Rather than dutifully producing conventional elegies bemoaning the loss of the exemplary woman poet immediately after Felicia Hemans’s death in 1835, Letitia Elizabeth Landon daringly objects to the disjunction between Hemans’s life and her public image. Landon dissents from regarding Hemans’s poetry as unblemished in its depiction of women’s traditional domestic role and instead hints at the subversive, indirect discontent she detects in Hemans’s verse — long before twentieth-century critics. Women writers must surely have enjoyed witnessing their gender’s growing success in the literary market, but, since women were competing against one another directly in the public sphere, it was inevitable that some regarded each other as competitors and experienced envy of others’ achievements. After her sister’s death, Harriet Hughes might record that Hemans “would rejoice in [the gifted writers of her own sex’s] success with true sisterly disinterestedness,” but Landon does not appear to have adopted such a “generous” stance (121).
Rather than dutifully producing conventional elegies bemoaning the loss of the exemplary woman poet immediately after Felicia Hemans’s death in 1835, Letitia Elizabeth Landon daringly objects to the disjunction between Hemans’s life and her public image: she notes that Hemans could not keep her husband. Landon dissents from regarding Hemans’s poetry as unblemished in its depiction of women’s traditional domestic role and instead hints at the subversive, indirect discontent she detects in Hemans’s verse—long before twentieth-century critics. Ann R. Hawkins recently contended that “romantic women writers are less frequently analyzed as members of a community” in contrast with male writers of the period, although “[c]ritics and literary historians have made general assertions about the shared aims and subject matter of romantic women writers” (1). Indeed, critics such as Ellen Moers and Elaine Showalter have posited a literary ‘sisterhood’ among nineteenth-century women writers, but Landon’s commentaries suggest the more probable reality. Women writers must surely have enjoyed witnessing their gender’s growing success in the literary market, but, since women were competing against one another directly in the public sphere, it was inevitable that some regarded each other as competitors and experienced envy of others’ achievements. After her sister’s death, Harriet Hughes might record that Hemans “would rejoice in [the gifted writers of her own sex’s] success with true sisterly disinterestedness,” but Landon does not appear to have adopted such a “generous” stance (121).
It is essential briefly to underscore both Landon’s and Hemans’s public personae and how their contemporaries viewed and reviewed them in order to contextualize my examination of Landon’s texts. Indubitably, it is difficult to position poets at more extreme poles of the general categorization of women writers than these two. As Norma Clarke notes (rather broadly) in discussing nineteenth-century women writers, “it was their virtues and failings as women which determined the scope of the discussion of their virtues and failings as writers”; Margaret J. M. Ezell concurs that, during this period, “without success as a ‘woman,’ a female writer can expect little credit to be given to her writings” (Clarke 81; Ezell 97). Landon’s and Hemans’s personal situations and individual identities led them to assume very different positions; their signatures can be used, perhaps, as an indicator of their publicly conceived and perceived categorization.
Hemans’s position in the public sphere can be simplistically encapsulated in and exemplified by her adoption and maintenance of “Mrs. Hemans” as her signature (Stephenson 26). Having published her first volume of verse at age fourteen and subsequently finding herself with five sons to support, Hemans “cultivated a rather matronly image” and embraced the position of a writing wife and mother (Stephenson 26). Her verse was accepted as emanating from within this increasingly socially permissible cultural determination. As such, Hemans became thereafter, according to Clarke, “the undisputed representative poet of Victorian imperial and domestic ideology,” but her actual life lay far from the traditional conception (45). Kevin Eubanks provides an illuminating discussion of Hemans’s gendered public reception and “hints” of critics’ awareness of Hemans’s unusual domestic circumstances in contemporary reviews in “Minerva’s Veil: Hemans, Critics, and the Construction of Gender” (1997). Although there is no confirmed biographical explanation, after six years of marriage Hemans’s husband left her and their children for Italy in 1818, never to return, and remaining unwilling to have his family join him. Anne K. Mellor discusses the effect of this separation upon Hemans’s writing and speculates about some of the other “reasons” behind it in Romanticism and Gender (124-43). William Michael Rossetti suggests that Hemans preferred “the family affections of daughter and mother” to “conjugal love” (14). Both Mrs. Rose Lawrence (1836) and Peter W. Trinder (1984) suggest the separation was rooted in general incompatibility (qtd. in Mellor, Romanticism 134). Clarke points out that the “awkward truth was conveniently ignored” during Hemans’s literary career and after her death, as evinced in the earliest biography of Hemans, Henry F. Chorley’s Memorials of Mrs. Hemans, with Illustrations of Her Literary Character from Her Private Correspondence (1836) (33). In opening, Chorley asserts that he purposely refrains “from touching upon any such details of the delicate circumstances of her domestic life, as were not necessary to the illustrations of her literary character” (1: vii). Nevertheless, Chorley draws attention to these very “delicate circumstances” in stating his intention to avoid them.
That Landon was aware of Hemans’s “delicate circumstances” seems indubitable. They were certainly widespread knowledge even before Chorley’s evasive references in his biography; Clarke asserts that “a certain amount of tittle-tattle following [Hemans’s] death in 1835 made it inevitable that Harriet Hughes should refer to the separation when she came to write her memoir of her sister” (45). Hughes acknowledges the separation only passingly in one brief paragraph buried in the “Memoir” of Hemans which forms virtually the whole of the first of the seven-volume The Works of Mrs. Hemans (1839), published after both authors’ deaths. While it seems that Landon and Hemans never met personally, Landon did meet Maria Jane Jewsbury, Hemans’s great friend, and Jewsbury could conceivably have shed further insight upon Hemans’s unconventional marriage arrangement. In her essay on Hemans (which I discuss later), Landon records she “can never sufficiently regret that it was not my good fortune to know Mrs. Hemans personally”; Jewsbury informed her that Hemans was not a “happy person” but rather “‘like a lamp whose oil is consumed by the very light which it yields’” (“On the Character” 430-33). Landon was obviously aware of the difficulties a woman would encounter in venturing before the public, but she did not hesitate and, indeed, actively constructed mystique around her public emergence under the signature of “L.E.L.” Glennis Stephenson asserts that “the nineteenth-century tendency to identify the poet with the poem was always charged with particular authority when the writer was a woman”; surely William Jerdan accorded to this conflation in revealing initially only the gender and age of his mysterious contributor in 1822 (6).
