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“It is my firm belief that I was Messalina. . .Boadicea. . .and Felicia Hemans, before this.”

Louise Bogan, answering a survey that asked for her “dates,” Limmer 189

-- At times the passion-kindled melody

Might seem to gush from Sappho’s fervent heart,

O’er the wild sea-wave; --at times the strain

Flow’d with more plaintive sweetness, as if born

Of Petrarch’s voice, beside the lone Vaucluse;

. . . .

Felicia Hemans, “Genius Singing to Love,” Hughes 554

Which woman poet was raised in a provincial setting but educated in the Athenaeum culture of a great regional city? Which was associated with Anglo-American literary institutions but favored Continental European sources at a time when dominant male poets were returning to Anglican orthodoxy? Which drew to her the women lyric poets of coming generations, to educate in form, subject, and style? Which loved and translated European writing, settling a final love on lyric poetry by German men? Lived as a single mother, earning a spare but steady income as a poet and woman of letters? Brought to prominence the vexed and potent figure of the abandoned woman artist, a figure whose fury was enough to incline her to suicide and even infanticide? Recreated a classical vocabulary of laurel, lyre, wreath, and flame? Followed a Goethean aesthetic into a love for the Mediterranean south, Italy, and more exotic climes? Celebrated the line of feeling as the distinctive legacy of the woman poet?

The answer is not one but two women poets and of greatly different historical and aesthetic moments, one an American lyrical modernist, the other a later British Romantic. The first of these poets is Louise Bogan, whose dates (1897-1970) are contemporary with the Anglo-American modernists; the second is Felicia Hemans (1793-1835), who wrote alongside Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Bogan pointedly decried the bourgeois ruling taste resulting from the Napoleonic Wars; Hemans flourished within that taste to become the most re-published woman poet ever.[2] Bogan was praised by W. H. Auden among others for her avoidance of sentimentality, Hemans by Jerome J. McGann among others for her accomplishment of it.[3] In each case, I would argue, the writer’s long-term success can be traced to the same source as her literary influence: to a text etched in literary figure and suggestive of cultural setting, much like the bas-relief that each poet invoked in poem after poem; to an oeuvre rich in cultural and aesthetic value-added and productive, as a result, of ample exchange-value.[4] This is the text, this is the oeuvre characteristic of a woman poet dominant culturally and then commercially in her time.

The provocative mirroring between Hemans and Bogan underscores the agenda still awaiting their critics. Major criticism of Hemans and Bogan has but begun to catch up with pro forma iterations of their importance and mounting scholarship in the form of bibliography, biography, and re-edition -- Hemans recently, Bogan following her death in 1970.[5] Both poets stand in advance of their critics as commentators on literary history and their roles within that history. To couple Bogan and Hemans is to join the debate over the aesthetic value of poetry written by the woman poet, “Yes, the poetess, the sentimental one” (Finch 213); and more broadly the debate over the problems and powers of a woman poet dominant – influentially, commercially – in her time.

Woman Poet Dominant in Her Time

Another study might (indeed should) pursue this debate into the material and cultural conditions surrounding these poets. Both negotiated gendered marketplaces, whether popular Romanticism or austere modernism.[6] Both appeared regularly as privileged contributors to leading magazines, Hemans to the New Monthly Magazine and Blackwood’s, Bogan to the New Yorker and also The Nation and the Partisan Review. A cultural-material study would build on emerging knowledge of Hemans’s reception while taking further cues from Bogan’s studies of taste, especially her Achievement in American Poetry. The most adventurous study of Hemans’s reception to date pursues its own critique of “taste” through the nearly two centuries between the poets’ births, and (this may be unwelcome news to proponents of “the sentimental poetess”) the most probing study to date calls into question her status as a feminine poet, not to mention an inflected “poetess.”[7] But before questions of culture and taste can be settled, more literary and, so to speak, genetic studies of poetry by these women are needed (studies of poetry’s provenance in scenes of production by a poet). In the end, these will add to reception studies if they can help account for the value-added work that enabled Hemans to adjust so opportunely to market changes (according to Stephen Behrendt and Barbara Taylor) and Bogan to secure the loyal readers who address her in dissertation after dissertation and keep her collection The Blue Estuaries in print.

“Love” and “fame” are the donnée of the woman poet, indeed the lyric poet. They are always-already possessed by the poet as Sapphic lover, sublime and frenzied, and Petrarchan beloved, blason of fame, premise of laurels. As a writer’s “given” subject, a donnée may be a burden but is certainly also a “gift.” In her late and greatest valedictory “After the Persian,” Bogan wrote of her donnée and its laureate yield, “Ignorant, I took up my burden in the wilderness. / Wise with great wisdom I shall lay it down upon flowers” (Blue 117). The double donnée of love and fame is indeed a double burden for the woman poet: but what poet would not want subjects like love and fame for her own?

