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Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century. Eds. Nanora Sweet and Julie Melnyk. New York: Palgrave, 2001. ISBN 0-333-80109-1. Price: $65.00.Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-691-05029-5. Price: $55.00.

  • Laura Mandell

…plus d’informations

  • Laura Mandell
    Miami University

Corps de l’article

We are lucky to have such an excellent collection of critical essays as the first devoted exclusively to Felicia Hemans, as well as this stunning new edition of her poems, and I can perform no better tribute to its editors and publishers here than by summarizing and engaging with the wide-ranging essays and selections that they contain. In Sweet and Melnyk’s Felicia Hemans, Michael Williamson’s essay “Impure Affections” deals with the difference gender makes in the genre of elegy. Hemans’s mourning poetry shows that, instead of being able to immediately transfer dead flesh into symbolic form, as men can, women have to repent for their desire to live despite the loss of a loved one. Consequently, in Hemans’s oeuvre, “the living [woman survivor,] not the dead, are the subjects of the elegy” (20). Grant Scott takes up another important generic issue in “The Fragile Image: Felicia Hemans and Romantic Ekphrasis,” arguing that Hemans’s “Properzia Rossi” (1828) – a poem about the real, early sixteenth-century woman sculptor from Bologna, Properzia de’Rossi – reverses the female gendering of silent urns by making Rossi’s frozen Ariadne [1] speak, also detailing “the emotional reception of the art work in real rather than ‘slow time’” (42). For Hemans, in this poem, marble is not monumental but organic and even erotic – “mortal,” “sensuous and impermanent” like its creator (49). Thus for Scott, Hemans transforms ekphrasis, or “the process of making verbal art from visual art” (36): “In a rare departure from ekphrastic protocol, ‘Properzia Rossi’ emphasizes the emotional and psychological process of aesthetic creation over the finished product” (45).

In addition to genre and specific literary traditions, some of the essays in this collection focus on the materiality of artistic production. Barbara Taylor discusses Hemans’s participation in literary contests as a means for gaining the notoriety that would allow her to make a living comparable to that earned by male writers of the period. Chad Edgar returns to the important issue of the impact upon publishing in annuals on poetic form and content.

Departing from considerations of form, determined materially or otherwise, two essays explore Hemans’s gendered construction of poetic voice. John Anderson reads Hemans’s The Forest Sanctuary as an interrogation of the relations among voice, gender, and power. Julie Melnyk reads Hemans’s later religious poetry not as “deathbed panic,” as it is usually pegged (76), but rather as an overturning of her earlier “affectional” mode in order “to restore to women’s poetry a vatic power” (74). The hermeneutic efficacy of Melnyk’s reading is supported most dramatically – her argument is cinched – when she quotes a passage from Hemans’s sonnet sequence, “Female Characters of Scripture,” a sonnet about Mary Magdalene, in which Mary “has the final word in the sonnets: . . . ‘Christ is arisen!’” (90). Hemans is of course accurately relaying the Biblical story as to who first found out Christ had risen (Matt 28.1-11; Mk.16.1-11; Luke 24.1-12), but unlike that story, in Hemans’s sonnet, Mary speaks Christianity’s most salutary words: here Mary Magdalene is simultaneously given voice and recognized as most prophetic of all Christ’s disciples.

Melnyk offers us a narrative of poetic development, as does Isobel Armstrong’s elegant essay “Natural and National Monuments” which compares P.B. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to Hemans’s “The Image in Lava.” Though it claims to be only “a note,” this essay offers a full comparison, bringing up in the process Armstrong’s signal concern: the way in which the social, political, and aesthetic are intertwined. Armstrong outdoes herself in this essay, arguing convincingly for the Lava poem’s complexity: “in the course of grappling with its own problems as natural, ‘feminine’ monument, the poem questions both the meaning of the national monument, and the culture of the romantic ruin” (214). For Armstrong, this later poem continues Hemans’s discussion of the “aesthetic, social, and political problems” haunting The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816) and Modern Greece (1817). “Image in Lava” presents “the mould of incarcerated mother and child . . . as a limit case of incandescent creation from the inside out, in opposition to the matter externally stamped with the artist’s power, in collusion, in Shelley’s sonnet, with violence” (225). The poem offers “an alternative model of the social” based on maternal nurture (226), but, Armstrong concedes, it also questions the “perpetuity” (228) of “interactive bonds” (225) that are denied access to the patriarchal symbolic (227) – that is, bonds not monumentalized in art.

