The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.
That first line, that memorable first line...I've read it before, more than once. But I never knew the author, and I never bothered to find out.
Well, the poem is 'Casabianca' and its author was Felicia Hemans, one of the foremost poets of the Regency era, and one of whom most of you have probably never heard. She was as famous in her day as Shelley, Keats and Coleridge. She was a personal friend of Wordsworth and Walter Scott. Byron was alternately a fan and a detractor. Her poem 'Modern Greece' he disliked; 'Restoration' he admired.
Felicia Browne began to write poetry at the age of eight. Her family was of the merchant class, and at least two of the seven children were extraordinarily gifted. Felicia was reading Shakespeare at six, and spoke five languages by her teens. She may have had a photographic memory as her feats of recitation were, apparently, astonishing.
Felicia was already the author of three books when she married Alfred Hemans at age nineteen. He seemed a dashing soldier but he was soon on half-pay, and they were a couple with four little boys, living with her mother. He abandoned her in 1818 leaving her with five sons from their six years of marriage.
Of necessity both artistic and financial, Felicia wrote and wrote and wrote. Time alone to work was hard to find and she said:
"I have been pursued by the household troops through every room successively, and begin to think of establishing my metier in the cellar."
Felicia Hemans was as successful as her male counterparts of the time. Their names are virtually household words; hers is not. It may be because dismissive comments like the following from the Edinburgh Review of 1830, written in a discussion of Mrs. Hemans' work:
"...they [women] are also incapable of long moral or political investigation, where many complex and indeterminate elements are to be taken in account..."
"Their proper and natural business is the practical regulation of private life, in all its bearings, affections, and concerns..."
One of the statements of the article's author explains why the female poets of the 19th century are over-looked and the male are honoured:
"We think the poetry of Mrs. Hemans a fine exemplification of Female Poetry,..."
Dismissed and patronized...
Some of Felicia Hemans' poetry is not to the modern taste. But then some of Lord Byron's is not either. However, her facility with words, her skill with imagery, and her emotional depth cannot be doubted.
But like a lute's brief tone,Like a rose-odour on the breezes cast,Like a swift flush of dayspring, seen and gone,So hath my spirit pass'd!The Dying Improvisatore
By sounding ocean- wavesAnd dim Calabrian cavesAnd flashing torrents, I have been your mate;And with the rocking pinesOf the olden Appenines,In your dark path stood fearless and elate.The Storm-Painter in his Dungeon
Nature hath mines of such wealth--and thouNever wilt prize its delights as now!For a day is coming to quell the toneThat rings in thy laughter, thou joyous one!And to dim thy brow with a touch of care.The Child and Flowers
This last poem was deeply political, a discussion of the ideal of the simple, natural life of a child and its reality, an often grim, working life of hardship. The meaning was often missed, especially when Thomas Lawrence's beautiful painting was used to illustrate the poem.
Felicia Hemans had a premonition that "my poetry, except some half-dozen pieces, may be consigned to oblivion". Certainly the male literary historians of the past two centires, wielding the devices of criticism and disparagement, have attempted to marginalize female poets and their work. I discussed this nearly two years ago in another blog post.
But the work of Felicia Hemans, and her sister-poets, lives on and deserves our consideration. We owe them a reading, at the very least...
Next week, author and artist Kat Aubrey will be visiting to discuss her work in cover design (The Earl's Peculiar Burden), and the artistic process.
'Til next time,
Sources: A simple Google search on the name Felicia Hemans will bring up all manner of biography, and access to complete volumes of Hemans' work.