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Editing Felicia Hemans for the Twenty-First Century

  • Susan J. Wolfson

…plus d’informations

  • Susan J. Wolfson
    Princeton University

I. Who needs Hemans?

I have just completed a major edition of Felicia Hemans from Princeton University Press (650+ pages), scheduled for debut for this year's MLA convention (Washington, 2000). This edition constitutes the first scholarly work-up of this important writer, and the most substantial collection of her works and letters ever to appear.  [1] Although my colleagues in the field (and a bit beyond) have been saying "it's about time!", our perspective could not have been more at odds with that of potential publishers back in the mid-1990s, when I began to test interest in such an edition. In the wake of fresh critical work on Hemans and her reappearance in the newer, progressive classroom anthologies, we academics thought the time was right and ripe for a modern, capably edited presentation to support our scholarly inquiries and critical discussions. Indeed, our need was painfully self-evident: except for a few unannotated facsimile volumes, Hemans was long, long ago out of print. The last single volume was Oxford's (1914, reprinted for a few decades after), and it was woefully inadequate, even when it could be had from a used-book dealer or library shelf.  [2] The new anthologies were some help, but not enough. We needed wider range of texts (especially the long poems) than what anthologies could reasonably provide; we also needed to establish, if not standardize, the texts (sifting errata from variants and explaining the latter); we needed the letters (from and to Hemans); we needed to be able to study her reception in her day and across her century. The relevant materials were scattered around the globe in various research-level libraries and archives, from California, to South Carolina, to Princeton, to Boston, to Oxford, to Liverpool, to London, to Edinburgh. Those with the good fortune to have access to major research libraries and archives, or funding for a series of nifty research-trips, were less handicapped, but even for these fortunate ones, basic editorial services were lacking.

A generation or so ago, producing a capably researched, standard edition of an important writer (even a minor, but interesting writer [e.g. Praed]) was the kind of thing that scholarly presses did fairly routinely, did with pride. But by the 1990s, with decreasing library sales  [3] and escalating production costs, with the diminishing number of poetry-readers in society at large and even in academia, and with a sense, therefore, that an edition of a poet, let alone a coterie poet, did not promise profits, editors at these presses regretfully, politely, but firmly declined to take on Hemans. Among those I approached without success (sometimes without even reply) were Penguin, Longman, Kentucky, Cambridge, Oxford, Ashgate, St. Martins. The enterprising Broadview Press (which was sponsoring Judith Pascoe's admirable edition of Mary Robinson [1999], and Jerome McGann and Daniel Reiss's equally impressive edition of L.E.L. [1997]) was willing to undertake their kind of edition of Hemans, but they felt unable to supply any more pages than the best anthology selections already available from Duncan Wu, Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak, and Paula Feldman. A Broadview edition, I thought, would complement but not really provide an advance over these treatments: I had a choice of supplying a couple of long poems, but not much else, or several shorter poems, but not the longer ones; and if I wanted to include letters or reception materials, there would be even less space for the poetry. The profession (scholars, critics, graduate students) was ready for the next phase—a library-quality, sophisticated work-up, with the opportunity to present Hemans's important long works.

I decided to risk preparing an edition on spec, determined to provide a service both to Hemans and to my colleagues. Having set about my work with hopes of an eventual contract, based on my sense that sooner or later some press would realize that such an edition answers one of the biggest lacuna in the field of British Romantic studies, I was stunned and discouraged when so many presses, even those that had been publishing work on female writers, turned me and Hemans down flat, on the mere argument of expenses (production and advertising) that could not be recouped by sales ("We're sure the project is worthy, but . . ."). I had not thought to look closer to home, because the legendary, decades-long nightmare Princeton University Press was having with their Coleridge edition suggested to me that they were shy of editions per se. An exploratory phone call to the editor in chief, Mary Murrell, proved otherwise, though she did blanch at first at the size of the edition I was proposing. She recovered, and set about seeing what could be done. With the support of testimonies from Romantic colleagues—Paula Feldman, Duncan Wu, Anne Mellor, Claudia Johnson, Peter Manning, Isobel Armstrong—and with a generous subvention from my own University's Research Council, I was able to persuade Princeton University Press to take on the project. It helped that my work was already ninety percent in hand ("on disk"). Even after the hatchwork of rewritings and corrections that the copy-editing / final check phase of production inevitably generates, the copy finally transmitted to design (March 2000) for setting in page proofs was instantly readable in its latest, cleanest form, and my research budget from the Humanities Council had fronted all the expenses for research and preparation.

This is the story of the process; let me talk a little more about the inspiration. Letters were hard to come by. There were some , unannotated, in the two immediately posthumous memoirs (Henry Chorley's of 1836 and Harriett Hughes's of 1839—both long out of print, and indeed considered "rare books"), and a few others, scattered around in various publications.  [4] Some really interesting correspondence (between Hemans and her publishers, for example) was languishing in archives. What of the poems, presumably more accessible, because more published? After the lifetime volumes, there were numerous nineteenth-century collections, and Hemans remained in print into the first decades of the twentieth century. But she did not become the project for academic editing the way Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Hood, (and even Praed) did in the later decades of the nineteenth-century and the early ones of the twentieth. Addressing a popular market, the Victorian volumes were pretty: nicely embellished with engravings, tooled covers, gold-leafed pages, or in cheaper versions of the same ornamentation. These volumes emerged without the trouble of rigorous, or even any, standards of editorial supervision. Hemans's own notes (headnotes and footnotes) were often shorn off (even though these texts are as crucial to her self-display as, say, Byron's or T. S. Eliot's notes are to theirs), her publishers deemed them too tedious, too learned, for popular consumption. Even when her notes were preserved (as in the Blackwood's editions), there was no editorial help with translations, sources, historical or literary references. The best volumes were issued by William Blackwood and Sons of Edinburgh, the copyright-holders for decades after Hemans's death in 1836. In the manner with which Thomas Moore and John Murray had succeeded with their 1832 edition of Byron, these included excerpts from Hughes's Memoir, praises from the contemporary reviews, and appreciations from the world of letters.  [5]

But all the nineteenth-century volumes have been long out of print.  [6] Even the Oxford Standard Authors volume is out of print (and despite the University Press imprint, this is quite an amateur production, replete with corrupt texts, lacking Hemans's notes, omitting her two politically charged plays, and providing no editorial help). Most volumes did not even supply line numbers, with the consequence that our citations had to be page-numbers (if anything at all)—a useless reference to anyone without the same volume. Our discussions were caught in a bind of strong interest (from graduate students' work to that of seasoned professors) without reliable, standard, accessible resources. The poetic texts were in a disarray of disparate, unreconciled versions, some corrupted by errata or editorial interference, with the disarray being reproduced rather than remedied by some of the newer anthologies. Some editors were using lifetime volumes, but most were not, relying on dubious posthumous collections and perpetuating their errata; footnoting was inconsistent in quality, often incomplete, and sometimes giving erroneous information.  [7] The criticism reflected the chaos: everyone was using and citing different editions (what happened to be available under the dust at our libraries), and few were aware of errors or problems in these editions.