While both Landon and Hemans were dependent upon the money they could earn by writing, and so their “dependence on men to gain access to the publishing world was of great importance,” Landon’s dependence upon the men of the literary world was certainly far more direct than Hemans’s (Armstrong 322). Landon did not successfully conform to contemporary critical expectations about a woman poet’s role and, seemingly, did not strive to attain such conformity. For Landon, a literary career, both a personal choice and a financial necessity, required independence and solitude in order to be maintained. Responding privately to scurrilous public gossip, her protest in a letter that “‘It is only because I am poor, unprotected, and dependent on popularity, that I am a mark for all the gratuitous insolence and malice of idleness and ill-nature. . . . I have not a friend in the world but [Jerdan] to manage any thing of business, whether literary or pecuniary’” (qtd. in Wharton 158), is ironic in light of Cynthia Lawford’s recent claims that Landon bore Jerdan three illegitimate children.
It should not be surprising, given these biographies and contemporary critical response, to discern that Landon’s poetic address of Hemans challenges the double standard nineteenth-century critics applied to these poets and their works. In discussing both authors, Mellor summarizes that “Felicia Hemans constructed her self and her poetry as the icon of female domesticity, the embodiment of the ‘cult of true womanhood,’” while Landon was “entirely complicit in her culture’s construction of female beauty, rewriting her own life and subjectivity to preexisting categories” (Romanticism 123, 113). Mellor suggests, then, that Landon capitalized on her physical appearance and her gender in adopting the role of “poetess” and in maintaining “Sorrow, Beauty, Love, Death” as women’s traditional subjects in her works (Romanticism 113). What Mellor neglects to acknowledge is that both women manipulate the pre-established categorization of women writers in their own way. Landon did not have the conventional experience of domesticity; she was, rather, “among the first of a long line of media-created ‘stars’ in the new print culture of the nineteenth century” (Romanticism 121). Since she did not control the critics, she could not be “entirely complicit” in her self-construction. The three texts she wrote addressing Hemans reveal her own protest against the ways in which critics often linked public image with public reception—and against a culture privileging false domesticity over genuine (if unconventional) existence.
Landon’s final address of Hemans, “Felicia Hemans,” included in the 1838 Drawing-Room Scrap-Book [hereafter DRSB 1838], is perhaps most revealing of the rich complexities evident in her continued address of her rival (10-11). The accompanying plate is taken from William E. West’s 1828 portrait of Hemans, and shows Hemans looking directly out from the canvas, seated in a chair against a wall with the hint of a garden in the left background. She is a rather matronly figure with carefully curled hair topped with a loose veil down her back; in her left hand, she holds a flower up toward her neck. In accordance with the public image accompanying her work, Hemans thus seems the epitome of contented domesticism even though neither husband nor children are present: “[a]s a poetic package marked for consumption, the visuals reflect the rhetorical operations within the poems themselves” (Montweiler 2).
Landon provides a note “descriptive” of the plate; as with other notes, Landon’s purpose seems rather to ground her own verse:
Felicia Dorothea Brown, was born at Liverpool, on the 25th September, 1793; and married to Capt. Hemans, from whom she was afterwards separated. The simple fact of her separation from her husband afforded sufficient ground for melancholy reflection, at the same time that it renders intelligible for the reader, those touches of sadness, those shadows of deep and early disappointment, which render her poetry so congenial to the feelings of the sensitive and sorrowful. . . . never were the chords of human feeling touched by a hand more skilful in the native melody of grief, than by that of this gifted and high-souled woman.DRSB 1838 56
Landon’s version of Hemans’s life is certainly very unjust in noting only her birth, marriage, and separation. She neglects any conventional listing of Hemans’s literary accomplishments, although she may safely have assumed readers’ familiarity with Hemans’s works by this time. Her note highlights, though, the one aspect of her life which would have deeply embarrassed Hemans: her separation from her husband. Simultaneously, Landon designates Hemans’s “minstrel” works as concerned principally with sorrow and grief, even while she seemingly consents to the elevated esteem of Hemans’s womanliness.
In the five sixteen-line stanzas of the poem itself, initially Landon seems quite conventional in her address of Hemans. The poem opens as a lament for the departed whose “beloved presence” will no longer “gladden earth” (2). But she then asserts Hemans’s literary ambition: “No more wilt thou with sad, yet anxious, yearning / Cling to those hopes which have no mortal birth” (DRSB 1838 3-4). Like Landon, Hemans herself was insightful and even, perhaps, resentful about the economic restraints under which she wrote: “it has ever been one of my regrets that the constant necessity of providing sums of money to meet the exigencies of the boys’ education, has obliged me to waste my mind in what I consider mere desultory effusions” (qtd. in Hughes 296). She admits a financial incentive behind her writing here; however, her letter continues to situate such a perception within a religious (and thus permissible) expression of desire: “My wish ever was to concentrate all my mental energy in the production of some more noble and complete work; something of pure and holy excellence (if there be not too much presumption in the thought), which might permanently take its place as the work of a British poetess” (qtd. in Hughes 296-97). Surely her readers did not regard this wish, carefully framed as it is, as an unseemly expression of literary ambition. Landon certainly veers away from any insinuation of inappropriate behavior on Hemans’s part. She observes that, “with thee departed, / How many lovely things have vanished too,” recalling “Thou hast been round us, like a viewless spirit, / Known only by the music on the air” (DRSB 1838 10, lines 5-6, 9-10). Alluding to Hemans’s physical absence from the London literary scene, Landon proceeds to evoke the strengths of Hemans’s address of nature, since merely by naming “leaf or flowers” Hemans endowed them with beauty (DRSB 1838 11). She also asserts that Hemans flung “strong emotion” on nature and reflected her own heart’s feelings in her poetry; she thus situates her poem in the elegiac tradition at its opening and expresses conventional admiration for the esteemed woman poet (DRSB 1838 13).