In The Currency of Eros: Women’s Love Lyric in Europe, 1540-1620, Ann Rosalind Jones models a criticism of woman’s poetry that addresses both literary donnée and cultural-material burden. Jones’s woman poet writes within a culture that prizes eloquence but brands female eloquence as sexual ill-fame, a culture that takes love poetry as normative but offers the woman poet only male models who objectify their female subjects. Love and fame together threaten the Renaissance woman poet with prostitution in “the currency of Eros.” Yet Jones’s exemplary women poets do negotiate the contradictions around them, chiefly by taking advantage of local differences in “class, nation, and religion” – as we might see Bogan doing, below, under the heading of “baroque commentary.” Like her poets, Jones offers an exemplary criticism, one that negotiates the demands of literary donnée and cultural critique (3).[8] Jones would concur with Margaret Homans’s commendation in 1980 that “structures of thought and language” govern women’s poetry alongside contextual issues (Homans 9). Adding to Jones’s indispensable study of the woman poet contending with blasoning by the male are recent books on Sappho and her disposition in culture.[9] When cultural and genetic issues are to be melded for the (post) Romantic women poet dominant in her time, Jones will offer a usable model.

Hemans and Bogan share much the same aesthetic vocabulary of figure and form, of Sapphic and Petrarchan lyre, laurels, fount, and flame, much the same deep-European cultural literacy. Both took Sappho as the precursor: “When was I born?” Bogan remarked on a graduate student’s survey: ”Ten years before Auden. . .and about two thousand after Sappho. That was quite a while to wait, wasn’t it[?]” (Limmer 189). Hemans makes a Sapphic mask her own in “The Last Song of Sappho,” considered below. Hemans and Bogan share an interest in the site of Rome where Catullus, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid incorporated Sappho into Latin poetry, where Petrarch gained his laurels on the Capitoline Hill.[10]

As apprentice poets Hemans and Bogan pursued the educational advantages that came their way, enhancing these with an autodidact’s study and recording them in the poet’s commonplace book. Bogan’s Roman Catholic girlhood and classical education at Boston Girls’ Latin encouraged literacy in “European sources of living thought and feeling.” Spurred by frequent reviewing, she filled notebooks lifelong, “not just in English, but also in French, German, and Latin”; and not just on literature but on “history, psychology, and philosophy” (Bogan, Achievement 8).[11] Hemans kept commonplace books full of history, travel literature, the curiosities of language and culture. According to her sister, “I do not think I ever saw her with only one book within reach; she was always surrounded by five or six, on every diversity of topic” (Chorley 1:46).[12] A glance at Hemans’s early work shows ample annotation on Rome and Italy from Plutarch, Gibbon, Sismondi; from Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, and Staël.[13]

The “learned base” (to echo Bogan on Louise Guiney) of these poets’ work had literary-historical rewards: each was arguably the most significant woman poet in English of her time; each drew contemporary and younger women poets to her work and its tutelage in form, subject, and style (Bogan, Achievement 25). Hemans drew Lydia Sigourney, Maria Jane Jewsbury, Letitia E. Landon, Caroline Norton, Christina Rossetti, and Frances Harper; Bogan, Marianne Moore, May Sarton, Katha Pollitt, Martha Collins, Mary Kinzie, Deborah Pope, Kathleen Norris, Lee Upton, Elizabeth Dodd.[14] Each was a laureate-manqué in her time, Hemans reaching the nation with her words in ways that official laureate Robert Southey never could, Bogan serving as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, now called Poet Laureate, in 1945-1946.[15]

For all this, both disappointed even their closest supporters, starting with those who early on devoted books to them, H. F. Chorley and Gloria Bowles, for Chorley claimed that Hemans wrote far too much and Bowles that Bogan wrote far too little.[16] In this way, the reputation of each partook of the “manqué” built into her laureateship, the “lack” somehow integral to women’s poetry even in a leading role. Feminist study of the woman poet has been marked by cruel paradoxes and “double binds” where every gain or even attempt is marked by failure or loss. In 1976 Suzanne Juhasz noted the “double bind” of the women poet, where “If she is ‘woman,’ she must fail as a ‘poet’” and vice versa (3); in 1979 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar placed her between feminine “self-effacement” and a masculine “assertive ‘I’” (xxii); in 1980 and 1986 Margaret Homans steered the woman poet to her (rare) success between the Scylla of masculinist transcendence and the Charybdis of feminine literalism; in 1982 Cheryl Walker lamented “the nightingale’s burden” of pain and its silencing. The more robust portrayals to follow encountered their own silencing in post-structural critique, and in the meantime a study like Jones’s that identifies the “double-bind” as a contradiction that can be negotiated goes unremarked.[17] Recent cultural-material study finds “lack” or “loss” an occasion for the consumer’s reward (at least) in the moment of consumption.[18] In the present study, however, this lack knows prior design by the woman poet, and these abjurations of “love” or “fame” already augur different triumphs to come.

