1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Felicia Hemans

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 261-68.



Felicia Hemans [is] by far the most popular of our poetesses, alike at home and beyond the Atlantic: nor do I say undeservedly. She may indeed be said "to have lisped in numbers," as she rhymed almost as soon as she read, and her first collection of verses appeared when she was in her fifteenth year. These, as might have been expected, were only wonderful when the author's age was considered; and her real career may be set down as having commenced in 1817, in her poems, The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy, and Modern Greece. From that time, until her lamented death in 1835, she continued to write with untiring zeal and industry, exhibiting a variety and richness of genius which, in my opinion, fairly entitled her to the female laureate-crown. In rapid succession appeared her Translations from the Spanish and Italian Poets, the Tales and Historic Scenes, The Sceptic, Dartmoor, The Forest Sanctuary, The Records of Woman, (the culminating point of her genius,) the Songs of the Affections, the Lyrics and Songs for Music, and the Hymns and Scenes of Life, together with an amazing number of detached pieces in almost every possible variety of style and measure, all far above commonplace in conception and execution, and not a few of matchless and unfading splendour.

To Joanna Baillie, Mrs. Hemans might be inferior, not only in vigour of conception, but in the power of metaphysically analysing those sentiments and emotions which constitute the groundwork of human action, — to Mrs. Jameson, in the critical perception which, from detached fragments of spoken thought, can discriminate the links which bind all into one distinctive character, — to Letitia Landon, in eloquent facility, — to Caroline Bowles, in simple pathos, — to Mary Howitt, in fresh nature, — and to Mary Mitford, in graphic strength; — but as a female writer, influencing not only the female but the general mind, she is undoubtedly entitled to rank above all these her cotemporaries, in whatever relation she may be supposed by some to stand to her successor, Mrs. Browning; and this pre-eminence has been acknowledged; not only in our own land, but wherever the English tongue is spoken, whether on the banks of the Eastern Ganges or the Western Mississippi. Her path was emphatically her own, as truly as that of Wordsworth, Scott, Crabbe, or Byron; and shoals of imitators have arisen alike at home and on the other side of the Atlantic, who, destitute of her animating genius, have mimicked her themes and parodied her sentiments and language, without being able to keep even within compare of her excellencies. In her poetry, religious truth, moral purity, and intellectual beauty ever meet together; and assuredly it is not less calculated to refine the taste and exalt the imagination, because it addresses itself almost exclusively to the better feelings of our nature. Over all her pictures of humanity are spread the glory and the grace reflected from virtuous purity, delicacy of perception and conception, sublimity of religions faith, home-bred delights, and the generous expansive ardour of patriotism; while, turning from the dark and degraded, whether in subject or sentiment, she seeks out those verdant oases in the desert of human life, on which the affections may most pleasantly rest. Her poetry is intensely and entirely feminine; and, in my estimation, this is the highest praise which, in one point of view, could be awarded it. It could have been written by a woman only: for although, in the "Records" of her sex, we have the female character delineated in all the varied phases of baffled passion and of ill-requited affection, of heroical self-denial and of withering hope deferred, of devotedness tried in the furnace of affliction, and of

Gentle feelings long subdued,
Subdued and cherished long—

yet its energy resembles that of the dove, "pecking the hand that hovers o'er its mate;" and its exaltation of thought is not of that daring kind which doubts and derides, or even questions — for a female sceptic is a monstrous and repulsive excrescence on human nature — but which clings to the anchor of hope, and looks forward to a higher immortal destiny with faith and reverential fear.

Mrs. Hemans wrote much and fluently; and, as with all authors in like predicament, her strains were of various degrees of excellence. Independently of this, her different works will be differently estimated as to their relative value by different minds; but among the lyrics of the English language which can scarcely die, I hesitate not to assign places to The Hebrew Mother, The Treasures of the Deep, The Spirit's Return, The Homes of England, The Better Land, The Hour of Death, The Trumpet, The Dirge of a Highland Chief, The Song of a Captive Knight, and The Graves of a Household. In these "gems of purest ray serene," the peculiar genius of Mrs. Hemans breathes and burns and shines pre-eminent; for her forte lay in depicting whatever tends to beautify and embellish domestic life, by purifying the passions and by sanctifying the affections, making man an undying, unquenchable spirit, and earth, his abode, a holy place — the gentle overflowings of love and friendship — "home-bred delights and heartfelt happiness," — the glowing associations of local attachment — and the influence of religious feelings over the soul, whether arising from the varied circumstances and situations of life, or from the aspects of external nature.

