Felicia Hemans and the Making
‘Few poetic careers can have been more thoroughly
devoted to the
construction of national identity than was that of Felicia
Hemans’s, writes Tricia Lootens, in her contribution to Angela
Leighton’s Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader (1996).
For the majority of Hemans’s twentieth-century readers, there
is no question as to which nation was the object of Hemans’s
constructive patriotism: of course it was that nation eulogised
in such poems as ‘The Homes of England’. There are few more
passionately jingoistic poems in the English language than
Hemans’s ‘The Name of England’, for example:
The trumpet of the battle
Hath a high and thrilling
And the first deep gun of an ocean-fight
Dread music all its own.
But a mightier power, my England!
Is in that name of thine,
To strike the fire from every heart
Along the banner’d line.
* * * *
A thousand ancient mountains
Its pealing note hath stirr’d,—
Sound on, and on, for evermore,
O thou victorious word!
And yet, merely a glance at the contents pages
of a ‘Complete’ Hemans shows that the poet was equally capable
of empathising with the ancient mountains of her own isle
as they ‘stirred’ to the pealing note of an anti-English patriotic
war cry. In poems such as ‘Chant of the Bards before Their
Massacre by Edward I’ and ‘Owen Glyndwr’s War-Song’, the poetic
voice takes up arms on behalf of the Welsh nation, in its
struggles against its thirteenth-century conquerors and its
later rebellions against English rule.
Welsh patriotic verses were published in the 1821 volume Welsh
Melodies, she was hailed by her contemporary Welsh audience
as a ‘poet for Wales’, and made an honorary member of the
Royal Cambrian Institution in acknowledgement of her role
as a popularizer of Welsh national identity. By birth of mixed
Irish, Italian and German ancestry, Hemans appears to have
been gratified by this reception. According to her own testimony
she regarded herself as a naturalised Welsh woman, having
resided in north Wales since 1800, when her father’s failed
business necessitated a family retreat from Liverpool to Abergele
in Denbighshire: Felicia Browne, as she then was, was seven
years old at the time. Cefn yr Ogof Pass, which loomed up
immediately behind the Brownes’ new home, for centuries was
a key battle site between the princes of Gwynedd in their
strongholds in Aberffraw and Dolbadarn to the west and the
invading armies of the Saxon, Norman and Plantagenet kings
of England, coming over Offa’s Dyke to the east. According
to the nineteenth-century Welsh historian Jane Williams, ‘no
spot in the Principality has been more thoroughly saturated
This spot was Hemans’s ‘scene of writing’ from 1800 to 1828,
during which years she composed by far the major part of her
oeuvre. At the time of the Browne family’s arrival in Abergele,
a revival of antiquarian interest in Celtic history, led in
Wales by the recently established societies of the Cymmrodorion
and Gwyneddigion, promoted a local enthusiasm for the old
battle sites and their histories, in which Felicia, as a young
woman, seems to have participated. As some of her verses in
Welsh Melodies are translations from Welsh-language
originals, it would appear that she could also at least read,
if not speak, Welsh.
In 1822, Hemans
composed and delivered in person a poetical address for the
annual Welsh Eisteddfod in which she publicly presented herself
as working within the Welsh bardic tradition. The poem eulogises
the Welsh bards of old as inspired by their historic freedom-fighters:
Well might bold freedom’s
soul pervade the strains
Which startled eagles from their lone domains,
And like a breeze in chainless triumph went
Up through the blue resounding firmament.
Whence came the echoes to those numbers high?
’Twas from the battle-fields of days gone by,
And from the tombs of heroes laid to rest
With their good swords, upon the mountain’s breast.
Nor are their latter-day counterparts, in whose
ranks Hemansthrough her use of the first-person plural
pronounhere firmly includes herself, wanting in Welsh
Land of the bard! our spirit
flies to thee!
To thee our thoughts, our hopes, our hearts belong,
Our dreams are haunted by thy voice of song!
Nor yield our souls one patriot-feeling less
To the green memory of thy loveliness
Than theirs, whose harp-notes peal’d from every height,
In the sun’s face, beneath the eye of light!
