Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Memorials of Mrs. Hemans,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. IX: Literary Criticism - part 02 (1902), 9:195-204


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[Southern Literary Messenger, October, 1836.]

MR. CHORLEY is well known to American readers as a contributor to the chief of the London Annuals, and still better as the author of the stirring volumes entitled “Conti, the Discarded, with Other Tales and Fancies.” We have long regarded him as one of the most brilliant among the literary stars of England, as a writer of great natural and cultivated taste, and of a refined yet vigorous and lofty imagination. As a musical connoisseur, or rather as profoundly versed in the only true philosophy of the science, he may be considered as unrivalled. There are, moreover, few persons now living upon whose appreciation of a poetical character we would look with a higher respect, and we had consequently promised ourselves no ordinary gratification in his “Memorials of Mrs. Hemans.” Nor have we been disappointed.

About fourteen months ago Mr. Chorley collected and published in the London Athenaeum some deeply interesting reminiscences of Mrs. H. of which the volumes now before us are an extension. A variety of materials, afforded him by friends, has enabled him to continue his notices beyond the period of his own personal acquaintance, and, by linking correspondence and anecdote, to trace out, with great facility and beauty, the entire progress of the mind of the poetess. He has exclusively confined himself, however, to this one object, [page 196:] and refrained from touching upon such occurrences in her private life as were not actually necessary in the illustrations of her mental and literary existence. The “Memorials” therefore, it is right to state, lay no claim to the entire fulness of Biography. The following brief personal notice is to be found in the opening pages:

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It must not be supposed from what we say that Mr. Chorley has given us nothing of personal history. The volumes abound delightfully in such anecdotes of the poetess as go to illustrate her literary peculiarities and career. These indeed form the staple of the book, and, in the truly exquisite narration of Mr. Chorley, are moulded into something far more impressive than we can imagine any legitimate biography. We cannot refrain from turning over one by one the pages as we write, and presenting our readers with some mere outlines of the many reminiscences which the author has so beautifully filled up. We shall intersperse them with some of Mr. C's. observations, and occasionally with our own.

The “stately names of her maternal ancestors” seem to have made an early and strong impression upon the poetess, tinging her mind at once with the spirit of romance. To this fact she would often allude half playfully, half proudly. She was accustomed to say that although the years of childhood are usually happy, her own were too visionary not to form an exception. At the epoch of her death she was meditating a work to be called “Recollections of a Poet's Childhood.” — When a child she was exceedingly beautiful: so much so as to attract universal attention. Her complexion was brilliant, her hair long and curling, and of [page 197:] a bright golden color. In her latter years it deepened into brown, but remained silken, profuse, and wavy to the last. — A lady once remarked in her hearing, “That child is not made for happiness I know; her color comes and goes too fast.” This remark our poetess never forgot, and she spoke of it as causing her much pain at the moment. — She took great delight, when young, in reciting aloud poems and fragments of plays. “Douglas” was an especial favorite. The scene of her rehearsals was generally an old, large, and dimly-lighted room, an old nursery, looking upon the sea. Her memory is said to have been almost supernatural. — When she was little more than five years old, her father removed his family from Liverpool to North Wales. This circumstance had great influence upon her imagination. The mansion removed to was old, solitary, and spacious, lying close to the sea shore, and shut in, in front, by a chain of rocky hills. In her last illness she frequently alluded to the atmosphere of romance which invested her here. The house bore the reputation of being haunted. On one occasion, having heard a rumor concerning a “fiery grey hound which kept watch at the end of an avenue,” she sallied forth at midnight anxious to encounter the goblin. Speaking of this period, she observed, that could she have been then able to foresee the height of reputation to which she subsequently attained, she would have experienced a far higher happiness than the reality ever occasioned. Few in similar circumstances but have thought thus without expressing it. — She was early a reader of Shakspeare, and was soon possessed with a desire of personifying his creations. Imogen and Beatrice were her favorites, neither of which characters, Mr. Chorley remarks, is “without strong points of [page 198:] resemblance to herself.” — A freak usual with her was to arise at night, when the whole family were asleep, and making her way to the sea shore, to indulge in a stolen bath. — She was never at school. “Had she been sent to one,” observes Mr. Chorley, “she would more probably have run away.” The only things she was ever regularly taught were English Grammar, French, and the rudiments of Latin. Her Latin teacher used to deplore “that she was not a man to have borne away the highest honors at college.” — Her attention was first attracted to the literature and chivalry of Spain by the circumstance of a near relation being engaged in the Peninsular war. She shrunk with more than ordinary feminine timidity from bodily pain, refusing even to have her ears pierced for rings, and yet delighted in records of martial glory. One of her favorite ornaments was the Cross of the Legion of Honor, taken on some Spanish battle-field. Campbell's Odes were her delight; the lines, especially,

Now joy, old England! rise

In the triumph of thy might!

