From the death of Byron until the publication of In Memoriam – for a period, that is, of more than twenty-five years – Felicia Hemans was the most successful poet in Britain. In 1829, reviewing The Forest Sanctuary and Records of Woman, Francis Jeffrey offered an elegiac survey of the literary landscape:
The tuneful quartos of Southey are already little better than lumber: – and the rich melodies of Keats and Shelley, – and the fantastical emphasis of Wordsworth, – and the plebeian pathos of Crabbe, are melting fast from the fields of our vision. The novels of Scott have put out his poetry. Even the splendid strains of Moore are fading into distance and dimness, except where they have been married to immortal music; and the blazing star of Byron himself is receding from its place of pride. 1
His implication is clear. The figure who has trampled out the bright stars of Romanticism is Felicia Hemans. In the years from 1825 when she published The Forest Sanctuary and Lays of Many Lands until her death in 1835, Hemans effected a more radical reconformation of English poetry than had been contrived by any woman poet before her, or has been since.
This is a fact so embarrassing that, until 1989, when it was pointed out by Marlon Ross, 2 it was passed over in almost complete silence by academic literary historians. Since then, a formidable group of critics, amongst them Anne Mellor, Stuart Curran, Angela Leighton, Isobel Armstrong, and Susan Wolfson, have recognized Hemans's importance,