In their own time, certainly, Hemans’s poetic reputation was higher than Landon’s, a condition Landon acknowledges in “Felicia Hemans.” She pays tribute to Hemans’s foreign settings and “various melody”: “how far thy gentle sway extended!” (DRSB 1838 18, 25). She refers particularly to Hemans’s “heart’s sweet empire” in America, noting that “Many a stranger and far flower was blended / In the soft wreath that glory bound for thee” (DRSB 1838 26-28). “Wreath” evokes both the traditional mourning memorial as well as the poet’s laurel, but Laman Blanchard provides an anecdote which perhaps underscores these lines. He recalls the “touching and graceful compliment [which] was once paid to L.E.L. It was a tribute from America, sent from the far-off banks of the Ohio—a curious specimen of the Michigan rose, accompanied by a prayer that she would plant it on the grave of Mrs. Hemans” (215). Whether Landon carried out the request or not is unclear, but alluding to this event in her poem shows her almost inevitable awareness of the devotion Hemans inspired. Perhaps the lines also insinuate Landon’s envy of Hemans’s far-reaching “gentle sway.”
The poem’s turning point comes in its third stanza, as Landon moves from her apparently respectful evaluation of Hemans to speak more generally about women poets:
DRSB 1838 10-11, lines 33-38, 41-42
Was not this purchased all too dearly?—never
Can fame atone for all that fame hath cost.
We see the goal, but know not the endeavour
Nor what fond hopes have on the way been lost.
What do we know of the unquiet pillow,
By the worn cheek and tearful eyelid prest,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We say, the song is sorrowful, but know not
What may have left that sorrow on the song.
The question posed at the start of the passage above is seemingly answered in the same line—”never” is glory “purchased . . . too dearly”—but the line break serves to make readers hesitate before Landon offers her opinion. In subsequent lines, acquiescing to convention Landon clearly rejects the conclusion that fame is worth anything; Hemans seemingly maintained the conventional stance of rejecting fame’s appeal in works such as “Properzia Rossi” (1828) and “Woman and Fame” (comp. 1833; pub. 1836). Until this point in the poem, Landon has used “thy” in her address of Hemans, but the “we” voice she subsequently assumes both aligns her own experiences with those she ascribes to Hemans as well as simultaneously positions her with readers. Looking, then, at the “unquiet pillow” and the “worn cheek” with “tearful eyelid” upon it, Landon imagines that Hemans has undergone the same despair that she has with regard to literary success. She possibly attributes to Hemans the characteristics of Landon’s own poetic persona as the critics perceived it. She also posits that “we” do not know the source of the sorrow evinced in Hemans’s verse, circuitously evoking the paradox of Hemans’s personal life and public image. Landon asserts that words cannot encompass “the long sad hours, passed only / In vain regrets o’er what we feel we are,” although the meaning of these lines remains obscured until the stanza’s conclusion: “Alas! the kingdom of the lute is lonely— / Cold is the worship coming from afar” (DRSB 1838 45-48). It becomes clear that the tears shed on the pillow are, according to Landon here, tears hidden from the world: fame cannot replace love for these women poets. Given the biographies of both poets, Landon’s expression seems sincere here beyond mere adherence to the conventional pose expected of a woman poet.
She turns back toward Hemans herself in the fourth stanza of “Felicia Hemans” only to question their mutual profession, asking what they achieve by the “culture” of their inner emotions: “The fable of Prometheus and the vulture, / Reveals the poet’s and the woman’s heart” (DRSB 1838 54-55). Landon separates the term “poet” from the term “woman”; even though the “poet” and “woman” share a heart, she distinguishes between these figures. Perhaps she intimates critics’ inability to perceive women’s capabilities as successful poets on an equal par with those of men, acknowledging the emotions in which women, according to dominant contemporary ideology, are expected to excel. But Landon also posits that all poets have such inner sensitivity: maybe she instead separates the two qualities in order to infer subversively the double burden a woman poet carries in bearing the expectations society imposes upon her both and separately as a “woman” and as a “poet.” The separation also implies that the emotions conventionally expected of women “prey” on their poetic freedom as the vulture did on Prometheus—could Landon be suggesting that women poets are punished for aspiring to a godlike status?
She proceeds to protest sweepingly against women poets’ treatment at the hands of critics: “Unkindly are they judged—unkindly treated— / By careless tongues and by ungenerous words,” as well as by “cruel sneer” and “hard reproach” (DRSB 1838 57-59). Landon indicts rumors which have hindered her own poetic career (albeit, as Lawford shows, such “rumors” were grounded in truth), and her concerns surely lie principally with her own public reception here rather than with the positive critical judgments of which Hemans was consistently the recipient. In closing the stanza, though, Landon refocuses her concerns directly back to Hemans:
DRSB 1838 61-64
Wert thou not weary—thou whose soothing numbers
Gave other lips the joy thine own had not.
Didst thou not welcome thankfully the slumbers
Which closed around thy mourning human lot?
In her concern over the “mourning” tone of much of Hemans’s work, Landon’s lines can be interpreted as affirming conventional readings appreciative of the religiosity Hemans maintained in her work. The lines can therefore be read as Landon’s traditional elegiac acquiescence and admiration of Hemans, whose pain in life is over, even while Hemans’s lot is particularly painful because of her status as a woman poet. The absence of the first question mark in the lines quoted above could have been a printer’s error or could have been Landon’s purposeful omission; if the latter, Landon answers her own question by reminding readers indirectly of Hemans’s lack of physical contact within her “distance-impeded” marriage—rather an “unsuitable” observation.
