The Poetics of Expiration: Felicia Hemans
Jeffrey C. Robinson
University of Colorado, Boulder
Hemans’s “poetics of expiration” is contrasted to the high Romantic “poetics of effusion,” the former devoted to insubstantiality, the latter to the monumental. Critics from Walter Scott to Kingsley Amis have berated Hemans’s extreme superficiality, but, as Jerome McGann has argued, it can be seen as her bid to imagine substance on the brink of its dissolution. This essay shows, through careful readings of her poems, that though dissolution and death figure in this poetics of expiration, at its heart is a reversal from “emptying out” to “proliferation.” A dying into the moment has a certain life-yield that Hemans calls “holiness.” Reading not only the reception history of Hemans but also Hemans’s reception of high Romantic poets show us that we have misunderstood her aims: attuning ourselves to her praise for the enactment of her highest poetic goals in poetry by others helps us to see them in her works as well.
Walter Scott to Joanna Baillie, 11 July 1823:
Mrs. Hemans is somewhat too poetical for my taste—too many flowers I mean, and too little fruit—but that may be the cynical criticism of an elderly gentleman; for it is certain that when I was young, I read verses of every kind with infinitely more indulgence. . . .
Hemans, Selected Poems 545
Why does one not like poetry for being too poetical, for being too much itself? Is Hemans’s poetry a redundancy? The way the phrase "language poetry" sounds? (Of course, poetry is language poetry, but to say it that way points to a surfeit of poetry, a kind of obesity.) A poetical "fruit," on the other hand, implies health and nurturance along with a well-defined or contained and symmetrical beauty: beauty tempered by and resolving into health. Flowers have no use value beyond the function of giving pleasure. But what can you expect of a lady/mother poet? A Mrs. Hemans but to write flowers? (Charles Reznikoff did offer to pelt the enemies of his people with poem-dandelions.) She has gone too far; he implies a wastefulness in her poems.
Apparently a poetry of flowers calls attention to itself as poetry, even tries to struggle with a poetic essence and perhaps with a poet’s calling, a potentially wavering affair, unstable and eccentric, unsettling to a reader. Still life with fruit makes sense: still, solid, heavy on the plate. Still life with flowers is oxymoronic: by breezes blown, always opening and "disclosing" their perfumes. Perhaps Scott meant that Hemans’s poetry is too ornamental and artificial, too supplemental. As an older man he just wants poetry, like fruit, that he can set on his plate, admire, and then eat with knife and fork.
Fanny Howe, from "Our Heaven’s Words" (1992):
Our heaven’s words are wind, farther
by far than "the language
of love". . .
So heaven is a word
and a term for separation’s horror.
Fanny Howe (FH) helps us understand a central feature of Felicia Hemans’s (FH) lyric poems from 1826 until 1834. They are often heaven-centered. The poems often posit heaven as a final fulfilment, after life has ended. Heaven also spreads a blessing over the contents of life, and it helps to make Hemans a praise poet, a poet of wonder. The immateriality of wind with material effect, the ruach of creation, a quickening power, may preoccupy her as poet most of all: to what degree are poems metaphors for the act of creation and to what degree are they the act itself? How does one emulate that immateriality with the fact of language’s materiality?
In one poem she calls the wind "wandering." At times it will connote the exile but here something able to kindle a "thrilling magic" in water, grass, hollow rocks, osiers, and fir trees, unmoored yet "dedicated" to announcing and performing the life of things. "Human love within us" makes for the thrill. Heaven is not spoken here, but the wind in its motion casts its influence over each element; the heavenly "accents" of the wind, suggesting a featuring or coloring of language,
Touch the links of memory
Around our spirits twined,
And we start, and weep, and tremble
To the Wind the wandering Wind.
Hemans, Selected Poems 602
"Separation’s horror," a backdrop in Hemans’s lyrics, the conscious distance from Heaven, spreads and ruffles and twines throughout a mediating natural windy system exciting an emotional turbulence.
Attending to the image of wind is like attending to a line of a Hemans poem; neither is quite noticeable in itself—her syntax is usually congruent with the line—yet each has significant effect and ruffles or thrills in its detail. She asks us to read with loving attention.
It is one of the small miracles of reading poetry: when the poet seems to want us to read like the wind, or to inhale (inspire) her poems, or if the traditions about reading her poems assume superficiality, we nevertheless can, if we read with startling detail, make the whole system—that includes us—tremble.
Heaven is a crisis for Hemans: wonder or separation’s horror. It would be too easy to posit poetry as a binding or reconciling phenomenon, but poetry stands in conflict with Heaven, and with Holiness: poetry envisions and records multiplicity; Holiness is singular. Everything refers back to God and Heaven as source. A problem in Hemans’s lyrics: is a poem about source or creation? Which gets the most emphasis and praise? It is clear, however, that she often lists the creation, a sure sign that she adheres to poetry’s penchant for the multiple. But then there’s "the Wind, the wandering Wind."
When experience, or a constellation of experiences, seem to demand a poem, the poet needs, says Denise Levertov, "to contemplate, to meditate; words which connote a state in which the heat of feeling warms the intellect. To contemplate comes from templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the augur" (8). It means not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is "to keep the mind in a state of contemplation"; its synonym is "to muse," and to muse comes from a word meaning "to stand with open mouth"—not so comical if we think of "inspiration"—to breathe in.
Felicia Hemans’s lyrics seem, in spite of her harried domestic, social, and public life, to come out of the kind of holy contemplation Levertov elaborates. And if contemplation and musing indicate the state of inspiration or breathing in, then the poem would follow as the expiration or breathing out: a natural part of the rhythm of breathing, the receiving and the giving. On a smaller scale, the line is the expiring breath, and the space between one line and the next would be a new inspiration. Expiration is a breathing out of what has been observed in the presence of a god.
"To expire" also means to die. Thus a poem becomes simultaneously a dying and a creation. Think of Hemans’s poems called "The Last Song of Sappho" and "The Indian Woman’s Death Song" and "The Nightingale’s Death Song" and "No More" and "Passing Away" and "The Broken Lute" and "Music at a Death Bed" and "The Parting of Summer." All poems may be described as expirations, but Hemans’s highlight this account thematically. Creating occurs in the presence of dying; as the speaker expires the world fills her breath upon which language is inscribed. Separation’s horror: life and its memories vs. death, the material and the immaterial, words and the breath. How does one honor both sides of bringing meaning (a kind of salvation) to the expiring life? Hemans, I believe, envisions a line of poetry, and a poem (or "song") itself, as approximating the expiration. The poet at once conserves the expiring life and praises it.
We have a choice in reading the lyrics of Felicia Hemans. Either we agree that because her life—with its losses of parents and husband and its severe "cares"—was melancholy and because her poems often dwell in melancholy (death, loss, parting, bittersweet memory), her poems are framed and stamped as melancholy; or we see melancholy as occasioning, challenging the poet’s calling. Hemans as the agent of her poems often implicates herself, "folds herself," in melancholy situatedness. But her intention over the range of numerous poems seems to direct us to follow the second choice.
In the great Eurydice lyrics by H.D. and Marina Tsvetaeva, the female speaker wakes into the poem during the moment of vanishing, fading, expiring, or, to use a favorite word in Hemans’s poems, "wasting." In this tradition the poetics of expiration belongs to women who observe themselves as always already forgotten. Sappho, wounded emphatically by unrequited love, expires. The Nightingale, raped and metamorphosed out of human life is, as Keats said of Fanny Brawne, eternally vanishing. Their voices erupt on the ever-thinning air.
Hemans’s nightingale asks a critical poetic question near the start of her mournful singing:
The skies have lost their splendor,
The waters changed their tone,
And wherefore, in the faded world,
Should music linger on?
