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, experienced by both herself and her beloved mother, that women were often left to sustain a household and rear the children alone. Hemans was also aware of the grim reality that many women died early from childbirth and the rigors of child-rearing, and that the infant mortality rate in her time was very high; though the mother and child in the poem die in a volcanic eruption, they image the early death of many nineteenth century women and children.
Indeed, much of the poetry of British (and American) women in the nineteenth century is preoccupied with the early death of women; often, the speaker of the poem is a voice from the grave, and often, too, the concern of the speaker is with remembrance of her after death, as in Emily Brontë’s “Remembrance” and Christina Rossetti’s “Remember.” Hemans, whose poetry predates that of Brontë and Rossetti, helps to establish this motif in women’s poetry when she contrasts the enduring impression of the love between mother and child to the ephemeral quality of fame in the world. Also like Rossetti, she finds consolation for womanly suffering in the belief in a divine power; “The Image in Lava” concludes with the insistence (“It must, it must be so!”) that the sacrificial love of the mother for her child is an image of the divine love, an evidence of eternal love.