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Quarterly Review Archive

Mrs. Hemans's Poems

Attributed to John Taylor Coleridge


ART.V. —1. The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy. By Felicia Hemans.

2. Tales and Historic Scenes in Verse. By Felicia Hemans.

3. Translations from Camoens and other Poets, with Original Poems. By Felicia Hemans.

4. The Sceptic, a Poem. By Mrs. Hemans.

5. Stanzas to the Memory of the late King. By Mrs. Hemans. London.

 

THIS certainly is not the age in which those who speak slightingly of female talent should expect to be listened to with much attention. In almost every department of literature, and in many of art and science, some one or other of our own contemporaries and countrywomen will be found, in spite of all the disadvantages of an imperfect education, occupying a respectable, at least, if not a prominent situation. And this remark, if true any where, is undoubtedly so when applied to poetry: no judicious critic will speak without respect of the tragedies of Miss Baillie, or the Psyche of Mrs. Tighe; and, unless we deceive ourselves greatly, the author of the poems before us requires only to be more generally known and read to have her place assigned at no great distance from that of the two distinguished individuals just mentioned. Mrs. Hemans indeed, if we may judge from her writings, is not merely a clever woman, but a woman of very general reading, and a mind improved by reflection and study. There is another circumstance about these poems in which we cannot well be deceived, and which demands notice, the progressive and rapid improvement of them; not five years have elapsed from the appearance of the first to that of the last, and the difference of the two is very surprising; the merits of the one are little more than correct language, smooth versification, and chaste ideas; the last, written on a difficult subject, is one of the most able productions of the present day. The facility given by practice may have done much towards this; but when the improvement is principally in the richness and novelty of the thought, careful study and diligent training of the reason must have borne a much larger share. If we may judge too of her, in another point, from her writings, Mrs. Hemans is a woman in whom talent and learning have not produced the ill effects so often attributed to them; [131] her faculties seem to sit meekly on her, at least we can trace no ill humour or affection, no misanthropic gloom, no querulous discontent; she is always pure in thought and expression, cheerful, affectionate, and pious. It is something at least to know, that whether the emotions she excites be always those of powerful delight or not, they will be at least harmless, and leave no sting behind: if our fancies are not always transported, our hearts at least will never be corrupted: we have not found a line which a delicate woman might blush to have written. When speaking of an English lady this ought to be no more than common praise, for delicacy of feeling has long been, and long may it be, the fair and valued boast of our countrywomen; but we have had too frequent reason of late to lament, both in female readers and writers, the display of qualities very opposite in their nature. Their tastes, at least, have not escaped the infection of that pretended liberality, but real licentiousness of thought, the plague and the fearful sign of the times. Under its influence they lose their relish for what is simple and sober, gentle and dignified, and require the stimulus of excessive or bitter passion, of sedition, of audacious profaneness. Certain we are, that the most dangerous writer of the present day finds his most numerous and most enthusiastic admirers among the fair sex; and it would have been far better for the world if the author had never written. This is a melancholy subject on which we have much to say at a fit opportunity, but which it would not satisfy us to treat so cursorily as our present limits would render necessary:—with Mrs. Hemans, at least, such thoughts as it suggests have no connection, and we will not, therefore, any longer detain our readers with general remarks, but give them a brief account of her several poems, with such extracts and observations as may serve to justify what we have before advanced respecting the author. The earliest on the list is a Poem on the Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy, and, as we have intimated above, is decidedly inferior to all that follow it. We do not think the subject, indeed, very happily chosen, except for a very short and spirited sketch: when treated of at so much length as by Mrs. Hemans, it was sure to lose all unity, and be broken up into a number of separate descriptions, which, even if very truly drawn and striking, when severally examined, can never form a complete whole. The versification, however, is always flowing, though the style wants clearness and compression.

