Felicia Hemans (1793 – 1835)
Emily Arndt, Class of ’13, Dickinson College
Felicia Hemans has received increased attention in recent years as scholars focus more and more on verse written by women during the nineteenth century. She was born in Liverpool, in the British Midlands, but her family moved to Wales when she was seven. Although she also cared for Scotland and England, and frequently wrote about these two countries, Hemans (née Browne) preferred Wales and always considered it as her true home. The scenery around her house inspired her love of nature, and her interest in poetry also grew out of her studies of Wordsworth and Shakespeare, her favorite writers. Hemans published her first collection of poems, simply entitled Poems, at age fourteen and soon released a second collection, England and Spain; or Valour and Patriotism. Though she was still very young, Hemans attracted the attention of several well-known writers. Percy Bysshe Shelley repeatedly wrote to her to praise her writing and express his interest in marrying her, but her parents put an end to their correspondence, believing she was too young to consider marriage.
Nevertheless, she soon became engaged to Captain Alfred Hemans and married him at age nineteen. In their six years of marriage Hemans published another three collections of poetry. She and her husband then separated, and like Charlotte Smith, Hemans was required to write to support her five sons. Though her poetry continued to be well-received by critics, she believed that the quality of her writing suffered because she was obligated to write under continuing monetary pressures:
It has ever been one of my regrets that the constant necessity of providing sums of money to meet the exigencies of the boys’ education has obliged me to waste my mind in what I consider mere desultory effusions. . . . My wish ever was to concentrate all my mental energy in the production of some more noble and complete work: something of pure and holy excellence, (if there be not too much presumption in the thought,) which might permanently take its place as the work of a British poetess (Hughes Memoir, 296-97).
Though Hemans may not have thought she was creating works of “pure and holy excellence,” by this point in her life, many readers agreed that she had earned the title of “a British poetess” and a very skilled one at that.
Hemans wrote on a variety of subjects. Her poetry is informed by a wide ranging understand of the natural world (“The Sky-lark,” “The Nightingale”), an awareness of the details of the era of discovery during which she lived (“The Better Land”), and powerful sensitivity to the condition of women’s lives (“To the New-Born” and “Hymn by the Sick-bed of a Mother”). In many ways, Hemans’ poetry was sentimental and appealed primarily to a female audience, although readers like Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott praised her poetry. Her works told stories of loyalty, love, and loss. Her poems aimed to draw attention to, and thereby to lessen the pain of, the many hardships that women faced such as unhappy marriages and the loss of young children. Critics praised Hemans for addressing traditionally “feminine” subjects in her writing and for following conventions that women writers were expected to follow. Though she did not have a successful marriage herself, she continued to emphasize the importance of a stable, harmonious home and family. Yet, she also wrote of wronged wives who seek revenge on their cruel and unfaithful husbands. For all of her “feminine” interests and poetry, Hemans also tackled several “masculine” subjects. Two of her brothers were soldiers, and she frequently focused on war in her poetry, sparing none of the violence and death that the subject demanded. One of her most well-known poems, “Casabianca,” tells the story of the young son of a commander who refuses to desert his post, and is consumed in flames.
Although primarily a poet, Hemans also wrote three dramas, which featured strong, female protagonists. All of these were performed, but only one played past its opening night. Hemans also wrote about her visits to Sir Walter Scott in Scotland (“The Funeral Day of Sir Walter Scott” and “A Farewell to Abbotsford”) and Wordsworth in the Lake District (“To Wordsworth”). However, Hemans rarely traveled outside of England, and relied on what she had read to shape her descriptions of the countries that she wrote about. She was praised for some of her landscapes, but others, as Byron could tell, were “written by some one who had never been there.” Her writing displays a keen understanding of the natural world; an example of this can be seen in a selection from “The Voice of Spring,” in which Hemans speaks for the changing seasons:
I come, I come! Ye have call’d me long,
I come o’er the mountains with light and song!
Ye may trace my step 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 grass leaves, opening as I pass.
I have breathed on the south, and the chestnut flowers
By thousands have burst forth from the forest-bowers,
And the ancient graves, and the fallen fanes,
Are veil’d with wreaths on Italian plains;
— But it is not for me, in my hour of bloom,
To speak of the ruin or the tomb!
Her poems were influenced by and had influence on several important writers. Her early poems were powerfully influenced by Byron; though he initially found her to be too bold and “masculine” for a woman writer, he called her The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816) “a good poem – very.” Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, and Percy Bysshe Shelley were all friends and admirers of her work, and upon Hemans’ death, Letitia Landon wrote a eulogy for her, one of many that were penned in her honor. Hemans was one of the most successful female poets of the nineteenth century because she wrote about a wide range of subjects, appealed to a broad readership, and demonstrated an ongoing mastery of poetic language. A few of her most popular poems continue to be published in contemporary anthologies, and her anthology Hymns on the Works of Nature, for the Use of Children (1827) was in widespread circulation well into the twentieth century.
Is it where the flower of the orange blows,
And the fire-flies glance through the myrtle boughs?
. . . . . .
Is it where the feathery palm-trees rise,
And the date grows ripe under the sunny skies?
Or ‘midst the green islands of glittering seas,
Where fragrant forests perfume the breeze,
And strange, bright birds on their starry wings
Bear the rich hues of all glorious things?
A Celebration of Women Writers (UPenn)