- The poems which I have discussed thus far were written in the later
part of Hemans's career. I shall for the remainder of this chapter focus
on a somewhat earlier period, in this section discussing The Sceptic
(1820) and in the final section The Forest Sanctuary (1825).
Having argued that Hemans writes a particular kind of confessional lyric,
which takes the confessional lyric as its subject, I shall now focus
my attention on the philosophical context for her desire to write a
dramatic poem about the "record of a mind," her 1825 extended
monodrama The Forest Sanctuary, the poem which she regarded
as her finest and which is arguably her most intellectually ambitious
and poetically accomplished. I shall be interested in delineating the
exact nature of the debate in which she is involved, suggesting the
reasons for her interest in the emergent science of the mind, and its
consequences for her aesthetic. In my discussion of "Our Daily
Paths," I pointed out how the speaker's experience of the world
corresponds to the model of the mind proposed by empiricist philosophers,
in particular Locke and Hume. I also have suggested that Hemans's aesthetic
is of the Humean variety, and that she develops a model of the self
as construct, querying how the mind becomes subject, as against the
transcendental self of high romanticism.
While we can observe a strong current of Humean influence in her work,
she acquires these Humean ideas via the Common Sense philosophers, whose
work comes out of Humean arguments but differentiates itself from Hume,
particularly with regard to the tendency of his arguments to undermine
religious faith, and also the extreme form of scepticism with which
he was associated, somewhat unfairly, at the time. Hemans's negotiation
with Hume is linked with her investment in a poetics of sensibility
and falls squarely within the position of the Common Sense philosophers,
who sought to carry on the analysis of mind within a framework which
gave credence to innate tendencies of human nature and intuition and
which managed to reconcile the materialist tendencies of the science
of the mind with a religious sensibility.
- As I have already suggested through my readings of her lyrics, Hemans
mimics the gendered structure of metaphysical thought, but she does
so in way which loosens its claims to truth. The discourse against which
she is working is overtly displayed in the many reviews of her poetry;
we may take as an example a commentary from The Edinburgh Monthly
Review on The Sceptic, to which I shall be turning shortly.
The review begins by positioning her work within the expressive paradigm
and a gendered discourse of sensibility: "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."
As we have seen, in her lyrics Hemans partly occupies this characterization,
but nearly always resists a complete identification with it. The reviewer
initially applauds Hemans's choice of subject matter and her method
of address, described as never ceasing in its delicacy to be "strictly
feminine" (374). The reviewer imagines a worst-case scenario
of "a coarse and chilling cento" written by a woman which
displays "the revolting exhibition of a female mind, shorn of all
its attractions, and wrapt in darkness and defiance" (374). For
this reviewer, Hemans manages the remarkable feat of both achieving
the qualities praised in male poets, while not trespassing the decorum
required from a woman: she keeps
[ . . .] 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. [.
. .] 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 offensive–in woman, monstrous and revolting. (375)
(Go to the Edinburgh
Venturing onto the grounds of philosophical inquiry was a risky move
for a woman writer since the incorrect exercise of the female intellect
can result in the monstrous, and Hemans is skillful in her ability to
remain within the acceptable boundaries of feminine behaviour. Chad
Edgar has shown how Hemans's career in the literary public sphere was
effectively curtailed by her male reviewers when she attempted to write
on political topics instead of the occasional effusive lyric.
