1846 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Felicia Hemans

John Dix, "A Memory of Mrs. Hemans" Pen and Ink Sketches of Poets, Preachers, and Politicians (1846) 94-106.



In the summer of 1830 I happened to pay a visit to Liverpool, for the purpose of seeing a friend embark for the United States. At that time, Mrs. Hemans was residing at Wavertree, near the town, and a friend having kindly offered me a letter to her, I determined on paying her a visit. My friend sailed on a Sunday morning, and as I could not call on the poetess that day, I arranged to go over to Wavertree on the morrow, and in the meantime visit the church of Dr. Raffles, who is one of the most popular dissenting preachers of the day, and known as an author, — the memoir of his predecessor, Spencer, being from his pen. He "owns" also, to a few volumes of travels, and some poems — chiefly devotional. The late well-known Sir Stamford Raffles was his brother.

He was in the pulpit when I entered the chapel in which he officiates at Liverpool. The building was vast, and densely crowded with a very fashionable audience. He was about the middle height, and somewhat corpulent. He had a very florid face, with full, expressive eyes, the upper lids of which were large, and so gave rather an indolent expression to the whole countenance. The mouth was indicative of good humour, and beneath it was a dimpled double chin. A voluminous and handsome gown, rather showily disposed, enveloped his person, and he had altogether a sort of Friar Tuck appearance. His age might have been forty-five, or, as they say, "thereabouts."

He read that chapter, in which is the magnificent speech of Paul before Agrippa, and certainly I never heard so impressive a reader. His voice and action were alike fine, and worthy of the theme. Some might have been disposed to call his style theatrical — indeed, I have heard it objected to on this very account; but I could not help wishing that the Doctor's example in this respect were followed by many, who too frequently darken the light of Revelation by their cold reading of the Scriptures; for I have not unfrequently heard a song of triumph and a penitential psalm delivered in the same monotonous tone, by those who ought to, and I doubt not do, know better.

Dr. Raffles' sermon was very short, very ornate, and very sound — but it impressed me as being rather a showy than a great performance. There was a vast deal of glitter, but it was the glare produced by gold leaf — a few grains of metal were made to go a great way, and cover a considerable extent of surface.

At this time, Mrs. Hemans was separated from her husband, and resided at Wavertree, to which place she confined herself, in order that her sons might receive the benefits of tuition in the neighbouring city. A more unsuitable locality, for one of her temperament, could hardly be conceived, for there was nothing of beauty in the neighbourhood to recommend it; and to one brought up amongst the wild scenery of Wales, it must have been, at times, dreary indeed. The separation, too, from the father of her children, must have preyed deeply on her spirit; but she seldom alluded to this subject, although great curiosity was excited to know the cause. Captain Hemans lived at Rome, and still corresponded with his wife respecting the education of their children. His habits and tastes were entirely different from those of his wife, and a separation, although not a legal one, was mutually agreed upon. Of course, a hundred rumours were in circulation, and those officious personages who preferred attending to other persons' affairs, gossiped to their hearts' content. I shall not follow their example, and retail any of the many stories prevalent on this subject, holding the opinion, that if a man and his wife choose to live apart, it is their business, and theirs alone — and such subjects ought to be strictly classed amongst those with which a stranger should intermeddle not.

It was about four in the afternoon, when the Wavertree stage set me down at about a hundred yards from the place of my destination. The house in which the Poetess resided was one of a row, or terrace, as it was called, situated on the high road, from which it was separated only by the foot-way and a little flower-garden, surrounded by a white-thorn hedge. I noticed, that of all the houses on either side of it, hers was the only one adorned with flowers — the rest had either grass lawns or a plain gravel surface — some of them even grew cabbages and French beans!

My knock at the door was answered by a servant girl — one of the pretty "Lancashire witches," by whom I was shown into a small parlour, where I remained, whilst my letter and card were taken to the lady of the house.

It was a very small apartment, but everything about it indicated that it was the home of genius and of taste. Over the mantel-shelf hung a fine engraving of William Roscoe, author of the Lives of the De Medici, with a presentation line or two in his own hand-writing. The walls were decorated with prints and pictures, and on the mantel-shelf were some models, in terra cotta, of Italian groups. On the tables lay casts, medallions, and a portfolio of choice prints and watercolour engravings; but I was too anxious to pay much attention to such matters, and so I sat down, anxiously awaiting the entrance of the Poetess.

And never, before or since, have I felt in such a flutter. For years and years I had read her poetry, and imagined all sorts of things about the authoress. I had been told that she was beautiful, and readily believed it — but I anticipated some disappointment in this respect — in fact, I can scarcely tell how I felt, when I heard the rustling of silks, and saw a lady enter the room.

