When Felicia Hemans described receiving the Royal
Society of Literature's annual prize for her poem Dartmoor
she noted that her son "sprang up from his Latin exercise and
shouted aloud, 'Now, I am sure mamma is a better poet than Lord Byron!"'
In her memoir of the poet, Hemans's sister, Harriett Hughes, appended
an anxious footnote to this comment: "It is scarcely necessary
to remark, that the comparison originated solely with the boy himself."
Hughes suggested that it would have been an offence against female
modesty for Hemans to have declared herself a better poet than Byron,
or at least to have stated it so baldly. Yet if Hemans never openly
announced her poetic superiority to Byron, she insistently set herself
against him in her poetry by implying that her perceived moral superiority
to him translated into aesthetic superiority as well.
Hemans's contest with Byron had two sides: her revision
of motifs from his poems and her implicit contest with him over the
nature of literary language itself. Byron was more struck by the second
of the two because in 1820 he criticized her "false stilted trashy
style," which seemed to him "a mixture of all the styles
of the day."
His indictment of Hemans was also partly an indictment of himself,
since, as he admitted, one of the styles that she imitated was his
own. But by 1820 he could criticize her because he had largely, though
never entirely, abandoned the sentimental diction of his earlier romances.
Hemans, in contrast, was driving it to an extreme. As Walter Scott
noted, "Mrs. Hemans is somewhat too poetical for my tastetoo
many flowers I mean, and too little fruit."
Although this floweriness has been a stumbling-block
for modern critics, its cliched familiarity suggests how influential
it was in the nineteenth century. Hemans's style became as popular
as it did because it offered a distinctively poetic language to accompany
the growing autonomy of poetry. As High Culture for the middle classes
increasingly separated itself from everyday life and language, her
strenuous "poeticity" signaled that her work belonged to
that special, otherworldly cultural realm. To buy her poetry was to
buy a product that advertised itself as art. Her flowery style succeeded
where that of other Romantic poets, most notably Keats, had failed.
When work whose language announced itself as distinctively poetic
came from a lower-middle-class writer like Keats, critics savaged
it, but when it came from a woman, they praised it enthusiastically.
Gender worked where class had not.
As for Byron, even though Hemans's style drew heavily on his own,
she earned praise for it as Byron did not. As his career progressed,
his style received increasingly less attention because his work was
supposed to be interesting less as literature than as a revelation
of "the real Byron." Hemans, in contrast, avoided poetry
that her contemporaries might read as confessional. While Byron became
famous as a personality, she became famous as a "Poet."
A comparison of Byron and Hemans can begin by noting
that failed marriages took their careers in opposite directions. Byron's
poetry loudly broadcasted Lady Byron's scandalous desertion of him,
especially in "Fare Thee Well!". Like his earlier tales,
this lyric was just scandalous enough to arouse interest, but not
enough to alienate most respectable readers. For Hemans, in contrast,
the failure of her marriage was no subject for poetry. Left to support
herself, she wrote for money, which meant that she had little choice
but to appeal to the audience that Byron could flirt with offending.
Her readers and her situation as a female author largely determined
her poetry's pious, ultra-respectable viewpoint before she ever set
pen to paper. Readers eager for Byronic scandalousness would have
been shocked if a woman had voiced it.
Yet all was not as conventional as it seemed. Hundreds
of women had written poetry before Hemans, but she was one of the
first to make her living largely through poetry. The more conventional
modes for a woman needing to support herself had been translations,
novels, or plays. Poetry was hardly the most profitable mode a writer
could choose, and earlier female poets like Charlotte Smith and Mary
Robinson had turned to novels when economic need grew pressing. Hemans's
success as a poet depended on new developments in the book trade.
First, reviews and annuals appeared that paid generously for poetry;
Hemans informed one editor, "I have never been accustomed to
receive less than ten guineas a sheet."
