1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Felicia Hemans

C. W., in "Contemporary Poetry" Boston Lyceum 2 (November 1827) 230-33.



There is one very popular writer of the day whom we would approach with much and deserved respect: — a poet — (there is no sex in mind,) and a woman: and cold and dark indeed must our heart be, ere that name becomes to us blended with other associations than tenderness, veneration and love. But we hold our candour at higher price than our affections; and could do Mrs. Hemans no more than justice, if she breathed out Sappho's strains from Helen's lips.

If there be such a thing as the philosophy of poetry, it has for its basis the theory of moral sentiments. Purity of thought we esteem the first requisite and most effective instrument of the true Poet. This we conceive to be Mrs. Hemans's highest praise; — that throughout her works there prevails a deep tone of pure, affectionate and religious feeling, which is gladdening to the chastened heart. But we do not mean to detract from her talents in mentioning this noble qualification to instruct and delight as her chief merit: yet we are willing to avow our opinion that she has not much genius, though it be in the very face of admiration and authority. She can adorn and beautify but she cannot originate. Her poems are all deeply beautiful. We do not think of one to except. But there is throughout a certain level which becomes finally wearisome. A sameness of thought, — of language, — of imagery. She does not often go beyond herself. She may frequently break up the sacred fountain of tears; but she never startles us. She does not set us thinking. She pours out her spirit in liquid melody. We float and mingle with this delicious flood, and are wafted along in a dreamy indefinite kind of delight. Our hearts are soothed and refreshed, but our intellectual man is not invigorated. We might bathe in that stream forever and find its temperature the same. It would not vary with our varying wants. And yet how picturesque, how tender, how imaginative, are the "Voyager's dream of land," and "An hour of romance," how fervent and yet melancholy are "The hour of death," "Bring flowers" and "Evening prayer at a Girl's School!"

One point of the poetic art she has exhibited to a remarkable degree in the judicious choice of striking subjects. This will be observed by a glance at the contents. Like all other writers she has sometimes failed of managing them skilfully. — The "Dying bard's prophecy," is rather a dangerous subject after Gray's sublime ode: and we do not think the "Traveller at the source of the Nile," an unusually happy illustration of that most melancholy principle of our nature; — that bitter despondency of disappointment when all we most desired is finally our's: which made Caesar exclaim "Is this all?" when at last he looked down from the throne of imperial Rome, and sickened Bruce's heart, when, after the toil of years, he stood by the thousand springs of the Nile.

But poetry consists of something more than correct and musical versification, or even vivid imagery. Such verse may please for a moment and be forever forgotten. The highest office of poetry is not to present pictures to the mind, but sometimes, by a word, to awaken there a thousand delightful images and ancient associations. It must be like some song of happier childhood, one note of which, mingling for once with the silent dreariness of years, carries us in an instant to those pleasant fields, those sunny rivers and remembered trees, and life is once more—

From morn to noon,
From noon to dewy eve, — a summer's day.

And as old recollections like friends, return upon us, though we may have been hurried by thoughts which gave us no rest, we shall forget, for a little space, our sorrows, our darkness and despondency, and our present selves; and feel as Byron has pictured his Dying Gladiator, who forgot for the moment the shouting and brutal populace, — forgot the savage arena, though purple with his own life's last tide, — forgot himself, — and—

—recked not of the life he lost nor prize;
But where his rude hut by the Danube lay;—
There were his young barbarians all at play,
And there their Dacian mother.

One of the finest and most spirit-stirring of all Mrs. Hemans's minor pieces is, we think, the song of the Cid in the siege of Valencia. We like it for the reasons we have above laid down. Its beauty does not depend so much on the images it presents as those it suggests. We all remember the effect upon us of some of the plain, strong old lays of "Wallace Wight," or the Spanish and Moorish ballads, like this song of the Campeador, when a thousand thoughts come thronging upon us as we read, and the blood thrills back to the heart as at the sound of a trumpet. We forget the poet and ourselves. The Alhambra rises at once upon our view; the Guadalquiver goes rolling by; we see the array of the hosts; we hear the flap of the banner; and the harness of the Cid rings in our ears with — "The tambour peal and the tecbir shout."

One more, and we have done. We know scarcely any thing in the range of modern poetry more simply and naturally affecting than the "Greek Funeral Chant." It is a touch true to nature and full of the spirit of maternal tenderness, when the mournful mother, in the moment of triumph, thinks not of victory, thinks not of glory; but only knows that her young, — her beautiful, — her brave, — is not.

They tell me of their youthful fame, they talk of victory won;

Speak thou and I will hear, my child! Ianthis! my sweet son.

And yet after all Mrs. Hemans is no very great favourite of our's, though we should despair of explaining fully the reasons of our dissent, even if we were sure we could analyze the cause to our own satisfaction.