The Italy of Human Beings

Frances Wilson

  • Felicia Hemans: ‘Records of Woman’ with Other Poems edited by Paula Feldman
    Kentucky, 248 pp, £15.50, September 1999, ISBN 0 8131 0964 7

Mrs Hemans – or Hewomans, as Byron called her, for no one was less of a he-man than Felicia – was lavishly praised in her lifetime, and second only to Byron in popularity and sales. But while Byron was disowned by the Victorians, embarrassed that this ‘huge sulky dandy’, as Thomas Carlyle called him, should have received so much adoration and respect, Felicia Hemans’s reputation grew, and her work went out of print only after the First World War. Her importance in dictating the taste for patriotism, obedience and sacrifice in generations of readers cannot be underestimated. She was, after all, the author of the heroic tale of filial duty, ‘Casabianca’ (‘The boy stood on the burning deck’).

Byron may have been the wrong type of man to find favour among the critics of the 19th century, but Hemans – with what Byron described as her ‘false stilted trashy style which is a mixture of all the styles of the day’ – was the right type of woman. She was admired not so much for being a good poet as for being a good female poet, or rather a good feminine poet, modest enough to know her own limits and reassuringly not good enough to threaten the grandees. ‘It is a great thing to have said of her that she has given so much innocent pleasure,’ Wordsworth said of her behind her back, ‘and that her verses may be more useful to the Americans – with whom she is a favourite – in their present state of intellectual culture, than more powerful productions.’

Felicia Hemans was huge in America, where Andrews Norton (Charles Eliot Norton’s father) offered her a prestigious job editing a literary periodical in Boston, which she turned down. Despite speaking five languages she never left the British Isles. Nor did she ever stop writing: between 1808, when her first book appeared, and her death in 1835, she published 19 volumes of poems and two dramas. Had she written less (not necessarily better) poetry, and had she written less easily, her reputation might have been different. No one thinks worse of men who write voraciously and apparently without effort – Byron, for example, who would have it believed that he tossed off poems while dressing for dinner – but women who write too much have never been entirely trusted. Hence critics’ interest in relating Hemans’s abundant poetry to her femaleness.

Wordsworth was appalled to discover that Mrs Hemans was ‘totally ignorant of housewifery’ – more able to ‘manage the spear of Minerva as her needle’. How could this be? She was the representative of female virtue and conservative values, the poet of the ideal home. Had she not celebrated the domestic harmony of his own home at Rydal Mount, in ‘To Wordsworth’?

Or by some hearth where happy faces meet,
When night hath hush’d the woods, with all their birds,
There, from some gentle voice, that lay were sweet
As antique music, link’d with household words.
While, in pleased murmurs, woman’s lip might move,
And the rais’d eye of childhood shine in love.

While Hemans might live like a man – describing herself as hopelessly ‘ill-fitted to cope’ with the ‘eating, drinking, buying, bargaining’ world of domesticity – at least she wrote like a woman, or ‘gentlewoman’, as her friend Maria Jane Jewsbury said. The type of femininity she displays in her writing is a moot point, however. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote: ‘I admire her genius – love her memory – respect her piety and high moral tone. But she does always seem to me a lady rather than a woman.’ Measuring Hemans’s contribution to letters seems to be inseparable from ‘the intellectual measuring of bust and hips’, as Mary Ellmann calls it in Thinking about Women. Even when the poetry is criticised, her dress sense is brought in. ‘Her taste is vitiated,’ Mary Howitt complained. ‘It is just like her dress; it has too much glare and contrast of colour to be in pure taste.’ When Hemans is praised it is for being ‘strictly feminine in the whole current of her thought and feeling’, as the Edinburgh Review put it in 1820. Anna Jameson alerts us to the ‘finish and completeness’ of Hemans’s composition, ‘singularly accordant with the fine perception, and delicate discrimination of the female mind’. Frederick Rowton, in The Female Poets of Great Britain (1853), affirms the importance of ‘delicacy’ in distinguishing Hemans’s poetry from that of a man, and adds to the list of exclusively female attributes, ‘the softness, the pureness, the quick observant vision, the ready sensibility, the devotedness’ of her work. Francis Jeffreys claimed that Hemans was the example of ‘female poetry’: the ‘tenderness’ and ‘ethereal purity of sentiment’ he saw in her ‘could only emanate from the soul of woman’. ‘I never saw any one so exquisitely feminine,’ Jewsbury wrote in History of a Nonchalant (1830), a portrait of Hemans. ‘I might describe, and describe for ever . . . she was a muse, a grace, a variable child, a dependent woman – the Italy of human beings.’

