Felicia Hemans

S. C. Hall, "Mrs. Hemans" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 361-70.

FELICIA DOROTHEA BROWNE was born in Duke Street, Liverpool, on the 25th of September, 1793. The house is not known. Some years ago I wandered through the quaint old street, situated in the lower part of the town, near the river and the Custom-house. Many of the dwellings are a century old, with venerable porches that speak of former respectability, and fancy may accord the honour to any one of them. Her father, of Irish parentage and birth, was a merchant in the great capital of sea-commerce; her mother, Miss Wagner, was of Italian descent, and the poet was fond of tracing the peculiar tendency of her mind to the Venetian blood she inherited. But to that mother she was indebted for higher boons. She was a good and accomplished woman, who gave to her daughter those lessons of practical virtue that were early learned, to be afterwards taught in immortal verse.

Happily, while still very young, her father retired to comparative solitude in North Wales, and in that wild, romantic, and picturesque country, closely communing with Nature, her taste was formed, and her mind strengthened. During nearly the whole of her life she was a resident in the land she loved intensely. It retained its charm, even after she had visited Ireland, Scotland, and the English Lakes.

Two years before she had "entered her teens" she produced a volume of poems. Other works followed, and her name had become famous when, in her nineteenth year, she married Captain Alfred Hemans, of the 4th Regiment, a gentleman closely connected with one of the oldest Welsh families in the neighbourhood. Although no quarrel arose, the marriage was not a happy one. Captain Hemans was much older than his wife, and his health having been impaired by foreign service, he became, a few years after they wedded, a permanent resident in Italy; Mrs. Hemans continuing to reside in Wales, rearing and educating five sons who were born to them, working for her own and their honourable independence.

"She was married at eighteen, in all the trustfulness of a young enthusiastic nature, but was fated soon to see her dreams of happiness give place to sad realities, and the blight thus cast upon her affections tinged with mournfulness a temperament naturally ardent and joyous."

On this sad subject she rarely spoke, even to her nearest friends. Mrs. Lawrence tells us it was "sacred and unapproachable." It would be only evil now to seek to fathom the mystery. No doubt it was the shadow that cast a perpetual gloom over her path through life, and gave a tone of sadness to all she wrote. She exclaims in one of her poems,—

Tell me no more
Of my soul's gifts! Are they not vain
To quench its haunting thirst for happiness?

From the time he left her, for seventeen years, the husband and wife never met. Her duties, and perhaps her natural disposition, kept her apart from the bustle of life. Except once, I believe, she never visited London. She loved solitude, and enjoyed its calm; indeed, it was in a great degree necessary to her, for her constitution was always delicate. Subsequently she lived at Bronwylfa, near to St. Asaph, the residence of her brother, General Sir H. Browne: that home is one of the abiding-places I have pictured. She found time, however, to learn as well as to write much; and, it is said, had intimate acquaintance with several modern languages, and with the Latin also, which, probably, she acquired that she might better teach her sons.

But Rhyllon, also near to St. Asaph, was the residence she most loved. On General Sir Henry Browne's second marriage, she, with her mother, sister, and all her children, went to reside there (it was another of Sir Henry's houses). Here she dwelt during the remainder of the years she passed in Wales.

For three or four years she lived at Wavertree, a village suburb of Liverpool. The house is now surrounded with unpicturesque dwellings, and is conspicuous for the absence of attractions that formed her chief delight in Wales. For some time she resided in Westmoreland. Not far from the shores of Windermere is "Dove's Nest," still a pretty, yet unpretending, cottage. Here she had the frequent companionship of the poet she most honoured and loved; and Wordsworth, in return for sweet companionship, gave her the wealth of his friendship, and accorded to her, perhaps, greater homage than he paid to any other of his contemporaries. "Dove's Nest was," according to Mrs. Hemans, "originally designed for a small villa;" but it had passed from the careful hands that meant it for "a home;" "traces of love" had been gradually effaced; the garden was a wild; the sweet-brier and the moss-rose had degenerated. Thus she writes: — "An air of neglect hangs about the little demesne, which does not at all approach desolation, and yet gives it something of touching interest." ... "Perhaps some heart like my own in its feelings and sufferings has here sought refuge and repose." But there was "a glorious view of Windermere from an old-fashioned alcove" in the garden.

