The Edinburgh Monthly Review
ART. I. The Sceptic; a Poem. By Mrs. HEMANS, author
of "The Restoration of Works of Art to Italy;" "Modern Greece;"
"Tales and Historic Scenes;" "Wallace's Invocation to Bruce."
Murray. Lond. 1820.
We have, on more than one occasion, expressed the very high opinion which we entertain of the talents of this lady; and it is gratifying to find, that she gives us no reason to retract or modify in any degree the applause already bestowed, and that every fresh exhibition of her powers enhances and confirms her claims upon our admiration. Mrs. Hemans is indeed but in the infancy of her poetical career, but it is an infancy of unrivalled beauty and of very high promise. Not but that she has already performed more than has often been sufficient to win for other candidates no mean place in the roll of fame, but because what she has already done shrinks, when compared with what we consider to be her own great capacity; to mere incipient excellencethe intimation rather than the fulfilment of the high destiny of her genius.
We are aware, indeed, that this singular and gifted woman has not in every instance obtained that full share of celebrity, to which her merits so justly entitle her, and that, in speaking of her in the terms which we have been accustomed to use, we may appear to many readers to have been guilty of a deviation from the hackneyed usages of criticism, by bowing to an idol not yet recognized by the throng. It is true that Mrs. Hemans stands yet trembling on the threshold of fame, and that many of the veteran watchmen of the temple, instead of aiding the youthful and interesting votary, have left her to unbar the portals in the energy of her own strength alone, and looked with cold and stupid indifference upon her generous struggle. There might be some apology for this, were the neglect impartial, and had no undue facilities been accorded to those who have already found their way into the sanctuary, who occupy its chief places, and attract the admiring gaze of the multitude. But when we remember what motives of fear and favour have visibly operated upon the ephemeral distributors of fame,with what increased alacrity their more generous and perhaps least grateful functions have been performed in the case of a personal friend or noted partizanwith what bustling and tremulous haste the experience, or the apprehension of a vigorous lampoon has summoned them to the aid even of a hostile bardwhen we consider all these things, and think at once of the merit and the modesty of Mrs. Hemans, for whose gentle hands the auxiliary club of political warfare, and the sharp lash of personal satire are equally unsuited, we cannot but enter a complaint in her name, which she would not deign to make for herself, and appeal for her from the apathy of the superannuated tribunals to the living energy of general feeling upon which she may cast herself with full reliance, that her poetry requires only to be brought into contact with it, to kindle and exalt it into enthusiastic admiration.
The verses of Mrs. Hemans appear the spontaneous offspring of intense and noble feeling, governed by a clear understanding, and fashioned into elegance by an exquisite delicacy and precision of taste. With more than the force of many of her masculine competitors, she never ceases to be strictly feminine in the whole current of her thought and feeling, nor approaches by any chance, the verge of that free and intrepid course of speculation, of which the boldness is more conspicuous than the wisdom, but into which some of the most remarkable among the female literati of our times have freely and fearlessly plunged. She has, in the poem before us, made choice of a subject of which it would have been very difficult to have reconciled the treatment, in the hands of some female authors, to the delicacy which belongs to the sex, and the tenderness and enthusiasm which form its finest characteristic. A coarse and chilling cento of the exploded fancies of modern scepticism, done into rhyme by the hand of a woman, would have been doubly disgusting by the revival of absurdities long consigned to oblivion, and by the revolting exhibition of a female mind, shorn of all its attractions, and wrapt in darkness and defiance. But Mrs. Hemans has chosen the better and the nobler cause, and while she has left in the poem before us every trace of vigorous intellect of which the subject admitted, and has far transcended in energy of thought the prosing pioneers of unbelief; she has sustained throughout a tone of warm and confiding piety, and has thus proved that the humility of hope and of faith has in it none of the weakness with which it has been charged by the arrogance of impiety, but owns a divine and mysterious vigour residing under the very aspect of gentleness and devotion.
Nothing surely can be more beautiful and attractive than such a character as this,richly endowed with every gift which is calculated to win regard or to command esteem, yet despising all false brilliancy, and keeping every talent in sweet and modest subordination to the dignity of womanhood,emulating the other sex in the graceful vigour of genius, but scrupulously abstaining from all that may betray unfeminine temerity or coarseness in its exhibitions,touching the dark regions of metaphysical debate, and striking upon them as with a sunbeam from her own pure and spotless spirit, and thus reinforcing the sterner champions of her country's faith with the charm of gentle but glowing sentiment, and the resistless appeal of the most impressive eloquence. It is here that we recognise the graceful and appropriate direction of the female intellect, and not in that sneering scepticism which in man is offensivein woman, monstrous and revolting.
