Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Mackenzie Bell
Felicia Dorothea Hemans (17931835)
AN INTERESTING essay might be written on what has been well called the rise and fall of the sentimental in English poetry. At the head of those who, in the earlier decades of the present century, cultivated the sentimental Muse, stands Mrs. Hemans. But, when (with present-day dislike of sentimentality) we are prone to judge her too harshly on this account, we must not forget how largely poets are influenced by the fashions of their own time. Not only did her own poems win universal popularity, but her influence over the less prominent poets of her epoch was comparable to that of Byron himself. And foolish and even ridiculous as was sometimes the excess of sentiment exhibited by her followers, it was less foolish, less ridiculous, and less harmful than the excesses of Byronism.
Felicia Hemanss claims to attention, however, rest on a far more substantial basis than the mere fact of having been able to catch the public ear at a time when immeasurably greater poets than herself were first coming into repute. Her strength and originality of mind enabled her to discard the fantastic mannerisms of the Delia Cruscan school. Her verse at its best was spontaneous, simple, and direct. Her descriptions of nature, though, of course, lacking the profound insight and sense of communion which are the chief attributes of Wordsworths descriptions, were true to fact and free from any touch of pedantry. Wordsworth called her
That holy spirit,
Sweet as the spring, as ocean deep.
Such an epithet is well deserved, and is more worthy of note as coming from one so little inclined to praise his contemporaries.
It is not too much to say that some, at least, of the very qualities which recommended Felicia Hemans to her poetical constituency of sixty years ago, have caused the decrease of her reputation in our own day. For now that a higher conception of the scope and mission of poetry is gaining an ever-widening acceptance, mere sentimentality does not find favour. Sir Walter Scott aptly defined the chief deficiency of her poetry when he remarked that it exhibited too many flowers and too little fruit. Doubtless this deficiency arose, in a considerable degree, from her astonishing facility in the mere act of versificationa facility greater probably than that possessed by any other poet of her time except Lætitia Elizabeth Landon. This rapidity in production could not fail to result in diffuseness and weakness, not only in thought, but also in technical qualities. Nevertheless, after every reasonable deduction has been made from the value of her work, we find it fraught with fancy, melodious, and, beneath its sentimental trappings, often sincere, while such touching and beautiful poems as Casabianca, The Graves of a Household, and Gertrude; or, Fidelity Till Death escape from sentimentality altogether. Such poems, together with the ballad of Roncesvalles from The Siege of Valencia, Englands Dead, The Better Land, and some others will live. Felicia Hemans has now ceased to be a poet for poets. Her diffuseness alone would prevent her from being this. She not only rarely achieved concentration: she seems rarely to have tried to achieve it. Diffuseness such as hers is fatal to the life of poetry. Concentration may, no doubt, as I have said in another essay in the present work, be carried too far; but no body of verse ever survived that was as diffuse as is much of Felicia Hemanss poetry. Her name will still be held in honour however because of a few of her poems. For so universal is the human interest of some of her themes that it is difficult to believe a time will come when she will cease to be read by the people. Sometimes we are inclined to forget that the greatest poet is rarely the poet who is most read.
The powers of Felicia Hemans were not of a kind to fit her for success in sustained poetical efforts. Hence none of her long poems except, perhaps, The Siege of Valencia, were altogether successful; though two of them, The Vespers of Palermo, and The Forest Sanctuary, contain many fine passages. She was strongest as a lyrist. Her picturesqueness was considerable, and she undoubtedly possessed, within certain narrow limits, a dramatic touch which enabled her to bring a scene before the mental vision of her readers. Many of the vivid episodes in the two excellent series of brief poems entitled respectively Lays of Many Lands and Records of Woman are examples of what is here meant. The Sceptic, a didactic poem of considerable length, which, at the time of its publication, gained both wide popularity and no small influence, suffers from confusion of metaphor. Her genius was derivative, not creative; while never a plagiarist, she came somewhat under the sway of the greater poets of her time. Perhaps she owed, in a large measure, the subdued romanticism which pervades, like an atmosphere, her finest poems, to that spirit which Scott caught from the German poets. We must not forget, however, that she herself was highly cultured, and, as a German scholar, had not only read, but appreciatively studied the originals.
Felicia Dorothea Browne was born in Liverpool on September 25th, 1793. Her father, a native of Ireland, was a merchant. Her mother, who was of mingled Italian and German descent, and whose family name was Wagner, was the daughter of the Imperial and Tuscan Consul at Liverpool. Felicia is described as possessing beauty and displaying talent from her earliest years. Her childish fondness for reading was great. She had a passion for Shakespeare, and it was her choicest recreation, at six years old, to pass hours of romance in a secret haunt of her owna seat among the branches of an old apple-tree. When she was seven years old, her father sustained some commercial reverses, chiefly owing, it is said, to the disturbed condition of the times. He quitted Liverpool, and went with his family to reside at Gwrych, an old mansion near Abergele, in North Wales. This house, not far from the sea, was surrounded by a picturesque range of hills, and here Felicia lived until the removal of the family in 1809 from Gwrych to Bronwylfa, near St. Asaph. Such calm and happy seclusion suited well her highly imaginative temperament, especially as she had the further advantage of a free access to an extensive library.
Amid these surroundings was nourished a love of nature which was one of the characteristics of her mind, and it need occasion no surprise that, at an unusually early age, she began to write verse. Her mother chiefly superintended her education; when she was eleven years old she spent a winter in London with her parents, and visited it again in the year following. These were the only occasions on which she ever saw London, and she does not seem to have enjoyed the visits, preferring rather the freedom of her country home.
Her friends published in 1808 a collection of her poems, in the form of a quarto volume, dedicated to the Prince Regent, and entitled, Blossoms of Spring. The publication was injudicious when we remember the extreme youth of the poet, for, very naturally, the critics resented this large quarto by a little child, and so sensitive was Felicia that an unkind review made her ill for several days. England and Spain, her first important poem, was written at the age of fourteen, and The Domestic Affections and other Poems, her second volume of verse, appeared in 1812. Her two elder brothers had joined the British army, then serving in Spain, and the event had aroused her patriotic enthusiasm. About the same time she met Captain Hemans shortly before he embarked to join his regiment. A parting, under such circumstances, had in it an element of romance, and on his return, in 1811, Felicia became his wife. The marriage was not a happy one. In 1818, Captain Hemans went to Rome, partly for the benefit of his health. Felicia Hemans and her children remained in England. It was not at first supposed that this separation involved permanent estrangement. Husband and wife never met again, however, though they corresponded occasionally.
The subsequent life of Felicia Hemans was outwardly quiet and uneventful. For a while she resided at Wavertree, near Liverpool. She paid a visit to Scotland, where she saw a good deal of Scott at Abbotsford, and to the Lakes, where she met Wordsworth. During the closing years of her life, when most of her best poetical work was accomplished, her health had become very fragile. This necessitated an even greater degree of seclusion than that to which she had formerly accustomed herself; and her days were largely spent in reading the chief English, German, and French poets. Probably the fine poem Despondency and Aspiration, which originally appeared in Blackwoods Magazine during 1835, belongs to these later years. When young, she was very beautiful; in disposition she was sweet-tempered, generous, and without literary envy; and her piety, though inobtrusive, was sincere. She died in Dublin, where she had gone to be near her brother, on the 16th of May, 1835. The Lays of Many Lands appeared in 1826, and the Records of Woman, containing some of her best work, in 1828. Her most important publications, not hitherto mentioned, are Songs of the Affections (1830) and Scenes and Hymns of Life (1834).