Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay


HEMANS, FELICIA DOROTHEA (1793-1835), English poet, was born in Duke Street, Liverpool, on the 25th of September 1793. Her father, George Browne, of Irish extraction, was a merchant in Liverpool, and her mother, whose maiden name was Wagner, was the daughter of the Austrian and Tuscan consul at Liverpool. Felicia, the fifth of seven children, was scarcely seven years old when her father failed in business, and retired with his family to Gwrych, near Abergele, Denbighshire; and there the young poet and her brothers and sisters grew up in a romantic old house by the sea-shore, and in the very midst of the mountains and myths of Wales. Felicia’s education was desultory. Books of chronicle and romance, and every kind of poetry, she read with avidity; and she also studied Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German. She played both harp and piano, and cared especially for the simple national melodies of Wales and Spain. In 1808, when she was only fourteen, a quarto volume of her Juvenile Poems, was published by subscription, and was harshly criticized in the Monthly Review. Two of her brothers were fighting in Spain under Sir John Moore; and Felicia, fired with military enthusiasm, wrote England and Spain, or Valour and Patriotism, a poem afterwards translated into Spanish. Her second volume, The Domestic Affections and other Poems, appeared in 1812, on the eve of her marriage to Captain Alfred Hemans. She lived for some time at Daventry, where her husband was adjutant of the Northamptonshire militia. About this time her father went to Quebec on business and died there; and, after the birth of her first son, she and her husband went to live with her mother at Bronwylfa, a house near St Asaph. Here during the next six years four more children—all boys—were born; but in spite of domestic cares arid failing health she still read and wrote indefatigably. Her poem entitled The Restoration of Works of Art to Italy was published in 1816, her Modern Greece in 1817, and in 1818 Translations from Camoens and other Poets.

In 1818 Captain Hemans went to Rome, leaving his wife, shortly before the birth of their fifth child, with her mother at Bronwylfa. There seems to have been a tacit agreement, perhaps on account of their limited means, that they should separate. Letters were interchanged, and Captain Hemans was often consulted about his children; but the husband and wife never met again. Many friends—among them the bishop of St Asaph and Bishop Heber—gathered round Mrs Hemans and her children. In 1819 she published Tales and Historic Scenes in Verse, and gained a prize of £50 offered for the best poem on The Meeting of Wallace and Bruce on the Banks of the Carron. In 1820 appeared The Sceptic and Stanzas to the Memory of the late King. In June 1821 she won the prize awarded by the Royal Society of Literature for the best poem on the subject of Dartmoor, and began her play, The Vespers of Palermo. She now applied herself to a course of German reading. Körner was her favourite German poet, and her lines on the grave of Körner were one of the first English tributes to the genius of the young soldier-poet. In the summer of 1823 a volume of her poems was published by Murray, containing The Siege of Valencia, The Last Constantine and Belshazzar’s Feast. The Vespers of Palermo was acted at Covent Garden, December 12, 1823, and Mrs Hemans received £200 for the copyright; but, though the leading parts were taken by Young and Charles Kemble, the play was a failure, and was withdrawn after the first performance. It was acted again in Edinburgh in the following April with greater success, when an epilogue, written for it by Sir Walter Scott at Joanna Baillie’s request, was spoken by Harriet Siddons. This was the beginning of a cordial friendship between Mrs Hemans and Scott. In the same year she wrote De Chatillon, or the Crusaders; but the manuscript was lost, and the poem was published after her death, from a rough copy. In 1824 she began The Forest Sanctuary, which appeared a year later with the Lays of Many Lands and miscellaneous pieces collected from the New Monthly Magazine and other periodicals.

In the spring of 1825 Mrs Hemans removed from Bronwylfa, which had been purchased by her brother, to Rhyllon, a house on an opposite height across the river Clwyd. The contrast between the two houses suggested her Dramatic Scene between Bronwylfa and Rhyllon. The house itself was bare and unpicturesque, but the beauty of its surroundings has been celebrated in The Hour of Romance, To the River Clwyd in North Wales, Our Lady’s Well and To a Distant Scene. This time seems to have been the most tranquil in Mrs Hemans’s life. But the death of her mother in January 1827 was a second great breaking-point in her life. Her heart was affected, and she was from this time an acknowledged invalid. In the summer of 1828 the Records of Woman was published by Blackwood, and in the same year the home in Wales was finally broken up by the marriage of Mrs Hemans’s sister and the departure of her two elder boys to their father in Rome. Mrs Hemans removed to Wavertree, near Liverpool. But, although she had a few intimate friends there—among them her two subsequent biographers, Henry F. Chorley and Mrs Lawrence of Wavertree Hall—she was disappointed in her new home. She thought the people of Liverpool stupid and provincial; and they, on the other hand, found her uncommunicative and eccentric. In the following summer she travelled by sea to Scotland with two of her boys, to visit the Hamiltons of Chiefswood.

