Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “The Image in Lava,” Hemans explores, as she does frequently in her work, the conflict between fame, which she sought and succeeded in obtaining in large measure, and the quieter, domestic virtues of family and motherhood. This conflict was especially real to a woman writer in her time, since middle-and upper-class women were discouraged from working outside the home and taught that their proper sphere was caring for a household and a family. Women who sought nondomestic careers were thought of as unwomanly, even when financial necessity forced them to earn money, as was the case with Hemans, a mother of five sons and their sole financial support (her husband separated from the family, never to return). The great nurse Florence Nightingale, who knew Hemans’s work and copied one of her poems for a cousin, detailed, in her book Cassandra (1852-59), the obstacles faced by women similar to herself who sought self-expression outside the home.

In “The Image in Lava,” as elsewhere in her poetry, Hemans supports the cultural expectations of her time by suggesting that motherhood is finer than any of the other achievements to which humans can aspire and more lasting than the monuments they build to their own power and fame. Yet the poem also hints at the price women pay for this sacrifice. When the poem explores the possibility that all the others the mother had lavished her love upon had abandoned her, she acknowledges the sad reality,...

(The entire section is 475 words.)