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The Sceptic, Edited by Nanora Sweet and Barbara Taylor

"A darkling plain": Hemans, Byron and The Sceptic; A Poem

Nanora Sweet

  1. In her 1820 pamphlet poem, The Sceptic, twenty-six-year-old Felicia Hemans attacked Lord Byron's scepticism about the afterlife on the grounds that as a posture, it was dishonest, and as a program, it added darkness to a world already sufficiently dark. For her pains, she was welcomed by John Taylor Coleridge in the Quarterly Review as an alternative to "the most dangerous writer of the present day," while herself remaining "always pure in thought and expression, cheerful, affectionate, and pious."[1] Her "dangerous" opponent went unnamed in both poem and review, but Byron's biography and poetry were recognizable in her text. In a June 1820 letter to John Murray, Hemans's publisher as well as his own, Byron responded this way to The Sceptic: "Mrs. Hemans is a poet also–but too stilted, & apostrophic–& quite wrong. Men died calmly before the Christian era, and since, without Christianity."[2] (Read Byron's Letter)

  2. As a study of Byron, Hemans, and scepticism, this hypertext aims to lay bare the controversial and intellectual context of their debate. It aims also to illuminate The Sceptic as a poem ("A Poem"), for it was (and in many ways remains) an Arnoldian "darkling plain" where Hemans and Byron did battle over doubt and faith early in the nineteenth century and in poetries which may never again be equaled in material success or artistic ambition.[3] A polemic that modulates even as it daunts, The Sceptic has remained neglected among Hemans's poems until very recently, even as her lyrics, progress poems, dramas, and tales receive new attention. Yet in 1984 one of the poet's most astute readers, Peter Trinder, pronounced it "a remarkable poem in its subject and its performance."[4]

  3. We assemble this Hemans-Byron hypertext in the belief that a Hemans without The Sceptic is an ambitious woman poet defanged, and a Byron without The Sceptic is a privileged poet going unanswered by the sex to whom he is purportedly the "most dangerous." The Sceptic serves to anchor this "intertext" including Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Manfred, Hemans's "The Domestic Affections" and Tales, and Historic Scenes, and much more. Taken together, contributors to the hypertext suggest that Hemans and Byron contest much the same poetical-polemical territory in history, science, philosophy, and theology. Some of us even propose that these poets reverse roles as sceptics and believers. I argue here that Hemans matched Byron with a scepticism of her own, one befitting a poet who wielded the Sophists' own rhetoric of epideictic and enthymeme.

    Felicia Hemans and Lord Byron

  4. As the two most published poets female and male of Britain's nineteenth century, Hemans and Byron belong in the same critical conversation.[5] Aware of each other as competitors, acting as mutual provocateurs, they shared subject, style, and audience during the poetry "boom" of the late- and post-Napoleonic eras. Both were teenage prodigies in this environment, meeting adversity at the hands of critics and reaching for maturity in the lofty idioms of Pope and Milton, which somehow they made into spectacularly successful poetries of their own.

  5. On Hemans's side, the evidence of relationship is anecdotal, documentary, and literary. On hearing the news of his mother's prize from the Royal Society of Literature (for Dartmoor), Arthur Hemans crowed, "Now, I am sure Mama is a better poet than Lord Byron!" The poet's memoirist (and sister) claims, unconvincingly, that this sentiment did not originate with the adults of the family.[6] Hemans was known to wear a lock of Byron's hair and to request his chosen epitaph Implora pace for her own. She drew on him for epigraphs more frequently than any other writer. Still, her Modern Greece (1817) opposed him on the Elgin marbles, and however obliquely, she attacked him and his fellow Promethean Percy Shelley in The Sceptic (1820) and Dartmoor (1821).[7] When Thomas Moore's moderately scandalous Letters and Journals of Lord Byron: With Notices of His Life appeared in 1830, Hemans distanced herself from the noble poet and wrote approvingly of Wordsworth instead. Yet she never expunged Byronic resonance from her text or, as criticism shows, deleted it from her textual practice.[8]

  6. On Hemans's side, the evidence of relationship is anecdotal, documentary, and literary. On hearing the news of his mother's prize from the Royal Society of Literature (for Dartmoor), Arthur Hemans crowed, "Now, I am sure Mama is a better poet than Lord Byron!" The poet's memoirist (and sister) claims, unconvincingly, that this sentiment did not originate with the adults of the family.[6] Hemans was known to wear a lock of Byron's hair and to request his chosen epitaph Implora pace for her own. She drew on him for epigraphs more frequently than any other writer. Still, her Modern Greece (1817) opposed him on the Elgin marbles, and however obliquely, she attacked him and his fellow Promethean Percy Shelley in The Sceptic (1820) and Dartmoor (1821).[7] When Thomas Moore's moderately scandalous Letters and Journals of Lord Byron: With Notices of His Life appeared in 1830, Hemans distanced herself from the noble poet and wrote approvingly of Wordsworth instead. Yet she never expunged Byronic resonance from her text or, as criticism shows, deleted it from her textual practice.[8]

  7. On Byron's side is the evidence of letters and poems.[9] He praised Hemans's The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816) as "a good poem—very." In form, the Italian canto of his Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1818) is a progress poem like her Restoration, one featuring Italian art work and a sequence of female prosopopoeias. After Hemans opposed him in Modern Greece (published anonymously but soon identified as hers) and attacked him in The Sceptic, Byron distanced himself from her (7 June 1820). In one breath, he disputed her convictions about the afterlife and decried the "apostrophic" style that, now authoring Don Juan, he believed he no longer shared with her. In letters to their mutual publisher Murray, Byron satirized Hemans as a "feminine He-man" and "Mrs. Hewoman."[10]

