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The Oceanides, Edited by Judith Pascoe

Henry F. Chorley, Memorials of Mrs. Hemans, with Illustrations of Her Literary Character from Her Private Correspondence. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1836. 66-73.

But of all Mrs. Hemans’ literary friends, one must be singled out for especial mention: both for the warm and energetic heartiness of regard displayed by her in a long and unbroken intimacy, and because her brilliant talents and high worth have passed away without receiving the honor or exciting the regret which they deserve. This was Miss Jewsbury, of whose life and writings a passing notice cannot be unwelcome.

The events of the former were not many, nor of any extraordinary importance. It is enough to say, that she was a native of Warwickshire; that, during her youth, her family removed to Manchester, in which town she continued to reside till her marriage with the Reverend William Fletcher. She accompanied this gentleman to India, where he had received an appointment, and within a few months after landing there, died of the cholera on the way from Sholapore to Bombay, on the 3d of October, 1833, at the age of thirty-two or thirty-three years.

Few have been more strenuous in the task of mental self-cultivation than Miss Jewsbury. She too, like her friend, was early called upon to bear the burthen of capricious and uncertain health, so often the heritage of those in whom "the spirit speaks loud." And to this was added the responsibility of managing a large family, confided to her upon the death of her mother. If she cannot absolutely be said to have pursued knowledge under serious difficulties, she had at least no encouragement in her progress, save the energy of her own resolution ‘to achieve distinction.’ "I was nine years old," she says, in a long letter of counsel and confession lying before me, "when the ambition of writing a book, being praised publicly, and associating with authors, seized me as a vague longing. As I grew older, it took permanence and led to effort. I sat up at nights, dreamed dreams, and schemed schemes. My life after eighteen became so painfully, laboriously domestic, that it was an absolute duty to crush intellectual tastes. I not only did not know a single author, but I did not know a single person of superior mind,—I did not even know how wretchedly deficient my own cultivation was. I wrote and wrote, and wrote faster than I can now, and without a tenth part of the timidity. I was twenty-one before I gained any desire for knowledge, as the natural road to the emancipation I craved; this was consequent on forming a friendship with two individuals, not writers, but highly gifted; they suggested study to me, and by their conversation, awoke me to a sense of my own deficiency. My domestic occupations continued as laborious as ever. I could neither read nor write legitimately till the day was over. It is not needful to say how premature ambition and energy developed themselves: suffice it to say, that the path of literature was opened to me when I least expected it."

Such are her own words, and their sincerity may well be relied upon. It may be added, as a trait of character, that one of the first steps taken by her after her mind was awakened, was to write to Mr. Wordsworth, stating the strong desires which consumed her; and entreating his counsel. It is most honourable to both parties to say, that this letter led to a friendship which was only partly closed by her death; and the poet has left in his last published volume a few words respecting her, almost as simple as a monumental inscription, but conveying a tribute as true as it is valuable. "Her enthusiasm," he says, "was ardent, her piety steadfast, and her great talents would have enabled her to be eminently useful in the path to which she had been called. The opinion she entertained of her own performances given to the world under her maiden name, was modest and humble, and, indeed, far below her merits, as is often the case with those who are making trial of their powers to discover what they are best fit for. In one quality—quickness in the motions of her mind—she was in the author’s estimation unrivalled."

Miss Jewsbury appeared in the world of authorship at a time, and in a manner of all others, least favorable to the permanence of a literary reputation. She was first known by her contributions to annuals and the smaller periodicals; her brightest thoughts were broken up into fragments, and many of them given to the world anonymously: but in all that she wrote may be discerned something of the unwearied study, and unflagging zeal, and unswerving principle, which raised even her most trifling efforts above the spurious tone of the light literature just then so fashionable. In her writings too, even when least carefully finished, will be found an ingenuity of illustration and a grace of language which are too often employed to conceal the absence of fixed principle, or the deficiency of observation. Her collected works are few, the earliest of them being the "Phantasmagoria," a series of light essays and tales. To this, succeeded her "Letters to the Young," which were written under the abiding influence of deep religious impressions, upon her recovery from a severe illness. These were shortly followed by the "Three Histories," the most complete of her works, though even this must be looked upon as a promise rather than a performance, and by her "Lays for Leisure Hours." But her best compositions remain unedited and neglected, some of them buried in obscure places; and a collection of her sketches and letters and critical essays, would be a valuable addition to our stores of female literature. Many of the last appeared in the Athenaeum, during the years 1831 and 1832; and it is with permission that I extract from that periodical the following fragments of a letter, written shortly before Mrs. Fletcher left England, which have a melancholy interest, as completing the picture of a mind of no common order.

". . . . I can bear blame if seriously given, and accompanied by that general justice which I feel due to me; banter is that which I cannot bear, and the prevalence of which in passing criticism, and the dread of which in my own person, greatly contributes to my determination of letting many years elapse before I write another book."

