Contesting the Heterodoxy: Mrs. Hemans vs. Lord Byron
When Felicia Hemans described receiving the Royal Society of Literature's annual prize for her poem Dartmoor, she noted that her son "sprang up from his Latin exercise and shouted aloud, 'Now, I am sure mamma is a better poet than Lord Byron!"' In her memoir of the poet, Hemans's sister, Harriett Hughes, appended an anxious footnote to this comment: "It is scarcely necessary to remark, that the comparison originated solely with the boy himself." Hughes suggested that it would have been an offence against female modesty for Hemans to have declared herself a better poet than Byron, or at least to have stated it so baldly. Yet if Hemans never openly announced her poetic superiority to Byron, she insistently set herself against him in her poetry by implying that her perceived moral superiority to him translated into aesthetic superiority as well.
Hemans's contest with Byron had two sides: her revision of motifs from his poems and her implicit contest with him over the nature of literary language itself. Byron was more struck by the second of the two because in 1820 he criticized her "false stilted trashy style," which seemed to him "a mixture of all the styles of the day." His indictment of Hemans was also partly an indictment of himself, since, as he admitted, one of the styles that she imitated was his own. But by 1820 he could criticize her because he had largely, though never entirely, abandoned the sentimental diction of his earlier romances. Hemans, in contrast, was driving it to an extreme. As Walter Scott noted, "Mrs. Hemans is somewhat too poetical for my taste—too many flowers I mean, and too little fruit."
Although this floweriness has been a stumbling-block for modern critics, its cliched familiarity suggests how influential it was in the nineteenth century. Hemans's style became as popular as it did because it offered a distinctively poetic language to accompany the growing autonomy of poetry. As High Culture for the middle classes increasingly separated itself from everyday life and language, her strenuous "poeticity" signaled that her work belonged to that special, otherworldly cultural realm. To buy her poetry was to buy a product that advertised itself as art. Her flowery style succeeded where that of other Romantic poets, most notably Keats, had failed. When work whose language announced itself as distinctively poetic came from a lower-middle-class writer like Keats, critics savaged it, but when it came from a woman, they praised it enthusiastically.
Gender worked where class had not. As for Byron, even though Hemans's style drew heavily on his own, she earned praise for it as Byron did not. As his career progressed, his style received increasingly less attention because his work was supposed to be interesting less as literature than as a revelation of "the real Byron." Hemans, in contrast, avoided poetry that her contemporaries might read as confessional. While Byron became famous as a personality, she became famous as a "Poet."
A comparison of Byron and Hemans can begin by noting that failed marriages took their careers in opposite directions. Byron's poetry loudly broadcasted Lady Byron's scandalous desertion of him, especially in "Fare Thee Well!". Like his earlier tales, this lyric was just scandalous enough to arouse interest, but not enough to alienate most respectable readers. For Hemans, in contrast, the failure of her marriage was no subject for poetry. Left to support herself, she wrote for money, which meant that she had little choice but to appeal to the audience that Byron could flirt with offending. Her readers and her situation as a female author largely determined her poetry's pious, ultra-respectable viewpoint before she ever set pen to paper. Readers eager for Byronic scandalousness would have been shocked if a woman had voiced it.
Yet all was not as conventional as it seemed. Hundreds of women had written poetry before Hemans, but she was one of the first to make her living largely through poetry. The more conventional modes for a woman needing to support herself had been translations, novels, or plays. Poetry was hardly the most profitable mode a writer could choose, and earlier female poets like Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson had turned to novels when economic need grew pressing. Hemans's success as a poet depended on new developments in the book trade. First, reviews and annuals appeared that paid generously for poetry; Hemans informed one editor, "I have never been accustomed to receive less than ten guineas a sheet." Second, the verse romances of Scott and Byron increased the profitability of poetry by tapping the novel-reading audience. Although Hemans eventually became best known for short lyrics, the works that initially made her name were longer pieces designed to appeal to these readers. She avoided the tradition of female lyricists, especially that represented by the Della Cruscans. One editor was asked to ensure that her name appeared as "Mrs. Hemans" because "that infelix Felicia is the subject of so many animadversions and allusions to Rosa Matilda, Laura Maria, and all the Della Cruscan tribe, that I am determined wholly to bid it good-bye." Instead of small, modest lyrics, she ventured substantial poems, often based on historical or Biblical subjects, that dealt with events of public significance.
