Felicia Hemans

Sarah Josepha Hale, "Mrs. Hemans' Poetry" Ladies Magazine [Boston] 2 (February 1829) 70-77.

If our journal had been in existence at the time of Mrs. Hemans' greatest popularity, we are not sure that we should have joined our voice to the general acclamation; not from want of admiration of her talents, but because it was evident to all who reflected on the subject, that such excitement was not of a kind to endure. Accordingly the tide has now turned a little; she is as deserving of applause as ever, but readers have grown weary of her unvaried excellence, and it is not in the nature of critics to persist in giving praise. We are glad therefore to take this opportunity to declare, that in our humble opinion, she keeps on steadily improving: and the passing shade under which she labors, is owing to the public caprice, which, if it admires rapturously to-day, grows ashamed of its enthusiasm to-morrow.

This is no reproach to Mrs. Hemans; and before we condemn the public, we should ask if it is not perfectly natural. We admire the grand and beautiful scenes of nature, which she delights in representing; but they are not calculated to afford a source of interest that excludes every other they are intended to afford relief from care, to rest and exalt the mind for other exertions; and any one who retires to live in perpetual communion with nature, soon discovers that it cannot, of itself, always fill and employ the mind. Mrs. Hemans' writings have met us on leaves as numerous as those of the forest, and it is not to be expected that we should feel a constant excitement like that they first awakened. The interest however does not so much lessen, as change: the new star which stood out before the rest, ceases to be a wonder, but quietly takes its rank in the sky: and since we may see the effect of this familiarity every day in common life, it seems strange, that when it operates on the fame of distinguished persons, it should occasion so much anger and dismay.

Mrs. Hemans has written much: and this also has aided to produce the effect just mentioned. She must gain this command over her treasures like Aladdin, by means of her lamp: but the natural effect of their abundance is to reduce their value. We know none of her writings which we would willingly spare: but unquestionably, had she written less, her fame at this moment would have been greater, because the public are always louder in their demands for what is withheld, than in their gratitude for what is given. This misfortune she shares in common with Scott; but many years will not pass, before the distinction of old and new in their works will be forgotten, and their writings be considered as a whole; then their fame will no longer be affected by the chances of public feeling.

Something of Mrs. Hemans' loss of popularity is owing to her imitators, who have followed her in a procession that has not yet passed by. We do not accuse these worthies of imitating by design; such is generally their opinion of their own powers, that they would hardly pay that homage to Milton the resemblance is doubtless unconscious, and caused by their naturally falling in with the tone and manner they admire. But the peculiarities of a writer are much more easily copied than his genius: they have therefore given us her Lime and Chestnut groves without their solemn beauty; and her children, with nothing of the originals but their "fair hair" and "'sunny brow." We have been so often imposed upon with the counterfeit, that we suspect the merit of the true: and we charge her with all time dullness of those who affected her manner without any of her inspiration.

We shall now take the liberty of giving our opinion of Mrs. Hemans' writings.

We are most surprised at her imagination. It is wonderfully active and fertile; and seems to gain in vigor by exercise, instead of being exhausted by repeated demands. She abounds also in delicate and affecting sentiment; but, the images are certainly the principal charm in her writings. We do not speak of figures meant for illustration, but of the scenes and pictures she continually brings before us. She takes some incident she has noted down in her various reading, and gathers round it a profusion of rich and appropriate images, all judiciously selected to heighten the force of the description. The "Song of the Curfew" is an instance of this: it is a collection of pictures, each striking and beautiful, but all in perfect harmony, and so well blended as to produce a single and deep impression. Her answer to the question "Where slumber England's dead?" is another: in this, by a few happy words, the images of the many regions in which the armies of England have fought, are brought at once before the mind, in a single magnificent view; — but the heart which thrills at the pictures of navies bearing their thunder to the utmost limit of the deep, is made thoughtful as it should be, by the sight of seas and deserts which have been covered with the dead — the seals of the nothingness of glory. Sometimes a simple excitement is thus brought in with great effect, as in the "Traveller at the source of the Nile:" but it will be found that the sentiment owes its effect not to its point or originality, but to the scene of weariness, distance, and solitude, which she brings at the same time before us. It may interest Americans to observe how she has brought all the power of her imagery to bear on the "Landing of the Pilgrims;" an event which apart from its interest to ourselves, is doubtless one of the most impressive recorded in the history of man. This facility of imagination sometimes leads astray; and though she has no great faults, we think the principal one in her writings may be traced to this. Every reader has probably been struck with an occasional brilliancy which did not seem in place: and which though she has very little except genius in common with Moore, sometimes reminds us of the more sparkling of his writings. As an instance of this, we may mention the "Wreck" where she describes the attitude of the dead with a gracefulness which is by no means in keeping with so wild and fearful a scene. This too is the reason why her longer pieces are far from being the most successful, particularly the "Siege of Valencia," in which the various pictures of a mother's agony and love, though always beautiful and natural in themselves, are painful almost to weariness, and as has happened in many other cases, the lighter pieces will float down the stream of time, when these are sunk beneath it. We prefer her enamel painting — but this we sometimes admire, like the crystal casing of the trees a few weeks ago — glad to see it once or twice no doubt, but having serious fears for the vegetation to which it clung.