Circumstances induced her to remove her residence to Dublin. Her brother, Colonel Browne, held an important office there, as Chief of the Metropolitan Constabulary, and the Irish capital offered strong temptations for the education of her sons. In that city she dwelt about four years, and there she quitted earth on the 16th of May, 1835.

Her death-bed was a becoming close to a high, a holy, and a useful life. Her sister writes: — "The dark and silent chamber seemed illumed by light from above, and cheered by spirit songs. She would say that in her intervals from pain 'no poetry could express, nor imagination conceive, the visions of blessedness that flitted across her fancy.'"

And so her last hours were spent; first, in communing with her own heart, and the unutterable comfort she derived from trust in her Redeemer; and next, in transmitting affectionate and consoling messages to friends; in sending memory back to old homes by the sea-shore, to mountain rambles, to pleasant outlooks upon green fields, to the haunts and the hooks she loved; filling a darkened room in a crowded city with happy thoughts and cheerful sights; no repinings, no murmurings; a holy calm, a grateful resignation, fervent faith, unbounded trust! Under the influence of these mingled sensations, feelings, hopes, she dictated to her brother the last of her poems, "The Sabbath Sonnet." It breathes the beautiful humanity, loving-kindness, and holy devotion that characterised all her works.

No record of Mrs. Hemans should be without a copy of that sonnet. It was dictated to Colonel Browne on Sunday, the 26th of April:—

How many blessed groups this hour are bending,
Through England's primrose meadow paths, the way
Toward spire and tower, 'mid shadowy elms ascending
Whence the sweet chimes proclaim the hallowed day!
The halls, from old heroic ages grey,
Pour their fair children forth; and hamlets low,
With whose thick orchard blooms the soft winds play,
Send out their inmates in a happy flow,
Like a freed vernal stream. I may not tread
With them those pathways, — to the feverish bed
Of sickness hound; yet, O my God! I bless
Thy mercy, that with Sabbath peace hath filled
My chastened heart, and all its throbbings stilled
To one deep calm of lowliest thankfulness.

This is the picture her sweet sister draws of her death-bed, or rather of her state just previous to her removal from earth: — "Her sleep was, calm and happy, and none but pleasing dreams ever visited her couch. Serenity and submission shed their influence over all. At times her spirit would appear half etherealised, her mind would seem to be fraught with deep and holy and incommunicable thoughts, and she would entreat to be left alone, in stillness and darkness, to 'commune with her own heart,' and reflect on the 'mercies of the Saviour.'" "She will not," wrote one of her friends, "allow a mournful look or tone at her bedside." Mrs. Lawrence writes, — "She had frequent wanderings of mind, but the images she dwelt on were mostly beautiful, and with no terror in them; and her release was as peaceful as that of an infant falling to sleep. She uttered a scarcely audible sigh, and expired."

One of the latest of her poems, "The Poet's Dying Hymn," has these lines:—

I bless thee with my glad song's dying breath,
I bless thee, O my God!

The room in which she passed away was a hack room in a house in Dawson Street, Dublin — a corner house of St. Stephen's Green; but of that fine square she had no view. It may have contrasted wearily with the prospect from Grwych, Bronwylfa, and Rhyllon; but her heart was far from it, half-way to heaven before she quitted earth.

The chamber where the good man meets his fate
Is privileged beyond the common walk
Of virtuous life — quite on the verge of heaven!

I visited that house some three years ago, and also the neighbouring church of St. Anne, in a vault underneath which lie her remains. A mural tablet contains her name, her age, and the date of her death, with the following lines from one of her poems:—

Calm on the bosom of thy God,
Fair spirit, rest thee now!
Even while with us thy footsteps trod
His seal was on thy brow.
Dust to its narrow house beneath!
Soul to its place on high
They that have seen thy look in death
No more may fear to die.