Yet she had little taste for mere pageantry. — An unkind review to which her earliest poems gave occasion so preyed upon her mind as to confine her for several days to bed. — During the latter part of her life a gentleman called upon her and thanked her with great earnestness for the serious benefit he had derived from “the Sceptic,” which he stated to have been instrumental in rescuing him from gross infidelity. — The first noted literary character with whom she became intimately acquainted, was Bishop Heber, to whom she was introduced in her twenty-fifth year. She confided [page 199:] her literary plans to him, and always spoke of him with affection. It was at his instigation she first attempted dramatic composition. He was her adviser in the “Vespers of Palermo.” This play was brought forward at Covent Garden in December 1823, the principal characters being taken by Young, Charles Kemble, Yates, Mrs. Bartley, and Miss Kelly. It was not well received, but the authoress bore her disappointment cheerfully. The drama was afterwards produced with much greater success in Edinburgh. Sir Walter Scott wrote an epilogue for it, and from this circumstance arose the subsequent acquaintance between the “Great Unknown” and Mrs. H——. Of Kean, she said that “seeing him act was like reading Shakspeare by flashes of lightning.” — She possessed a fine feeling for music as well as for drawing. — Of the “Trials of Margaret Lindsay” she thus expresses a just critical opinion: “The book is certainly full of deep feeling and beautiful language, but there are many passages which, I think, would have been better omitted; and although I can bear as much fictitious woe as other people, I really began to feel it an infliction at last.” — She compliments Captain Basil Hall's “temperate style of writing.” — Speaking of the short descriptive recitative which so frequently introduces a lyrical burst of feeling in the minor pieces of our poetess, Mr. Chorley observes: “This form of composition became so especially popular in America, that hardly a poet has arisen since the influence of Mrs. Hemans’ genius made itself felt on the other side of the Atlantic, who has not attempted something of a similar subject and construction.” — Among the last strangers who visited her in her illness, were a Jewish gentleman and lady, who entreated admittance [page 200:] to “the author of the Hebrew Mother.” — “There shall be no more snow,” in the “Tyrolese Evening Hymn,” seems to have been suggested by Schiller's lines in the “Nadowessiche Todtenklage:[[”]]

Wohl ihm! er ist hingegangen

Wo kein schnee mehr ist! —

The “Lays of Many Lands,” which appeared chiefly in the New Monthly Magazine, were suggested, as she herself owned, by Herder's “Stimmen der Völker in Liedern.” She spoke of the German language as “rich and affectionate, in which I take much delight.” — She considered “The Forest Sanctuary” as the best of her works: the subject as [[was]] suggested by a passage in one of the letters of Don Leucadio Doblado, and the poem was written for the most part in — a laundry. These verses are pointed out by Chorley as beautiful, which assuredly they are.

And if she mingled with the festive train

It was but as some melancholy star

Beholds the dance of shepherds on the plain,

In its bright stillness present though afar.