The next volume, the 'Tales and Historic Scenes,' is a collection, as the title imports, of Narrative Poems. Perhaps it was not upon consideration that Mrs. Hemans passed from a poem [132] of picture-drawing and reflection to the writing of tales; but if we were to prescribe to a young poet this course of practice, this would certainly be our advice. The luxuriance of a young fancy delights in description; and the quickness and inexperience of the same age, in passing judgments;—in the one richness, in the other antithesis and effect are too often more sought after than truth: the poem is written rapidly, and correctness but little attended to. But in narration more care must be taken; if the tale be fictitious, the conception and sustainment of the characters, the disposition of the facts, the relief of the soberer parts by description, reflection, or dialogue, form so many useful studies for a growing artist: if the tale be borrowed from history, a more delicate task is added to those just mentioned, in determining how far it may be necessary or safe to interweave the ornaments of fiction with the ground-work of truth, and in skillfully performing that difficult task. In both cases the mind is compelled to make a more sustained effort, and acquires thereby greater vigor, and a more practical readiness in the detail of the art.

The principal poem in this volume is Abencerrage; it commemorates the capture of Grenada by Ferdinand and Isabella, and attributes it in great measure to the revenge of Hamet, chief of the Abencerrages, who had been induced to turn his arms against his countrymen, the Moors, in order to procure the ruin of their king, the murderer of his father and brothers. During the siege he makes his way by night to the bower of Zayda his beloved, the daughter of a rival and hated family; her character is very finely drawn, and she repels with firmness all the solicitations and prayers of the traitor to his country. The following lines form part of their dialogue;—they are spirited and pathetic, but perfectly free from exaggeration.

'Oh wert thou still what once I fondly deem'd,
All that thy mien express'd, thy spirit seem'd,
My love had been devotion—till in death
Thy name had trembled on my latest breath.
But not the chief, who leads a lawless band
To crush the altars of his native land;
The apostate son of heroes, whose disgrace
Hath stain'd the trophies of a glorious race;
Not him I lov'd—but one whose youthful name
Was pure and radiant in unsullied fame.
Hadst though but died ere yet dishonor's cloud
O'er that young name had gather'd as a shroud,
I then had mourn'd thee proudly—and my grief
In its own loftiness had found relief,
A noble sorrow, cherish'd to the last,
When every meaner woe had long been past. [133]
Yes, let affection weep—no more common tear
She sheds when bending o'er a hero's bier;
Let nature mourn the dead-a grief like this,
To pangs that rend my bosom, had been bliss.'—p.98.

     The next volume in order consists principally of translations. It will give our readers some idea of Mrs. Hemans's acquaintance with books, to enumerate the authors from whom she has chosen her subjects; they are Camoens, Metastasio, Filicaja, Pastorini, Lope de Vega, Franciso Manuel, Della Casa, Cornelio Bentivoglio, Quevedo, Jauan de Tarsis, Torquato and Bernardo Tasso, Petrarca, Pietro Bembo, Lorenzini, Gessner, Chaulieu, Garcilaso de Vega; names embracing almost every language in which the Muse has found a tongue in Europe. Many of these translations are very pretty, but it would be less interesting to select any of the them for citation, as our readers might not be possessed of, or acquainted with the originals. We will pass on, therefore, to the latter part of the volume, which contains much that is very pleasing and beautiful. The poem which we are about to transcribe is on a subject often treated; and no wonder:—it would be hard to find another which embraces so many of the elements of poetic feeling; so soothing a mixture of pleasing melancholy and pensive hope; such an assemblage of the ideas of tender beauty, of artless playfulness, of spotless purity, of transient yet imperishable brightness, of affections wounded, but not in bitterness, of sorrows gently subdued, of eternal and undoubted happiness. We know so little of the heart of many, that when we stand by the grave of him whom we deem most excellent, the thought of death will be mingled with some awe and uncertainty; but the gracious promises of Scripture leave no doubt as to the blessedness of departed infants, and when we think what they now are, and what they might have been; what they now enjoy, and what they might have suffered; what they have now attained, and what they might have lost; we may, indeed, yearn to follow them; but we must be selfish indeed to wish them again 'constrained' to dwell in these tenements of pain and sorrow. The dirge of a child, which follow, embodies these thoughts and feelings, but in more beautiful order and language.