She began writing her verse romances at the same moment that Byron stopped writing his. In so doing, he also abandoned his cozy relation to his respectable readers, since later works like Cain and Don Juan openly attacked British pieties. They became profitable less for John Murray than for the radical publishers who pirated them and sold thousands of copies, particularly of Don Juan, to the working classes. As Byron's working-class audience grew, his middle-class one was supposedly shrinking. The official line of a review like the Christian Observer in 1825 was that Byron should be boycotted because a boycott "would shew, that, with a British public, no superiority of rank or intellect can screen an impious and licentious author from the just punishment of being reprobated, and consigned to oblivion." Female readers in particular avoided later works like Cain and Don Juan, or at least felt guilty about reading them.
Hemans in the 1820s faced the challenge of continuing the Byronic genre of the verse romance when Byron himself seemed to be going wholly to the bad. She met the challenge by rewriting Byronic romance from the point of view of normative femininity. Several critics have commented on the gendering of Hemans's voice, but I want to emphasize the differences between her poetic femininity and that of her predecessors. The gender of female poets had always mattered for how they were read, but gender for Hemans mattered differently. The feminine voice of earlier poets was associated with subject matter, like domesticity, motherhood, or female education, or with minor genres, like the sonnet or fable. In the cases where female poets wrote on public subjects in more ambitious genres, they put themselves at risk of being seen as bluestockings who had unsexed themselves by trespassing on masculine concerns.
With Hemans, the case was different. When I first came to read her work, I expected that, like the works of her predecessors, it would be about women and issues conventionally gendered as feminine. I did not find quite what I expected. She did write many poems, as in Records of Woman and Songs of the Affections, about feminized experience and sentiments. But she also wrote works that do not fit so obviously into prior conventions of femininity, such as theological poems like The Sceptic and "Superstition and Revelation," historical narratives like "The League of the Alps," poems on topical issues like The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy, and even battle songs. These are not just poems about women and domesticity. Her subject matter pointedly ranges beyond concerns previously designated as feminine.
Nevertheless, as many critics have emphasized, all Hemans's contemporaries treated her work as distinctively feminine. The puzzle is how she was able to address such a wide range of issues without being attacked as a bluestocking. The answer lies in the expanding borders of femininity at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Hemans's longer works participated in a new development in the construction of gender: the politics of normative femininity. Much attention has been given to how novels, conduct books, and tracts on female education segregated women from public life by disseminating their role as pious guardians of domesticity. Far less has been given to the ways in which this seemingly limited role provided some women with a platform for public, political expression. The historian Linda Colley has demonstrated that, by the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth, women were using the conservative concept of a female role to justify such political activities as addressing armies, endowing monuments to public figures, demonstrating in support of Queen Caroline, and signing petitions to Parliament. In 1829, for example, Lord Eldon "produced an anti-Catholic petition in the House of Lords signed 'by a great many ladies"' (Colley p. 279).
Colley emphasizes how politically empowering the conservative concept of the female role proved to be, even though it seemed designed to exclude women from public life. If women were indeed supposed to be "embodiments of virtue and high morality," then they had a duty to speak out on issues of public importance in order to "inspire their menfolk to proper political actions" (p. 277). For Hemans to have narrowed her work to conventionally feminine topics would have been to miss the larger range of concerns for which women were taking responsibility. The participation of women in politics had developed enough by the 1820s that writing as a woman no longer meant writing solely about domesticity, children, and sentiment, but about religion, nationalism, and history as well.