- The rigid gender essentialism of this discourse surrounding philosophical
thought takes us quite far in understanding what Hemans has to gain
from a model of self as construct, and as composed of difference, as
opposed to the universal subject presumed by high romanticism. We find
that Hume himself was vulnerable to attack on not dissimilar grounds
for his own transgression of conventional gendered categories. In 1820,
a reviewer in The Edinburgh Monthly Review assesses Hume, saying
that while he possessed refinement of mind, good taste, a fine imagination,
and a talent for composition, his reasoning power and judgment were
His reasoning powers were not of that masculine and vigorous
kind, which seizes at once the main points of the subject to which
they are applied–shaking off all minor objections–diverging
into no bye-paths – but holding an onward and undeviating course
to the truth. The tendency of Hume's reasoning faculty was towards
the examination of minor obstacles, and the exploring of untrodden
- To a late twentieth-century reader, this criticism works rather to
endear Hume to us, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it
was seen as too open to an alarming relativism. Further, we can see
how Hume's method of argumentation deviated from the norm of masculine
rationality, thus disturbing the reigning gender ideology, which gives
us a further clue to his appeal for the woman writer.
- Feminist philosophers have much invested in defining identity as something
which is a process and which is relational and fluid, rather than that
which is premised upon a priori, transcendental grounds. A recent example
of this can be found in Christine Battersby's The Phenomenal Woman:
Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity (1998) which
outlines a "theoretical grounding for a self which is born, and
which is gradually shaped as it negotiates and renegotiates otherness,
registering the resonances and echoes that the repeated movements produce."
While Battersby is pursuing a phenomenological approach to identity,
we can see how the Humean model of the self provides a similar kind
of latitude. Feminist philosophers have in recent years rediscovered
Hume as possible source for a feminist epistemology, although there
are differences in opinion on this account.
Annette Baier, perhaps Hume's most influential feminist advocate, believes
that, philosophically, his outsider status invoked his self-definition
as "monstrous," and as such he was "an unwitting virtual
Baier emphasizes how Hume achieved a shift in the understanding of reason:
From being a quasi-divine faculty and something that we
share with God, it becomes a natural capacity and one that we essentially
share with those who learn from experience in the way we do, sharing
expressive body language, sharing or able to share a language, sharing
or able to share our sentiments, sharing or able to share intellectual,
moral and aesthetic standards, and sharing or aspiring to share in
the setting of those standards.
- Baier is convinced by the collaborative tendencies of Hume's model,
a view also shared by Sarah A. Bishop Merrill, who focuses on Hume's
theory of identity, and claims that it is useful because of the way
it foregrounds social interaction.
The interest which Hume holds for current feminist philosophers helps
illuminate the attraction which Humean-derived ideas would have for
a woman poet. The legacies of the Humean systema more flexible
model of the mind, an interrogation into the grounds of identity, and
an emphasis on the sociality of the passionsall find their way
into Hemans's poetic.
- When we turn to evaluate the influence of Hume, it is most relevant
to see how his ideas were circulated and interpreted at the time amongst
Hemans's contemporaries. The "correct" understanding of Hume
is thus less relevant for my purposes than the contemporary misreadings
of Hume. Nonetheless, it will be useful here to summarize the key notions
in his thought, which are set out in A Treatise of Human Nature
(1739-40). According to Hume, there are no innate ideas in the mind;
all ideas are derived from impressions, which arise through sense experience.
There are certain tendencies regarding how the mind organizes ideas
through associationsuch as a predilection to perceive causality,
and a liking for resemblance and contiguitybut these tendencies
merely have to do with how we organize our ideas and impressions, not
with their origin, which is for Hume always sense experience. Hume does
not believe that there is any proof for either the notion of
the continued existence of objects, or causation. Although he is accepting
of the mind's tendency to attribute these relations, he holds
that in fact all we have are fleeting perceptions of objects, and they
do not exist outside of these sense perceptions. Particularly infamous
is the direction Hume's thinking takes when he comes to consider the
putative existence of the self. The self turns out to be simply another
object, and as is the case with all objects, we can have nothing but
fleeting impressions of ourselves: "what we call a mind,
is nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions, united
together by certain relations, and suppos'd, tho' falsely, to be endow'd
with a perfect simplicity and identity."
This account of the mind as lacking substantive identity produces profound
This Proteus-like mind, forever eluding self-identity, "is not
subject; it is subjected" as Deleuze will come to claim in his
study of Hume, Empiricism and Subjectivity.