As a small drama of this disarray and its consequences for scholarship and teaching, I would like to comment on two widely disseminated errors in works that have been attracting much recent criticism for their vital and ideologically unstable concern with the martyring of boys to the ideology of national "honor." The first involves the epigraph for The Siege of Valencia (1823). Hemans drew it from the voice of "Fame" near the end of Cervantes's play El Cerco de Numancia (circa 1580-90). Her accurate quotation begins "Jndicio ha dad esta no vista hazaña / Del valor que en los siglos venideros. . . ." ("This unprecedented deed has given an indication / Of the valor that in centuries to come . . .").  [8] In the reprinting of this play for the 1839 Works, an errata escaped detection: the first line was set as "Judicio ha dado esta no vista hazanna."  [9] The "n" was accidentally set upside down as a "u" and consequently a new word was introduced: "Judicio"; "Indication" was now "Justice." Following or pirating Blackwood's edition, collections of Hemans reproduced this error throughout the nineteenth century, without any editors checking the source, or noting the peculiar grammar that the errata produced. Mellor and Matlak, not having on hand the original publication (Murray's of 1823) as they prepared their anthology, and not checking against Andrews Norton's correct text,  [10] relied on a corrupt posthumous text. Trying to work with the agrammatical errata, they supplied this translation: "Justice has given no greater vision of the bravery. . . ." The result was their creation of a personification of "Justice" (for both Cervantes and for Hemans) that, by force of its epigraphic signaling, has the effect of pre-judging the ideological crisis of a siege unto death, in Cervantes and Hemans. The Numantians held out against the Roman siege with a catastrophic loss of life; just before the city fell in 133 B.C. (not "A.D." as Mellor and Matlak's footnote report [p. 1190]), in a Masada-like gesture, they committed mass suicide and destroyed their city. Cervantes's "valor" certainly puts this action in the discourse of heroism. But since Hemans's play is vitally concerned with the human cost that attends ideologies of valor, the editors' well-meaning but misleading intervention of a justification by "Justice" amounts to an important substantive error. I recognize that, in assembling almost 1500 pages, Mellor and Matlak could not chase down every detail (this is what anthologizers rely on standard editions to do for them) but it is precisely the absence of a standard edition when they were preparing what has in effect become a standard edition for many that highlights the need for an edition that has been able to collate texts, discover errata (or variants), and check all facts.

The problem with Casabianca is not the substantive issue that "Judicio" for "Jndicio" has produced, but of a fiddling with seeming accidentals (capital letters and punctuation) that play a role in Hemans's dramatics and sharpen their critical edge. If you need a quick refresher, this is the famous poem that begins "The boy stood on the burning deck"—the boy being young Casabianca, on board the French admiral ship commanded by his father, in the battle of Nile, August 1798 (Nelson's first major victory over Napoleon, and the occasion of intense British pride). In Hemans's account (which she revised from the chronicles that she consulted), the boy does not know that his father is already dead, and even though the ship is on fire and everyone else has fled, he will not leave his post without his father's leave. In the version of Casabianca published in the Monthly Magazine (new series 2 [August, 1826] 164), her fourth stanza dramatizes the awful consequence:

"Speak, Father!" once again he cried,
     "If I may yet begone!
And"—but the booming shots replied,
     And fast the flames rolled on.

This is how Hemans wanted her lines to play, and this is the text (save making "begone!" "be gone!") that she reprinted in the first collection of the poem, in the "Miscellaneous Pieces" of The Forest Sanctuary: With Other Poems (the 2d edition, 1829).  [11] The drama shaped by the middle lines of this stanza is the boy's being cut off mid-sentence by the booming shot, his voice truncated as (we have to imagine) the fragments of his body are strewn to the sea.

Mellor and Matlak use neither of the texts that Hemans supervised, but rather (perhaps because it was handier) the text in the American edition supervised by Andrews Norton, to which they applied a further, unexplained revision. This is Norton's text:

"Speak, Father!" once again he cried,
     "If I may yet be gone!"
—And but the booming shots replied,
     And fast the flames roll'd on.

League, p. 130

As you can see, Norton has regularized Hemans's punctuation, and diminished her drama, by closing the boy's voice within the line.  [12] There is no boy interrupted. This interference not only suppresses the drama of the very voice being shot to pieces, but also produces, in its wake, the decidedly awkward syntax of a double conjunction: "And but." Mellor and Matlak take this up, and also apply another revision, all on their own, without explanation: the lower-casing of "Father" to "father" (p. 1227). Hemans's versions, both in Monthly Magazine and The Forest Sanctuary, insist on capitalizing this word throughout, in order to highlight the iconic conflation of domestic, patriotic and divine filial obedience—a patriarchal ideology with a triple vengeance. Andrews Norton, perhaps with the nice nervousness of a professor of theology, lower-cases all fathers except in the climactic stanza above, where the escalation to a capital letter makes the patriarchal point with a suddenly overt symbolism. Mellor and Matlak's silent revision (applied without explanation) loses whatever point one feels the capital might be making.  [13]

The recovery of Hemans, to which Mellor and Matlak's anthology have nonetheless given a major impetus, is an interesting emergence itself, and the persistence of Casabianca, from the Victorian anthologies to those of 1999, suggest why editorial deliberation would be valuable. The recovery began perspicuously, but without immediate effect when Cora Kaplan, wielding the energies of historicist and feminist criticism, included a short, but not altogether nineteenth-century sample of her work in Salt and Bitter and Good: Three Centuries of English and American Women Poets (1975), along with an incisive headnote that reflected the insights borne on the first wave of modern feminist criticism.  [14] In addition to the anthology favorites that represented Hemans to the Victorians (The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England, The Homes of England—but not Casabianca!), Kaplan's attention, sharpened by her editing of Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, led her to include Properzia Rossi (the review of Aurora Leigh in The Athenaeum linked the two poems)  [15] as well as two other poems from Hemans's most popular lifetime volume, Records of Woman: The Indian Woman's Death-Song and The Memorial Pillar. All of these poems marked, if not a departure from, then a critical pressure on, the melancholy hymns and dirges that the Victorians loved. These poems were emphatically focused not so much on women's heroic endurance of suffering and spiritual confidence in the rewards of the next life, as on women's lives in this world and on their sufferings from its social and cultural determinants. As the title Hemans gave her volume suggested (her decision to use the singular "Woman" has the same categorical force as Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman), the chronicle was meant to elaborate a general plight of gender—of, in effect, "wrongs" that were readable as trans-national, trans-cultural, trans-historical. Properzia Rossi is the monologue of a lovelorn artist, whose vocation and fame are purchased at the cost of domestic happiness. The Indian Woman's Death-Song is the heroic-despairing Byronic monologue of a displaced wife who feels that in a world where her fate is socially authorized and inevitable, she and her infant daughter are better off dead. The Memorial Pillar conveys a daughter's grieving for her mother, the closest emotional bond (Hemans implies in more than a few poems) of any woman's life.