He praises also with great justice the entire episode of “Queen-like Teresa — radient Inez!” — She was so much excited by the composition of “Mozart's Requiem,” that her physician forbade her to write for weeks afterwards. — She regarded Professor Norton, who undertook the publication of her works (or rather its superintendence) in this country, as one of her firmest friends. A packet with a letter from this gentleman to the poetess containing offers of service, and a self-introduction was lost upon [page 201:] the Ulverstone sands. They were afterwards discovered drying at an inn fire, and forwarded to their address. With Dr. Channing she frequently corresponded. An offer of a certain and liberal income was made her in the hope of tempting her to take up her residence in Boston and conduct a periodical. — Mr. Chorley draws a fine distinction between Mrs. Hemans and Miss Jewsbury. “The former,” he says, “came through Thought to Poetry, the latter through Poetry to Thought.” He cites a passage in the “Three Histories” of Miss Jewsbury, as descriptive of the personal appearance of Mrs. H. at the period of his first acquaintance with her. It is the portrait of Egeria, and will be remembered by most of our readers. It ends thus: “She was a muse, a grace, a variable child, a dependent woman — the Italy of human beings.” — Retzsch and Flaxman were Mrs. H.'s favorites among modern artists. She was especially pleased with the group in the Outlines to Hamlet — of Laertes and Hamlet struggling over the corpse of Ophelia. — In 1828 she finally established herself at Wavertree. “Her house here,” says our author, “was too small to deserve the name; the third of a cluster or row close to a dusty road, and yet too townish in its appearance and situation to be called a cottage. It was set in a small court, and within doors was gloomy and comfortless, for its two parlors (one with a tiny book-room opening from it) were hardly larger than closets; but with her harp and her books, and the flowers with which she loved to fill her little rooms, they presently assumed a habitable, almost an elegant appearance.” — Some odd examples are given of the ridiculous and hyperbolical compliments paid the poetess, e. g. “I have heard her requested to read aloud that ‘the visitor might [page 202:] carry away an impression of the sweetness of her tones.’ ” “I have been present when another eccentric guest, upon her characterizing some favorite poem as happily as was her wont, clapped her hands as at a theatre, and exclaimed, ‘O Mrs. Hemans! do say that again, that I may put it down and remember it.’ ” — Among Spanish authors Mrs. H. admired Herrera, and Luis Ponce de Leon. The lyrics in Gil Polo's Diana were favorites with her. Bürger's Lenore [[Leonore]] (concerning which and Sir Walter Scott see an anecdote in our notice, this month, of Schloss Hainfeld) she was never tired of hearing, “for the sake of its wonderful rhythm and energy.” In the power of producing awe, however, she gave the preference to the Auncient Mariner. She liked the writings of Novalis and Tieck. Possibly she did not love Goethe so well as Schiller. She delighted in Herder's translation of the Cid Romances, and took pleasure in some of the poems of A. W. Schlegeh. Grillparzer and Oehlenschläger were favorites among the minor German tragedians. Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind” pleased her. In her copy of Corinne the following passage was underscored, and the words “C’est moi!” written in the margin. “De toutes mes facultés la plus puissante est la faculté de souffrir. Je suis née pour le bonheur. Mon caractère est confiant, mon imagination est ammée; mais la peine excite en moi je ne sais quelle impètuosité qui peut troubler ma raison, ou me donner de la mort. Je vous le répète encore, menagez-moi; la gaité, la mobililé ne me servent qu’en apparence: mais il y a dans mon âme des abymes de tristesse dont Je ne pouvais me défendre qu’en me préservant de l’amour.” — In the summer of 1829 Mrs. H. visited Scotland, and became acquainted with Sir [page 203:] Walter Scott. One anecdote told by her of the novelist is highly piquant and characteristic of both. “Well — we had reached a rustic seat in the wood, and were to rest there — but I, out of pure perverseness, chose to establish myself comfortably on a grass bank.’Would it not be more prudent for you, Mrs. Hemans,’ said Sir Walter, ‘to take the seat?’ ‘I have no doubt that it would, Sir Walter, but, somehow or other, I always prefer the grass.’ ‘And so do I,’ replied the dear old gentleman, coming to sit there beside me, ‘and I really believe that I do it chiefly out of a wicked wilfulness, because all my good advisers say is will give me the rheumatism.’ ” — Speaking of Martin's picture of Nineveh Mrs. H. says: “It seems to me that something more of gloomy grandeur might have been thrown about the funeral pyre; that it should have looked more like a thing apart, almost suggesting of itself the idea of an awful sacrifice.” She agrees with Wordsworth, that Burns’ “Scots wha hae wi Wallace bled” is “wretched stuff.” She justly despised all allegorical personifications. Among the books which she chiefly admired in her later days, are the Discourses of Bishop Hall, Bishop Leighton, and Jeremy Taylor; the “Natural History of Enthusiasm;” Mrs. Austin's Translations and Criticisms; Mrs. Jameson's “Characteristics of Women;” Bulwer's “Last Days of Pompeii;” Miss Edgeworth's “Helen,” and Miss Milford's Sketches. The Scriptures were her daily study — Wordsworth was then her favorite poet. Of Miss Kemble's “Francis” she thus speaks. “Have you not been disappointed in Miss Kemble's tragedy? To me there seems a coarseness of idea and expression in many parts, which from a woman is absolutely startling. I can scarcely think it has sustaining [page 204:] power to bear itself up at its present height of popularity.”

We take from Volume I, the following passage in regard to Schiller's “Don Carlos,” a comparison of which drama with the “Filippo” of Alfieri, will be found in this number of the Messenger. The words we copy are those of Mrs. Hemans.

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In perusing these volumes the reader will not fail to be struck with the evidence they contain of a more than ordinary joyousness of temperament in Mrs. Hemans. He will be astonished also in finding himself able to say that he has at length seen a book, dealing much in strictly personal memoirs, wherein no shadow of vanity or affectation could be discerned in either the Memorialist or his subject. In concluding this notice we must not forget to impress upon our friends that we have been speaking altogether of the work issued by Saunders and Otley, publishers of the highest respectability, who have come among us as strangers, and who, as such, have an undeniable claim upon our courtesy. Their edition is embellished with two fine engravings, one of the poetess's favorite residence in Wales, the other of the poetess herself. We shall beg our friends also to remember that this edition, and this exclusively, is printed for the benefit of the children of Mrs. Hemans. To Southerners, at least, we feel that nothing farther need be said.





[S:1 - JAH09, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Memorials of Mrs. Hemans )