Hemans’s and Bogan’s prose and metacritical poetry point the way toward a criticism of the bundled powers and failures in the woman poet’s donnée: its struggles between chastity and love, chastity and death; between love and fame, death and eternity: those face-cards, apparently, of sentiment and their reshuffling. On love and chastity, chastity and death, we think of Bogan’s “Ad Castitatem,” part of her “chastity” cluster (which includes “Henceforth, from the Mind,” considered below): “Hear me, infertile / Beautiful futility” (8). Poems like “Ad Castitatem” seem to support Bowles and others who charge Bogan with a life-denying aesthetic. On love and fame, we think of Hemans’s “Women and Fame” and “Corinne at the Capitol”: “Thou hast green laurel leaves, that twine, / Into so proud a wreath” but “Away! to me – a women – bring / Sweet waters from affection’s spring” (Poems 497).[19]

Poems like these lend support to new poetics poised between production and consumption yet tilting toward the latter: Jerome McGann’s poetics of sensibility, which seeks to deconstruct the “fame” specifically of “Romantic ideology”[20]; Isobel Armstrong’s expressive poetics, which seeks a new feminist or “radical” aesthetics and more recently is drawn to Hemans on love and fame (specifically, from “Joan of Arc in Rheims”). For Armstrong, expressivism is of a piece with “sincerely fraudulent” (“Msrepresentation 21) bourgeois commodification (the milieu of Hemans’s later lyrics, the taste that Bogan decries).[21] Annie Finch joins Armstrong in embracing a new “postmodern” expressivism as the métier of “the poetess, the sentimental one”; yet these terms still invite a containment that cannot be desired by these critics.[22] In her distinguished body of criticism on Hemans, Susan Wolfson emphasizes the poet’s “dilemmas” of gender in the manner of Juhasz, but Wolfson also reads more closely than most the Romantic ground of Hemans’s poetics, the presence there of Milton, Staël, and Byron if not of Petrarch.[23] Similarly, in a rare gesture toward the genetic, McGann notes a darkness more than Dantesque in Hemans’s work though he does not register anything Petrarchan and certainly not triumph (164).

Introducing Petrarch and I trionfi

Petrarch’s poetics (branded his but the property of many) provide Hemans’s and Bogan’s poetry with a donnée of love, fame, and their sequelae; but more importantly they provide the poetry with a form, the “triumph,” dynamic enough to negotiate this donnée. Petrarch’s poetics were at issue in Hemans’s moment – indeed they were quarreled over by her New Monthly Magazine associates Campbell, Foscolo, and Hazlitt; and they are evident in her work as well as Bogan’s.[24] Petrarchan poetics put forward the very themes of sentimentality’s face-cards, “love,” “fame,” and the rest; more importantly, they put forward the form of “triumph,” which is designed precisely to “reshuffle” these cards in a dialectics of their own. Poetics relevant to the woman poet may be found in Petrarch’s lyric epic I trionfi as well as in his sonnet and canzone sequence Rime Sparse (“Laura” is a figure in both). Both series allude to laureate triumph on the site of Rome, and I trionfi offers the literary and iconographic form of “triumph,” no static form but precisely a trumping of sentiment, face-card by face-card.

I trionfi is a series of six triumphs, those of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity: it is a vernacular work in terza rima, a lyric-epic response to Dante’s Divine Comedy; its form of Roman triumph may have been adapted from Ovid or from actual triumphal pageantry or both; as a Roman triumph, it contains overtones of victory or rather conquest – including conquest of the conqueror, for the obligatory slave in the victor’s chariot whispers to him, “Look behind you; remember, you are human.”[25] Petrarchan conquest occurs in the first instance by “Love,” also to be reckoned with in the Laura sonnets. As Jean Segnec writes, “Love overcomes illustrious men, but is captured by Chastity, who is overcome by Death, which is conquered by Glory” – “itself annihilated by Time. Last in the procession comes Eternity, shining beyond space and time” (135). Petrarch worked on his Triumphs intermittently; and in keeping with its character as a processional, the work was left in an unfinished state.[26]