Kaplan's was a canny selection, but her anthology remained pretty much a shot in the dark for a decade or so. Then, as feminist criticism began to return us to the archives to find out what we had not been reading (virtually every woman poet in the age of Romanticism), and as men and women (in our field anyway) together began to fill in the picture, interest in Hemans took off in the 1980s. The groundbreakers were Marlon Ross's discussion in The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry (1989), Stuart Curran's "The I Altered," and Norma Clarke's Ambitious Heights.  [16] Conference papers, articles, and book chapters soon appeared and then flourished in the 1990s. Partly in consequence, and partly as a force of attention itself, Hemans was also being given substantial representation by the innovative editors of anthologies in our field.  [17]

This is the background that inspired and motivated me. I realized, too, that I had a set of decisions related to the hybrid, or rather medial sort of edition this was to be. I had learned that it was not possible, at this point, to get support for a "complete" edition of poems and letters, nor could I devote the decade to this enterprise that would be required. What was needed, and what would be immediately useful, was an edition that would mark an advance over and improvement on the scattershot resources, as well as an opportunity to present in one volume the trajectory of Hemans's career, from relatively early poems (though not the earliest) to her last, and with an inclusion of the major long works, such as The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816) Modern Greece (1817), Tales, and Historic Scenes (1819) and The Forest Sanctuary (1823) that helped establish her reputation, but which were logistically impossible in period-anthologies. There were also variants to report: the differences between versions of poems in their first publications (in the periodicals and annuals) and the versions collected for the volumes, and most remarkably, the differences between some manuscript versions I uncovered (The Forest Sanctuary and The Treasures of the Deep in the Liverpool Library, The Siege of Valencia in the Houghton archives at Harvard, The Broken Chain at Princeton) and the published versions. I did not have the space to produce a complete variorum (that would be the next phase of Hemans-editing), but for the scope of this edition (still ample at some 600+ pages) I was able to report some of the most compelling substantive variants.  [18]

In addition to hard choices about what to include and what to leave to subsequent editors and editions, I had to make decisions about orientation and annotation. Unlike anthology editors (of which I am also one), I felt I had the luxury of assuming a readership that was already adept in literary study and generally familiar with the Romantic era of writing. Even so, I was aware of having to present Hemans, implicitly and at times explicitly, against the "Mrs. Hemans" established in nineteenth-century reception and in many ways, still present.

II. Mrs. Hemans's Fame  [19]

By the late 1820s, beset by budding poets seeking advice and support, and by fans seeking autographs, inscriptions for their albums, or just a glimpse of the famous "poetess," Hemans was waxing wry and rueful about "the dust of celebrity," with more than a few of her letters and poems sighing of "the nothingness of Fame, at least to woman."  [20] The weariness was the consequence of a remarkable career, for she was one of the most prolific, critically admired, best-selling poets of her generation, and one of the first women to make a living by writing verse. Between 1808 and 1835 nineteen volumes appeared, some in multiple editions. By the 1820s, with increasingly appreciative reviews in the establishment press and a regular presence in popular magazines and annuals, "Mrs. Hemans" was emerging as England's premier "poetess," celebrated as its epitome of "feminine" excellence. This icon sentimentalized a success born not only of facility and talent, but also of industry, business acumen and alertness to the literary market. Adept in a range of genres and verse forms (sonnet, ode, heroic verse, ballad, epistle, narrative, monologue, drama, lyric), learned, literate, multilingual, imaginative, and intellectually appetitive, Hemans fashioned popular themes with an exotic range of subjects, drawing on literatures past and present, English and Continental. Well into her century, her work was admired, not just by a general public but also by men and women of letters. Volumes of her poetry were cherished as gifts and prizes; many poems were public favorites, memorized and anthologized, illustrated and set to music. Casabianca became a standard at recitals; Americans took The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers to heart, while The Homes of England and England's Dead became virtual British national anthems.  [21]

It was with such pieces that "Mrs. Hemans" became (as Norma Clarke put it) the "undisputed representative poet of Victorian imperial and domestic ideology."  [22] But as the title lost luster, this already selective esteem of her works was further reduced by late-century anthologizers, and then her poetry disappeared, dismissed as outworn pretty pieties. If Wordsworth advanced the "Poet" as a man speaking to men, the "poetess" Hemans seemed a woman speaking only to nineteenth-century sentimental culture, and not even all women. By 1880, Agnes Mary Robinson, a young scholar and poet who might have embraced her as a predecessor, wanted only to dissociate herself. "Fifty years ago few poets were more popular than Mrs. Hemans; her verses were familiar to all hearts," she began the headnote of a brief unit for T. H. Ward's English Poets that represented Hemans with just a dirge, a ballad, and Casabianca. "These simple, chivalrous, pathetic" domestic lyrics, "sprung from a talent expressive but not creative," and everywhere "stamped with feminine qualities," were Hemans's "claim to remembrance," said Robinson. Even then the claim seemed weakening, her poems "chiefly forgotten, and without injustice."  [23] Although Hemans was still popular in the 1880s, her prestige in canonical estimations was slipping. Robinson's view was predictive. Eighty years later, Ellen Moers's compendious Literary Women: The Great Writers (1963) treated her as a minor curiosity, cited chiefly as a cautionary example of "precocious" yet ultimately "facile" talent.  [24] The bicentennial of Hemans's birth in 1993 passed without the parade of conferences, exhibits, special issues of journals, anthologies of essays, and new editions that have been marking other bicentennial milestones of the "Romantic" era.

But Hemans was gradually, then emphatically, recovered as the enterprises of new historicism and feminism entered and transformed Romantic studies. Her work was attracting interest not just as sociological specimen (a historical curiosity from the shop of outworn tastes) but for its peculiar force in exposing (often in the discourse of seeming celebration) dissonances in nineteenth-century cultural ideals—of nation and empire, of war and peace, of the artist in domestic and civic society, of the "feminine" and its devotion to "domestic bliss." Her perspectives, moreover, could be read as part of a dialogue with the male poets of her day (especially Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth), and by force of this wider cultural conversation, could cast their work in new lights. Even more broadly, reading Hemans was one of the developments that led to our critical review of institutionalized "Romanticism" itself—that canon of male poets that was not the age's own self-understanding, but an early twentieth-century construction that, with minor adjustments, held up through the 1980s.  [25] Emerging from a complex social and political vision, Hemans's career of writing and its erratic reception history—from polite discouragement, to emerging appreciation, to celebrity, to condescension, to obscurity, to critical and scholarly recovery, to renewed classroom interest—cut to the core of a number of our current critical concerns: how women's poetry is shaped in a gendered culture; how aesthetic value is determined in a given historical setting; how we represent the Romantic era of poetry; and (as the Victorian "Mrs. Hemans" suggests) how we represent Hemans herself. Her celebrity in her own day became her curse in literary history, and the modern recovery, in no small part, has been a project of rescuing her from the terms of her nineteenth-century popularity.

