Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Emily Henrietta Hickey
Harriet Eleanor Hamilton-King (18401920)
HARRIET ELEANOR HAMILTON-KING, daughter of Admiral W. A. Baillie Hamilton, was born at Edinburgh, February 10th, 1840. From her sixth year to the time of her marriage most of her life was spent between London and Blackheath; and she was never out of England until 1876, difficult as this is to realise when we consider the absolute familiarity with Italy which would be taken for granted by any reader of The Disciples. As a matter of fact, her guides to that country were Murrays handbooks, and the imaginative, the shaping, the realising faculty which she possesses in a remarkable degree.
In 1863 Miss Hamilton married Mr. Henry S. King, and all her married life was spent at the Manor House, Chigwell, Essex. After her husbands death she removed, with her children, to another part of the county.
The first poem Miss Hamilton gave to the world was that which appears as Aspromonte in the little volume published in 1869. It came out in the Observer under the name of Garibaldi at Varignano. The Aspromote volume consists purely of early work, characterized, in the opinion of the present writer, not only by promise, but by certain qualities which still mark Mrs. Kings manner.
The inspiration of much of the poetry in this book, as well as in the whole of The Disciples, is the love for Italy in her suffering, in her struggling, in her wrestling to win back her lost birthright of freedom. The defeat of Garibaldi, the hero a prisoner to his own, the hero whose laurel leaves have sharpened into thorns, is the subject of Aspromonte, a poem marked by nobleness of sympathy and by much beauty of expression. And the singer celebrates more than the checking and the galling of Garibaldi; she sings how at last must come the rose-coloured Republic of Christ.
The Execution of Felice Orsini has beauty; but it is, I think, injured by the fault one might expect to find in young workwant of condensation. But the book shows Mrs. Kings style formed, if not matured; so much so that such a poem, for instance, as Many Voices might have been written by her this very year. Several of the poems in the book are purely English.
The Disciples has, even apart from its place in Mrs. Kings work, a special interest on account of its having been written at the request of Mazzini. But he never saw the completed book, the sheets of which were laid at his dead feet, instead of in his living hand. The pressure of claims and voices from without, or the overmastering constancy of pain, felt, when at last the song was free to come forth, to have been Gods laying of silence on the poet by tender tokens irresistible, had kept back the fulfilment of the promise for nine years; and then rapidly, almost hurriedly, the book came forth, and at once touched the hearts of many. I suppose its ten editions place it in the category of popular books.
The fighters for Italian liberty are to Mrs. King the saints, the high ones of God; their struggle sacred, their persons holy. The book is full of the glorification not merely of noble deed, but of brave endurance, of the bearing of suffering, of the facing of martyrdom. To Ugo Bassi, from whom the most important poem in the book is named, has come the consecration. Marked out for persecution as one who dares to tell the truth, he has, after much suffering, worked quietly as a Barnabite friar, relieving pain by the very magic of his presence, and sending home the comfort of the sons of consolation in life and on voice, until the day comes when the black robe of the friar is exchanged for the scarlet of the deliverer, which will one day take a deeper dye in his own heart-blood; and the shadow of martyrdom falls upon him, until at last the great thing itself carries him nearer to the breast of God. Here I may say that Mrs. Kings belief is that the way and the only way to heaven is the Cross; that the blessing is for those who hunger and thirst, and who watch for the Bridegroom, not wrapt in the goodness and the sweetness of the best and the sweetest here. She believes that suffering has a fruit and a recompense in itself quite irrespective of our will, and that such a thing as being without chastisement, were that possible, would mark the being unloved of God.
Mrs. King was quite aware that the historical narrative in Ugo Bassi was frequently injurious to the poem; but she chose to give it for the sake of clearness. Perhaps she has left it thus open to question whether The Disciples, as a whole, is a poem, or whether it is not rather a work, in which there is much poetry, and a good deal of metrical prose. At any rate, in my opinion, the power shown in the book is that of the lyric poet, not of the epic.
To many the Sermon in the Hospitalthe Sermon put into the mouth of Ugo Bassihas been felt to be the gem of the book; and accordingly it was, a few years since, issued in a cheap form. Among the shorter poems in the volume is one named from Jacopo Ruffini, Mazzinis earliest and dearest friend, who knowing how the drug given him in prison was of subtle might to loosen the bonds of will, and aware that his power of resistance might be so far destroyed that in irresponsible weakness he might betray his friend, ended his own life.
A Book of Dreams was more sheerly poetry than The Disciples. We have the delight in beauty, in beauty for its own sake; the revelling in the wonder of flowers, which Mrs. King can write of as very few can; the charm of colour, of sound, of sensuous exquisiteness. But the sterner side is to her the greater. In Awake she bids goodbye to the magic of dreamland; for, sweet as is the sweetness of dreams, the better part, she is sure, is to lead the strenuous life of the worker, and amid the shadowy gain in dreamland some sweet and common pain may have already been lost. Not dreams, but prayer, she feels, bring nearer to the beloved lost; and the cry is to come back to children, to friends, to a world needing singers, like church-bells clear and strong.
I do not think Mrs. King has done anything which for sustained flight of imagination and subtle, delicate beauty of expression equals her Ballad of the Midnight Sun in Ballads of the North. There seems to me to be in it that something which is rather felt than defined, even were its definition possible; that sort of haunting beauty which one finds now and then, as in Stevensons
In The Haunted Czar, and Dives specially, the thought that sinning is more pitiable than suffering is nobly worked outthe conviction that the inflicter of pain is in deeper need of sympathy than his victim.
Working Girls in London is a gentle, delicate expression of that sympathy with the white slaves of the great city, for whom some, thank God, are pleading with powerful voice. The First of June is an exquisite lyric of joy after pain; of the reunion of wedded souls in a fair land that is earth and is heaven too. The Crocus should find a place in every collection of flower-poems.
Mrs. Kings treatment of flowers is a special feature of her poetry, and very many instances might be given of her power of describing them. She has also the faculty of calling up a certain atmosphere by subtle, delicate touches: this is conspicuous in the poem above mentionedThe First of June.
To the present writer, Mrs. Kings genius appears to be essentially lyrical, and her best work to be done in lyric measures, as in most of her later poems. She has her own place among our latter-day poets by virtue of her own gifts, given in her own manner; and her gifts and her manner of giving them place her, I think, not in a low room among those whose songs