    The Critical Record

  8. As if to follow Byron's lead, Jerome McGann and Susan Wolfson make a shared Hemans-Byron style their point of departure in studies of Romanticism, gender, and ideology. In The Poetics of Sensibility (1995) McGann continued his campaign against Wordsworthian "Romantic ideology" by joining, pincer-like, the sensibility of the 1790s, an aesthetic of "excess," to the sentimentality of Byron, Hemans, and Landon, a poetics of "loss."[11] In her recent "Hemans and the Romance of Byron," Wolfson uncovers a pattern of verbal intimacy between these poets, a volatile intertextual "romance" compounded on Hemans's part of love and competition, resonance and misprision.[12] Byron may have seduced Hemans, but in Wolfson's reading Hemans's strong (mis)prisions expose the would-be philosophical libertine as a sometime conservative whose heroines cannot be sexually free and still live. The work of McGann and Wolfson shows the high stakes and strong currents (Arnoldian "turbid ebb and flow"?) in studies of Byron and Hemans today.

  9. Behind the notable studies of McGann and Wolfson lies a body of groundbreaking but still unpublished writing on Byron and Hemans.[13] Two dissertations from the mid-1990s compared the critical and cultural reception of these poets: Dan Albergotti's "Hemans, Byron, and the Reviewers, 1807-1835" (1995) and Chad Edgar's "The Negotiations of the Romantic Popular Poet" (1996).[14] Byron figures on a somewhat smaller scale in my dissertation on Hemans and the Cult of the South. The historical burdens and predatory plots of the Cult's great genres (Italianate triumph and Oriental tale) play a part in my 1994 conference paper on The Sceptic, "Scepticism and its Costs: Hemans's Reading of Byron."[15]

  10. Another early conference paper presented here is Andrew Elfenbein's 1993 "Contesting Heterodoxy: Mrs. Hemans vs. Lord Byron."[16] Elfenbein's paper turns on the markedly "literary" style of Hemans and Byron, which it finds the site of an early nineteenth-century contest between "normativity" and "heterodoxy." While for McGann the Hemans-Byron style posed a problem in the manner of critical Marxism, for Elfenbein questions of style find answers in normative discourse as understood through Foucault. As Elfenbein writes, "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". Though Elfenbein devotes his discussion to Hemans's more obviously "literary" The Forest Sanctuary (1825), he lists The Sceptic as among those texts that, but for the finesse of her normative stylistics, would've been deemed "bluestocking."

  11. Notwithstanding the imagery and "conditions of extremity" that Hartman finds in The Sceptic, she follows Elfenbein in preferring the narrative poem The Forest Sanctuary for her study of Hemans's poetry of faith and doubt.[17] The poet's memoirist Henry Chorley did likewise in 1836, and his description of The Sceptic may provide the clue to this pattern: it was "the only poem, of a purely didactic character, ever written by Mrs. Hemans" (1: 51).[18] In twentieth-century criticism, didacticism has, however, been antithetical to the literary. Narrative ingredients in The Forest Sanctuary give Elfenbein purchase on its gender politics and religious ideology, but The Sceptic seems to offer few such literary handles. The problem of genre appears to have left The Sceptic; A Poem (A Poem?) at the critical starting gate. Some fresh thoughts about gender and polemics in the early nineteenth century might re-introduce The Sceptic and the kind of poem it is.

    Scepticism and the War of Ideas I:

  12. Engaged readers of Hemans find that The Sceptic stands oddly in her work: as a long poem it belongs to her ambitious first period, but as a religious work it has affinities with her late devotional writing.[19] To compound the problem, Hemans's critics are accustomed to writing about neither of these periods but rather the lyrics and dramatic monologues of her middle period and its popular volume Records of Woman (1828).[20]

  13. Critics of The Sceptic seem to agree that it is the work of a young woman unusually well-prepared to enter public debate on a highly charged topic and conducted in verse, but they are hard put to account for all the poem's active ingredients together–gender, the generation of ideas, genre. We might reopen discussion by posing Elfenbein's question again, How was it that this poem's author escaped being drummed out of court as a bluestocking? In 1798 the antijacobin Reverend Polwhele lambasted the Wollstonecraftian woman who "unsex'd" herself on "the public scene," and for twenty years his drumming out seemed to have satisfied public opinion.[21] As recently as 1812, Anna Barbauld's long career had been closed by politically interested ad feminam attacks on her Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, with John Wilson Croker decrying her presumptions to "satire" and a "pamphlet in verse."[22] In 1820, though, Hemans was praised publicly and fulsomely for her impeccable comportment and lofty purpose in entering the lists against dangerous irreligion (the Quarterly Review and Edinburgh Monthly Review), while Lord Byron resorted to the semi-privacy of his letters to Murray to satirize her as a "blue" for her work in The Sceptic (BLJ 7: 158).[23] Whether her entry was truly more acceptable, as Elfenbein suggests–or her blue-like presumption still an issue but now less mentionable, as Byron's half-public, half-private innuendo suggests–isn't quite clear.[24]

  14. If a woman poet entering "the public scene" in poetry in 1820 could still draw the label "blue," the results would be oppressive for both poet and poem, for she would be caricatured and her poem rendered "didactic" in a negative sense.[25] What if the question we should be posing is not whether the poet is "blue"—a matter that won't quite come clear–but rather whether the poem is "didactic" and thus a poem of instruction? What if, contra Chorley and almost everyone else, The Sceptic is not a "didactic" poem?