'No bitter tears for thee be shed,
Blossom of being! seen and gone!
With flowers alone we strew thy bed,
      O blest departed one!
Whose all of life, a rosy ray,
Blushed into dawn, and passed away.
Yes, thou art gone, ere guilt had power
To stain thy cherub soul and form! [134]
Clos'd is the soft ephemeral flower
      That never felt a storm!
The sunbeam's smile, the zephyr's breath,
All that it knew from birth to death.
Thou wert so like a form of light,
That heaven benignly called thee hence,
Ere yet the world could breathe one blight
      O'er thy sweet innocence:
And thou that brighter home to bless
Art passed with all thy loveliness.
Oh hadst thou still on earth remain'd,
Vision of beauty, fair as brief,
How soon thy brightness had been stain'd
      With passion, or with grief!
Now not a sullying breath can rise
To dim thy glory in the skies.
We rear no marble o'er thy tomb,
No sculptured image there shall mourn,
Ah! fitter far the vernal bloom
      Such dwelling to adorn.
Fragrance and flowers and dews must be
The only emblems meet for thee.
Thy grave shall be a blessed shrine,
Adorn'd with nature's brightest wreath,
Each glowing season shall combine
      Its incense there to breathe;
And oft upon the midnight air
Shall viewless harps be murmuring there.
And oh! Sometimes in visions blest,
Sweet spirit, visit our repose,
And bear from thine own world of rest
      Some balm for human woes.
What form more lovely could be given
Than thine to messenger of heaven?'—p.61.
      Had Mrs. Hemans stopped here, she might have claimed a considerable share of praise for elegant composition; but her last two publications are work of a higher stamp—works, indeed, of which no living poet need to be ashamed. The first of them is entitled the Sceptic, and is devoted, as our readers will easily anticipate, to advocating the cause of religion. Undoubtedly the poem must have owed its being to the circumstances of the times, to a laudable indignation at the course which literature in many departments seemed lately to be taking in this country, and at the doctrines disseminated with industry, principally (but by no means exclusively, as has been falsely supposed,) among the lower orders. Mrs. Hemans, however, does not attempt to reason learnedly or laboriously in verse; few poems, ostensibly philoso- [135] phical, or didactic, have ever been of use, except to display the ingenuity and talent of the writers; people are not often taught a science or an art in poetry, and much less will an infidel be converted by a theological treatise in verse. But the argument of the Sceptic is one of irresistible force to confirm a wavering mind; it is simply resting the truth of religion on the necessity of it, on the utter misery and helplessness of man without it. This argument is in itself available for all the purposes of poetry; it appeals to the imagination and passions of man, it is capable of interesting all our affectionate hopes and charities, of acting upon all our natural fears. Mrs. Hemans has gone through this range with great feeling and ability, and when she comes to the mind that has clothed itself in its own strength, and relying proudly on that alone in the hour of affliction, has sunk into distraction in the contest, she rises into a strain of moral poetry not often surpassed.
'Oh what is nature's strength? the vacant eye
By mind deserted hath a dread reply,
The wild delirious laughter of despair,
The mirth of phrenzy—seek an answer there!
Turn not away, though pity's cheek grow pale,
Close not thine eye against their awful tale.
They tell thee, reason wandering from the ray
Of faith, the blazing pillar of her way,
In the mid-darkness of the stormy wave
Forsook the struggling soul she could not save.
Weep not, sad moralist, o'er desert plains
Strew'd with the wrecks of grandeur—mouldering fanes
Arches of triumph, long with weeds o'ergrown—
And regal cities, now the serpent's own:
Earth has more awful ruins—one lost mind
Whose star is quench'd, hath lessons for mankind
Of deeper import, than each prostrate dome
Mingling its marble with the dust of Rome.'—p.17.

After a few more lines to this effect, she addresses the maniac himself in a passage almost too long for citation, yet which we cannot deny ourselves the pleasure of transcribing.

