- The Sceptic is a long non-narrative poem and a summary or
guided tour may be in order. The poem takes place in a skyey geosphere
featuring differences of light and dark, height and depth, heaven and
earth, water and land. Its first thirteen verse paragraphs (ll. 1-44)
explore this setting from the standpoint of the human spirit who seeks
light in heaven or (if a sceptic) on earth, who seeks a footing on rock
or (again if a sceptic) in quicksand. Flight imagery dominates ; the
soul is an eagle, but the sceptic is prepared to clip the wings of the
cherub "Hope" and remain earth-bound. An epicurean, he clings
to earthly pleasures and ignores disruptions and deprivations to come
(by storm, by drought). In sections or paragraphs 14-18 (ll. 145-88),
the poem's setting offers a series of choices to the earthbound sceptic
: earth or water? Calm or storm? Pestilential swamp or desert storm
(this last a double confounding of land and wave)? If the sceptic were
to recover his faith, his setting and circumstances would be quite different:
an everliving font that flows to the furthest isles, an Atoner (Christ)
who deflects the Avenger (God).
- The poem's middle sections feature the sceptic's predicaments and
career. In Sections 19-25 (ll. 189-268), its world of water, rock and
air is populated by the cautionary figures of proto-sceptics, sceptics
and their interpreters. Two versions of the proto-sceptic appear, a
Platonic ephebe and a Byronic 'Prisoner of Chillon', each blinded by
the light of truth or of freedom. The full-blown sceptic also appears
in two forms as Promethean prisoner and fallen Satan. These more profoundly
benighted figures are bound in cycles and even downward spirals of punishment
and retribution. The sceptic may assume the mantle of historian or poet
but cannot do so redemptively without the leverage of 'Eternity' (l.268).
- In sections 26 through 31 (ll. 269-368), the sceptic as failed Byronic
poet is given a "progress" from fame to ignominy and even
oblivion. Unarmed against "the Avenger," unsupported by his
audience, he is exposed to "Death" (ll. 292, 334). Sections
32-37 (ll. 369-456) remind the sceptic that like any human being he
will "shrink to die" (l. 394)and we know that Byron's
Manfred (with the support of an audience) is as surprised as relieved
to learn that ''tis not so difficult to die" (Manfred
3.4.151). In her own depiction of death, Hemans recurs to winged-flight
imagery. The soul is cast into the dark "half unfurl'd" (ll.
402, 424). How might this dark encounterbetween death and a faith
that demands its Messiah's deathyield the light of heaven?
- Hemans finesses her dark-on-dark dilemma in her closing sections 38-43
(ll. 457-550) by swerving first to one alternative and then to another.
The first alternative is that death wins and faith is not worthy of
the name; that is, we "wither" in the "desolating blast"
of "God," "the Chastener" (ll. 460-2). At once,
this fiery solution is replaced by a second alternative involving the
"bright" spirit of the late-lamented Princess Charlotte, the
queen/mother who-might-have-been. With the Princess as a sublime figure
and strong supplement, Britain becomes the "chosen isle" shining
with watch-fires to the sea (ll. 510-11) and hearth-fires to the land.
In this way the poem reclaims its setting for a light that
eluded a sceptic and a fire that has daunted everyone in the
hands of a vengeful god. Both light and fire are now in the keeping
of a female figure whose two facets accommodate light and fire, a mother-guide
who will "[t]each…the immortal lays" (l. 541) and a
prophetess whose "tones" are "to Judah's harp convey'd"
- Formally, the 550 lines of The Sceptic divide into 43 verse
paragraphs varying from 6 to 38 lines in length. Prosodically the poem's
iambic pentametre couplets end in commas as often as full stops and
on rare occasions run ahead with no punctuation whatever. Hemans's running
distichs differ markedly from the heroic couplets that she and Byron
used in early poems on topical subjects, her 1808 England and Spain
and 1812 "The Domestic Affections" and his 1809 English
Bards and Scotch Reviewers. The Sceptic's enjambed couplets
manage the swelling cadences characteristic of Romantic blank verse,
but they also support the poem's claims to epic action and "public
Textually, the poem carries an epigraph from the seventeenth-century
French religious apologist Bossuet and ends with six notes from St Augustine
and the Biblical books of Ezekiel, Isaiah, Kings 1 and Jeremiah.