- Despite being published in 1820, The Sceptic more properly
belongs to 1819 and takes its place among the vast number of literary
works written during that year, many of which were published much later.
Hemans sent the manuscript to her publisher in November of that year,
stating firmly that the poem was "appropriate to the present state
of public feeling, if it were brought out promptly."
Her remarks were echoed by John Taylor Coleridge in the Quarterly
Review, who noted that it ''undoubtedly…owed its being to
the circumstances of its time."
Thus both poet and critic deliberately identify the poem with its historical
context and unknowingly foreshadow Sweet's contention, in the first
part of this introduction, that it was a poem for an occasion.
- While we could dismiss Hemans's remarks as part of an attempt to persuade
Murray to publish the poem quickly, her statement encourages us to ask
what was happening just at that particular time. What could call forth
this poem and would encourage Murray to rush into print?
Coleridge provides a partial answer by attributing the genesis of the
poem to "a laudable indignation at the course which literature
in many departments seemed lately to be taking in this country."
Thus he places Hemans's work firmly within a literary context where
the major voices were those of Byron and Shelley. And this might be
a sufficient explanation, given Murray's interest in fostering the debate
between Byron and Hemans (for he was also Byron's publisher and he sent
him copy of The Sceptic).
(Read Byron's letter)
- However, the letters that Hemans wrote concerning the publication
of The Sceptic and the reviews the poem received provide a distinct
topical perspective to the poem. This perspective demands that we look
carefully at the wider context in which the poem was written and also
the predominately male publishing market where Hemans, a middle class
woman, was offering her work. Therefore this second part of the introduction
begins by focusing upon Hemans's letter introducing her poem to her
publisher. Here her carefully worded approach not only promoted the
poem's swift publication but also helped to foster the approving stance
of the Quarterly Review and diminish the possibility of accusations
of "blueness." After investigating the context into which
The Sceptic was published and the debates where Hemans wanted
her voice to be heard, I conclude the essay by glancing backwards to
an earlier poem, "The Domestic Affections," to provide an
insight into Hemans's determination to take part in the debate concerning
infidelity and life after death.
The Sceptic under review
- As Sweet noted in the first part of this introduction The Sceptic
has received comparatively little attention because much of the writing
on Hemans has concentrated upon The Records of Woman, some
of it searching in vain for a feminist voice, while others find it.
Despite Kaplan's remark that Hemans is at her best in her public and
patriotic verse, the earlier long poems are largely forgotten except
in the work of Sweet, Trinder, Lootens and Wolfson and the later religious
poetry has, until very recently, gone unregarded.
Even Wolfson's new edition of Hemans manages to omit her late but impressive
ode, "Despondency and Aspiration" and The Sceptic itself.
When Hemans's predilection for topical subjects is mentioned, it is
sometimes suggested that this tendency stemmed from the necessity to
earn from her publishing and that she wrote on such subjects because
they were "fashionable," a term which both trivializes and
contains her in an appropriately female mode.
Such gender-biased description frees interested readers of the 1819
scene from taking Hemans seriously or even including her in their pantheon
of authors. Butler's Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries fails
to mention her as does Lucas's contentious England and Englishness,
which concentrates entirely on writers of the male gender.
I also note that Chandler's recent England in 1819, while extending
the range of writers included within the canon, perceives Hemans merely
as a contributor to the annuals and journals and not as a serious commentator
on the political scene.
- In his unpublished dissertation, Derek Furr proffers a limited and
limiting reading of Hemans's The Sceptic as a sentimental poem
that marks her first entrance on to the public platform as a pious mother
of the nation. By focussing upon the events which followed the poem's
1820 publication, the Cato Street conspiracy and the trial of Queen
Caroline, he provides a reason for the poem's successful reception.
But at the same time he ignores the possibility that there may have
been more to the poem's conception than Hemans's ambivalent fascination
We could, perhaps, excuse him for this, as the date of publication is
a very blunt instrument to use when untying the knot of a poem's inspiration.