I first heard of Hemans as a graduate student in the 1970s when I read Wordsworth's Extempore Effusion (the expanded version of 1836), where a reverential elegiac stanza on Hemans is matched by an affectionate headnote that still managed to voice discomfort about her ignorance of household skills. I did not pause to delve at this point, but a decade later, when I was investigating Byron's antipathy to Keats, I came across her name again. Writing in 1820 to John Murray (also Hemans's publisher at the time), Byron could not resist jibing at Murray's "feminine He-Man" and "Mrs. Hewoman's" (Isaac D'Israeli recalled that Byron always nicknamed her "Mrs. Shemans"). The juvenile punning and insistent misspelling of her surname now caught my attention, as well as its target, a woman evincing a kind of prowess usually associated with male achievements. Like many male poets, Byron seemed to prefer women in their place, not his. "I do not despise Mrs. Heman—but if [she] knit blue stockings instead of wearing them it would be better," he snipped to Murray. In 1977 Byron's esteemed editor Leslie Marchand identified Byron's reference only as "a popular poetess of the day."  [26] Wanting to know more about a poet able to put Byron and Wordsworth on such rare common ground, I opened Ian Jack's English Literature, 1815-1832 (1963), only to find, under the rubric of "other minor and minimus poets of the period," one page of condescension. Here's an excerpt:

She took the pulse of her time, and helped to prevent it from quickening.[. . .] The general level of her work is high, but unfortunately it almost always stops short of memorable poetry. Many of her better things [. . .] might be the work of a poetical committee. For her, we feel, poetry was a feminine accomplishment more difficult than piano-playing and embroidery [. . .] We read her, we commend, and we forget.  [27]

Forget we did. It was not until the 1970s that a coordinated recovery of women's writing took shape,  [28] and even then Hemans was no immediate beneficiary. Many critics, female as well as male, continued to dismiss her as "a popular versifier" and a defender of "obsolete ideologies."  [29] Even some of the newer anthologies settled for short lyrics easily dismissed as "chauvinistic, sentimental, and derivative."  [30] In 1993 (the bicentennial of Hemans's birth) the influential Norton Anthology (sixth edition) cast her with minor "lyric poets" (volume 2, p. 863) and presented a Victorian sampler: Casabianca, Pilgrim Fathers and England's Dead. The durability of this "Hemans" is reflected in Germaine Greer's cursory glance, as late as 1995, at her as a poet of "quaintness and insipidity," remembered only "if at all" for Casabianca.  [31]

The difficulty of reviving Hemans is felt even by those who took her seriously, such as Stuart Curran. In his pioneering essay of 1988, he hoped to identify a complicated poet, arguing that while Hemans's contemporaries made her "synonymous with the notion of a poetess, celebrating hearth and home, God and country in mellifluous verse that relished the sentimental and seldom teased anyone into thought," there were "other and darker strains"—"a focus on exile and failure, a celebration of female genius frustrated, a haunting omnipresence of death—that seem to subvert the role [she] claimed and invite a sophisticated reconsideration." But five years on, Curran took another measure—not against the icon of "poetess" but against Wollstonecraft. This time, he was arrested by a definitive mode of Hemans-restraint by which she "became, above all, the creator and enforcer of [an] ideological control masking itself as praise for feminine instinct and female duty," indeed, became "the major figure" in a cosmopolitan "bourgeois literary culture" that "she exemplified and may in some sense be said to have forged." Curran does concede that the scene of this forging was "a trap of cultural contradiction," and other critics have continued to examine the cultural forces.  [32]

In one of the first sustained rereadings of Hemans, Marlon Ross argued that Hemans's poetry was distorted by being held to a hypostasized "Romanticism" formed on a male canon, and he worked to resituate her in relation to a community of writers both male and female, and in relation to the reading public who made her famous. Norma Clarke had her view on the cultural text, too, seeing "Felicia" (so she called her) exploiting conventional images of "femininity" (passivity, helplessness, suffering, and retreat into domesticity from the conflicts of worldly life) as "a defence against personal unhappiness which had significant general implications." Even Greer sensed the terms, if not the argument, when she sneered at Hemans as one of those women who, straining off from their writing the rage and bitterness of an enforced self-discipline, took pride in "the pure mush that they were then able to offer the complacent public, whose certainties they were endorsing at such secret and unremitting cost to themselves." With far more savvy, Cora Kaplan interpreted the "normative morality" and "the emerging Victorian stereotype of the pure, long-suffering female" in Hemans's work as a symbolic discipline that turned anger inward and romanced death as the only resolution: "bitter, feminine but pre-feminist consciousness is disguised by proper sentiments." Isobel Armstrong discerned in Hemans an emerging tradition of women's poetry defined by such doubleness: "an affective mode, often simple, often pious, often conventional" turns out to be "subjected to investigation, questioned, or used for unexpected purposes"; "the simpler the surface of the poem, the more likely it is that a second and more difficult poem will exist beneath it." Tricia Lootens shifted this surface-and-depth paradigm sideways, describing a "body of work whose development often seems more centrifugal than linear and whose force seems to derive from its erratic course among and through contradictions." Illuminating readings followed from such major critics as Anne Mellor and Jerome McGann. Mellor noted how often the celebration of "the enduring value of the domestic affections, the glory and beauty of maternal love, and the lasting commitment of a woman to her chosen mate" evokes "the fragility of the very domestic ideology it endorses"; McGann summed up the poetry as "haunted by death and insubstantiality."  [33] Not only were Hemans's more troubling works, from which Victorian anthologizers averted their gaze, now returning to light, but even the old anthology favorites were glinting in problematic aspects. The supposed patriotic celebrations for which Hemans was famous prove on closer reading to betray a death-haunted consciousness. England's Dead asks readers to ponder the empire, not as a realm on which the sun never sets, but as a global graveyard: "There slumber England's dead!" More than a few such poems come trailing dark clouds of "glory." To nineteenth-century eyes, Casabianca was a tribute to a youthful war martyr to weep over (or, in mocking temper, parody). Yet a French boy's futile call to his dead father ("unconscious of his son") for release from his post is no "simple, chivalrous" poetry, but a grim meditation on patriotic and patriarchal obligations, at home and abroad, and implicitly everywhere.  [34] Hemans's exotic historical or cultural displacements (ancient Carthage, medieval Valencia, Renaissance Italy, Tudor England, the American West) may seem romantically distancing and derealizing, but their fictionality allows disturbingly familiar issues to emerge, with the foreign scene returning a sign of a universal condition.  [35] Hers is an imagination repeatedly drawn to the latent tensions in cherished ideologies. Living in an era dominated for nearly a quarter century by warfare against Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France—warfare that involved her brothers and a husband to be—Hemans may seem at one with the romance of patriotism that idolized military leaders such as Nelson and Wellington. But her poetry also resonates with a public that had mixed feelings about war—a public that was quick to memorize a dirge that concluded in a rhyme of "gory" and "glory": Charles Wolfe's The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna (1817) (one of her brothers was there). This is the same culture that responded to Byron's mordant critiques of military glory in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, A Romaunt (1812) and Don Juan Canto VII (published the same year as The Siege of Valencia, in 1823). Hemans's poetry reflects this cultural ambivalence and is more remarkable for this quality than for its famed pieties. She insists that readers confront the violence of war, its child martyrs, its female victims, its devastation of domestic affections, and the hollowness of its "glory" and "fame."

