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“When Life Becomes Art” -- on Hemans's “Image in Lava”

  • Kathleen Lundeen

…plus d’informations

  • Kathleen Lundeen
    Western Washington University

Corps de l’article

When Keats has dreams that he could cease to live as flesh-and-blood and exist instead as art, he imagines the distinction between the natural and the aesthetic to be softer than the familiar dichotomy implies. Apparently unbeknownst to Keats, the fantasy engendered by the Grecian urn had been realized in an eerie way nearly two thousand years earlier. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the first century instantly transformed some residents in the neighboring cities into ashen-encrusted forms, which, upon excavation, had the appearance of rough-hewn sculpture. Seven years after the publication of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Felicia Hemans described two of those foster children of silence and slow time in her lyric “The Image in Lava.”

For Hemans to bring Keats’s vision to fulfillment is ironic, to say the least. When Keats announced in a letter that one of his ambitions was “to upset the drawling of the blue stocking literary world” (Rollins, II, 139), he had ample reason to be concerned with one of those drawlers. Hemans was on the verge of becoming the most popular poet in England, a rank she would maintain for the next fifteen years. For a poetess to outperform Keats commercially was bad enough; what undoubtedly made it worse was her total disregard for the poetic precepts he prescribed. While Keats extols the artistic virtue of being able to exist in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Rollins, I, 193), Hemans unapologetically flaunts her negative incapability. Even when she writes about actual events, she editorializes, showing herself to be less of an historian than an op-ed writer of verse. In metered commentary she sometimes stretches into the theological sphere while at other times she stays within the boundaries of quotidian life. Whatever the depth of her thought in any particular poem, she steadily disproves Keats’s assertion that readers “hate poetry that has a palpable design upon [them]” (Rollins, I, 224).

Disinterestedness was not, of course, peculiar to Keats but emerged as one of the chief literary virtues of the nineteenth century. Keats’s insistence that it separates the poetic sheep from the goats was followed later in the century by Matthew Arnold’s claim that it was a non-negotiable requirement of a critic. The dismissal of sentimentality as either a serious aesthetic or reliable tool of judgment in the 19th century continues into the 21st, and such a reaction testifies to the tenacity of the Platonic fear that emotion degrades thinking. Notwithstanding postmodern attempts to bypass rational modes of thought, induction and deduction are still the standard against which credibility is measured, and there continues to be widespread faith that through them we can objectively know the world. Nevertheless, Hemans, who as a poet is also a cultural critic, succeeds according to an aesthetic of acute interestedness. She is not alone, of course, in her overt identification with her poetic subjects. What sets her apart from most writers who develop a sentimental aesthetic, however, is her treatment of sentiment as something with epistemological value. This creates an interesting challenge in “Image in Lava” since in the poem Hemans takes her sentimental stroll on the seemingly solid ground of natural science. In her lyric she locates meaning in the sudden movement of inorganic matter by suggesting that in an act of cosmic irony, the eruption of a volcano ensured the immortality of a mother and child even as it killed them. To Hemans, their fate is particularly poignant since she imagines that bonded by love, they were destined to die in union rather than live as separate beings.

Taken at face value, the lava impression of a mother and child presents a simple, unambiguous image—in Hemans’s words, “a woman’s form, with an infant clasped to the bosom.” From an imaginative perspective, however, one notices how its unusual composition enshrouds it in an enigma. Ashen lava (catastrophic dirt) is in this instance an ambivalent substance since it is both residue and embalmer. As such, it invokes the Genesis myth in which dust is the divine Potter’s clay, as well as the stuff of mortality. Hemans urges us to see the prophetic message in this raw material by intimating that when a patriarchal civilization has come to an end, a civilization friendly to womankind will emerge. Initially, her poem suggests that Nature may indeed be gendered or at least predisposed toward those thought to be the most vulnerable in society since the natural disasters that decimate monuments erected by men precipitate sculpted testaments to women and children:

Temple and tower have mouldered,
Empires from earth have passed,
And woman’s heart hath left a trace
Those glories to outlast!

And childhood’s fragile image,
Thus fearfully enshrined,
Survives the proud memorials reared
By conquerors of mankind.

