A Celebration of Women Writers

"Felicia Hemans" by Frederic Rowton.
From: Rowton, Frederic. The Female Poets of Great Britain Philadelphia: Henry C. Baird, 1853. pp. 386-392.

Editorial Credits

FELICIA HEMANS.

IT would be as much out of good taste as it is unnecessary, to prefix a memoir of Mrs. Hemans to this brief estimate of her writings. The melancholy circumstances connected with her history are too generally known already, and should be screened rather than unveiled.

Suffice it to say, therefore, that Mrs. Hemans was born in 1793, of a highly respectable family; that she was married early in life to Captain Hemans, from whom she subsequently separated; and that, after a life of singular purity and goodness, she died in 1835.

I think there can be no doubt that Mrs. Hemans takes decidedly one of the most prominent places among our Female Poets. She seems to me to represent and unite as purely and completely as any other writer in our literature the peculiar and specific qualities of the female mind. Her works are to my mind a perfect embodiment of woman's soul: I would say that they are intensely feminine. The delicacy, the softness, the pureness, the quick observant vision, the ready sensibility, the devotedness, the faith of woman's nature find in Mrs. Hemans their ultra representative. The very diffuseness of her style is feminine, and one would not wish it altered. Diction, manner, sentiment, passion, and belief are in her as delicately rounded off as are the bones and muscles of the Medicean Venus. There is not a harsh or angular line in her whole mental contour. I do not know a violent, spasmodic, or contorted idea in all her writings; but every page is full of grace, harmony, and expressive glowing beauty.

In nothing can one trace her feminine spirit more strikingly than in her domestic home-loving ideas. Her first volume, written before she was fifteen, is chiefly about home: it is entitled The Domestic Affections; and is full of calm sweet pictures of most gentle and refining tendency.

I would particularly refer the reader to that exquisite passage in the poem where Domestic Bliss is compared to the Violet, smiling in the vale. The image is very purely conceived, and the spirit and treatment of it are most spiritual and elevating.

No where, indeed, can we find a more pure and refined idea of home than that which pervades Mrs. Hemans's writings on the subject. She reproduces the conception in very many instances, and always with the same chasteness. The beautiful lines entitled The Homes of England, in which every class is made to participate in domestic pleasures; those called A Domestic Scene, where the father is represented as reading the evening Psalms in the soft sunset, while on his face shines

"A radiance all the spirit's own,
Caught not from sun or star;"
and many more passages of similar character, might be cited in illustration.

And not only of the homes of earth has Mrs. Hemans a fervent and beautiful conception; but of a

  .  . "home more pure than this,
Set in the deathless azure of the sky;"
she fails not to speak also. The Temporal home suggests the Spiritual. The Mortal's resting-place on Earth prefigures the Immortal's resting-place in Heaven. The idea of heaven as a home is beautifully wrought out in her lines called The Two Homes, wherein a desolate stranger has a glowing picture of a happy home placed before him, and then is asked to describe his own. How touching is the sadness of the reply!
  ... "In solemn peace 'tis lying
  Far o'er the deserts and the tombs away;
'Tis where I, too, am loved with love undying,
  And fond hearts wait my step: But where are they?
"Ask where the earth's departed have their dwelling,
  Ask of the clouds, the stars, the trackless air;
I know it not, yet trust the whisper, telling
  My lonely heart that love unchanged is there."

In another very important respect Mrs. Hemans finely represents the pure sentiment of her sex: I mean in her sensitive, deep, and clinging sense of affection. Her lovingness of feeling is exquisite. To passion she is well nigh a stranger; but it may be questioned whether passion ever proceeds from so great or so true a love as that more pervading and more sympathetic feeling which expresses itself less wildly. Passion may be said to be a sort of madness, resulting from an overpowering sense of beauty or desire; and seems to have in it but little of the true nature of love at all. Real affection is ever mild, ever gracious and benign. It never raves till it becomes selfish; and then it ceases to be love, and grows into a kind of guilt.

Byron is a poet of passion indeed, of all others the poet of passion. Love is with him a selfish and unrestrainable idolatry wild and mighty, but fickle and forgetful. It is, while it lasts, a tempest, a hurricane, and it scathes where it alights; but its force is soon spent, and then there is no trace of it, but in the ruin it has wrought.

Far different is Mrs. Hemans. Affection is with her a serene, radiating principle, mild and ethereal in its nature, gentle in its attributes, pervading and lasting in its effects. Her soul is full of sympathies; and the refusal of sympathy seems to her almost the height of crime. This is pathetically shown in her poem entitled The Burial of the Forest, founded on the following incident:

An Indian who had established himself in a township of Maine, feeling indignantly the want of sympathy evinced towards him by the white inhabitants, particularly on the death of his only child, gave up his farm soon afterwards, dug up the body of his child, and carried it with him two hundred miles through the forest, to join his tribe of the Canadian Indians.

Mrs. Hemans's Poem is a truly poetical version of this touching fact. Very nobly speaks the high-souled father as

"With spirit high and fearless,
As by mighty wings upborne"
he pursues his solitary way.