Second, the verse romances of Scott and Byron increased the profitability
of poetry by tapping the novel-reading audience. Although Hemans eventually
became best known for short lyrics, the works that initially made
her name were longer pieces designed to appeal to these readers. She
avoided the tradition of female lyricists, especially that represented
by the Della Cruscans. One editor was asked to ensure that her name
appeared as "Mrs. Hemans" because "that infelix Felicia
is the subject of so many animadversions and allusions to Rosa Matilda,
Laura Maria, and all the Della Cruscan tribe, that I am determined
wholly to bid it good-bye."
Instead of small, modest lyrics, she ventured substantial poems, often
based on historical or Biblical subjects, that dealt with events of
She began writing her verse romances at the same moment
that Byron stopped writing his. In so doing, he also abandoned his
cozy relation to his respectable readers, since later works like Cain
and Don Juan
openly attacked British pieties. They became
profitable less for John Murray than for the radical publishers who
pirated them and sold thousands of copies, particularly of Don
, to the working classes. As Byron's working-class audience
grew, his middle-class one was supposedly shrinking. The official
line of a review like the Christian Observer
in 1825 was
that Byron should be boycotted because a boycott "would shew,
that, with a British public, no superiority of rank or intellect can
screen an impious and licentious author from the just punishment of
being reprobated, and consigned to oblivion."
Female readers in particular avoided later works like Cain
and Don Juan
, or at least felt guilty about reading them.
Hemans in the 1820s faced the challenge of continuing
the Byronic genre of the verse romance when Byron himself seemed to
be going wholly to the bad. She met the challenge by rewriting Byronic
romance from the point of view of normative femininity. Several critics
have commented on the gendering of Hemans's voice, but I want to emphasize
the differences between her poetic femininity and that of her predecessors.
The gender of female poets had always mattered for how they were read,
but gender for Hemans mattered differently. The feminine voice of
earlier poets was associated with subject matter, like domesticity,
motherhood, or female education, or with minor genres, like the sonnet
or fable. In the cases where female poets wrote on public subjects
in more ambitious genres, they put themselves at risk of being seen
as bluestockings who had unsexed themselves by trespassing on masculine
With Hemans, the case was different. When I first
came to read her work, I expected that, like the works of her predecessors,
it would be about women and issues conventionally gendered as feminine.
I did not find quite what I expected. She did write many poems, as
in Records of Woman and Songs of the Affections, about
feminized experience and sentiments. But she also wrote works that
do not fit so obviously into prior conventions of femininity, such
as theological poems like The Sceptic and "Superstition
and Revelation," historical narratives like "The League
of the Alps," poems on topical issues like The Restoration
of the Works of Art to Italy, and even battle songs. These are
not just poems about women and domesticity. Her subject matter pointedly
ranges beyond concerns previously designated as feminine.
Nevertheless, as many critics have emphasized, all
Hemans's contemporaries treated her work as distinctively feminine.
The puzzle is how she was able to address such a wide range of issues
without being attacked as a bluestocking. The answer lies in the expanding
borders of femininity at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Hemans's longer works participated in a new development in the construction
of gender: the politics of normative femininity. Much attention has
been given to how novels, conduct books, and tracts on female education
segregated women from public life by disseminating their role as pious
guardians of domesticity. Far less has been given to the ways in which
this seemingly limited role provided some women with a platform for
public, political expression. The historian Linda Colley has demonstrated
that, by the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth,
women were using the conservative concept of a female role to justify
such political activities as addressing armies, endowing monuments
to public figures, demonstrating in support of Queen Caroline, and
signing petitions to Parliament.
In 1829, for example, Lord Eldon "produced an anti-Catholic petition
in the House of Lords signed 'by a great many ladies"' (Colley
Colley emphasizes how politically empowering the conservative
concept of the female role proved to be, even though it seemed designed
to exclude women from public life. If women were indeed supposed to
be "embodiments of virtue and high morality," then they
had a duty to speak out on issues of public importance in order to
"inspire their menfolk to proper political actions" (p.