I trionfi remains woefully understudied, but Petrarch’s poetics of triumph have played a role, albeit unnoticed, in the critical practice of recent decades. Alistair Fowler devoted a book to Petrarchan triumph as a structural genre. Percy Shelley’s The Triumph of Life became a privileged text for deconstructive criticism; and as Newman Ivey White and others have shown, Shelley’s poem is modeled on Petrarch’s. The dual inconclusiveness of Shelley’s Triumph – as a triumph and a text fragmented by death – have attracted study by Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Jacques Derrida, but without attention to the genre that brought Shelley’s poem its properties of reversal and undoing, its deferral of closure.[27] The genre’s chiasmic powers evidence themselves in a pattern of point and counter-point, sign and supplement, victory and defeat and what follows after. As we shall see, Bogan and Hemans rightly associate triumph with Rome at its most contested moments and specifically with the Counter Reformation whose artistic forms are the dynamic baroque and the chiasmic fugue.

Feminist critics have responded even less to the triumph as a genre that might be put to feminist uses in the reading of women’s poetry. In general, feminist critics who address Petrarch are content to charge him with objectifying woman as “Laura” and pass on by. Nancy Vickers’s landmark 1982 article “Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme” identifies dismemberment and its gendered reversals in the Rime Sparse’s handling of Actaeon and Laura. Vickers is conscious that Laura’s “scattering” in the Petrarchan blason reflects Petrarch’s poetics of reversal, but she betrays no interest in enlisting those powers for the criticism of women’s poetry. Yet the Romantic era saw Britain’s Mary Robinson setting Sapphic themes in Petrarchan form in Sappho and Phaon (1796), and France’s Germaine de Staël interwove Sapphic and Petrarchan occasions and themes for her woman poet in Corrine, ou L’Italie (1807).[28] Trying to explain Petrarch’s appeal to women of his era – for they favored him over Dante – Hemans’s associate Campbell concluded that “it is a wise instinctive consciousness in women that the offer of love to them, without enthusiasm, refinement, and constancy, is of no value at all” (p. cxxxvi). It is time to attend to Bogan and Hemans and the commentary they provide on Petrarch’s laureate Rome and its fugual powers for poetry.

Baroque Comment

Bogan and Hemans were critics as well as poets, particularly Bogan, who reviewed poetry for the New Yorker for thirty-eight years. In the New Yorker and elsewhere, she gave critical reception to American, British, and Continental writers and to new and republished work and translations (of Goethe, Heine, Gide, Rilke). She co-translated Ernst Juenger’s The Glass Bees (1960), Jules Renard’s Journal (1964), and Goethe’s Elective Affinities (1963) and The Sorrows of Young Werther (1971).[29] Hemans devoted a small body of formal prose to a dual effort at translation and criticism of Italian and German writing: of Goethe, the Italian dramatists, Monti and Manzoni, and Italian “patriotic” poets.[30] Her early letters to her patron William Roscoe include translations of Italian sonnets by Metastasio and Petrarch.[31] Her vast oeuvre contains numerous translations from Romance-language and German poets (Camoens and Schiller, among many others).[32] Hemans and Bogan are linked by way of German writing, further by Goethe, and the Italianate Goethe at that. Hemans’s Goethe is preeminently the author of Tasso, whose title character was the tortured laureate of the late Renaissance, while Bogan’s Roman lyrics capture the erotics of Goethe’s Roman elegies and place Rome’s laurels in bas-relief.

In Hemans’s commentary on Goethe’s Tasso, laurels crown Ferrara’s Tasso in a dizzying reversal from triumph to despair – the very reversal that characterizes Hemans’s and Bogan’s laureate poetry and troubles many of its critics. According to Hemans, Goethe’s Tasso turns on its troubled protagonist’s crowning at Ferrara and its immediate sequel in his abjection before a messenger from Rome whose “discourse” is “like a mighty triumphal procession.”[33] Hemans’s “Tasso’s Coronation” takes him to Rome at last for his triumph, but as its note says, died there ”on the day before that appointed for his coronation” (479). Laurels and their bestowal in Roman triumph – and their immediate or even prior relinquishment to the gods – are central to the poetics that Hemans and Bogan share. The Roman connection further foregrounds Bogan the literary and cultural historian. Rome was the goal of her Italian journey as it was of Goethe’s and the site of their erotic elegies: so Elizabeth Frank reads Bogan’s “Roman Fountain”;[34] so we might her “Italian Morning” as well, with its “big magnolia. . ./. . .bred to love” (74).