We know not that we could find any other considerable fault in Mrs. Hemans' if we were so disposed; but it is a much easier and pleasanter employment to point out her merits; and these are not a few. We are most of all disposed to praise the moral character of her writings. We could not of course expect to find her page stained like many others of the present day, with allusions which the poet would not dare to make in familiar conversation; purity was a thing to be expected; but Mrs. Hemans claims a higher praise than this, for her constant endeavor to inspire sentiments such as poetry has not always recommended by its teaching or example. All the impressions given by her various writings, are such as tend to animate her readers to perform the duties of life, rather than to lament the destiny assigned them: instead of that gloom which too many poets delight in, we find a bright light cast over all by conscience and religion. It is not intrusive in us to say, that Mrs. Hemans is known to have been acquainted with grief; and it is no small evidence of the justness of her views of duty, that she has abstained from borrowing an interest from this source, as she doubtless might have done with success. She intimates only, that there are sorrows from which none can hope to be free, but that happiness flows from fountains within the breast. To resist this melancholy tendency of the art, would in any one be a service to the cause of virtue; and it is particularly praiseworthy in those whose lot seems not to be happy.

We do not mean to speak of Mrs. Hemans as a moralist by profession: we allude to her indirect influence; for, in reading poetry, the good or evil is produced not by single sentiments, but by the whole impression which is left upon the mind. Very little of Mrs. Hemans' poetry is didactic; but the air of the whole is favorable to just views of human life and duty. Neither is this a trifling benefit; let a reader, if such an one can be found, go through L. E. L.'s writings, and then ask what impression they would give to any one who read them with interest and feeling. Would it not be, that in human life, as Orator Phillips would say, all above was sunshine, and all beneath, flowers; and that when this ceased to be the case, life was no longer a blessing that the whole business of women is to love, and of men to dance in the ballroom or die in the field; and that so far as men are not gallant and graceful, and women not lovely and loving, they have no business in this world? Shakspeare on the contrary (and Mrs. H. seems to be much of the same opinion) calls this a "working day world;" and we fear that he has the right of the matter. We cannot help doubting whether moral and intellectual improvement would go on very fast under Miss Landon's dispensations; and though we charge her with no more atrocious crime than that of being a young lady, we are disposed to give our verdict for those who make the world less of a Paradise, and prepare no young hearts to be disappointed. Miss Landon may say that she does not profess to describe what really takes place in the world: but the worthy class who are most likely to study her writings, are tolerably sanguine, and will endeavor to make the world what, in their opinion, it ought to be.

Again, Mrs. Hemans surprises us in all her writings, with her varied attainments. In her earlier writings, we find translations from almost every modern language; her acquaintance with history too, appears to be intimate and large; not so much from the historical incidents which form the subject of so many of her pieces, for these might have been sought out for the occasion, but from the bold and familiar manner in which she treats them. And here we must say, that by these little sketches, she is doing a service to her readers: we have no fear lest this embellishment shall produce an aversion to historical truth in general; — to us, the effect seems precisely the reverse; it gains many readers to history, who never would have gone to the volumes in which its treasures are locked up, if their curiosity had not been thus excited. The same remark will apply to Scott, though so far as there is any substance in the charge of perverting historical truth, it bears much harder upon him. Where history affords mere diagrams, Mrs. Hemans' works them up into rich and beautiful pictures, assembling in them all the recollections; we venture to say, there are some who never would have read the history of Henry 1st, had they not read "He never smiled again." Mrs. H. as well as Scott, has given an interest to the name of Richard, which makes readers interested in an age which, as it brings England into contact with the continent, with Asia, with Egypt, and the declining Greek Empire, leads on to an extensive acquaintance with history; the dullest reader becomes curious to trace the Saracens along the northern coast of Africa into Spain, and to follow the vast crusading coalitions through the Mediterranean to Syria, as they go to carry back a retribution.