'Spirit dethroned, and check'd in mid career,
Son of the morning, exiled from thy sphere,
Tell us thy tale! Perchance thy race was run
With science in the chariot of the sun:
Free as the winds the path of space to sweep,
Traverse the untrodden kingdoms of the deep,
And search the laws that nature's springs controul;
There tracing all—save Him who guides the whole.
      Haply thine eye its ardent glance had cast
Through the dim shades the portals of the past; [136]
By the bright lamp of thought thy care had fed
From the far beacon-lights of ages fled,
The depths of time exploring, to retrace
The glorious march of many a vanish'd race.
      Or did thy power pervade the living lyre,
Till its deep chords became instinct with fire,
Silenced all meaner notes, and swell'd on high
Full and alone their mighty harmony,
While woke each passion from its cell profound
And nations started at th' electric sound?
Lord of the Ascendant! what avails it now,
Though bright the laurels wav'd upon they brow?
What, though thy name, through distant empires heard,
Bade the heart bound, as doth a battle-word?
Was it for this thy still unwearied eye
Kept vigil with the watch-fires of the sky,
To make the secrets of all ages thine,
And commune with majestic thoughts that shine
O'er time's long shadowy pathway? Hath thy mind
Severed its lone dominions from mankind
For this—to woo their homage? Thou has sought
All, save the wisdom with Salvation fraught—
Won every wreath, but that which will not die,
Nor aught neglected save eternity.
      And did all fail thee, &c.
             * * * *
Lift the dread veil no further! hide, oh hide
The bleeding form, the couch of suicide—
The dagger grasp'd in death—the brow, the eye
Lifeless, yet stamp'd with rage and agony;
The soul's dark traces left in many a line
Grav'd on his mien who died "and made no sign!"
Approach not, gaze not, lest thy fever'd brain
Too deep that image of despair retain.
Angels of slumber!—o'er the midnight hour
Let not such visions claim unhallow'd power,
Lest the mind sink with terror, and above
See but the Avenger's arm, forgot th' Atoner's love.'—p.18.

     We must venture upon one extract more. It is from a part of the poem in which the writer is supplicating for the aids which Heaven alone can bestow to sustain her at the hour of death; and she naturally and truly asserts that that hour is most awful and distressing to unsupported nature.

'—————————————In the pride
Of youth and health, by sufferings yet untried,
We talk of death, as something which t'were sweet
In glory's arms exultingly to meet;
A closing triumph, a majestic scene,
Where gazing nations watch the hero's mien, [137]
As, undismay'd amidst the tears of all,
He folds his mantle, regally to fall.
Hush, fond enthusiast!—still obscure and lone,
Yet not less terrible because unknown,
Is the last hour of thousands—they retire
From life's throng'd path, unnoticed to expire.
As the light leaf, whose fall to ruin bears
Some trembling insect's little world of cares,
Descends in silence, while around waves on
The might forest, reckless what is gone!
Such is man's doom—and ere an hour be flown,
Start not, thou trifler, such may be thine own!'—p.25

     The last poem is to the memory of his late Majesty: unlike courtly themes in general, this is one of the deepest, and most lasting interest. Buried as the King had long been in mental and visual darkness, and dead to the common joys of the world, his death, perhaps, did not occasion the shock, or the piercing sorrow which we have felt on some other public losses; but the heart must be cold indeed, that could, on reflection, regard the whole fortune and fate of the venerable, gallant, tender-hearted and pious man, without a more than common sympathy. There was something in his character so truly national; his very errors were of so amiable a kind, his excellencies bore so high a stamp, his nature was so genuine and unsophisticated, he stood in his splendid court amidst his large and fine family, so true a husband, so good a father, so safe an example,; [sic.] he so thoroughly understood the feelings, and so duly appreciated the virtues, even the uncourtly virtues of his subjects; and, with all this, the sorrows from heaven rained down upon his head in so 'pitiless and pelting a storm;'—all these—his high qualities and unparalleled sufferings form such a subject for poetry, as nothing, we should imagine, but its difficulty and the expectation attending it, would prevent from being seized upon by the greatest poets of the day. We will not say that Mrs. Hemans has filled the whole canvass as it might have been filled, but unquestionably her poem is beyond all comparison with any which we have seen on the subject; it is full of fine and pathetic passages, and it leads us up through all the dismal colourings of the fore-ground to that bright and consoling prospect, which should close every Christian's reflections on such a matter. An analysis of so short a poem is wholly unnecessary, and we have already transgressed our limits; we will, therefore, give but one extract of that soothing nature alluded to, and release our readers.

