1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Felicia Hemans

Anonymous, "On the Genius of Mrs. Hemans" European Magazine 86 (October 1824) 289-91.



We had written a long essay on the genius of Pope, but we found our space would not admit of its insertion this month. We shall, therefore, confine ourselves to a brief view of Mrs. Hemans' poetic genius. It has lately become a fashionable theory among those whom we deem to be superficial writers, and superficial thinkers, that learning is a dangerous auxiliary to a poetic mind, that the more the poet thinks for himself, and the less he studies, the more simple, chaste, and natural will be his productions; but which of those unlettered poets has ever produced any thing that can lay a just claim to immortality, or what is there in acquired knowledge that can mar the efforts of original genius. It is not to the writer of genius, but to the dunce, that learning will be an injury; for an original mind will disregard authority, however imposing it may appear, unless the sentiments and opinions which it advances be in harmony with truth and nature. Whatever wants this harmony, it instantly rejects, and consequently retains only what is worth retaining; whereas, the dunce makes no distinction, but mixing up the good with the had, the bright creations of intellect with the dreams of dulness, stores his mind with principles and notions which are not only at variance with each other, but at variance with truth. Learning becomes, therefore, the source of all his errors, while, to the man of genius, it is the source of all his knowledge.

These observations peculiarly apply to Mrs. Hemans. Intimately acquainted with Camoens, Metastasio, Felicaja, Pastorini, Lope de Vega, Francisco Manuel, Della Casa, Cornelio Bentivoglio, Quevedo, Juan de Tarsis, Torquato Bernardo, Tasso, Petrarca, Pietro Bembo, Lorenzini, Gessner, Chaulieu, Garcilaso de Vega, and in being acquainted with these, it is nevertheless to observe, that she is acquainted with all the languages in Europe worth being acquainted with; she still breathes not a sentiment, or gives expression to an emotion that savours of pedantry, that savours of scholastic acquirements, or the "limae labor ac mora." We do not say that she is practically unacquainted with the "limae labor," but we say that she has the art to conceal her art; that all the effusions of her pen, whether they be the productions of study, or the emotions of instinct, wear no other vesture than the vesture of nature. In the mass of knowledge which she has acquired, it cannot be doubted that she has frequently waded through unnatural associations and common place dulness; but her own productions prove they have exercised no influence over her judgment and feelings. So far from chilling the ardour, or sullying the purity of the feelings which she derived from nature antecedent to her pursuits after acquired knowledge, her original ardour is rendered more chaste, and her purity of feelings more refined than if she had always remained under the blind guidance of what is called nature by our modern schools of poetry. In sooth, their boasted nature is only ignorance, for nature has only imparted to us the seeds of knowledge, and of expanded perception; but if the soil in which these seeds are planted be neglected and remain uncultivated, it will, like the most luxuriant soils of the earth which we inhabit, produce only the rankest and foulest weeds. It is genius only that ought to be cultivated; for to educate a dunce is to feed a swine with pearls, which afford no nourishment, because they are not natural to the beast, and it is equally the same with the learned dunce.

Feeling is the soul of genius; but feeling can be imparted by no human effort. Tell a man, who has neither heart, nor soul, nor feeling, nor sympathy, that he would be much happier if he would feel like a man of feeling, and sympathize like a man of sympathy, tell him that it would impart pleasures which neither the eye of insensibility can see, nor his ear can hear, neither can it enter into his heart, and yet what advantage does he derive from your instruction. What avails it to talk to him about feeling, when he cannot feel. You might as well talk to a blind man about colours: of all your definitions and distinctions of shades, he knows nothing. It is just as idle a task to attempt to make a dunce a man of distinguished talent: no human effort can change the nature of things. "Send a goose to Dover, and he'll come a goose over," by whomsoever it was expressed, is certainly the expression of a man who was no goose himself; it is the expression of a man who knew human nature better than Helvetius. But wherein was Helvetius deceived? — Certainly in mistaken the source of human genius. He imagined that, if children were brought up alike, instructed alike, placed always in the same situation, accustomed to the same scenes, conversant with the modes of life and accustomed to the same habits, they would all evince the same talent, and prove that no such thing existed as original genius; but he forgot that men differ originally in degrees of sensibility; that the scene which affects one man, will have no influence on another; and that consequently, he can never enter into that association of ideas which occupies the mind of him who not only perceives, but is affected by the scene. Mrs. Hemans, then, owes much to nature, but more to her own study and application. The same study and application would have no doubt made fools or fanatics of others; but she possessed a mind fitted to receive all the fine impressions, chaste emotions, and more delicate perceptions of the philosopher and the poet. What representation of innocence was ever more happily imagined — what more delicately and poetically expressed, than the following dirge of a child:

No bitter tears for thee be shed,
Blossom of being! seen and gone!
With flowers alone we strew thy bed,
O blest departed one!
Whose all of life, a rosy ray,
Blushed into dawn, and passed away.