In contrast to Armstrong’s compelling account of Hemans’s increasing intellectual complexity and Melnyk’s of the vatic feminism surfacing in her later poems, Stephen Behrendt offers another narrative of poetic development in “’Certainly not a Female Pen’: Felicia Hemans’s Early Public Reception.” Here Behrendt argues that Hemans followed the guidance of reviewers and critics, summarizing the early reviews of her work (1808-1820) in order to demonstrate their influence on her writing. Hemans became “the Poet of Womanhood,” as the Victorians dubbed her, after her first decade of production, directed toward feminine topics by her reviewers for whom her “’academical’” poetry (1820 review, qtd. p. 95) evincing “sophisticated formal poetic craft” (96) and her popularity as a professional publishing author (97) came to be seen as not only unfeminine but monstrous. The problem with tracking “the feminization of Felicia Hemans” (106), as Behrendt so usefully does, is that it might lead one to presume that Hemans concocted and then threw femininity like a bone to appease ravenous critics. There are two problems with this point of view.

First, it might lead one to see Hemans’s poetic femininity as artificial. All cultural identities are artificed: why claim that femininity is more artificial, say, than masculinity, if not to set it up as intrinsically opposed to something else that must be called by contrast “true voice.” Behrendt carefully presents a counter-argument to his own, articulated most memorably by Hemans’s contemporary Maria Jane Jewsbury, that Hemans gradually came into her own voice (103-104). Isn’t it possible to see Hemans as both becoming a poet of femininity AND growing into her own “true” voice, as Jewsbury maintains? The argument that Hemans was stifled by her efforts to represent true womanhood works to sustain some by now very suspect oppositions between high and low, popular and true, feminine and intellectual. My point is emphatically not an attack on Behrendt: no one can accuse Behrendt of being elitist or sexist, either consciously or unconsciously. As his work in toto demonstrates, Behrendt is a feminist critic of the first order. I am interested rather in the variety of conundrum raised when one attempts to do feminist criticism. The second problem is that Behrendt’s argument might lead one to see femininity and feminism as opposed. Ann Snitow has shown that, no matter what bone radical feminists have to pick with essentialists, we do in fact as feminists switch back and forth between equality feminism and difference feminism (the latter’s underlying presupposition being that woman are essentially different from men): what materialist critic would ever buy into the claim that physically bearing children has no impact on intellect or spirit? To cultivate femininity of course seems to be sleeping with the enemy. But the question remains: does Hemans simply buy into sexist ideologies or shape them to her own ends?

Three essays in the collection offer divergent answers to this question. Nanora Sweet’s essay presents the quintessentially feminist argument that bringing questions of gender to bear on any issue – here, in Sweet’s analysis, Orientalism – is necessarily analytic, dismantling. Sweet would agree with Saree Makdisi’s claim that Byron resists (while P. B. Shelley does not) “incorporation [of “Oriental terrain”] into the emergent space-time of modernity,” thereby also resisting “the paradigms of Orientalist discourse. . . .” (Makdisi 123). But for Sweet Byron’s efforts to debar emerging Orientalist projections, like Salman Rushdie’s after him, fail insofar as they do not take gender into account at the moment when the vanguished “moorish” Orient was being feminized. Here Hemans’s concern to understand and promote femininity – whatever its impact on feminism – promotes “a more vigorous engagement with the Orientalized modernity of her time and ours” (182). Sweet discusses Hemans’s “Spanish” oriental tale, “The Abencerrage,” a poem about the re-conquest of Granada from “the Moors” in 1492. In it, Sweet argues, Zaydra is an androgynous heroine sublimated by her heroic death at the poem’s end. In this poem, Hemans renders gendered Oriental relationships symmetrical in order to show “that differences of gender and race are reversible and that identity as we know it is constructed of just such arbitrary differences.” She does so in order to show that it is possible to “reach a complex parity” (193): erasing differences need not, in other words, devolve into mimetic violence (Girard), into an infinite cycle of revenge (193).

