Felicia Hemans

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Felicia Hemans
Felicia Hemans

Felicia Hemans (September 25, 1793 - 1835), was a British poet.

She was born Felicia Dorothea Browne in Liverpool, a granddaughter of the Venetian consul in that city. Her father's business soon brought the family to Denbighshire in North Wales, where she spent her youth. They made their home near Abergele and St. Asaph (Flintshire), and it is clear that she came to regard herself as Welsh by adoption, later referring to Wales as "Land of my childhood, my home and my dead". Her first poems, dedicated to the Prince of Wales, were published in Liverpool in 1808, when she was only fifteen, arousing the interest of no less a person than Percy Bysshe Shelley, who briefly corresponded with her. She quickly followed them up with "England and Spain" [1808] and "The domestic affections", published in 1812, the year of her marriage to Captain Alfred Hemans, an Irish army officer some years older than herself. The marriage took her away from Wales, to Daventry in Northamptonshire until 1814.

During their first six years of marriage Felicia gave birth to five sons, and then the couple separated. Marriage had not, however, prevented her from continuing her literary career, with several volumes of poetry being published by the respected firm of John Murray in the period after 1816, beginning with "The Restoration of the works of art to Italy" (1816) and "Modern Greece" (1817). "Tales and historic scenes" was the collection which came out in 1819, the year of their separation.

Mr Hemans went to Italy, and Felicia remained in Wales at St. Asaph, in the house called Bronwylfa where she had grown up. It was here that she had composed an elegy to Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, daughter and sole heir of the Prince of Wales, who had died in childbirth in 1817. When the Prince eventually became King George IV, she wrote a poem in memory of his late father, George III. Written alongside her eldest brother's military and diplomatic career under Tory politicians, these poems yet speak for women's interests; and Hemans's extensive use of historical, European, and global settings reflected the Whig leanings of such fellow writers and influences as Byron, the Shelleys, and Madame de Staël and her circle. The proprieties of the English marketplace allowed readers to turn their gaze from Hemans's many renderings of historical duplicity and atrocity, a number involving maternity and religion or race (Suliote mothers in Albania, a Muslim child and mother in India, an American Indian woman and her child).

Hemans was prolific in the years that followed her husband's departure, producing plays as well as poetry. In 1819, she won a competition for a poem on a Scottish historical theme, out of a huge number of entries. This gained her the appreciation of the Scottish public. Her play, "The Vespers of Palermo", its heroine miscast and its ending rewriten, failed at Covent Garden in 1823 but was performed more successfully at Edinburgh in 1824, at the instigation of Joanna Baillie and Sir Walter Scott, literary friends of hers. Her intellectual associations included the American Unitarians William Ellery Channing and Andrews Norton, the latter publishing her work in America and inviting her to edit a magazine in Boston. From 1823, she wrote regularly for the "New Monthly Magazine," then "Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine" and the verse annuals that entered the market in the mid-1820s.

Another collection of poems, Welsh Melodies, included translations of Welsh poems, evidence that Felicia Hemans had a certain amount of knowledge of the language. The poems were really intended as song lyrics, and dealt with historical subjects and folklore. "The meeting of the bards" was written for the London Eisteddfod of 1822, at which some of her songs were also performed. In 1825, her brother, in whose house she was living, got married, causing her to move with her children to Rhyllon, another house only a short distance away. Two years later, however, following the death of her mother, she left Wales for good, moving first to the outskirts of Liverpool, where she joined an active cultural circle involving the Roscoes, the Chorleys, and other cosmopolitan contacts, and later visiting Scott at Abbotsford and Edinburgh, where William Blackwood published most of her later books, and the Lake District, where she stayed with Wordsworth at Rydal Mount.

From 1831 onwards, she lived in Dublin, where her younger brother had settled, and her poetic output continued. Her major collections, including The Forest Sanctuary (1825), Records of Woman and Songs of the Affections (1830) were immensely popular, especially with female readers. Her last books, sacred and profane, are the substantive Scenes and Hymns of Life and National Lyrics, and Songs for Music. She was by now a well-known literary figure, highly regarded by contemporaries such as Wordsworth, and with a popular following in the United States and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. When she died of dropsy, Wordsworth and Walter Savage Landor composed memorial verses in her honour.

Felicia Hemans' works appeared in nineteen individual books during her lifetime. After her death in 1835 they were republished widely, usually as collections of individual lyrics and not the longer, annotated works and integrated series that made up her books. For surviving women poets, like Britons Caroline Norton and Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Americans Lydia Sigourney and Frances Harper, the French Anable Tastu and German Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, and others, she was a valued model, or (for Elizabeth Barrett Browning) a troubling predecessor; and for male poets including Tennyson and Longfellow, an influence less acknowledged. To many readers she offered a woman's voice confiding a woman's trials; to others a lyricism apparently consonant with Victorian chauvinism and sentimentality. Among the works she valued most were the unfinished "Superstition and Revelation" and the pamphlet "The Sceptic," which sought an Anglicanism more attuned to world religions and women's experiences. In her most successful book, "Records of Woman" (1828), she chronicles the lives of women, both famous and anonymous.

Despite her illustrious admirers, if in keeping with her success on the popular marketplace, her stature as a serious poet gradually declined. A jocular reference by Saki in The Toys of Peace suggests simultaneously that she was a household word and that Saki did not take her seriously. Schoolchildren in the U. S. were still being taught The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England ("The breaking waves dashed high/On a stern and rock-bound coast...") in the middle of the 20th century. But by the 21st century, The Stately Homes of England refers to Noel Coward's parody, not to the once-famous poem it parodied, and Felicia Hemans is now remembered popularly for her poem, "Casabianca", and in fact for one line only:

"The boy stood on the burning deck".

However, Hemans has resumed a role in standard anthologies and in classrooms and seminars and literary studies, especially in the U. S. It is likely that further poems will be familiar to new readers, such as "The Image in Lava," "Evening Prayer at a Girls' School," "I Dream of All Things Free," "Night-Blowing Flowers," "Properzia Rossi," "A Spirit's Return," "The Bride of the Greek Isle," "The Wife of Asdrubal," "The Widow of Crescentius," "The Last Song of Sappho," and "Corinne at the Capitol."

For more information, see references: "Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature," 3rd ed., 4: 351-60 (2000); "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography," 26: 274-77 (2004); editions: "Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials," ed. Susan J. Wolfson (2000); "Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Prose, and Letters," ed. Gary Kelly (2002); studies: Emma Mason, "Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century" (2006); "Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century," ed. Nanora Sweet & Julie Melnyk (2001); Paula Feldman, "The Poet and the Profits: Felicia Hemans and the Literary Marketplace," "Keats-Shelley Journal" 46 (1996): 148-76; Peter W. Trinder, "Mrs Hemans," U Wales Press (1984); and their bibliographies.

  • Felicia Hemans at A Celebration of Women Writers
  • [1] Her life in Liverpool and how she is forgotten in her home city.
  • Complete scanned text of the first edition of Modern Greece (1817).
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