As in Petrarch’s Triumphs, Rome serves alternately as a magnet to Fame and a magnet to Love. Bogan’s “Baroque Comment” gives us “palm and laurel” and the “turned eyes and open mouth of love” in “ornamentals” of marble and bronze (76).[35] Her “Roman Fountain” gives us “full-gushed waters” moving “Up from bronze” (80). Rome is the site of Claude Lorrain’s baroque pictorials of marble and floral in a liquid setting of water and sky; and like her Romantic contemporaries Hemans uses a Claudean aesthetic in her depictions of Rome. The “fearful day” in Rome’s republican history that ends Hemans’s “The Widow of Crescentius” “Fades in calm loveliness away: / From purple heavens its lingering beam / Seems melting into Tiber’s stream” (92-93). Bogan likewise quotes Claude in her splendid late “Song for the Last Act”: Gwendolyn Sorrell Sell draws on one of Bogan’s intimates, William Jay Smith, to say that there “Bogan was thinking of etchings she admired by the French seventeenth-century classical painter Claude Lorrain” (Sell 77), presumably his great embarkations from Rome: “Now that I have your heart by heart, I see / The wharves with their great ships and architraves” (119).[36] German writers – Goethe – Rome, its laurels and triumphs and their baroque pictorials: these form a metonymic categorization of aesthetic and cultural associations between Hemans and Bogan.[37]

Bogan was an original historian of American poetic letters, whether in her landmark 1951 Achievement in American Poetry or in her individual essays and letters. Her literary history and criticism are informed by cultural history; she is especially attuned to European poetry and art in baroque, Romantic, Symbolist, and Modernist modes. Her discriminations on the site of the baroque – the Counter-Reformation – are especially acute. She writes, for instance, of the plain style of Marianne Moore as a “lineage against which the impressionist and the ‘modernist’ have for so long rebelled that by now they are forgetful that it ever existed”: Moore’s observing and moralizing resemble the “‘new’ learning” of Bacon, Browne, or Erasmus, a “Protestantism against whose vigor the vigor of the Baroque was actively opposed” (Phelps and Limmer 306). Bogan writes, in contrast, of Louise Guiney who was “a Catholic New Englander” like Bogan and whose “interest in Carolingian and Recusant poets of the seventeenth century gave her work a learned base” (Achievement, 25). Thus Bogan reads women poets with and against the (Counter)-Reformation, nodding no doubt to the privileged role of that era’s Metaphysical poets in poetic modernism but going further for the sake of the woman poet and her poetics, both ignored under modernism: pointedly giving that poet powers of thought as well as feeling and claiming for her the “vigor” of European contest over the role of Rome. Further, and more slyly, she distinguishes Moore as “a descendant not of Swiss or Scotch, but of Irish presbyters” – and “therefore, a moralist (though a gentle one) and a stern – though flexible – technician” (Phelps and Limmer 306). That, in Bogan’s insider’s joke, Moore becomes Irish here, makes her a member of a poetic sorority with its own secret handshake and capable within itself of baroque counterpoint. “We’re all Irish here,” implies Bogan, Catholic and Protestant; we’re all “Counter.”

Laurels and the Lyre

In her 1951 Achievement in American Poetry Bogan praises the work of signal American male poets while finding their masculine “line of truth” incomplete without “the line of feeling,” the “poetic intensity” that “moves on unbroken” from nineteenth to twentieth centuries in women’s poetry (20).[38] Against her own modernist taste for the spare and the suggestive, Bogan’s concession of interest in nineteenth-century women poets is striking.[39] Even while decrying the “sentimentalizing” of verse that women “in large measure” have contributed to American poetry, Bogan moved confidently back through nineteenth-century American women poets to Lydia Sigourney, known of course as “the American Hemans.” More revealing yet is a New Yorker article uncollected in A Poet’s Alphabet, “Poetesses in the Parlor,” a careful reading of Rufus Griswold’s The Female Poets of America (1848) with mentions of Jessie O’Donnell’s Love Poems of Three Centuries (1890). There Bogan discerns stages in the history of American women’s poetry, finding width of theme, vigor of execution, even “a critical attitude toward the married state.” Evidently unaware of the intimations in Hemans that marriage cannot be trusted for life, she pauses to remark, “It was enough to cause Felicia Hemans to turn over in her grave” (“Poetesses” 48). Bogan aimed to unbraid “the line of feeling” sustained by women poets from the “sentimentality” that she found false and that in any case was antithetical to her lyric modernism. She sought to rebraid the line of feeling and the line of truth as “the subtle wreath” of lyric, laureate poetry.