277). For Hemans to have narrowed her work to conventionally feminine
topics would have been to miss the larger range of concerns for which
women were taking responsibility. The participation of women in politics
had developed enough by the 1820s that writing as a woman no longer
meant writing solely about domesticity, children, and sentiment, but
about religion, nationalism, and history as well.
Byron was a particularly threatening figure for this
new politics of femininity, since the attacks in his later works on
religion and monarchy threatened the grounds on which such women had
gained their political voice, however limited it may have been. One
reviewer explicitly connected Byron's religious heterodoxy to his
degraded representations of women: "The same proud hardness of
heart which makes the author of Don Juan
a despiser of the
Faith for which his fathers bled, has rendered him a scorner of the
better part of Woman."
From this conservative viewpoint, Byron's religious heterodoxy went
hand in hand with his attack on the female character, since orthodox
Anglicanism was supposed to uphold the exalted character of Woman.
Any female writer who took the politics of normative femininity seriously
would have to counter the impression that Byron had created.
Hemans thought that her best poem was The Forest
; it was published in 1825 and was popular enough to
have gone into a second edition by 1829. In it, she met Byron on his
own generic ground, the verse romance, and rewrote Byronic motifs
to counter his heterodoxy. It might seem that, as a woman, she would
revise Byron most of all by countering his representation of women.
To a degree, her poem does so, yet its principle focus is not gender,
but religion. Rather than attacking Byron's atheism, she attacked
what was seen as a far more pressing threat to the Established Church
in the 1820s: Roman Catholicism. She based her poem on an article
by Blanco White in the Quarterly Review
in which he warned
the British public about Spanish liberals and criticized Catholicism
for imprisoning Spain in superstition. By adapting this article, she
placed her work within the politics of anti-Catholicism that inspired
so many women in the 1820s, to the degree that some even signed petitions
Her poem united a literary polemic against Byron with a political
one against Catholicism, to give narrative expression to the politics
of normative femininity.
While The Forest Sanctuary revises several
Byronic motifs, the two most prominent are the figure of the rebellious
Byronic hero and the heroine who dies from grief at the fate of her
beloved. Hemans's hero, like Byron's Manfred or Cain, strikes out
against established religion and is consequently exiled from his community.
Yet where Byron's heroes reject any form of established religion,
the rebellion of Hemans's hero is more specific. He is a sixteenth-century
Spaniard who, horrified by the spectacle of an auto-da-fe, abjures
Catholicism. Upon going to a "mighty minster, dim, and proud,
and vast" (I.lxxvii), he receives no inspiration until he has
a vision of Christ. It convinces him of the emptiness of the institutionalized
Catholicism represented by the "minster," and he relearns
his faith "from the book whose words are grav'd in light"
(II.iv). Although Hemans does not specify the religion to which he
converts, it looks much like early nineteenth-century Anglicanism,
through she generalizes her descriptions enough that they would not
alienate Dissenting readers either. In presenting nineteenth-century
British religion as the spontaneous revelation of a sixteenth-century
Spaniard, she transforms the Byronic hero's familiar turn away from
established religious norms into a turn toward orthodoxy.
Because the Spaniard is unable to "shout out
Heaven's air with falsehood's mask," he is thrown into a "grave-like
cell" (II.v), separated from his wife and children. His time
in jail seems modeled specifically on the experiences of Byron's Bonnivard
in The Prisoner of Chillon, that problematic exemplar of
the "Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind." Yet Hemans manipulates
British anti-Catholic sentiment in order to make her hero into a Protestant
paragon. What is represented as a rebellion within the terms of the
poem, the hero's apostasy from Catholicism, would have been seen as
a move toward orthodoxy for Hemans's Protestant readers. She uses
the element of religious rebellion intrinsic to the Protestant Church
itself to counter Byron's heterodoxy with a rebellion that is not
really a rebellion.
