1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hemans, Felicia Dorothea

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HEMANS, FELICIA DOROTHEA (1793–1835), English poet, was born in Duke Street, Liverpool, on the 25th of September 1793. Her father, George Browne, of Irish extraction, was a merchant in Liverpool, and her mother, whose maiden name was Wagner, was the daughter of the Austrian and Tuscan consul at Liverpool. Felicia, the fifth of seven children, was scarcely seven years old when her father failed in business, and retired with his family to Gwrych, near Abergele, Denbighshire; and there the young poet and her brothers and sisters grew up in a romantic old house by the sea-shore, and in the very midst of the mountains and myths of Wales. Felicia’s education was desultory. Books of chronicle and romance, and every kind of poetry, she read with avidity; and she also studied Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German. She played both harp and piano, and cared especially for the simple national melodies of Wales and Spain. In 1808, when she was only fourteen, a quarto volume of her Juvenile Poems, was published by subscription, and was harshly criticized in the Monthly Review. Two of her brothers were fighting in Spain under Sir John Moore; and Felicia, fired with military enthusiasm, wrote England and Spain, or Valour and Patriotism, a poem afterwards translated into Spanish. Her second volume, The Domestic Affections and other Poems, appeared in 1812, on the eve of her marriage to Captain Alfred Hemans. She lived for some time at Daventry, where her husband was adjutant of the Northamptonshire militia. About this time her father went to Quebec on business and died there; and, after the birth of her first son, she and her husband went to live with her mother at Bronwylfa, a house near St Asaph. Here during the next six years four more children—all boys—were born; but in spite of domestic cares arid failing health she still read and wrote indefatigably. Her poem entitled The Restoration of Works of Art to Italy was published in 1816, her Modern Greece in 1817, and in 1818 Translations from Camoens and other Poets.

In 1818 Captain Hemans went to Rome, leaving his wife, shortly before the birth of their fifth child, with her mother at Bronwylfa. There seems to have been a tacit agreement, perhaps on account of their limited means, that they should separate. Letters were interchanged, and Captain Hemans was often consulted about his children; but the husband and wife never met again. Many friends—among them the bishop of St Asaph and Bishop Heber—gathered round Mrs Hemans and her children. In 1819 she published Tales and Historic Scenes in Verse, and gained a prize of £50 offered for the best poem on The Meeting of Wallace and Bruce on the Banks of the Carron. In 1820 appeared The Sceptic and Stanzas to the Memory of the late King. In June 1821 she won the prize awarded by the Royal Society of Literature for the best poem on the subject of Dartmoor, and began her play, The Vespers of Palermo. She now applied herself to a course of German reading. Körner was her favourite German poet, and her lines on the grave of Körner were one of the first English tributes to the genius of the young soldier-poet. In the summer of 1823 a volume of her poems was published by Murray, containing “The Siege of Valencia,” “The Last Constantine” and “Belshazzar’s Feast.” The Vespers of Palermo was acted at Covent Garden, December 12, 1823, and Mrs Hemans received £200 for the copyright; but, though the leading parts were taken by Young and Charles Kemble, the play was a failure, and was withdrawn after the first performance. It was acted again in Edinburgh in the following April with greater success, when an epilogue, written for it by Sir Walter Scott at Joanna Baillie’s request, was spoken by Harriet Siddons. This was the beginning of a cordial friendship between Mrs Hemans and Scott. In the same year she wrote De Chatillon, or the Crusaders; but the manuscript was lost, and the poem was published after her death, from a rough copy. In 1824 she began “The Forest Sanctuary,” which appeared a year later with the “Lays of Many Lands” and miscellaneous pieces collected from the New Monthly Magazine and other periodicals.

In the spring of 1825 Mrs Hemans removed from Bronwylfa, which had been purchased by her brother, to Rhyllon, a house on an opposite height across the river Clwyd. The contrast between the two houses suggested her Dramatic Scene between Bronwylfa and Rhyllon. The house itself was bare and unpicturesque, but the beauty of its surroundings has been celebrated in “The Hour of Romance,” “To the River Clwyd in North Wales,” “Our Lady's Well” and “To a Distant Scene.” This time seems to have been the most tranquil in Mrs Hemans's life. But the death of her mother in January 1827 was a second great breaking-point in her life. Her heart was affected, and she was from this time an acknowledged invalid. In the summer of 1828 the Records of Woman was published by Blackwood, and in the same year the home in Wales was finally broken up by the marriage of Mrs Hemans's sister and the departure of her two elder boys to their father in Rome. Mrs Hemans removed to Wavertree, near Liverpool. But, although she had a few intimate friends there—among them her two subsequent biographers, Henry F. Chorley and Mrs Lawrence of Wavertree Hall—she was disappointed in her new home. She thought the people of Liverpool stupid and provincial; and they, on the other hand, found her uncommunicative and eccentric. In the following summer she travelled by sea to Scotland with two of her boys, to visit the Hamiltons of Chiefswood.

Here she enjoyed “constant, almost daily, intercourse” with Sir Walter Scott, with whom she and her boys afterwards stayed some time at Abbotsford. “There are some whom we meet, and should like ever after to claim as kith and kin; and you are one of those,” was Scott's compliment to her at parting. One of the results of her Edinburgh visit was an article, full of praise, judiciously tempered with criticism, by Jeffrey himself for the Edinburgh Review. Mrs Hemans returned to Wavertree to write her Songs of the Affections, which were published early in 1830. In the following June, however, she again left home, this time to visit Wordsworth and the Lake country; and in August she paid a second visit to Scotland. In 1831 she removed to Dublin. Her poetry of this date is chiefly religious. Early in 1834 her Hymns for Childhood, which had appeared some years before in America, were published in Dublin. At the same time appeared her collection of National Lyrics, and shortly afterwards Scenes and Hymns of Life. She was planning also a series of German studies, one of which, on Goethe's Tasso, was completed and published in the New Monthly Magazine for January 1834. In intervals of acute suffering she wrote the lyric Despondency and Aspiration, and dictated a series of sonnets called Thoughts during Sickness, the last of which, “Recovery,” was written when she fancied she was getting well. After three months spent at Redesdale, Archbishop Whately's country seat, she was again brought into Dublin, where she lingered till spring. Her last poem, the Sabbath Sonnet, was dedicated to her brother on Sunday April 26th, and she died in Dublin on the 16th of May 1835 at the age of forty-one.

Mrs Hemans's poetry is the production of a fine imaginative and enthusiastic temperament, but not of a commanding intellect or very complex or subtle nature. It is the outcome of a beautiful but singularly circumscribed life, a life spent in romantic seclusion, without much worldly experience, and warped and saddened by domestic unhappiness and physical suffering. An undue preponderance of the emotional is its prevailing characteristic. Scott complained that it was “too poetical,” that it contained “too many flowers” and “too little fruit.” Many of her short poems, such as “The Treasures of the Deep,” “The Better Land,” “The Homes of England,” “Casabianca,” “The Palm Tree,” “The Graves of a Household,” “The Wreck,” “The Dying Improvisatore,” and “The Lost Pleiad,” have become standard English lyrics. It is on the strength of these that her reputation must rest.

Mrs Hemans's Poetical Works were collected in 1832; her Memorials &c., by H. F. Chorley (1836).