Glorification of the Lowly in Felicia Hemans' Sonnets "Female Characters of Scripture"

Article excerpt

Felicia Hemans' religious poetry reaches its apex in Scenes and Hymns of Life, with Other Religious Poems (1834), the last book she published during her lifetime. Although rarely studied, (2) this volume's sonnet sequence "Female Characters of Scripture" clarifies contemporary debates concerning Hemans' attitude toward domesticity, revealing her as a spokesperson for the ambivalence she and many of her contemporaries held toward the position of women in society and religion. Uncomfortable with large-scale social change, Hemans uses these sonnets to reveal the price of separate-sphere ideology without completely rejecting its values. She accomplishes this through poetic depictions of biblical women, providing nineteenth-century readers with role models who broadened standard definitions of domestic and spiritual roles. As "poetess of the hearth" or unofficial spokeswoman of the religiously charged domestic sphere, Hemans always showed concern for spiritual themes. However, her treatment of religion defies the assumptions of current scholarship, which often depicts nineteenth-century religion as either compensatory or promoting revolutionary social change, ignoring the vast array of intermediate options. Hemans' approach falls m this middle ground, as she consistently depicts religion as a source of mediated agency. Through these sonnets, Hemans claims the power of biblical women for herself, her writing, and the position of nineteenth-century women.

Scenes and Hymns of Life, with Other Religious Poems

The eponymous first section of Scenes and Hymns of Life remains consonant with Hemans' earlier religious poetry, rarely addressing the biblical text, but focusing instead on religious themes and the spiritual lives of fictionalized characters. The volume's second section, the "other religious poems" of the title, is internally labeled "miscellaneous poems." These poems deviate from Hemans' previous emphasis on domestic affections and include devotional and meditative poems, as well as biblical interpretation. Although poems such as "Belshazzar's Feast" and "The Hebrew, Mother" offered early and influential forays into scriptural interpretation, (3) these poems take liberal poetic license with the biblical accounts and function primarily as extended scriptural allusions. A collection of fifteen sonnets, "Female Characters of Scripture" is Hemans' first sustained treatment of biblical material, functioning as poetic scriptural interpretation.

As the nineteenth century progressed and the German school of higher criticism gained traction in the English-speaking world, scriptural interpretation became an increasingly conflict-ridden field. Due to her familiarity with German literature, Hemans was probably aware of higher criticism, but she was writing before hermeneutic debates were widely disseminated. Therefore, she eschews this emergent approach, maintaining a traditional interpretive style while addressing her social, political, and religious concerns. Approaching the text as authoritative-both sacred and accurate-allowed Hemans to claim authority for herself and her religious poetry, leading to a confidence of tone unparalleled in her canon.

Hemans privately referred to Scenes and Hymns of Life as her "best volume," (4) and the book's preface also reflects authorial pride. Apologetic or defensive prefaces, a standard trope for many nineteenth-century women writers, are noticeably absent in Hemans' writings. While this volume's preface contains elements of the conventional apology, her confident opening tempers the self-effacing tendencies:

   I trust I shall not be accused of presumption for the endeavour
   which I have here made to enlarge, in some degree, the sphere of
   Religious Poetry, by associating with its themes more of the
   emotions, the affections, and even the purer imaginative enjoyments
   of daily life, than may have been hitherto admitted within the
   hallowed circle. …