1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Felicia Hemans

L., "Mrs. Felicia Hemans" The Ariel [Philadelphia] 1 (3 November 1827) 109-10.



No being among the vast throng of human creatures is more distinctly marked and individualised than the true Englishman. His indiscriminating partialities, faithful to the soil that engendered them, cling with childlike fondness to his native isle; and his prejudices, growing with his growth, attach themselves, like immedicable poison, to every thing beyond the narrow sphere to which he is devoted. England — old England! is still his song, and her fading glories brighten in the eye of his imagination, while the honors of other nations are withering away. The sullen doggedness, with which, on all occasions, opportune and inopportune, he labors to maintain the unapproachability of his own country, cannot but detract from the esteem which we, otherwise, freely bestow upon the patriot. — Reasoned, cold and uncomplying — believing that English is a convertable term for Elysian, and monarchy for milenium — the haughty Saxon frequently loses all title to respect by the pertinacity with which he exacts it, and becomes too philosophic, though still sensitive foreigners, an object of mingled dislike and derision. This behaviour would wear a less absurd aspect, if such overbearing pretension was founded on less mutable and questionable foundations. In the age of Elizabeth, it would have passed with a better grace; but in the reign of George the Fourth, to hear an Englishman boast of the unequalled prosperity and grandeur of his country, is something like a shepherd among the ruins of Babylon, contesting the superior excellencies of his solitary sheepfold.

The literature of England abounds with the grossest vanity; and, though we do not intend to apply our remarks, without exception, to Mrs. Hemans, yet nothing appears more evident in her writings than a fondness and admiration, almost exclusive, of everything appertaining to the English soil, name and character. Born an Englishwoman, it is not strange that she should accustom herself to the form of government to which she was subject; but it is strange that she should have displayed, so often and so gratuitously, an excessive devotion to kings and emperors, with all their train of sanguinary feudal chiefs, and dames, like the ancient princes, too proud to tread on earth. — Americans cannot perceive why an old, blind, decrepid king, like George III. should claim the elaborate lay of Mrs. Hemans, more than a sexton or beadle hi the same condition. — They cannot believe that the murder of the Emperor Albert, was, in itself a matter at more importance than that of the most private person. Why does the poetess close with such pomp? "Imperial Albert died;" where, under any circumstances, it would be "The immortal soul hath fled."

But Mrs. Hemans deserves our panegyric, and it shall be rendered. She is the mother of a considerable family; which, amidst an the distractions of domestic sorrow and affliction, she has supported and educated by he own individual efforts, assisted by those of her friend, the Bishop of St. Asaph, who franks all her London letters and communications. — She is a lovely, amiable and admirable woman, who has been before the public as an author for nearly twenty years. She has waited patiently, and is now reaping her reward — a golden harvest of applause. All her sentiments are kind and gentle, and all her language soft and touching as a beautiful woman's should be. But we must protest against the indiscriminate eulogy which has been, and is lavished senselessly upon her. Is Mrs. Hemans the only author who ever wrote faultlessly? — Is she so perfect, so exquisite in mental beauty that not a breath dare agitate the laurel wreath of her renown? We think not. The idolatry will go part through now, if we speak in her dispraise. Doubtless some heedless amateur, who swallows all his thoughts with his blue stocking and tea, will demand the why, the wherefore, and the how dare you, Sir? Well, for the why! Mrs. Hemans is full of mannerism — so unversatile is her genius — so void of various combinations — so incapable of dissimilar styles of expression, that the moment the eye meets her compositions, it recognizes them as her's, and her's only. Byron's poems were not extensive, though sublime; but who, that had read Manfred only, would have recognized the anonymous Donjuan? No one. But the same mode of expression, the same diversified thought, the same visible determination to be singular, pervade all Mrs. Hemans's productions. Her thoughts are certainly high and pure — but they are too much dilated and diluted by repetition.

Again; as we said above, she is too fond at crosses, and banners, and knights, and spells, and sunlight, and violent antitheses, and abrupt transitions. We tire over her gorgeous descriptions of Spanish and Moorish marches, and wish that a quiet woman's mind was employed by lowlier and better thoughts. We tire, too, of her votive loyalty, and wish her heart was free indeed from such miserable trammels. Her allusions to ancestors and ancestry are endless; her cliffs stretch further than those of Dover, and her billows, like the ocean's, are always foaming. These art her faults, and now, for the wherefore. We ingenuously believe that Mrs. Hemans's fame is not what it should be, for it is popular, and consequently excessive. Neither Collins, nor Milton, nor Gray, nor Dryden was popular, and they did not wish to be so — for their ambition soared higher and found a more abiding throne. Mrs. Hemans has been praised too much for her own reputation, and time will prove what we have avowed.

Lastly, for the how dare you, sir? A good and just mind dare do anything that is not base and wicked. It dare say, that with all her merit (and it is great,) Mrs. Hemans has many faults, which senseless witlings, without souls of their own, would not venture to whisper till the multitude grew cold in their worship, and then they would run into the other excess, and deny all merit to the demigod whom they had adored.