The word "linger" derives here from the early Romantics in, for example, Coleridge’s "The Nightingale," the poem itself presented as a long lingering on a bridge before the farewell; in Mary Robinson’s "Ode to the Nightingale":
Sweet Bird of Sorrow!—why complain
In such soft melody of song,
That ECHO, am’rous of thy Strain,
The ling’ring cadence doth prolong?
And in Charlotte Smith’s sonnets of Werther (a kind of dying nightingale) and implicitly in "The Departure of the nightingale": "Sweet poet of the woods!—a long adieu!"
To linger is, in the words of the American poet Thomas McGrath, to postpone the end of the world, to offer a resistance to an inevitable end, accepting the world’s inevitable closure upon life and imagination but to propose the persistence of mind within an assumed closure. Lingering, however, connotes the body’s as well as the mind’s resistance that is also a (gravitational) yield: "Come, let us rest on this old mossy bridge!"
Hemans’s dying nightingale questions any kind of resistance: if all of nature is faded or fading, why hold on at all?
In the same "mournful" spirit the nightingale—trapped, as all the dying must at some point feel, in the claustral bleakness of vanishing—manages to image in the way of Blake’s sunflower poet other domains:
Where is the golden sunshine,
And where the flower-cup’s glow?
And where the joy of the dancing leaves,
And the fountain’s laughing flow?
All of nature participates in this questioning:
A voice, in every whisper
Of the wave, the bough, the air,
Comes asking for the beautiful,
And moaning, "Where, O, where?"
They sound like the collective voice of pastoral mourners in the elegies, bent in sorrow but helpless. But the Nightingale has altered the vision of the dying by shifting to the shapes and images of energy itself: glow, joy of dancing leaves, laughing flow. The category of the lost has changed, but even with the change the descent continues down "In one deep farewell tone." It (and other comparable poems by Hemans) recalls the famous descent in Wordsworth’s "Immortality Ode":
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!
This speaker, like Hemans’s, suddenly realizes that at this moment of apparent frozenness "in our embers/ Is something that doth live. . . ." The remnant turns out to be a fullness of a kind previously unimagined, as the poem then takes pains to demonstrate. Wordsworth’s speaker shifts to "thought" and "love" as that which lives and sustains, even as the world stays the same. Hemans takes a different turn:
Melt from the woods, my spirit! Melt
In one deep farewell tone!
Not so!—swell forth triumphantly
The full, rich, fervent strain!
Hence with young love and life I go,
In the summer’s joyous train.
With sunshine, with sweet odor,
With every precious thing,
Upon the last warm southern breeze
My soul its flight shall wing.
A poetics different from that of the earlier romantics is at work here, one that simply refuses the categories of nature and death not as a denial but as a prison of consciousness, in order to entertain and embody the undying "quickening" power that also acknowledges the "precious"ness of things. Reversing its position from the earlier part of the poem, she claims "Alone I shall not linger. . . ." She speaks amidst a metamorphosis, which is also a translation from one domain to another of eternal spring-time. No slowing down or resistance occurs, no stay, but she proposes to join the very quickening, winging her way on air, practically the breath of air itself. The new poetics implied here attends to energies and to the precious, or the "sources of life":
The sky’s transparent azure,
And the greensward’s violet breath,
And the dance of light leaves in the wind,
May there no nought of death.
One elegiac response to death and loss is a form of compensation (we will "find Strength in what remains behind"). Wordsworth’s speaker stays in place. Hemans shifts domains (here vs. there), to live in and emulate "breath" and "wind," the pure "transparent azure" and the "dance of light leaves."
The nightingale comes to approximate the poetry of aperture, or openness, seeking a language that participates in voices of the world rather than being alien and distinct from it and resisting it. This poem seems slight and projects an effortlessness both thematically and poetically, not like Blake’s "labouring" lark. But Hemans clearly associates such visionary shifts with heroism, analogous to that of public and military figures and demanding sacrifice. It has been recently observed that the late lyrics of Felicia Hemans are displacements from her longer political and historical narrative poems of the Regency Period (Sweet); but "displacement" does not mean a compromise of poetic seriousness, on like the metamorphic nightingale a shift in category and domain. The nightingale says:
Sing to the woods, I go!
For me, perchance, on other lands
The glorious rose may blow.
In the "Indian Woman’s Death Song" the song of expiration appears heroic. On a suicide mission with her infant child, after learning of her husband’s infidelity, she, like the nightingale, doesn’t linger but enters the flow of the dark Mississippi River, her voice heroically rising above that of the waters carrying her deathwards. As the narrator says, she
. . .lifted her sweet voice, that rose awhile
Above the soul of water, high and clear,
Wafting a wild proud strain, her song of death.
Hemans, Selected Poems 377
The actual song is twice framed, first by a quotation from an historical narrative, then by the poem’s narrator speaking in blank verse; then the Indian woman sings in fourteeners, the line itself approaching in length the flow of the river itself, the song announcing at once the (Sapphic) grief of her betrayal, speech to her infant daughter insisting on the latter’s death, and her incantatory exhorting of the river: "Roll on!" The line is an heroic inscription (that "rose awhile") on the water; it yields to the near shapelessness of death: in the long line only the rhyming couplet keeps it afloat.
Maria Jewsbury said of Felicia Hemans: "her enjoyment is feverish, and she desponds. She is like a lamp whose oil is consumed by the very light which it yields" (Hemans, Selected Poems 581). Heroism in these poems is the transformation of one or another type of configuration of death, wounding, and forgetfulness. In "The Nightingale’s Death Song" two transformations, or metamorphoses, occur. Philomela, violated and disfigured, has left the world unseen to become a bird. Then here the Nightingale itself is dying into a different life. But this second transformation, on the expiring breath, thins out to mere words; reading the final "triumphant" stanzas of the poem, one feels that only the strength of words remains, a supreme fiction. The metamorphosis travels from the human to the natural to the verbal, a particularly vital accounting, in Allen Grossman’s phrase, of the "bitter logic of the poetic principle." In the end was the breath and the word.
Passing, parting, dying, sighing, expiring, the speaker says "farewell." The word that signifies the end, addresses towards the future in the spirit of sustained concern. In a similar spirit eye and mind turn "to God." The poem of expiration acknowledges the possible conversion from the dying to the heavenly.
For Hemans her (characteristic) short lines emphasize the metamorphic possibilities, while the very long lines depict a self bleeding out of human boundedness into another form of being.
The breath dramatically mediates both of these tensions.
Hemans’s lyrics exhibit a predictable pattern of thinking: a binary structure, a commitment to the boundaries of nature and/or of death gives way to a visionary possibility.
The turn: But, Yet, No. . . .
At such a moment the breath, the tone, the lightbeam, the wind—and heaven.
Interlude: The Effusion
The idea of the poem-as-expiration recalls the earlier Romantic poetic type, the effusion, most famously practiced by Coleridge in the 1790s. Both define a poem as an organic eruption of sound, language, meaning from an apparently smooth and stable surface. And in both instances a poem exceeds artifice. Both link poetic authenticity with the triumph of an irresistible pressure for speech. They, however, perhaps may tell us much about the difference between early and later Romanticism, about male and female poetic intentions, and certainly may help to define the poetry of expiration.
