Fifty years ago few poets were more popular than Mrs. Hemans; her verses were familiar to all hearts, and won praise from such fastidious critics as Gifford and Jeffrey, no less than from Wordsworth, Scott and Byron. Yet now they are chiefly forgotten, and without injustice. Her tedious romantic tales, her dramas characterless and without invention, are more frequently below than above the mean of merit. Her lyric poetry is more memorable; yet this, even, is less to be valued for its own sake than as the revelation of a delicate and attractive personality. Sprung from a talent expressive not creative, her verses are stamped with feminine qualities. In their familiar pathos, their love of brilliant adventure, their moral earnestness and habit of obvious reflection, no Pythian enthusiasm fills the poet and compels us to forget her womanhood. The inspiring genius of Mrs. Hemans is neither personal nor artistic passion, but a mild Anglican variety of Christianity. She was a woman of wide culture, yet her acquaintance with the civilisations of the past saved only to heighten in her eyes the superiority of Protestant England. For the cause of faith she lays her timidity aside, and in a long and feeble poem, The Sceptic, attempts to scale the fastnesses of unbelief, Happily her religion has a gentler side; a side revealing her to be, as Wordsworth said, "a holy spirit." And as a spirit she passed through the world. This life to her, with all its keenly-felt endearments of natural beauty and of human love, is but the prelude de to an infinite future. Not in nature, not in art, not in sympathy must the weary spirit hope for rest.
Earth his no heart, fond dreamer, with a tone
To send thee back the spirit of thine own;
Seek it in heaven.
The transitoriness of this world is the dominant note of her music; loudest in all the chords of warning, consolation, and regret.
This is the chief distinction of Mrs. Hemans' poetry. Her other qualities may be referred to the influence of contemporary writers. The knowledge of many literatures preserved her from the servile adoption of any master's manner, but her early romantic poems are certainly suggested by those of Scott and of Southey; and the beauty of Childe Harold probably guided her choice of subject when she wrote a poem On the Restoration of the Arts to Italy, and another on Modern Greece. The last is a long attempt at loftiness of style whose passion for the beautiful burns with the warmth of painted fire. Mrs. Hemans was little qualified for such ambitious efforts. The habit of improvisation, never disciplined, disposed her to a looseness of style, an incoherence of thought, that no after revision corrected. Even her sweetest lyrics are somewhere imperfect, but to her more aspiring poems these weaknesses are fatal.
After the year 1828, when she fell in with Wordsworth's poetry, a simpler spirit moved her, and her gifts developed on a line more suited to their scope. Her simplicity was never the result of an inspired clearness of vision, as with Wordsworth or with Blake, but was rather the expression of a nature whose vistas were not wide enough to be indistinct, and whose plan of the globe ignored the unseen side. Still, such as it is, it counts for a merit. Her domestic lyrics are often spirited and tender. Some of these, The Child's First Grief, Casabianca, and others, are household words among our children. In such work, simple, chivalrous, pathetic, her real strength lies, and only by such poems can she assert a claim on our remembrance.