Mrs. Hemans, although she does not disown the touching and solemn influences of religion, is no devotee or ascetic, but has a mind profoundly alive to all that is beautiful or sublime in the creations of genius or in the fortunes of mankind. She has already hailed with fine and deep enthusiasm the rescuer of the immortal monuments of Italian art from the den of Gallic plunder; she has mourned over the desolation of Greece in strains that might sooth the spirit of its departed greatness; and she has embalmed the unpolished magnanimity of Caledonian patriotism in a rich glow of fond and admiring sympathy. Her piety is but the perfection of that lofty spirit which, with its deep sensibility to worldly and derivative grandeur, can never forget the great eternal cause of all that is beautiful or sublime in the aspect of matter or the workings of mind,and is the surest pledge of the presence of that poetic genius which strikes deep its roots in the sympathies and aspirations of our common nature.
It must be owned, however that Mrs. Hemans has hitherto scarcely done full justice to her powers, nor made a fair experiment of the influence which she is capable of acquiring over the public mind. Her productions have been either of too desultory or too reflective a character, to meet the demand which exists for high excitement and sustained emotion. Beautiful as was her first poem on the Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy, and fine and classical as were the whole tissue and form of its composition, it was not precisely of that class which is fitted, at the present day, to make a profound impression on the public mind, or to lay the foundation of great and enduring fame to the author. For this purpose, some approach at least to a regular story is indispensiblesome development of character, and conflict of passion. The reason why poetry of this kind is, generally speaking, more attractive than any other cannot be mistaken; and it is far from our purpose to enter into a tedious dissertation to discover the source of that deeper interest which we take in the actual collision of daring and impassioned characters, than in the mere reflections of the author, however beautiful, eloquent, or ingenious. The solution of the problem, indeed, lies on the very surface of speculation. The power of that species of poetry to which we allude is now greatly increased also, at least in extent of operation, by the admission among the number of judges, of so great a mass of half-educated persons, to whom the story is every thing, and the poetry almost nothing. Nor must we omit to mention among the disadvantages with which Mrs. Hemans has had to contend, in the form at least in which she has hitherto chosen to represent herself to the public, the practice of all the most popular living poets, who have by their example rendered a story almost essential to great popularity and success, and who would have been little heard of or known, had they trusted their fame to such casual efforts as those to which Mrs. Hemans has, generally speaking, hitherto confined herself.
But it will become her now to change her course, and to try a more expanded and adventurous flight. After the successful experiment of her powers within the limits to which she has hitherto circumscribed them, she may now collect herself for a more continuous effort, and, braving all their vicissitudes, wing her way through the lofty and troubled regions of passion. There is more than she is probably aware of in the happy selection of a subject. If the subject owe its embellishment to the author, he also has his obligations to his subject, for it becomes in some degree the base upon which his reputation is poised. The highest efforts of genius may be expended on some obscure and barren theme, and nothing remain of the laborious fabric except the memory of the author's imprudence, and the regret of his miscarriage, while far humbler powers, directed with a lucky precision to the springs of emotion and sentiment, shall achieve the prize, and float triumphant on the tide of popularity. The streams of Castalia may be lavished on the desart, only to be absorbed and lost for ever. The subject, in fact, must co-operate with the author in his ascent to the pinnacle of fame, and must place him at starting upon vantage ground, and not chain him down to the dark and hollow places of the earth, from which no mortal energy will serve for his extrication.
Some indeed there have been of surpassing intellect and genius, who have chosen to waste their talents on airy nothings, or on the gross and perishable materials presented by the fashion of their own times; or who have boldly essayed, not merely the work of poetical, but of moral creation, by endeavouring to recast the whole habitudes and sympathies of our nature. But where are now the greatest of such writers who have flourished in past times? Their names, perhaps, are remembered in the cold and distant admiration of the more curious lovers of poetry, but their works are unknown to all perusal, and strangers to every heart. We are as far as possible from insinuating that Mrs. Hemans belongs to either of the classes we have mentioned; but we wish, by these imperfect illustrations, to impress upon her a truth deeply interesting to her future celebrity, and to which she seems not hitherto to have been sufficiently alivethat the choice of a subject of commanding interest is essential to the full development of her powers, and the maturity of that reputation which we think she is yet destined to attain. It is not for one so gifted as she appears to us to be, to scatter the sweets of her genius upon any subject of ambiguous adaptation to the purposes of her art, or to neutralize, by dividing, the energy of her mind among the more minute and fugitive compartments of poetical interest, but, giving a fair chance to her talents, by their scrupulous and undeviating concentration to one great aim,putting from her with scorn all ephemeral solicitation, and deaf to every whisper of fleeting and momentary interest, we yet expect to see her rise triumphant over all prejudice or neglect, and command from the elevation which belongs to her genius, the deep and willing homage of her country.