The Italian tradition of the Petrarchan laurel absorbs Horace’s metamorphic Latin lyricism of the rose, famously his carpe diem, and the rosy garland which is both triumphal arch (rainbow) and floral wreath (laurels).[40] This lyricism in turn absorbs Sappho and her Greek song of floral dance; it adopts as another sign the lyre, whose strings sing in the wind. The cliff-cleft at Petrarch’s mountain retreat Vaucluse is another lyre: the lyre, whose shell-body speaks too of the sea that absorbs Sappho and her laurels. Bogan and Hemans adopt Petrarch’s motifs of laurel and lyre along with his studies of the poet’s abjurations and triumphs of love and fame, his eschatology of eternity and the iridescence he finds in time. This iridescence alone links the poets: in Petrarch Cupid has “two great wings / Of a thousand hues,” in Bogan “The Dragonfly” has “great eyes” and “diaphanous double vans”; in Hemans “The Dial of Flowers” marks time by floral “hue where “might sleep the dew, / Like a pearl in an ocean shell.”[41] To date, Hemans’s abjurations of “fame” in such poems as “Woman and Fame” have seemed but evidence of a losing battle with nineteenth-century domestification, and Bogan’s more evidence of an “aesthetics of limitation.” Petrarchan laureate poetry offers lyric-epic powers beyond these rather unheroic outcomes. “Better,” as Bogan suggests in her “Fifteenth Farewell,” reserve “from time’s claws / The hardened face under the subtle wreath” (24).

Bogan’s epigram “Several Voices out of a Cloud” calls on addicts and perverts to “receive the laurel, given, though late, on merit” and suggests that “nice” folks “Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is deathless / And it isn’t for you” (93). No; it is the prize, and it was long sought by Petrarch himself, who promoted the reclamation of this Roman acclat for the poet until somebody got the hint and gave it to him, in 1341 at Rome, yesterday’s Stockholm. He accepted while explicating the laurel as “Laura,” as addicted to love as anyone in Bogan, at once poet and slave, as in the original Roman triumph, the slave riding with the conqueror in his chariot, whispering, “Look behind you; remember, you are human.” And as the ancient Roman relinquished his laurels at the temple of Jupiter, Petrarch left his at St. Peter’s Basilica (Bogan: “I shall lay it down”): triumph and its abjuration made ceremony.

Bogan’s poetry also explicates the laurels, for instance in “The Romantic,” where a contemporary Apollo fixes his beloved Daphne in a “laurel” growing “[i]ts precise flower” slowly “like a pentagon” (12). (Bogan’s flowers tend to the geometric.) In turn, in “Poem in Prose,” beloved males are sculpted into art by laurels, “Their strong hair moulded to their foreheads as though by the pressure of hands” (72). As Lee Upton writes, in Bogan “the Apollonian authority who may immobilize the poet is countered by a repeated command: ‘Break’” (39). Here are the reversals of fortune characteristic of the Petrarchan aesthetic: between conqueror and slave, lover and beloved. Here too is the metonymy of the laurels with flowing, writhing, even fiery hair. Readers of Bogan will remember her celebrated poems “Medusa” and “The Sleeping Fury” and perhaps her imagery in “The Young Mage” of poetry as a “comet’s hair.”

Readers of Hemans will remember the flowing hair and fiery heroics in “The Widow of Crescentius” and “The Bride of the Greek Isle.” In “Casabianca” the flames that will soon broadcast “the boy” standing “on the burning deck” are felt first “upon his brow” and “in his waving hair” (369): Petrarchan images and purposes shared with Shelley’s prophetic “Ode to the West Wind.” Hemans’s laurels also deck both poet’s and conqueror’s triumph in “The Magic Glass.” There her poets, “the lords of song,” process as in Petrarch’s “Triumph of Fame,” “Under the foliage of green laurel boughs”:

Wouldst thou behold earth’s conquerors? shall they pass

Before thee, flushing all the Magic Glass

 With triumph’s long array?

Speak! and those dwellers of the marble urn,

Robed for the feast of victory, shall return,

 As on their proudest day.


This late verse (posthumously collected) reminds us that even Hemans’s first adult books were both progress poems, both postwar “triumphs,” The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816) and Modern Greece (1817).