And it is only recently that we have had access Hemans's letters to
her publishers, which allow us to date the poem more accurately. However,
published work on the letters, notably by Feldman, focuses upon the
poet's negotiations within the literary marketplace rather than exploring
the wider context surrounding those negotiations.
And this is where, in its attempt to read The Sceptic through
the lens provided by those letters and the contemporary reviews, this
essay properly begins.
"Your much obliged F. Hemans"
- Hemans had been publishing her work regularly with Murray since 1816,
and the small collection of 29 letters housed in the Murray Archive
makes fascinating reading; they show the poet writing directly to the
publisher to negotiate the sale of her poetry, sharing the literary
gossip of the day and, on occasion, arguing with him.
She is a business-like but, at times, an assertive and even combative
correspondent. This surprisingly different voice of the poet, together
with the apparent sincerity conveyed by the semi-private form of the
letter, encourages us to accept them at face value. We thus forget that,
even within a letter, a writer can frequently adopt a persona. A more
careful analysis demonstrates Hemans's skill in handling her publisher.
- There are 5 letters in the collection which refer to The Sceptic:
the first, dated 17th November 1819 provides Murray with "an extract
from a little poem I have by me" (read
Hemans's letter of 17th November 1819). Another written on December
4th reminds him that he has not replied to her previous letter, (read
Hemans's letter of 4th December 1819) while on December 18th she
writes enclosing the corrected proofs of the poem. In this letter she
have the goodness to present my thanks to Mr. Gifford for
the trouble he has kindly taken in correcting the proofs, and to say
that I have, I believe, attended to all his suggestions.
In this same letter she specifies, "I wish to be Mrs Hemans in
the title page of the poem" (read
the note "MRS. HEMANS"). In her letter dated January 1820
she says "I shall be glad if you will let me know the price of
the poem, and the terms upon which it is published" 
(read Hemans's letter
of 15th January 1820). A much later letter records Murray's intention
to publish a second edition of the poem together with her elegy on the
death of George III, "according to my wish in one small pamphlet."
But it is the first of this group of letters that provides a lens through
which we should read the poem.
(Read Hemans's letter
of 18th December 1819)
- This letter introducing The Sceptic to her publisher is unique
among this collection for this time she addresses herself to William
Gifford, Murray's literary advisor, rather than the publisher himself,
presenting herself as a suppliant in search of advice
(read Hemans's letter
of 17th November 1819). Hemans tells Gifford that she encloses "a
few extracts from a little poem I have now by me which would, I should
think, be appropriate to the present state of public feeling, if it
were brought out promptly." Look very carefully at her chosen words.
As Sweet noted earlier, all the criticism she reviewed on The Sceptic
agreed that it was "the work of a young woman unusually well-prepared
to enter a public debate in a highly charged topic." And yet Hemans
underplays her work by describing it as "a little poem I have now
by me," allowing her reader to infer that the poem just happens
to be there, rather than suggesting that what she is offering is a serious
scholarly piece of work which may have occupied her (blue-stocking fashion?)
for several weeks. It is almost as if she anticipated not only the Quarterly
Reviewer's comments upon women's education, but also those of another
reviewer in the Edinburgh Monthly Review who commented that the
"verses [of Mrs Hemans] appear the spontaneous offspring of intense
and noble feeling."(Read
the Edinburgh Monthly Review) This same anxiety that writing
poetry should be work for women is still evident much later in Gilfallen's
comments (read also Note
25 in Sweet's "A darkling plain"):
Mrs Hemans's poems are strictly effusions. And not a little
of their charm springs form their unstudied and extempore character.
This, too, is in keeping with the sex of the writer. You are saved
the ludicrous image of a double-dyed Blue, in papers and morning wrapper,
sweating at some stupendous treatise or tragedy from morn to noon,
and from noon to dewy eve - you see a graceful and gifted women, passing
from the cares of her family, and the enjoyments of society, to inscribe
on her tablets some fine thought or feeling, which had throughout
the day existed as a still sunshine upon her countenance, or perhaps
a quiet unshed tear in her eye.