- It is generally agreed that Hume is actually less of a sceptic than
has often been supposed, as he is more concerned to provide a system
purged of false rationalism than to reject notions of truth and falsity
altogether. Although often quoted as saying that reason is the slave
of the passions, the effect of Hume's philosophy was to interrogate
the limitations of reason.
For Hume, it is not so much that objects do not exist outside our perception
of them; its just that we have no way of proving that they
exist. Moreover, Hume is persistent in acknowledging the human tendency
to attribute existence and constancy to objects outside of
perception, even though this cannot be proven.
One useful source for evaluating the response to Hume not only in the
early nineteenth century but for the Victorians proper is Leslie Stephen's
History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876).
Here is Stephens's summary of the nineteenth-century understanding of
the Humean system:
The "substance" in which the qualities of the
phenomenal world are thought to inhere is a concept emptied of all
contents, and a word without a meaning. The external world, which
supports the phenomena, is but a "fiction" of the mind;
the mind, which in the same way affords a substratum for the impressions,
is itself a fiction; and the divine substance, which, according to
the Cartesians, causes the correlation between those two fictions,
must–that is the natural inference–be equally a fiction.
- This extreme interpretation of Hume, where certainty exists neither
in the world nor in the mind, cannot find support in his texts, but
it is not difficult to see how his thinking was open to such a misreading.
Hume's texts were frequently the object of misrepresentation, primarily
for his writings on religion (which I shall address shortly) but also
for the particular style of his argumentation, which in its restless
questioning could be seen to continually undermine even those premises
on which his argument might be seen be based.
- In any case, the arguments in the Treatise of Human Nature
are not that with which he was primarily associated during the nineteenth
century, but rather his undermining of religious belief, primarily through
his Essay on Miracles (1740-41), now considered a relatively
minor chapter in his work.
The remarks of Leslie Stephen passionately convey the impact of Humean
scepticism upon the religious sensibility of the era: "We have
in his pages the ultimate expression of the acutist scepticism of the
eighteenth century; the one articulate English statement of a philosophical
judgment upon the central questions at issue."
Stephens is apologetic when he comes to focus upon Hume's writings on
religion, explaining that "he is known as the author of this particular
dilemma; all else that he wrote is ignored."
Hume sought to bring science to the study of human nature, and as such
he demanded empirical evidence to back up what he considered to be the
largely groundless speculations of previous philosophy and theology.
His Essay on Miracles had become infamous for its attack upon
the faith required by Christians; the essay argues that empirical evidence
for miracles does not exist, and therefore they cannot be accepted as
proven. Any argument for the influence of Humean thinking in the period
must take into consideration that he was primarily reviled as a heretical
thinker for his writing on religion.
- Although it would be reasonable to conclude that Hume's ideas in the
Treatise would not have survived these ad hominem attacks,
they were in fact kept strongly in circulation through the work of the
Scottish Common Sense philosophers–primarily Thomas Reid, Dugald
Stewart, and Thomas Brown–and this was the route through which
Hemans would have been acquainted with his ideas. Although eager to
position themselves against what was taken to be a dangerous scepticism,
the Common Sense school were all heavily indebted to Hume, and even
while opposing themselves to him they were inadvertently continuing
his influence. The Common Sense school sought to continue the theory
of experience initiated by Hume, while attempting to avoid the dangerous
element of scepticism–injecting "common sense" to fill
in those troubling areas of doubt. Hemans was personally acquainted
with Stewart and the work of Brown was particularly in vogue during
the early 1820s; after his death in 1820, Brown's lectures were published
for the first time and were reviewed with much interest in the same
periodicals in which Hemans's work was published and reviewed.
I shall be particularly interested in examining the influence of Brown
upon Hemans's thinking in my later discussion of The Forest Sanctuary.