There is a memorial window in the church — placed there by public subscription, chiefly by the exertions of the vicar, the Rev. H. H. Dickinson.

Such is a brief outline of the uneventful life of a poet whose writings are known, valued, and loved throughout the world.

Of Mrs. Hemans I knew personally but little. I saw her only once in her cottage at Wavertree. She was ill, and my visit was a brief one; the more brief because I was under a promise to repeat it, but unhappily that promise I was not permitted to keep, for she grew worse, and the enjoyment I anticipated was postponed to a time that was not to come on earth. But I had frequent correspondence with her, and during my editorship of the New Monthly she was a regular writer in that magazine while some of the most charming of her poems, "The Hebrew Mother," "Passing Away," "The Trumpet Song," and others, were contributed by her to the Amulet. For the New Monthly, also, she wrote the only prose she published.

Wavertree was comfortless and uncheerful, calculated to depress rather than to enliven. Her house there was the corner of a row, with a small garden in front, and another behind; but the flowers she so dearly loved could not grow in that dull atmosphere. From all rural sights and sounds she was utterly excluded. There was no breeze to bring joy and health to the flowers or to her.

Her early delicacy of frame no doubt influenced her mind. She did not seek the usual enjoyments of young girls. Her pleasure was in solitude, in the companionship of books, and in the discharge of the duties that after-life brought to her. There is said to have been a prophetic utterance by some one, "That child is not made for happiness — her colour comes and goes too fast;" and Miss Landon states that she once asked Miss Jewsbury if she thought Mrs. Hemans a happy person. "No," was the reply, "her enjoyment is feverish, and she desponds; she is like a lamp whose oil is consumed by the light it yields;" and there was sad truth in her own lines:—

All the vivid interests of life look pale
And dim around me.

Hers was that beauty which depends mainly on expression. Like her writings, it was thoroughly womanly. Her auburn hair, parted over her brow, fell on either side in luxuriant curls. Her eyes are described as "dove-like," with a chastened character that appertained to sadness. "A calm repose," so writes one of her friends, "not unmingled with melancholy, was the characteristic expression of her face; but when she smiled, all traces of sorrow were lost, and she seemed to be but "little lower than the angels" — fitting shrine for a soul so pure.

Her portrait is thus given by her friend Mrs. Lawrence: — "Mrs. Hemans was of an excellent height, just not tall, and of a slight and pleasing form; the hands very delicate and pretty. She had a profusion of auburn hair, and the blue eyes and colouring of the complexion were analogous." "She had been in youth very beautiful, but she faded early;" and she adds that "her language and imagery in speaking were studiously correct and beautiful — hardly less so than in her poetry."

"Delta" (Dr. Moir), prefacing one of the volumes of her poems, describes her as "about the middle height, rather slender; her countenance of great intelligence and expression." "In all her feelings," he adds, "she is intensely and entirely feminine." ... "Over all her pictures of humanity are spread the glory and the grace reflected from purity of morals, dignity of sentiment, beauty of imagery, sublimity of religious faith, and ardour of patriotism."

But Moir, if he ever saw her (which he might have done during her brief visit to Edinburgh), knew little of her; and perhaps Miss Williams (Ysgafell), who wrote a Memoir of her, knew less. She is thus described by that writer, no doubt, however, from "hearsay:" — "Her personal appearance was highly attractive; she was of middle stature and slight in figure; her complexion was exquisitely fair, clear, and bright; her silky and luxuriant hair was in colour of a rich golden brown; her fine eyes were radiant with genius."

Mrs. Hemans knew, indeed, but few persons. Though her friends were many, and her admirers numerous, her acquaintances were limited. "My whole life," she writes, "has lain within the circle of those wild Welsh hills, and I know nobody." Perhaps the best portrait of her is that of her friend Miss Jewsbury: — "She is lovely without being beautiful; her rich and silky brown hair, of unusual length, flowed round her, when unbraided, like a veil ... Other women might be more commanding, more versatile, more acute, but I never saw one so exquisitely feminine She had a passive temper, but decided tastes; her strength and her weakness alike lay in her affections. Her voice was a sad, sweet melody; her gladness was like a burst of sunlight; and if, in her depression, she resembled night, it was night bearing the stars."

