The Sceptic, Edited by Nanora Sweet and Barbara Taylor

Scepticism and Its Costs: Hemans's Reading of Byron

Nanora Sweet

Conference Paper for Byron Society
Special Session on Byron, Skepticism, and Materialism
Organized by Terence Hoagwood, Texas A & M University
Modern Language Association Annual Convention
San Diego, 28 December 1994
Edited 23 December 2000


  1. I want to talk about religious scepticism as a subject for debate in the poetry of the years just before and after Waterloo. More specifically, I want to talk about the very interested debate over scepticism between the period's most popular male and female poets, Lord Byron and Felicia Hemans (Hemans's dates are 1793 - 1835). I'll approach this by talking first about historical context and its material effects on these poets and their work; second about the political and cultural terms that encode and ultimately destabilize this debate: empire and republic, Hellenism and Orientalism; third about the debate itself, where the poets' interested positions play themselves out in cultural and intertextual terms. While Byron is concerned for the sacrifice of young men at the altar of orthodox belief as sanctioned by belief in an afterlife, Hemans is concerned for the sacrifice of women and children at the altar of scepticism about that belief. I'd like to suggest, however, that taken together, these poets offer a scepticism that can become their culture's well-founded disbelief about itself.

  2. First, the historical moment of Waterloo and its power to shape the careers of these two best-selling poets in very parallel ways: Byron's and Hemans's careers alike were launched and fostered by Whig opposition to the Napoleonic Wars; likewise, their middle-period work was published by the officially Tory John Murray. It was Murray's correspondence with the exiled Byron and his book mailings to the poet that promoted the textual relationship between Hemans and Byron that would culminate in the 1820 battle over scepticism. In 1816, for instance, Murray published Hemans's first adult volume, The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy; Byron writes that he will carry it into Italy with him and that it is "a good poem—very" (Byron's Letters and Journals 5: 108). Childe Harold 4 cements the consensus between the poets in favor of Italian republicanism, and it also borrows from Hemans's poem the large female figurations of personal and political grief and hope. Waterloo, however, put an end to a Whig opposition which had nourished the republican poems of both poets, and Tory consensus-building came instead to dominate political language and the politicized press.

  3. Post-war changes put pressure on these poets' domestic as well as professional lives, handing them oddly similar marital separations (Hemans's in 1818): in each case, the husbands decamp for affordable Italy and the wives stay behind in Britain to manage family. Captain Hemans was literally demobilized by Waterloo, Byron culturally so. The press's post-war attacks on Byron as a dangerous moral and religious sceptic were part of Tory consensus-building, and Hemans's growing participation in these attacks paid bills for her and, as well, expressed her reading of history's liability for the widows and orphans that it makes. Both husbands, then, were in flight from their Tory-enlisted wives and the financial liabilities that (in Hemans's case, with five sons to be educated) mandated that enlistment. Hemans soon was writing under the sponsorship of Tory literati associated with the Quarterly Review, especially Reginald Heber and H.H. Milman.

  4. Second, the historical and cultural terms in which the debate over scepticism took place: As Elie Halévy has so well shown (in The Liberal Awakening), the moment 1815 to 1820 was bracketed in the terms empire and republic, in 1815 the defeat of one empire and the ascendancy of another, in 1820 the anti-imperial revolts in the Mediterranean that called on Britain to declare itself as either republican or imperial (or—both). In their Italianate poems, Hemans and Byron had concurred over the part that Italian republicanism should play in guiding Britain's post-war governance. In their subsequent conflict over matters of scepticism and faith, they were, in effect, debating which ideology could best inform a post-war, post-imperial republic.

  5. This is not the place to discuss in detail the Carbonari and Risorgimento movements that flowed from these poets' engagement with Italianate republicanism. I have covered that elsewhere (in The Bowl of Liberty), where I locate the Risorgimento transnationally and illustrate its motility in Percy Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" and Felicia Hemans's "The Voice of Spring." But it is worth noting that The Sceptic alludes to Byron's The Prisoner of Chillon whose hero is François de Bonnivard, a Genevan republican imprisoned by the Duke of Savoy,
    He, who hath pin'd in dungeons, midst the shade
    Of such deep night as man for man hath made,
    Thro' lingering years; if call'd at length to be,
    Once more, by nature's boundless charter, free,
    Shrinks feebly back, the blaze of noon to shun,
    Fainting at day, and blasted by the sun!
    (Go to The Sceptic, line 165)
  6. Hemans thus reminds Byron of the republican topos they shared, Swiss resistance to external conquest (see her "The League of the Alps" and the "Song of the Battle of Morgarten").