I have rais'd thee from the grave-sod,
  By the white man's path defiled;
On to the ancestral wilderness
  I bear thy dust, my child.

I have ask'd the ancient desert
  To give my dead a place,
Where the stately footsteps of the free
  Alone should leave a trace.

And the tossing pines made answer
  "Go, bring us back thine own;"
And the streams from all the hunter's hills
  Rush'd with an echoing tone.

Thou shalt rest by sounding waters
  That yet untamed may roll;
The voices of that chainless host
  With joy shall fill thy soul.

To the forests, to the cedars,
  To the warrior and his bow,
Back, back! I bore thee laughing thence,
  I bear thee slumbering now!

I bear thee unto burial
  With the mighty hunters gone;
I shall hear thee in the forest-breeze,
  Thou wilt speak of joy, my son!

In the silence of the midnight
  I journey with the dead;
But my heart is strong, my step is fleet,
  My father's path I tread.

Mrs. Hemans has all the harmony of expression, all the subtle perception and refined love of beauty, which distinguish her sex. Her verses are at once pictures and music. What versification can be more beautiful and harmonious than this, from the Voice of Spring?

I come, I come! ye have call'd me long;
I come o'er the mountains with light and song!
Ye may trace my steps o'er the wakening earth,
By the winds which tell of the violet's birth;
By the primrose stars in the shadowy grass,
By the green leaves opening as I pass.
The sensibility of Mrs. Hemans to the influences of beauty is strikingly seen in her passion for flowers. Nothing can be more refined. Some poets write of flowers in the spirit of botanists. Not so our author. Her worship is paid to the spirit of beauty indwelling in them and no logic can explain her devotion to her. She asks in one place
... By what strange spell
Is it, that ever when I gaze on flowers
I dream of music? Something in their hues
All melting into colour'd harmonies,
Wafts a swift thought of interwoven chords,
Of blended singing tones, that swell and die
In tenderest falls away.
I see in that simple inquiry a plummet sounding the lowest deep of Truth. I see in it a recognition of the infinite fact, that, as the heart of Nature is everywhere beauty, so it is everywhere music.

But, after all, it is chiefly in the strength of her religious sentiment that Mrs. Hemans most completely typifies and represents her sex. It has not now to be proved, I imagine, that in simple steadfastness of faith, in gentle calmness of hope, and in sweet enthusiasm of piety, woman far surpasses man. She has more awe, more reverence, more reliance, more implicitness, than he: and hence her great fervour of religion. The mild, forgiving, loving doctrines of the Man of Sorrows, too, find a readier home in her heart than in man's: and hence her prominence in all works of charity and goodness. But for this, man, with his wars, strifes, and passions, would long since have turned this earth into a hell.

Mrs. Hemans, I repeat, embodies woman's religious excellence most completely. Religion is with her both an intellectual conviction and a moral persuasion. We may see here how she argues on the subject.


EXTRACT FROM THE SKEPTIC.

But hop'st thou, in thy panoply of pride,
Heaven's messenger, Affliction, to deride?
In thine own strength unaided to defy,
With Stoic smile, the arrows of the sky?
Torn by the Vulture, fettered to the rock,
Still, demigod! the tempest wilt thou mock?
Alas! the tower that crests the mountain's brow
A thousand years may awe the vale below,
Yet not the less be shatter'd on its height,
By one dread moment of the earthquake's might!
A thousand pangs thy bosom may have borne,
In silent fortitude, or haughty scorn,
Till comes the one, the master-anguish, sent
To break the mighty heart that ne'er was bent.

Oh! what is Nature's strength?the vacant eye,
By mind deserted, hath a dread reply!
The wild delirious laughter of despair,
The mirth of frenzyseek an answer there!
Turn not away, though Pity's cheek grow pale,
Close not thine ear against their awful tale.
They tell thee, Reason, wandering from the ray
Of faith, the blazing pillar of her way,
In the mid-darkness of the stormy wave,
Forsook the struggling soul she could not save!
Weep not, sad moralist! o'er desert plains,
Strew'd with the wrecks of grandeur, mouldering fanes,
Arches of triumph, long with weeds o'ergrown,
And regal cities, now the serpent's own:
Earth has more awful ruins one lost mind,
Whose star is quench'd, hath lessons for mankind
Of deeper import than each prostrate dome,
Mingling its marble with the dust of Rome.

Note. It is a source of deep regret to the Compiler, that he has not been at liberty to extract a single entire poem from the works of Mrs. Hemans. The genius of this gifted lady undoubtedly demands the most ample and copious illustration from any one who pretends to criticise it; and the Author originally selected a sufficient, yet a comparatively small, number of passages to support the title of Mrs. Hemans to the high place which he meant to claim for her amongst our Poetesses. The Proprietor of the Copyright, however, declined to permit the republication of even the few selections which were made; and hence the Compiler has been compelled to offer his opinions, without presenting any illustrations in support of them. He feels bound to mention this, lest it should be said, as it might very justly, that the writings of Mrs. Hemans have not been considered so fully as they ought to have been.

Editorial Credits