  15. There is another term than "didactic" for the polemical writing evident in The Sceptic and that is "epideictic," a performative mode of ceremonial and generalizable praise and blame, an occasional poetry keyed to biography and civic values, a rhetorical mode developed by the Sophists and catalogued by Aristotle.[26] Peter Trinder might be describing such a poem when he calls The Sceptic "remarkable in . . . performance" and says, "The poem must be read as a whole . . . especially because its coherent structure is quite powerful in itself" (27). As an epideictic poem The Sceptic would purvey ideas but also perform them and in excess. It would be showy like Byron's English Bards and Childe Harold, rather than restrained, like Hannah More's The Black Slave Trade: A Poem or Strictures on Female Education.[27]

  16. I would submit that, as a writer of numerous occasional poems and no (other) instructional poems, in The Sceptic Hemans is writing an epideictic poem. By writing in epideictic's distinctively biographical but general terms, she can catch up in her apostrophes a Byron, a Hume, a Shelley, and all they signify and with the periphrasis of epithet render them creatures of their own time and even handiwork: "the young Eagle," "the cold Sceptic," "mortal!," "demigod!," "child of the dust!," "son of the morning." (For whom is The Sceptic "too...apostrophic"?) Writing in a genre that is by turns panegyric and invective, she equips herself for the tonal complexity that Hartman and others hint at, one that sympathizes and hectors by turns and even simultaneously. Here, with a merciless sympathy, she apprehends Byron in flight from his Separation Crisis:
    And did all fail thee, in the hour of wrath,
    When burst th' o'erwhelming vials on thy path ?
    Could not the voice of Fame inspire thee then,
    O spirit ! scepter'd by the sons of men,
    With an Immortal's courage, to sustain
    The transient agonies of earthly pain ?
  17. The Sceptic may not believe in God, but he sheds his faith in "Fame" with difficulty. The fame that offers no support in life ("the transient agonies of earthly pain") still tempts him to imagine a glorious death on "the couch of suicide" (Go to The Sceptic, line 282), as she depicts with merciless farce:
    A closing triumph, a majestic scene,
    Where gazing nations watch the hero's mien,
    As, undismay'd amidst the tears of all,
    He folds his mantle, regally to fall !
    (Go to The Sceptic, line 355)
  18. Writing in a genre that is biographical but also occasional and civic, she is able to deal in delicious ad hominem allusions as well as generalized epithets. She can even offer compelling keyhole views of the private souls at issue in a Humean science of mind:
    And if, when slumber's lonely couch is prest,
    The form departed be thy spirit's guest,
    It bears no light from purer worlds to this;
    Thy future lends not e'en a dream of bliss.
    (Go to The Sceptic, line 125)
  19. The epideictic writer can arraign the lordly fugitive and in the next breath reprise the royal ode; she can turn from Byron's "cold" posthumous life to Charlotte's warm maternal death. (Go to The Sceptic, line 457)

  20. Engaged in genre, particularly civic genre, Hemans can recall other genres of historical weight, especially the epic. Using Vergil's phrase "Was it for this. . . .?" (spoken and echoed in The Aeneid 4), she can remind the would-be sceptical hero that his specialized preparations and their squandering (like Manfred's, those of a cosmic consciousness) are charges borne communally: "Was it for this thy still-unwearied eye / Kept vigil with the watchfires of the sky / . . .?" (Go to The Sceptic, line 255). Going before her, Byron had applied this epic tag to a woman hero, Augustina, the Maid of Saragoza: "Is it for this the Spanish maid, , , / . . . / . . .all unsex'd the Anlace hath espoused/ . . .?" (Childe Harold 1.54). When Hemans applies the tag to her own Spanish woman warrior, Zayda in The Abencerrage, the Polwhelian inflection ("all unsex'd") falls away: "Was it for this I loved thee?" (Wolfson, Hemans, p. 128, l. 461).[28]

  21. The Sceptic's sort of verse–personalized, risk-taking, hubristic, issue-calling–is even less commonly associated with women writers than didactic verse.[29] Here in the epideictic lies the presumption of a young woman going up against the leading male writer of the day: a woman matching her own presumption with the (auto)biographical hubris of one for whom "the world" itself ranks as a disappointed lover or, if it's lucky, a fair foe (Childe Harold 3.113-14). A young woman can only gain energy from matching this match, which her cat-call ("Was it for this. . .?) has already made a matter of gender reversal (Byron's Augustina, her own Zayda). Here is a poetry of (auto)biographical occasion in which youthful crushes (Byron's for Edleston, perhaps Hemans's for Byron) can be the serious stuff of poetry, a bio-poetry after all of time and temporality, of youth and death rather than instruction and orthodoxy. It is epideictic poetry, I submit, that accommodates and accounts for the hubristic heights and unsounded depths of an intertext made up of Childe Harold, Manfred, "The Abencerrage," The Sceptic and more. It is epideictic poetry that Hemans practices in poems contemporaneous with The Sceptic–her royal odes–and Stanzas to the Memory of the Late King would be republished with The Sceptic; it is epideictic poetry that hyperlinks The Sceptic with Childe Harold 4 when both make a late turn to elegy in saluting Princess Charlotte.[30]

  22. It is epideictic poetry in its panegyric mode that accounts for The Sceptic's epigraph from a funeral oration by seventeenth-century French cleric Bossuet–specifically, his oration for a Princess endangered by a libertine and sceptical culture. We note that Hemans does not cite from the more didactic work of Bossuet, which was notable for having brought about the (fleeting) conversion of Hemans's favorite sceptic historian, Edward Gibbon, to Catholicism. (Go to Commentary on The Sceptic's Epigraph.) It is epideictic poetry in its invective mode that accounts for the negative excess in the poem and its notes compounded of an Old Testament God and the Apocalypse (Go to The Sceptic, "Notes"). These negative energies strain containment in "normativity"; they are what drive the poem's polemic, make up Hemans's own version of scepticism, and make her polemic a "war of ideas" that takes no prisoners and spills over into a new era (Go to "Dover Beach"):
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.
  23. In her very attraction to Byron she is brought closer to him and his "antiphilosophical" scepticism whose method might be described as "negative dialectics."[31] But how account for those readers of Hemans who have credited The Sceptic with not only instruction but consolation?

