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.