The dictionary meanings of "effusion," as well as those of its Latin antecedents "effundere" and "fundere," indicate metaphorically a domain of liquid rather than one of gas or breath: a pouring out, a pouring out freely, an overflowing, an escape of a fluid leading figuratively to the pouring out of wine and animal spirits, the pouring out of emotions and of speech. The fundamental excess of effusion is valued all the way from extravagance, self-indulgence, squandering and waste to generosity or abundant giving. Effusion is demonstrative. In its association with the escape of a fluid—such as blood or tears—out of its vessel, an effusion traverses, involuntarily, the boundary between inside and outside. Although it appears as if it were an emptying out (in the manner of an expiration), the effusion usually is marked as a filling up: to empty from one vessel leads to a filling up in another, a showing forth. Poetic effusions want to indicate abundance of speech and emotion; perhaps the blush is the visual equivalent of the effusion, the appearance of a slightly embarrassing but nonetheless pleasurable and desirable intensification. They therefore derive precisely from the dictionary definitions: an utterance poured out in all its fullness, from the "inside" to the "outside," in which emotion and language fuse into a possibly intoxicated appearance of simultaneous extravagant waste and generosity. The effusion may be the quintessential genre of the poetry of sentiment.
No accident that Coleridge called many of his 1790 poems "effusions" since they project an ambient fullness of loving utterance from the speaker to an assumed sympathetic interlocutor. The perfect pantisocratic vision in poetry would declare that the space of alienation between persons is closed just as the division or separation between the inner emotional and intellectual life and the outer life of communication is healed. In Coleridge’s poetry of effusion blank verse images this ideal as one line crosses over to the next unchecked by syntax. Significantly, "Effusion XXXV" ("The Eolian Harp") opens with the speaker touching the interlocutor his beloved, all distance collapsed from the start:
My pensive Sara! Thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o’ergrown
With white-flower’d Jasmin, and the broad-leav’d Myrtle,
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!). . .
Observing the dying of the day ("the clouds, that late were rich with light") as the waning of one fullness, the speaker initiates a new fullness, less dependent upon nature and more upon the fullness of the "pensive" mind, the filled mental infinity of Schiller, "le pente de la reverie" of Victor Hugo:
And thus, my Love! As on the midway slope
Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,
whilst through my half-clos’d eye-lids I behold
The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main,
And tranquil muse upon tranquillity;
Full many a thought uncall’d and undetain’d,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain, . . .
And even the sounds coming from the Eolian Harp remind him less of breaths and wind and more of filled liquidity: "It pours such sweet upbraiding, . . . and now, its strings / Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes / Over delicious surges sink and rise, . . ." As the mind swells into its confidence, it proposes a further fullness:
O! The one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all though, and joyance every where—
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d; . . .
A very late addition, as is well known, this passage nonetheless reads the spirit of the effusion precisely.
How does one explain the short-lived history of this experiment in the poetry of effusion? Perhaps it does not accord with the transformative principle in poetry. In "The Eolian Harp" the beloved famously turns on her speaker’s fantasies at the end popping them with the bubble of orthodox religion. What is important here is not that overworked concept of Romantic "scepticism" that brings visionary poetry back to earth, but that the poem apparently does not contain within itself transformative possibility. The same cannot be said for the poetry of expiration, which defines itself not as a filling but as an emptying, not initiating but fading and closing, but then, as we see in the poetry of Hemans, discovers within the line and the imagery itself a new fullness in a new domain, the heavenly. That shift of domains is something that the Coleridgean effusion cannot accommodate.
We typically associate discussions of a poetry of the breath, of expiration, not with abstract forms and predictable, repeating metrics but with free or "organic" verse. How can we speak of something so bodily and spontaneous as a line-of-breath when faced with strict, assumed comfort of Hemans’s regular iambic tetrameters and trimeters? Or, from another vantage point, ought not "natural" speech appear in a poetry of effusion, or blank verse? A poem of flowings and glowings, perfumes and blooms ought to float and bloom across a page, instead of:
All the soul forth flowing
In that rich perfume,
All the proud life glowing
In that radiant bloom--
Have they no place but here, beneath the o’ershadowing tomb?
Hemans, Selected Poems 610
Form here seems a tomb, a dark encasing of all that movement and life, a kind of opacity that "dulls my sense," a burden of enclosure.
But then, as I follow the poem more attentively, I realize that Hemans herself is asking analogous questions, in which my notion of form as obstruction is like hers about "grief and fear." The poem opens:
Rose! What dost thou here?
Bridal, royal rose!
How, 'midst grief and fear,
Canst thou thus disclose
That fervid hue of love, which to thy heart leaf glows?
"A Song of the rose" is really an "abstract" and theological poem, at once a passionate exploration and a ritual performance about the fate of world energies. The formal stanzas, so innocent and assumed, actually serve to dramatize the very issue of freedom and constraint of the poem’s subject. And as quotations from the collective of poetic forms, Hemans’s stanzas float free of history and situation, just as the poem as an expiration floats free.
Barbara Guest has the following epigraphs for her "Notes on Literature" (Rocks):
To live is to defend a form (Hoelderlin)
To invest abstract ideas with form, and animate them with activity has always been the right of poetry (Dr. Samuel Johnson)
The Moment a limit is posited it is overstepped, and that against which the Limit was established is absorbed (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory)
Just as Hemans pushes herself to see beyond grief and death, I must push past form as a shutting down of imagination and learn to understand it as a limit to be overstepped and absorbed. The visionary poet teaches, by example and invitation, the use of the visionary imagination. So, the "open-form" imagery works in my mind dynamically with the stanza. What Louis Zukofsky calls "thoughts’ torsion," the complexity of mind trying to move past constraint, acknowledging this necessary incompleteness or disparity of mind in the presence of poetry just as one releases the affect of desire to move towards a heaven or haven of intenseness, seems at work in Hemans’s poems as well as in the minds of her speakers.
Form is also the recognition of tradition, the link to the company of poets. Breath and perfume hold the immediacies of mind and desire. "A Song of the Rose" borrows its form from another questing visionary lyric, Shelley’s "To a Skylark." It mirrors Shelley’s stanza of trimeter lines that then open out or "disclose" in the final hexameter line, a drama of constraint and expanded vision.
As Shelley’s skylark climbs higher and higher, it as a presence thins to its song, but it occasions a proliferation of similes from the speaker, a potentially endless outpouring or overflowing, which however does not decrease the poem’s epistemological, moral, and social pessimism. He petitions the bird for its wisdom and envisions a chain of teachings—from the bird to him and then from him to the world. Hemans’s response takes a different, characteristic, turn. She asks the fundamental question for visionary poetry: is there a life force independent from the world of "grief and fear" and death? One feels that in this poem she is defining the nature and purpose of the visionary poem. But the inquiry follows the predictable arc of observing and stating the appearance to seeing through and beyond it. Here, early in the poem, is her most Shelleyan stanza:
As an eagle soaring
Through a sunny sky,
As a clarion pouring
Notes of victory,
So dost thou kindle thoughts, for earthly life too high.
In the next two stanzas she queries the consoling power of the rose, given to the dying, but finds that it cannot "detain" or postpone death, or "the end of the world." Yet, I think, something has been set in motion with the phrase "kindle thoughts," thinking associated with the (Shelleyan) spark of desire. (It is important to remember this fiery energy of inquiry when confronted with the epithet "domestic" for Felicia Hemans. That terms domesticate her poems, reduce their power as images of a poetic mind wanting to burn through the claims of convention.)
The poem ends with two stanzas that imagine the rose as belonging in Heaven, and appropriate to it:
Will that clime enfold thee
With immortal air?
Shall we not behold thee
Bright and deathless there?
In spirit lustre clothed, transcendently more fair!
Yes! My fancy sees thee
In that light disclose,
And its dream thus frees thee
From the mist of woes,
Darkening thine earthly bowers, O bridal, royal rose!
In an image of transport, she imagines the rose in another domain. Indeed, with Shelley in mind, it is difficult to remember that she is addressing a rose and not a winged skylark. Isolated for view is the appearance of the immaterial as brilliant, glorious, if reflected, light. The reference to fancy and dream marks the activation not of escape but of poetry itself, with its access to other, expanded states of consciousness.