  24. Students of Hemans will recall a letter from Hannah More in which, given Hemans's achievement in Modern Greece of "just views" and "delicate perceptions," More anticipates "no small pleasure" and, she hopes, "benefit" from The Sceptic (Hughes 34, Wolfson, Hemans 533). Any response she had after reading the poem was not, to my knowledge, recorded. Like other critics of Hemans, More searches for the logos of orthodoxy but lingers over its supplement literature. Harriet Hughes offers testimonials from two other readers of The Sceptic who might match More in piety. Their ingenuous reactions seem less interesting, somehow, than the poet's own studied responses. In a letter to one grief-stricken friend who found consolation in The Sceptic, Hemans sounds more the writer sceptical of her own effects–second-guessing her rhetoric, fishing about for compliments–than the ministrant serene in her faith:
    Perhaps, when your mind is sufficiently composed, you will inform me which were the passages distinguished by the approbation of that pure and pious mind: they will be far more highly valued by me than anything I have ever written. (Hughes 34)
  25. To date, the critic who has studied Hemans most searchingly as a consolatory writer is Michael Williamson, in "Impure Affections: Felicia Hemans's Elegiac Poetry and Contaminated Grief." His conclusion, that her work is profoundly anti-consolatory and given instead to an excess of negativity, would disappoint More. For Williamson, Hemans "redirects our attention away from dramas of elegiac transformation and inheritance and toward often unsuccessful dramas of survival."[32] In readings of ten elegiac poems from throughout Hemans's career, Williamson finds depicted not the augmentation but "the waste of women's psychic and imaginative energy in a world tainted by male death" (19): in short, "a darkling plain." Barbara Taylor and I explore similar readings of Hemans's youthful "The Domestic Affections" in connection with The Sceptic. As in elegy, so in epideictic: Hemans's polemics against "The Sceptic" and her own expressions of radical doubt form a package that is simply too self-critical and self-confounding to be recuperated to "didacticism" or a "normative femininity." And all the same, the poetry might after all be consoling or at least bracing for those who can be assuaged by the fairly strong tonic. As a polemical and specifically epideictic poem of praise and blame, then, The Sceptic offers a level of critical purchase that is not merely potential but actual and continuously so.

  26. But moving now from gender and genre to the generation of ideas in The Sceptic, I look again for collaboration to Barbara Taylor, whose close readings abide by the "particularities" of a Marilyn Butler rather than the broad epistemes of a Foucault. In completing my own offering on scepticism as a rhetorical-poetical "war of ideas," I turn to the close grappling between Byron and Hemans over the enthymeme, or rhetorical syllogism, which like the epideictic is a legacy of the classical Sophism.[33]

    Scepticism and the War of Ideas II: Believers and Sceptics

  27. As we would expect from two such passionate writers as Hemans and Byron, the ideas at issue here are not cool, colorless counters but elements in a cruel logic all too recognizable as human destiny[34]. Both poets are historical rather than ontological thinkers; for them ideas form and deform themselves in bodies and blood. Appropriately, it is neither deity nor creed in the first instance that is subject to their debate over scepticism but rather the afterlife; for a deity can serve principally, as he does in The Sceptic, to guarantee an afterlife, and a creed to guarantee a deity.

  28. In this light Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Canto 2, stanzas 3-9 (Go to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 2), becomes a key passage. Set on the Acropolis these stanzas perform a typically Byronic swerve, in this case from invective to elegy. Tracing history as a palimpsest of religion, Byron decries the way religions extort the sacrifice of this life for the promise of another afterwards; he welcomes the civilization obtained by Socratic scepticism; then, stunningly, he concedes that scepticism will be betrayed and religion served in the grieving lover's heart. As part of the debate over scepticism portrayed by Taylor, this passage attracted "extraordinary interest" on publication (Edgar 76, 82-87). It is framed by further generic and tonal work of great interest, for stanzas 1-2 offer an epic invocation to Athena and stanzas 10-15 a meditation on the Parthenon and invective against Lord Elgin.

  29. In this scene of Athenian democracy violated, Byron depicts the parade of "creeds" for whom a "victim bleeds" (st. 3-6) before unveiling Socrates's wise scepticism about those creeds:
    Well didst thou speak, Athena's wisest son!
    'All that we know is, nothing can be known.'
    (st. 7)
  30. We do not rest here, for the section moves on to the individual's desire to believe against all scepticism of "sophist" and "Sadducee" that "there be / A land of souls beyond that sable shore" (st. 7-8). The section concludes with an elegiac stanza (9, keyed to Edleston) that underwrites both our concern for the generically young male victim who "bleeds" under the "creeds" in stanza 3 and our desire that such victims live eternally as only those same creeds can promise. This poetic confounding, part and parcel of Byron's epideictic verse, resonates in Hemans's verse as well. In The Sceptic, hope of an afterlife appears early as a promise of light—one that graces our stay on however rocky an earth (Go to The Sceptic, line 27)—but later it shades into a (dark, insubstantial) shadow cast by "the Rock of Ages" (Go to The Sceptic, line 338). While Byron belies scepticism with faith, Hemans belies faith with scepticism, and neither reversal rests there.