All too aware of the dangers for herself and her publishing career if
she appeared to be positioning her work in a controversial political
arena, she further reassures her gentleman reader that the poem 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.
Thus she confirms that what she is offering is not part of
the free and intrepid course of speculation of which the
boldness is more conspicuous than the wisdom, into which some of the
most remarkable among the female literati of our times have freely
and fearlessly plunged
- so feared by the Edinburgh Monthly Review. (Read
the Edinburgh Monthly Review, also go to Hartman's
"Hemans, Hume, and Philosophical Scepticism") This same
review notes that
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.
Instead Hemans is "advocating the cause of religion"a
role that was approved by the Quarterly Review, which notes that
"she is always pure in thought and expression, cheerful, affectionate,
- Having therefore carefully positioned herself within an appropriate
frame, she then steps out with tentative daring to mention that she
has called her poem "the Sceptic"; only to retreat strategically
by continuing, with apparent innocence, "but perhaps if a more
suitable title should occur to you, you would have the kindness to suggest
it to me."
By this cautious ploy she manages not only to inform Gifford that her
poem is part of the current controversy about Scepticism but also seeks
to disarm him by suggesting that his greater knowledge of the literary
world would enable him to provide "a more suitable title"
than that chosen by the poem's author. And, of course, by inviting him
to comment upon her work she ensures his complicity as becomes obvious
in a later letter where she asks Murray to assure Gifford that she has
"attended to all his suggestions."
(Go to Hemans's letter
of 18th December 1819)
- Her final apologies, "for thus frequently troubling you, for
which I can only apologize by pleading my inexperience and want of literary
friends," stress her reliance upon him. In this double voiced letter
Hemans has overtly presented the appearance of feminine dependence,
flattering Gifford by asking for his advice; while covertly, but very
clearly, signalling her intention to intervene in the masculine world
"The present state of feeling"
- This letter of November 1819, describing The Sceptic as a
poem "appropriate to the present state of feeling, if it were brought
out promptly," locates Hemans's poem very clearly within its historical
context. Her comments remind us that the autumn of 1819 was a period
of profound social unrest. The preceding years had seen the end of the
long war with France and the return and decommissioning of much of the
army; many soldiers had lost their occupation and tramped throughout
the countryside looking for employment.
It was also a period of poor harvests and consequently high bread prices
and starvation. Hill describes the period from 1815 to 1820 as "one
of the grimmest in modern British history, years of distress and class
hatred, darkened by sullen discontent and periodic riots in the industrial
areas and by a savage policy of repression by the government."
These years were characterised by large public meetings and harsh government
response: the Spa Fields riots in London and the suspension of Habeas
Corpus in 1816. 1817 saw the introduction of the gagging acts forbidding
unlicensed public meetings and the "March of the Blanketeers,"
a small group of cotton workers who marched from Manchester to London
carrying their blankets to sleep on the way. 1817 was also the year
of the Derbyshire Insurrection: "a pathetic outbreak of unemployed
framework knitters, deliberately stirred up by Oliver the spy an agent
provocateur; three poor men were hanged and eleven other transported
Shelley's essay, "An address to the people on the death of the
Princess Charlotte," commemorates this execution rather than the
more natural death of the princess.
- And August 1819 itself saw the Peterloo massacre, a peaceful reform
meeting attended by thousands that was broken up by a military charge.
The actions of the armed yeomanry, who murdered eleven demonstrators
and injured several hundred others, created immediate and widespread
outcry (Read Shelley's
Sonnet "England in 1819"). The realisation that two women
were among the dead and over a hundred women injured fuelled public
feelings. These victims were the very ones who should have been able
to rely upon the protection of the army.
The anxiety created by this ferment of working class protest was heightened
by extreme right wing Tories like Eldon and Sidmouth who "conjured
up the horrors of jacobinism."
And for a time it seemed that England was on the brink of revolution.
Lucas, followed by Chandler, notes how it is easy to dismiss this notion
now but in 1819 and 1820 the possibility of fighting in England seemed
Both Shelley and Byron foresaw the prospect of returning from exile
to take part.