How easy it is to read the final two lines "skeptically"; the standard narrative of Romantic imaginative success (still alive in recent anthologies) congratulates the second generation (the second and third in Donald Reiman’s counting) for bringing some "realism" into the visionary athletics of the first generation; visionary poetry, the poetry of the fancy, is immature, impulsive, too idealistic and deluding. A poet like Keats must pass through it, but reality in the form of recognition of death and the body registers in him a need for tempered awareness, a sign of his own tragic maturity. I propose to think of Hemans’s stanza as a juxtaposition, a "combination" in which the rose in its lustrous freedom sits next to the vision of pain and mortality, the two yoked together in the stanza. The poem does not describe how we are to access that spirit lustre clothed, how we are to put it to use. Given, however, is a mind, a stanza, that contains them both: a vision of possibility. The most revealing word for the visions of released and available energies in this poem is "disclose," a word that describes the plentifulness of expiration. It is what the rose does and what (in another poem) night-blowing flowers do. The poem begins:
How, 'midst grief and fear,
Canst thou thus disclose
The fervid hue of love, which to thy heart leaf glows?
Yes! My fancy sees thee
In that light disclose, . . .
The rose’s perfume metonymically is desire itself, expressed with extraordinary synaesthetic fullness, and disclosed on the air, where the speaker’s encounter with it presumably set in motion her fervid questions and associated thinking. That in itself, the least "material" of encounters, becomes the most precious and the most erotic.
Disclose: to reveal, to uncover, to send forth, to unfold, and even to hatch (a bird from its egg, an insect from its pupa)—a powerful verb at once transitive and intransitive. The word indicates visionary experience simultaneously with generation. At the end of the poem it is used intransitively, further thinning down meaning into an essence of pure motion and revelation. The content of a breath, its matter becomes energy, still a hue of love sent forth, unfolded in a second-order blooming of the rose.
From the beginning the speaker has seen the rose as bountiful: "bridal, royal." Now this "consummate" source of abundance resides in heaven, its otherness sanctioned in its beneficence. Not wanting to deny poetry its engagement with death, Hemans nonetheless strenuously formulates a poetic power that while embodied in the familiar still emanates another domain of consciousness.
Paul Celan, the poet of deathfugues and deathsongs, writes instructively about the narrative of the poet encountering death:
. . .
But don’t split off No from Yes.
Give your say this meaning too:
give it the shadow. . .
But now the place shrinks, where you stand:
Where now, shadow-stripped, where?
Climb. Grope upwards.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer!
Finer: a thread
the star wants to descend on:
so as to swim down here below, down here
where it sees itself shimmer: in the swell
of wandering words.
Acknowledging "No" means acknowledging the shrinking of the place in death. The heroism of the poet is to climb that shrinking of the stability of place into its mobile unknowability, at which point the world of light (a shimmering, lustrous energy) descends, and wandering (poetic) words result. It is difficult and imprecise to thus paraphrase the poem: the gaps between agent and effect are manifestly mysterious, and yet the poem speaks with an unassailable confidence about the way a poem can happen in the presence of death the shadow. Celan does not use the language of the breath, but he has other foci for the material/immaterial paradox of the poem, which is not a monument, a recognizable fixture but still a swell, a plenitude.
Coherence in a lyric poem exists but not necessarily as a linear sequence of cause and effect and syntax. To insist upon linear coherence domesticates poetic vision. Criticism takes the lines of our conscious thought and plants them on a poem "chartering" the "swell of wandering words" (Celan) which create space and fill volumes. Even a breath disperses as it fills. Criticism needs to note the correspondences, the relationships among images, in a poet like Felicia Hemans whose reliance on form, on finality, and the hearth should not deceive us. Not that we should deny (deconstruct) these elements but that we might try transforming them, so solid-looking, so a priori there, into particles of the perfume!—dynamic, part of the filling, chancy volume of the vision. Consider the last stanza from "Children of Night":
Shut from the sounds wherein the day rejoices,
To no triumphant song your petals thrill,
But send forth odors with the faint, soft voices
Rising from hidden streams, when all is still.
--So doth one prayer arise,
Mingling with secret sighs,
When grief unfolds, like you,
Her breast, for heavenly dew
In silent hours to fill.
These Night-blowing flowers "unfold" their odors, like grief its sighs. After being disclosed, who can say where they go or how they get there? How does one similarly describe heavenly dew, except by its effect? Prayer, sighs, grief, breast, dew: a constellation more than a progression of images, in which the human subject participates but does not control. In Barbara Guest’s words,
Ideas. As they find themselves. In trees?
To choose a century they are prepared to inhabit. Dreams set by
typography. A companionship with crewlessness—shivering fleece—
And, another Guest poem, "Roses," ends:
The roses of Juan Gris from which
we learn the selflessness of roses
existing perpetually without air,
the lid being down, so to speak,
a 1912 fragrance sifting
to the left corner where we read
"The Marvelous" and escape.
Oppen’s phrase, "the shipwreck of the singular," drawn from Mallarme’s Un Coup des Des, refers to the successful breakdown of a poetics of "master"y, an emphasis on a dominating imaginative control over the elements of the world, a focus on a sense and celebration of the monumental. A restoration of multiplicity, "of being numerous," takes the place of the singular, predicting a more democratic poetics of participation. Hemans, in her 1816 poem Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy, narrates the return of classical art to Italy after Napoleon’s theft of many works, but as Nanora Sweet has demonstrated, restoration for Hemans can mean more than one thing. It is either the celebration of the return of monuments as monuments, a recovery of a stable if anachronistic past, or it recognizes that "classical artwork and culture are permanently destabilized; and a consciousness of history flows from the breakage of this art and the energy associated with its removal" (Sweet 175). Destabilization takes the form of images of fragmentation, displacement, and dispersal, and, says Sweet, is often figured by Hemans in the "broken or crushed flower" associated with "the feminine" since Sappho. "Characterized by a shifting spectrum of 'hues’ and by a cycle of growth, destruction, and resurgence, a floral aesthetic suggests not only fragility but also a productivity and recurrence available in history and for consciousness" (174). Returned to Italy after their being plundered, works of art now bring with them this historical awareness of their "fall" amidst their sustaining beauty; it desubstantiates but does not destroy them: they are converted into a kind of quotation of their former selves and thus de-monumentalized. Although she does not apply Hemans’s refiguring of the monumental in art to her own poetics, Sweet paves the way, I believe, for my discussion of poetics and for Jerome J. McGann’s essay—dialogue on Hemans’s poetics of quotation and the "signifying sign," "Literary History, Romanticism, and Felicia Hemans."
McGann argues that Hemans’s popular "The Homes of England" does not praise the great homes of the past and the aristocratic hierarchies that they represent, thereby confirming their monumental status, but quotes the language and the atmosphere that produced them, "a conscious elevation of various inherited and signifying signs" (222). The things that are her subjects become "mere" words. McGann says that when Kingsley Amis called a Hemans poem "superficially superficial," he has gotten it just right; the phrase and the criticism behind it reminds me of Scott’s saying that her poems were too much flowers and not enough fruit. "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. This is why she says that she has 'a heart of home, though no home be for it here’ (Harriet Hughes, Memoirs of the Life 188): like the stately houses reimaged in her poem, Hemans’s works understand that they are haunted by death and insubstantialities" (McGann 220). Domesticity, the locus of enormous ambivalence for Hemans, may also be seen as a monumental institution that at times engulfs her but the terms of which she can at times in her poems set free. Hemans’s visionary imagination deals with the crumbling of the monumental and its "restoration" as a poetry of the signifying sign, a thinning out of the substantial, dramatized, in our terms, as a giving value to the wasting, expiring breath and its perfumed words.