In Byron's poetry, the hero's rebelliousness usually
has bad results for the heroine. Hemans's poem goes even further:
all three female characters die, a fate that has been a crux for interpreters
who want to see her as affirming female experience. One critic suggests
that the futility of "female love, devotion and self-sacrifice"
in Hemans's poems functions to collapse domestic ideology from within.
While I recognize the futility associated with female endeavor in
Hemans, I am hesitant to see it as necessarily subversive because
she so quickly assimilates it to the need for Christian belief. Nevertheless,
the fate of women in The Forest Sanctuary
lays bare a potential
conflict between two elements of the normative female role: religious
belief and domestic obedience. In the poem's first book, the Spaniard
witnesses the deaths of Theresa and Inez, who, with their brother,
are the Protestant heretics condemned to be burned. Conversion has
led both sisters to rebel against their paternal home: "Alas,
that lonely father! doom'd to pine / For sounds departed in his life's
decline" (I.xxxii). Far from being rigorously dutiful, they have
shamed the name that "a hundred chiefs had borne" (I.xxxii).
Instead, Theresa remains loyal to her brother, "whose hand had
led [her] to the source of truth, / Where [her] glad soul from earth
was purified" (I.xxxviii). Although the narrator praises her
because "her life is ever twin'd / With other lives" (I.xxxvii),
Hemans's plot suggests that the issues are not quite so simple. Religious
faith may demand forsaking bonds even as sacred as those between father
The conflict between love and faith is even more prominent
for the other two female characters, Theresa's sister Inez and the
Spaniard's wife Leonor. As Inez is about to be burned, her beloved
suddenly appears to her. Faced with the choice between her love and
her loyalty to her faith, she dies of a broken heart before she reaches
the flames. Yet even as Hemans portrays the fatal effects of what
she calls "the strife / Of love, faith, fear, and that vain dream
of life" (I.lxi), she emphasizes that faith is ultimately the
right choice. Inez is praised for not having "cast away / [Her]
hope in [her] last hour" (I.lxiii), despite the pull of earthly
The narrator's wife Leonor undergoes an even more
vivid version of Inez's conflict between love and faith. Although
she is devoted to her husband, she dies during their voyage from Spain
to North America because she cannot reconcile herself to his conversion:
"Fall'n, fall'n I seem'dyet, oh! not less belov'd, / Tho'
from thy love was pluck'd the early pride" (II.xxxix). For her,
religious faith must not subside before marital fidelity. Like Inez,
she faces a choice between love and faith that leaves her no outlet
but death. Evaluating Leonor may be the central puzzle of The
, because Hemans seems to suggest that it is
better for a woman to remain faithful to her religion, even if it
is wrong, than to alter it in accordance with that of her husband.
While the narrator criticizes Leonor for her "gloomy faith,"
Hemans suggests that her persistence is heroic insofar as it demonstrates
her capability to put spiritual concerns above earthly ones.
The ambiguities surrounding Leonor's death test how
much Hemans may criticize the conservative order that she endorses.
As several critics have noted, relations between men and women are
rarely happy in her work. Her representation of Inez and Leonor may
suggest that this unhappiness arises from basic contradictions in
the loyalties that women are supposed to have. Yet the sentimental
gratification with which she surrounds their deaths tempers the potentially
critical impulse in her representations. Whatever earthly troubles
these characters may have, they all receive their reward in heaven
because they have kept their faith, even if it is wrong, as in Leonor's
Whether or not Hemans's representation of women subverts
her conservative ideology, the sheer complexity of the issues surrounding
their deaths indicates how completely she has revised Byron. Although
Caroline Franklin has demonstrated that Byron's heroines are more
complicated than previous critics have generally allowed, early nineteenth-century
reviewers found them to be little more than shadows dying for the
As John Scott wrote, "The female character is reduced [in Byron's
poems]...to a certain intense power of communicating delight to man,
and awakening enthusiasm in his breast:they love, dazzle, and
Hemans's women have considerably more substance than Scott's version
of Byron's heroines because they are not defined solely in relation
to men. They are literal or figurative martyrs whose loyalty to a
higher order leads them to resist even men who would bring them domestic
happiness. Though Hemans appropriates from Byron the motif of the
dead heroine, she ensures that her women died for what could be perceived
as better reasons than his did. She might expect that her representations
of women would appeal to her audience because religion had become
so closely associated with the exalted role of woman and the ability
of some women to find a political voice that so much in their culture
seemed designed to suppress.
