Felicia Hemans 1793–1835
(Born Felicia Dorothea Browne) English poet and dramatist.
For additional information on Hemans's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 29.
A prolific poet whose work appeared frequently on both sides of the Atlantic during her lifetime, Hemans was a true celebrity poet of the early nineteenth century. Although many of her male contemporaries—including William Wordsworth and George Gordon, Lord Byron—have remained much more prominent in literary history, Hemans was in her own time one of the most generally loved writers of the era. She built her reputation upon works that focused on themes dear to the hearts of nineteenth-century readers, including religious, patriotic, and domestic subjects, and mastered a style now typically characterized as sentimental. Hemans's standard genres included long narrative poems and verse dramas, as well as short lyric poems.
Hemans was born into the family of a Liverpool merchant whose business collapsed the year she was born; consequently, the family relocated to the Welsh countryside, the natural beauty of which echoed years later in much of her poetry. At a time when only upperand middle-class males enjoyed formal educations, Hemans was fortunate to have parents who believed in educating their daughters. Her mother, a well-educated woman herself, taught Hemans many subjects, and she became proficient in several languages, including German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin. Demonstrating a precocious talent for verse, Hemans published her first two volumes of poetry in 1808, when she was only fourteen. Although the books, Poems and England and Spain, attracted little critical attention, they showcased her wide reading and technical facility and established her as a poet of promise, especially one with a flair for natural description and historical narrative. These were followed in 1812 by The Domestic Affections, a collection of poems about family life. In the same year, she married Alfred Hemans, an older man who held a captaincy in the army. Despite the demands of a growing family—she bore five sons in less than eight years—Hemans continued to write. She became well-known and admired among English readers, especially with such
broadly popular works as The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816) and Modern Greece (1817).
For undocumented reasons, Hemans and her husband separated in 1819. Although Hemans never referred to her failed marriage, biographers speculate that her husband might not have been sympathetic to her literary pursuits, and some commentators have attributed the pathos in many of Hemans's poems after this date to her husband's abandonment of the family. The separation also had a material effect on her writing: she now had to support her family, which consisted of her mother and sister as well as her sons. She produced numerous volumes in the next decade, including Tales, and Historic Scenes in Verse (1819), The Sceptic (1820), The Forest Sanctuary, and Other Poems (1825), and the verse drama The Siege of Valencia (1823). She also became a frequent contributor to the periodicals that fed the popular demand for poetry. By 1826, her popular and critical reputation prompted a complete edition of her works in the United States, and her poems became widely imitated. In her last years, despite the onset of a debilitating illness that sapped her strength, Hemans continued to write. She died in Dublin in 1835.
Although the period during which Hemans wrote tends to be remembered by the five male poets canonized by British Romanticism—Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—the period itself was actually more various both in terms of the poets writing, the poetic styles they employed, and the matter that a very enthusiastic reading public wished to consume. Hemans represented certain aspects of this popular taste at least as consistently as any of her male contemporaries. Although characteristically Romantic subjects make up an important part of her work—especially a typically Wordsworthian love of nature—her primary focus and her style reflect the overlap of the preceding Neoclassical style with emerging Romantic concerns. The majority of Hemans's verse demonstrates an adherence to these earlier conventions in meter, rhyme, and diction. And although her treatment of nature and domesticity overlapped with Wordsworth's, Hemans often handled these and other topics—religion, patriotism, and history—with an outlook more apparently conventional than those of Byron or Shelley.
After the 1808 books introduced a young Hemans to readers, her next efforts demonstrated her growing skills on similarly martial, patriotic subjects. The Domestic Affectionsand Restoration of The Works of Art to Italy both lambasted England's enemy, France, in the Napoleonic Wars and celebrated the integrity of England's cause. Modern Greece offered another take on the same theme, further ingratiating Hemans in the hearts of English readers. In the next few years, she shifted slightly from contemporary political verse to historical verse with political implications, presenting her work to the public in Tales, and Historic Scenes, a verse drama called The Vespers of Palermo (1823), and "Dartmoor" (1821), which won the poetry prize from the Royal Society of Literature. To some degree, however, Hemans became and remained best known for verse that cast an ideal image of the home, as well as woman's place in it, and similarly but less markedly for her religious pieces. The Siege of Valencia and The Forest Sanctuary both portray family tragedies in a combination of historical and imaginative narrative. In 1828 and 1830, Hemans published two of her most important collections, Records of Woman and Songs of the Affections respectively; each of these contain shorter monologues, lyrics, and narrative poems that reflect on domestic sentiment and the virtues of femininity. In the years before her death, Hemans turned more and more emphatically to religious topics, culminating in two collections published in 1833 and 1834: Hymns for Childhood and Scenes and Hymns of Life.