Landon asks finally: “What on this earth could answer thy requiring, / For earnest faith—for love, the deep and true, / The beautiful, which was thy soul’s desiring” (DRSB 1838 65-67). Her solution is that only Hemans herself could satisfy her own longings for love, possibly invoking the note to the plate. In positing that none could equal Hemans’s love, Landon conventionally elevates her as a woman superior to most of her gender. Indeed, Landon turns the designation critics placed upon her as the “poet of love” upon Hemans, yet the oblique suggestion here is that Hemans was not personally beloved by the traditional male figure. She asserts that Hemans’s “warm and loving heart” had its “best affections wronged, betrayed, and slighted—” (DRSB 1838 69, 71). Her emphasis upon Hemans’s life as unfulfilled in its desire for love can be read as a conventional plaint; simultaneously, her indirect invocation of Hemans’s unusual marriage effectively reminds readers not to elevate her as a “priestess.”
Thus Landon emphasizes Hemans’s humanity before concluding the poem by commanding Hemans “Enter, O ladye, that serene dominion, / Where earthly cares and earthly sorrows cease. / Fame’s troubled hour has cleared” (DRSB 1838 75-77). Hemans’s earthly fame, as in the fame attached to her public image, was consistently untainted by the sorts of rumors appended to Landon, and Hemans’s works remained held in high critical esteem. Thus, Landon’s eulogy of Hemans could be read as Landon’s attempt to associate herself with this virtuous woman, evoking a bond of innocence by association. Landon certainly seems to hope to follow Hemans, to be remembered similarly through her works and to have, like Hemans, “a grave which is a shrine” (DRSB 1838 80). Unfortunately, while Landon’s death was indeed widely remarked upon, it was probably not under circumstances she could have foreseen; in the same manner, her works did not remain particularly prominent in the Victorian era.
If this 1838 poem demonstrates Landon’s conflicted relationship with Hemans, her earliest address, “Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans,” first published in the New Monthly Magazine two months after Hemans’s death in 1835, similarly reveals both her defiance of and resentment toward the confines of the “proper” woman poet’s role (286-88). Germaine Greer suggests that this is one of Landon’s “best poems”: “the generosity of a spirit which could be touched to one of its finest issues by the death of a rival with whom she was always unfavorably compared is worth recording” (22). Greer’s esteem of the poem correctly compliments Landon’s achievement, but I suggest that the apparent “generosity” of her text shields a subtext of anger toward critics and perhaps even of envy toward her rival. The poem stands both as a tribute to Hemans (apparently) and as a defense of Landon’s own bitter struggle to defy conventional positioning in favor of carving her own niche.
The first stanza encapsulates Landon’s frustration at women poets’ positioning as well as demonstrating her feeling of union with Hemans as a fellow poet resentful of the confines of judgmental male critics. Landon takes the epigraph to her “Stanzas” from Hemans’s Lays of Many Lands (1825), “The rose—the glorious rose is gone,” evoking the flower imagery resonant in Hemans’s “Bring Flowers” (1824)—Landon uses the title of Hemans’s poem as a refrain at the opening of her own text. The first five lines of Landon’s poem prefigure her consistent intertextuality, as these lines effectively summarize Hemans’s call in her poem to incorporate nature’s beauty within all aspects of everyday life. But Landon then turns away from Hemans’s call to acknowledge nature as a conventional supportive force in life: “And shall they not be brought / To her who linked the offering / With feeling and with thought?” (Poetical Works [hereafter PW] 408-11, lines 6-8). Landon calls for flowers as a fitting tribute to the poet who extolled their virtues, continually drawing upon Hemans’s text, but she gradually progresses toward her own reflections upon Hemans’s public image:
So pure, so sweet thy life has been,
So filling earth and air
With odours and with loveliness
Till common scenes grew fair.
Landon notes the effusion and widespread popularity of the “pure” Hemans whose works “around our daily path / Flung beauty born of dreams”; her esteem of her fellow poet consistently draws attention to Hemans’s ability to transform and thus to perfect the commonplace (PW 17-18). Landon questions how one poet could fill “the universal heart / With universal love” (PW 23-24). These lines can be interpreted as Landon’s sincere admiration for and praise of Hemans’s talent, but they can also be read as protesting against such ordinariness being the recipient of such effusive praise.
The consistent double meaning of Landon’s “Stanzas” evinces a duality similar to that which the critics adopted regarding the two poets. Landon reiterates several times that Hemans’s talent and subsequent success rested in her ability “from common thoughts and things” to “call a charmed song”; her praise regularly bears an ambiguity which reveals her own conflict in relation to her appreciation and simultaneous distaste for the surface adherence to conventionality of much of Hemans’s work (PW 29-30). She thus seems to commend Hemans’s ability to cast a poetic veil of wonder over the ordinary, but her admiration can be interpreted, at the same time, as possessing negative connotations: “common scenes” do not necessarily, according to such a reading, merit high critical esteem (PW 16). Reading the poem from this skeptical standpoint, Landon indirectly challenges her rival poet’s imaginative powers. This reading can be further supported when Landon joins with contemporary critics in exalting the poet of domesticity’s virtues:
A lofty strain of generous thoughts,
And yet subdued and sweet—
An angel’s song, who sings of earth,
Whose cares are at his feet.
Landon has previously emphasized Hemans’s concern with the common experiences of women, but now extols the “lofty” nature of Hemans’s versification and highlights perceived feminine aspects of her “subdued and sweet” address. While the poem comes in response to Hemans’s recent death and thus her depiction as an angel is not unreasonable, Landon seemingly joins in typical contemporary elevation of the woman poet as, according to Stephenson, “a simple extension of her more ‘natural’ functions as wife and mother: the poetess wishes only to develop our sensibilities and make us virtuous” (11). The “his” is left ambiguous: it is not capitalized, which would confirm an expression of Landon’s belief that Hemans’s talent lies at the feet of God. Thus the subject could be variously interpreted as the husband, brother, father, or publisher who would conventionally have command over the woman poet; obliquely, perhaps, Landon also reminds readers of Hemans’s lack of a dominating male figure in her life.