But it is not
the Welsh, or even the British, dead who are eulogized in
the poemalso published in 1822which immediately
precedes ‘The Meeting of the Bards’ in nineteenth-century
editions of Hemans’s poetry. In ‘England’s Dead’, while ostensibly
mourning those who fell in Britain’s eighteenth-century imperial
wars and its more recent engagements with Napoleon, Hemans
also by implication glories in the world-wide expansion of
Go stranger! track the deep—
Free, free the white sail spread!
Wave may not foam, nor wild wind sweep,
Where rest not England’s dead. (p. 246)
Poems like ‘England’s Dead’ established Hemans’s
reputation, and accounted for both her immediate and subsequent
extensive popularity during the nineteenth century, not only
in Britain but in its most far-flung colonial settlements.
But the fact that Hemans’s Welsh patriotic poems by no means
gained the same degree of international prominence in later
Victorian culture as did her English nationalist verse is,
of course, in part the consequence of the vast difference
in terms of influence and power between the two nations at
that time, and should not blind her late twentieth-century
readers to the paradoxes in her position. Is it possible to
be the national poet of two nations at once, particularly
given a scenario in which the existence of one of the nations
in question can only be constructed at the cost of deconstructing
the ‘greatness’ of the other? Not insubstantial numbers of
England’s military dead, albeit of an earlier date, rested
beneath Hemans’s own back doorstep in Abergele, but, in the
poems in which she evokes the battles in which they died,
it is to their opponents that she accords her moral appropriation
and patriotic fealty. In this paper, I intend to explore this
apparent contradiction further, not only in relation to Hemans’s
own writings, but also in terms of its significance for the
construction of early nineteenth-century Britishas opposed
to either Welsh or Englishidentity.
patriotic poems belong to one very specific period in her
history and that of Britain: they were composed during the
years immediately following the final defeat of Napoleon at
Waterloo. Although she wrote a few scattered incidental poems
with Welsh settings both before and after the years 1815 to
1822, they are local rather than national poems, expressive
of the warmth of her feelings only for her immediate home
environment and community rather than for Wales as a nation
or for the Welsh as a race. According to Linda Colley, in
her seminal study Britons: Forging a Nation 1707–1837,
the years which immediately succeeded Waterloo constituted
something of a crisis point in terms of British identity.
‘There was,’ Colley says, ‘a profound loss of direction involved
… How was Britishness to be defined now that it could no longer
rely so absolutely on a sense of beleaguered Protestantism
and on regular conflict with the Other in the shape of Catholic
Colley sees Britain as an invented nation, superimposedduring
the century which followed the Act of Union with Scotlandonto
much older English, Scottish and Welsh alignments and loyalties,
and one which was forged above all by war with France; Britons,
she says, defined themselves as Protestants struggling for
survival against the world’s foremost Catholic power. During
the 1790s and early 1800s, British militarism could convincingly
be represented as pre-eminently defensive, as intent on resisting
aggressive French imperialist encroachments on both its own
national liberty and that of its weaker European neighbours:
it was not, after all, until 1805 that Napoleon was finally
forced to abandon his plans to invade Britain. Felicia Browne,
at the age of fourteen, had made her poetic debut with a paean
in praise of Britain as a pre-eminent world freedom-fighter.
In her ‘England and Spain, or Valour and Patriotism’, published
in 1808, Freedom is personified as the local deity of the
British Isles (or rather ‘Isle’):
Immortal Freedom! daughter
of the skies!
To thee shall Britain’s grateful incense rise.
Ne’er, goddess, ne’er forsake thy favourite isle,
Still be thy Albion brighten’d with thy smile!
The desecrator of the goddess Freedom is of
course the ‘Despot of France! destroyer of mankind!’ who in
1808 continued to challenge the forces of Liberty through
his attempts to annex Spain. ‘Wouldst thou yet by added crimes
provoke / The bolt of heaven to launch the fatal stroke?’
the young Felicia asks of Bonaparte?
Bereave a nation of its rights
Of all to mortals sacred and endear’d?
And shall they tamely liberty resign,
The soul of life, the source of bliss divine?
* * * * *
No, tyrant! no! Thy utmost force is vain
The patriot-arm of freedom to restrain.
