A poet of tender heart
HERE is a woman with tender care for her children and home life and wide affections, reaching to many lands with an understanding heart. Born in Liverpool (England) in 1793, Felicia Dorothea Browne was the fifth of the seven children of George Browne and his wife, who was of Italian (Tuscan) descent. Mr. Browne retired to Wales (Gwyrych, near Abergele) when Felicia was seven years of age. Thus the children grew up in the wildest seclusion and amid great natural beauty, near the sea and surrounded by the Welsh mountains.
Felicia was a lovely child, with early talent, and very much self-taught. English and French grammar were her only regular instruction, and the rudiments of Latin, but she read books of chronicles and romance and every kind of poetry. She was fond of music and played the harp and piano.
Felicia's first published poems appeared when she was 15. They showed a love for home which she retained wherever she resided. With this early start, Felicia became popularly known and liked even in her day.
A year later the young poet became acquainted with her future husband, Captain Hemans (pronounced like ``heavens''), who was an Irish officer. A mutual affection followed and they became engaged, but as he was obliged to rejoin his regiment in Spain, the marriage was deferred for three years (1812).
During their engagement, Felicia studied languages and wrote her poem entitled, ``The Domestic Affections.''
Captain and Mrs. Hemans made their home in Northamptonshire (England), where their five sons were born. Despite this little brood, Mrs. Hemans continued writing poetry and even gained a prize (in 1819). This was for the best poem on the historic meeting of the Scottish patriots, Sir William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. By this period, Felicia Hemans was acknowledged as a promising member of the Guild of Literature.
This literary success was followed, however, by domestic inquietude; for her husband left her, on the plea of his health requiring his residence in the south of Europe. Captain Hemans never returned to his wife.
But far from seeking sympathy, Felicia let a veil of love and forgiveness fall on this desertion. It is said that Felicia Hemans was a woman ``of true but not demonstrative Christianity. The self-righteousness of the Pharisee would have been abhorrent to her.'' Happily, Mrs. Hemans' mother was to be her supporting shelter through her trying years and was much beloved by her family.
At one time a stranger sought an interview with Felicia Hemans, and it gave the poet much delight to learn that her poem, ``The Sceptic,'' had been the means of converting her interviewer to Christianity.
The Royal Society of Literature honored Mrs. Hemans with a prize (in 1821), and her steady flow of poetry writing continued until in 1826 her favorite poem of all, ``The Forest Sanctuary,'' appeared. There are passages of great beauty in it and occasional lines that haunt the reader like a strain of music. Is it not much that I may worship Him, With naught my spirit's breathings to control, And feel His presence in the vast and dim And whispering woods, where dying thunders roll From the far cataracts? Shall I not rejoice That I have learned at last to know His voice From man's? -- I will rejoice! My soaring soul Now hath redeemed her birthright of the day, And won, through clouds, to Him, her own unfettered way!
It is of note that this poem describes the mental conflict as well as the outward sufferings of a Spaniard who, fleeing from religious persecutions in his own country in the 16th century, takes refuge with his child in a North American forest.
The story is related by the man himself amid the wilderness which has afforded him asylum. This Spaniard was inspired by the memory of the Wal-densians, who found their sanctuary in the rocks and caves of the Italian and French Alps in their time of great persecution.
Of these early Christians, Felicia Hemans wrote another poem entitled, ``Hymn of the Vaudois Mountaineers.'' All the verses end with the refrain, ``For the strength of the hills, we bless Thee,/ Our God, our fathers' God!''
These early Christians lived alone and apart in the Christian world and held a unique place in pre-Protestant history.
The poetry of Felicia Hemans became very popular in the United States as well. Her poem ``The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers'' was a particular favorite. In fact, she received a handsome offer from a Boston publisher to edit a periodical there, which would have been a financial asset to her, but she declined this offer.
It was 1829 when Felicia visited Scotland and there made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott. Between them there grew a sincere liking and friendship that continued throughout her life. His affection for her shines through his words, ``I would like you to live here forever.'' He is said never to have tired of listening to her poem, ``The Captive Knight.''
Another literary giant with whom Felicia Hemans shared a deep friendship was William Wordsworth, whom she visited at Rydal Mount (1830) in the Lake District. In fact, she and her sons spent a summer at Wordsworth's beloved Dove Cottage, at Ambleside.
William Wordsworth was impressed by Felicia's gentleness and genius and paid a tender poetical tribute to her memory at her passing, one line of which includes: ``sweet as the Spring, as ocean deep.''
While the tomes written about English literature list Felicia Dorothea Hemans as a ``minor semi-Romanticist'' poet, her lines are quoted by authors whose books are read worldwide, thereby ensuring acquaintance with the name of this gentle lady beyond purely literary circles.