  31. In Byron's passage, believers and sceptics are historically specific and temperamentally passionate: "'Twas Jove's—'tis Mahomet's—"; "The Sadducee / And sophists, madly vain of dubious lore" (st. 3, 8).(Go to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage) The individual caught in the midst of the debate is flesh and blood, a "Poor child of Doubt and Death, whose hope is built on reeds" (st. 3). This "child"'s hopes and fears are less for himself than for "thou!–whose love and life together fled"; "thou" whom he may never meet again, "thou" whom "'twere bliss enough to know thy spirit blest!" (st. 9). As elsewhere in Canto 2, here the occasion for elegy is young male loveliness dead betimes: "Thou art gone, thou lov'd and lovely one, / Whom youth and youth's affection bound to me" (st. 95). "Doubt and Death" are matters of passion and occasion, not of bloodless epistemology and ontology.[35] So the issues play themselves out in Hemans, as both writers show themselves sceptical about scepticism.

  32. Arguments pursued in these poems take the form of "enthymemes," curtal syllogisms, which like the epideictic mode are a legacy of the Sophists. As Jeffrey Walker describes it, the enthymeme works from "a network of oppositions" toward a "passional identification" worthy of its root meaning, thymos as heart. In Aristotle's words, it is "'the body of persuasion."'[36] As Walker points out, the enthymeme emerges in relationship to "opportunity" or "occasion"; arriving at identification in the moment. It may seem but a partial syllogism, one that leaps to conclusions; but hinging as it does on the body–on biography in history, an audience's material investment in its own destiny–the enthymeme invokes its missing premise of "necessity." When J. T. Coleridge said of Hemans's argument in The Sceptic that it "is one of irresistible force. . simply resting the truth of religion on the necessity of it; on the utter misery and helplessness of man without it," he is reading the poem enthymemically. Trinder's perception that Hemans offers an argument for "the necessity of deism" (27) is of the same order, while revealing more of her critique of orthodoxy.

  33. As certainly for Hemans as for Byron, this debate about scepticism is an argument about history carried out in history. Elsewhere Hemans reveals her interest in Gibbon's sceptical historiography.[37] (Go to Commentary on The Sceptic's Epigraph.) Sceptical discussions of The Sceptic historian Barthold Niebuhr appear in her letters and the books of her beloved son Charles, who revels in Niebuhr's convincing representation of a legend in which he, Niebuhr, did not believe. This is the legend of Numa, Rome's pacific second king, and his muse-consort Egeria. In a nice counterpoint to Hemans's epithets for Byron, Maria Jane Jewsbury gave her the literary name "Egeria." (Go to Commentary on The Sceptic's Epigraph.) That Hemans often linked her interest in doubt and belief to pre-Christian legend rather than Christian dogma is, however, a subject for another day.[38]

  34. What's important to note at all points in the Hemans-Byron debate (or collusion?) over scepticism is that matters of belief are not doxa but sanctions, sanctions in the historical, material form of human sacrifice (the bleeding victims of Childe Harold 2, of Dartmoor) and its assuaging (the pacific rites of Numa and Egeria, the faith in Edleston as a "spirit blest"). What's at stake are young bodies subject to war and to love (war's marriage system), and both systems affect both poets, given the bisexual manhood of Byron and the regiment-ridden womanhood of Hemans (lest we forget her separation from Captain Hemans in 1818). For both poets, religion should keep an unbloodied altar (Go to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage); for Hemans, religion should offer sanctuary–enough so on earth, that we can believe so in heaven; with a reverse argument actually the weaker. (Read the note "Then ye shall appoint you cities").

  35. Hemans and Byron are institutional rather than theological writers, and they write as though at the mercy of their and their audience's dispensations. While these (Christianity; Roman state religion; the same?) would displace vengeance and bloody sacrifice, they do so only to renew and even institutionalize them.[39] Hemans may urge The Sceptic to "Call thou on Him" when the "lightning" of vengeance flies–"Fly to the City of thy Refuge, fly!"–but the refuge offered has been designed by Levites for a Slayer and it brings him surely to trial. (Go to The Sceptic, note 5) Such is the unbloodied altar and such our earthly sanctuary: "Is earth still Eden?" she has asked The Sceptic, "Is all so cloudless and so calm below / That we seek no fairer scenes than life can show?" (l. 23-24). Heaven mirrors the scene at the City of our Refuge, however, for the Father remains the Avenger stopped at the gates and the Son is still the "still small" Hope of acquittal (Go to The Sceptic, line 53 and line 344) once inside that city :
    If Hope's retreat hath been, through all the past,
    The shadow by the Rock of Ages cast,
    Father, forsake us not !—

    and so heaven mirrors earth, its Avenger and its Hope.

    Scepticism and the War of Ideas III: Scepticism and the Post-War

  36. The Hemans-Byron poetic war of ideas couldn't end with Waterloo. For both, the earthly institutions of wartime and postwar Britain remained at issue: for Hemans, the prisons, schools, and temples; for Byron, the theater, legislature, courts; for both, the press. Hemans re-engineered benevolence in the company of women and men, as Marlon Ross portrayed in his 1989 The Contours of Masculine Desire. Byron sought to free young men from the rack of battle, altar, and factory frame and for a stage where (patriarchal) tragedy offered almost a loophole of cultural change and sexual difference.

