The reputation of Felicia Dorothea Hemans’s works over the years has fluctuated because of changes of taste from the Romantic era to the present; critical re-assessment is continuing. Her early works were hailed as “masculine,” but she soon created a persona for herself as the poetess of hearth and home, of queen and country, the image beloved by the nineteenth century and remunerative for her and her family.
She was heir to two streams of poetics: one, the Romantic mode of Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the other, the sentimental mode of Samuel Richardson. In addition, she looked back to her female literary predecessors, including Baillie and Madame de Staël. From the example of Byron and Shelley, she learned to employ the dramatic impact of sound and image, and she developed a feminized romantic protagonist. The Byronic hero manifests in her stalwart yet isolated women who rise above their circumstances, while Shelley’s soaring images of antimonarchical Promethean liberty transform into her resounding songs of the British patriot’s imperial pride and hymns of apparent religious certainty. Her employment of the sentimental mode worked well for her throughout the nineteenth century, but it drew censure from the modernists, who insisted on impersonal poetry devoid of “excesses” of feeling. Although she was celebrated for songs and hymns published and sung in nineteenth century parlors, her works fell into near eclipse during the twentieth century until the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The only work that kept her from total obscurity was “Casabianca,” which was included in grade-school readers and recited on both sides of the Atlantic until the middle of the twentieth century. A significant voice during the literary “interregnum” between the deaths of the younger Romantics and the early works of the emerging Victorian era, Hemans is regarded by some as a literary progenitor of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
An avid reader of history, Hemans followed Scott’s example, exploring the psyche in remote times and places as well as examining universal human emotions. Along with her contemporaries, Hemans suited her form to content, delivery, and effect, writing ballads, closed heroic couplets, couplets in tetrameter, blank verse, and Spenserian stanzas. Her cadences were always mellifluous, sonorous, and regular, and her images were drawn in feminized versions of those of the Satanic school (formed around Shelley and Byron), but were used in service of more traditional religious tropes.
Typical characteristics of her work include the use of the affective mode, depictions of historical moments, a maternal focus on a stereotypically masculine situation, and the probing of the psyche in extreme situations. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, critics began to explore the idea that often, while Hemans writes one story in a poem, the very story undermines its own meaning.
The Siege of Valencia
The Siege of Valencia is a historical romance in verse: An imagined attack referencing El Cid serves as a medieval story against which universal themes and contemporary issues could be played out. The Moors are invading Valencia, taking hostage the sons...
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