Landon situates Hemans as sharing her frustrations at having to conform to others’ expectations in their works throughout “Stanzas,” but it is obvious that her address of larger topics than Hemans herself gradually becomes more imperative. She turns away from conventional esteem and praise to consider the omnipresent sorrow of much of Hemans’s verse, questioning why so much of her work should be an expression of “hopes / That look beyond the tomb” (PW 43-44). Landon incorporates a traditional commentary upon the positive religious affirmation of much of Hemans’s poetry, but at the same time she subversively suggests that women poets’ hopes can only be fulfilled beyond the societal constraints of the mortal world. Again, perhaps indirectly, Landon highlights the “melancholy” some contemporary critics also observed. She opens the seventh stanza with a sigh, an “Ah,” which precedes a further tonal alteration:
dearly purchased is the gift,
The gift of song like thine;
A fated doom is hers who stands
The priestess of the shrine.
While Landon maintains the religious imagery and recognizes poetic talent as a “gift,” she feels that the price of poetic ability is too burdensome, too “dearly purchased.” As she did in “Felicia Hemans,” Landon indirectly challenges critics’ elevated positioning of Hemans as a “priestess” of poetry. Alternatively, these lines could be read as her portrayal of Hemans as a martyr to poetry.
Landon then proceeds to reaffirm her voice as the narrator with Hemans, as she acknowledges that “The crowd—they only see the crown” and do not note “that the cheek is pale, / And that the eye is dim” (PW 53, 55-56). Yet in this and the subsequent three stanzas, she moves away from a direct address of Hemans to a broader consideration of the position and trials of the woman poet. She explores the difficulties of the “highly strung” nature of the poet’s soul, of the heart which becomes “too sensitive” to everyday life and bears a “deep despair” (PW 60, 61, 64). Landon then turns directly to what William Howitt (among others) recognized as her principal poetic concern: “Love was still the great theme, and misfortune the great doctrine” (“L.E.L.” 6). She surely comments upon her own despair when she notes that the poet’s soul “never meets the love it paints / The love for which it pines” (PW 408-11, lines 65-66). Critics condemned Landon for her focus upon the theme of love, but her apparent biographical acknowledgment in this poem (supposedly addressed to Hemans) that she never finds the love about which she is purportedly an authority is, at the same time, an indirect comment upon Hemans’s biographical situation. She simultaneously intimates that rumors about her own sexual exploits were grossly exaggerated—an example, perhaps, of her “savvy marketing skills” (Montweiler 2).
While Hemans consistently espoused the public image of the traditionally dutiful wife and mother following her husband’s desertion, her work became progressively more subversive in its exploration of the toll taken by patriarchal society’s constrictive positioning of women. Clarke explores, at length, how Hemans’s awareness of the contradiction between her own domestic situation and those ideal scenes apparently endorsed in her works reveals itself consistently in her poetry. Hemans shielded herself from the fame which became hers, and she “repeatedly says that she is only able to enjoy (to bear or tolerate) fame because of the protection of her feminine space” (Ross 297). She remained at a distance from the dominant London literary scene, and, according to Mellor, “reconciled the tension between her poetic commitment to the domestic realm and the failure of her marriage by adopting the congenial position of the patiently suffering . . . wife” (Romanticism 134). But while the public persona could be, and was, acceptable, Hemans’s verse reveals her resentment at such constrictive positioning; Landon seems to pick up on this aspect of Hemans’s works.
Despite the esteem of maternal and the celebration of female love which, on its surface, dominates much of Hemans’s work thematically, her verse is also haunted by an awareness of the mutability of the affections, which she endorses as she commits to the culturally established role of domestic female author. Her 1828 volume, Records of Woman, not only delineates and affirms the strength of women in their roles as daughters, mothers, and wives, but simultaneously explores the struggles women have in consigning themselves and in being confined within these roles. As Angela Leighton points out, “paradoxically, her verse’s very moral elevation of womanhood also exposes . . . the depths of its grievances” (19). While a fuller discussion of the volume is beyond the scope of this article, it is clear that many of the poems contained therein (and in other volumes) subversively cry out against the constraints a patriarchal society imposed upon women; Anthony John Harding explores “the ways in which Hemans’s poetry can be seen to collaborate with the existing social order, even to justify it, while her subtext reveals quite starkly the terrible price this social order exacts of women” (147). Clarke suggests that Hemans’s later works most demonstrate her resentment of her incongruous situation when, “her pain and outrage muted in the cause of self-protection,” Hemans speaks “directly to God” since “feelings of failure given to God, were forgivable and transfigurable; they did not lead her to raise her voice against her husband” (101-02).
Landon too seems prepared to raise her voice against the patriarchy in her works—albeit, like Hemans, indirectly. Whether she acted purposefully or through naiveté in the public sphere, however, is a matter of opinion: her documented lack of social conformity undoubtedly had a negative effect upon the reception of her works, though. Mystique and her own actions ensured her public fame, but its transitory nature also guaranteed her much personal unhappiness. By 1835, Landon was fully cognizant of the personal difficulties which frequently accompany public success, and, in her “Stanzas,” she seems to imply that Hemans partook of her views. Through enlisting Hemans’s support, Landon thus lends her position authority—she claims they share the “lonely lot” of the poet who is divided from all others by her role (PW 408-11, line 70). The subsequent question addressed ostensibly to Hemans also seems revealing of Landon’s own emotions regarding her public status:
Didst thou not tremble at thy fame
And loathe its bitter prize,
While what to others triumph seemed,
To thee was sacrifice?
Hemans clearly maintained her domestic “shield” and physical distance from the London literary scene in order to protect her privacy from the assaults of public recognition—true “fans” nevertheless sought her out. For both poets, a continued writing career was the only source of financial support through which they could establish and maintain economic independence: they were both financially successful, but Landon did not maintain the “shield” of “L.E.L.” and nor would critics endorse it. The lines quoted above suggest that Landon situates herself with Hemans in deploring the “bitter . . . sacrifice” of fame.
She identifies further with Hemans by stating “Let others thank thee” and thus grouping the rest of the world as the “other,” while privileging herself as sharing Hemans’s public stature as a popular woman poet (PW 81). Simultaneously, Landon excuses herself from thanking Hemans personally, noting that these “others’” demands for words from Hemans were accompanied with their gratitude: “And they have thanked thee” (PW 85). She acknowledges Hemans’s popularity, but wonders “How many loved and honoured thee / Who only knew thy name,” insinuating that it was Hemans’s name alone that brought comfort to many—that it was Hemans’s public persona and the images associated with her which were esteemed rather than the work itself (PW 89-90). At the same time as Landon thus offers a critique of ready acceptance of public image, she demonstrates the ease with which name and work are linked:
With what still hours of calm delight
Thy songs and image blend;
I cannot choose but think thou wert
An old familiar friend.
