Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Felicia Dorothea Hemans

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HEMANS, Felicia Dorothea (1793–1835), was born in Duke Street, Liverpool, September 25, 1793. Her father, George Browne, of Irish extraction, was at the time of her birth a merchant in Liverpool, and her mother, whose maiden name was Wagner, was the daughter of the Austrian and Tuscan consul at Liverpool, and of united German and Italian descent. 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; and there the young poetess and her brothers and sisters grew up in the wildest seclusion, in a romantic old house by the sea-shore, and in the very midst of the mountains and myths of Wales, the monotony of her young life being varied only by two visits to London, which she never revisited in after years. The little Felicia was a lovely, precocious child. Her education was desultory; and she may indeed be said to have educated herself, the only subjects in which she ever received regular instruction having been French, English grammar, and the rudiments of Latin. Books of chronicle and romance, and every kind of poetry, she read with avidity; and she studied Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German sufficiently to be able to read them with ease and enjoyment. She was also fond of music, and played on the harp and piano, her preference being for simple national and pathetic melodies, especially those of Wales and Spain. In 1808, when she was only fourteen, a quarto volume of her Juvenile Poems was published by subscription. Among the earliest of these were “Congratulatory Lines on her Mother's Birthday,” “A Prayer,” an “Address to the Deity,” and some “Lines to Shakespeare,”—stiff, little, childish productions, which show, however, a good ear for rhythm and a considerable imitative faculty. The verses having been rather harshly criticized in the Monthly Review, the little poetess was for some days in tears; but the muse was soon reawakened. One of her brothers was fighting in Spain under Sir John Moore; and Felicia, fired with military enthusiasm, wrote England and Spain, or Valour and Patriotism, a poem of some length and much elaboration, which was afterwards published and translated into Spanish. Her second volume, entitled The Domestic Affections and other Poems, appeared in 1812, on the eve of her marriage to Captain Hemans, which took place in the summer of that year. She lived for some time at Daventry, where her husband was appointed adjutant of the Northamptonshire militia; but about this time her father went on some commercial enterprise to Quebec and died there; and, after the birth of her eldest son, she and her husband took up their abode with her widowed mother at Bronwylfa. Here during the next six years four more children—all boys—were born; but in spite of domestic cares and uncertain 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 the following year appeared her volume of 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. No further explanation than that it was in the first instance for Captain Hemans's health has ever been offered of this step; there seems to have been then merely a tacit agreement, perhaps on account of their limited means, that they should live for a time apart. Letters were interchanged, and Captain Hemans was often consulted about his children; but the husband and wife remained separate, and indeed never met again. Kind and influential friends—among them the bishop of St Asaph and Bishop Heber—clustered round the poetess and her children. Her health, however, began to fail her, and her beauty, which was of a peculiarly delicate type, is said to have faded rapidly, leaving behind it an habitually worn and harassed expression. She became subject, too, to paroxysms of beating of the heart. Yet for the next six years her literary industry never flagged. In 1819 she published Tales and Historic Scenes in Verse, and in the same year she gained a prize of £50 offered for the best poem on The Meeting of Wallace and Bruce on the Banks of the Carron. The poem was published in Blackwood's Magazine. 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 during the same year she 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. The Voice of Spring, one of her best known lyrics, was written in 1823, the same year in which she began to contribute to the New Monthly Magazine; and 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,” which last had appeared previously in a collection edited for a charitable purpose by Joanna Baillie. 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 Mrs Henry Siddons. An interchange of notes on this subject was the beginning of a cordial friendship between Mrs Hemans and the novelist. In the same year she wrote De Chatillon, or the Crusaders; but the manuscript was mysteriously lost, and the poem was not published till two years after her death, and then 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, with her mother and children and an unmarried sister, removed from Bronwylfa, which had been purchased by her brother, to Rhyllon, another house belonging to him 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. Her children were growing up about her; her own variable health was at its best; her popularity was spreading, not only in England but in America, where Professor Norton of Harvard university undertook to superintend the publication of a complete edition of her works and to secure to her the profits. But the death of her mother in January 1827 was a second great breaking-point in her life. Her own health began to alarm her; and though the nature of her illness, which afterwards proved heart complaint, was not at first apparent, 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 therefore left Rhyllon, and took a very small house in the village of Wavertree, near Liverpool, where she hoped to obtain good schooling for her children and society for herself. 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. This visit to Scotland was one of the most daring feats, and perhaps the richest episode, in her uneventful life. She was cordially welcomed in Edinburgh, dined with Jeffrey and other celebrities, visited Henry Mackenzie, heard Alison preach, and stayed with Sir David and Lady Wedderburn, and with Sir Robert Liston at Milburn, where she sat for a bust to Angus Fletcher. Above all, while she was at Chiefswood, 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. The poetess returned to Wavertree to compose 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. She was resolved to leave Wavertree, and wished to make Edinburgh her home; but the climate was pronounced too rigorous, and, as a brother and his family were already settled in Ireland, it was arranged that she should go to live in Dublin. In her new home kind friends and admirers gathered round the invalid, who now had with her only the youngest of her children. She was obliged to lie constantly, and the exertion of writing began to be painful to her. 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, to consist of translations from German authors, with introductions and explanatory notes, 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, which had been placed at the disposal of the dying poetess, she was again brought into Dublin, where she lingered till spring. The use of her limbs was entirely gone; but her passion for reading remained to the last, and the table at her bedside was strewn with books, one of which always lay open. Her last poem, the Sabbath Sonnet, was dictated to her brother on Sunday April 26th, and she died on the evening of Saturday, May 16, 1835, at the age of forty-one. She was buried in a vault under St Anne's church, Dublin. Besides the bust of Mrs Hemans by Angus Fletcher, there were three portraits taken of her in 1827 by the American painter West, one of which has been engraved; and another portrait, an engraving of which is in Chorley's Memorials, was painted in 1831 by a young Irish artist, Edward Robinson.