  7. If, Switzerland and Italy serve the post-Waterloo period as sites of Risorgimento plots and politics, Greece becomes the site of debate over republican ideology—over matters, that is, of scepticism and faith—a Greece which is culturally both Hellenic and Orientalist. Scepticism and syncretism alike are the Romantic results of this engagement with Greece; I discuss Hemans's experiment with syncretism elsewhere (Go to Romantic Circles Praxis Series essay) and speak only of scepticism here. Clearly, Byron adopts Athens and the Acropolis as his iconic site in these matters—the site where the deliberative practices that might renew European and British republicanism were modeled by Socratic scepticism. Just as clearly, Hemans contests the recoverability of the Athenian model. For both poets, in any case, material desires and interests always subject the discourse of Greek republicanism to Orientalist displacement and reversal. The result is that Byron's and Hemans's positions on scepticism are always produced by culturally-crossed sites: for Byron, an Athens always under Orientalist (Hellenistic or Muslim) degradation; and for Hemans, a Jerusalem whose Hebraic orthodoxy is always being reconstituted as a deliberative (Italian or Greek) city-state.

  8. Third, the interested and culturally-mediated arguments that make up Byron's and Hemans's debate over religious scepticism: texts to be discussed include Byron's The Curse of Minerva which declares the Athenian Hellenism (and which is reprised in Childe Harold 2) and Hemans's 1817 Modern Greece which undermines that construction. They include Byron's Childe Harold 2 and "The Destruction of Sennacherib" which experiment in Hellenic scepticism under pressure from Orientalist or Hebraic faith and Hemans's 1819 "Heliodorus in the Temple" and 1820 The Sceptic which recover Hebraic orthodoxy but recast it in terms of Mediterranean republicanism.

  9. Briefly, The Curse of Minerva early celebrates the sceptical Socrates as Athena's "Wisest son," "Him that scorned to fear or fly,/ Who lived and died as none can live or die"—and late puts the republican question to a wartime Britain whose deliberations are failing for lack of such "wise sons": "Then in the Senates of your sinking state/ Show me the man whose counsels may have weight." Byron's poem of course uses the perfidious plundering of the Acropolis by Lord Elgin to represent Britain's betrayal of republicanism. In her anonymous 1817 Modern Greece, Hemans adopts the same iconography in order to make a sceptical point of her own about Byron's reification of Athens. Her Greece is pointedly a leveled and commercial "modern" one, its Acropolis a pastel-penciled representation, its Athens possible now in Britain if anywhere. Byron fired off several put-downs of this poem in a letter to Murray, including that there is no "modern Greece" (LBJ 5: 263).

  10. Canto 2 (in stanzas 1-9) of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage codifies Greece as the site of religious scepticism for Byron (Go to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ~Canto 2). It also reveals that this scepticism comes in the service of Byron's commitment to young men and their fortunes and that it can be undone by that same interest. Orthodoxies may change, the passage says, but always they sacrifice their own, either the lives of young men (in war and under repression) or their desires (especially the homoerotic ones that underlie the canto's stanza 9). Stanza 7 contends that, with his sceptic motto "All that we know is, nothing can be known," "Athena's wisest son" Socrates has removed the linchpin from such coercive orthodoxy, the belief in an afterlife. Yet Stanza 8 already begins the undoing of Socrates's scepticism by his suspect followers, "the Sadducee and sophists" who are "madly vain of dubious lore." Phantom-like, theirs corrupts Socratic scepticism, but so does the masculine desire that all along has underwritten scepticism's defense of young men against orthodox enlistment. The grief that Byron will express in stanza 9 over Edleston has already led him to entertain a "Yet if' about the afterlife—'Yet if . . . there be/ A land of Souls beyond that sable shore."

  11. Hemans's Modern Greece has excised Byron's Socrates from history; and in her "Heliodorus" and The Sceptic, she moves to attack his "madly vain" followers, the Sadducees and sophists whose "dubious" company the desiring Byron himself has joined. In a Hellenism that would be deliberative and republican, she suggests, these figures form a singularly predatory and self-confounding crew of imperial hangers-on.

  12. In her 1819 "Heliodorus in the Temple" (from Tales and Historic Scenes) Hemans displaces Socratic Athens with Maccabean Jerusalem as a model city-state and displaces Byron's treatment of youth and sacrifice with her own, differently gendered, version of the same, appropriately written in Venus and Adonis stanzas. Hemans's is a Jerusalem with a difference, a city-state resistant to empire, a temple state to be sure yet one committed, not to the sacrifice of the young, but the protection of widows and orphans. Hemans depicts Maccabean Jerusalem as a republic in struggle against the Seleucid empire. This anti-imperial struggle takes place internally as well as externally, because Hellenized Jews known as Sadducees plunder the Temple's treasury to pay for their imperial luxuries. Worldly, educated, sceptical, they promote gymnasium education and eschew such religious innovations as belief in personal immortality and apocalyptic sanctions. These they leave to the newer zealot faction, the Pharisees.