She adheres to the common fallacy that the name and the expressions of the work are one and the same, and hints that she feels acquainted with Hemans personally through her work even though they never met. Demonstrating the difficulty Landon suggests that she herself has in disassociating the poet from the work, she also calls attention to the erroneousness of such a connection and develops this impression further in the penultimate stanza:
The charm that dwelt in songs of thine
My inmost spirit moved;
And yet I feel as thou hadst been
Not half enough beloved.
She again privileges her response as that of an allied woman poet who can fully respond to Hemans’s verse, but she also departs from the conventional reception of Hemans’s work. In associating herself with Hemans’s texts, maintaining the conflation of author and work, Landon claims that her similar experiences have lent her insight into the “daily pain” and “misery” which Hemans (according to Landon) experienced (PW 62, 59). She adjusts Hemans’s elevation as an angel to her status as a woman who could express her feelings through art and could thus touch others who share her pain. According to Landon, pain is an inextricable aspect of the existence of the female poet; in a letter to her friend Mrs. Hall, she writes that “‘envy, malice, and all uncharitableness—these are the fruits of a successful literary career for a woman’” (qtd. in Hall 397).
Although conventionally grateful that Hemans had been released from earthly pain, Hemans’s death must have been, broadly speaking, a blow for critics eager to maintain her eminence as their “ideal” woman poet. In her “Stanzas,” Landon eventually acknowledges accounts of Hemans’s last hours, when, racked by fever, she still struggled to write:
PW 408-11, lines 101-04
They say that thou wert faint and worn
With suffering and with care;
What music must have filled the soul
That had so much to spare!
The “they” remains unidentified but surely must refer to highly affective versions of Hemans’s final hours which ensured her continued portrayal and reception as a wife and mother struggling to support a family beyond any cares of her own (Hughes, for example, describes Hemans dictating her last work from her deathbed [311-15]). Landon, apparently, acquiesces to accepted acclaim for the magnanimity of a woman who could do so much for others under such duress. As she turns to the final stanza, Landon sustains conventional positioning of Hemans as a “weary one” who has returned to the bosom of the earth (PW 408-11, line 105). She re-asserts the tradition of her poem as an elegy which simultaneously mourns the passing of a beloved while expressing gratitude for her release from pain. She also acknowledges that Hemans’s name and public image will live on through the works which have touched so many before closing with “But the quick tears are in my eyes, / And I can write no more” (PW 111-12). Calling attention to the gender of both the subject of the poem and its author, the somewhat abrupt ending fulfills conventional expectations of an effusion of emotion on the part of the female author and appeals to readers’ tender hearts to admire the author’s generosity in contemplating the death of a worthy woman. Simultaneously, the precipitate closing functions as a useful rhetorical device which allows Landon to exploit her gender. She simply could be ingenuous here, or, by regaining the traditional position of a woman overcome with emotion, she could be avoiding having to resolve the conflicting bitterness and sympathy evinced in her poem.
Landon thus seems to have capitalized upon the connection critics drew between herself and Hemans. In the month after her “Stanzas” appeared, she wrote an essay, “On the Character of Mrs. Hemans’s Writings” [hereafter “CHW”], for the New Monthly Magazine (1835). She opens with a quotation from Madame de Staël’s Corinne; ou, l’Italie (1807), “‘Oh! mes amis, rappellez-vous quelquefois mes vers; mon ame y est empreinte,’” which Hemans had used as the epigraph to “A Parting Song,” the final poem of the miscellaneous ones collected after Records of Woman. Landon aligns herself and the subject of her essay with de Staël’s poet figure and unifies the talents of all three, before proceeding to declare that “there cannot be a greater error than to suppose that the poet does not feel what he writes. . . . poetry is even more a passion than a power, and nothing is so strongly impressed upon composition as the character of the writer”—she maintains the proposal of her earlier poem on the same subject (“CHW” 425). In asserting poetry’s “passion,” Landon situates the domestic Hemans within the larger category of women poets in which she and Corinne also exist, maintaining the masculine gender of the poet even while her essay clearly addresses a woman poet. Landon then outlines the analytic standpoint she adopts in a digression that takes up a quarter of her article: just as she consistently invited autobiographical interpretations and just as critics willingly collapsed her with her own heroines, so, she suggests, should Hemans’s verse be read. But rather than idealizing Hemans as the poet of domesticity, Landon offers a dissenting interpretation tinged, perhaps, with envy.
For the first quarter of her essay, Landon explores poetry’s affectiveness, defining a poet as one possessing heightened sensitivity to the world and to others. She makes the transition into actually considering Hemans by noting that “a recent memoir of Mrs. Hemans deems it necessary almost to apologize for her occasional fits of buoyant spirits,” while Landon asserts that “such mirth does not disprove the melancholy which belonged to Mrs. Hemans’s character” (“CHW” 427). Jerome McGann and Daniel Riess identify Landon’s reference to the anonymous author of A Short Sketch of the Life of Mrs. Hemans; with Remarks on Her Poetry; and Extracts (1835), who marks “‘sorrow and disappointment’” at the “‘weakness and frivolity’” evinced in some of Hemans’s letters (qtd. 279). Landon’s introduction of this source highlights Hemans’s humanity at the beginning of her consideration; the first thing Landon notes about Hemans herself has been considered a fault in others’ eyes. Even though Landon introduces it only to dismiss it, she thus positions Hemans as a fellow woman poet rather than as a superior and as a poet with a lighthearted streak like Landon’s own.