Kevin Eubanks has argued that Hemans resorts to conventional portrayals of women as vulnerable domestic beings in her later poetry in response to critics who exert pressure on her to preserve the status quo. Yet even in the later poems, including “Image in Lava,” Hemans’s protagonists do not fit the familiar profile of a female victim. Though they are at the mercy of circumstances, one of those circumstances usually being a heartless man, they triumph over those conditions. Of course, their triumph is frequently posthumous, but in the world of her poems, a post mortem victory is better than no victory at all. Hemans celebrates the eternal repose of the mother and child, who, she implies, were liberated by the disruptive volcano from the disruption of life itself.

Hemans sees human life as a contest between circumstance and character, but, for her, the contest is fixed since character always trumps circumstance. That sentimental conviction is localized in her reading of the lava impression, in which she presents a natural disaster as a catalyst that brings the distinctive outlines of character into relief. When Hemans muses, “Perchance all vainly lavished / Its other love had been; / And where it trusted, nought remained / But thorns on which to lean,” she raises the unspoken question at the heart of the poem: when the volcano erupted, where was dad? From a mundane perspective, the question is not as resonant as Hemans’s imaginative reconstruction of the disaster invites us to believe. The explosion occurred during the day when the husband/father was probably at work. Yet to Hemans his absence is too loaded symbolically to explain away. Even when circumstances are wildly uncontrollable, as in the case of the sudden volcanic eruption, to Hemans they do not underscore the indifference of nature so much as the difference in human natures—the difference between fathers who love when it is convenient and mothers who simply love. The lava impression to Hemans is petrified proof that the central relationship in civilization is the one between mother and child.

Though at one level Hemans responds to the lava impression according to a familiar male/female dichotomy, a closer look at her poem shows her ideological stance to be complex. Susan Wolfson, for example, finds Hemans divided with respect to gender politics: “What Hemans’s own writings stage and restage is a restless debate between domestic affections and the spear of Minerva. It is this unresolved dilemma of gender—of sentimentality versus ambition, of capitulation versus critical pressure—that constitutes the deeper power, and the most potent legacy of Felicia Hemans’s “feminine” poetics” (162). Hemans’s treatment of gender, as Wolfson indicates, engages what are usually regarded as competing impulses, but in a surprise move, Hemans fuses those impulses, creating an alliance between domesticity and feminism. In an echo of “Indian Woman’s Death-Song,” the mother in “Image in Lava” draws her figurative spear by embracing her child at the moment of death. By asserting her maternal instinct, the mother redefines femininity as courage, determination, and fearlessness, and thus refutes the assumption that domesticity is by nature weak. Hemans’s female characters attain a moral victory over patriarchal domination through what could be described as hyper-domesticity.

Situating Hemans on an ideological spectrum is further complicated by her reception in the early nineteenth century. Anthony John Harding explains:

No alert reader can ignore the ways in which Hemans’s poetry can be seen to collaborate with the existing social order, even to justify it, while her subtext reveals quite starkly the terrible price this social order exacts of women. One embarrassing fact to be faced—embarrassing at least for those feminists who consider the recuperation of previously ignored or marginalized texts to be an important part of the feminist project—is that Hemans, while marginal to the Romantic canon of today, was not exactly marginal in her time. Hemans was destined to be read as not a margin but a center, the embodiment of that hearth and home . . . And yet, of course, this center was not a center of power.


Hemans’s contemporaries, as Harding notes, were prone to read her sentimentally. In many of her poems her own yearning for hearth and home is impossible to ignore, but just as apparent is the difficulty in realizing that ideal. The women in her poems who are thrown out of the comfort and safety of marriage usually find themselves exiled from society altogether, with no recourse but death.

Though the ashen form to Hemans epitomizes the despair of women in general, its sphere of concern expands, as Grant Scott observes: “In the end, a feminist salute to the constancy of maternal love broadens into a more encompassing meditation on the durability of `human love,’ and an overt critique of war memorials becomes an elegy for the evanescence of all human monuments” (50). The natural forces that destroy monuments of conquest, Hemans further intimates, also disrupt the philosophical foundation of masculine memorials. Traditionally, memorials are built on the premise that nature and art are contrary creative forces; in stalwart defiance of natural law, those intransigent monuments appear to render mortal men and events immortal. Throughout civilization, art seems to be in relentless competition with nature, but Hemans suggests that the two conjoin in the lava impression. Forces of nature destroyed the woman and infant, but subsequently produced, in the words of Isobel Armstrong, “a `natural’ monument, a `pure’ unmediated aesthetic, a poesis of the earth” (214). The impression’s unusual status—half life, half art—makes it particularly interesting from an ekphrastic perspective since the impulse to naturalize art, exemplified in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” is noticeably absent in “Image in Lava.” Hemans does not appear to be urging language to become a natural sign since the lava impression itself already is a natural sign.