So it is a surprise to find that when Hemans arrived with her gaudy clothes and her ‘silken length of hair, that when unbraided flowed around her like a veil’ (Miss Jewsbury again) to stay at Rydal Mount in 1830, two years after Records of Woman was published, Wordsworth’s sister-in-law thought that the house-guest was not ladylike enough. Mrs Hemans, Sara Hutchinson complained, offended feminine etiquette and had ideas above her station. She was ‘that despicable thing: a woman living on admiration’. She talked incessantly, expecting not only to be listened to but to be found ‘brilliant’; she was ‘spoilt by the adulation of “the world”’; and her ‘affectation’ was ‘perfectly unendurable’. Most insufferable was that she was ‘the very opposite of anything’ that Wordsworth had ‘ever admired before, either in theory or practice’. She concluded that Wordsworth must be only ‘pretending’ to enjoy the company of this ‘phantom of delight’, as he later called her, this ‘lovely apparition’. Hemans, Hutchinson muttered, would be better off ‘tidying up after her husband and children’ than carrying on like a bluestocking. Wordsworth, also unnerved, clearly agreed, although he must have been reassured to see that even if she allowed mess in her parlour it was absent from her work; today her poems are rather criticised than praised for having about them what Peter Trinder called in his 1984 biography ‘a domestic tidiness’.

The poet of home and hearth, of family values and traditional roles, was a single mother. Captain Arthur Hemans had walked out of the family home in 1818, when his wife was pregnant with their fifth son. What’s more, her father had deserted her as well, leaving his wife when Felicia was a child. Felicia Hemans wrote for money, a vulgarity which compelled her, Wordsworth regretted, ‘to look out for subjects wherever she could find them’. The sanctity of the home was just one more subject.

Captain Hemans had known when he met Felicia Dorothea Browne as an adolescent that she was an ambitious poet. When she was 14, with the support of her mother, she had gathered together and published a collection of her verse. The proceeds went to buy her brother a uniform in which to fight in the Peninsular Wars. This first volume is remarkable for its confidence, and also for the effect it had on its readers: Captain Hemans – not a literary man – ordered three copies and waited five years until he could marry the author. Shelley himself wrote to Felicia Browne in an attempt to initiate a friendship – which her mother discouraged.

Feldman and Trinder have both suggested that Mrs Browne’s action saved her daughter from the dismal fate of Harriet Westbrook, Shelley’s first wife. But it seems unlikely that the organised, ambitious and Christian young poet would have been attracted to a disorderly atheist like Shelley, or that she would have drowned herself had Shelley left her. After all, when Arthur Hemans deserted her, announcing that he was going to Rome to recover his health, she simply got on with her highly successful career, and the Captain was never referred to again. The two volumes Hemans wrote during their marriage, The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (which Byron liked) and Modern Greece (which he didn’t), were published anonymously, presumably out of sensitivity to her now unemployed husband’s feelings.

The 19th-century celebration of Hemans’s exemplary womanliness may be deafening, but for the critics who have helped to rehabilitate her in the last decade, Hemans represents another ideal: a subtly transgressive feminist, collapsing the gender constructions she appears to endorse and criticising the social order which imposes such limits on women. Her new defenders are as uniform in their rereading of Hemans as her old ones were in their misreading. In her introduction to Records of Woman, Feldman agrees with other Romanticists such as Anne Mellor and Jerome McGann that Hemans ‘defies’, ‘undercuts’ and ‘criticises’ the feminine domestic ideal she appears to represent. In other words, she emerges from the 20th century less of a lady than was previously thought, and more of a poet.