  37. Byron and Hemans could look back to Enlightenment thinkers, a Gibbon or Hume, Voltaire or Rousseau, for models of scepticism–and they did. But to be a sceptic in the years 1815-1820 was to be something a good deal less neutral and magisterial than an Enlightenment depiction would have it. With the French Revolution, Enlightenment scepticism had licensed the destruction of foundational institutions; in its encounter with history, Enlightenment scepticism could offer no opposition to unprincipled conquest; it could offer only (pace Anne Hartman) the unaccountable benevolence that bemused Britain's sceptical philosopher David Hume. Thus is confected Wordsworth's portrait of the Sceptic or Solitary in his 1814 The Excursion, and it is not one to inspire (Go to Book II of The Excursion). Whether Wordworth's dazed and quixotic figure served to caution the age is hard to tell; Hemans read The Excursion and admired its "religious" passages in which "the poet speaks of departed friends" (perhaps in Book I? Hughes 38).

  38. Certainly The Excursion's post-Revolutionary combination of complacency and malaise galled Percy Shelley, a member of this generation for whom "la guerre n'est pas finie."[40] For this atheist, and his sceptical post-war colleague Byron, the work of scepticism was far from over, given the unreformed institutions at home and collusion with reactionary powers abroad. Hemans shared a passionate temperament with Byron and, needing the same surcease, adopted his plea, Implora pace.[41] The Sceptic she loved and feared was not the bemused Hume or the dazed Wordsworthian Solitary but the passionate Byron or even Shelley who dared pick up Napoleon's Promethean mantle and restage the Titanic as the New.

  39. In commenting on Hemans's The Sceptic as an engagement with Byron, I have recurred to the very interested debate between these most popular male and female poets, one appearing before the press in 1820 as a Christian Tory, the other as a radical sceptic. This debate, because it is interested, runs much deeper than partisanship, lending its cross-currents to the women and men who believe in and doubt the institutions that simultaneously destroy them and sustain them.


1. Rev. of The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy, etc. By Felicia Hemans. Quarterly Review 24 (Oct. 1820): 130-39. On the basis of a letter [1820] by William Gifford to John Murray, this review is attributed to John Taylor Coleridge by Hill Shine and Helen Chadwick Shine in The Quarterly Review Under Gifford: Identification of Contributors, 1809-1824 (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1949), 72, and again by Jonathan Cutmore in his continuously updated web resource, The Quarterly Review, 1809-1824: Notes, Contents, and Identification of Contributors (9-2-01): for Cutmore's attribution and a link to the review itself, see Quarterly Review index pages. As Cutmore notes, several Hemans scholars attribute the review to Gifford. My thanks to Susan Wolfson for pointing to a basis for the Gifford attribution: [Harriet Hughes, ed.] The Works of Mrs Hemans, 7 vols., (Edinburgh, Blackwood; London, Cadell, 1839), 3.150n, and again [Harriet Hughes, ed.] The Poems of Felicia Hemans, A New Edition, Chronologically Arranged, With Illustrative Notes and a Selection of Contemporary Criticisms (Edinburgh and London: Blackwood, 1849, etc.), 190. For an interesting reading of the Coleridge review among others, see Chad Edgar, n. 7 below.

2. Byron's Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand, 13 vols. (London: Murray, 1973-82). In subsequent references this work will be abbreviated BLJ.

3. The material success is the easier to measure, while evidence of these poets' powers is longer to tell. On one or both of these counts, see Paula Feldman, "The Poet and the Profits: Felicia Hemans and the Literary Marketplace," Keats-Shelley Journal 46 (1997), 148-76; William St. Clair, The Impact of Byron's Writings: An Evaluative Approach (New York: St. Martin's, 1990); Nanora Sweet and Julie Melnyk, "Introduction: Why Hemans Now?" Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century, 1-3, 11-12n3-5, and the volume at large. See also Matthew Arnold's 1867 poem, "Dover Beach."

  4. Peter W. Trinder's pamphlet-like Mrs Hemans (U of Wales P, 1984) remains the only critical monograph on the poet; he discusses The Sceptic on pages 27-29. There are now two modern scholarly editions of Hemans's work, but The Sceptic is not collected in either, making this electronic text the more necessary: Susan J. Wolfson, Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, and Reception Materials (Princeton: Princeton U P, 2000) and Gary Kelly, Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Prose, and Letters (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2002).

5. See Donald H. Reiman, Introduction, Poems, England and Spain, Modern Greece, etc., by Felicia Hemans (New York: Garland, 1978) v. (Vols. 64-70 The Romantic Context: Poetry, ed. Donald H. Reiman, 1976-78.)

6. Arthur Hemans quoted in [Harriet Hughes],"Memoir of Mrs Hemans," The Works of Mrs Hemans, 7 vols., (Edinburgh, Blackwood; London, Cadell, 1839), 1: 50 and note. Subsequent references to this source will be in text and to "Hughes."

7. Though our project links The Sceptic to Byron's life and work, it has strong connections to Shelley's work from "Ozymandias" to "Alastor"; for related work see Armstrong, "Natural and National Monuments."

8. Henry Fothergill Chorley, Memorials of Mrs. Hemans with Illustrations of Her Literary Character from Her Private Correspondence, 2 vols. (London: Saunders & Otley, 1836), 2: 106, 115. Regarding Hemans's continued use of Byron, see Chad Edgar's interesting argument that critics like J. T. Coleridge were attempting–and failing–to transfer "their sense of betrayal [over Don Juan] to Byron's female admirers." For Edgar, their attempt "suggests the overwhelmingly male orientation that characterizes the hostile reception of Don Juan and the distance that separates the reviewers' concerns from those of female readers and writers" ("The Negotiations of the Romantic Popular Poet: A Comparison of the Careers of Felicia Hemans and Lord Byron," diss., [New York University, 1996], 187).