Byron was a particularly threatening figure for this new politics of femininity, since the attacks in his later works on religion and monarchy threatened the grounds on which such women had gained their political voice, however limited it may have been. One reviewer explicitly connected Byron's religious heterodoxy to his degraded representations of women: "The same proud hardness of heart which makes the author of Don Juan a despiser of the Faith for which his fathers bled, has rendered him a scorner of the better part of Woman." From this conservative viewpoint, Byron's religious heterodoxy went hand in hand with his attack on the female character, since orthodox Anglicanism was supposed to uphold the exalted character of Woman. Any female writer who took the politics of normative femininity seriously would have to counter the impression that Byron had created.
Hemans thought that her best poem was The Forest Sanctuary; it was published in 1825 and was popular enough to have gone into a second edition by 1829. In it, she met Byron on his own generic ground, the verse romance, and rewrote Byronic motifs to counter his heterodoxy. It might seem that, as a woman, she would revise Byron most of all by countering his representation of women. To a degree, her poem does so, yet its principle focus is not gender, but religion. Rather than attacking Byron's atheism, she attacked what was seen as a far more pressing threat to the Established Church in the 1820s: Roman Catholicism. She based her poem on an article by Blanco White in the Quarterly Review in which he warned the British public about Spanish liberals and criticized Catholicism for imprisoning Spain in superstition. By adapting this article, she placed her work within the politics of anti-Catholicism that inspired so many women in the 1820s, to the degree that some even signed petitions to Parliament. Her poem united a literary polemic against Byron with a political one against Catholicism, to give narrative expression to the politics of normative femininity.
While The Forest Sanctuary revises several Byronic motifs, the two most prominent are the figure of the rebellious Byronic hero and the heroine who dies from grief at the fate of her beloved. Hemans's hero, like Byron's Manfred or Cain, strikes out against established religion and is consequently exiled from his community. Yet where Byron's heroes reject any form of established religion, the rebellion of Hemans's hero is more specific. He is a sixteenth-century Spaniard who, horrified by the spectacle of an auto-da-fe, abjures Catholicism. Upon going to a "mighty minster, dim, and proud, and vast" (I.lxxvii), he receives no inspiration until he has a vision of Christ. It convinces him of the emptiness of the institutionalized Catholicism represented by the "minster," and he relearns his faith "from the book whose words are grav'd in light" (II.iv). Although Hemans does not specify the religion to which he converts, it looks much like early nineteenth-century Anglicanism, through she generalizes her descriptions enough that they would not alienate Dissenting readers either. In presenting nineteenth-century British religion as the spontaneous revelation of a sixteenth-century Spaniard, she transforms the Byronic hero's familiar turn away from established religious norms into a turn toward orthodoxy.
Because the Spaniard is unable to "shout out Heaven's air with falsehood's mask," he is thrown into a "grave-like cell" (II.v), separated from his wife and children. His time in jail seems modeled specifically on the experiences of Byron's Bonnivard in The Prisoner of Chillon, that problematic exemplar of the "Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind." Yet Hemans manipulates British anti-Catholic sentiment in order to make her hero into a Protestant paragon. What is represented as a rebellion within the terms of the poem, the hero's apostasy from Catholicism, would have been seen as a move toward orthodoxy for Hemans's Protestant readers. She uses the element of religious rebellion intrinsic to the Protestant Church itself to counter Byron's heterodoxy with a rebellion that is not really a rebellion.