In the frequent conversations I have had with Miss Jewsbury relative to her beloved friend, she could never speak of her without intense enthusiasm — a fervour that has often brought tears into her eyes.

The portrait that heads this Memory is by an American artist, West, who painted it in 1828. It was to this portrait she wrote some lines, ending thus:—

Yet look thou still serenely on,
And if sweet friends there be,
That when my song and soul are gone
Shall seek my form in thee,
Tell them of one for whom 'twas best
To flee away and be at rest.

The abundant offspring of her high and holy mind-the imperishable outpourings of her pure and generous heart — are the property of the world. They have been translated into every language of civilised man. Those who would teach resignation, meekness, truth, virtue, piety, resort to her poems as lessons attractive, impressive, and permanent, and know that in every line she wrote she was discharging the divinest duty of the poet.

From the period — in childhood almost — when she published a collection of "Juvenile Poems," nearly to her close of life, she had sent forth volume after volume, each surpassing the other in sweetness and in power. It seemed as if the intellectual mine was inexhaustible, and perhaps her latest productions will be considered her best.

I may with propriety introduce here some recollections of the three friends to whom she was most attached, and who have done justice to her memory — Mrs. Lawrence, her sweet sister Mrs. Owen, and Mary Jane Jewsbury — with two of whom we had the privilege to be personally acquainted.

Her sister — whom it was our happy chance to know, meeting her often at the house of Mrs. Hemans' eldest son, George Willoughby — was a woman rarely gifted, most amiable, and most estimable. When she wrote the Life of Mrs. Hemans she was the wife of the Rev. Mr. Hughes; and by that name she is chiefly known. Some years after his death she married the Rev. W. Hicks Owen, M. A., Senior Vicar of St. Asaph and Vicar of Tremeirchion, Rural Dean. With that most excellent clergyman she enjoyed sixteen years of happiness, unbroken except by occasional visitations of ill-health. She died in 1858, and sleeps in the quiet graveyard of the little church of Tremeirchion, among the hills that surround the valley through which runs the Clwyd — that

Cambrian river, with slow music gliding
By pastoral hills, old woods, and ruined towers,

beside the banks of which the sisters had passed nearly the whole of their useful, but tranquil and uneventful, lives.

All to whom she was known — and they were many — will bear witness to the truth of this inscription, placed on a tablet underneath the memorial window of the church in which rest her remains:—

"This Window was erected by many and attached friends, to the glory of God, and in affectionate remembrance of Harriet Mary Owen, who departed this life 14th March, 1858. She was the wife of the Rev. W. H. Owen, vicar of this parish, and was sister of Felicia Hemans, many of whose lyrics she set to music. She was a woman of great intellectual endowments, of deep and varied reading, a good linguist, and an accomplished musician. With these high qualities was combined the most practical good sense in the common things of every-day life. A gentle and considerate mistress, and one who 'looked well to the ways of her household.'

"She had so disciplined her temper, that no provocation caused an impatient or fretful feeling. Very pitiful and courteous, but gifted with a brave and independent spirit, which unhesitatingly marked its abhorrence of all that was base and dishonourable. For sixteen years she fulfilled indefatigably all the duties of a country clergyman's wife, and was unceasingly occupied in furthering deeds of charity and loving-kindness. In this course, even when weighed down by extreme bodily anguish, she steadfastly persevered to the very last. In joy and in sorrow, in prosperity and in adversity, she presented to those around her, and who knew her best, a bright example of the Christian graces, Faith, Hope, and Charity."

MRS. LAWRENCE, whose "Recollections of Mrs. Hemans" I have quoted in this Memory, was one of the most beloved of her friends. That accomplished lady lived in a great mansion near the humble dwelling of the poet, to whom her doors were ever open in wide welcome. Her residence was at Mosley Hall, near Liverpool. Her richly-cultivated mind enabled her fully to appreciate the genius of her neighbour, whom she loved with intense affection, and it is a pleasant task to associate their honoured names.