Well — I am disappointed, was the rapid thought which passed through my brain. The lady was interesting-looking enough, but bore no resemblance whatever to the engraved portraits of Mrs. Hemans; she was much younger, too, than I imagined Mrs. H. to have been. And — to put the reader out of suspense, it was not the Poetess of the Affections — but her close and attached friend, Miss Jewsbury, who had been deputed by Mrs. Hemans to make excuses for a few moments' delay in receiving me.

Miss Jewsbury was one of the most frank and open-hearted creatures possible. She gracefully apologized for acting as Mrs. Hemans' "locum tenens," and made me feel quite at my ease. I did not know then who the lady was — but being aware that Mrs. Hemans had a sister who frequently set her songs to music, I imagined that my fair companion must be her. I was not undeceived until after Mrs. Hemans had made her appearance.

It was not long before the Poetess entered the room. She held out her hand and welcomed me in the kindest manner, and then sat down opposite me; but, before doing so introduced Miss Jewsbury.

I cannot well conceive a more exquisitely beautiful creature than Mrs. Hemans was — none of the portraits or busts I have ever seen of her do her justice, nor is it possible for words to convey to the reader any idea of the matchless, yet serene beauty of her expression. Her glossy waving hair was parted on her forehead, and terminated on the sides, in rich and luxuriant auburn curls: there was a dove-like look in her eyes, and yet there was a chastened sadness in their expression. Her complexion was remarkably clear, and her high forehead looked as pure and spotless as Parian marble. A calm repose, not unmingled with melancholy, was the characteristic expression of the face; but when she smiled, all traces of sorrow were lost, and she seemed to be but "a little lower than the Angels" — fitting shrine for so pure a mind! Let me not be deemed a flatterer or an enthusiast, in thus describing her, for I am only one of many, who have been almost as much captivated by her personal beauty, as charmed by the sweetness and holiness of her productions. If ever poems were the reflex of the beauties, personal and mental, of their writers, they were indeed so in the case of Mrs. Hemans.

We talked of L. E. L. Mrs. Hemans said she had received several letters from her, containing pressing invitations to visit London. "A place I never was in, and never wish to be," she observed. "My heart beats too loudly, even in this quiet place, and there I think it would burst. The great Babel was not made for such as me."

She was very much pleased with an anecdote which I told her, with which one of her poems had something to do. It was this:

Near the city of Bath is a secluded little churchyard, in which, amongst other monuments, is one of pure white marble, on which was engraven the name of a nobleman's daughter, and her age — seventeen. In addition to this was the following stanza from Mrs. Hemans' poem, "Bring Flowers:"—

Bring flowers, pale flowers, o'er the bier to shed,
A crown for the brow of the early dead!
For this from its bud hath the white rose burst,
For this in the wood was the violet nurst:
They have a voice for what once was ours,
And are love's last gift — Bring ye flowers — pale flowers.

The space around that grave was filled with white flowers of all descriptions, planted for the most part by stranger hands. No one ever removed a blossom from the grave, and there they flourished, as if in obedience to the mandate of the Poetess. It was one of the most graceful tributes ever paid to genius.

"Come — I will show you my poetic mint," she said — and she led the way to a room over the one in which we were sitting. It was a very small place, but neat almost to a fault. There were no author-litterings. Everything was in order. An open letter lay on the table. She pointed to it, and said, laughingly:

"An application for my autograph, and the postage unpaid. You cannot imagine how I am annoyed with albums and such matters. A person, who ought to have known better, sent me an album, lately, and begged a piece from me, if it was only long enough to fill up a page of sky-blue tinted paper, which he had selected for me to write upon."

In incidentally referring to her compositions, she said: "They often remain chiming in my mind for days, before I commit them to paper. And sometimes I quite forget many, which I compose as I lie awake in bed. Composition is less a labour with me than the act of writing down what has impressed me, excepting in the case of blank verse, which always involves something like labour. My thoughts have been so used to go in the harness of rhyme, that when they are suffered to run without it, they are often diffused, or I lose sight, in the ardour of composition, of the leading idea altogether."

Mrs. Hemans' voice was peculiarly musical, and I would have given anything to have heard her recite some of her own poetry; but I did not dare to hazard such a request, and feeling that I had intruded quite long enough on her time, I after a short time took my departure.

I must not omit to mention, for the especial benefit of my fair readers, that Mrs. Hemans' dress was simple enough. She wore a white gown, (I really am not learned enough in such matters to say whether it was of cotton or muslin,) over which was thrown a black lace shawl — on her head was a cap of very open net-work, without flowers or ornament of any kind.

