Felicia Hemans is one of the “lost” female authors of the Romantic period who, along with several of her contemporaries, was a popular and influential poet of her day, routinely outselling her more enduringly famous male counterparts. Yet, despite her initial impact, she faded into relative obscurity after the end of the Victorian age, only to be rediscovered as new historicist and feminist scholars sought out marginalized female voices in the later part of the 20th Century. She has since received a good deal of critical attention thanks to the political and cultural awareness of her work, providing as it does a relatively rare woman’s perspective on many of the key concerns of her age (Wolfson xiv).
Hemans, née Brown, was born in Liverpool in 1793 but lived most of her life in North Wales, an area for which she had an enduring love. Educated by her mother from an early age, Hemans quickly proved to have a sharp mind and a gift for writing. She learned four languages, devoured the novels, romances, plays, and poetry of her family’s impressive library, and in 1808, by the time she was fourteen, found her way into print. In 1811 she married Captain Alfred Hemans, and the couple had five sons. Yet the happiness of that match was not to last, and her husband left for Italy, never to return, before the birth of their last son. The Captain claimed his departure was due to his health, but the nature of their separation has remained a subject of conjecture for scholars. Despite this blow, Hemans’ life was centered around the domestic sphere, and she raised her sons with the help of her family, especially her mother, while still writing prolifically (“Felicia”).
Her most popular volume of poetry was Records of Woman, with Other Poems, which was published in 1828 and largely focused on the stories of a wide range of female protagonists drawn from history and contemporary life. This work exemplifies the subgenre that Hemans pioneered and which she termed, fittingly enough, “Records of Women.” Such poetry viewed history and contemporary life through the lens of the women experiencing them.
Major Themes Edit
Domestic Affection and Patriotism Edit
Hemans' work was originally praised as a paean to “domestic affection” and contemporary values. She was hailed as one of the primary poets of the bourgeois principles of her age, many of her poems praising traditional gender values, especially focusing on the domestic roles of women and the centrality of the home and religious faith. She also wrote many patriotic works that seemed to embrace ideas of empire and military glory. In fact, it was these qualities and the perception of Hemans as almost stereotypically Victorian and sentimental that contributed to her fading from popularity in the anti-Victorian backlash that occurred at the close of that age (Wolfson xiii). These trends are exemplified in this volume by the “The Homes of England,” which centers a very positive ode to the nation on the domestic, identifying the people and culture of England with their homes, idealized and placed within a peaceful and welcoming setting. In this poem the glories of England are to be found in “The stately Homes of England, / How beautiful they stand! / Amidst their tall ancestral trees, / O’er all the pleasant land,” and “Around their hearths by night” (Hemans 953 lines 1-4, 10).
Yet, while there is little doubt that Hemans' works do tend towards the sentimental, modern scholarship has found her to be much more complicated and even subversive than her original enthusiasts. Hemans had a tendency to trouble the seemingly straightforward and positive renditions of conventional values she presented, especially in this volume. For every portrayal of domestic bliss and patriotic vigor to be found within her work, there are also undercurrents of transience, instability, and ambiguity, sometimes within the same poems (Wolfson xv). Though the homes of England may harbor domestic bliss, that happiness seems to be in short supply in many of the other poems in this collection. Much more common are stories that stress the transience of such happiness and the misery endured by women when the sanctity and sanctuary of the home is violated by transgressions, usually those of men. Poems like “The Bride of the Greek Isles” and “Indian Woman Death-Song” portray scenes of familiar happiness shattered, or the aftermath thereof, and in each case, the women are left with little recourse once the damage is done.
Suicide and Feminine Agency Edit
Hemans has become a very productive figure for feminist criticism, and her focus on a very interesting strain of female agency and feminine heroism, painted against a backdrop of male conflict and disruptive actions, is a major factor of this trend. The women in her Records are often responding to the destructive actions of men, both from within and without the domestic sphere, and although these women do not often possess the power to protect their homes and families, they do usually undertake an active response to their sufferings. This response is often self-destructive, though it is sometimes also vengeful, as in the “The Bride of the Greek Isle,” who both frees herself from her captors and, in a dramatic scene, wrecks a terrible punishment upon them for the suffering they had inflicted. The final image of the bride, Eudora, with “a brand / Blazing up high in her lifted hand! / And her veil flung back, and her free dark hair / Sway’d by the flames as they rock and flare” is striking and indicative of the destructive heroism of Hemans’ women. They are left with little power in patriarchal culture that fails to maintain their happiness, but their dramatic suicides reject the power of the men who torment them, either directly or through their absence, and embrace a last, desperate release from their painful realities. Many of these instances are also accompanied by images of an unleashed feminine power, dangerous and destructive. Eudora's description, focusing as it does on her hair, loose and "free," suggesting the devastating power of a woman unleashed. The Indian Woman, on the other hand, illustrates the more desperate side of this dynamic with her plaintive hope that the next world might hold “Some blessed fount amidst the woods of that bright land […] / Whose waters from my soul may lave the memory of this wo” (Hemans 950 lines 32-3). In these more desperate moments, a cynical despair about a woman’s role in the world is revealed. The Indian Woman tells her doomed daughter to “Smile” because “to that wasting of the heart […] I leave thee not” (lines 36-7), characterizing a woman's lot as one of suffering and sorrow. It is in such tensions as these that modern scholars have found very fertile ground.
