Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Hemans' Passion

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Hemans' Passion

Article excerpt

SENTIMENTAL SHE MAY HAVE BEEN, BUT FELICIA HEMANS' VICTORIAN CRITICS seemed most struck, and most impressed, by her consistent lack of passion. "She is no sibyl, tossed to and fro in the tempest of furious excitement," writes George Gilfillan in 1849, "but ever a 'deep, majestical, and high-souled woman'--the calm mistress of the highest and stormiest of her emotions." (1) William Michael Rossetti draws attention in 1878 to Hemans' keen sense of restraint, her "[a]ptitude and delicacy in versification, and a harmonious balance in the treatment of [her] subject." (2) And in his 1848 Female Poets of Great Britain, Frederic Rowton offers much the same:

   Diction, manner, sentiment, passion, and belief are in her as
   delicately rounded off as are the bones and muscles of the Medicean
   Venus. There is not a harsh or angular line in her whole mental
   contour. I do not know a violent, spasmodic, or contorted idea in
   all her writings; but every page is full of grace, harmony, and
   expressive glowing beauty. (3)

Hemans' contemporaries similarly noted the poet's reserve, as in Francis Jeffrey's important review of 1829:

   It is singularly sweet, elegant, and tender--touching, perhaps, and
   contemplative, rather than vehement and overpowering; and not only
   finished throughout with an exquisite delicacy, and even severity of
   execution, but informed with a purity and loftiness of feeling, and
   a certain sober and humble tone of indulgence and piety, which must
   satisfy all judgments, and allay the apprehensions of those who are
   most afraid of the passionate exaggerations of poetry. (4)

Not passion, then, but delicate versification; not "spasmodic" in style, but harmonious. Much important recent criticism has focused on what seems to be Hemans' gushing overflow of powerful feeling. (5) Less has been said about the peculiar tendency of Victorian and late-Romantic critics to praise Hemans specifically not for overflowing with powerful feeling. Along with Arthur Symons, nineteenth-century readers seem to have valued Hemans' "idealisation of the feelings" precisely insofar as it escapes "the grip of a strong thought or vital passion." (6)

We will consider shortly the specific mechanisms Hemans employs to restrain the passion of her verses. I want to suggest first, however, that in so restraining passion, Hemans participates in a movement gaining strength through the 1820s, an early manifestation of the confrontation Richard Hengist Horne elaborates in his 1844 New Spirit of the Age, the "poetical antagonisms" between reason and passion. (7) Hemans' formal and thematic restraint aligns her with conservative cultural critics of her time such as Thomas Love Peacock, who in 1820 disparages "the rant of unregulated passion, the whine of exaggerated feeling, and the cant of factitious sentiment." (8) Invectives inspired by the passionate works of Byron, Scott, and those who tried to imitate them swelled into broad cultural critiques demanding restraint. John Keble lays out one of the more influential of these arguments in 1827, gesturing to what would become the Tractarian doctrine of reserve and calling for "a sober standard of feeling." Keble warns of the "excitement" in modern poetry "sought after with a morbid eagerhess." (9) He later dilates on this view in his "Inaugural Oration" of 1832, the first of Keble's lectures as Professor of Poetry at Oxford: "the glorious art of Poetry [is] a kind of medicine divinely bestowed upon man: which gives healing relief to secret mental emotion, yet without detriment to modest reserve: and, while giving scope to enthusiasm, yet rules it with order and due control." That Keble delivered this lecture in the year of the great reform is by no means coincidental; Keble's anxiety regarding the fallout from political change translates into a theory of poetry resonant with the concerns of his conservative peers: "the functions of noble poetry and good citizenship," Keble affirms, are "closely intertwined. …

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