A poetry of expiration proposes something without center and structure, something not guided and shaped by the clear beaming of a speaking subject. Under the sway of the nineteenth-century’s conviction that a "woman’s poem" possessed certain intractable limitations, George Gilfillan still wrote accurately about Felicia Hemans (Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, n.s.14, June 1847, 359-63). Her major weakness, but also what describes her poem is this: "A maker she is not. . . . She is less a maker than a musician, and her works appear rather to rise to the airs of the piano than that still sad music of humanity" (Hemans, Selected Poems 593). The whiff of condescension, the piano an occasion for proper (young) female accomplishment, ought not deter us from the interesting distinction between maker and musician; a maker composes at a distance from experience, craft of composition places experience in the background and allows for the possibility of "perfection"; to make is to build a structure, a monument. A musician enacts art in the moment, which erupts from the experience at hand. A maker has the distance and perspective to know, to formulate a Wordsworthian still, sad music of humanity, whereas the musician might sing it but not know it for what it is. "Airs" can refer both to the song rising on the air, but also to the air itself made up of song.
Gilfillan places a premium on the long monumental poem. "Indeed, with such delicate organization, and such intense susceptiveness as hers, the elaboration, the long reach of thought, the slow cumulative advance, the deep-curbed, yet cherished ambition which a great work requires and implies, are, we fear, incompatible." He is untroubled by the fact that Hemans wrote long poems and plays because he finds them wooden and stale and may be right to slot her in as a lyric temperament, which he defines perceptively: "She has caught, in her poetry, passing words of her own mind—meditations of the sleepless night—transient glimpses of thought, visiting her in her serener hours. . . ." A Hemans poem, "flowing from a gentle mind in a happy hour, as an 'ointment poured forth’," "carries a humble name in fragrance far down into futurity. . . ." Formulating an anti-monumental poetry, disembodied, evanescent, he concludes—in a passage associating her with Shelley—extravagantly about her poems: "the sweet sounds often overpowered the meaning, kissing it, as it were, to death. . . ." The charge that sound exceeded sense, in violation of poetic propriety, was of course levelled against Keats and other Cockney school poets, whereas here Gilfillan seems ready to give Hemans her due. Speaking of her "sweet sound" and "sweetest strains," he further characterizes her poetry as more sensuously and affectively communicative than cognitive; "sweet," the Dantean epithet or predicate for that apprehension beyond words, and music, that recalls Zukofsky’s statement that if speech is the lower limit of poetry, music is the highest limit.
In a famous passage from Shelley’s Defence of Poetry the Poet alters the feelings and the sense of the listener but not necessarily his or her knowledge or wisdom: "The Poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not when or why."
It is a matter of inflection: what Gilfillan considers a lower order of poetry, a female poetry of affect, music, fragrance that cannot achieve the cumulative, thought-ful and meaning-ful power of a presumably masculine long poem, long meditated and crafted, becomes in our time prized as avant-garde, as a "disembodied poetics."
In spite of Keats being consumed with a grounded poetry of "identity," his genius and real contribution to poetics, as John Bayley long ago observed, was one grounded less in the subject and more in the object (or objects). When at a party, "not myself goes home to myself," a true observation and an anxiety not unlike some of Hemans’s—an anxiety, taking different pathways, about form, centeredness, and the stability and presence of the self. But a poetry in which grief unfolds its sighs, like a flower discloses its odors, to be met by a falling dew is positing both a self and a poetry that defines "form" as diffusion and correspondences: the self opens to the world and to the cosmos.
"The habit of improvisation, never disciplined, disposed her to a looseness of style, an incoherence of thought, that no after revision corrected" (Robinson). I have made a case for her "incoherence of thought." But what is more interesting here is the association of this with a "habit of improvisation." Others in the nineteenth century observed the same thing, prompted in part by the poet’s own fascination—as were many of her contemporaries—with the type of Italian performance poet called an Improvisatore, or Improvisatrice—a public performer of extemporaneous poems—apparently like the performance poet of today and those who perform at the popular contests called poetry slams. In a recent article, Caroline Gonda has outlined the extraordinary range of interest in the Improvisatore not only in England but in the Romantic literature of France, Russia, and Italy. Along with L.E.L. Felicia Hemans wrote about these heroes of quicksilver singing in "Corinne at the Capitol" (based only Madame de Stael’s novel, Corinne, about an improvisatrice) and "The Dying Improvisatore." The figure appealed to Hemans first for his or her passionate spontaneity and speed of "composition," for the association with divine inspiration—poetry as breath:
And thy [Corinne’s] voice is heard to rise
With a low and lovely tone
In its thrilling power alone. . . .
All the spirit of the sky
now hath lit thy large dark eye,
And thy cheek a flush hath caught
From the joy of kindled thought; . . .
Hemans, Selected Poems 460
The improvisatrice weds thought and heat, poetic thinking as hotter than other thinking, more eroticized.
This intensity of achievement, marked also by the loss of self amidst public performance, was seen as very appealing and "triumphant" in its leap beyond the "fetters" of ordinary consciousness and into the minds and spirits of a rapt audience. A version of a "disembodied poetics," however, it demanded a severe sacrifice of the composition, the permanent, and always implied that the performance would seriously exceed the written version in brilliance or, in Hemans’s word, "lustre." Indeed the poem would be the sign of an "expiring" rhapsody. Mary Shelley wrote (in "The English in Italy," 1826): "the poet himself forgets all his former imagination, and is hurried on to create fresh imagery, while the effects of his former inspirations are borne away with the breath that uttered them, never again to be recalled" ("Italy" 203). This privileging of the speed of successive perceptions anticipates Charles Olson’s famous Black Mountain manifesto, "Projective Verse," with its insistence upon the rapid movement "from perception to perception," "INSTANTER," which produces a poetry of an image of the mind in its most active state.
"The Dying Improvisatore" is another Death Song that catches the sacrificial experience of improvisational poetry for the speaker and, it is certain, for Hemans herself. Dying, he regrets that he has not left behind "Of love and grief one deep, true fervant song, . . ."
But like a lute’s brief tone,
Like a rose-odour as the breezes cast,
Like a swift flush of a dayspring, seen and gone,
So hath my spirit pass’d!
Pouring itself away,
As a wild bird amidst the foliage turns
That which within him triumphs, beats, or burns,
Into a fleeting lay,
That swells, and floats, and dies
Leaving no echo. . . .
Hemans, Selected Poems 433
Hemans quoted part of this passage in one of her last letters applying it to her own felt failure at monumentality and permanence; supporting children "has obliged me to waste my mind in what I consider mere desultory effusions. . . .I have always, hitherto, written as if in the breathing times of Autumn storms and billows. . . ." Her poem "The Diver"—interestingly, like the Improvisatore, one who gets his gems from the depths of the ocean, that is, from a different domain of being—concentrates further the sacrifice of the ego, the social gratification, for the art:
But, oh! The price of bitter tears,
Paid for the lonely power
That throws at last, oe’r desert years,
A darkly-glorious dower!
Like flower-seeds, by the wild wind spread,
So radiant thoughts are strewed;
--The soul whence those high gifts are shed,
May faint in solitude!
Hemans, Selected Poems 462
Hemans’s late poetry was, to her apparent regret, too fully a poetry of experience, too rooted in the present pain to gain the necessary "composure" for a major work. She bears interesting comparison, in this regard, to her sister of the previous generation Charlotte Smith, whose life of abuse and effectual imprisonment to raising ten children on her own led to the irrepressible announcement of her pain in practically all of the Elegiac Sonnets. Yet the poems stay rooted in the self, even though when taken as a large group of sonnets they work as a set of vibrant stars in a grand constellation; it’s a different approach to the extension of the self beyond the pain of experience: you would never describe her poetics as "disembodied."