The poem describes how, as the handmaiden of
the goddess Liberty, the British army under Arthur Wellesley
issued forth to join forces with the guerrilla fighters of
Spain and Portugal and wage the Peninsular Wars against France.
It hails the heroism of Spain’s valiant British rescuers with
a patriotic fervour which was no doubt heightened by the fact
that two of Felicia’s brothers served in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers,
and at least one of them was fighting in Spain at the time
the poem was composed:
Ye sons of Albion! first in
The sword of Britain and of truth to wield! …
The reign of Freedom let your arms restore,
And bid oppression fallto rise no more!
But ‘England and
Spain’ is not a poem which glorifies war as such, as opposed
to necessary wars in defence of Liberty: it closes with an
eulogy to the ‘sweet Peace’ which will return once ‘mad ambition
has ceased to rage’, and Napoleon has finally been taught
his lesson. The ‘demon-breath’ of war will be assuaged when
‘the despot’s dread career is closed, / And might restrain’d
and tyranny deposed!’ (pp. 6 and 9). After 1815, however,
the problem for both Hemans on a personal and familial level,
and for Britain’s image on an international level, was that
although Napoleon’s ‘mad ambition’ duly ended with his final
surrender, neither Britain, nor the Browne brothers, nor the
infantry captain Felicia had married in 1812, did in fact
lay down their arms. On the contrary, the Waterloo period,
and the years immediately following Napoleon’s downfall, saw
Britain annexing territories and conquering kingdoms with
as much avid imperialist greed as the French ‘tyrant’ had
shown at his most despotic. The Ascension Island, British
Guiana, the Ionian Islands, Malta, Mauritius, the Seychelles,
Trinidad, Tristan da Cunha, Tobago, and other territories
ostensibly ‘freed’ from Dutch or French rule during the Napoleonic
wars were annexed to the British Empire in the settlements
of 1814 and 1815. The Cape of Good Hope became a British colony
in 1814; the King of Kandy was deposed and Ceylon taken in
1815; the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal conquered in 1816; Singapore
taken in 1819; Gambia and the Gold Coast placed under the
British Crown in 1821; the Burmese kings conquered in a series
of engagements which began in 1824; and Western Australia,
Queensland and Tasmania established as British territories
in 1824–6. These military engagements, bloody and long-lasting
as many of them were, were not easily construable as fought
in the name of Britain’s, or any other nation’s, freedom.
And yet Felicia, as much as her brothers and husband, had
founded a public career on her role as upholder and popularizer
of Britain’s image as the heroic defender of smaller nations’
liberties against the greed and aggression of more powerful
Apart from the
references in the poem ‘England’s Dead’ to far-flung English
corpses, Felicia Hemans wrote few verses either in praise
or disapprobation of these aggressively imperial British engagements.
And yet during the years 1815 to 1821 she continued to compose
poems with a markedly militaristic theme. But her concern
now was with the history of a very different epoch in which
Britons, albeit of a more Ancient variety, could still plausibly
enough be presented as fighting for freedom. In 1819 she won
a Scottish prize poem competition on the subject of William
Wallace’s invocation to Bruce to take up arms against the
English, and two years later published her volume Welsh
Melodies. That these works not only operated to preserve
the concept of British heroes as freedom fighters but also,
ironically enough at one level, aided in the construction
of a British, as opposed to an English, Scottish or Welsh,
identity, is suggested by one of the reviewers of her ‘Wallace’s
Invocation to Bruce’:
a Scottish prize, for a poem on a subject purely, proudly
Scottish, has been adjudged to an English candidate
demonstrates the disappearance of those jealousies which,
not a hundred years ago, would have denied such a candidate
any thing like a fair chance with a native … We delight in
every gleam of high feeling which warms the two nations alike,
and ripens yet more that confidence and sympathy which bind
them together in one great family.