Not the least remarkable thing in Mrs. Hemans, is her entire absence of display. With learning enough to fix the reputation of an elegant scholar, she only discloses it incidentally, and when she cannot avoid it. She does not, like too many a great example, heap note upon note to illustrate, not the author's text, but his learning; and she is resolutely silent on the subject of her own attainments, except when a word in explanation is required by the reader. This forbearance deserves all praise; it is a necessary submission to the prejudice of the world, which admires a woman for possessing learning, but makes it a capital offence in her to glory in it after the manner of men.

Mrs. Hemans has done as much as any writer to keep up the respectability of female talent. Feminine she certainly is, in all her appearance and pretensions. She never suffers her reader to forget, in his surprise at her genius; that she is a "tender and delicate woman," who has more reserve than ambition. There have been female writers who un-sexed themselves as completely as Lady Macbeth: but thanks to Mrs. Barbauld and others, the generation is passed away. Few writers have been more extensively read than Mrs. Hemans; in this country her works are familiar from St. Augustine to the Lake of the Woods; and yet what is known of her in America, except that she is an accomplished woman? Had it been a man, how often his biography would have been written, and his visage engraven; but Mrs. Hemans has never published her own history, nor, so far as we know, has she ever opened her window to listen to the sweetest of all sounds — the echoes of well earned applause.

Our limits do not allow a particular criticism of her writings. We can only mention that we are sorry to see how the "Dirge of the Highland Chief in Waverly" is altered from its original form. It seems to show that she is not always happy in revising — but possibly she might have been influenced by others. Campbell, whose best works bear marks of labor, was equally unsuccessful in altering "Lochiel's Warning." We give the original dirge as it was offered to Scott, from memory, and our readers who have the volume of her earlier writings, may compare it with the revised copy.

Son of the mighty and the free!
Loved leader of the faithful brave!
Was it, for highborn chief like thee,
To fill the nameless grave?
Oh! hadst thou slumbered with the slain,
Could glory's death have been thy lot,
Even though on red Culloden's plain,
We then had mourned thee not.

But darkly closed thy morn of fame,
That morn, whose sunbeam rose so fair;
Revenge alone may breathe thy name,
The watchword of despair.
Yet oh, if gallant spirits' power
Hath e'er ennobled death like thine,
Then glory marked thy parting hour—
Last of a mighty line!

O'er thy own towers the sunbeam falls,
But cannot cheer their lonely gloom:
Those beams that gild thy native walls,
Are sleeping on thy tomb!
Spring on thy mountains laughs the while,
The wild woods wave in vernal air;
But the loved scenes may vainly smile—
Not even thy dust is there!

O'er thy blue hills no bugle's sound
Is mingled with the torrent's roar;
Unmarked the red deer sport around,
Thou lead'st the chase no more!
Thy gates are closed — thy halls are still!
Those halls where swelled the choral strain
They hear the wild winds murmuring shrill,
And all is hushed again.

Thy bard his pealing harp has broke!
His fire, his joy of song is past:
One lay to mourn thy fate he woke,
The saddest, and the last.
No other theme to him was dear
Than lofty deeds of thine:
Hushed be the strain thou canst not hear,
Last of a mighty line!

We are strongly disposed to look upon Mrs. Hemans as the first of a new order of poets; we cannot help believing that an age of poetry is at hand, when the moral excellence of man shall be celebrated with more enthusiasm than oppressive power or unhallowed affection; when the poets shall look down into the depths of the soul for the principle that nerves the martyr, that sustains the philanthropist, and trims the secret lamp of long-suffering affection; and shall breathe it to the world, not in "dark sayings on the harp," but in language simple and fervent, such as man uses in speaking with deep interest to man. We see nothing discouraging to poetry in the aspect of the times; neglected, for any length of time, it cannot be; the thirst for what is excellent and enduring, the admiration of what is truly great, the earnest desire of a purer state of being, will find a voice in man, and the language it speaks, will be poetry, whatever name it bears.