For Hemans the figures of the Improvisatore, the nightingale, and the very type of female poet of pain Sappho, all work out similar versions of sacrifice or disembodiment. Fettered, as it were, compromised by economics, her poetry—in her view—is compromised, or nearly negated: "waste" she often calls it. Instead of adding to the world something of value, she has only polluted it further. But in her best lyrics, and in the drama of consciousness they enact, we experience that instantaneous reversal of the meaningless into the valued, the empty into the full, the oblivious into the represented, the dead into the living, the transformation of "waste" matter that Charles Reznikoff so wonderfully describes:
These days the papers in the street
leap into the air or burst across the lawns--
not a scrap but has the breath of life:
these in a gust of wind
those for a moment lie still and sun themselves.
The principle of animated personification in the speaker’s consciousness in the poem comes from the breath of the wind. Or, in William Carlos Williams’s "Between Walls" a broken bottle gleams the color of new growth. Indeed, we can give a Hemans title to each of these poems: The Voices of Spring:
the back wings
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green
There are lyrics of Felicia Hemans that cause my mind to turn around. I have been surprised to discover how taken I am with more than a few of these late lyrics—poems in some ways so encrusted with conventional diction, with a lack of linguistic and imagistic conflict. (She hardly could be said to follow Keats’s dictum to Shelley—to load every rift of her subject with ore. But then, perhaps, she is a poet of the rifts.) The critics praised her elegance, her sweetness, her harmony. I agree. But my mind does not therefore shut down. There’s an intensity that crops up, a patterning, an insistant repetition of ideas that keep re-forming around a fairly limited set of images. I sense there is authentic poetry in this poetry, which means a "kindling" of the beautiful, of praise. As conventional and unresisting as it is, the poems do "rise" (as do the Indian Woman’s and Corinna’s songs) out of the pre-articulate speech of the collective upon which poems are inscribed and yet maintaining reference to the death-centered "flow" of waters, of air. They march an anxious distance from and proximity to death, and if, during the time of their speaking, they are pauses in our ideology, then they are. . .subversive.
Jabes: Subversion is the very movement of writing: that of death. Rosemarie Waldrop quotes Jabes on this elemental subversiveness in all action: "Waking upsets the order of sleep, thinking hounds the voice to get the better of it, speech in unfolding breaks the silence, and reading challenges every sentence written" (48). Jabes is speaking about all action of everyone, and it would make no sense to apply this to Hemans simply because she writes poems, but her poems specifically evoke Jabes’s way of thinking precisely because they appear to come close to being banal, which in Jabes’s terms, would constitute for poetry no action, causing no change.
Waldrop urges me further along the path of subversion, first with an observation of Adorno: "art does not recognize reality by reproducing it photographically, but by voicing that which is veiled by the empirical forms of reality." And secondly with her own "thesis" (derived from Bataille): "the function of poetry is to waste excessive energy" (49). And thirdly with the following pairing:
Shelley: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
George Oppen: "Poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world."
In her best lyrics Hemans calls attention to the unacknowledged (veiled) world. This is a basic act of poetry, but it is an act that appears antithetical to the world of production and exchange. Waste: suddenly an economy of scarcity joins questions of social and moral value, poised severely before the poem. By placing value on what the world considers waste, the poem further acts subversively. And what is subversion if not a charge of energy, a jolt in the system?
Hemans’s anxiety about waste, apparent in some poems and certainly in her self-assessment just before death, seems resolvable to her. Her belief as a poet guides her to find both positive and negative experience of poetic value. In "Our Daily Paths" (Hemans, Selected Poems 430), having been asked by the philosopher Dugald Stewart to write not about "melancholy" but about the beautiful, she responds with a seriousness shown in moving from an account (visionary in its close imagist attentiveness to natural detail) of beauty in nature to an acknowledgment of the "cares" and burdens which necessarily accompany or even define life experience, and finally to a comic vision of acceptance of both world and self. Her use of the long line, the fourteener, visualizes the accommodation of beauty and sorrow, product and waste, self and God. (Characteristically in Hemans’s lyrics the speaking or lyric subject relaxes its boundaries before the world.)
These expanded lines allow the reader to see an expanded world as the narrow one (where a reader typically resides before the poem begins) is described, as "cares, that ofttimes bind us fast,/ While from their narrow round we see the golden day fleet past." The expanded line belongs, so to speak, to God who feeds, even though they neither sow nor reap the lilies of the field and the sweet birds of the air. Like poetry, the birds and lilies are a kind of "waste" saved and valued by God. Poetry as visionary experience mediates the world’s relationship to holiness.
There are two companion pieces, one "Night-Blowing Flowers" and the other "The Wanderer and the Night Flowers," but in one edition each title wanders to the other poem. In each poem a wanderer at night addresses flowers that unfold or disclose their bloom upon the air. In one poem ("Children of night! . . .") the wanderer, apparently arrested by the sweet scent put forth, addresses them full of descriptive praise, leading him to find correspondences to holy exercise. The fullness of the air, its "sweet breathings," nurtures and stimulates its analogue in the poem. The second poem ("Call back your odours") is a dialogue between the wanderer and the night-flowers themselves:
Call back your odours, lonely flowers,
From the night-wind call them back,
And fold your leaves till the laughing hours
Come forth on the sunbeam’s track!
The lark lies couch’d in his grassy nest,
And the honey-bee is gone,
And all bright things are away to rest--
Why watch ye thus alone?
Is not your world a mournful one,
When your sisters close their eyes,
And your soft breath meets not a lingering tone
Of song in the starry skies?
Take ye no joy in the dayspring’s birth,
When it kindles the sparks of dew?
And the thousand strains of a forest’s mirth,
Shall they gladden all but you?
Shut your sweet bells till the fawn comes out
On the sunny turf to play,
And the woodland child, with a fairy shout,
Goes dancing on his way.
Nay, let our shadowy beauty bloom;
When the stars give quiet light;
And let us offer our faint perfume
On the silent shrine of night.
Call it not wasted, the scent we lend
To the breeze when no step is nigh;
Oh! Thus for ever the earth should send
Her grateful breath on high!
And love us as emblems, night’s dewy flowers,
Of hopes unto sorrow given,
That spring through the gloom of the darkest hours,
Looking alone to Heaven!
The simple yet strange opening petition tells that night-wanderers have travelled into strange states of mind: "Wandering and confused, lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradictory, / Pausing, gazing, bending, and stopping" (Whitman, "The Sleepers"). Made vulnerable by darkness and (temporary) homelessness, the wanderer’s senses wake up into his confusion. This is true in both poems, but here he reacts protectively and conservatively, encouraging the flowers to retract their odors, to reverse nature, which seems thoroughly possible in his confusion. Making an analogy to the domain of poetry, one can say that the wanderer’s remarks are anti-poetic, about enclosing rather than disclosing; the petition, however, comes from a spirit of praise and love, and we might say from another poetic instinct of containment and deferral: release the odors later, in the day! But in this proposal, the wanderer reveals a conventionality of vision, a narrowness in the imagination, and a willingness to stay within a familiar domain. The night is a new domain, with different landmarks and different rules and possible events that evoke the coordinate of spiritual love.
At the same time the wanderer instinctively, poetically, deems the odors precious; he wants to save them for what he considers proper use. The issue again is waste. Neither the wanderer nor the night-flowers want any waste, but they imagine good uses differently. Yet read coolly from outside the wanderer’s poetic psychosis, the poem suggests that waste may be all there is; but to imagine waste is to imagine the precious, to describe and praise the unacknowledged.