Here she enjoyed constant, almost daily, intercourse with Sir Walter Scott, with whom she and her boys afterwards stayed some time at Abbotsford. There are some whom we meet, and should like ever after to claim as kith and kin; and you are one of those, was Scott’s compliment to her at parting. One of the results of her Edinburgh visit was an article, full of praise, judiciously tempered with criticism, by Jeffrey himself for the Edinburgh Review. Mrs Hemans returned to Wavertree to write her Songs of the Affections, which were published early in 1830. In the following June, however, she again left home, this time to visit Wordsworth and the Lake country; and in August she paid a second visit to Scotland. In 1831 she removed to Dublin. Her poetry of this date is chiefly religious. Early in 1834 her Hymns for Childhood, which had appeared some years before in America, were published in Dublin. At the same time appeared her collection of National Lyrics, and shortly afterwards Scenes and Hymns of Life. She was planning also a series of German studies, one of which, on Goethe’s Tasso, was completed and published in the New Monthly Magazine for January 1834. In intervals of acute suffering she wrote the lyric Despondency and Aspiration, and dictated a series of sonnets called Thoughts during Sickness, the last of which, “Recovery,” was written when she fancied she was getting well. After three months spent at Redesdale, Archbishop Whately’s country seat, she was again brought into Dublin, where she lingered till spring. Her last poem, the Sabbath Sonnet, was dedicated to her brother on Sunday April 26th, and she died in Dublin on the 16th of May 1835 at the age of forty-one.

Mrs Hemans’s poetry is the production of a fine imaginative and enthusiastic temperament, but not of a commanding intellect or very complex or subtle nature. It is the outcome of a beautiful but singularly circumscribed life, a life spent in romantic seclusion, without much worldly experience, and warped and saddened by domestic unhappiness and physical suffering. An undue preponderance of the emotional is its prevailing characteristic. Scott complained that it was too poetical, that it contained too many flowers and too little fruit. Many of her short poems, such as The Treasures of the Deep, The Better Land, The Homes of England, Casabianca, The Palm Tree, The Graves of a Household, The Wreck, The Dying Improvisatore, and The Lost Pleiad, have become standard English lyrics. It is on the strength of these that her reputation must rest.

Mrs Hemans’s Poetical Works were collected in 1832; her Memorials &c., by H. F. Chorley (1836).

[contributor not given]

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

HEMANS, Dorothea (1793-1838) by Susan J. Wolfson

Britannica 11’s Blinds and Blindness

Felicia Dorothea Hemans
Fletcher, Angus. Felicia Dorothea Hemans. 1829, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

By the late 1820s, besieged by poet-hopefuls seeking advice and support, by fans eager for autographs or inscriptions for their albums, or just a peek at the famous poetess, Felicia Hemans was choking on the dust of celebrity. More than a few of her letters and poems sighed of the nothingness of Fame, at least to woman. She wasn’t overstating her fame. By 1828 she was riding the crest of a remarkable career. She was not only famous in her own time, but also a best-selling poet through three-quarters of the nineteenth century, and one of the first women to make a living as a poet. Between 1808 and 1835, nineteen volumes of her works were published, some in multiple editions and, increasingly, in many imprints—in London and Edinburgh and Dublin, in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. By the 1820s, with increasingly appreciative reviews in the mainstream press and a regular presence in popular magazines and ornate gift-book annuals, Mrs. Hemans was England’s premier poetess, its epitome of feminine excellence.

This icon sentimentalized, even mystified, a success born of industry and discipline, business acumen and market-alertness, as well as talent and facility. Adept in a range of genres and verse forms (sonnet, ode, heroic verse, ballad, epistle, narrative, monologue, drama, lyric), literate, imaginative, and intellectually appetitive, Hemans cast popular themes on a trans-historical, international range of subjects, drawing on literatures past and contemporary. Well into the nineteenth century, her poetry commanded a wide readership. Her volumes were cherished gifts; beloved poems were memorized and anthologized, illustrated and set to music. Casabianca (The boy stood on the burning deck) was a recital-standard; Americans took The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers (The breaking waves dashed high) to heart, while The Homes of England and England’s Dead became virtual British national anthems. This, for the most part, is the ledger for her entry in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. Such pieces locked the fame Mrs. Hemans and won her place in hearts and homes.