- In the period prior to 1820, roughly the first half of her career,
Hemans's poetic is characterized by historical subjects, particularly
deriving from the Mediterranean.
The Sceptic is pivotal in her career, as it signals a shift
from historical themes to philosophical and moral ones, a shift which
will culminate in 1825 with The Forest Sanctuary, which although
ostensibly a poem with a historical subject takes a philosophical imperative,
as it is as much about the process of experience and memory as it is
about history proper. We can see Hemans's poetry shot through with the
influence of Hume, but also struggling to articulate a distinction which
will keep at bay the points of his thinking which undermine religious
faith. It is not clear whether Hemans had first-hand knowledge of Hume,
but she was certainly exposed to his ideas, through, as I have suggested,
the work of Stewart and Brown, with which she was familiar, and more
broadly through the discourse of sensibility, so indebted to Humean
thought, through which she works. She undertakes a new direction at
this point in her career, and she does it through inquiring into many
of the philosophical questions in circulation during her day. Her earlier
work, although in a classical mode, is infused with the philosophical
ideas which created sentimental styles which had gone out of fashion
decades before. When she seeks a change of direction, she inquires more
deeply into the premises of her language of affect and sensibility.
As such, she takes part in the same conversation with Hume as the Common
Sense philosophers, in holding on to the model proposed by Hume while
infusing it with other elements to renew it as a viable discourse for
a Christian culture. It is not entirely coincidental that Hume published
an essay also entitled "The Sceptic" (1741-42) although Hemans's
poem by the same name makes only glancing reference to it. 
- In the next section, on The Forest Sanctuary, we will see
a direct intertexuality between her writing and that of Hume's inheritors,
the Common Sense philosophers. However, I do not want to argue that
there is a clear intertextual link between Hume's writings and Hemans's
poem, because although studying the two texts alongside one another
is suggestive, there is no evidence to suggest that Hemans wrote her
poem as a direct rebuttal to Hume. Nevertheless, Hemans's poem does
reflect the contemporary circulation of Hume's thought. The poem's overtly
moral project was well-received by contemporaries such as Hannah More,
and was applauded in notices in the The Quarterly and The
Edinburgh Monthly Review, the latter which described the poem as
a "moral essay."
With its moral, didactic subject and marching meter, the poem is quite
unlike any other in Hemans's corpus. Chorley calls The Sceptic
the only poem "of a purely didactic character, ever written by
The poem takes on a variety of those false philosophies which divert
the Christian from faith and the hope of afterlife, "Luring the
wanderer, from the star of faith,/To the deep valley of the shades of
What this scepticism proposes is no point beyond "a dark eternity,"
and the poem addresses itself to those who have wandered from faith:
Is all so cloudless and so calm below,
We seek no fairer scenes than life can show?
That the cold Sceptic, in his pride elate,
Rejects the promise of a brighter state,
And leaves the rock, no tempest shall displace,
To rear his dwelling on the quicksand's base?
Votary of doubt! then join the festal throng,
Bask in the sunbeam, listen to the song,
Spread the rich board, and fill the wine-cup high,
And bind the wreath ere yet the roses die!
'Tis well, thine eye is yet undimm'd by time,
And thy heart bounds, exulting in its prime;
Smile then unmov'd at Wisdom's warning voice,
And, in the glory of thy strength, rejoice!
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
But thou! whose thoughts have no blest home above,
Captive of earth! [ . . . ]
To fix each hope, concentrate every tie,
On one frail idol,–destined to die,
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
Then tremble! cling to every passing joy,
Twin'd with the life a moment may destroy! (23-80)
(Go to The Sceptic,
- The cold Sceptic in this poem is a figure who has rejected religious
belief to focus his attention on earthly pleasure. Byron is the figure
most behind her sceptic, but Hume is also a figure sitting behind the
(Go to The Sceptic,
line 25) A reviewer in Blackwood's in 1818, in an article which
proclaims Hume's inferiority as a philosopher to his contemporary Samuel
Johnson, explains how "the coldness of David Hume's character enabled
him to shake off all vulgar peculiarities of thought and feeling, and
to ascend into the regions of pure and classical intellect. No English
writer delivers his remarks with such grace."
