The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 22. Mrs. Hemans; L.E.L.

A little more of this not unfeminine virility would have been a great advantage to the two poetesses next to be discussed, though the first of them, at least, undoubtedly had more poetry than Joanna. Both Felicia Dorothea Browne (Mrs. Hemans) and Laetitia Elizabeth Landon (L.E.L.) were very popular in their own days, and the first-named has retained a success of esteem with some not despicable judges, together with a hold on actual memory, through “The Boy stood on the Burning Deck,” and one or two other poems. One may go further, and say that a certain amount of injustice has been done to both, and especially to Mrs. Hemans, during the last half, if not three quarters, of a century by Thackeray’s “Miss Bunion.” It was in no way a personal caricature, for Mrs. Hemans was almost beautiful, and L.E.L. decidedly, though irregularly, pretty. But it hit their style, and especially their titles, hard, and their sentiment has long been out of fashion. Miss Landon, indeed (whose fate seems still to be wrapped in mystery for some commentators, though, as a matter of fact, it was almost completely cleared up years ago), can never be raised, in the most careful and judicial estimate, to anything but a somewhat interesting historical position. Her technique, though some charitable souls have seen a tendency to improvement at the last, was deplorably bad; and her popularity set a most unfortunate precedent, in this respect, for women verse-writers. Her sentiment and handling of her themes watered out the examples she took from Scott, Byron and Moore, with an equally deplorable excess of original “gush,” and it is really difficult to name a single poem which can be produced as a competent diploma-piece. But, at one time, she seemed to be a sort of graceful substitute for a pillar: Beddoes, who had real critical power, who wrote as differently as possible and who was not mealy-mouthed, described her, in 1825, as, after the tropical, sunset-like disappearance of Shelley, “the tender full faced moon of our darkness,” though he certainly added “milk-and-watery.” She is a sign of the time between Keats and Tennyson, and, if her work does not even, in the words of one of Campbell’s best poems, “show where a garden has been,” it does show where a garden might have been, if time and the muses had been more propitious.

The claims of Mrs. Hemans are much less hypothetical. If not immaculate in form, she is much better than L.E.L. (who, by the way, wrote one of her least bad poems on Mrs. Hemans’s death); her models, though they certainly included Byron and Scott, were Coleridge and Wordsworth also, so far as she could manage it; and the dangerous quality of “Mooreishness” does not much appear in her. Her faults—recognised as such even by generous admirers in her own days, and by charitable critics since—are want of originality, want of intensity and, worst of all, a third, connected with this want of intensity but not quite identical with it and much more wide-ranging, want of concentration. She died at a little over forty, and suffered much from ill-health; yet, she published over twenty volumes of verse in her lifetime, which filled a more closely printed collection of six after her death. Some of the constituents of these, it is true, were narrative poems of length, which, after the not wholly beneficent example of her elders and betters, could be measured out by the long hundred without much difficulty. But, a great many more are those short poems which, except under the force of some extraordinary inspiration such as she hardly ever enjoyed, take a long time and the vital power of a long time to bring to perfection. There is little evidence of any such accumulation and expenditure of poetic energy on her part. The greatest thing she did, England’s Dead—her most original, her most thoughtful—lacks consummateness and inevitableness of expression, either in the splendid, or in the simple, style. Casabianca is less unequal in itself, but is on a lower level; and, so far as expression goes, the equally well-known Better Land is lower still, though it is excellent milk well crumbled with good bread for babes. They grew in beauty side by side has the same quality, which one is reluctant to depreciate or ridicule, but which certainly excites more esteem than enthusiasm. It takes the sea and death, two of the very few motives which never fail to draw poetry out of any soul that has poetry in it, to bring her subject and her expression to a fairly equal level in—

  • What hid’st thou in thy treasure caves and cells?
  • Leaves have their time to fall, etc.
  • Now, the soul of Mrs. Hemans was a poetic soul but it was not a strong one and it failed to follow steadily what star it had.