Hemans could tap into these conflicting currents precisely because she was so adept in the mainstream—a complexity that also ripples through those famed "feminine qualities." Her references to male-authored traditions and texts could pay homage, or they could turn ironic and oppositional, reworking subjects from the perspective of women's lives, dissatisfactions and desires. Her signal achievement was that genre she would eventually call "Records of Woman," featuring women as historical figures, as repositories of cultural values (heroines of "domestic affection"), as interpreters (herself included) of history and social structure, and (not the least) as perpetual victims of men's rivalries, political contentions, and wars. Gender was the haunt and main region of her song: she wrote of woman's social fate in a man's world, her sufferings and love-longings, her abandonments, desperate suicides and infanticides, her release only through death. Alternating with celebrations of the paradise of home and all its loves, Hemans limned the oppressions and devastations of domestic life. She wrote in an intensely personal way of socially specific conflicts: between being an artist and being a woman; between affection and ambition, between family and fame. That she was not always (or even fundamentally) a poet of sweetness and light was noted even in her own day. But in their imaginary investments, most nineteenth-century readers found ways to contain her challenges, ascribing the shadows to a hyper-susceptible "female melancholy," or celebrating a "feminine" heroic of forbearance and patience, faith and martyrdom.  [36] In the post-Wollstonecraft, revolution-anxious 1820s, Hemans's contemporaries did not want to hear in her repeated connections of the political to the personal, and of private life to the public world, any emerging critique of the ideology of "feminine" virtue or "universal" female fate.

Reviewing the poetry that comprised, then compromised, Hemans's literary stature, we have been recovering the cross-currents. We have noticed that the central conflicts of her most powerful narratives, and even some unlikely suspects (The Domestic Affections), remain spectacularly unresolved, not just on a predictable sociohistorical level (that's life), but on the level where some critical schools tell us resolutions should take shape and perform their mystifying work: the level of aesthetic harmony (that's art). As Lootens remarks, Hemans's poetry "is never simply Victorian," and where "most Victorian, [. . .] perhaps least simple" ("Hemans and Home," p. 239). With historical distance and close reading, we are seeing a poetry more apt to be strained by rhetorical effects and thematic configurations that tap into and voice a cultural unconscious of fragmented, contradictory awarenesses.

III. The Fame of "Mrs. Hemans"

To appreciate the recovery of Hemans from Victorian constructions, we have had to look more fully at the constituent parts of the figure so easily, and until quite recently, so persistently adopted. One thing Greer's annoying representation does make clear is the systematic selectivity and distortion that Hemans's canon underwent in order to conform to a fundamentally negative sense of female capacities. Sharing the fate of several other powerful and intelligent women writers, Hemans was reduced to a few pieces, a process that purified, by bleaching out, the fabric of her most intellectually ambitious and most politically sharpened poetry. Whether in idealization or in disparagement, she was taken as the epitome of the "feminine," her poetry a primer of the domestic affections, of religious and patriotic piety, and of the "female" (more particularly, maternal) responsibility for binding these sensibilities together. "Critics and casual readers have united in pronouncing her poetry to be essentially feminine," Lydia Sigourney (a poet known as "the American Hemans") summed her praises in 1840; "The whole sweet circle of the domestic affections,—the hallowed ministries of woman, at the cradle, the hearth-stone, and the death-bed, were its chosen themes," all sites of "the disinterested, self-sacrificing virtues of her sex." When the Edinburgh Monthly Review said in 1820, on the cusp of Hemans's fame, that she "never ceases to be strictly feminine in the whole current of her thought and feeling," it meant that she displayed "the delicacy which belongs to the sex, and the tenderness and enthusiasm which form its finest characteristic."  [37]

This admiration is often contingent on assumed incapacities. Take the encomium that Chorley issued in his Memorials to this "essentially womanly" character, and the poems so inspired:

Their love is without selfishness—their passion pure from sensual coarseness—their high heroism [. . .] unsullied by any base alloy of ambition. In their religion, too, she is essentially womanly—fervent, trustful, unquestioning, "hoping on, hoping ever"—in spite of a painfully acute consciousness of the peculiar trials of her sex.


This well-meaning praise presents the "essentially feminine" as a perfection through negations: "without selfishness," "unsullied" by ambition, "unquestioning" of contradictory awarenesses. So, too, the premier critic of the age, Francis Jeffrey, writing at the height of her fame, described "the poetry of Mrs Hemans a fine exemplification of Female Poetry." The fineness was keyed to negative verdicts: "Women, we fear cannot do every thing; not even every thing they attempt," he begins this influential essay.  [38] The rest of its paragraph is a parade of negative incapabilities:

They cannot [. . .] represent naturally the fierce and sullen passions of men—nor their coarser vices—nor even scenes of actual business or contention—and the mixed motives, and strong and faulty characters, by which affairs of moment are usually conducted on the great theatre of the world. For much of this they are disqualified by the delicacy of their training and habits, and the still more disabling delicacy which pervades their conceptions and feelings; and [. . .] by their actual inexperience, [. . .] by their substantial and incurable ignorance of business—of the way in which serious affairs are actually managed—and the true nature of the agents and impulses that give movement and direction to the stronger currents of ordinary life. Perhaps they are also incapable of long moral or political investigations, where many complex and indeterminate elements are to be taken into account, and a variety of opposite probabilities to be weighed.[. . .] They rarely succeed in long works, [. . .] their natural training rendering them equally averse to long doubt and long labour.

p. 32

Where Hemans often represents public and private in dialectical formation, Jeffrey insists on a dichotomy: Women's "proper and natural business" is "private life." Their "delicacy" amounts to faint praise; Jeffrey himself says "disabling." He concludes by urging Hemans to respect that "tenderness and loftiness of feeling, and an ethereal purity of sentiment, which could only emanate from the soul of a woman." This means, among other things, that this woman ought to stick to "occasional verses" and not "venture again on any thing so long as The Forest Sanctuary" (p. 47), a work Hemans herself regarded as "almost, if not altogether, [her] best" (Chorley, Memorials 1.123).