The 19 poems in Records of Woman, Hemans’s best, and bestselling, collection (earning more than £300 in the first six years), are about extremes of female devotion, loyalty and heroism. They are the thoughts of martyred heroines, abandoned brides, faithful wives and unrequited lovers. History in these poems has nothing to do with seismic events or the birth of great men, but with private emotions and, especially, partings. ‘Arabella Stuart’ tells the story of the descendant of Henry VII, forcibly separated from her husband, William Seymour, because of both parties’ threatening proximity to the throne. Hemans has Lady Arabella imprisoned and hallucinating, and what is remarkable in the poem is the way in which dreaming, remembering and hallucinating become confused.

‘Twas but a dream! – I saw the stag leap free,
Under the boughs where early birds were singing,
I stood, o’ershadowed by the greenwood tree,
And heard, it seemed, a sudden bugle ringing
Far thro’ a royal forest: then the fawn
Shot, like a gleam of light, from grassy lawn
To secret covert.

Properzia Rossi is a celebrated artist who fails to win the heart of the knight she loves, and the poem of which she is the heroine is a meditation on fame, desire and creative drive. Like Arabella Stuart, she dreams of a brighter, more vivid place than the everyday world she inhabits:

One dream of passion and of beauty more!
And in its bright fulfilment let me pour
My soul away! Let earth retain a trace
Of that which lit my being, tho’ its race
Might have been loftier far. – Yet one more dream!
From my deep spirit one victorious gleam
Ere I depart! For thee alone, for thee!

Hemans’s strength and allure as a poet and persona in lines like these can be compared with the Byron of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain;
But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;
Something unearthly, which they deem not of,
Like the remember’d tone of a mute lyre,
Shall on their soften’d spirits sink, and move
In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love.

In the light of ‘Arabella Stuart’ and ‘Properzia Rossi’, Feldman’s argument that Records of Woman deserves to be seen as radical because Hemans’s heroines ‘are determined, proud and gutsy, not servile or helpless’ seems disappointingly reductive. Feldman simply exchanges a 19th-century definition of a heroine for a 20th-century one, which merely continues the debate about what type of femininity Hemans represents. Before her heroines were ideal and obedient: now they are disobedient and ideal. If Hemans is a good poet who earns a place in the Romantic canon, it is not because her women have mettle.

Immortality is what Hemans wanted: in a letter written shortly before her death, she said that she wished she could produce something of ‘pure and holy excellence’ that would ‘permanently take its place as the work of an English poetess’. Does she deserve a permanent place alongside Wordsworth and Byron? Scott regretted that he found in her ‘too many flowers and too little fruit’, and her modern critics divide into those picking the flowers and those enjoying the fruit. For the former, Hemans is no more than a writer of light verse for a middlebrow readership, whose inclusion in university courses on Romantic literature would lower the tone. Their trump card is the vacuous ‘Homes of England’, for which Hemans was celebrated by the Victorians:

The stately Homes of England,
How beautiful they stand!
Amidst their tall ancestral trees,
O’er all the pleasant land.
The deer across their greensward bound
Thro’ shade and sunny gleam,
And the swan glides past them with the sound
Of some rejoicing stream.

The fruit gatherers, on the other hand, find ‘power, virtuosity, experimentation and beauty’ in her work, as Feldman puts it. Their defence of ‘The Homes of England’ is that in presenting an idealised world ‘with no parting, sadness or war . . . free of rotting wood, privation, disease and class conflict’, it gives us a ‘fairytale’ which, when contrasted with the ‘intense human sufferings’ described in Records of Woman, can only be seen as ironic. Hemans’s importance lies not in her contribution to the ‘high’ art of the age, but in her representation of the ‘diversity of poetic expression’. She can be read in the light of ‘popular culture, adventure, the gothic, horror, opera, performance, rhetoric, costumery, feminism, superheroes, Orientalism and more’. And, finally, she matters simply because of the controversy she generates and the questions she raises about literary value.