When she eventually turns to Hemans’s works, her admiration seems situated initially in the conventional judgments of her contemporaries: “I have said that the writer’s character is in his writings: Mrs. Hemans’s is strongly impressed upon hers. The sensitiveness of the poet is heightened by the tenderness of the woman” (“CHW” 417). Accordingly, at first Landon draws attention to the strictly feminine “tenderness” critics esteem in Hemans’s works, before noting that “No emotion is more truly, or more often pictured in her song, than that craving for affection which answers not unto the call” (“CHW” 428). Certainly it would seem that Landon admires this aspect of Hemans’s verse and highlights its prominence, but by implying the subject and theme of her works as repeated consistently (herself having been accused of repetition in subject matter by critics), Landon seems almost to criticize Hemans obliquely. Having established the author’s inspiration as always rooted in the author’s self, Landon also insinuates an unfulfilled “craving for affection” in Hemans’s life.
Maintaining her focus upon the “melancholy” of Hemans’s character, Landon notes “the deep impress of individual suffering” evinced in her verse (“CHW” 428). Such a focus allows Landon plenty of opportunity to address her own favorite topic:
Did we not know this world to be but a place of trial—our bitter probation for another and a better—how strange in its severity would seem the lot of genius in a woman. The keen feeling—the generous enthusiasm—the lofty aspiration—and the delicate perception—are given but to make the possessor unfitted for her actual position.429
Considering the female poet, Landon points out the paradox of her authorship: she emphasizes that the “heightened sensitivity” of a woman poet separates her from the duties commonly expected of her in the domestic sphere. Yet she makes this point seemingly almost to validate her authorship by asserting that poets’ gifts prepare them for the world to come, and thus she does not appear directly defiant in highlighting these traits—other than positing that critics should note women poets as exceptions to rules governing women’s behavior generally.
Surely such a suggestion can most profitably be read as Landon’s defense of her own behavior, insofar as she implies that critics should overlook her personal “impropriety” in consideration of her public talent. Hemans’s attitude to public recognition was, in fact, in contemporary critics’ opinions, far more suitable for a woman poet. She disliked and shunned the personal recognition she received due to her works’ popularity—publicly, at least. Her letter about the death of her friend and fellow writer, Maria Fletcher (née Jewsbury), demonstrates her awareness of the dangers of literary success for women:
I would rather, a thousand times, that she should have perished thus, in the path of her chosen duties [in India with her chaplain husband], than have seen her become the merely brilliant creature of London literary life, living upon those poor succès de société, which I think utterly ruinous to all that is lofty, and holy, and delicate in the nature of a highly-endowed woman.qtd. in Hughes 276
While the choice here seems to be between domestic duty and personal desire for public recognition, there is in fact no choice: literary women are always compelled to walk along a path determined by others. Hemans’s struggle to reconcile her own domestic situation, her life, and her work yields, according to Susan Wolfson, “more than one poem in which the soul of the woman artist accomplishes little more than discoveries of emptiness,” the emptiness which lies at the root of striving to maintain a position constructed of paradoxical irreconcilabilities (“Gendering” 62). Landon finds similar hollowness in the profession of woman writer, although her positioning within the literary world obviously differed greatly from that of Hemans—she fits Hemans’s profile of a “‘succès de société.’” Landon’s lack of cultural conventionality and her inability to conform contentedly to any of the roles available to women led to diminishing public approbation of her work after her loss of reputation, since any consideration of work could not be divorced from her biography.
But in her essay, while conceding the contemporary conflation of a poet and her works, Landon simultaneously protests that women writers should not be confined within the same societal expectations placed upon the broader category of “women” generally. She presents the importance of “gifts” and “sensitivity” in Hemans’s work, noting particularly how Hemans expresses her “divine reliance” with “sublime faith” in her works, reclaiming the “sublime” from the masculine realm for women’s aspirations in writing for God (“CHW” 429). Landon positions herself in accordance with contemporary esteem of the religiosity of Hemans’s works; she continues in harmony with opinions about the poet of domesticity that “the light shone from the windows of [Hemans’s] home as she approached unto it” (“CHW” 429). As Stephenson notes, Landon creates Hemans as, “in many ways, a domesticated version of L.E.L.,” even though the women’s respective domestic situations were clearly distinct (16).
Marlon B. Ross asserts that Hemans enjoyed “a rare feminine space in her household setting that encourage[d] her poeticizing activity because that activity is itself an extension of feminine space” (295). She was relieved from the sole burden of domestic duties by her mother and sister, and, while a mother herself, she was released from wifely duties. Simultaneously, her mother assisted in and guided Hemans’s literary career, acting almost as her daughter’s agent. Following her mother’s death in 1827 and her sister’s marriage in 1828, Hemans struggled to maintain the household and her career simultaneously, but her most productive years had occurred when “her peculiar feminine space—being taken care of by an intensely supportive mother while not having herself to take care of authoritarian men—allow[ed] her more easily to write poetry” (Ross 295). Established in a female-dominated domestic situation, Hemans was free to adopt and to maintain the traditional role of domestic poet despite its stark contrast to her own unconventional home environment.
Hemans’s embrace of this clearly defined role (as well as, of course, her works) ensured the security of her elevated position in the public sphere. She apparently positioned herself firmly: according to Mellor, “her poetry celebrates the enduring value of the domestic affections, the glory and beauty of maternal love, and the lasting commitment of a woman to her chosen mate” (Romanticism 124). Chorley’s remarks on Hemans in the year after her death confirm that the emphasis placed upon her works’ “feminine” qualities and thus their acceptability in the public sphere was deeply entrenched: her women figures’ “love is without selfishness—their passion pure from sexual coarseness—their high heroism . . . unsullied by any base alloy of ambition. In their religion, too, she is essentially womanly—fervent, trustful, unquestioning” (Memorials 1: 138-39). Hemans’s adoption of the role of dutiful wife and mother appears, to twentieth-century readers, ironic in light of her biography, revealing a shrewd and audacious exploitation of her married state in order to position herself securely within one conception of the constrictive male-ordained role of “poetess.” She thus assured her commercial success and was highly productive: her “nineteen volumes of poetry and two dramas sold thousands of copies” (Mellor, Romanticism 123).