In Byron's poetry, the hero's rebelliousness usually has bad results for the heroine. Hemans's poem goes even further: all three female characters die, a fate that has been a crux for interpreters who want to see her as affirming female experience. One critic suggests that the futility of "female love, devotion and self-sacrifice" in Hemans's poems functions to collapse domestic ideology from within. While I recognize the futility associated with female endeavor in Hemans, I am hesitant to see it as necessarily subversive because she so quickly assimilates it to the need for Christian belief. Nevertheless, the fate of women in The Forest Sanctuary lays bare a potential conflict between two elements of the normative female role: religious belief and domestic obedience. In the poem's first book, the Spaniard witnesses the deaths of Theresa and Inez, who, with their brother, are the Protestant heretics condemned to be burned. Conversion has led both sisters to rebel against their paternal home: "Alas, that lonely father! doom'd to pine / For sounds departed in his life's decline" (I.xxxii). Far from being rigorously dutiful, they have shamed the name that "a hundred chiefs had borne" (I.xxxii). Instead, Theresa remains loyal to her brother, "whose hand had led [her] to the source of truth, / Where [her] glad soul from earth was purified" (I.xxxviii). Although the narrator praises her because "her life is ever twin'd / With other lives" (I.xxxvii), Hemans's plot suggests that the issues are not quite so simple. Religious faith may demand forsaking bonds even as sacred as those between father and daughter.
The conflict between love and faith is even more prominent for the other two female characters, Theresa's sister Inez and the Spaniard's wife Leonor. As Inez is about to be burned, her beloved suddenly appears to her. Faced with the choice between her love and her loyalty to her faith, she dies of a broken heart before she reaches the flames. Yet even as Hemans portrays the fatal effects of what she calls "the strife / Of love, faith, fear, and that vain dream of life" (I.lxi), she emphasizes that faith is ultimately the right choice. Inez is praised for not having "cast away / [Her] hope in [her] last hour" (I.lxiii), despite the pull of earthly love.
The narrator's wife Leonor undergoes an even more vivid version of Inez's conflict between love and faith. Although she is devoted to her husband, she dies during their voyage from Spain to North America because she cannot reconcile herself to his conversion: "Fall'n, fall'n I seem'd—yet, oh! not less belov'd, / Tho' from thy love was pluck'd the early pride" (II.xxxix). For her, religious faith must not subside before marital fidelity. Like Inez, she faces a choice between love and faith that leaves her no outlet but death. Evaluating Leonor may be the central puzzle of The Forest Sanctuary, because Hemans seems to suggest that it is better for a woman to remain faithful to her religion, even if it is wrong, than to alter it in accordance with that of her husband. While the narrator criticizes Leonor for her "gloomy faith," Hemans suggests that her persistence is heroic insofar as it demonstrates her capability to put spiritual concerns above earthly ones.
The ambiguities surrounding Leonor's death test how much Hemans may criticize the conservative order that she endorses. As several critics have noted, relations between men and women are rarely happy in her work. Her representation of Inez and Leonor may suggest that this unhappiness arises from basic contradictions in the loyalties that women are supposed to have. Yet the sentimental gratification with which she surrounds their deaths tempers the potentially critical impulse in her representations. Whatever earthly troubles these characters may have, they all receive their reward in heaven because they have kept their faith, even if it is wrong, as in Leonor's case.
Whether or not Hemans's representation of women subverts her conservative ideology, the sheer complexity of the issues surrounding their deaths indicates how completely she has revised Byron. Although Caroline Franklin has demonstrated that Byron's heroines are more complicated than previous critics have generally allowed, early nineteenth-century reviewers found them to be little more than shadows dying for the hero. As John Scott wrote, "The female character is reduced [in Byron's poems]...to a certain intense power of communicating delight to man, and awakening enthusiasm in his breast:—they love, dazzle, and die." Hemans's women have considerably more substance than Scott's version of Byron's heroines because they are not defined solely in relation to men. They are literal or figurative martyrs whose loyalty to a higher order leads them to resist even men who would bring them domestic happiness. Though Hemans appropriates from Byron the motif of the dead heroine, she ensures that her women died for what could be perceived as better reasons than his did. She might expect that her representations of women would appeal to her audience because religion had become so closely associated with the exalted role of woman and the ability of some women to find a political voice that so much in their culture seemed designed to suppress.