- Turning to Hume, here I quote at length from the famous conclusion
to the first part of the Treatise, the confessional moment
of the text, where Hume exposes his self-doubt. The passage is conspicuous
in the text, as Hume sets aside his philosophical musings for personal
Methinks I am like a man, who having struck on many shoals,
and having narrowly escap'd ship-wreck in passing a small frith, has
yet the temerity to put out to sea in the same leaky weather-beaten
vessel, and even carries his ambition so far as to think of compassing
the globe under these disadvantageous circumstances. My memory of
past errors and perplexities, makes me diffident for the future. The
wretched condition, weakness, and disorder of the faculties, I must
employ in my enquiries, encrease my apprehensions. And the impossibility
of amending or correcting these faculties, reduces me almost to despair,
and makes me resolve to perish on the barren rock, on which I am at
present, rather than venture myself upon that boundless ocean, which
runs out into immensity. This sudden view of my danger strikes me
with melancholy; and as 'tis usual for that passion, above all others,
to indulge itself; I cannot forbear feeding my despair, with all those
desponding reflections, which the present subject furnishes me with
in such abundance.
I am first affrighted and confounded with that forelorn solitude,
in which I am plac'd in my philosophy, and fancy myself some strange
uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in society,
has been expell'd all human commerce, and left utterly abandon'd and
disconsolate. [. . .] Every one keeps at a distance, and dreads that
storm, which beats upon me from every side.
- He describes himself as in despair at the immensity of the journey
which he has undertaken, shaken by the "disorder of the faculties"
upon which he must rely. Hume continues to describe his disillusionment
with his philosophical vocation, which leads his brain to become "heated"
and to ask of himself such questions as "From what causes do I
derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return?" Relief
from his despair comes in the form of rest and relaxation:
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable
of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose,
and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either
by relaxing this bend of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression
of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play
a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and
when after three or four hour's amusement, I wou'd return to these
speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that
I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
- He continues to explain that his disillusionment with philosophy is
expelled by the natural inclination he possesses for speculative thought,
so that after he has tired of merriment and sociability "I feel
my mind all collected within itself, and am naturally inclin'd"
to continue his philosophical work.
Later in the same passage he makes a reference to the superiority of
philosophy over religion, saying that "generally speaking, the
errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous."
Even without his remarks which clearly reveal his religious disbelief,
this could be assumed from his philosophy: he allows no constancy to
the self, and so it would be hard to imagine him believing in the immortality
of the soul.
- Hume's passage presents the archetypal attitude of the sceptic, as
Hemans phrases it, seeking "no fairer scenes than life
can show." In his despair, full of "desponding reflections,"
Hume describes himself as resolving to "perish on the barren rock"
rather than venture out into the "boundless ocean" of his
speculations. Hemans describes the sceptic as one who "rejects
the promise of a brighter state,/And leaves the rock, no tempest shall
displace,/To rear his dwelling on the quicksand's base" (6). (Go
to The Sceptic, line 27.) Hume begins his passage by likening
his state to one who has undertaken a journey on a "leaky weather-beaten
vessel" and then describes his lashing from public opinion as "that
storm, which beats upon me from every side." Hemans informs the
sceptic who is floundering in an ideological tempest that "No strange,
unwonted storm there needs,/To wreck at once thy fragile ark of reeds"
- I will now turn to another instance of parallelism between the two
texts. In his essay "The Sceptic," Hume places his own philosophy
alongside those philosophers he disputes, pointing out how their root
deficiency is to underestimate the diversity and variety of the world
and attempt to set down maxims which do not account for this diversity:
"They confine too much their principles, and make no account of
that vast variety which nature has so much affected in all her operations."
