Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Hemans, Felicia

  • EnglishWelshLiterature (fictional prose/drama)Literature (poetry/verse)
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    Creative writersWomen
  • Title:
    Hemans, Felicia
  • Title2:
    Hemans, Felicia
  • Text:

    A precocious talent, Felicia Dorothea Browne (Liverpool 1791 – Dublin 1835) made her poetical debut in 1808 with a poem in celebration of the Peninsular Campaign (in which her brother saw action), England and Spain, or, Valour and Patriotism. She married in 1820 and would gain literary fame under her married name. Poems on the cultural and political aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat established her reputation: “The Restoration of the works of art to Italy” (on Canova’s mission to Paris to retrieve the Napoleonic war booty from the Louvre and restore it to the Vatican Museum) (1816) and the Philhellenic “Modern Greece” (1817).

    The evocation of Italy and Greece (alongside the Spanish “valour and patriotism” which would remain a constant theme) hinted at a sympathy for the struggling nationalities of Europe under the Metternich restoration; a stance which she shared with the literary circles around Holland House (including Thomas Moore and Lady Morgan). Her name came to be linked to Moore in another way as well: as the Welsh analogue to Moore’s Irish Melodies. (She herself, a Dublin resident in her later years, wrote “Carolan’s prophecy” in the Moore mode and following the Moore/Morgan fashion for idealizing the 18th-century harper/songster Carolan as “last of the Bards”.) In many verses, Hemans sentimentally celebrated Wales, where she had spent much of her childhood and where she returned later in life. Her identification with that principality also owed much to the Scottish local colour of Scott, which she emulated in a few verses (“The dirge of the Highland Chief”, based on an episode in Waverley; “The death of Clanronald”; “Wallace’s invocation  to  Bruce”; “The heart of Bruce in Melrose Abbey”). As these Irish-Scottish prototypes indicate, Wales for Mrs Hemans was a subsidiary element in the national-British palette of an Anglocentric United Kingdom, where her undivided loyalty lay, and which she addressed in now-notorious sentimental evocations (“The stately homes of England”) and militaristic-chauvinistic celebrations (“England’s Dead” and “Casabianca”, with the opening line “The  boy stood on the burning deck”, famous from its long-standing use as a set text for school reading and recitation).

    Notwithstanding her Anglo-British chauvinism, Hemans’s “Welsh songs” (which, much as Moore wrote his Melodies to Bunting’s tunes, she wrote to the tunes of Welsh airs, which were then regularly being printed after the pioneering collections of Edward Jones) showed a deep appreciation of Welsh culture (“To Mr Edwards, the Harper of Conway”) and institutions. She thematized, with reference to Owen Jones’s  Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales and to Edward Jones’s dissertation prefaced to his Relicks of the Welsh Bards, the demise of Welsh bardic culture under English feudal domination and attempts in the early 1820s to revive the eisteddfod (“The meeting of the bards”). Again, this Welsh interest should be placed alongside her interest in European nations and their patriotic traditions, generally – all being grist to her Herderian mill. While, after Wales, her main topics are Greece and Switzerland, her “Lays of many lands” range from north African Moorish culture to pagan Scandinavia and the Crusades. Her Italian interest is shown by her English translation of Manzoni’s history play Il conte di Carmagnola.

    Hemans’s verse often addresses human affects and domestic emotions, which meant that she has predominantly been read in gender terms – a role model for subsequent woman poets, then dismissed by critics, and meeting with fresh appreciation in recent years. Her importance for Romantic Nationalism lies in her exemplary transitional position. She adopted the celebration of Patriot heroes, Goethe/Schiller-style, perpetuated this into the Metternich years, and combined it with the Byronic taste for exotic local colour. Also, her nationalist commitment to an Anglocentric United Kingdom is linked with a sense of solidarity, much against the grain of the Restoration climate of the post-1815 years, with the emerging movements towards national self-determination in various peripheral parts of Europe.

    Word Count: 644

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  • Chorley, Henry Fothergill; Memorials of Mrs. Hemans: With illustrations of her literary character, from her private correspondence (London: Saunders & Otley, 1836).

    Kim, Benjamin; Wordsworth, Hemans, and politics, 1800-1830 : Romantic crises (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2013).

    Trinder, Peter W.; Mrs Hemans (Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1984).

    Wolfson, Susan J. (ed.); Felicia Hemans: Selected poems, letters, reception materials (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000).

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Leerssen, Joep, 2022. "Hemans, Felicia", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 20-04-2022, consulted 27-09-2023.