"Unfortunately, I was twenty-one before I became a reader, and I became a writer almost as soon; it is the ruin of all young talent of the day, that reading and writing are simultaneous. We do not educate ourselves for literary enterprise. Some never awake to the consciousness of the better things neglected; and if one, like myself, is at last seized upon by a blended passion for knowledge and for truth, he has probably committed himself by a series of jejeune efforts,—the standard of inferiority is erected, and the curse of mere cleverness clings to his name. I would gladly burn almost every thing I ever wrote, if so be that I might start now with a mind that has seen, read, thought, and suffered, something at least approaching to a preparation. Alas! Alas! We all sacrifice the palm-tree to obtain the temporary draught of wine! We slay the camel that would bear us through the desert, because we will not endure a momentary thirst.

"I have done nothing to live, and what I have yet done must pass away with a thousand other blossoms, the growth, the beauty, and oblivion of a day. The powers which I feel, and of which I have given promise, may mature, may stamp themselves in act, but the spirit of despondency is strong upon the future exile, and I fear they never will:

"I feel the long grass growing o’er my heart."

"My ‘Three Histories,’ have most of myself in them, but they are fragmentary. Public report has fastened the ‘Julia,’ upon me; the childhood, the opening years, and many of the after opinions are correct; but all else is fabulous.

"In the best of every thing I have done, you will find one leading idea—death: all thoughts, all images, all contrast of thoughts and images, are derived from living much in the valley of that shadow; from having learned life rather in the vicissitudes of man than of woman, from the mind being Hebraic. My poetry, except some half-dozen pieces, may be consigned to oblivion; but in all you would find the sober hue, which to my mind’s eye, blends equally with the golden glow of sunset, and the bright green of spring, and is seen equally in the ‘temple of delight’ as in the tomb of decay and separation. I am melancholy by nature, cheerful by principle. . ."

Enough has been said to indicate the contrast of mind between Miss Jewsbury and her friend: their intimate communion was as honorable as it was profitable to both parties, from the affectionate terms on which it was maintained. It must, indeed, always be profitable for high minds, diversely gifted, to mingle. They corresponded freely on subjects of common interest: they spent many long and pleasant periods of time together, wherein Mrs. Hemans would enrich and mellow the quick and naturally somewhat harsher mind of the other, by pouring forth all those stores of imagination, which were never withheld from those who could value them,—while her guest would sometimes playfully exercise her great natural powers of reasoning which had been strengthened by the responsibilities and difficulties of her youth, to call back her fanciful friend, if she had wandered into cloud-land, too far from the homely realities of life. The distinction between the two was, in short, that the one came through Thought to Poetry, the other through Poetry to Thought.

But no more perfect illustration of the friendship between these two gifted women, could be given than is to be found in the two letters subjoined.


"The inclosed lines, an effusion of deep and sincere admiration, will give you some idea of the enjoyment, and, I hope I may say, advantage, which you have been the means of imparting, by so kindly entrusting me with your precious copy of Wordsworth’s Miscellaneous Poems. It has opened to me such a treasure of thought and feeling, that I shall always associate your name with some of my pleasantest recollections, as having introduced me to the knowledge of what I can only regret should have been so long a ‘Yarrow unvisited.’ I would not write to you sooner, because I wished to tell you that I had really studied these poems, and they have been the daily food of my mind ever since I borrowed them. There is hardly any scene of a happy, though serious, domestic life, or any mood of a reflective mind, with the spirit of which some one or other of them does not beautifully harmonise. This author is the true Poet of Home, and of all the lofty feelings which have their root in the soil of home affections. His fine sonnets to Liberty, and indeed, all his pieces which have any reference to political interest, remind me of the spirit in which Schiller has conceived the character of William Tell, a calm, single hearted herdsman of the hills, breaking forth into fiery and indignant eloquence, when the sanctity of his hearth is invaded. Then, what power Wordsworth condenses into single lines, like Lord Byron’s ‘curdling a long life into one hour.’

The still sad music of humanity.—
The river glideth at his own sweet will.—
Over his own sweet voice the stock-dove broods.—