But as the stock in sentimentality fell, the signature poems receded in the anthologies, and then were tolerated or cast out altogether as merely pretty pieties. Thirty years before Britannica 11, in 1880, Agnes Mary F. Robinson, a young scholar and poet who might have embraced Hemans as a predecessor, wanted only to dissociate herself. Fifty years ago few poets were more popular than Mrs. Hemans; her verses were familiar to all hearts, she began her headnote for Ward’s English Poets. The anthology hosted just one dirge, one ballad, and Casabianca. These simple, chivalrous, pathetic domestic lyrics, sprung from a talent expressive but not creative, and too palpably stamped with feminine qualities, said Robinson, constitute Hemans’s claim to remembrance. Her bottom line: Hemans’s poems are chiefly forgotten, and without injustice (4.334-35). The last collected Hemans, until the very end of the twentieth century, was Oxford University Press’s post-Britannica, severely reduced volume of 1914, which remained in print for a couple of decades. Despite its University Press imprint, it prints corrupt texts, shears off Hemans’s learned notes, excludes plays, essays, and letters, and provides no apparatus beyond line numbers. It was hardly a scholarly resource.

The 1911 Britannica article predicted, and perhaps authorized, such shoddy treatment. Its interest to me is merely historical, as a canonical punctuation in the reception-story, reflecting how Mrs. Hemans was distilled into and pretty much out of consequential literary history a century after her first ambitious publication, The Domestic Affections and Other Poems (1812). The entry’s biography and bibliographical run-through comprise the bulk of the entry, about 1250 out of its 1400 words, the last paragraph a dismissive evaluation of the poetry, conspicuously damned with faint praise. The four biographical paragraphs begin with making a point of the ethnicity of Hemans’s parents, and over all have nothing to say about her professional savvy and career-management, efforts that helped propel her fame, even as she rued some of the consequences. There’s scant mention of her essays or her letters (many quite lively and revelatory). The bibliographical information misdates the collected Poetical Works (1839, not 1832) and makes no mention of the substantial, annotated, and beautifully produced Blackwood’s edition of 1852. The last-paragraph evaluation of her work hangs on a very limited canon of short poems, standard English lyrics seemingly of piety, fancy and affection, with no inkling of the complex and complicated texture of even these poems (in particular Casabianca and The Homes of England). There is no interest in the politics (cultural, national, military) that shape woman’s lives that is Hemans’s recurring theme.

While the Britannica entry is minimally informative on some counts, it is misleading on others—not only in reducing the canon, but in some basic reporting. For instance: One of the results of her Edinburgh visit was an article, full of praise, judiciously tempered with criticism, by Jeffrey himself for the Edinburgh Review. Yes, she did visit Edinburgh and met Francis Jeffrey; yet this sentence makes it seem that she went there with a design to manipulate his favor. Jeffrey’s review, moreover (ER 50, October 1829) was not exactly judicious, but quite qualified, and quite sexist. Much of the first part of the essay politely devalues women’s poetry in general, as inferior to the vigor of masculine poetry, then describes Hemans’s poetry as the epitome of feminine excellence, which he defines as delicate and quiet—not a clue that much of Hemans poetry is quite otherwise, melancholy, aggrieved, and often conflicted about the dissonance between the poetess of her public persona, and the poet who lived a professional woman’s life, who raised five sons without a husband’s cooperation, and who constantly contended with cultural mandates on what she should say and couldn’t say.

In the wake of Britannica’s Hemans, it is telling that the bicentennial of her birth, in 1993, passed without the parade of conferences, exhibits, special issues of journals, anthologies of essays, and new editions marking other bicentennial milestones of the Romantic era. It was in this decade, however, the 1990s, that Hemans was gradually, then proactively, rediscovered: new historicism and gender criticism are beginning to reshape the landscape of Romantic studies. Hemans entered the classroom anthologies, and monographs included chapters on her work, presenting a more complex poet than Victorian/Edwardian Hemans, one situated in the cross-currents of the Romantic era during which she published, and in which a professional female poet, sometimes but not always, writing as a poetess made her mark, and made her career. Not least for Hemans was an undertow to the high tide of fame: the female-graded calculus that weighed a woman on a zero-sum of happiness and fame. She wrote poem after poem, none mentioned by the Britannica essay, about the penalties of fame. The Britannica endorses Sir Walter Scott’s summation: Hemans’s work is too poetical, containing too many flowers and too little fruit. Those who have read more of Hemans than Britannica’s writer seems to have, note a lot flowers dead to dust and much bitter fruit.

Even so, some of 1990s anthologies, Britannica-wise, settled for short lyrics, dismissed as chauvinistic, sentimental, and derivative, as Jennifer Breen slots her work in her anthology of Romantic Woman Poets in 1992. In 1993, the 6th edition of the canonizing, vastly influential Norton Anthology of English Literature cast Hemans with minor lyric poets and presented the usual Victorian sampler: Casabianca, Pilgrim Fathers, England’s Dead. The durability of Britannica Hemans is reflected in Germaine Greer’s cursory glance at her, in 1995, in Slip-Shod Sibyls, as a poet of quaintness and insipidity, remembered only if at all for Casabianca, and like the Oxford edition, her reports are rife with errors.