Thus far, I have emphasized the content of Hemans's
poem and its ideological battle against Byron. Yet, as I suggested
earlier, her revision of him may be most important for its stylistic
results. The reception of The Forest Sanctuary
clues as to why her style matters. Several journals reviewed it when
it was first published, and the Edinburgh Review
Francis Jeffrey's discussion of Hemans in 1829 upon the appearance
of its second edition.
The reviewers fell into two camps. The first responded to the poem
in terms of its subject matter. The Monthly Magazine
it because the critic detested Hemans's "commixture of sacred
writ with that sort of poetry which is or ought to be intended for
the amusement of cultivated minds." The Monthly Review
in contrast, admired her ability to "adopt subjects honourable
to her delicacy" (p. 581). The critics in the second camp judged
the poem purely in stylistic terms. The Literary Gazette
praised her as a "sweet and elegant writer" whose poems
manifested "a degree of beauty which will amply reward the reader
for an attentive study" (p. 275). According to The Literary
, those who read poetry "for the sake of incident"
would find The Forest Sanctuary
of "little interest,"
but those who appreciated "genius and poetical sensibility"
would find it full of "those outpourings of the spirit, which
have their origin in the best and most glorious feelings at our nature"
(p. 289). Jeffrey's essay had nothing to say about Hemans's moral
or religious views but praised the "great charm and excellence
in her imagery" (p. 37). He maintained that the "the very
essence of poetry" demanded that the poet present "such
visible objects…as partake of the character of the emotions
he wishes to excite"; for him, Hemans was "eminently a mistress
of this poetical secret" (pp. 36-37).
The contrast between the camps is one between treating
poetry as a vehicle of moral or religious instruction and treating
it as an aesthetic object. For the second camp, the politics of normative
femininity disappeared from the evaluation of The Forest Sanctuary
The style of the following stanza, which the Magnet
"exquisite," gives an idea of what they were admiring instead;
it describes Inez before her death:
But the dark hours wring forth the hidden might
Which hath lain bedded in the silent soul,
A treasure all undreamt of;as the night
Calls out the harmonies of streams that roll
Unheard by day.It seemed as if her breast
Had hoarded energies, till then suppressed
Almost with pain, and bursting from control,
And finding first that hour their pathway free:
Could a rose brave the storm, such might her emblem be! (I.xxxv)
This excerpt is a good example of Hemans's style,
which is either "false stilted and trashy" or "sweet
and elegant," depending on your point of view. It works by piling
up poetical effects: an intricate Spenserian stanza with an altered
rhyme scheme (ababccbdd), elaborate similes, frequent dashes and exclamation
points, and rhetorical questions. Like the epigraphs from Schiller
and Coleridge at the beginning of her poem, the accumulation of such
effects in stanza after stanza signals the reader that this is poetry
in capital letters.
Banal as Hemans's style may seem to some in the late
twentieth century, it was a novelty in the 1820s because it fitted
so comfortably into the commodification of poetry as an autonomous
art form. As John Guillory has noted in his discussion of Wordsworth's
1802 Preface, the dominance of polite English in the eighteenth century
as a standard for defining literariness meant that there was little
essential difference between the language of most poetry and that
of most prose.
Yet once polite English had been disseminated widely enough that it
could no longer differentiate between higher and lower uses of language,
a different marker of literariness emerged: a distinctive style expressing
the genius of a particular author. What looked to Byron like a derivative
mix of contemporary styles looked to Jeffrey like the mark of Hemans's
poetic mastery. Despite these different reactions, both were responding
to the same thing: the ostentatious literariness of Hemans's style.