As a natural sign, the lava impression eludes other theoretical determinations as well. The assumption that art and nature are dichotomous has fueled the work of many theorists who, in an effort to free literary examination from sentimentality, have charged that the artist’s claim of transcendence is a fraud. To new historicists, the fraud is caused by artists denying their association to the world; to ecocritics, by a denial of their rootedness to the earth. The ashen object challenges both groups to reconceptualize the relationship between art and its environment since as a cultural object it is not merely tethered to the world and the earth; it is composed of them. As an embodiment of an historical moment and a natural disaster, the impression seems to be insulated from theoretical critique, as if its “earthly glow” keeps it from being detached from its origin and distilled into a cerebral debate.

A century and a half before Foucault problematizes the idea of the “author” by exposing the cultural forces that produce art, Hemans troubles the notion of the “artist” by reminding us of the natural forces that shape civilization and create its relics. Since the lava impression is the product of an accidental occurrence rather than human conception, it emerges in her poem as an instance of spontaneous art. To some, the very notion of unintended art is oxymoronic, as Derrida has argued:

There are nonsigned works in the ordinary or conventional sense, that is to say, works produced by anonymous authors. Society recognizes that the patronym of the author is sometimes unknown; it doesn’t know which social subject has produced the work. . . . But such a work exists only to the extent that it is signed. . . . There is a signature—we don’t know which one, we don’t know the name of the person who produced it—but the work itself is the attestation of a signature.

Brunette and Wills, 18

Or is it? The ashen form of the mother and child defies Derrida’s assertion since it is unsigned in every sense of that word. After all, who could be cited as the artist? Nature? Chance? The archaeologist who unearthed it? The closest thing to an artist, according to Hemans, is the mother herself since her maternal instinct is both the subject of the impression and its template. Though, as frequently noted by readers, she is an involuntary artist—an accidental artist—Hemans elevates her to the level of a purely natural artist whose affection creates the ashen form. In an apostrophe to the child, Hemans extols its mother as one who performed the ultimate sacrifice: “Far better, then, to perish / Thy form within its clasp, / Than live and lose thee, precious one! / From that impassioned grasp.” Her rendering of the mother as one who voluntarily clung to her child and, as a result, involuntarily instigated the potential for a piece of sculpture, presents a highly romantic phenomenon: artless art.

Though Hemans’s response to the lava impression is profound, her poem seems to be trapped in the genre of sentimental literature. [1] The many exclamations, punctuated by the many exclamation points (nine altogether), a crescendo of apostrophes, a hyperbolic reading of the long deceased mother and child as survivors of the catastrophe—all conspire to create an overwrought reaction, sentiment for sentiment’s sake. Even more incriminating is the extent to which Hemans insinuates herself into the poem. To her readers, this is familiar territory. When her husband abandoned her and their five young children, Hemans sunk into a grief so deep, she saw the specter of her forsaken self at every turn. In “Image in Lava” she compensates imaginatively for her own loss, as well as the loss endured by her subject, by imagining her protagonist to attain a bond with her offspring that outlasts death. Though the poem asserts a pessimistic view of life, Hemans atones for it through a highly romanticized view of death, which reaches a precarious height when she proclaims death to be superior to separation, and dying in another’s arms a sure way of being embalmed with that one in immutable love. Her own emotions are barely mediated by the characters in her poems, and, as a result, the aesthetic distance between the poet and her subject is negligible.

Notwithstanding the sentimental sieve through which her ideas are filtered, the growing body of criticism on Hemans shows that her poetry generates plenty of intellectual curiosity among readers. The difficulty of reconciling the philosophical strength of her poems with their sentimental trappings tempts one to ask, What’s a smart poet like her doing in a genre like this? We might conclude that she uses sentimental conventions as a political gesture to expose the vacuity of the values they endorse; or, at the other end of the ideological spectrum, that her sentimentality is motivated by mercenary concerns—she knows what sells. It is also possible to surmise that she combines the above agendas and writes in a double-speak. In her study of the epistemologies of emotion, Adela Pinch offers yet another explanation in her postmodern response to sentimentality:

the sentimental involves the sense of a disproportion between an occasion for feeling and the way in which that feeling is expressed. We often feel that people are being sentimental when they appear really to be feeling emotions that themselves seem hackneyed, conventional—when the terms in which they express those feelings seem to come not from the situation at hand but rather from some place beyond real life, from the realm of representation. Sentimentality involves moments when the issue of whether feeling is authorized by literature or by life becomes a problem. . . . sentimentality [is] that which reveals the arbitrariness of the distinctions with which we . . . discriminate inauthentic from “appropriate” emotional expressions.