If for Sweet bringing gender to bear upon a problematic (in the strict, Marxist sense of the word) [2] is necessarily analytic, for Gary Kelly, Hemans’s cultivation of femininity necessarily colludes “in the construction of an emergent liberal ideology” (199) that Kelly clearly deplores, his essay ending with a warning that Hemans’s poetry participates in the cultural work of “sustaining a modern liberal state that . . . demands our continued resistance” (210). Kelly locates both Mary Wollstonecraft and Hemans within “the revolutionary vanguard of the time” (197; Revolutionary Feminism 149), but unfortunately that is not a compliment. It was precisely this vanguard that waged the very “the bourgeois cultural revolution” ushering in the behemoth of the modern, liberal, nationalistic, imperialist state. I often found Kelly’s book about Wollstonecraft, Revolutionary Feminism, frustrating insofar as it is difficult to tell whether he sees her as “revolutionary” in the sense of promoting the concerns of the professional middle classes or in the sense of resisting those concerns; comparing that book to this present article gives me a better sense that, for Kelly, Wollstonecraft does both, but it remained for the champions of femininity such as Hemans to sanitize whatever was most radical in revolutionary feminism such as Wollstonecraft’s and Hays’s in order to make it fit more perfectly in the ideology of feminine domesticity “sustaining a modern liberal state.” Though Kelly makes gestures toward assimilating insights such as Nancy Armstrong’s that proponents of domestic ideology did not simply lie still and think of England, that they used it for their own politicized ends (Armstrong; s.a. Kelly 198), this essay presents an overarching narrative of the good (really radical) feminist overcome by the bad (feminine) poet (198): Hemans sanitizes feminism, as it were, making a concern with women acceptable and so marketable to the professional, middle-class reading public by de-radicalizing it (204).

I find that argument objectionable. First, it is based on the elitist assumption that what is popular must give people what they want to hear rather than challenge their assumptions: it does not help Kelly escape from that charge to assign the sobriquets “emergent” or “revolutionary” to the ideology promoted by what he clearly sees as Hemans’s pap for the people. Second, the idea that Hemans formulated a “‘feminine’ character as part of the wider project, of founding, in the Revolutionary aftermath, the modern liberal nation-state and empire” (210) seems to be grounded in a reading of “The Forest Sanctuary” in which “Spain” stands for that state, its only possible inhabitant a “feminized conquistador” (209). I find it questionable to suppose that the utopias imaginable to Wollstonecraft, Hemans, or any Romantic-era writer could only ever be “the modern liberal nation-state and empire,” and that also for them habitation can only take the form of conquest. That is intellectual hubris, lording our present consciousness imperialistically over the past, and it is surely belied even by superficial readings of poems such as Anna Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” or novels such as Sydney Owenson’s The Missionary. Third, we really should not tolerate what David Simpson calls a “parodic” literary history that reduces it to an other wearing a black hat. Kelly tells us that Restoration, Modern Greece, and “Casabianca” refabricate history for bourgeois ideology by making death meaningful since it serves the nation to build empire (201). Compare that sweeping generalization (and indictment) with another assessment of “Casabianca”:

The supposed patriotic celebrations for which Hemans was famous prove on closer reading . . . to ponder the empire, not as a realm on which the sun never sets, but as a global graveyard . . . . To nineteenth-century eyes, Casabianca was a tribute to a youthful war martyr to weep over (or . . . parody). Yet a French boy’s futile call to his dead father . . . 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.

Wolfson, “Editing Felicia Hemans” n. pag.

Surely Susan Wolfson is right to point out that Hemans has “an imagination repeatedly drawn to the latent tensions in cherished ideologies,” her work popular in a culture that felt enough ambivalence about war to sanction, with their purchasing power, Byron’s anti-war diatribes in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, A Romant (1812) and a poem with a final couplet rhyming “gory” with “glory” (Wolfson, “Editing Felicia Hemans” n. pag.).

