, and the shadow of Nature's decay. Nothing is satisfying, nothing is abiding. She saw the perfectness of the Creator's works in their most attractive forms; but she saw that Death was in the world, and that all which was made was subject to the Destroyer.

Hence the sadness which pervades nearly all her poems, with the exception of those she wrote towards the close of her career. It was not her own blighted hopes that gave to her harp its note of woe. Hers is the lament for the lot of humanity, dwelling amid so much beauty which must fade and perish like the crushed flower; and in the midst of the joy and harmony which for her pervaded all Nature, she yet could not avoid discerning, with the spirit of the mystic prophetess,

The low footsteps of each coming ill.

And so wonderfully was her genius endowed with the power of expressing "thoughts which create thoughts" in the minds of others, that there is scarcely a human heart but is moved by those strains of feeling or imagination. The truth of the description is acknowledged at once. For, though many of the moving scenes in the poems of Mrs. Hemans were undoubtedly fictitious, yet the feelings, the struggles, the sorrows hear the seal of reality. She saw with her mind's eye and felt in her own soul all that she has pourtrayed. And thus she compels the sympathy of her readers to follow her bidding, and by the dream of the poet to interpret their own feelings, and struggles, and sorrows.

Still there is none of the gloom of misanthropy in the strains of Mrs. Hemans. She had naturally a cheerful, even mirthful disposition, as her private letters show; and she had the loving, hoping heart of a true woman. She was the poet of home. Around the hearth she gathered the sweetest and saddest images of her fancy. There was her throne of power, to the muse of man unapproachable. In these domestic attachments, and in her sympathy with her own sex, may be found the main causes of her unparalleled success in the choice of subjects. This purity and justness of moral taste, which always selects the theme best suited to the position of the writer, is a beautiful element in the character of a literary woman.

We consider her example of refined moral taste in directing the efforts of female genius as of unestimable benefit to the young imaginative reader; and so purely beautiful did her poems appear, that we scarcely knew when to pause in our selection. Mrs. Hemans does, in truth, merit the gratitude as well as admiration of her sex, for she has exalted the genius of woman, and shown an example of excellence in private life, — thus proving that the cultivation of the highest gifts of intellect are not incompatible with the performance of our humblest duties.

The crowning grace of her genius however was her love of the good. In her earlier studies she searched for this in objects of sense or creations of fancy. But the shadow of change and decay marred the loveliness of Nature, and the spirit of the poet grew restless and sad. In her last years, looking upward as well as inward, she found, in contemplation of the "Eternal God," the perfection she adored. And how ardently her soul

Sought the light,
Studious of that pure intercourse begun,
When first her infant brows their lustre won;
So, like the mountain, did she grow more bright,
From unimpeded commerce with the sun,
At the approach of all-involving night.

In respect to the religious dignity which she attached to her profession, there is a passage in one of her letters which fully unfolds her feelings and her hopes; thus she writes, about a year previous to her death: — "I have now passed through the feverish and somewhat visionary state of mind often connected with the passionate study of art in early life; deep affections and deep sorrows seem to have solemnized my whole being, and I now feel as if bound to higher and holier tasks, which, though I may occasionally lay aside, I could not long wander from without some sense of dereliction. I hope it is no self-delusion, but I cannot help sometimes feeling as if it were my true task to enlarge the sphere of sacred poetry, and extend its influence. When you receive my volume of 'Scenes and Hymns,' you will see what I mean by enlarging its sphere, though my plan as yet is very imperfectly developed."

She speaks here of the passionate study of art in early life. And this is not the least of her merits, — that she did study, early and late, her whole life long, making poetry, as it deserves, no lens a subject of science than a gift of genius. She was above the miserable disparagement of labour, and learning, and the advice of the world. She profited continually by them all; and the critics have in no respect rendered her fuller justice, than in noticing the astonishing progress indicated by her successive productions.

Thus, then, is her poetry distinguished. Others have possessed her imagination, her taste, her ambition, her art, her glowing feeling, her Christian principle; but they did not all undertake, and they were not all competent if they had, to devote the exercise of every energy, effectually, to the one object of her labours, — the composition of a model which might perfectly represent what female poetry is and should be. This Mrs. Hemans has done. She had a genius worthy to be the representative of that of her sex, — and she sounded the depths of its capacities of exertion and suffering, and trained them, with every faculty, to do justice to herself, her sex, her race, her Creator, in the discharge of the true office of the profession she chose, — the illuminating or figuring forth truth, (as Sydney describes it,) and especially the truth most worthy of the work, — which it more concerns men, as such, to feel the force of, — and which, also, she was herself best qualified so to set forth — "by the speaking picture of poetry." She wrote not only as none but a woman could write, but so wrote as that, in her department, neither her predecessors, or successors, of her own sex have been, or will be, able to surpass her.

Mrs. Hemans was a Briton by birth, but, as we think, her delicate purity of nature was truly American. One of her biographers says that Mrs. Hemans "always cut out of her books whatever was coarse;" a proceeding which resembles very nearly the instinctive delicacy of character so frequently ridiculed by English travellers and writers as peculiar to the women of America. No doubt this unison of feeling has contributed to give the poetry of Mrs. Hemans such wide and wonderful popularity in our republic. An English critic noticing the writings of Mrs. Hemans, remarks — "The peculiar beauties of her poetry were first pointed out to us by our transatlantic brethren." Yes, the true feminine loneliness — there is no other term so appropriate — of her muse, has won the heart of the American people. We understand, we appreciate the sweet purity of her productions; nor can her own countrymen hold her works in higher estimation or cherish her memory with more true regard than do her millions of friends and readers in this our "green forest land."

Her principal works were, "The Domestic Affections," 1812; ''Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy;" "Welsh Melodies," 1822; "Siege of Valencia, and the Last Constantine," 1823; "Vespers of Palermo," 1823; "The Forest Sanctuary," 1826; "Records of Women," 1828; "Songs of the Affections," 1830; ''National Lyrics," 1834; "Hymns for Childhood," 1834; "Scenes and Hymns of Life," 1834. The selections we give are chiefly descriptive of or incidental to woman — the theme of power with Mrs. Hemans.