Hemans’s Sappho claims the “laurel-wreath” as well. In “The Last Song of Sappho,” she has let the “living strings” (st. 5) of her lyre die for an epic love that failed: “Was it for this?” she questions, in Virgil’s heroic phrase (549). Now, seeking surcease, she will cast her laurels (and herself, almost an afterthought) into the sea. Nonetheless, her song will not be stilled and will echo forth. How do we know this? Partly because of the poem’s own continuous countermotions of abjuration and reclamation, of “Yet” and “And yet”; partly because the sea in which she seeks peace itself is “restless” and “unslumbering”; partly because her own “boundless love” and “fiery thought are no plausible exchange for “peace”; partly because elsewhere, in “The Widow of Crescentius,” Hemans has Corinne, the heir of Sappho and Petrarch, feel the quenchless “thought” still vibrant in Roman relics beneath the Tiber’s waters (86, n.3). No reader of Hemans should pass by Margaret Linley’s reading of Sapphic “last songs” by Letitia Landon, Felicia Hemans, and Christina Rossetti. As Linley says, Hemans’s “Last Song” “engender[s] a feminized response in readers, male and female alike” and her Sappho’s “love for the multitudes of the earth she loves ‘so well’. . .contradicts as it incites a home” (15-42).

Abjuration and Triumph

Hemans and Bogan share the Petrarchan poetry of abjuration exemplified in “The Last Song of Sappho.” This is an abjuration sometimes of Love and sometimes of Fame, which no one reading Petrarch actually believes. You may (still) ask, why not? (I might well be quoting from Bogan here, her “The Daemon,” “It said Why not? / It said Once more”; 114). Because in the Rime Sparse there is always another sonnet or canzone, whether of amatory or political hope; because in I trionfi, triumph of and triumph over always take turns; and because there is always another triumph in the procession called triumph. Cupid’s victory over those who love in the Triumph of Love is succeeded by Laura’s victory over Cupid in the Triumph of Chastity, which is succeeded by the Triumph of Death (over Laura), then by the Triumph of Fame (Death’s undoing) and then of Time (Fame’s undoing) and then of Eternity. Further, because Petrarch’s own working life observed a rhythm of engagement and retreat, between Avignon with its courts of love and papacy and his rural retreat at Vaucluse (in Linley’s words, a “home” contradicted even as it is “incited”). This rhythm of engagement and retreat repeats itself between the exiled court at Avignon and the imperial, papal site of Rome: Petrarch seeking his own laurels, seeking to join Rienzi the People’s Tribune in receipt of his, and longing for the Pope’s return to the Capitol.

In this framework, an abjuration of Fame by Hemans as in “Woman and Fame” or “The Last Song of Sappho” takes on powers of reversal sufficient to “triumph” over readings that have her in retreat from Fame. Like Petrarch, both poets deal in abjurations of Love and Fame. Bogan’s dalliance with “the line of feeling” means that Love in particular will be what she will seem to abjure, like Petrarch turning to the rocky dell of his Provençal retreat to escape from Laura--where he then writes about her. In “Henceforth, from the Mind,” Bogan’s poet would take all her “joy” from mind and tongue and “shell” (which is the body of the lute if not the lyre). But the very dogmatism of the title, “Henceforth,” belies its chances, as do the echoes of a “smothered sound” “long lost” in the ocean like Hemans’s “Last Song of Sappho”: “Henceforth, henceforth, / Will echo sea and earth” (64). In the meantime, Bogan’s poem “The Alchemist” like her criticism has already found it fruitless to abjure “feeling” for “truth”: “I burned my life, that I might find / A passion wholly of the mind”; but I found instead “unmysterious flesh,” though “charred,” “still / Passionate beyond the will.” As Lee Upton writes of “The Alchemist”: “The final reassertion of the body in this and other poems frequently amounts to a triumph for not only physical desire but for the feminine as it has been culturally aligned with the body” (Upton 42).[42]

Bogan’s abjurations mean that her greatest mode is the valedictory, as lovers of her poetry will know; we think of “Fifteenth Farewell” from which I take my title phrase; and the incomparable “Song for the Last Act” and “After the Persian.” As Hemans’s Sappho said of her abjuration of the garden-earth, “And yet I loved that earth so well, / With all its lovely things” (p. 549; underscored by Linley); and Bogan’s Persianist says, laying her laurels (“my burden”) on the oasis flowers and underscoring the undying echoes of her death, “Goodbye, goodbye / There was so much to love, I could not love it all; / I could not love it enough” (117).

Critics have sought unity of tone in Hemans’s work, seeking like Bogan’s misguided “Henceforth”-poet to unbraid “the line of truth” from the “line of feeling”; but Bogan the critic knew that these were annealed together in the ”subtle wreath” of the Petrarchan poet’s laurels; as male and female are mutually involved in the tradition of lover and beloved.