During the nineteenth century, Hemans was much admired for what were termed the moral and feminine qualities of her works, and her verse influenced popular taste in poetry long after her death. More illustrious writers, including Byron, Wordsworth, and Sir Walter Scott, admired certain of her pieces, although their reactions—summarized by Scott's remarks that Hemans's poetry was "too poetical," bearing "too many flowers … too little fruit"—were less enthusiastic than those of the general public. Although her poetry remained greatly loved and admired through the Victorian era, which was largely sympathetic to her values and her evident sentimentality, Hemans fell from favor at the turn of the twentieth century. Critics in the following generations dismissed her as trivial and stylistically unsophisticated, although she continued as a minor mainstay in primary education and anthologies of English poetry. Attention, and appreciation, only returned in the 1970s when feminist scholars were unearthing and reassessing the many prolific, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women writers who had been all but forgotten by academics. For several decades, literature scholars have found rich terrain for discussion in Hemans's work, discerning in it not just the superficial conventions of the nineteenth century, but also the underlying tensions and anxieties of a culture undergoing monumental changes.
England and Spain (poetry) 1808
Poems (poetry) 1808
The Domestic Affections (poetry) 1812
The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (poetry) 1816
Modern Greece (poetry) 1817
Translations from Camoens and Other Poets, with Original Poetry (translations and poetry) 1818
Tales, and Historic Scenes in Verse (poetry) 1819
The Sceptic (poetry) 1820
Stanzas to the Memory of the Late King (poetry) 1820
"Dartmoor" (poetry) 1821
The Siege of Valencia. The Last Constantine, with Other Poems (drama) 1823
The Vespers of Palermo (drama) 1823
The Forest Sanctuary, and Other Poems (poetry) 1825
Records of Woman, with Other Poems (poetry) 1828
Songs of the Affections, with Other Poems (poetry) 1830
Hymns for Childhood (poetry) 1833
National Lyrics and Songs for Music (poetry) 1834
Scenes and Hymns of Life, with Other Religious Poems (poetry) 1834
The Works of Mrs. Hemans, 7 vols. (poetry and verse dramas) 1839
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SOURCE: "Life and Writings of Mrs. Hemans," in The Dublin Review, Vol. 2, No. 3, December, 1836, pp. 245–75.
[In the following excerpt, the author reviews Hemans's writings in the context of the then just-published Memorials collected by Henry Chorley, which the reviewer rejects as too trivializing of Hemans as a poet.]
It is to the causes to which we have here adverted, rather, perhaps, than to any special inclination in the genius of the writers themselves, that we must attribute the particular form under which the great body of our recent poetry has appeared. In the absence of that encouragement, which gave birth to poetical ventures of greater length, amongst their predecessors, the modern aspirants to the honours of the muse have been content to support their titles by efforts of less pretension; and the public, which would have set its face against more imposing displays of the art, has been won to listen to snatches of song, which, while they charmed by their sweetness, made no great demand upon its time and attention. A larger proportion of the verse of the day has, in obedience to the necessities of the case, assumed the lyric shape, and insinuated itself into notice, in the pages of one or other of the periodical publications. Much even of the popularity of Mrs. Hemans was won in the pages of these fostering volumes; and it was the popularity so obtained which enabled her subsequently...
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SOURCE: "Hemans and Home: Victorianism, Feminine 'Internal Enemies,' and the Domestication of National Identity," in PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 2, March, 1994, pp. 238–53.
[In the essay below, Lootens investigates the patriotism in Hemans's verse and, through this, the contradictions and complexities that underlay Victorian ideology.]