All of the above are interesting strategies for negotiating Hemans’s sentimentality. I would like to propose another possibility: Hemans appropriates the discourse of sentimentality in an effort to rescue it from trivialization. By employing the conventions of sentimental literature in her response to a truly startling phenomenon—a human object—she aims to authenticate feelings that have been caricatured as clichés. If “Image in Lava” were distilled, the precipitate would be “undying love.” Hemans’s emphatic apostrophes to the child seem to be an attempt to make it understand the depth of its mother’s love. To this end, every epithet to the babe in the poem is followed by an exclamation point: “Thou thing of years departed!”; “Babe!”; “Fair babe and loving heart!”; “child!”; “precious one!” Those shouts suggest that Hemans may actually be trying to rouse the babe, but they also sound like attempts to rouse readers for whom undying love is silly hyperbole. Hemans’s portrayal of the mother as one whose eternal affection has hallowed the hollowed form, presents her as an artist of divine proportions: “Immortal, O, immortal / Thou art, whose earthly glow / Hath given these ashes holiness— / It must, it must be so!” Her high-strung rhetoric sounds, at first blush, like rank sentimentality. When we consider the astonishing object of her raving, however, her outcry is unnerving in its accuracy. Armstrong argues that since the image is not “a humanly made representation,” it is “always closer to death, to dust and ashes, than even the `shattered visage’ of Ozymandias” (227). As presentation, rather than representation, it is also closer to life.

In Camera Lucida Barthes unwittingly provides an illuminating commentary on the lava impression. His analysis of the nature of photographs proves to be even truer for the ashen forms. “The Photograph,” he declares, is “pure contingency” since “it immediately yields up those `details’ which constitute the very raw material of ethnological knowledge” (28). Compared to the lava impression, however, the “raw” material of the photograph is greatly refined. Though the photograph records a living moment, it does not literally touch that moment whereas the lava impression derives its very form from what was once a living being. The deeper one enters into Barthes’s argument, the more he seems to be speaking with prescient clarity about another cultural form altogether. In his examination of a particular photograph, for example, he writes that it “transcends itself,” and then muses, “is this not the sole proof of its art? To annihilate itself as medium, to be no longer a sign but the thing itself?” (45). His argument intensifies as he pursues the link between the photograph and its subject: “Painting can feign reality without having seen it. Discourse combines signs which have referents, of course, but these referents can be and are most often `chimeras.’ Contrary to these imitations, in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there . . . . Photography’s inimitable feature . . . is that someone has seen the referent (even if it is a matter of objects) in flesh and blood, or again in person” (76, 79). His teleological assertion challenges us to reconsider the very ontology of photographs: “The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent” (80). To an even greater degree, the lava impression does not replicate the woman and her child but, in an eerie way, is the woman and her child in a highly preserved state. As a full-body death mask it has stolen the actual form of their human bodies, that elusive boundary that differentiated them from the world in which they found themselves.

Anne Mack notes that Hemans’s poetry “does not respect the distinction between substance and shadow that is posited in those anomalous Keatsian terms `real substance’ and `right dreams,’” and further argues, “In her poetry what appears as substance is imagined on the brink of its dissolution, just as what comes as shadow continually refuses to evaporate” (McGann, 186-7). In a similar vein, Armstrong notes in her discussion of “Image in Lava,” “The interchange dissolving the binary of body and spirit that [Jerome McGann] posits of Della Cruscan poetry, as body vaporizes into spirit and mind takes on corporeality, could well be expressed in the aural affinities of `lava’ and `love’” (218). If we press forward with this line of reasoning, we discover the unorthodox theological implications of Hemans’s musing. The human outline, which gives us autonomy in the universe, is not crude matter; else in the case of the Vesuvian mother and child it would have deteriorated along with the body. But neither is it purely ephemeral in nature since the human outline palpably links the historical mother and child to their inanimate ashen likenesses. Its unusual nature teases Hemans into thought, into a profound conviction that the immortal part of the mother and her child is not an interior soul that escaped the body at the moment of decease, but an exterior form that lingers amidst the ashes. The human outline seems to belong to another category of being, one for which we have no classification. When Hemans rhapsodizes on the indestructible form of mother and child, whose love transcends mundane occurrences like death, her idealizing tendencies, once again, reveal an uncanny wisdom. The strange fact is that the forms of the mother and child have defied death. Though the woman and infant perished, their human outlines were petrified by the hot lava and recuperated centuries later.