Abjuration for Hemans as for Bogan and Petrarch is less surrender than a fallow time – sometimes under the sign of excoriating fire – one thinks of the “winter-burnings” of fields in Bogan’s poems, which are matched by the mountainside fires in Hemans’s Welsh Melodies, those Celtic vigils in answer to Roman conquest. This fallow time would be spent by Hemans herself reading in her “Dingle” in North Wales; and by Petrarch, as Hemans notes in “Genius Singing to Love,” “beside the lone Vaucluse” (554). Here, as in her “The Lyre’s Lament, the rocky dell of Vaucluse becomes a harp for the rough sea-wind, a “deep-toned lyre” aching for the “triumphs” that are its destiny (476). Here more than anywhere, laurels and lyre are configured. And here, as always in the Petrarchan aesthetic, there are the dynamics of excoriation and retreat, of abjuration and triumph.

Of course Hemans sought love, sought kinship in artistry really, though barred full communion that way by her official “Mrs.,” as Petrarch was barred by clerical celibacy (”chastity”). For some evidence, see the flirtatious abjuration in “Look on me thus no more” (563). The peaceful harbor Hemans imagines in “Corinne at the Capitol,” the “humble hearth” made “lovely” in the poem’s last lines, may be denied her. But she instates it nonetheless and in the manner of a mentor she shared with Petrarch and Bogan, Horace, whose Sapphic odes regularly ended in a gesture toward the fleeting idyll of the rose or cup of wine: his famous carpe diem. Thus it may be that we should read the ending of “Corinne at the Capitol,” which rightly is so vexing to Hemans’s critics[43]:

Radiant daughter of the sun!

Now thy living wreath is won.

Crown’d of Rome!—oh! art thou not

Happy in that glorious lot?—

Happier, happier far than thou,

With the laurel on thy brow,

She that makes the humblest hearth

Lovely but to one on earth!


“Now,” to paraphrase Bogan of “Song for the Last Act,” site of the glow cast by Claude over Rome’s liminal Campagna (noted earlier in this essay): “Now that we have her heart by heart, we see” (120). The poet desires a private idyll, a fallow time, Eros as art and not currency, the Triumph of Love.

Perhaps we are ready for Corinne’s triumph, knowing all we do about Petrarchan poetry and its lyric-epic form “the triumph,” knowing a bit at least about the Roman spectacle on which it was based, though still not all that Hemans knew. With decorum she alludes to the human sacrifices made simultaneously with a conqueror’s triumph and carried out just off stage: here the sepulchring of those victims occurs in stanza 3:

Thou hast gain’d the summit now!

Music hails thee from below;

Music, whose rich notes might stir

Ashes of the sepulcher;

. . . .


If she knows this detail of triumph, its simultaneity with human sacrifice, she must know more, and of even more importance to the laureate, including the mandate that laurels must be followed by their surrender, that conquest must be followed by abjuration. By the poem’s end, much has been abjured but something has been gained: an image of intimacy, of love, even love between artists, whether erotic or sororal. The laureate homecoming portrayed elsewhere in Hemans occurs in “Tasso and His Sister”: there the poet’s sister, his artistic kin, reads his work.

The poem’s best critics note its ineluctable energy: in Bogan’s and Hemans’s terms, this is the dynamic baroque. Susan Wolfson writes that the poem “has an aesthetic effect that resists the moralism of its final lines” which “keeps the margins, if not the center, of her writing unsettled.” For Wolfson, as for the traditional feminist critic, the poem remains on the horns of the “dilemma of gender” – an “ideological dilemma” involving indeed an artistic “inconsistency” that “Hemans never entirely resolves,” ideologically or formally. (“‘Domestic Affections’” 159-60). But what if this “inconsistency” lies at the “center” and not the “margin” of the poem’s form; what appears a moralistic tag comes from within the poem’s artistic vocabulary; what if, that is, the poem is a Petrarchan triumph and thus an achieved rather than a violated form? The poem’s true triumph may be its adroit re-shuffling of Fame and Love – against the order in I trionfi itself – a win-win situation, a place of celebrated retreat and of “Genius Singing to Love.” Here it would answer feminist calls by Lee Upton and Ann Rosalind Jones that the woman, indeed the woman’s body, negotiate and more boldly yet touch the man’s poetry. No losses, these gains are both poetic and ideological. Hemans’s Tasso has been her laureate of “lack,” of time’s reversals, his crowning preceded by relinquishment. Gathering him nonetheless into laureate succession with Sappho and Petrarch, Hemans sings, “I knew / The lay which Genius, in its loneliness, / Its own still world, amidst th’ o’erpeopled world, / Hath ever breathed to Love” (554). Or is the gain ours, culturally, in the woman poet’s newly delicious baroque comment on the site of Rome?