- The noticeable presence of women at political demonstrations exacerbated
the fear felt by contemporary literary commentators (who in writing
for the politicized literary journals of the day were always more than
literary commentators) about dangerous ideas in poetry and particularly
those expressed by women writers, who themselves were a source of anxiety.
For a woman poet to write into this politicised space was to enter a
potential minefield--just look at the splutterings of the Edinburgh
Monthly Review which speaks of the "revolting exhibition of a female
mind shorn of all its attractions, and wrapt in darkness and defiance."
(Read the Edinburgh
Monthly Review) However Hemans, because of her careful presentation
of herself and her poem, was seen to be ranging herself on the side
of the angels against "the most dangerous writer of the present
day" whose work demonstrates both "sedition" and "audacious
profaneness." Thus she was able to secure both speedy publication
and a favourable reception for her work.
"Doctrines of infidelity"
- The best known exposition of Scepticism had figured in the opening
stanzas of Canto II of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (see
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage). Published in 1812, this poem
had seen Byron rocket to fame; the initial print run of 500 copies was
sold out in one morning and Murray sold a further 4,500 copies in the
following six months.
Here, as in The Sceptic, Byron's focus is on the possibility
of life after death, but this materialist focus of scepticism was not
confined to literature. It was paralleled by an intense flurry of lectures
and pamphlets from the scientific community who sought to prove or disprove
the possibility of life after death through speculative theory and dissection.
Their investigations were disseminated not only through the press but
also through public lectures, notably the Hunter Orations. This annual
series was named after John Hunter (1783-1861), a respected surgeon
and anatomist who had developed a theory that the principle of life
differed in human beings and animals.
This gave credence to the belief in life after death, the focal point
of the debates. Hunter's pupils, William Lawrence FRS and John Abernethy,
themselves both respected surgeons, disagreed with him. In his 1918
lecture Lawrence argued that "the phenomenon of life and mind result
entirely from the bodily structure, and consequently, that death, which
destroys the bodily structures, destroys the whole of man."
- This lecture was discussed in the Quarterly Review in July
1819 in a long review that commented on "the evil consequences
arriving to society from the unguarded adoption" of Lawrence's
And the echoes of this last phrase in Hemans's own letter to Gifford--
"the dangers resulting to public and private virtue and happiness
from the doctrines of infidelity" suggest that she was aware of
the review. It is quite possible that it had been a topic of conversation
among the Anglican clerics who formed Hemans's literary advisors at
this time, particularly as the review also covered Remarks on Scepticism
by one Thomas Rennell, Christian Advocate at the University of Cambridge,
the alma mater of the Bishop of Asaph, John Luxmoore.
Heman's poem was written, or so her sister would have us believe, under
the influence of Luxmoore.
So here at the end of the eighteen-teens, we have a group of influential
scientists questioning the very foundations of Christian orthodoxy.
Their work is widely accessible because it is publicized and reviewed
in all the popular journals of the day. We have political unrest, as
seen in the gatherings of crowds of working class men and women demanding
representation and political reform. Their demands for political change
paralleled the ongoing struggles for religious liberation by both the
Dissenting Protestant groups and the Roman Catholics of the day. This
was a long standing battle because, although the 1688 Act of Toleration
had given Protestant Nonconformists the right to worship as they wished,
they were still excluded from national and local government as well
as from educational and social opportunities.
During the 1790s the Dissenting sects had joined together to crusade
with increasing militancy against this discrimination. Ryan, writing
in The Romantic Reformation, notes that their "campaign
for liberation from the tyrannies of prescription and privilege put
religious freedom at the top of the national political agenda."
The pressure tactics they employed provoked a hostile reaction from
the Established Anglican community, and the ensuing disturbances, the
"king and church" riots of 1791, seemed to threaten social
stability. This social unrest was compounded by the evangelical revival,
which although it later became a conservative force that protected Britain
from radical political change, was at this point profoundly disturbing
as it uncovered and stimulated disaffection from the Established Church.