Jeffrey's occasion was the second editions of this poem and Records of Woman, but he does not note the many ways these works contest the terms of his praise. The Forest Sanctuary opens with a lurid auto da fé during the Spanish Inquisition; Records is a universalizing chronicle of war, blood feuds, torture, murders, suicides, infanticide, betrayal and fatal heartbreak. Subsequent praise of Hemans observed Jeffrey's strictures and prescriptions more closely than had Hemans. When in 1848 Frederic Rowton edited The Female Poets of Great Britain, he celebrated Hemans's ability

to represent and unite as purely and completely as any other writer in our literature the peculiar and specific qualities of the female mind. Her works are [. . .] a perfect embodiment of woman's soul: [. . .] intensely feminine. The delicacy, the softness, the pureness, the quick observant vision, the ready sensibility, the devotedness, the faith of woman's nature find in Mrs. Hemans their ultra representative.  [39]

Echoing the consensus, Rowton uses "representative" not just in the sense of being "representative of" but also of "representing to," conveying a conservative gender prescription. This is the story he tells in his "Introductory Chapter":

Man is bold, enterprising, and strong; woman cautious, prudent, and steadfast. Man is self-relying and self-possessed; woman timid, clinging, and dependent. Man is suspicious and secret; woman confiding. Man is fearless; woman apprehensive. Man arrives at truth by long and tedious study; woman by intuition. He thinks; she feels. He reasons; she sympathises. He has courage; she patience. He soon despairs; she always hopes. The strong passions are his; [. . .] The mild affections are hers; [. . .] Intellect is his; heart is hers. [. . .] Female Intellect seem[s] to be rather negative than positive: [. . .] fitted more for passive endurance than for aggressive exertion.

pp. xxiv-xxv

Rowton goes on to say that his selections will "amply illustrate and fully prove the[se] distinctions," but he has selected precisely those works that seem to exhibit these "she" capacities. A different selection might show Hemans equally endowed with the capacities ascribed to "Man."

If Rowton and Jeffrey allow themselves to beg the question, they (like Chorley) assumed the benevolence of their motives. A self-confessed champion of "Female Intellect" and "the poetical productions of the British Female mind," Rowton even goes so far as to echo Wollstonecraft in blaming any apparent deficiencies in woman's intellectual capacity on "our system of educating females," and to ask whether "such a word as Poetess" should not be replaced by "Female Poet" (pp. xvii-xviii). But as his anatomy of gender suggests, this nicety is a distinction without a difference. In the culture of letters, "poetess" operated as signal differential, and it is no coincidence that in the 1820s the term adhered to women, such as Hemans and Landon, who were presenting the female poet as a professional calling.  [40] Chorley meant only to be descriptive when he wrote, at the conclusion of Memorials, that "the woman and the poetess were in [Hemans] too inseparably united to admit of their being considered apart from each other" (2.355), but such compounding easily served Rowton's oppositions. Alluding to the etymology of "poet," George Gilfillan (another admirer, writing just before Rowton) decided that "in its highest sense, the name of poet" had to be denied Hemans: "A maker she is not." To the degree that she exemplifies the "feminine" she loses credit: "Mrs. Hemans's poems are strictly effusions. And not a little of their charm springs from their unstudied and extempore character [. . .] in fine keeping with the sex." Having been fit into the mold, Hemans becomes the mold: "we consider her by far the most feminine writer of the age. [. . .] You could not [. . .] open a page of her writings without feeling this is written by a lady."  [41] W. M. Rossetti's "Prefatory Notice" to his later Victorian edition of Hemans follows suit. Having already indicated "the deficiency which she, merely as a woman, was almost certain to evince" for the higher genres, he gallantly accords "Mrs. Hemans [. . .] a very honorable rank among poetesses."  [42]

The nineteenth-century honors to Hemans as "most feminine" always imply a double-negative, "not un-feminine"—not, that is, of the Jacobin sorority lambasted in 1798 by Tory Reverend Richard Polwhele in The Unsex'd Females (neutered by entering the public sphere of speech an action).

Survey with me, what ne'er our fathers saw,
A female band despising NATURE'S law,
As "proud defiance" flashes from their arms,
And vengeance smothers all their softer charms.
     I shudder at the new unpictur'd scene,
Where unsex'd woman vaunts the imperious mien.


In the double negatives of this cultural grammar, what Hemans was "not" was an unfilial, defiant, denatured, Amazonian, unpatriotic, immodest spawn of Wollstonecraft; she was strictly "feminine, according to the masculine acceptation of the word," so Wollstonecraft herself satirized the term in Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In an age in recoil from such polemics, Hemans seemed to idealize "essentially feminine" as essentially "domestic" and "self-sacrificing." In 1820 Edinburgh Monthly Review warmly praised "the modesty of Mrs. Hemans, for whose gentle hands the auxiliary club of political warfare, and the sharp lash of personal satire are equally unsuited," and admired her for "scrupulously abstaining from all that may betray unfeminine temerity" (pp. 374-75). Warne's Chandos Classics edition of her work (1889) urged "lady readers" to study Jeffrey's review (from which it quotes lavishly) "in its entirety": "it commences with an estimate of womanly powers which appears to us to answer many of the vexed questions of the present day." Warne's later Albion edition (1900) amplifies the advice by way of elegy: the waning popularity of Hemans's "essentially feminine" genius seems due to a "lamentable change in the tone of modern society. The age [the 1890s] that gave birth to the cry of 'Women's Rights,' and to the unfeminine imitators of masculine habits, was not likely to appreciate the voice of the true woman that spoke in Felicia Hemans."  [43]

This is not to say that Hemans's nineteenth-century admirers did not notice her wide reading and intelligence, but rather that they saw such accomplishments tempered by "feminine" propriety. Writing in 1820 with the 1790s in mind, William Gifford, infamous for his satires of Della Cruscan women, could accept Hemans's obvious "reflection and study," because "talent and learning have not produced the ill effects so often attributed to them; her faculties seem to sit meekly on her." "You are saved the ludicrous image of a double-dyed Blue, in papers and morning wrapper, sweating at some stupendous treatise or tragedy," Gilfillan chimed in the 1840s. He applauded the lack of "pedantry": "the authoress appears only the lady in flower." This florid romance of the "exquisitely feminine" was so immune to Blue stigma that it could absorb such stark contradictions as the eponym of The Wife of Asdrubal, taking revenge on a husband turned traitor both to his family and his country: "sternly beauteous in terrific ire . . . / She might be deem'd a Pythia," Hemans writes, in a figure that apparently escaped Robinson's notice ("no Pythian enthusiasm fills the poet and compels us to forget her womanhood," she sighed.  [44] Hemans's longest and most ambitious poems (War and Peace, all of the Tales, and Historic Scenes, The Siege of Valencia, The Forest Sanctuary, almost all of the Records of Woman) pulse with domestic and political strife, violence and warfare, an aesthetics of equivocation, or voices of protest and latent critique. Victorian discourse tends to elide these stories and voices, as well as the circumstances of Hemans's life unsuited to their cherished image of "Mrs. Hemans": her education, her failed marriage, the assistance she had with domestic obligations and, not the least, her professionalism.