9. Susan Wolfson conveniently collects these letter passages in her Hemans, 535-37.

10. Chorley 2: 323. BLJ 5: 108, 7: 113, 158, 183, 201. Keats is included in Byron's stylistic slur.

11. Jerome J. McGann, The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996). Stephen C. Behrendt provides considerable evidence for such an aesthetic bridge in "The Gap that Is Not a Gap: British Poetry by Women, 1802-1812," Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception, ed. Harriet Kramer Linkin and Stephen C. Behrendt (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 25-45.

12. Susan J. Wolfson, "Hemans and the Romance of Byron," Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Nanora Sweet and Julie Melnyk (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 155-80.

13. For a sense of publisher response to Hemans projects in the 1990s, see Susan Wolfson's "Editing Felicia Hemans for the Twenty-First Century" Romanticism On the Net 19 (August 2000) [13 December 2000].

14. C. Dantzler Albergotti, "Byron, Hemans, and the Reviewers, 1807-1835," unpub. diss., University of South Carolina, 1995; Chad Edgar, see n. 7 above; and his related "Felicia Hemans and the Shifting Field of Romanticism" in Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century, 124-34. One of the advantages of a web edition on Hemans is the notice it gives fugitive criticism–particularly dissertations and conference papers–written on Hemans during the period of her rapid reentry into critical discussion in the 1990s.

15. Nanora Louise Ziebold Sweet, "The Bowl of Liberty: Felicia Hemans and the Romantic Mediterranean," unpub. diss., University of Michigan, 1993 (82-132); see also Sweet, "Gender and Modernity in The Abencerrage: Hemans, Rushdie, and 'the Moor's Last Sigh,'" Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century, 181-95.

16. Elfenbein gave his paper at the first meeting of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, 1993, London, Ontario.

17. Chad Edgar similarly relocates Hemans's contentions with Byron in her 1823 play The Vespers of Palermo (188-224).

18. Other critics go farther and characterize Hemans's work as "didactic" in general: see Angela Leighton in Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (Charlottesville: U P of Virginia, 1992), 19, 38. While saying that Hemans's work offers "smooth didactic comforts," Leighton also senses the problem of genre, finding "an edge of scepticism," "the hint of scepticism, which occasionally ruffles the smooth public-speaking of her verse" (17, 19, 26). Like Elfenbein, Hartman, and Edgar, Leighton refers discussion of genre to Hemans's later poems, specifically her dramatic monologues (37ff).

19. Julie Melnyk's "Hemans's Later Poetry: Religion and the Vatic Poet" (Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century, 74-92) is the first published study of Hemans's late religious poetry.

20. The recognizably feminine concerns of this mid-career poetry have appealed to feminist critics, its sensitivity to changing market conditions to cultural critics. Paula R. Feldman's editing of Records of Woman, With Other Poems (Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 1999) provides a continuous feminist reading of the book. For further feminist examples go to Sweet's home page Bibliography: Goslee (1996), Harding (1995), Kaplan (1975). McGann (op. cit.) illustrates the historicist interest in Hemans's middle period lyrics, Isobel Armstrong a combined feminist and cultural approach in "Msrepresentations: Codes of Affect and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Women's Poetry," Women's Poetry, Late Romantic to Late Victorian, ed. Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), 3-32, and "Natural and National Monuments–Felicia Hemans's 'The Image in Lava': A Note," Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century, 212-30.

21. For an interesting website concerning the Reverend Polwhele's 1798 poem "The Unsex'd Females" and women's poetry see "The Unsex'd Females." For one of several astute commentaries on the Wollstonecraftian "backlash" and its effect on Romantic-era women poets like Hemans, see Andrew Ashfield, Introduction, Romantic Women Poets, 1770-1838: An Anthology (Manchester: Manchester U P, 1995) xii-xiii. In Victorian Women Poets. Barbara Taylor notes that Polwhele competed (unsuccessfully) against Hemans in the Royal Society competition regarding Dartmoor.

22. For this passage from Croker's review in the Quarterly Review and a further survey of Barbauld's silencing in the press, see Duncan Wu, Romantic Women Poets: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 8.

23. For both reviews see Wolfson, Hemans, 530-35. See Wolfson's interesting analysis, too, of how "any contrary strains in the poetry. . .were elided, or if recognized, then contained in a 'hyper'-feminine passion, rather than sounded for subversive implications . . . ." (525).

24. In 1841 George Gilfillan's review of Hemans in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine denies that Hemans was "blue"; evidently the question remained in the air; see n. 24.

25. See Marlon B. Ross, The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry (New York: Oxford, 1989). Ross offers a sympathetic reading of the eighteenth-century bluestockings but is sensitive to the label's "negative consequences" in Hemans's time (247). Gilfillan's review of Hemans in Tait's reveals how the "image" of the bluestocking is used to constrain the woman poet: She can assume "'the ludicrous image of a double-dyed Blue, in papers and morning wrapper, sweating at some stupendous treatise or tragedy from morn to noon,'" etc. Or she can turn "'from the duties or delights of the day to the employments of the desk,'" where with "'as little pedantry.. .as in writing a letter'" she can write "'a poem'" (Tait's 14 (1847): 361; qtd. Leighton 28-29).

26. A source that cannot be bettered as a critical history of epideictic poetry is Jeffrey Walker, "Aristotle's Lyric: Re-Imagining the Rhetoric of Epideictic Song," College English 51.1 (Jan. 1989): 5-28 (my only reservation being the essay's monologic treatment of Romanticism). One of Walker's models epideictic writers is the great sophist Gorgias. For the premier modern treatment of the epideictic mode in rhetoric, see Ch[aim] Perelman and L. Olbrechsts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (1958), trans. John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1969).