He promotes an extreme subjectivity, suggesting that things acquire
their characteristics through "the particular constitution and
fabric of human sentiment and affection" (164). He delineates the
operation of passions and affections, and claims that "some passions
or inclinations, in the enjoyment of their object, are not
so steady or constant as others, nor convey such durable pleasure and
satisfaction" (169). The object which religion offers does not
rank highly in this schema: "an abstract, invisible object, like
that which natural religion alone presents to us, cannot long actuate
the mind, or be of any moment in life. To render the passion of continuance,
we must find some method of affecting the senses and imagination, and
must embrace some historicalas well as philosophical account of the
Divinity" (170). In the latter part of his essay, Hume holds up
celebrated philosophical aphorisms to critique. One of the aphorisms
he disputes–"All ills arise from the order of the universe,
which is absolutely perfect. Would you wish to disturb so divine an
order for the sake of your own particular interest?" (176)
–is also present in Hemans's poem:
Oh! vainly reason's scornful voice would prove
That life hath nought to claim such lingering love,
And ask, if e'er the captive, half unchain'd,
Clung to the links which yet his step restrain'd?
In vain philosophy, with tranquil pride,
Would mock the feelings she perchance can hide,
Call up the countless armies of the dead,
Point to the pathway beaten by their tread,
And say–"What wouldst thou? Shall the fix'd decree,
Made for creation, be revers'd for thee?" (26-27)
(Go to The Sceptic,
- Despite the fact that Hemans strongly rejects Hume's anti-religious
stance, his claims about the importance of "human sentiment and
affection" are ideas which the poet shares. In The Forest Sanctuary,
an essentially Humean account of the mind and human sympathy are joined
within a religious framework.
- While it is interesting to see how The Sceptic indicates
the seriousness of Hemans's critique of Humean attitudes, there is also
much to be gained from close attention to reviews of the poem. It is
here that we can pinpoint the impetus for the poet's experimentation
with dramatic modes in the twenties. Paula R. Feldman has indicated
the nature of the relationship between Hemans's literary production
and the literary market, and how she skillfully negotiated with her
publishers to ensure an income which could support herself and her five
sons. This entailed a keen awareness of public interest and a willingness
to allow her work to be influenced by the vagaries of public taste.
Feldman offers many revealing extracts from Hemans's correspondence
with her publishers which indicate how her choice of subject matter
and style was often dictated by what she thought would be profitable.
In a letter of 1817 to John Murray she tells him that she "shall
be much favoured by your suggesting to me any subject, or style of writing,
likely to be more popular."
In another letter of the same year she confesses that "I have now
seen how little any work of mere sentiment or description is likely
to obtain popularity, and have had warning enough to give up that style
of writing altogether."
With regard to The Sceptic, she writes in 1819 her sense that
the poem would be appealing to public taste, saying "it is entirely
free from political allusions, and is merely meant as a picture of the
dangers resulting to public and private virtue and happiness, from the
doctrines of Infidelity."
Feldman claims that "drama was to be her big money maker, if not
her artistic triumph," referring to her tragedy The Vespers
of Palermo, first produced in Covent Garden in 1823.
Edgar presents a slightly different narrative; he maintains that the
move into drama signalled an attempt by Hemans to move into "a
predominantly male literary sphere," and that the play's failure
led to the subsequent experiment of The Forest Sanctuary, which
was so unpopular that Hemans was dropped by her publisher, John Murray.
There is no doubt, however, that her move into drama shifts the tenor
of all of her subsequent work. Drama is her escape route from sentimental
narratives and the limitations of expressive theory.