Fame and Nontraditional Lives for Women Edit
One of the major themes in Records is the nature, and cost, of fame, specifically as it relates to women who pursue lives outside of the home. Hemans is very interested in the tension between traditional domestic life and more public undertakings, especially artistic ones. Such works as “Properzia Rossi” and “Joan of Arc” exemplify this theme, each featuring a female protagonist who has achieved fame but who longs for the simpler pleasures of domestic affection, romantic or familial, a longing that is doomed to go unsated. Here again is evinced Hemans’ apprehension about the sustainability of domestic bliss, but these poems also reveal a deep and abiding anxiety about a woman’s role in society. In these two texts Hemans interrogated the costs of public life, contrasting ambition and love, and exploring the emptiness of a life unbalanced, lived for singular purpose. In “Properzia Rossi,” despite her fame, the brilliant sculpture piteously cries out, “If I could weep / Once, only once, belov’d one! On thy breast, / Pouring my heart forth ere I sink to rest! / But that were happiness, and unto me / Earth’s gift is fame” (Hemans 948 lines 106-110). Yet, at the same time, Hemans exercises her expressive powers to capture the joy of self-expression and accomplishment. In the same poem we find this description of artistic creation, “The bright work grows / Beneath my hand, unfolding, as a rose, Leaf after leaf, to beauty; line by line, / I fix my thought, heart, soul, to burn, to shine, / Thro’ the pale marble’s veins” (947 lines 32-5). Joan of Arc, meanwhile, at the height of her triumph, amidst joyous pomp and celebration, finds herself dreaming of the lost and unrecoverable days of pastoral happiness in the bosom of her family, left behind in the pursuit of her great cause. On seeing her father and brothers, “swiftly back, / Ev’n in an instant, to their native track / Her free thoughts flowed.–She saw the pomp no more— / The plumes, the banners:—to her cabin-door, / And to the Fairy’s fountain in the glade, / Where her young sisters by her side had play’d” (952 lines 69-74).
Relevance to Romanticism Edit
Hemans' work was often seen to run rather counter to many of the dominant strains of Romanticism, especially with its seeming focus stereotypically Victorian values. It seemed, if anything, anti-revolutionary, but modern scholars, and some of her more perceptive contemporaries, found more in Hemans' poetry. There are distinctly countercultural elements in her work, largely found in the tensions and uncertainty in the poet’s approach to those very bourgeois subjects like domestic affection, religious fidelity, and patriotic sentiment. Rarely are her treatments of such subjects untroubled, and in those uneasy moments, those gaps in the texts, implicit or explicit, are found the seeds of revolution.
Like many of the female writers of the day, Hemans was concerned with a woman’s role in the world and her ability to pursue her own happiness in a male-dominated culture that seemed forever intent on controlling and eliminating female agency. Her very life as a woman of letters challenged the prevailing wisdom about the weakness and limitations of the female mind, while at the same time her dedication to her family insulated her from the common attacks of female intellectuals. She investigated the role of woman as artist and moved in learned circles, even earning the often grudging respect of her male peers, including Byron (“Felicia”).
Yet, the most obvious way in which Hemans evinced Romantic tendencies was in her use of natural imagery and settings. Many of her poems were set in relatively wild or pastoral landscapes, and nature often played a key role in her pieces, being used both for characterization and setting. A good exemplum of the various manifestations of this pattern is “The Bride of the Greek Isle,” which both describes its young protagonist with natural similes and casts the drama against a backdrop of sylvan woods soon spoiled by violence and rapine. The youthful bride “like a slight young tree, that throws / The weight of rain from its drooping boughs, / Once more […] wept,” (Hemans 942 lines 75-7). Even more telling is the description of beautiful rustic home, seemingly almost one with the natural world in a passage that blends the one with the other:
Still and sweet was the home that stoodThe house almost seems to disappear into the wood that surrounds it, painting a picture of unspoiled beauty and thriving, idyllic youth. Of course, here as well we find Hemans’ inability to accept the stability and viability of lasting domestic happiness. The serenity of the woodland cottage is shattered by the discordant image produced when we discover the arrival of the pirates with the lines “Thro’ the dim olives their sabres shine;— / Now must the red blood stream for wine!” (942 lines 131-2). In this poem, and in many of her other works, Hemans employs natural imagery to powerful and memorable effect. The domestic and the natural are often linked, as is the case in “Joan of Arc,” and to more morbid effect, in “The Graves of a Household,” where the renewal of the natural world is contrasted to the transience of human life and family bonds.
In the flowering depths of a Grecian wood,
With the soft green light o’er its low roof spread,
As if from the glow of an emerald shed,
Pouring thro’ lime-leaves that mingled on high,
Asleep in the silence of noon’s clear sky.
Citrons amidst their dark foliage glow’d
Making a gleam round the lone abode;
Laurels o’erhung it, whose faintest shiver
Scatter’d out rays like a glancing river;
Stars of the jasmine its pillars crown’d,
Vine-stalks its lattice and walls had bound,
And brightly before it a fountain’s play
Flung showers thro’ a thicket of glossy bay
(Hemans 942-3 lines 95-107)
In the end, Hemans’ work embodies many of the defining characteristics of the Romantic movement, though always interpreted through the unique lens through which she viewed her world, situated perilously between hope and despair, family and isolation.
Sources and Relevant Links: Edit
“Felicia Dorothea Browne Hemans (1793 - 1835).” A Celebration of Women Writers. The University of Pennsylvania Library, n.d. Web. 23 April 2015. “Felicia Hemans.” The Victorian Web. Victorian Web, 25 March 2005.
Hemans, Felicia. Records of Woman, with Other Poems. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Romantics and their Contemporaries. Ed. Daviiid Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 940-957. Print.
Scrivan, Edward. Felicia Hemans. 1827. Romantic Circles. Web. 23 April 2015.