Even critics intent to push back against the Britannica-Hemans, weren’t sure how to write her up. In his pioneering essay of 1988 (The ‘Iʼ Altered), esteemed critic Stuart Curran identified an unexpectedly complicated poet: if Hemans’s contemporaries (and Britannica too) made her synonymous with the notion of a poetess, celebrating hearth and home, God and country in mellifluous verse that relished the sentimental and seldom teased anyone into thought, there were other and darker strainsa focus on exile and failure, a celebration of female genius frustrated, a haunting omnipresence of death—that seem to subvert the role [she] claimed and invite a sophisticated reconsideration. Five years on, Curran’s essay Woman Readers took another measure, not against the notion of a poetess but against Wollstonecraft, the tacit foil in Hemans’s day (no Rights of Woman stuff for Mrs. Hemans!). In this aspect, Curran reads a definitive mode of Hemans-restraint by which she became, above all, the creator and enforcer of [an] ideological control masking itself as praise for feminine instinct and female duty. In this role, Hemans was the major figure in a bourgeois literary culture that she exemplified and may in some sense be said to have forged. Curran does concede, however, that this forging was a trap of cultural contradiction.

Others were opening the trap for inspection and analysis. In 1989, Marlon Ross (The Contours of Masculine Desire) proposed that Hemans’s poetry was distorted by being held to a Romanticism formed on a male canon. He resituates Hemans in relation to a community of writers both male and female, and in relation to the reading public who made her famous. A year later, in 1990, Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights sees Felicia exploiting conventional images of femininity (passivity, helplessness, suffering, and retreat into domesticity from the conflicts of worldly life) as a defence against personal unhappiness which had significant general implications. A prophet of this Hemans appears in Victorianist Cora Kaplan’s Salt and Bitter and Good (1975), who recognized a proto-Victorianist Hemans: the normative morality and the emerging Victorian stereotype of the pure, long-suffering female, she argued, reflects the symbolic discipline that turned anger inward and romanced death as the only resolution; bitter, feminine but pre-feminist consciousness is disguised by proper sentiments. Even Germaine Greer seems to sense such pressure, if not the argument, when she sneers at Hemans as one of those women who, straining off from their writing the rage and bitterness of an enforced self-discipline, took pride in the pure mush that they were then able to offer the complacent public, whose certainties they were endorsing at such secret and unremitting cost to themselves.

Divided Hemans at least had emerged. In a landmark essay in PMLA (1994), Tricia Lootens describes a body of work whose development often seems more centrifugal than linear and whose force seems to derive from its erratic course among and through contradictions. In an anthology published in 1996—Hemans seems to have become an honorary Victorian Woman Poet even though she died in 1836 (Britannica got that right!), three years before Victoria became queen)—Isobel Armstrong shifts Lootens’ zig-zag map to surface/depth, discerning in Hemans an emerging tradition of women’s poetry defined by such doubleness: an affective mode, often simple, often pious, often conventional turns out to be subjected to investigation, questioned, or used for unexpected purposes; the simpler the surface of the poem, the more likely it is that a second and more difficult poem will exist beneath it.

For most of us writing about in Hemans in the 1990s and after, Britannica-Hemans is a relative construction that obscurs not only Hemans’s darker works, but also the dark shades of the praised and prized works. England’s Dead asks readers to ponder the empire, not as a realm on which the sun never sets, but as a global graveyard: There slumber England’s dead! More than a few such poems come trailing dark clouds of glory. To nineteenth-century eyes, Casabianca was a tribute to a youthful war martyr to weep over (or, in mocking temper, parody). Yet a French boy’s futile call to his dead father (unconscious of his son) for release from his post is no simple, chivalrous poetry, but a grim meditation on pan-national patriarchy, patriotism, and a patriarchal God. Hemans could tap these conflicting currents because she knew the mainstream. Today we see a complexity that ripples through the famed feminine qualities that Britannica-Hemans sponsors, a Hemans that writes repeatedly of desperate suicide and infanticide, of the fate of woman, categorically (not just in plural instances) as the suicide of a social fate. This is the Hemans we are discuss, teach, and write about, more than 100 years after Britannica’s 11th edition.

Contributor Biography On Hemans: several articles and chapters:Borderlines: The Shiftings of Gender in British Romanticism (2006), editor of the first a substantial unit on Hemans or a general anthology of British Literature (Longman Anthology, 1998-2012); the editor of the fullest edition of Hemans’s writings, with contextual materials (Princeton UP, 2000). With Claire Knowles: an article on a newly discovered publication, likely Hemans’s first, in the Morning Post, 1 February 1805 (European Romantic Review 33.3: 2022).

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