1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Felicia Hemans

Anonymous, in "Living Poets of England: Mrs. Hemans" Literary Magnet NS 1 (March 1826) 113-15.



MRS. HEMANS is unquestionably the first female poet — the mistress-mind of the day. Mrs. Joanna Bailie has more dramatic power, a more condensed and masculine diction; her writings contain more philosophy of thought and feeling: — Miss Landon's strains certainly breathe more intense, and simple passion, more of the burning heart and eager soul; but neither the tragedian of Montfort, nor the young minstrel of the Improvisatrice, have minds so essentially poetic. Admitting that her metres are occasionally fanciful, her diction overgemmed, her portraits of character and emotion sometimes wanting in vitality — "Felicia Hemans, (we quote the words of an American reviewer) is full of poetry — brimful of that miraculous, deep, and sure instinct, the least portion of which is a longing after immortality. The light within her is that which no woman ever had before. Others have had more dramatic power, more eloquence, a more manly temper, but no woman had ever so much true poetry in her heart as Felicia Hemans." This is saying much, but only look at the feelings she loves, to pourtray — they are the purest, most profound, in other words, the most poetic of our nature; — look again at the characters she delights to honour — the wise, the virtuous, the heroic, the self-devoted, the loving, the single-hearted; — those who have been faithful unto death in a holy cause-those who have triumphed over suffering — those who have led on to noble deeds — those who have lived, and those who have died for others. She writes like one who feels that the heart of man is a sacred thing, not rashly to be wounded; and even her darkest delineations of guilt or grief are tempered by the influence of her own womanly spirit. At once gifted and childlike, she exemplifies Wordsworth's line, and preserves

A young lamb's heart among the full-grown flocks.

Delicacy is not the word which defines the peculiar charm of her poetry; we want one that shall express the combination of sobriety of understanding, and matronliness of feeling, with all that is picturesque and etherial infancy. The surface of her poetry is smooth, and clear, and sparkling — alive to every breeze — varying alike to the shadow and the sunbeam—

Yet more, the depths have more—

treasures of thought and experience — chastened views of human life — earnest longings after all that is fair and good — the wisdom of a heart that has preserved its sensibilities unimpaired, whilst the judgment has imbibed a sober colouring from daily views of man's mortality.

We come now to speak of her acquirements. Mrs. Hemans has furnished an additional proof that genius and industry, talent and studious habits, are quite compatible; for independently of being the most gifted, she is one of the best informed women of the day. Occasionally we are tempted to regret this; for though poets cannot possess too much knowledge, they may make too much use of it; — and though there is not the slightest tincture of pedantry or display in Mrs. Hemans' poetry, she does sometimes fetter the movements of her mind with facts and authorities, and thaws upon her memory when we would rather she relied upon her genius. The author of the Waverley novels has, it is true, made an almost unlimited use of historical data; but his mind has the bee-like property of converting acquired into original matter, old things into new; and if deprived of the charm with which the costume and circumstances of antiquity invest them, his scenes and characters would retain their hold upon our hearts. The grand distinction apparently subsisting between this author and all others who have engrafted fiction upon facts, is, that in the one case, we fancy ourselves reading of things that really have been; in the other, of things that have only been fancied. In many of her historical sketches, Mrs. Hemans has produced this realizing interest; where, as in some of her Greek and Spanish ballads, she has failed, it has not been from any deficiency of poetic feeling in her own mind, but either from the subjects not appealing to our immediate sympathies, or their not being fit subjects in themselves. It is exceedingly difficult to decide, when historical facts are; and are not, fit subjects for poetry. An incident like the burial of Alaric the Goth, or the devotedness of Arria, is so essentially poetic in the bare prose recital, that versification only weakens the original impression; but when, as in Mrs. Hemans' "Coeur de Lion at the bier of his Father" — and "He never smiled again" — the interest of the fact lies in some point of feeling not fully developed — poetry steps in with peculiar propriety, to illustrate and embellish. Her Historical Sketches are not, however, what we should call Mrs. Hemans' peculiar poetry; not that which is emphatically, altogether her own; that, on which we most confidently rest her fame. Her "Tales and Historic Scenes" are admirable; her "Wallace and Bruce" is instinct with poetic feeling; and so is her "Siege of Valencia;" but her "Voice of Spring," her "Hour of Death," her "Treasures of the Deep," her "Graves of a Household," her "England's Dead," her "Trumpet," and a host of similar pieces — these are the undying lays, the "lumps of pure gold." We do not think thus with reference to Mrs. Hemans lyrics only; it strikes us, that nearly all our present poets must depend for future fame on their shorter pieces; — that their immediate popularity depends upon them, is beyond all question. Were Paradise Lost in the present restless state of literary taste, to issue from the press as a new poem, it is doubtful whether it would soon pass a first edition. Long poems require a close and continued attention which many cannot, and more will not give; short lyrics, on the other hand, are not only more rememberable, but also more quotable; through the medium of periodicals newspapers. and collections, they get disseminated all over the world; and, like the seeds of flowers wafted away by the passing wind, every where meet us springing up in unexpected beauty. And how will it be thirty or forty years hence? The engrossing interest of any period is naturally excited by the passing events and productions of that period; and doubtless the men of future generations will fancy their own bards and battles far mightier, and more honourable, than those in which we now exult. It is scarcely to be expected that our voluminous poets will find a place in the libraries of that period. But their lyrics cannot so glide into oblivion; independently of the living beauty with which hosts of them are invested, too many duplicates are extant; — here, and there, and every where, will they be found like the poet's daisies — "In shoals and bands a morrice train."