Landon, though similarly productive, was not similarly concessionary to critical expectations either in her life or in her works. Only toward the end of her life did she “conform” by marrying. In contrast to Hemans, critics considered the “passion” evident in much of Landon’s work to be unsuitably presented; Chorley records that “the miserably low standard of her literary morality” aided the descent of her reputation, while Riess proposes that her poetic “themes of erotic love led to rumors spread by those who identified the poet with the subject of her poems” (Personal Reminiscences 9: 824). Writing to Mary Russell Mitford on 15 July 1841, Elizabeth Barrett Browning noted that if she had “the raw bare powers” of Landon and Hemans from which to choose, she “would choose Miss Landon’s” as “more elastic, more various, of a stronger web. I fancy it wd. [sic] have worked out better—had it been worked out—with the right moral . . . influences in application”; Barrett Browning highlights the lack of religious affirmation in Landon’s works and thus concludes that “Hemans has left the finer poems” despite the “sense of sameness” Barrett Browning detects in Hemans’s works (just as I have shown Landon does in her commentaries) (235). Landon’s final letters reveal the single woman of society trying to adjust to the role of wife in a position of domestic responsibility as she writes of her “‘housekeeping troubles, for which, Heaven knows, I have neither natural talent nor experience’” (qtd. in Jerrold 58). Only a few months after the beginning of her new role, she was found dead with a bottle of medicine in her hand (Jerrold 58). The circumstances around her death, whether suicide, murder, or natural causes, have not been resolved and instead add to the aura of mystery surrounding her public reputation.
Indeed, public image and the public literary sphere seem to be the main concerns of Landon’s essay; she turns toward the stated intention of her title only briefly at the essay’s conclusion. Landon eventually identifies four major characteristics of Hemans’s poetry: “the ideal, the picturesque, and the harmonious,” as well as “the moral” (“CHW” 431). She posits the latter as the most important, highlighting it as “pure . . . feminine and exalted” by Hemans’s many critics, but Landon goes on to assert that Hemans, despite leaving “a glorious and a beautiful memory . . . is little to be envied,” since she leaves principally (according to Landon) “a record of wasted feelings and disappointed hopes” in her “sad and sweet complainings!” (“CHW” 431). Landon reduces Hemans from glory and beauty to a woman whose works are “wasted” and “sad,” and then she immediately changes focus: “Mrs. Hemans was spared some of the keenest mortifications of a literary career. She knew nothing of it as a profession which has to make its way through poverty, neglect, and obstacles” (“CHW” 431). To assert that Hemans was unfamiliar with the financial necessities of publishing is clearly incorrect; as Paula R. Feldman has demonstrated, Hemans was an astute businesswoman and wrote designedly for an audience largely from economic reasons. Her positioning as a domestic poet did imply, according to contemporary ideology, that Hemans had little dealings with the business side of her profession even though the reverse was actually the case. Landon’s remark insinuates that the true subject of her essay is, in fact, herself.
Landon seems to manipulate her address of Hemans as a means of exploring her own situation; her positioning of Hemans as the ostensible subject lends her commentaries authority and respectability through such connection. These commentaries upon Hemans are both subversive and indirect in confronting such critical expectations: by consistently noting Hemans’s melancholy and invoking the disjunction of her private life and public image, Landon indicts the hypocrisy evinced by masculine powers which seemingly construct an author’s literary reputation as her works and / or personal behavior accord to critics’ own desires. In emphasizing the discrepancy between Hemans’s life and her public image, Landon indirectly insinuates the need for her own work and life to be separately considered as well. She both admires Hemans’s work and perceives her subversion of assigned roles in her duplicitous embrace of domesticity. Ultimately, Landon’s address of Hemans as a woman and as a fellow poet remains conflicted—she both identifies with and distances herself from her, according to Stephenson, “chief competitor for the role of public favourite” (14). Her address of Hemans confirms that, no matter what the topic might appear to be, Landon’s chief subject is herself and her role as a woman poet.
See, for example, Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century (2001), ed. Nanora Sweet and Julie Melnyk, and Susan Wolfson’s “Felicia Hemans and the Revolving Doors of Reception” (1999).
Paula R. Feldman highlights various examples of women writers who were bitter rivals and even enemies in the “Introduction” to her British Women Poets of the Romantic Era: An Anthology (1997) (xxvii).
See her 2000 “Diary” in the London Review of Books; she explores the impact of these biographical discoveries upon reading Landon’s love poems in “‘Thou shalt bid thy fair hands rove’: L.E.L.’s Wooing of Sex, Pain, Death and the Editor” (2003).
In “Women Readers, Women Writers” (1993), Stuart Curran observes that Hemans “too, writes from a trap of cultural contradiction, her particular form of female duty being to earn enough money to be able, as a deserted wife, to raise her children by her own means” (190).
Hemans, then, seems to have concurred with Landon, who, according to William Howitt, “felt, like all authors who have to cater for the public, that she must provide, not so much what she would of her free-will choice, but what they expected of her” (Homes and Haunts 133).
Prometheus is, of course, a recurrent symbol in male Romantics’ work; Mellor notes that “encoded” in their use of the myth “is an affirmation of revolution, of rebellion against the established social order. . . . [defiance] in order to liberate humanity from tyranny” (Mary Shelley 80).
Derek Furr discusses Hemans’s poem, noting how “Hemans’ own troubled marriage, about which so much was and is tantalizingly unknown, enters into the sentimental and imaginative play between reader and text” (3).
I translate the French to “Oh! my friends, remember my verse sometimes; my soul is imprinted there.”
Hemans had used some of Landon’s lines as an epigraph to “The Sicilian Captive” in this volume.
Landon’s wit and positive outlook are evident in her wish that “‘any one would steal the plate which must be cleaned, and the mahogany tables which must be polished’” so that she “‘should be very comfortable’” (qtd. in Jerrold 58).
See Feldman’s “The Poet and the Profits: Felicia Hemans and the Literary Marketplace” (1997). Jerdan provides interesting documentation of Landon’s earnings, suggesting that while she earned approximately £250 a year, in fact she only kept about £120 for herself—he gives her total earnings as £2,585, which is probably a conservative estimate (198-99).
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