IV. Hemans's Life

Born in Liverpool in 1793, the same year that England launched nearly a quarter of a century of war against France, Felicia Browne lived in this bustling city until 1800, when her merchant father, suffering business reversals, closed up shop and moved the family to a coastal village in North Wales. If its beauty and serenity were an important influence on the young girl, so too was her mother, whose devoted care included encouraging her to use the large home library. She read avidly, memorized poetry, studied music and art, and learned French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian from her mother, Latin from the local vicar, and later, German. Felicia Browne began to write poetry (her first subjects were her mother and Shakespeare) and by age fourteen, with her mother's management, published a handsome illustrated quarto, Poems (1808), undertaken to help pay for the girl's education. It was sold by subscription, and on its list appeared Captain Alfred Hemans (an army friend of her brothers, who were in Spain fighting against Napoleon) and Thomas Medwin. Medwin reported the poet's talents and beauty to his teenage cousin Percy Shelley, who ventured a correspondence.

Though Mrs. Browne intervened in this correspondence (saving her daughter from the chance fate of Shelley's other infatuations), one of Shelley's better impulses was to offer sympathy to the poet in the wake of the disappointing reviews of Poems. The poet was stung, but she was persistent. England and Spain, or, Valour and Patriotism appeared in 1809 (to no sales and no notice) and she was finishing another long poem, War and Peace, an impassioned plea for peace in an age of war. She fell in love with Captain Hemans when they met in 1809. In 1810, her father left the family behind to seek a fresh start in Canada, where he died two years later. Captain Hemans returned to England in 1811, weakened and scarred from war, and the couple married in 1812, the year she turned nineteen and her third volume, The Domestic Affections (including War and Peace) appeared, the same year Byron changed the literary landscape with his epic of alienation, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Hemans's volume did not attract notice, and when the Captain's postwar appointment ended in a discharge without pay, they and their baby boy joined her mother's household in Wales. Hemans kept writing, and her first genuine success came with a poem keyed to Britain's triumphant emergence as world power after the fall of Napoleon. This was her topical poem, The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816), which Byron praised and Murray purchased for a second edition. Soon after, Murray published Modern Greece (1817) and a volume of translations and original poetry (1818). There were four boys by the point, and Hemans was pregnant again. In 1818, just before the birth of their fifth son, the Captain left for Italy. The reasons were unclear; the "story" was his health, but Hemans's friend Maria Jewsbury suggested that he was uncomfortable living off his wife's income, and a later memoir reports his complaint that "it was the curse of having a literary wife that he could never get a pair of stockings mended" (echoing Byron's crack about bluestockings).  [45] The marriage never mended either (repeating her father's desertion). The idealism of hearth and home for which "Mrs. Hemans" would become famous was haunted by these desertions, even as the Captain's departure strengthened her determination to support her family with her writing.

If the marketplace was a challenge, so was home, despite all the advantages Hemans enjoyed. In 1822 this mother of five boys, ages three to ten, wrote to a friend that she felt herself in "the melancholy situation of Lord Byron's 'scorpion girt by fire'—'Her circle narrowing as she goes,' for I have been pursued by the household troops through every room successively, and begin to think of establishing my métier in the cellar." All that "talk of tranquillity and a quiet home" made her "stare about in wonder, having almost lost the recollection of such things, and the hope that they may probably be regained" (Hughes, Memoir, pp. 59-60). Yet there were enough practical advantages—a sister, a mother, and brothers to help, no husband to press for wifely service and obedience—that Hemans had time to read, study, and write, and her career took off. Tales, and Historic Scenes (1819), a wide-ranging critical view of politics and culture, was well reviewed and commercially successful. By 1820 she was winning prize competitions and further favor with the public and the reviews. In rapid succession she produced Wallace's Invocation to Bruce, The Sceptic, Stanzas to the Memory of the Late King (which expressed sympathy for the suffering of George III), Dartmoor and Welsh Melodies. New venues for publishing poetry opened with the founding of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in 1817 and the inauguration of the annuals fad with the publication of Forget Me Not in 1822. Hemans quickly grasped the importance of these venues, especially for women's poetry. As sensitive as she was to the value of performing "the feminine" in mainstream British culture and its male-managed literary institutions, she was also alert to women's power as purchasers and readers. Throughout the 1820s she sold her work to magazines and annuals, then gathered many of these pieces for volumes from Murray and then William Blackwood. Her fame was clinched with The Forest Sanctuary (1825 and 1829), Records of Woman (1828, with several subsequent editions) and Songs of the Affections (1830).

Amidst this acclaim, her family life also bestowed, paradoxically, an important public advantage: the installment of "Mrs. Hemans" as a poet not only of home but sited at home, under "the maternal wing" (a phrase used throughout the nineteenth-century biographies). The professional who would dismay Wordsworth (also a poet at home, whose work was materially enabled by the labor of the women of his household) by seeming "totally ignorant of housewifery" thus avoided the stigma of "unfeminine" independence. A dyspeptic W. M. Rossetti managed to be warmest to this "admired and popular poetess" when he could speak of her as a "loving daughter" and a "deeply affectionate, tender, and vigilant mother."  [46] The death of her own mother in 1827 was a devastating loss, deepened by the relentless breakup of the household, as older sons left for school and siblings married or moved away. To escape the emptiness, Hemans moved with her younger sons to a village near Liverpool, where she found schooling for them and literary and musical society for herself: Chorley, the poets Rose Lawrence and Mary Howitt, the vivacious writer Maria Jane Jewsbury, and a charming young musician, John Lodge, with whom she flirted and who arranged musical settings for her poems (see her lively letters to him in the summer of 1830). She met Wordsworth and Scott and enjoyed summer sojourns with each. But her health was weakening from emotional and physical stress, and in 1831 she sent her two oldest boys, Arthur and George, to their father in Italy and moved to Dublin, to be near her brother George and his wife. Although she again found good society and continued to write and publish, the Irish climate proved a disaster. She became very ill and bed-ridden in 1834, and died a few months before her forty-second birthday, in 1835, only eight years after her mother—and with regrets about the poetry she never realized: "My wish ever was to concentrate all my mental energy in the production of some more noble and complete work."  [47]