And a thousand others, which we must some time, (and I hope not a very distant one,) talk over together. Many of these lines quite haunt me, and I have a strange feeling, as if I must have known them in my childhood, they come over me so like old melodies. I can hardly speak of favorites among so many things that delight me, but I think ‘The Narrow Glen,’ the lines on ‘Corra Linn,' the ‘Song for the Feast of Brougham Castle,’ ‘Yarrow visited,’ and ‘The Cuckoo,’ are among those which take hold of imagination the soonest, and recur most frequently to memory. * * I know not how I can have so long omitted to mention the ‘Ecclesiastical Sketches,’ which I have read, and do constantly read with deep interest. Their beauty grows upon you and developes as you study it, like that of the old pictures by the Italian masters. My sister, who shares the feelings with which I write, desires I will not fail to ask if you can throw any light for us on the piece of ‘The Danish Boy.’ Its poetry is beautiful, but the subject requires explanation: does it refer to any wild mountain legend of the ‘Land of Lakes?’ I had many more things to say respecting all that I have thought and felt during the perusal of these works, but my interruptions, consisting of morning visits from the Bishop down to the tailor of the diocese, (which latter guest, to the mother of five boys, is by no means an unimportant one,) have been incessant, to say nothing of the boys themselves. My mother being unwell, and my sister engaged, all the duties of politeness have devolved upon me for the day. I must, in a future letter, name to you, according to your wish, a few books, the perusal of which may be advantageous to you, though I can sincerely say that I should be far from discovering the deficiencies which you imagine yourself, from any thing I have seen in your writings. I cannot help, however, mentioning as works from which I have derived much clear and general information, those of Sismondi; in particular his ‘Literature du Midi,’ and ‘Republiques Italiennes,’ but you are probably acquainted with both. I regret that I should have been obliged to answer your interesting letter in so hurried, and, I fear, incoherent a manner, and hope it will not prevent your writing to me again, and believe me with unfeigned esteem, my dear Miss Jewsbury,

                                                                         "Your sincere friend,

                                                                          "F. Hemans."

It will be seen that the preceding letter was written at a very early period of the acquaintance. A long space intervenes between its date and that of the following, which has been selected from among a large number of letters, as being one of those most characteristic of the writer. It was addressed to Mrs. Hemans on the occasion of her leaving Wales—a step she was induced to take by the breaking up of her establishment on her sister’s marriage, and her brother’s removal into Ireland. Miss Jewsbury had paid her a long visit in the course of the summer; and had only recently returned home.

"My dear Mrs. Hemans,

"I fear I am what your sister would call morbidly disposed, for I do not cordially settle to any thing that has not reference to you! But, of course, you will not quarrel with me on this account; and so, if I write you extravagant and extravagantly long letters, you will judge them and their writer by intention and motive. And I feel that you are sad, and I know that you are lonely, and by the time that this reaches you,

‘Wishes vain as mine may be
All that is left to comfort thee’!

"But my hopes are strong for the future. So now cheer up, madam, or rather believe that you will cheer up,—‘Heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.’ ‘At even-time there shall be light." There was One, and in Him the hope of the world was created, who said in extremity of anguish, ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death,—emphasize that My and see what force it gives, and then as an old poet says,

‘Hang all your golden hopes upon his arm.’

* * * "I thank you greatly for your last.—I thank you for not exerting yourself to be cheerful; pray always tell me the worst both as to mind and body; the sorrow of sympathy is not the sorrow that breaks the heart, but the sorrow of selfishness; and as I am greatly tempted to selfishness, do not scruple taxing my sympathy. I beg you will not answer this till you get settled in Liverpool. I shall not wait for an answer, but may probably write again soon. I shall think of you most anxiously, so that if Miss —— would be your substitute, and announce your safe-landing in a note, I should feel much relieved, and shall feel as if I knew her. For myself, I am in a state of unrest. I cannot settle just at present. I miss my imaginative associations, and do not, like Mr. Dangle, in the Critic, greatly like this being ‘looked up to.’ I don’t like having to lock up my similies, to mould my opinions in a more practical form, and find my favorite books lightly esteemed. Amongst my friends I have plenty of intellect in the raw material, but I have got a taste for it in an imaginative state. I am not satisfied with silk in the cocoon, I must have it wrought up into Persian stuffs. And then the music! * * * * In fact I believe I am very conceited, though duly gratified by the unfeigned rejoicing manifested by numbers on account of my return. The town is mad, no other word will do, touching this Festival. Such displays of finery in the shops! such placards! such advertisements! such buying, selling, scheming, riding, walking, talking, debating, all on this one subject! Such a medley of building, joining buildings, making Turkish tents, and Turkish draperies, and every-land costumes—tailors and milliners, monarchs of the day—and such a medley of the Messiah, the Creation, concerts and balls; —charity the avowed, amusement the real object, and poor religion the cloak. I hear so much of devotional feelings and fancy dresses, that I cannot tell one from the other, and when I see the position of The Messiah on the placards thus,




I always think of the two malefactors! I shall leave the town in the course of the week, and only entreat that I may hear nothing on the subject,—neither the feud for, nor the feud against, nor the feud neutral! In all my reading I now associate you. I think would you enjoy this or that—and so I keep a habit I do not wish to lose—the habit of looking for beauty. I met with an anecdote the other day that made me think of you. It was the death of a little, and a pious child in India, of the hydrophobia: a death one would think subversive of every thing pleasing. In one of the intervals when he was free from the spasms, he called to his mother for some flowers—she gave him some—but separating his favorite from all the others, he said, ‘I only want the rose, mamma.’ * * * * * I would I could shake myself free from my associations, I should be happier—at present it is an effort of principle to be cheerful. I pine after the flowers, and that sky of earth, the green meadow-land, and your sister’s music and your imagination. The sun seems shining to waste, when he only shines upon streets of houses and bustle. This is morbid, but I do pine on my sofa here."

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Published @ RC

November 2003