The writings of Mrs. Hemans seem to divide themselves into two pretty distinct portions; the first comprehending her Modern Greece, Wallace, Dartmoor, The Sceptic, Historic Scenes, and other productions, up to the publication of The Forest Sanctuary; and the latter comprehending that fine poem, the Records of Woman, the Songs of the Affections, the Scenes and Hymns of Life, and all her subsequent productions. In her earlier works she follows the classic model, as contradistinguished from the romantic; and they are inferior in that polish of style, that exquisite delicacy of thought, and that almost gorgeous richness of language which characterise her maturer compositions. Combined with increased self-reliance and an art improved by practice, it is evident that new stores of thought were latterly opened up to Mrs. Hemans, in a more extended acquaintance with the literature of Spain and Germany, as well as by a profounder study of what was truly excellent in the writings of our greatest poetical regenerator, Wordsworth.

In illustration of what I have just said, I give short specimens of her early, her transition, and her latest manner; although, from amid so much general beauty, it is somewhat difficult to make selection:—

THE DIRGE OF FERGUS MACIVOR.
Son of the mighty and the free!
Loved leader of the faithful brave!
Was it for high-souled chief like thee
To fill a nameless grave?
Oh! if amidst the valiant slain
The warrior's bier had been thy lot,
E'en though on red Culloden's plain,
We then had mourned thee not.

But darkly closed thy dawn of fame,
That dawn whose sunbeam rose so fair;
Vengeance alone may breathe thy name,
The watchword of Despair!
Yet oh! if gallant spirit's power
Hath e'er ennobled death like thine,
Then glory marked thy parting hour,
Last of a mighty line!

O'er thy own towers the sunshine falls,
But cannot chase their silent gloom;
Those beams that gild thy native walls
Are sleeping on thy tomb!
Spring on thy mountains laughs the while,
Thy green woods wave in vernal air,
But the loved scenes may vainly smile—
Not e'en thy dust is there.

On thy blue hills no bugle-sound
Is mingling with the torrent's roar;
Unmarked, the wild deer sport around—
Thou lead'st the chase no more!
Thy gates are closed, thy halls are still—
Those halls where pealed the choral strain—
They hear the wind's deep murmuring thrill,
And all is hushed again.

No banner from the lonely tower
Shall wave its blazoned folds on high;
There the tall grass and summer flower
Unmarked shall spring and die.
No more thy bard for other ear
Shall wake the harp once loved by thine—
Hushed be the strain thou canst not hear,
Last of a mighty line!

These verses I reckon not unworthy even of the immortal pen that, in the pages of Waverley, recounted the adventures of the semi-fictitious hero they commemorate. They are exquisitely beautiful, and may be taken as representing Mrs. Hemans' best early manner — as they were written in 1815. The following little poem, which, at its conclusion, almost touches the sublime, shows the characteristics of her style ere finally and maturely formed:—

The trumpet's voice hath roused the land—
Light up the beacon pyre!
A hundred hills have seen the brand,
And waved the sign of fire.
A hundred banners to the breeze
Their gorgeous folds have cast—
And, hark! was that the sound of seas?
A king to war went past.

The chief is arming in his hall,
The peasant by his hearth;
The mourner hears the thrilling call,
And rises from the earth.
The mother on her first-born son
Looks with a boding eye—
They come not back, though all be won,
Whose young hearts leap so high.

The bard hath ceased his song, and bound
The falchion to his side;
Ben, for the marriage-altar crowned,
The lover quits his bride.
And all this change, and haste, and fear,
By earthly clarion spread!—
How will it be when kingdoms hear
The blast that wakes the dead?

Of their author's last best manner, the finest examples are perhaps The Hebrew Mother, The Palm Tree, The Hour of Romance, The Treasures of the Deep, and Despondency and Aspiration. The following stanzas from the Hymn of the Vaudois Mountaineers may, however, serve our purpose:—

For the strength of the hills we bless thee,
Our God, our fathers' God!
Thou hast made thy children mighty,
By the touch of the mountain-sod.
Thou hast fixed our ark of refuge
Where the spoiler's foot ne'er trod;
For the strength of the hills we bless thee,
Our God, our fathers' God.

We are watchers of a beacon
Whose light must never die;
We are guardians of an altar
Midst the silence of the sky:
The rocks yield founts of courage,
Struck forth as by thy rod;
For the strength of the hills we bless thee,
Our God, our fathers' God!

For the dark, resounding caverns,
Where thy still, small voice is heard;
For the strong pines of the forests,
That by thy breath are stirred;
For the storms, on whose free pinions
Thy spirit walks abroad;
For the strength of the hills we bless thee,
Our God, our father's God!

The royal eagle darteth
On his quarry from the heights,
And the stag that knows no master,
Seeks there his wild delights;
But we, for thy communion,
Have sought the mountain-sod;
For the strength of the bills we bless thee,
Our God, our fathers' God!