“In “Image in Lava,” Hemans engages in her own act of recovery. Here it is worth recalling Derrida’s discussion of Western philosophy and the way it militates against verbal authenticity: “metaphysics has erased within itself the fabulous scene that has produced it, the scene that nevertheless remains active and stirring, inscribed in white ink, an invisible design covered over in the palimpsest” (Margins of Philosophy, 213). In the same essay he quotes Nietzsche, who helps define Hemans’s sentimental project by way of antithesis. Nietzsche poses the question, “What is truth?” and then provides his own answer: “A mobile army of metaphors, metonymics, anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which became poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage, seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; . . . coins which have their obverse . . . effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal” (217). [2] Not surprisingly, Hemans’s poetic practices are an inversion of the process Nietzsche describes. She uses sentimental discourse as if to say to her more skeptical readers that the “illusions” of those literary conventions are truths of which one has forgotten that they are truths. Inside the ashes of worn-out tropes, a living language pulsates. When put to serious use, sentimental discourse becomes a tool for sounding the depths of feelings and, thereby, discovering the parameters of humanness.


In 1824, an American traveler published an account of his journeys through Italy, which included a tour of Pompeii. As Theodore Dwight guides his reader through one of the vacated villas, he describes the strange experience of inhabiting a place that doesn’t seem a day over 79 A.D. As he is hurled back in time, it is not the voice of a first century Italian, but of a nineteenth century English poet, that echoes through the deserted home:

Here is the villa of Cicero. You gain it by a single step from the street, but linger unconsciously at the threshold for some one to bid you welcome. . . . But where is the inhabitant? . . . At the amphitheatre,--you think you hear the applause of the multitude as you enter; but the arena is clear—not a solitary spectator in all those ranges of seats. . . . What would you not give to meet a single man?

Dwight, 108-9

Not a soul to tell why it is desolate can ever return, but the temporal disorientation of the traveler sounds hauntingly Keatsean:

It is seventeen hundred years since this city was deserted by its inhabitants. . . . But all has passed; and the silence of ages has settled upon it. And what has occurred in that time? The thought is insupportable—it stupefies, it overwhelms, yet, by turns, it delights, and absorbs so entirely the mind, that every other subject is thrust out, and even the faculties of hearing and speech seem suspended.

You forget yourself and the age you live in. . . . Thus you reflect, and are convinced: there is no one here; and at the very next corner you start, because the street is empty. Where are the people? . . . Full of a thousand new thoughts, and feelings, his mouth closed, because it has failed to express them; the traveller wanders on from object to object, and stares wildly round him, as if he had just opened his eyes on a new world, and hardly deemed himself awake.

Dwight, 109

Though Keats was in Naples a few months before his death, there is no record of his having visited the Vesuvian ruins. Whether or not he knew of the existence of the lava impressions is uncertain since no reference to them appears in either his letters or poetry. Strangely enough, however, during his stay in Naples he took on the character of the ashen molds in true Keatsean fashion, “filling [their hollowed out] Body” (Rollins, I, 387). Initially, he literally embodied their predicament when he was quarantined and unable to depart the city. But his unwitting identification with the petrified forms runs even deeper. Joseph Severn writes that when Keats first saw Mt. Vesuvius, emitting its “writhing columns of smoke,” he stared at it with “a starved haunting expression” (Bate, 666). In a state of deteriorating health, he unconsciously aligns himself more closely to the ashen forms than the living. In a letter to Fanny Brawne’s mother he remarks, “every man who can row his boat and walk and talk seems a different being from myself . . . O what an account I could give you of the Bay of Naples if I could once more feel myself a Citizen of this world” (Rollins, II, 349-50); and soon after leaving Naples writes, “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence” (Rollins, II, 359). Though this is a far cry from the fantasy he entertained when he gazed longingly at the figures on the urn, in his anguish we hear the doleful voice of the ashen mother, who even in Hemans’s tribute is forever a silent form.

Parties annexes