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Felicia Hemans

Felicia Hemans (1793-1835), British poet, was born Felicia Dorothea Browne in Liverpool, a granddaughter of the Venetian consul in that city. Her father's business soon brought the family to Denbighshire in North Wales, where she spent her youth. They made their home near St. Asaph, and it is clear that she came to regard herself as Welsh by adoption, later referring to Wales as "Land of my childhood, my home and my dead". Her first poems, dedicated to the Prince of Wales, were published in Liverpool in 1808, when she was only fifteen, arousing the interest of no less a person than Shelley, who briefly corresponded with her. She quickly followed them up with "The domestic affections", published in 1812, the year of her marriage to Captain Alfred Hemans, an Irish army officer some years older than herself. The marriage took her away from Wales, to Daventry in Northamptonshire.

During their first six years of marriage, Felicia gave birth to five sons, and then the couple separated. Marriage had not, however, prevented her from continuing her literary career, with several volumes of poetry being published in the period after 1816. "Tales and historic scenes" was the collection which came out in 1819, the year of their separation.

Mr Hemans went to Italy, and Felicia back to Wales to live at St. Asaph, in the house called Bronwylfa where she had grown up. It was here that she had composed an elegy to Princess Charlotte, daughter and sole heir of the Prince of Wales, who had died in childbirth in 1817. When the Prince eventually became King George IV, she wrote further poems in memory of his late father, George III.

She was prolific in the years that followed her husband's departure, producing plays as well as poetry. In 1819, she won a competition for a poem on a Scottish historical theme, out of a huge number of entries. This gained her the appreciation of the Scottish public. Her play, "The Vespers of Palermo", having flopped at Covent Garden in 1823, was performed more successfully at Edinburgh in 1824, at the instigation of Sir Walter Scott, who became a personal friend. Afterwards, she wrote regularly for the "Edinburgh Review".

Another collection of poems, "Welsh melodies", included translations of Welsh poems, evidence that Felicia Hemans had a certain amount of knowledge of the language. The poems were really intended as song lyrics, and dealt with historical subjects and folklore. "The meeting of the bards" was written for the London Eisteddfod of 1822, at which some of her songs were also performed. In 1825, her brother, in whose house she was living, got married, causing her to move with her children to Rhyllon, another house only a short distance away. Two years later, however, following the death of her mother, she left Wales for good, moving first to the outskirts of Liverpool, and later visiting Edinburgh and the Lake District, where she stayed with Wordsworth at Rydal Mount.

Felicia Hemans' works, despite their flavour of Victorian chauvinism and sentimentality, have an originality that cannot be denied, reflecting her independent spirit. Though they remained popular for over a century, it is clear that Mrs Hemans herself had no pretensions to being a Wordsworth. In "The records of woman" (1828), she chronicles the lives of women, both famous and anonymous.

From 1831 onwards, she lived in Dublin, where her younger brother had settled, and her poetic output continued. Her major collections, including "The forest sanctuary" (1825), "Records of woman"and "Songs of the affections" (1830) were immensely popular, especially with female readers. She was by now a well-known literary figure, highly regarded by contemporaries such as Wordsworth, and with a popular following in America as well as Britain. When she died of dropsy, Wordsworth and Walter Savage Landor composed memorial verses in her honour.

Despite such illustrious admirers, her stature as a serious poet gradually declined. A jocular reference by Saki in The Toys of Peace suggests simultaneously that she was a household word and that Saki did not take her seriously. Schoolchildren in the U. S. were still being taught The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England ("The breaking waves dashed high/On a stern and rock-bound coast...") in the middle of the 1900s. But today, The Stately Homes of England refers to Noel Coward's parody, not to the once-famous poem it parodied, and Felicia Hemans is now remembered chiefly for her poem, "Casabianca", and in fact for one line only:

"The boy stood on the burning deck".