Chorley, in his Memorials, was unsure how to evaluate the effects of Hemans's domestic situation on her poetic sensibility. While "the peculiar circumstances" of her being "in a household, as a member and not as its head, excused her from many of those small cares of domestic life," he wondered whether this relief liberated a "search for knowledge" or removed a defense against "melancholy." He understood the larger bearing of this question on the lives of intelligent and ambitious literary women but left his speculation about Hemans at the level of personal psychology: her tendency to dwell "a little too exclusively upon the farewells and regrets of life—upon the finer natures broken in pieces by contact with a mercenary and scornful world" (Memorials 1.43-44). Yet it is a combination of social and psychological forces that produced in Hemans's poetry a distinctive self-consciousness about female artistic careers. Two late, self-reflecting poems, Corinna at the Capitol and Woman and Fame, both first published in the annuals marketed chiefly to women, advise domestic humility but wind up contradicting such advice with the energies of aesthetic elaboration. Corinna takes as its subject a poet of antiquity and the modern version of her created by Germaine de Staël in the wildly popular novel Corinne ou L'Italie (1807). "Corinna" (the eponym of the poem as published in The Literary Souvenir, 1827) was the most renowned Boeotian poet of Greek antiquity after Pindar, and was said to have won five victories over him for the lyric prize. Alluding to this prototype, Staël's heroine is also accomplished and famous, but pays dearly: she dies of a broken heart, rejected by the Englishman who was initially enchanted by her, against his standards of social propriety. Hemans's poem forces the glory of Corinna/Corinne into this larger economy, imposing a frame of moralizing instruction with an admonitory epigraph and these final lines:

Happier, happier far, than thou
With the laurel on thy brow,
She that makes the humblest hearth
Lovely but to one on earth!

Literary Souvenir, p. 191

Her epigraph is from Staël herself: "Les femmes doivent penser qu'il est dans cette carrière bien peu de sorts qui puissent valoir la plus obscure vie d'une femme aimée et d'une mère heureuse."  [48] The French synonymy of woman and wife (femme) is to the point: this is the essentialized cultural prescription.

Yet between this epigraph and the concluding lines falls not the shadow, but the electric brilliance, of Corinne's performance. When Hemans republished the poem in Songs of Affections, she retitled it Corinne at the Capitol, matching her title to that of book 2 of Staël's Corinne. There Staël presents the heroine for the first time, celebrated in her glory, and elaborates her triumph, giving the text of "Corinne's Improvisation" and concluding in an apotheosis: "No longer a fearful woman, she was an inspired priestess, joyously devoting herself to the cult of genius." Hemans represents the "Improvisation" in forty-two and a half lines of present-tense drama punctuated by repeated "now"s and swelling with a radiant lexicon: fires, Joyously, festal, triumphs, glory bright, golden light, ascending, freedom, proudly, gemlike, summit, rich music, victorious notes, proud harmony, thrilling power, tide of rapture, flush, "the joy of kindled thought / And the burning words of song." By contrast, the moralizing coda cannot sustain more than five and a half lines, and thus the poem becomes a text of subversive disproportions—a characteristic of Hemans's representations of insoluble conflicts in all spheres, from the personal and domestic, to the social and patriotic, to the religious and metaphysical.

Woman and Fame (1829) is linked to Corinne in theme, drawing its epigraph from the last four lines of the earlier poem. It repeats the fundamental and unresolvable conflict by which Hemans and many of her contemporaries saw female fame as a purchase against female happiness. Its argument disparages woman's fame against the durable nurture of "home-born love." Yet this proves to be another poem at war with its lesson, a war again waged by the pressures of its aesthetic elaborations:

Thou hast a voice, whose thrilling tone
     Can bid each life-pulse beat,
As when a trumpet's note hath blown,
     Calling the brave to meet:
But mine, let mine—a woman's breast,
By words of home-born love be bless'd.

The Amulet, p. 90

The paradox is clear: Hemans's imagery, if not her argument, associates artistic achievement with the thrill of life itself, only to force a turn at the couplet (this turn shapes the structure of each of the poem's first three stanzas) back into a domestic sphere—one she argues is "bless'd" but which she can imagine only in opposition to the life-pulse to which her own talents beat.

Out of such contrary pressures—intelligence, ambition, insecurity, domestic affection, and material necessity—emerges a keenly tuned critical capacity, neither absorbed in complacent pieties nor polemically oppositional, but one whose necessary placement in the mainstream culture made Hemans especially alert to the crosscurrents. Her friend Rose Lawrence described her at the height of her celebrity, in terms strikingly at odds with the icon of "feminine" propriety established by the reviews: "In the world, as it is called, [. . .] it fared with her as it has with done with all other women of genius, from Madame de Staël, downward: she was frequently accused of heresy and schism, and several times regularly convicted of contumacy and non-conformity," among the provocations, the way "her brilliant conversation rose above the level and conventional tone of society. Her pleasantry was not always genuine or happy" (Last Autumn, pp. 316-17). The poetry that Hemans developed for, in, and against this "world" is often unpredictable, courageous, filled with unexpected surprises and juxtapositions. The conflicts that appear in and across her work more directly reflect the complexity of the period—its international politics, its views of war, its attitude towards domestic and gendered life—than the orthodoxies into which her critics, for a variety of ideological motivations, have slotted her.

V. Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems and Letters

Whatever our view of Hemans, informed discussion needs more accessible sources and better scholarly resources than have been available, notwithstanding the interventions of recent anthologies. Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems and Letters is meant both as a contribution to literary study, making the work of this important writer available, and as an intervention in a scholarly enterprise that has been in want of a common, reliable reference. While it is a selection (in advance, I hope, of a complete edition of her poems and letters), it is ample and wide-ranging, representing both the poetry that fostered Hemans's fame and the texts that the nineteenth century winnowed away. Contents range from her third volume, The Domestic Affections (1812) up to the work she published in the mid-1830s. Five major works appear entire: The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy; Modern Greece; Tales, and Historic Scenes; The Forest Sanctuary, and The Siege of Valencia—as well as the Records of Woman, in which the aggregate, like that of Tales, is an important macrotext. There is also a sample of her essay-writing, one on the relation of poetry and contemporary politics. Many letters appear here for the first time since the 1830s, many for the first time ever—presenting Hemans's views of her contemporaries, her negotiations with her publishers and her reflections on her writing and her emerging celebrity. A "Chronology" gives a detailed account her life in the context of her career, the contemporary literary culture it engaged, and key historical events. A "Reception" section spans the nineteenth century: along with some newly published letters, I include samples of major reviews that appeared in her lifetime, widely published elegies, and landmark memoirs, prefaces, and literary biographies. A "Bibliography," moving into this century, is both a reference and a demonstration. Its first section lists Hemans's chief lifetime publications, with information on the magazines where she most frequently appeared. A list of other important nineteenth-century commentaries, memoirs, and critical essays supplements the "Reception" section, and a list of editions provides a resource and a story, the nineteenth-century volumes reflecting Hemans's formation in the culture of the annuals, the twentieth-century anthologies showing both the sway of Victorian canons and the emergence of revisionary interests. The bibliography of modern resources includes critical essays on Hemans, websites, and general studies illuminating her situation as a woman writer in the Romantic era—those decades marked by war and political unrest, by commercial bustle and empire, and wending toward the Victorian culture that would find its lights, and try to avoid seeing its shadows, in Felicia Hemans.

Parties annexes