One thing only we would remark about the style and manner of Mrs. Hemans, before proceeding to give the copious extracts which we intend to make from the fine poem before us. The sensibility of her taste, joined to her innate modesty, has deeply impressed upon her mind, the beautiful colours of style and expression with which some of the great masters of English poetry have been accustomed to invest their thoughts, and led her occasionally and unconsciously into an external resemblance of their manner. This, when it does occur, is, as we have just said, the obvious result of her fine taste, and her unnecessary diffidence of her own powers. She has long been in reverential communion with the spirits of these great authors and it is no wonder that she comes forth redolent in some degree of the grace and dignity which characterize their deportment. We should like to see more of this in the present day--for the restoration of the classical costume, if not accomplished in a spirit of servility, but under a sense of its elegance and adaptation to the wearer, would be a sure symptom of a generally returning gracefulness and vigour. Every pretender can advance in his own strange and harlequin garment, and claim the praise of a revolting originality; but there are few who can bear the tightened cincture, or manage the graceful drapery of Dryden and Pope. It is not the least praise of the style of the author before us, that, with her modest and occasional approximations to the manner of these great masters, she has discovered at the same time a capacity of invention and fertility of genius, which must for ever secure her against the reproach of any servile imitation of them; and shews that, if a lively relish for what is powerful and elegant in composition has led her into a casual resemblance of her models, she has the power also of extending their appropriate range of excellence without departing from its characteristic principles, or most graceful and attractive peculiarities.
The subject of the poem before us is one of deep and enduring importance; but it is not well adapted to the very highest purposes of poetry. As Mrs. Hemans has treated it, we have a fine and eloquent appeal indeed to the noblest feelings of our nature, against that dreary delusion which seeks to crush and extinguish themwe have much beautiful and impassioned declamationa full flow of elegant dictionand uninterrupted harmony of numbers. A finer subject could not be found for displaying, in the form of an oration, the very highest powers of eloquence; but the most attractive and popular poetry is still something different from eloquence; and a moral essay, we are afraid, however animated and brilliant, will not command the suffrages of those who have been accustomed to the more intense excitement afforded by the popular performances of the day. We shall not revert to this subject however, but proceed to give our promised extracts. The opening of the poem is at once brilliant and powerful.
WHEN the young Eagle, with exulting eye,
After sending the Sceptic whose thoughts travel not beyond this chequered state of existence, to the full indulgence of its fleeting and perishable pleasures, she reminds him that " life hath sterner tasks," and then addresses him in these striking and impressive lines:
When years, with silent might, thy frame have bow'd,
The wretched and forlorn condition of the Sceptic, when the ties of love or friendship are snapped asunder by death, is thus powerfully depicted:
Yet few there are, so lonely, so bereft,
The agony of soul produced by the first transition from intellectual darkness to the light of truth, is thus finely illustrated:
He, who hath pin'd in dungeons, midst the shade
Then follows this powerful passage:
Oh! what is nature's strength? the vacant eye,
The energy of the following pious supplication has seldom been surpassed:
Oh ! by His love, who, veiling Godhead's light,
In the midst of an eloquent and impassioned remonstrance with the Sceptic who, even when overwhelmed by the disasters of a present world, renounces all trust in futurity, she weaves some touching reflections upon a catastrophe, the remembrance of which will ever fall with surpassing sadness upon the spirit of a great people.
And say, cold Sophist! if by thee bereft
These passages must, we think, convey to every reader a very favourable
impression of the talents of their author, and of the admirable purposes
to which her high gifts are directed. It is the great defect, as we imagine,
of some of the most popular writers of the day, that they are not sufficiently
attentive to the moral dignity of their performancesit is the deep,
and will be the lasting reproach of others, that in this point of view
they have wantonly sought and realized the most profound literary debasement.
With the promise of talents not inferior to any, and far superior to most
of them, the author before us is not only free from every stain, but breathes
all moral beauty and loveliness; and it will be a memorable coincidence,
if the era of a woman's sway in literature shall become coeval with the
return of its moral purity and elevation.