If any phrase still evokes Victorianism as conceived early in this century, surely the first line of Felicia Hemans's "Casabianca" does. "The boy stood on the burning deck" conjures up a familiar vision of unconscious ironies and lost innocence. Calling to mind drawing rooms where parents comfortably weep to the recitation of earnest or sullen children, the line revives the mockery, nostalgia, and anxiety with which early-twentieth-century critics approached Victorian writing. To quote "the burning deck" raises a smile; to suggest that Hemans's verse be studied seriously raises the specter of creeping Victorianism. Wendell V. Harris worries that unless we admit works such as "Casabianca" to be beyond the literary pale—the "real, if unstated, limits" of canonicity—we may be driven to "defend the sentimental description and inspirational storytelling that delighted our grandparents" (117). More dramatically, Virgil Nemoianu warns feminists that recuperation of "marginalized" women's literature could "backfire cruelly": what if the likes of Felicia Hemans were unleashed on...
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SOURCE: "'Domestic Affections' and 'the spear of Minerva': Felicia Hemans and the Dilemma of Gender," in Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776–1837, edited by Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994, pp. 128–66.
[In the following essay, Wolfson contends that contradictions in Hemans's poetry stemmed from the fundamental conflict between the ideals of her verse—domestic serenity and feminine status quo—and the facts of her life, which required her to carry out the more traditionally masculine work of supporting her family and building a public reputation.]
I. Discriminations of Gender
Back in the days of schoolroom and parlor recitations, Hemans's "Casabianca" ("The boy stood on the burning deck") enjoyed a regular place; another poem, "The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers" ("The breaking waves dashed high / On a stern and rockbound coast"), became a beloved hymn, and "The Stately Homes of England," an anthology standard—their popularity affirming Hemans's place as "the undisputed representative poet of Victorian imperial and domestic ideology."' Hemans wrote more than these pieces, volumes in fact. She was one of the most widely read, widely published, and professionally successful poets of the nineteenth century.2 Yet by its close, she was being written off as a pretty inspirationalist,...
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SOURCE: "Felicia Hemans and the Effacement of Women," in Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices, edited by Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley, University Press of New England, 1995, pp. 138-49.
[In the following essay, Harding traces a strain of violence and melancholy through several of Hemans's works; he concludes that this element suggests her "recognition that women's reality is an imposed reality. "]
The sentiments are so affectionate and innocent—the characters of the subordinate agents … are clothed in the light of such a mild and gentle mind—the pictures of domestic manners are of the most simple and attaching character: the pathos is irresistible and deep.—Percy Bysshe Shelley
Affection, innocence, domesticity, pathos—the passage quoted in the epigraph above could almost be from a contemporary assessment of Felicia Hemans's Records of Woman, but it was actually written about Frankenstein. Percy Bysshe Shelley seems to be reassuring himself and us that Mary Shelley's novel is not, after all, wholly outside the bounds of women's discourse, despite its lurid subject matter and unwomanly preoccupation with violence and death.1 It is one of those moments when the force of social expectation as it affects the reception of women's writing, even writing of a distinctly new...
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Hughes, Harriet. The Works of Mrs. Hemans with a Memoir of her Life, Vol. 1. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1857, 352p.
Biography of Hemans by her sister.
Ritchie, Lady. "Felicia Felix." In Blackstick Papers, pp. 16-30. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, Knickerbocker Press, 1908.
Biographical portrait of Hemans including quotations and correspondence from literary friends.
Review of Modern Greece, by Felicia Hemans. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine I, No. V (August 1817): 515-18.
Favorable critical notice of Modern Greece.
Blain, Virginia. "'Thou with Earth's Music Answerest the Sky': Felicia Hemans, Mary Ann Browne, and the Myth of Poetic Sisterhood." Women's Writing. The Elizabethan to Victorian Period 2, No. 3 (1995): 251-69.
Uses the false assumption that Hemans was the biological sister of poet Mary Ann Browne to illustrate certain nineteenth-century notions of sisterhood and how these notions shaped the public's perception of women's poetry.
Chorley, Henry F. Memorials of Mrs. Hemans, with Illustrations of Her Literary Character from Her...
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