Miss Jewsbury is well known by her "Lays of Leisure Hours." She was very amiable and accomplished, and felt such an enthusiasm for the writings of Mrs. Hemans, that, in 1828, she took a cottage near Rhyllon, where the Poetess then resided, for the purpose of associating with her. When I saw her at Wavertree she was on a visit to Mrs. Lawrence, of Wavertree Hall, another warm friend and admirer of Mrs. Hemans.

I cannot here forbear quoting a passage from Miss Jewsbury's "Three Histories," in which she avowedly describes Mrs. Hemans:

"Egeria was totally different from any other woman I had ever seen, either in Italy or in England. She did not dazzle, she subdued me; other women might be more commanding, more versatile, more acute, but I never saw any one so exquisitely feminine * * * Her birth, her education, but above all, the genius with which she was gifted, combined to inspire a passion for the ethereal, the tender, the imaginative, the heroic — in one word, the beautiful. It was in her a faculty divine, and yet of daily life — it touched all things, but, like a sunbeam, touched them with a golden finger. Anything abstract or scientific was unintelligible or distasteful to her. Her knowledge was extensive and various; but, true to the first principle of her nature, it was poetry that she sought in history, scenery, character, and religious belief — poetry, that guided all her studies, governed all her thoughts, coloured all her imaginative conversation. Her nature was at once simple and profound; there was no room in her mind for philosophy, nor in her heart for ambition; the one was filled by imagination, the other engrossed by tenderness. She had a passive temper, but decided tastes; anyone might influence, but very few impressed her. Her strength and her weakness lay alike in her affections; these would sometimes make her weep, at others imbue her with courage; so that she was alternately 'a falcon hearted dove,' and a 'reed broken with the wind.' Her voice was a sweet, sad melody, and her spirits reminded me of an old poet's description of the orange tree, with its

Golden lamps, hid in a night of green.

Or of those Spanish gardens where the pomegranate blossoms beside the cypress. Her gladness was like a burst of sunlight; and if in her sadness she resembled night, it was night wearing her stars. I might describe and describe for ever, but I should never succeed in portraying Egeria; she was a muse, a grace, a variable child, a dependent woman, the Italy of human beings."

Miss Jewsbury, as all the literary world knows, married, a few years since, Mr. Fletcher, a missionary, and died soon after she set foot on the shores of India. Some very interesting letters of hers, written on the voyage out, appeared in the London Athenaeum. She had given promise of high and varied powers — but like poor L. E. L., she died early, and far away from the land of her birth.

It has been stated, with how much of truth I know not, that Mrs. Hemans was, at one period of her life, invited to take up her residence in the city of Boston, United States, for the purpose of conducting a periodical work. Perhaps it was well that she did not accept the offer; for the uncertain and variable climate of America would, in all probability, have put a still earlier stop to her career, and deprived the world of many of her sweetest productions. As is the case with most, if not all of those who write, day after day, for the bread that perisheth, she endured rather than enjoyed life. A heart disease, with all its distressing accompaniments, harassed her mind, and wore away her frame, which, we are told, became, towards the last, almost etherealized. At the comparatively early age of forty-one, on the eve of the Sabbath, her spirit passed away, to enter on the Sabbath of eternal rest, earth having scarcely "profaned what was born for the skies."

When I was in Dublin some few years since, owing to some unaccountable forgetfulness, I omitted to pay a passing tribute to the genius of the poetess, by visiting her tomb, which is in St. Ann's Church, and over which is inscribed one of her own beautiful verses — her most appropriate epitaph:

Calm on the bosom of thy God,
Fair Spirit! rest thee now!
E'en 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.

On a recent visit to Liverpool, whilst sitting one morning idly, an omnibus, on which was painted the word "Wavertree" passed by, and recalled to my mind the pleasant visit I had once paid to that village. I will go once again, thought I, if only to see what change has wrought there. I soon put my resolutions into practice, — and ere long I once more stood before the well-remembered house. The little flower garden was no more — but rank grass and weeds sprung up luxuriantly — the windows were many of them broken — the entrance gate was off its hinges, — the vine in front of the house trailed along the ground, and a board, with "This house to let" upon it, was nailed over the door. I entered the "deserted garden" and looked into the little parlour — once so full of taste and elegance; it was gloomy and cheerless. The paper was spotted with damp, and spiders had built their webs in the corners. Involuntarily I turned away; and during my homeward walk mused upon the probable home and enjoyments of the two gifted creatures whom I had formerly seen at Wavertree. Both were now beyond the stars, and as I mused on the uncertainty of life, I exclaimed, with the eloquent Burke, "What shadows are we, and what shadows, alas! do we pursue."