Yes, thou art gone, ere guilt had power
To stain thy cherub soul and form!
Clos'd is the soft ephemeral flower
That never felt a storm!
The sunbeam's smile, the zephyr's breath,
All that it knew from birth to death.

Thou wert so like a form of light,
That heaven benignly called thee hence,
Ere yet the world could breathe one blight
O'er thy sweet innocence:
And thou that brighter home to bless
Art passed with all thy loveliness.

Oh hadst thou still on earth remain'd,
Vision of beauty, fair as brief,
How soon thy brightness had been stain'd
With Passion, or with grief!
Now not a sullying breath can rise
To dim thy glory in the skies.

We rear no marble o'er thy tomb,
No sculptured image there shall mourn,
Ah! fitter far the vernal bloom
Such dwelling to adorn.
Fragrance and flowers and rews must be
The only emblems meet for thee.

Thy grave shall be a blessed shrine;
Adorn'd with nature's brightest wreath,
Each glowing season shall combine
Its incense thereto breathe;
And oft upon the midnight air
Shall viewless harps be murmuring there.

And oh! sometimes in visions blest,
Sweet spirit, visit our repose,
And bear from thine own world of rest
Some balm for human woes.
What form more lovely could be given
Than thine to messenger of heaven?

It is thought by many, that philosophy is not less hostile to the genuine spirit of poetry than learning; but where was there ever a finer confutation of this opinion, than in the following description of absent reason:—

Oh what is nature's strength? the vacant eye
By mind deserted hath a dread reply,
The wild delirious laughter of despair,
The mirth of phrenzy — seek an answer there
Turn not away, though pity's cheek grow pale,
Close not thine ear against their awful tale.
They tell thee, reason wandering from the ray
Of faith, the blazing pillar of her way,
In the mid-darkness of the stormy wave
Forsook the struggling soul she could not save.
Weep not, sad moralist, o'er desert plains
Strew'd with the wrecks of grandeur-mouldering fanes—
Arches of triumph, long with weeds o'ergrown—
And regal cities, now the serpent's own:
Earth has more awful ruins — one lost mind
Whose star is quench'd, bath lessons for mankind
Of deeper import, than each prostrate dome
Mingling its marble with the dust of Rome. — p. 17

Spirit dethroned, and check'd in mid career,
Son of the morning, exiled from thy sphere,
Tell us thy tale! perchance thy race was run
With science in the chariot of the sun:
Free as the winds the path of space to sweep,
Traverse the untrodden kingdoms of the deep,
And search the laws that nature's springs controul;
There tracing all — save Him who guides the whole.
Haply thine eye its ardent glance had cast
Through the dim shades, the portals of the past;
By the bright lamp of thought thy care had fed,
From the far beacon-lights of ages fled,
The depths of time exploring to retrace
The glorious march or many a vanish'd race.

Or did thy power pervade the living lyre,
Till its deep chords became instinct with fire,
Silenc'd all meaner notes, and swell'd on high
Full and alone their mighty harmony,
While woke each passion from its cell profound
And nations started at th' electric sound!
Lord of the Ascendant! what avails it now,
Though bright the laurels wav'd upon thy brow?
What, though thy name, through distant empires heard,
Bade the heart bound, as doth a battle-word?
Was it for this thy still unwearied eye
Kept vigil with the watch-fires of the sky,
To make the secrets of all ages thine,
And commune with majestic thoughts that shine
O'er time's long shadowy pathway! Hath thy mind
Severed its lone, dominions from mankind
For this — to woo their homage? Thou hast sought
All, save the wisdom with Salvation fraught—
Won every wreath, but that which will not die,
Nor aught neglected save eternity,
And did all fail thee, &c.

Lift the dread veil no further! hide, oh hide
The bleeding form, the couch of suicide—
The dagger grasp'd in death — the brow, the eye
Lifeless, yet stamp'd with rage and agony;
The soul's dark traces left in many a line
Grav'd on his mien who died, "and made no sign!"
Approach not, gaze not, lest thy fever'd brain
Too deep the image of despair retain.
Angels of slumber! — o'er the midnight hour
Let not such visions claim unhallow'd power,
Lest the mind sink with terror, and above
See but the Avenger's arm, forgot th' Atoner's love. — p. 18.