Thus far, I have emphasized the content of Hemans's poem and its ideological battle against Byron. Yet, as I suggested earlier, her revision of him may be most important for its stylistic results. The reception of The Forest Sanctuary gives some clues as to why her style matters. Several journals reviewed it when it was first published, and the Edinburgh Review featured Francis Jeffrey's discussion of Hemans in 1829 upon the appearance of its second edition. The reviewers fell into two camps. The first responded to the poem in terms of its subject matter. The Monthly Magazine panned it because the critic detested Hemans's "commixture of sacred writ with that sort of poetry which is or ought to be intended for the amusement of cultivated minds." The Monthly Review, in contrast, admired her ability to "adopt subjects honourable to her delicacy" (p. 581). The critics in the second camp judged the poem purely in stylistic terms. The Literary Gazette praised her as a "sweet and elegant writer" whose poems manifested "a degree of beauty which will amply reward the reader for an attentive study" (p. 275). According to The Literary Magnet, those who read poetry "for the sake of incident" would find The Forest Sanctuary of "little interest," but those who appreciated "genius and poetical sensibility" would find it full of "those outpourings of the spirit, which have their origin in the best and most glorious feelings at our nature" (p. 289). Jeffrey's essay had nothing to say about Hemans's moral or religious views but praised the "great charm and excellence in her imagery" (p. 37). He maintained that the "the very essence of poetry" demanded that the poet present "such visible objects…as partake of the character of the emotions he wishes to excite"; for him, Hemans was "eminently a mistress of this poetical secret" (pp. 36-37).
The contrast between the camps is one between treating poetry as a vehicle of moral or religious instruction and treating it as an aesthetic object. For the second camp, the politics of normative femininity disappeared from the evaluation of The Forest Sanctuary. The style of the following stanza, which the Magnet called "exquisite," gives an idea of what they were admiring instead; it describes Inez before her death:
But the dark hours wring forth the hidden might
Which hath lain bedded in the silent soul,
A treasure all undreamt of;—as the night
Calls out the harmonies of streams that roll
Unheard by day.—It seemed as if her breast
Had hoarded energies, till then suppressed
Almost with pain, and bursting from control,
And finding first that hour their pathway free:
Could a rose brave the storm, such might her emblem be! (I.xxxv)This excerpt is a good example of Hemans's style, which is either "false stilted and trashy" or "sweet and elegant," depending on your point of view. It works by piling up poetical effects: an intricate Spenserian stanza with an altered rhyme scheme (ababccbdd), elaborate similes, frequent dashes and exclamation points, and rhetorical questions. Like the epigraphs from Schiller and Coleridge at the beginning of her poem, the accumulation of such effects in stanza after stanza signals the reader that this is poetry in capital letters.
Banal as Hemans's style may seem to some in the late twentieth century, it was a novelty in the 1820s because it fitted so comfortably into the commodification of poetry as an autonomous art form. As John Guillory has noted in his discussion of Wordsworth's 1802 Preface, the dominance of polite English in the eighteenth century as a standard for defining literariness meant that there was little essential difference between the language of most poetry and that of most prose. Yet once polite English had been disseminated widely enough that it could no longer differentiate between higher and lower uses of language, a different marker of literariness emerged: a distinctive style expressing the genius of a particular author. What looked to Byron like a derivative mix of contemporary styles looked to Jeffrey like the mark of Hemans's poetic mastery. Despite these different reactions, both were responding to the same thing: the ostentatious literariness of Hemans's style.
Hemans's style directly countered the turn that Byron's later poetry had taken. When he engaged overtly polemical and topical themes in works like Cain and Don Juan, he abandoned his earlier sentimentalism for language that was more deliberately prosaic. Part of the outrage of his later works was stylistic: they did not read the way that poetry was supposed to read. Hemans's career, in contrast, grounded the increasingly feminized status of poetry within the book trade in the work of an actual woman. Although Keats's style had seemed absurdly effeminate, her gender naturalized the equation between femininity and the increasingly marginalized genre of poetry. Yet Hemans's style had its disadvantages. One consequence of the growing marginality of poetry was the privileging of lyric as a mode that permitted the purest expression of an author's style. Lyrics best represented high culture as a realm entirely removed from the concerns of ordinary life and speech. As Hemans's career progressed, her greatest critical success came not with ambitious, politicized poems like The Forest Sanctuary but with short lyrics showcasing her style. Their subject matter was far tamer than that of her longer works, but they were more easily consumed as fine art, marked by their distinctively literary language.