- The Sceptic was reviewed with particular care in The
Edinburgh Monthly Review, a commentary which I discussed at the
beginning of this section with regard to its gendered discourse of poetic
creativity. After the review's glowing praise of the poet's perfect
"dignity of womanhood," the review shifts in tenor, advising
her to pay more attention to public taste in order to achieve "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. [. . .] For this purpose, some approach at
least to a regular story is indispensable–some development of
character, and conflict of passion [. . .] 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 subject of the poem before us is one of
deep and enduring importance; but it is not well adapted to the very
highest purpose 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 them–we
have much beautiful and impassioned declamation–a full flow
of elegant diction–and 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.
- Although the reviewer applauds Hemans's eloquent treatment of her
subject, he advises her to make her poetry more appealing to a public
accustomed to dramatic performances. If the first half of Hemans's career
is taken up with an interest in historical subject matter, particularly
influenced by the Mediterranean, after The Sceptic her interests
shift to drama. This is in part a result of her attentiveness to public
opinion, which was stressed by the Edinburgh reviewer, but
it is also tied in with her philosophical interests. She made two significant
attempts at drama in 1823, with The Siege of Valencia and
The Vespers of Palermo, with the latter being performed in that
same year in Covent Garden, and in Edinburgh the following year, neither
with great success.
- After this, Hemans began to search for a new subject which could take
an analytical account of the mind in action; she chooses the drama of
the mind rather than "the actual collision of daring and impassioned
As has been most impressively documented by Ekbert Faas, the new mental
science which developed out of eighteenth-century empiricism nurtured
the desire to objectify introspection, and there is a clear parallel
development in poetic genre.
Shifts from romantic into Victorian genres show a pervasive tendency
to objectify subjective utterance, and this is a useful context for
understanding Hemans's generic experimentation with dramatic modes in
the 1820's. The Forest Sanctuary is a dramatic poem; it is
usually categorized as an extended monodrama, and fits neatly with Alan
Sinfield's description of "the dramatic monologue which seeks the
reader's sympathetic involvement," of which Southey's Monodramas
are a prime example.
Sinfield explains the connection between sympathy and drama, which we
see in Hemans's poetry:
In the eighteenth century sympathetic identification with
the emotions of another came to be valued in itself as the foundation
of moral sensibility. An influential theory was that man is motivated
by feeling rather than reason and hence that consideration for others
can derive only from a full imaginative appreciation of the consequences
of one's actions for others. With this was associated a greater humanitarian
concern for the weak and oppressed. These attitudes stimulated an
extension in the use of the dramatic complaint to arouse the reader's
sympathetic involvement with a speaker.
- She began working on The Forest Sanctuary in 1824, and comments
from her correspondence from this period shed light on the path her
thinking was taking. In 1823, she wrote that "there can be no real
grandeur unless mind is made the ruling power, and its ascendancy asserted,
even amidst the wildest storms of passion."
The sentiments and affections which had formed the subtext for her earlier
historical works are now perceived as secondary to a more probing enquiry
into how the mind gains ascendancy over the onslaught of sensation.
In 1824, she wrote regarding a historical narrative she had been reading
that "the revolutions in a powerful mind, under circumstances
so changeful and extraordinary, would, I think, be more impressive than
those of an empire."
- This is the subject which she takes for The Forest Sanctuary,
an ambitious extended monodrama about the process of the mind in experience
and memory. The preface to the poem reads "the following poem is
intended to describe the mental conflicts, as well as outward sufferings,
of a Spaniard, who, flying from the religious persecutions of his own
country in the 16th century, takes refuge with his child in a North
American Forest. The story is supposed to be related by himself amidst
the wilderness which has afforded him an asylum." Gary Kelly's
edition of the poem reveals that in the manuscript of the poem, appended
to the last sentence is the phrase "and is intended more as the
record of a Mind, than as a tale abounding with romantic
and extraordinary incident." 
In this it resonates with Alastor, which is described in its
preface as being about "one of the most interesting situations
of the human mind" (2). In the next section I will discuss the
poem in detail, which will further my discussion of the way Hemans adopts
Humean thought, moralized through the Common Sense philosophers.