'Yet was there mercy still—if joy no more
     Within that blasted circle might intrude,
Earth had no grief whose footstep might pass o'er
     The silent limits of its solitude! [138]
If all unheard the bridle song awoke
     Our hearts' full echoes, as it swell'd on high;
Alike unheard the sudden dirge, that broke
      On the glad strain, with dread solemnity.
If the land's rose unheeded wore its bloom,
      Alike unfelt the storm that swept it to the tomb.

And she, who, tried thro' all the stormy past,
      Severely, deeply proved, in many an hour,
Watch'd o'er thee, firm and faithful to the last,
      Sustain'd, inspired, by strong affection's power;
If to thy soul her voice no music bore,
      If thy closed eye and wandering spirit caught
No light from looks, that fondly would explore
      Thy mien, for traces of responsive thought;
Oh! Thou wert spared the pang that would have thrill'd
Thine inmost heart, when death that anxious bosom still'd.

Thy lov'd ones fell around thee—manhood's prime,
     Youth, with its glory, in its fulness, age,
All, at the gates of their eternal clime
      Lay down, and closed their mortal pilgrimage;
The land wore ashes for its perish'd flowers,
      The grave's imperial harvest. Thou, meanwhile,
Did'st walk unconscious thro' thy royal towers,
      The one that wept not in the tearful isle!
As a tired warrior, on his battle-plain,
Breathes deep in dreams amidst the mourners and the slain.

And who can tell what visions may be thine?
      The stream of thought, though broken, still was pure!
Still o'er that wave the stars of heaven might shine,
      Where earthly image would no more endure!
Tho' many a step, of once familiar sound,
      Came as a stranger's o'er thy closing ear,
And voices breathed forgotten tones around,
      Which that paternal heart once thrill'd to hear,
The mind hath senses of its own, and powers
To people boundless words, in its most wandering hours.

Nor might the phantoms, to thy spirit known,
      Be dark or wild, creations of remorse;
Unstain'd by thee, the blameless past had thrown
      No fearful shadows o'er the future's course;
For thee no cloud, from memory's dread abyss,
      Might shape such forms as haunt the tyrant's eye;
And closing up each avenue of bliss,
      Murmur their summons, to "despair and die!"
No! e'en tho' joy depart, tho' reason cease,
Still virtue's ruin'd home is redolent of peace.

They might be with thee still—the loved, the tried,
      The fair, the lost, they might be with thee still! [139]
More softly seen, in radiance purified
      From each dim vapor of terrestrial ill;
Long after earth received them, and the note
      Of the last requiem o'er their dust was pour'd,
As passing sunbeams o'er thy soul might float,
      Those forms, from us withdrawn, to thee restored!
Spirits of holiness, in light reveal'd,
To commune with a mind whose source of tears was seal'd.'—p.9

     It is time to close this article. Our readers will have seen, and we do not deny, that we have been much interested in our subject: who or what Mrs. Hemans is, we know not; we have been told that, like a poet of antiquity,

———Tristia vitæ
Solatur cantu———

if it be so (and the most sensible breasts are not uncommonly nor unnaturally the most bitterly wounded), she seems from the tenor of her writings to bear about her a higher and a surer balsam than the praises of men, or even the 'sacred muse' herself can impart. Still there is pleasure, an innocent and an honest pleasure, even to a wounded spirit, in fame fairly earned; and such fame as may wait upon our decision, we freely and conscientiously bestow:—in our opinion all her poems are elegant and pure in thought and language: her later poems are of higher promise, they are vigorous, picturesque, and pathetic.


Note

For attribution of authorship of Quarterly Review (October 1820) vol. 24, number 47, article 5, pp. 130-39, click here.

 

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