Ultimately, Hemans's literariness worked against her most ambitious poems like The Forest Sanctuary because her language was so overwrought that the plots became difficult to follow. Her biographer noted of one of these longer works that "somewhat of a monotony of coloring is thrown over its scenes by the unchanged employment of a lofty and enriched phraseology." Her phraseology was so lofty that two reviewers of The Forest Sanctuary quarreled about exactly what happened in it, and Jeffrey stated bluntly that she "must not venture again on any thing so long as the 'Forest Sanctuary.'" Instead, he praised her as "the most touching and accomplished writer of occasional verses that our literature has yet to boast of" (p. 47). She became a later version of the Della Cruscan lyricists that she had tried so hard to avoid, and the politicized edge of her earlier poetry evaporated. As a lyricist, she became one of the most popular poets on both sides of the Atlantic, and her work was memorized by generations of schoolchildren. Even today as Hemans begins to reappear in anthologies, she is present not as a writer of ambitious poems on religious and political issues but as a writer of lyric.
The nineteenth-century diminishment of Hemans to a lyricist reflects a gender bias: women supposedly could only write in small forms, while the bigger ones were reserved for the men. Yet attention to gender should not obscure the extent to which her fate was that of much poetry during the century. In works like The Golden Treasury, the Victorians eventually reconstructed all Romanticism in terms of the lyric. As a result, Keats was elevated to a status that would have seemed unlikely during his life. His resurgence may even have depended partly on the taste for "enriched phraseology" that Hemans had created. The decay in her reputation came only when standards of literary language had altered again, so that the floweriness that seemed strikingly expressive in 1820 looked cliched in 1920. By then, however, the antiliterary language of Don Juan could be re-evaluated as Byron's high point, since it supposedly marked most clearly his individual genius.
My goal in this talk has been to place Hemans's conservatism in historical perspective in relation to Byron's career, the politics of normative femininity, and developments in the role of poetry. I find her work challenging because it demands developing new models for understanding the relation of gender to literature. While the recovery of Hemans's work is only a few years old, the hermeneutic often used in reading her work stems from a foundational text of academic feminism: The Madwoman in the Attic. Its influential paradigm suggests that underneath the conventional veneer that patriarchy imposed on nineteenth-century women writers lie signs of rebellion against an oppressive system. While, as I have argued, Hemans's work is hardly untroubled in its ideological representations, the Madwoman paradigm may not be the most useful for interpreting her because it underestimates the political investments that a female writer in her period might have. Taking Hemans seriously is most interesting when we recognize how much her conventions of femininity challenge our conventions for interpreting them.
Univ. of Minnesota-Twin Cities
6. Letter of Oct. 22. 1819: Br. Lib. Add. MS. 33.964. lot. 257. Now printed in Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials, ed. Susan J. Wolfson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 482.
8. Major treatments of Hemans appear in Stuart Curran's "The 'I' Altered," in Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Bloomington: Indiana Univ., 1988), pp. 185-207; Marlon B. Ross's The Contours of Masculine Desire, Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 1989): Norma Clarke's Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love—The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans, and Jane Carlyle (London and New York: Routledge, 1990); Angela Leighton's Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (New York: Harvester, 1992), pp. 9-44: and Anne K. Mellor's Romanticism and Gender (New York and London: Routledge, 1993).
13. One of the poem's first reviewers was particularly bothered by Leonor's fate, noting that it "disappoints us unnecessarily to know, that the Spaniard was unable to lead his beloved wife to the Truth, and that she perished in darkness" (Monthly Magazine 1 : 584).
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Peterloo Massacre
- Quarterly Review
- The Sceptic
- Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
- woman poet
- Common Sense
- The Forest Sanctuary
- The Domestic Affections
- poetic femininity
- Jeffrey Walker
- life after death