Binding together the English, Welsh and Scots
in one great fighting family would appear to be part of the
purpose of Hemans’s Scottish and Welsh verses. They frequently
work to suggest that the Welsh and Scots should not forget
their historical fighting prowess, but should resurrect and
exercise it in the interests of present-day Britannia. In
‘The Fair Isle’ from Welsh Melodies, for example, the
native Britons are rallied in defeat after the coming of the
Anglo–Saxons by a bardic voice which prophesies their final
Sons of the Fair Isle! forget
not the time
Ere spoilers had breathed the free air of your clime …
Ages may roll ere your children regain
The land for which heroes have perish’d in vain;
Yet, in the sound of your names shall be power,
Around her still gathering in glory’s full hour.
Strong in the fame of the mighty that sleep,
Your Britain shall sit on the throne of the deep. (p. 152)
In so far as the last line quoted above means
anything at all, it presumably refers to that British naval
supremacy which was the primary cause of Napoleon’s downfall.
The poet, then, speaking as a prophet, appears to be exhorting
Britain’s aboriginal tribes to take an active pride in its
future nineteenth-century imperial triumphs, and to see them
as redeeming their lost honour and liberties. Both the Scots
and the Welsh are pre-eminently interpolated as heroic freedom-fighters
in Hemans’s verse of this period.
device, used by Hemans in both ‘Wallace’s Invocation to Bruce’
and Welsh Melodies, is her frequent reference to those
battles in which Britain’s early freedom fighters successfullyaccording
to Hemansvanquished an earlier southern European imperial
invading army, the Romans this time rather than the French.
That the Romans left Britain because Rome was threatened by
the Goths rather than because they had not entirely subjugated
Britain’s Northern and Western fringes is ignored in these
poems, and Ancient British valour stressed. Wallace after
his defeat mourns that,
Shrouded in Scotland’s blood-stain’d
Low are her mountain-warriors laid;
They fell, on that proud soil whose mould
Was blent with heroes’ dust of old,
And, guarded by the free and brave,
Yielded the Romanbut a grave! (p. 64)
And in Welsh Melodies Caswallon, a king
of the Ancient Britons jeers after the departing Romans, ‘Lords
of earth! to Rome returning, / Tell how Britain combat wages!’
(‘Caswallon’s Triumph’, p. 150)
The Romans, like
the French, constituted an unproblematic ‘Other’ against which
‘Britain’ could readily be represented as united. But the
entry of the Anglo–Saxon into this happy British fighting
family required more delicate negotiation. In the Welsh poems
this negotiation is accomplished through a very particular
use of racial terminology: a splitting of the sign ‘Anglo–Saxon’,
in which Hemans is aided by the fact that the Welsh and Gaelic
terms for the English as a race‘Saeson’ and ‘Sassenach’derive
from the name of the Saxon– rather than the Anglo–Germanic
tribe. For Hemans in these poems it is not a matter of the
Welsh versus the English but of ‘Cambrians’ or ‘Britons’ versus
‘Saxons’ only. In ‘The Dying Bard’s Prophecy’ for example,
a Welsh bard, after Edward I’s final defeat of the last native
Welsh prince in 1282, interpolates the enemy as Saxon, rather
than as Anglo–Norman or English. With his last breath the
‘Saxon, think not all is won.
Dreamer! that numberest with the dead
The burning spirit of the mountain-land!
Think’st thou, because the song hath ceased,
The soul of song is fled?’ (p.
Here the ‘Saxon’ features as a brute materialist,
unmindful of the power of poetry and the resistant spirit
of the freedom fighter mystically united with his land, but
the ‘Angles’ are not necessarily implicated in his disgrace.
Even as late as 1400 to 1415, during the period of Owain Glyndwr’s
ill-fated rebellion, the Cambrians are still only fighting
the Saxons in Hemans’s poetry, although by then it would appear
a gross historical inaccuracy to designate their enemy as
anything other than English. ‘A sound is on the breeze,’ says
the doomed but still resistant Owain, ‘A murmur as of swelling
seas! / The Saxon on his way!’ (p. 149). In the interest of
constructing the image of the Britons as a united family of
liberty-lovers, Hemans appears ready to sacrifice that lower-ranking,
and not even Christian, churl, the Saxon, but ‘the name of
England’ must not be defiled.