27. For a recent essay discussing Hemans's resistance to containment, see Susan Wolfson, "Felicia Hemans and the Revolving Doors of Reception," Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception (Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 1999), 214-41.

28. Readers of Wordsworth will recall this tab from Book I of The Prelude, l, 269. Epic similes carry Hemans into a Homeric territory in The Sceptic, a territory she shares with Byron who also enjoys analogies between earthquake and seaquake. With a cruel twist of fate worthy of the ancient master, she offers this analogy ("as. . ."): "as the sight of some far-distant shore" –once the drowning seaman's home–is now hopelessly out of his reach, so the winged "Hope" of homely succor has been shorn of her "plume" by the sceptic himself and it cannot pluck him up (do we recognize Coleridge's mariner with his albatross?). Later, in a passage whose sudden delicacy has made it a favorite of reviewers, the "hero" forgotten by "gazing nations" may die "unnoticed" as do "thousands":

As the light leaf, whose fall to ruin bears
Some trembling insect's little world of cares,
Descends in Silence–while around waves on
The mighty forest, reckless what is gone !
(Click here to go to The Sceptic, line 359)

29. Indeed, Anne Mellor has suggested that a broad band of Romantic-period women writers (not Hemans) can be distinguished from their male compeers on the basis of their rationality, with achievements like Mary Wollstonecraft's and Hannah More's in prose and didactic poetry leading the way. Mellor broaches this argument in Romanticism and Gender (New York: Routledge, 1993) and continues it in Mothers of the Nation: Women's Political Writing in England, 1780-1830 (Bloomington: Indiana U P, 2000). As capacious as is Mellor's work regarding prose and poetry, ultimately it steps away from the problem of a public poetics for Romantic-period women writers.

30. But see Taylor here about the republication of The Sceptic. For a study of elegies about the Princess, see Stephen C. Behrendt, Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993).

31. I adapt here from Terence Allan Hoagwood, Byron's Dialectic: Scepticism and the Critique of Culture (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell U P, 1993).

32. Williamson, in Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century, 20.

33. See Marilyn Butler, "Against Tradition: The Case for a Particularized Historical Method," Historical Studies and Literary Criticism, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Madison: U Wisconsin P, 1985), 25-47. Readers will notice that I adopt my term "war of ideas" from Butler's title Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975). For a published illustration of Taylor's method, see "The Search for a Space: A Note on Felicia Hemans and the Royal Society of Literature," Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century, 115-23.

34. Another sort of scepticism–an ontological one regarding appearances and realities–is of course a long-standing topic in later Romantic studies, as in Donald H. Reiman, Intervals of Inspiration: The Skeptical Tradition and the Psychology of Romanticism (Greenwood, FL: Penkevill, 1988).

35. But Hartman's emphasis on Humean crises of identity and philosophies of emotion illustrates that epistemology does not have to be "bloodless."

36. Jeffrey Walker, "The Body of Persuasion: A Theory of the Enthymeme," College English 56 (Jan. 1994): 46-65; here, p. 48.

37. Hemans cites Gibbon in Tales, and Historic Scenes's "The Widow of Crescentius," "Alaric in Italy," and "The Abencerrage" (1819). On the latter see my "Gender and Modernity," p.189.

38. On Hemans and Niebuhr, see Chorley 2: 171: the poet is drawn to the scientific historian even while, according to Chorley, regarding him "as merely a sceptical inquirer into the traditions of antiquity; and it will be remembered with what small complacency or toleration she was prepared to regard any destroyer of the ancient legends in which her imagination took hold." See Charles Isidore Hemans, Historic and Monumental Rome (London: Williams and Norgate, 1874), 14, 45-47. Primitive Rome was epitomized for Byron and the Hemans (and Livy and Niebuhr) by Numa, Rome's pacific and legendary second king, and more to the point, the religious institutions prompted by his muse-consort Egeria. For Byron on Numa and Egeria, see in Childe Harold 4 (114 ff.). For Jewsbury on Hemans and Egeria, see Ellen Peel and Nanora Sweet, "Corinne and the Woman as Poet in England: Hemans, Jewsbury, and Barrett Browning," The Novel's Seductions: Staël's Corinne in Critical Inquiry (Lewisburg: Bucknell U P, 1999), 211-14; and W. M. Rossetti, "Prefatory Notice," The Poetical Works of Mrs. Hemans (London: Moxon, 1873; etc.), 22-23. I further supplement Hemans's scepticism with paganism, her history with legend, in "Hemans, Heber, and Superstition and Revelation: Experiment and Orthodoxy at the Scene of Writing," Romantic Passions, ed. Elizabeth Fay; Romantic Praxis Series, website Romantic Circles; March 1998.

39. In a passage Hemans may or may not have read, Gibbon devotes his scepticism to the Holy War of the Crusades, which he sees as the natural result of institutionalized penance spilling over into nihilism: "the guilt of adultery was multiplied by daily repetition" in confession and penitence, "that of homicide might involve the massacre of a whole people" in the "more honorable mode of satisfaction" of "military service against the Saracens": The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. H. H. Milman, 6 vols., (New York: Harper, 1862) 5.547-49.

40. To vary the title of Alain Renais's post-Revolutionary film La Guerre Est Finie (1965).

41. For the opposite view, that "[v]igorous passion and inspiration were antithetical qualities to Hemans's poetry," see the Furr dissertation (80). Furr's opinion harks back to mid-twentieth-century opinion epitomized in Ian Jack's English Literature, 1815-1832 (1963), who found a "low pulse" in Hemans's work: See Wolfson Felicia Hemans xiv-xv on Jack.


Published @ RC

January 2004