To unfold, to disclose, to expire, to release the breath that is waste. The wanderer exhorts the flowers not to waste their breath. The dictionary recognizes a "night-blooming flower," a "night-blooming cereus, any of several tropical cacti of the genera Hylocereus and Selenicereus, with flowers that open only at night, esp. H. undilatus, which has very large fragrant white flowers."
Blowing, a form of breathing, is also a blooming. These blooms originate in the tropics, intense and penetrating coming from afar, from another domain, that stimulate the trope of metaphor in the speaker. The expiring is also the blooming, creative breath.
The poem proposes two different poetries: the first suggests a poetics of deferral and containment: closure, postponing the end, contemplating and remembering. The second indicates a poetics of presentness, of participation in the moment. The second fits more with the poem’s imagery, with its disclosing and dispensing of perfumes. It also fits with the imagery of expiration, in which poem’s close, like breath’s close, occurs "organically," only with the death of breath itself. Both of these poems, moreover, operate as correspondences: flowers are not only like people but work on the same principle of unfolding—odors, prayers—in a cosmos that, in spite of dispersal, is shaped responsively, by heaven. To import an image from Rilke, it is as if the dispersed odors and prayers eventually come to rest in the hands of God.
Unlike the fourteen-syllable lines of "Our Daily Path," the lines of "Call back your odors" are short, but each couplet makes up the fourteen syllables. These shorter lines belong to the night, the time of transformation or conversion—from narrower (daytime) to wider (daytime plus nighttime) vision, a more typical drama of mind in Hemans’s poetry. The lyric subject, absorbed in what it is observing and experiencing, remains shadowy, itself on the verge of extinction, yet turns around in its apprehension of a world given in relationship through the divine.
In this essay I have been proposing that Hemans’s poetics of expiration thrives on the reversal of the implication of the expiring breath—an emptying out, an entropy, dying itself—into a filling and celebrating. The voice of what expires has a content deemed more precious for its thinness (as opposed to the effusive—that is, full and "thick" and ever-abundant—voice). The emptying becomes a disclosure and a proliferation. Not surprisingly, Hemans often dwells in the multiple: anaphora and parataxis appear with some regularity. In the poetry of expiration, the dying breath, a loss of the lyric subject’s integrity, its boundedness, recovers in new forms, which can include an accounting of elements of the referent, the world. As an expression of holiness, multiplicity for Hemans appears as correspondences radiating from the divine source. Poetry as correspondences that expand our sense of the world in a potentially infinite series mapped onto a "cosmic" area is a central feature of open-form poetry that exchanges the "shipwreck of the singular" for the possibility "of being numerous" (Oppen).
Hemans’s beautiful poem "To Wordsworth" (Hemans, Selected Poems 415) casts a light on that poet different from what the twentieth century has offered, under no matter what critical dispensation. For our century he epitomizes the "poet of the self," one whose identity is stated clearly from the outset and whose poems chart an Odyssey of self-bewilderment and rediscovery; further identified with "the poet" or with one of several possible social and political subject-positions, Wordsworth’s speakers have resided for us on the human scale, recognizable as persons who thrive in some aspect of our social world. He has been for us the psychosocial ego as hero.
Hemans addresses Wordsworth in that same scale (the ten-syllable line), but the poetry she is elaborating does not highlight the ego or the social person. Clearly she struggled with this issue in her title for the poem. She first called it "To the Author of the Excursion and the Lyrical Ballads," then "To the Poet Wordsworth," and finally "To Wordsworth." The poem’s successive titles reflect her redefinition of his poetics and his effect on readers. A published author’s poems reach the reader on the level of the marketplace; in an age so newly attuned to the power of the market place to affect response to poetry, Hemans—herself so completely a beneficiary of the marketplace’s largesse—sees Wordsworth’s function as that of "deep song," striking at a more intrinsic level of being, the soul. To call Wordsworth a "poet" would bypass the problem of the marketplace but would characterize him in terms of his writing and his calling. To be a poet in the decade (1820s) after high Romanticism is both to establish a professional distinction and a certain alienation and specialization, but also it indicates the labor of writing inscribed, distinctly, upon the flow of pre-articulate voices. Hemans often ventriloquises these voices (e.g. "The Voices of Spring," "The Sound of the Sea," "The Lyre’s Lament," "The Voice of Music," "The Voice of the Waves"). Even "The Nightingale’s Death Song" and "The Last Song of Sappho" and even more "The Indian Woman’s Death Song" gain a certain authenticity as they approach the place where poetic language as a form of death and the pre-articulate language of nature and the collective merge. Finally, she lights upon "To Wordsworth" as a way of naming and praising a poetry that for her merges with and supplements the voices of nature which surface and "flow forth" as the healthful waves of the sources of life. Her Wordsworth is a poet not "sentimental," belonging to the stage of self-conscious inscription upon the world, but rather of "deep song" (like the origins of Garcia Lorca’s poetry, "canto profundo"). Her poem "discloses" or "diffuses" a definition and evaluation of his "deep song":
Thine is a strain to read among the hills,
The old and full of voices—by the source
Of some free stream, whose gladdening presence fills
The solitude with sound; for in its course
Even such is thy deep song, that seems a part
Of those high scenes, a fountain from their heart.
Hemans is emulating, or envisioning, the effect, as she sees it, of Wordsworth’s poetry, pouring out from some free stream. The ten-syllable lines are for her unusually full and slowly paced (filled with a preponderance of monosyllables). Within the rhymed stanza form are well-placed enjambments (momentarily recalling Wordsworth’s own blank verse) that further lengthen the line. Adjectives modify dimly and unobtrusively, unabashedly serving the "flow" of line to its natural end. Two apparently opposing motions characterize his poetry: 1) poetry fills spaces or containers and 2) it "diffuses" or discloses, the latter, as we have seen, occurring in the presence of death and dying:
Or where the shadows of dark solemn yews
Brood silently o’er some lone burial ground,
Thy verse hath power that brightly might diffuse
A breath, a kindling, as of spring, around; . . .
Wordsworth, like the hills, has different voices for different occasions, and each stanza elaborates one, showing how in each case it insinuates itself into the well-being of persons. His poetry has no waste. Moreover, he has managed the task of religious poetry, the singular source and the many manifestations:
True bard and holy!--thou art e’en as one
Who, by some secret gift of soul or eye,
In every spot beneath the smiling sun,
Sees where the springs of living waters lie:
Unseen a while they sleep--till, touched by thee,
Bright healthful waves flow forth, to each glad wanderer free.
Bard, not poet, conduit of vision, seer but not maker, magician perhaps, who sets in motion the living energies that find their ways to those open to them, wanderers vulnerable to encountering the preciousness of the principle of life.
Although his verse can "diffuse / A breath, a kindling, as of spring, around," it is not described in any way as expiration; in this regard her Wordsworth’s poetry might be called "naïve" while her own would be "sentimental": her verse itself shows its consciousness of death. Although we might find that Hemans simplifies Wordsworth’s poetry, she would more accurately be said to focus, in ways that we often forget to do, on the visionary side of it, the expansive qualities that take us past a social consciousness into the sources of life. One wonders if this poem written in 1826 affected Wordsworth’s poetry of the late 1820s and early 1830s. Evening Voluntaries is underappreciated by all but a few Wordsworth scholars, a "suite" of poems that attempts, even in its ten-syllable rhyming couplets, a streaming of verse, a gentle supplement that "sees where the springs of living waters lie."