  13. For "Heliodorus in the Temple," Hemans chooses her text from the Pharisitical second book of Maccabees (chapter 3), in which the Sadducee Heliodorus comes to Jerusalem's temple with an imperial decree to raid its treasury "committed of trust." Pressing her materially interested case, Hemans clarifies that in this treasury "are laid/ The orphan's portion, and the widow's store." Neither wailing women nor ranks of priests can stop Heliodorus "the spoiler" from violating temple sanctuary, so well trained is he as a Greek sceptic. So a Pharisitical innovation must prevent him instead, an apocalyptic horse and rider that smite "th'oppressor" down. In visiting this sanction on the corrupt sceptic, Hemans boldly borrows from Byron's own Hebraic avenger in "The Destruction of Sennacherib." Asking for the "Angel of God! that through th'Assyrian host . . .Didst pass triumphant in avenging power," she alludes to Byron's 1815 "Hebrew Melody."

  14. In her 1820 pamphlet poem The Sceptic, Hemans shifts her target from an ancient Sadducee to "the Sophists" of contemporary British culture (Go to The Sceptic, line 1). Dressing her "cold Sceptic"/"cold Sophist" in Petrarchan and Promethean trappings and alluding freely to Byron's biography, Hemans leaves little doubt that her target is Byron (and, by association, Shelley). The Quarterly Review indeed praises this poem as a force against "the most dangerous writer of the present day" (October 1820; the reviewer, John Taylor Coleridge). This poem in 550 lines of running pentameter couplets is indeed a sustained polemic against Byronic scepticism on temporal and theological grounds, one spliced with ad hominem attacks yet also graced with sisterly concern for this poet who spurns "a brighter state" for a "quicksand" earth. Still concerned for those at risk from historical accident and dependent on the temple's treasury trust, Hemans here focuses on the sanctions that protect or indemnify that trust, especially the belief in an afterlife. She presses her arguments in terms of the personal and poetic history that she and Byron share, using that intertwined history to undo Byron's sceptical position from within.

  15. Hemans points early to Byron's separation crisis ("the hour of wrath,/ When burst th' o'erwhelming vials on thy path") (Go to The Sceptic, line 269) and her own, suggesting that, had he let God support him in that personal moment, the world might have been spared the ever-reproduced Byronic persona, the "ruin'd tenement", with those showy losses that "we shrink from, vainly to forget." Death, Hemans reminds the sceptic Promethean, is not played out before "gazing nations" by a hero who, "undismayed amidst the tears of all,/. . .folds his mantle, regally to fall." All too often, in death we are "obscure, and lone"; and our death is like the falling "light leaf" that a "bears some trembling insect's little world of cares." For this "lone sufferer," belief in an afterlife is belief in the human link that can also be represented by a deathbed comforter (Go to The Sceptic, line 451).

  16. The Sceptic's figure of the deathbed comforter recalls Byron's own feminine icon of deathbed watch in Childe Harold 4.72, "Iris," "Like Hope upon a deathbed," the rainbow bearing "serene/ Its brilliant hues with all their beams unshorn": "Love watching Madness with unalterable mien." This heroic comforter, I've argued before, was prompted in Byron by Hemans's own The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy. Hemans charges now that Byron has hamstrung this "faithful cherub," their shared figure: "Thou hast shorn her plume,/ That might have raised thee far above the tomb" (Go to The Sceptic, line 49). Hemans's argument in The Sceptic, then, presses past the personal sufferings of women and their children and into the ideological sanctions—like one's "Hope" for an afterlife—that in some way address or redress those sufferings. To discount the afterlife is to discount the promises made to women and their dependents and the ongoing need to address, or enforce them. Discounting those promises can lead, as in "Heliodorus," to the raiding of what reserves are available for widows and orphans. If the material needs of women and their dependents cannot be addressed, an afterlife might redress them; but in so doing, it would reveal the tenuous dispensation offered women and children in this life.

  17. When the sceptic discounts the afterlife, then, he threatens the promises made to women under a marriage system built on displacement and threatens the sanctions needed to enforce those promises. The sceptic's "vain philosophy" thus "mocks" love—mocks, that is, the promises made to women and to children, a group that after all includes everyone, including Byron, subject to marital and parental accident. Would the sceptic himself, then, "dare to love," asks Hemans in a challenge that is both ethical and logical (Go to The Sceptic, line 71).