- In addition, we may need to remind ourselves that Britain has a long
history of reform and revolution beginning with religious unrest. Ryan
writes "The crucial formative events in modern British history—the
Elizabethan Settlement, the Civil War, the Revolution of 1688, and the
Hanoverian Succession—were religious crises whose resolution contributed
essential components of what is called the British Constitution in Church
Therefore this open questioning of Christian orthodoxy, which we have
seen in the work of both the scientists and the "most popular poet
of the day" was profoundly unsettling. And particularly so for
the members of the Established church.
- Thus we could expect that Hemans, who dedicated her poem to the Bishop
of St Asaph and was well aware of the influence that these Anglican
Clergy had upon her publisher, should produce an innocuous poem supporting
the status quo.
"Doctrines of Infidelity" II
- However The Sceptic does not merely portray an orthodox Christian
response to the denial of life after death but rather Hemans's own personal
recognition of the desolation of life without this promise, a desolation
peculiarly applicable to women. This recognition springs from her own
acute analysis of the gender politics of the male dominated society
in which she lived. To feel the force of this we need to look backwards
to her early poem, "The Domestic Affections." Here she clearly
demonstrates that, while the male of the species can achieve fame and
fortune and still find repose within a domestic space created by the
loving labour of the women folk, the woman herself is denied this apotheosis
until after death. Wolfson's astute reading of the poem demonstrates
the gender specific nature of the comforts of home where "Domestic
bliss has fix'd her calm abode" so that "what is projected
as a refuge turns out to be very worldly, a reflexive ideal premised
upon female restriction."
The only answer to Hemans's question about a mother watching over her
dying child, "But who may charm her sleepless pang to rest?"
And the mother's ascent to heaven is couched in language, which as Wolfson
notes echoes the earlier flight of masculine genius.
Thus Hemans demonstrates that the mother's, and implicitly all women's,
compensation is deferred until after death, and the whole economy of
domestic affections is premised upon a belief in the afterlife.
- It is this perception of emptiness and waste that informs the earlier
part of The Sceptic. As the Quarterly Review says it simply
rests the "truth of religion upon the necessity of it, on the utter
misery and helpless of man without it." But although the nineteenth-century
reviewers were quick to praise the poem's orthodoxy they were perhaps
too quick. They did not notice the curious turn in the poem as it moves
without a pause from Christ's sacrifice upon the cross to the death
of Princess Charlotte, presenting it as an equivalent sacrifice. In
her 1994 reading of the poem, Sweet suggests that Hemans thus claims
that woman's suffering is equally foundational (or anti-foundational?).
The progress Hemans then conducts throughout the idyllic English hamlets
depicting maternal figures teaching the scriptures to their children
shows that the suffering princess and the mothers are the twin pillars
that support the peaceful and productive domestic economy. Hemans's
poem places woman right at the centre of the debate on scepticism and
reveals the chasms that lurk beneath society. Thus the poem, while seeming
to endorse the status quo, is in fact subversive.
- Although The Sceptic received favourable contemporary reviews,
it has led to Hemans being characterised as a Tory apologist and, in
this current post-Christian age, having her work dismissed because of
Perhaps, realizing that, in part at least, these ideas stem from perceptions
of Hemans drawn from her nineteenth-century memoirists (most notably
her sister, herself a woman much praised for her piety) we could put
them aside and look more closely at what she is doing.
Other poems Hemans had produced during 1819, in Tales and Historic
Scenes, demonstrate her acute analysis of social and gender politics;
notably her perception that in every society under strain women and
children are the chief sufferers.
Quite obviously in 1819 society was under considerable stress; the most
famous writer of the day was questioning the possibility of life after
death and scandalizing the reading public with Don Juan. And
in the clergy households Hemans frequents they are reading the Quarterly
Review where it is apparent that scepticism is not confined to liberal
thinkers but is rampant among contemporary scientists. Given the immediate
audience she was writing for—the conservative established Anglican
clergy of St. Asaph and her similarly conservative gentleman publisher,
is it so very surprising that she should choose to clothe her critique
of contemporary gender politics in apparently orthodox Christianity?