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 real physical suffering. Perhaps from these circumstances, aided by a course of self-instruction at best desultory and unguided, the emotional in a sensitive and intensely feminine nature was unduly cultivated; and this undue preponderance of the emotional is a prevailing characteristic in Mrs Hemans's poetry, and one to which Scott alluded when he complained that it was “too poetical,” that it con tained “too many flowers” and “too little fruit.” Her genius—beautiful and pleasing as it was—was not of a very high order. Like her favourite music, it lay within a small compass, and gave little opportunity for intricate harmonies. Thus her tragedies, and her longer and more complicated poems, such as The Sceptic and Forest Sanctuary, though by no means devoid of striking passages, are the least notable of her works. It is not, however, as the writer of these more ambitious productions, which in her own time were but doubtful successes and are now rarely read, but as the authoress of many short occasional pieces, and especially as a lyrist, that Felicia Hemans has earned so high a place among our poets. In her lyrics she could concentrate her strength on the perfect expression of simple themes. Her skill in versification, her delicate ear for rhythm, and the few ruling sentiments of her nature here found ample scope. In her lyrics Mrs Hemans is uniformly graceful, tender, delicately refined,—sometimes perhaps, even here, too fervent, too emotional,—but always pure and spiritual in tone; and in these too she occasionally displays those rarer qualities which belong only to the finest lyric genius. Many of her 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 Improvisator,” and “The Lost Pleiad,” have become standard English lyrics, and on the strength of these, and others such as these, Felicia Hemans is ranked among our chief British lyrical poets.

An edition of Mrs Hemans's Poetical Works was published, 2 vols., in 1832; Poetical Remains, with Memoir by Delta, 1836; Memorials, &c., by H. F. Chorley, 1836; Recollections of Mrs Hemans, by Mrs Lawrence, 1836; Works of Mrs Hemans, with a Memoir of her Life, by her sister (Mrs Hughes), 7 vols., 1839, and American reprint, 2 vols., 1847; Early Blessings, a Collection of Poems written between eight and fifteen years of age, with a Life of the Authoress, 1840; Poems, chronologically arranged, Edin., 1849; Poems, copyright edition, Edin. and London, 1872; Poetical Works, with critical memoir by W. M. Rossetti, London and Edin., 1873.

(f. m.)