Hemans's style directly countered the turn that Byron's
later poetry had taken. When he engaged overtly polemical and topical
themes in works like Cain and Don Juan, he abandoned
his earlier sentimentalism for language that was more deliberately
prosaic. Part of the outrage of his later works was stylistic: they
did not read the way that poetry was supposed to read. Hemans's career,
in contrast, grounded the increasingly feminized status of poetry
within the book trade in the work of an actual woman. Although Keats's
style had seemed absurdly effeminate, her gender naturalized the equation
between femininity and the increasingly marginalized genre of poetry.
Yet Hemans's style had its disadvantages. One consequence of the growing
marginality of poetry was the privileging of lyric as a mode that
permitted the purest expression of an author's style. Lyrics best
represented high culture as a realm entirely removed from the concerns
of ordinary life and speech. As Hemans's career progressed, her greatest
critical success came not with ambitious, politicized poems like The
Forest Sanctuary but with short lyrics showcasing her style.
Their subject matter was far tamer than that of her longer works,
but they were more easily consumed as fine art, marked by their distinctively
Ultimately, Hemans's literariness worked against her
most ambitious poems like The Forest Sanctuary
language was so overwrought that the plots became difficult to follow.
Her biographer noted of one of these longer works that "somewhat
of a monotony of coloring is thrown over its scenes by the unchanged
employment of a lofty and enriched phraseology."
Her phraseology was so lofty that two reviewers of The Forest
quarreled about exactly what happened in it, and Jeffrey
stated bluntly that she "must not venture again on any thing
so long as the 'Forest Sanctuary.'" Instead, he praised her as
"the most touching and accomplished writer of occasional verses
that our literature has yet to boast of" (p. 47). She became
a later version of the Della Cruscan lyricists that she had tried
so hard to avoid, and the politicized edge of her earlier poetry evaporated.
As a lyricist, she became one of the most popular poets on both sides
of the Atlantic, and her work was memorized by generations of schoolchildren.
Even today as Hemans begins to reappear in anthologies, she is present
not as a writer of ambitious poems on religious and political issues
but as a writer of lyric.
The nineteenth-century diminishment of Hemans to a
lyricist reflects a gender bias: women supposedly could only write
in small forms, while the bigger ones were reserved for the men. Yet
attention to gender should not obscure the extent to which her fate
was that of much poetry during the century. In works like The
Golden Treasury, the Victorians eventually reconstructed all
Romanticism in terms of the lyric. As a result, Keats was elevated
to a status that would have seemed unlikely during his life. His resurgence
may even have depended partly on the taste for "enriched phraseology"
that Hemans had created. The decay in her reputation came only when
standards of literary language had altered again, so that the floweriness
that seemed strikingly expressive in 1820 looked cliched in 1920.
By then, however, the antiliterary language of Don Juan could
be re-evaluated as Byron's high point, since it supposedly marked
most clearly his individual genius.
My goal in this talk has been to place Hemans's conservatism
in historical perspective in relation to Byron's career, the politics
of normative femininity, and developments in the role of poetry. I
find her work challenging because it demands developing new models
for understanding the relation of gender to literature. While the
recovery of Hemans's work is only a few years old, the hermeneutic
often used in reading her work stems from a foundational text of academic
feminism: The Madwoman in the Attic. Its influential paradigm
suggests that underneath the conventional veneer that patriarchy imposed
on nineteenth-century women writers lie signs of rebellion against
an oppressive system. While, as I have argued, Hemans's work is hardly
untroubled in its ideological representations, the Madwoman
paradigm may not be the most useful for interpreting her because it
underestimates the political investments that a female writer in her
period might have. Taking Hemans seriously is most interesting when
we recognize how much her conventions of femininity challenge our
conventions for interpreting them.
Univ. of Minnesota-Twin Cities