Nor did the historical
heroes of Catholic Ireland find inclusion in Hemans’s Great
British fighting family. Irish freedom fighters are not registered
in her roll-call of the great, which with hindsight was just
as well, given that, after she finally left Wales in 1828,
Hemans was to spend her last years in the Dublin residence
of her brother Lieutenant-Colonel George Browne, the then
British Commissioner of Police in Ireland. As her brother
was tasked with the repression and policing of any incipient
contemporary uprisings against the British Crown in Ireland,
it would have been curious, to say the least, had family loyalties
compelled him to welcome to his home one who had espoused
in her verse the cause of those rebels’ predecessors. But
Hemans’s ‘Fair Isle’ is always singular, a Britannia without
Ireland, and a Britannia which, moreover, after 1821, with
British unity and its global supremacy apparently secularly
established, she reverts to calling simply ‘England’.
Hemans, ‘The Name of England’, Poems of Felicia Hemans
(Edinburgh and London: Blackwood, 1852), p. 567. All subsequent
references to Hemans’ poetry are taken from this edition.
Williams, The Literary Women of England (London: Saunders,
Otley, and Co, 1861), p. 393.
‘The Meeting of the Bards’, Poems, pp. 246–7; the italicised
last line is a translated quotation from the Welsh Eisteddfod
prayer‘Yng ngwyneb haul ac yn llygaid goleuni’.
Colley, Britons: Forging a Nation 1707–1837 (New Haven
and London: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 322.
Monthly Review 2 (1819), on Felicia Hemans’ prize-winning
poem ‘Wallace’s Invocation to Bruce’.
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF WORKS
IN THE CORVEY MICROFICHE
Tales, and Historic Scenes, in Verse. By Felicia Hemans.
(London: John Murray, 1819). 116p.
Corvey (CME 3-628-54233-2).
The Sceptic: A Poem, by Mrs. Hemans. (London: John
Murray, 1820). 38p.
Corvey (CME 3-628-54400-9).
Stanzas to the Memory of the Late King. By
Mrs. Hemans. (London: John Murray, 1820). 16p.
Corvey (CME 3-628-54173-5).
The Siege of Valencia: A Dramatic Poem. The Last Constantine.
With Other Poems. By Mrs. Hemans. (London: John Murray,
1823). iv, 319p.
Corvey (CME 3-628-54746-6).
The Vespers of Palermo: A Tragedy, in Five
Acts. (London: John Murray, 1823). 116p.
Corvey (CME 3-628-53891-2).
Records of Woman: With Other Poems, by Felicia Hemans.
(Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1828). viii, 320p.
Corvey (CME 3-628-54236-7).
The Sister’s Budget: A Collection of Original Tales
in Prose and Verse; in Two Volumes. By the Authors of “The
Odd Volume,” &c. With Contributions from Mrs. Hemans
… (London: Whittaker, Treacher, 1831). 2 vols.
Corvey (CME 3-628-54798-9).
This article is copyright © 2000 Centre
for Editorial and Intertextual Research, and is the result
of the independent labour of the scholar or scholars credited
with authorship. The material contained in this
document may be freely distributed, as long as the origin
of information used has been properly credited in the appropriate
manner (e.g. through bibliographic citation, etc.).
TO THIS ARTICLE
J. AARON. ‘ “Saxon, Think not All Is
Won”: Felicia Hemans and the Making of the Britons’, Cardiff
Corvey: Reading the Romantic Text 4 (May 2000). Online:
Internet (date accessed): <http://www.cf.ac.uk/corvey/articles/cc04_n01.html>.
This article is a revised version
of a paper originally presented at the ‘Scenes of Writing,
1750–1850’ conference, held 20–23 July 1998, in Gregynog Hall,
Jane Aaron was recently appointed Professor
of English Literature at the University of Glamorgan, after
having been Senior Lecturer at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Her research interests include the intersections between Anglo-Welsh
literature and the Romantic era. Publications include A
View across the Valley: Short Stories by Women from Wales
c.1850-1950 (Honno, 1998), Our Sisters Land:
The Changing Identities of Women in Wales (University
of Wales Press, 1994), and A Double Singleness: Gender
and the Writings of Charles and Mary Lamb (Clarendon,
31 December, 2001
This document is maintained by Anthony Mandal (Mandal@cf.ac.uk).