Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hemans, Felicia Dorothea

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

HEMANS, FELICIA DOROTHEA (1793–1835), poetess, born in Duke Street, Liverpool, on 25 Sept. 1793, was the daughter of George Browne, merchant, of Liverpool, and at one time Imperial and Tuscan consul there. Her grandfather was George Browne of Passage, co. Cork. Her mother, Felicity, daughter of Benedict Park Wagner of North Hall, near Wigan, is said to have been of mingled German, Italian, and Lancashire descent. The poetess had three brothers: Sir Thomas Henry Browne, K.C.H. (1787-1855), who distinguished himself in the Peninsular war; Lieutenant-colonel George Baxter Browne, C.B., at one time chief commissioner of the police in Ireland, who was also engaged in the Peninsula; and Claude Scott Browne, who was deputy assistant commissary-general in Upper Canada, and died at Kingston in that province in 1821. Reference to the last is made by his sister in 'Graves of a Household.' In 1800 her father, forced by commercial reverses to leave Liverpool, settled with his family at Gwrych, near Abergele, North Wales, where Felicia was brought up, her education being superintended by her mother. She was a beautiful and precocious child, with a quick and retentive memory. She began to write verses at an early age, and when she was fourteen years old her parents were unwise enough to publish her 'Poems' in a quarto volume (Liverpool, 1808). She soon recovered from the harsh criticism which the volume met with, and in the same year published 'England and Spain, or Valour and Patriotism, a Poem,' inspired by the engagement of her two brothers in the Peninsular war. Shelley after reading her first volume, and hearing from his friend Medwin, who had met her, of her personal charm, wrote to her inviting her to correspond with him. But she declined, and when Shelley persisted in sending her further letters, her mother is said to have intervened and to have induced Shelley's friends to make him cease writing (Dowden, Life of Shelley, i. 49-50). In 1812 she published 'Domestic Affections and other Poems.'

After a three years' attachment she married in 1812 Captain Hemans, an Irish gentleman, who had served with his regiment (the 4th foot) in Spain. For a short time they lived at Daventry, Northamptonshire, but returned to Wales. For some unexplained reason the union was severed in 1818, after five children, all boys, had been born. Captain Hemans went abroad in that year, and never saw his wife again.

Before the separation Mrs. Hemans published two volumes, 'The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy,' 1816, and 'Modern Greece,' 1817. In 1818 her volume of 'Translations from Camoens and other Poets' came out, and in 1819 'Tales and Historic Scenes.' In the latter year she gained a prize for the best poem on the 'Meeting of Bruce and Wallace' (published 1819). In 1820 'The Sceptic' appeared. She then made the acquaintance of Reginald Heber [q. v.], afterwards bishop of Calcutta, who encouraged her to produce another poem in defence of religion, which she entitled 'Superstition and Error.' About the same time she contributed some prose essays on foreign literature to the 'Edinburgh Monthly Magazine,' and wrote 'Stanzas on the Death of the late King,' 1820. In 1821 she obtained the prize offered by the Royal Society of Literature with a poem on Dartmoor. A volume called 'Welsh Melodies' appeared in 1822, and she was about the same time induced to write a five act tragedy, the 'Vespers of Palermo.' This was produced at Covent Garden Theatre on 12Dec. 1823, with C. M. Young, Charles Kemble, and Miss Kelly in the principal parts. It was a tedious, spiritless play, unsuited to the stage, and was immediately withdrawn. It was shortly afterwards put on the boards at Edinburgh with some success. She subsequently wrote two other plays, 'The Siege of Valencia,' 1823, and 'De Chatillon,' neither of which was acted. In 1825, after a zealous study of the German language and literature, she published her 'Lays of many Lands' and the 'Forest Sanctuary,' her own favourite among her works. In the second edition of the 'Forest Sanctuary,' 1829, 'Casabianca' first appeared. The 'Records of Women' followed in 1828, and the 'Songs of the Affections' in 1830. In addition to these books she contributed to 'Blackwood's' and 'Colburn's' magazines and other periodicals. Her reputation, which rapidly grew in this country, extended to America, where a collected edition of her poems was issued in 1825 by Professor Norton.

In 1825 she removed from Bronwylfa, her eldest brother's house, near St. Asaph, Flintshire, where she had lived since 1809, to Rhyllon, a house distant only a quarter of a mile away. After the death of her mother in 1827, her health, already impaired, showed signs of further failure, and in the summer of the following year she changed her residence to Wavertree, near Liverpool. In July 1829 she visited Scotland, and made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, and afterwards went to the English lakes. There she met Wordsworth, who a few years later commemorated her in his 'Epitaphs,' No. xii. stanza 10. On a second visit to Scotland she made the acquaintance of Lord Jeffrey. In 1831 she removed to Dublin, where her second brother was chief commissioner of police. Here, while avoiding general society, she enjoyed the friendship of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, Archbishop Whately, and Blanco White. At Dublin she published two small volumes of religious verse, 'Hymns on the Works of Nature,' 1833, and 'Hymns for Childhood,' 1834 (but first published in 1827 in America), and in 1834 'National Lyrics and Songs for Music,' and 'Scenes and Hymns of Life.' Her health was now completely shattered, and she gradually sank until 16 May 1835, when she died. She was buried in St. Anne's Church, Dublin.

In person Mrs. Hemans was of the middle height, well proportioned, her head beautifully formed and set. This is better shown in Angus Fletcher's bust of her than in the portrait by W. E. West, as engraved by Scriven, or in another portrait by E. Robertson Graves, Life of Sir W. R. Hamilton, i. (605). She was bright and attractive in conversation, in which her intellectual alertness was helped by her wide reading, linguistic acquirements, and remarkable memory. Maria Jane Jewsbury drew her portrait, under the name of 'Egeria,' in her 'Three Histories.'

A collective edition of her works, with memoir by her sister, Mrs. Hughes, was published in 1839, 7 vols. 12mo; another, chronologically arranged, in 1849, one vol. royal 8vo. Among many American editions is one by Griswold, with essay on her genius by H. T. Tuckerman, Philadelphia, 1850. Her poems are stamped with feminine qualities; they have singular grace and tenderness, and exhibit an ardent sympathy with chivalry in every form. In her own day Lord Jeffrey, Byron, the Countess of Blessington, and Christopher North were among her admiring critics or readers. But her poetry lacks deep thought or subtle emotion, and although it had immense popularity in its day, its sweetness and fluency have long palled upon the taste of thoughtful readers.

Her five sons were: Arthur, born in 1812 and died at Rome in February 1837; Claude, who went to America in 1834; George Willoughby, who was engaged in the ordnance survey; Henry William, who in 1835 became British consul at Buffalo, U.S.A., was a contributor to the 'North American Review,' and died at Pard, Brazil, 20 June 1871; and Charles Isidore Hemans [q. v.]

[Mrs. Hughes's Memoir in collective edition, 1839; W. M. Rossetti's edition, with Memoir, 1873; Mrs. Lawrence's Last Autumn, &c, 1836; H. F. Chorley's Memorials of Mrs. Hemans, 1836, 2 vols.; Chorley's Authors of England, 1838 (with portrait from Fletcher's bust); Graves's Life of Mr. W. Rowan Hamilton, vol. i.; S. C. Hall's Retrospect, ii. 56; Alaric Watts, a Narrative of his Life, 1884, ii. 19; Mary Hewitt, an Autobiography, 1889. vol. i.; E. W. Whately's Remarkable People, 1889, p. 176; Burke's Landed Gentry, s. v. 'Browne of Bronwylfa;' many other references in Allibone's Diet, of Authors, i. 818.]

C. W. S.