A third answer to the question of Hemans’s collusion with or resistance to emergent sexist ideologies gracefully shifts it to a question of Hemans’s innovations in genre and literary tradition. In her essay “Hemans and the Romance of Byron,” Wolfson discusses Hemans’s attempt to feminize the Byronic hero. Hemans had a poetic and emotional attachment to Byron throughout her career. According to Wolfson, Hemans first loves and then emotionally divorces Byron: after enough of his memoirs edited by Moore, had been published in the journals to give her a full sense of his worldly dissipations, Hemans removes from around her neck a locket containing a snippet of his hair. But poetically the divorce is less certain and the union more contentious, even from the start. Though the critics early pegged Hemans as offering “a national feminine antithesis to and a virtual negation of Byronism” (161), Wolfson effectively demonstrates that Hemans attempts to write “a poetry of female heroics” (155) by domesticating Byron’s “lurid eroticism” as well as other means for passivating his female figures. Hemans uses Byron, particularly Childe Harold, as a means for politicizing her ostensibly feminine discourse, thereby achieving political expression without emulating Wollstonecraftian womanhood. But she also contests Byron’s and Moore’s view that genius is fundamentally alienated from the domestic. As Wolfson puts it, “If Byron’s romance of alienation refuses the domestic sphere virtually as a condition of articulation, Hemans’s Byronic heroines insist on a continuity between domestic affection and political rebellion” (163). Hemans’s poetry, however, ultimately finds feminized Byronism to be a dead-end since “’feminine’ constraints ultimately doom” her heroines, Wolfson says, forcing them into martyrdom – a “[s]elf-consuming heroism” (166). As she separates from Byron emotionally after reading piecemeal bits of Moore’s Life, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, her poetry begins “recasting Childe Harold” in another way. Wolfson beautifully articulates the change: “No longer trying to Byronize her heroines only to discover that female commitments alienate them from the romance of Byronic alienation, Hemans makes Byron accountable to her values” (172).

Wolfson tells us that Hemans’s disappointment over Byron’s life was severe, so severe that she never actually read Moore’s Byron for which she had at first waited with impatience. Although insisting that Hemans’s detachment from Byron is not merely “prudish” (174), Wolfson does not specify exactly what snippets of Moore’s Byron were published in the journals before the book itself appeared. It is tempting to wonder whether among the letters that most revealed his “cruel mockery” (Chorley, quoted by Wolfson) there appeared his disdain for common and female humanity: “and though I buy with ye – and sell with ye – and talk with ye – I will neither eat with ye – drink with ye – nor pray with ye.” That letter includes disdain for women writers: “Neither will I make ‘Ladies [sic.] books’ ‘al dilettar le femine e la plebe’” (Longman 2A, 748). Such a letter could easily have constituted a first strike in the severing of their relationship, however fantasmatic and poetical a relationship it may have been. But, as Wolfson so aptly shows in her reading of “The Lost Pleiad,” Hemans turns Byron’s sarcasm against himself, presenting him as she depicted him in a letter or conversation recorded by Harriett Hughes: “the best part of that fearfully mingled character is but ruin – the wreck of what might have been” (quoted in Wolfson 174). Just as Beppo writes Byron’s women lovers into oblivion, “The Lost Pleiad,” Wolfson effectively argues, does the same for Byron, in the world of literary fame, but it does so in Byron’s idiom – alluding to if not quoting Beppo directly. Wolfson shows us how difficult it is for a woman to turn Byron’s poetic legacy to account.

It is precisely these concerns, as well as those expressed in an earlier article on Hemans and poetic fame, that partly animates the principles of selection informing Wolfson’s Felicia Hemans. Wolfson’s essay “Men, Women, and ‘Fame’: Teaching Felicia Hemans,” as well as the consummate teaching instructions for Felicia Hemans provided along with the Longman Anthology, Vol. 2A, “The Romantics and Their Contemporaries” (edited by Wolfson and Peter Manning), do a beautiful job of showing how the category of gender plays a crucial role in conceptualizing fame and its meanings, without riveting the character to any poet’s body (without essentializing it), showing us Keats at his most feminine, and hinting that Hemans’s “To the Poet Wordsworth” portrays his aesthetic as feminine. Wolfson shows us in Hemans’s poetry and letters that gender does so much more than interdict fame for proper ladies: if Hemans pits “shallow celebrity” against “domestic duties,” neither category quite seems to exhaust woman’s expressive needs. Moreover, Hemans’s artistry, her “aesthetic elaborations,” put “pressure” on her “moralizing instructions” that women should remain content with circumscribed domesticity (“Men, Women, and ‘Fame,’” 119, 116). More recently, Wolfson reiterates this argument: “Two late, self-reflecting poems, Corinna at the Capitol and Woman and Fame, . . . advise domestic humility but wind up contradicting such advice with the energies of aesthetic elaboration” (Wolfson, “Editing Felicia Hemans” n. pag.).