We need to consider her epithets "true" and "holy," which are not simply general terms of reverent praise but are descriptive of a unique content and effect that may refer to that towards which Hemans herself struggled. Given that poetry deals with appearances, "true" and "holy" poetry, particularly for one, as Susan Howe said of Dickinson, "on the trace of the holy," would be that which manage within the borders of the poem to see and release the "numinous," as not so much a feeling but the objective presence of the divine (cf. Rudolph Otto). She proposes that he or she capable of receiving this is defined as wandering, vulnerable and unmoored but "glad" and revived on the journey of life. Hemans grants to Wordsworth the achievement of bardic holiness which, I believe, would constitute her own (late) goal as poet, but her poems reveal the tension she faces between the call of holiness and the call of poetry; her last poems are moving precisely because she understands this tension as central to modern (i.e. nineteenth-century) poetry and successfully makes it the drama of her lyrics.
Shortly after the death of Felicia Hemans in 1835 three poets—Laetitia Landon, Elizabeth Barrett, and William Wordsworth—composed tributes in poetry. All, particularly the first two, give serious and relevant readings of her work and catch Hemans’s conflict between poetry and holiness in their debate. As her poem proceeds, Landon attaches herself to Hemans the person and finds her life, with its sorrows and burdens, has seeped into the poems. Using Hemans’s imagery (and quoting an opening line of one of her most popular lyrics) she petitions:
Bring flowers,--the perfumed, and the pure,--
Those with the morning dew,
A sigh in every fragrant leaf,
A tear on every hue.
So pure, so sweet thy life has been,
So filling earth and air
With odours and with loveliness,
Till common scenes grew fair.
Thy song is sorrowful as winds
That wander o’er the plain,
And ask for summer’s vanished flowers,
And ask for them in vain.
The perfumed expirations that fill others with pleasure contain the sorrows of her life, and the rest of the poem builds up Hemans as a poet of the "bitter logic" and scarce economy of the historical poet sacrificed to her work. Barrett refuses the easy grief in order to concentrate on her poetic line as something not touched by death;
Perhaps she shudder’d while the world’s
Cold hand her brow was wreathing:
But wrong’d she ne’er that mystic breath
Which breathed in all her breathing,--
Which drew from rocky earth and man
Abstractions high and moving,--. . .
Unerringly she catches the language of Hemans’s line with its insistent language of breath and/as expiration which for Barrett belongs properly to a poetry of holiness, unconstrained by her personal burdens. Between Landon and Barrett there appears the question of poetry’s submission to the normative or to biology. Wordsworth’s language for Hemans in "Extempore Effusion on the Death of James Hogg" comes straight from her poem in praise of him: "holy," "spring," "deep," and (with reference to her death), "breath"(less). Indeed the phrase "holy Spirit, / Sweet as the spring," puts the debate about her in terms of the conflict between holiness and the sense of responsiveness of poetry to the world.
Scott’s complaint from 1823, that Hemans’s poetry was too "poetical" with too many flowers and too little fruit, is, I have tried to show, precisely correct for and prophetic of her later lyrics. Disinclined to be dismissive, Scott puts off his valuation onto his "elderly" condition, as if to categorize hers as a poetry of youth, which means, of course, not the poetry of a person of relatively few years but one whose poetry engages spring-time energies of renewal, the visionary sense of finding in the wasteful expirations of flowers the sources of life, beauty, and love—in the infinitely capacious title of Williams’s early book, Spring and All. A paradox of visionary poetry: generativity without fruit! Mary Wollstonecraft (Vindication of the Rights of Man) associated the "flowers" of Edmund Burke’s rhetoric of invective against the French Revolution and its sympathizers with self-serving passions, with avoidance of the plight of the poor and of women, and with irrationality. She and Scott meet on the grounds of assessing the deleterious effects of figurative language as ornament, a venerable tradition in the history of, in particular, theory of metaphor. Hemans, I am arguing, anticipates the other tradition that finds perceptual transformation embedded in the (excessive) privileging of the supplement.
Tempted to conclude with reference to this poetics of visionary fecundity and generativity, I have nonetheless been haunted by a harsher construction of these apparently slight yet very appealing lyrics, one that tests further their poet’s investment in "poetry" in an absolute sense. We have learned to encompass or interpret Hemans’s poetry through the lenses of the biographical, history and the historical, the religious, the domestic, and all of which in turn rests finally upon the issues of gender. These late lyrics, so often stripped of obvious markers of social situatedness particularly when compared to her earlier longer narrative, discursive, and dramatic works, really do seem, as Sweet observed, displacements from that rootedness in contexts. The expiring breath, the hues and odors, the dying songs all contribute to the sense of dis-, or rather, un-location. A disembodiment for the sake of the holy implies a poetry of the absolute, at the same time that language as meaning-ful is emptied, as a "superficial superficiality." Hemans’s terror, late in her life, that she had "wasted" her capacities on small poems instead of grander projects may be masking the (divine terror) of an extreme poetic utterance "without content" and may be what Fanny Howe means by "separation’s horror." As Holderlin said: "I fear that I might end like the old Tantalus who received more from the Gods than he could take." For a brief period in her career, Felicia Hemans committed herself to a poetic heroism unique in the Romantic Era.
The text of some of the poems discussed in this essay are taken from Susan Wolfson’s edition of Hemans’s work, Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials. The texts of the rest of Hemans’s poetry come from Hemans, Poems.
In addition to Rudolph Otto’s classic The Idea of the Holy, see Grossman, "Holiness," in Schoolroom 179-88; and, for a discussion of the politics of holiness—the singular vs. the multiple and the advent of Islam—see the Arab poet Adonis.
I am indebted to Laura Mandell for making the association from the poem of expiration to the effusion.
In the 1853 edition, the poem called "Night-blowing Flowers" begins "Children of night! Unfolding meekly, slowly" (Hemans, Poems 611), and the one called "The Wanderer and the Night Flowers" begins "'Call back your odors, lovely flowers!" (Hemans, Selected Poems 439).
L.E.L., "Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans" which first appeared in 1835 (Hemans, Selected Poems 571).
"Stanzas Addressed to Miss Landon, and Suggested by her 'Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans'" (Hemans, Selected Poems 574).
Quoted in Agamben 5.
Barrett, Elizabeth. "Stanzas Addressed to Miss Landon, and Suggested by her 'Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans. " New Monthly Magazine 45 (1835): 82.
Gonda, Caroline. "The Rise and Fall of the Improvisatore, 1753-1845." Romanticism 6.2 (2000): 195-210. DOI:10.3366/rom.2000.6.2.195
Grossman, Allen. The Long Schoolroom: Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997.
Hemans, Felicia. Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials. Ed. Susan Wolfson. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.
Landon, Letitia Elizabeth (L.E.L.). "Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans." New Monthly Magazine 44 (July 1835): 286-88.
Levertov, Denise. "Some Notes on Organic Form." The Poet in the World. New York: New Directions, 1973.
McGann, Jerome. "Literary History, Romanticism, and Felicia Hemans." In Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837. Eds. Carol Shiner Wilson, Joel Haefner. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1994. 210-27.
Robinson, Mary F. "Felicia Hemans." In The English Poets. Ed. Thomas Humphry Ward. The 19th century: Wordsworth to Dobell. London: Macmillan, 1880.
Shelley, Mary. "The English in Italy." 1826. In The Mary Shelley Reader. Eds. Betty Bennett, Charles Robinson. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.
Sweet, Nanora. "History, Imperialism, and the Aesthetics of the Beautiful." In At the Limits of Romanticism. Eds. Mary A. Favret, Nicola J. Watson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.
Waldrop, Rosemarie. "Alarms & Excursions." In The Politics of Poetic Form. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof Books, 1990.
|Author:||Jeffrey C. Robinson|
|Title:||The Poetics of Expiration: Felicia Hemans|
|Journal:||Romanticism on the Net, Number 29-30, February-May 2003|
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