Hemans said that Records of Woman was the collection closest to her, and it is certainly her best. The poems return obsessively to themes of absence and abandonment, but while the partings she describes are mostly those of lovers or spouses, any feelings of loss Hemans herself might have had are more likely to have been occasioned by the recent death of her mother, which ‘deprived me of my truest and tenderest friend’, and the marriage of her sister – nothing, she said, could have prepared her for such grief – than the desertion of her husband ten years earlier. One of the final poems, ‘The Memorial Pillar’, was inspired by a monument ‘erected in the year 1656, by Ann, Countess Dowager of Pembroke, for a memorial of her last parting, in this place, with her good and pious mother, Margaret, Countess Dowager of Cumberland’. The spot was ‘sanctified’ by the ‘blending tears’ of ‘mother and child’.

Compared to losing her mother, separation from Alfred Hemans was nothing worse than a social humiliation. During her marriage, a friend noted, Hemans was ‘far more in possession of poetry than of Alfred’. What makes Hemans interesting is not her femininity, her range of subjects, or her skill at tapping into and dictating public taste, but the fact that she chose to be a poet over being a wife. Poetry was what she refused to be parted from. She would write about anything rather than not write at all, and her fatherless families provided a convenient justification for her feverish issue of poems:

It comes, – the power
Within me born, flows back; my fruitless dower
That could not win me love. Yet once again
I greet it proudly, with its rushing train
Of glorious images: – they throng – they press –
A sudden joy lights up my loneliness, –
I shall not perish all!

(‘Properzia Rossi’)

For all her striving for fame, Hemans preferred reclusive isolation in Wales to the blaze of celebrity in London. ‘The facility with which her lyrics were poured forth, approached, in many instances, to actual improvisation,’ her sister recalled. Hemans was promiscuous in her writing, clearly enjoying it far too much, writing her way into and out of marriage, continuing to write when she could have been doing something more feminine instead, still earning money for her sons when money was no longer an issue.

Her reading was as charged as her writing. Her friend Mrs Elwood described (in Memoirs of the Literary Ladies of England, 1843) how Hemans would read ‘in season and out of season – by night and day – on her chair, her sofa, and bed – at home and abroad – invalid, convalescent, in perfect health – in rambles, journeys and visits – in company with her husband, and when her children were around here – at hours usually devoted to domestic claims, as well as in the solitude of the study and bower’. From the time she could first read, she absorbed poetry like a sponge. She consumed Shakespeare at the age of 6, and as she lay on her deathbed at the age of 41 she was still dictating poems. As a child she had a preternatural ability to remember verbatim poems she had read just once, some of which were 400 lines long.

Writing became the only reality Hemans understood. She preferred the descriptive language of established writers to her own experience of the world and admitted that she ‘loved to repose under the shadow of mighty names’. All of her experiences originated in her reading: she described the company of a new friend as ‘having much the same sort of impression on my mind, that the first perusal of Ivanhoe did’. Her correspondence (and conversation too, according to her sister) is so peppered with quotations from Goethe, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and Madame de Staël that she sometimes sounds like a medium speaking in tongues. Having to write in the laundry because there is no room left in the house is the occasion for quoting Byron (‘her circle narrowing as she goes’), Shakespeare (‘to sleep upon the bank’) and Wordsworth. ‘It was poetry,’ Maria Jane Jewsbury noted, without thinking it at all odd, that Hemans ‘sought in history, scenery, character, and religious belief, – poetry, that guided all her studies, governed all her thoughts, coloured all her conversation.’ She translated her world into words and exchanged her own existence for a part in a Romantic poem.