  18. In The Sceptic, death is not merely human loss but a fearsome event, a powerful apocalyptic sanction. Five of The Sceptic's six footnotes cite an Old Testament God before whom people "flee" and "tremble" (Go to The Sceptic, Notes). Like the sanctions against "Heliodorus," this death is a "swift pale horse" with a "mighty rider" that prefigures "the day of terror" or Judgement with its "final doom." Hemans's poem begins to identify this apocalyptic "Chastener" Death with the God who sends him; and this conflation leads Hemans into a line of argument that poses its own sceptical questions about the nature of a death-dealing God: without faith in an afterlife and the Christ who is its emblem, Hemans asks,
    Should we not wither at the Chastener's look,
    Should we not sink beneath our God's rebuke,
    When o'er our heads the desolating blast,
    Fraught with inscrutable decrees, hath passd,
    And the stern power who seeks the noblest prey,
    Hath call'd our fairest and our best away?
    (Go to The Sceptic, line 461)
  19. Would we not all be decimated, then, but for the sacrifice in which Christ has propitiated this Death, this God? If we pause at this characterization of God, we recognize that this heavenly father exacts the sacrifice of his son in ways that raise concerns in other texts by Byron and by Hemans as well (I'm thinking of her The Siege of Valencia, A Tale of the Secret Tribunal, and The Vespers of Palermo). In those plots, son-sacrifice is either a cruel instrument of policy or the fulfillment of a revenge ethic; and in these texts, such sacrifice is urgently critiqued as a form of nihilism. How different is the God accepted as orthodox in The Sceptic from these cruel or at the least hapless fathers?

  20. It is just after Hemans's portrait of God as Death that she, very briefly, lifts the veil of her ideology from the world of feminine desire that it contains. In this disruptive moment, the poem has shifted almost without notice from the sacrifice of Christ to the loss in 1817 of Princess Charlotte in childbed; it has turned to a royal daughter whose death meets no divine design, only "inscrutable decrees." Then, the poem asks,
    Should we not madden, when our eyes behold
    All that we lov'd in marble stillness cold, . . .?
    But for the promise, all shall yet be well,
    Would not the spirit in its pangs rebel,
    Beneath such clouds as darken'd, when the hand
    Of wrath lay heavy on our prostrate land. . .?
    (Go to The Sceptic, line 457)
    It is the death of an unexceptionable mother in service of the state that brings to the poem's surface such resistant words as "madden" and "rebel."

  21. Not surprisingly, just as Hemans had critiqued Byron for shoddiness and sophistry in The Sceptic, Byron criticized this poem for its rhetoric ("too stiltified and apostrophic") and its logic (people died well prior to the Christian dispensation; BLJ 7: 113). But Byron has already corrupted scepticism with the cynicism of the Sadducee and sophist and the desire of the lover for reunion. And Hemans has exposed a killing belief to a very Byronic scepticism about needless sacrifice. So in the end the sceptical debate engaged both writers in a broader and more nuanced project about materialism and scepticism. Arguably, Byron's scepticism had its impact on Hemans, for the cruelty of sanctions that demand sacrificial death for their fulfillment is no more lost on her than on him. It could also be argued that in the event Hemans fields a scepticism more devastating than Byron's: for while his concerns a hypothetical afterlife, hers concerns the workings of a very material present one. In her, the Tory and radical positions on scepticism meet and create a third, critical, perhaps feminist position that ultimately eludes both sides.

Works Cited

Byron, Lord. Byron's Letters and Journals. Ed. Leslie A. Marchand. 12 vols. London: Murray, 1973-1982.

---. The Complete Poetical Works. Eds. Jerome J. McGann and Barry Weller. 7 vols. New York: Oxford UP, 1980-1993.

Halévy, Elie. The Liberal Awakening: 1815-1830. 1923. Trans. E. J. Watkin. New York: Barnes, 1961. Vol. 2 of A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century. 6 vols.

Hemans, Felicia. "Heliodorus at the Temple." Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P, 2000. [p. 148].

Hemans, Felicia Dorothea Browne. The Sceptic; A Poem. London: John Murray, 1820. British Women Romantic Poets Project. Ed. Khosh. Kohler Collection, Shields Library, U of California, Davis, 1998. 23 Dec. 2000. "The Sceptic; A Poem" on British Women Romantic Poets 1789 - 1832.

Sweet, Nanora. The Bowl of Liberty: Felicia Hemans and the Romantic Mediterranean. Diss. U of Michigan. 1993.

---. "Hemans, Heber, and Superstition and Revelation: Experiment and Orthodoxy at the Scene of Writing." Romantic Passions, ed. Elizabeth Fay. Romantic Praxis Series, Romantic Circles Website; March 1998.

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January 2004