But much more is included in the selection of Hemans’s poetry than simply her meditations on femininity and fame. Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials contains so extensive a selection as to allow advanced undergraduates and graduate students ample opportunity for truly innovative seminar papers: one of my students followed out the suggestion made in several notes to investigate further, for an MA thesis, Hemans’s reliance on captivity narratives in constructing some poetic plots. It is perhaps difficult to recognize her complexity if one has been introduced to Hemans in school by having to memorize “Casabianca” (see a forthcoming article about the consequences of that educational ritual by Catherine Mary Robson), as were so many nineteenth-century readers, or by the absolutely criminal selection offered to us in the twentieth century by Jennifer Breen in Women Romantic Poets 1785-1832, clearly hell-bent on proving that women can only think about heaven, laundry, and male poets. In her essay discussing at length the process of editing Hemans’s Selected Poems, “Editing Felicia Hemans for the Twenty-First Century,” Wolfson describes its contents this way:

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 cenutry winnowed away.

n. pag.

As Wolfson points out, her edition includes in their entirety six major poems and sequences of poems: 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[3] Wolfson’s edition thus includes, for instance, all the poems forming the sequence titled “Records of Woman,” and omitting only some of the “Miscellaneous Pieces” printed with the sequence. “[T]he aggregate” of this titled sequence, Wolfson tells us, “like that of Tales, is an important macrotext” (“Editing Felicia Hemans” n. pag.).

The richness of the selection and the editorial interventions make any criticism seem cranky: I of course wish it had included a poem called “The Sculptured Children” that, as I have argued in an article, presents an alternative aesthetic to the monumentalizing aesthetic proposed by some high Romantic poems. But “The Image in Lava” appears in it, a poem taken to propose an alternative to a Romantic, monumentalizing aesthetic by Isobel Armstrong (discussed above) and Kathleen Lundeen (in an article appearing in this special issue of Romantism on the Net) . Moreover Wolfson’s edition as a whole provides ample opportunity for uncovering numerous aesthetics operating throughout Hemans’s work.

As to reception history and historical context, Wolfson’s edition contains many letters, some of them published for the first time, as well as an ample selection of British reviews. One could also wish to see this edition contain some articles giving us a sense of Hemans’s reception in America. And yet I find this unnecessary: Wolfson’s collection can be used to teach transatlantic Romantic literature, given the fact that the American Periodical Series Online now gives us access to so many full-text articles in American journals: I find 66 review essays immediately available on my computer, many on specific volumes. A review of Henry Chorley’s biography of Hemans berates Chorley for including a letter in which Hemans makes fun of her American fans: Hemans disparages “American Greenhorns” for their “Albumean Persecution[s]” – that is, signature mongering; the reviewer notes that including such a letter in Memorials of Hemans might be detrimental to her immense popularity with American audiences (North American Review, 1837). And as for hard-to-get materials in Hemans’s American reception history, Woflson’s edition does contain a letter from Hemans’s most prominent American editor Andrews Norton.

Teachers using the larger volume might well take a cue from the Longman, and especially the excellent teaching instructions accompanying it, to use Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review essay of 1829 as a way of allowing students to list attitudes toward gender that easily reveal themselves to be ideological rather than realistic. One can show them that, pace Jeffrey, women had been publishing in droves, before Hemans, by giving them a glance at the table of contents of Roger Lonsdale’s Eighteenth-Century Women Poets. Finding women “incapable of long moral or political investigations,” Jeffrey finds “their proper and natural business [to be] the practical regulation of private life” (Longman 2A, 837; Felicia Hemans 550). One could gainfully compare this apparently authoritative pronouncement of 1829 to the equally authoritative remark of 1798 by Ralph Griffiths (quoted by Lonsdale in his introduction) on behalf of his age which he calls “the Age of ingenious and learned Ladies”: “it is no longer a question, whether woman is or is not inferior to man in natural ability, or less capable of excelling in mental accomplishments” (Monthly Review, NS 27.441). Such a juxtaposition does a good job of dispelling any myth of “progress” in relations between the sexes that interferes with genuinely historical investigations of the meanings carried by gender distinctions. What particular uses does gender discrimination serve here, one might ask students, since we know that intellectual sexism is not any more “natural” for Jeffrey’s time than it is for our own?

Parties annexes