Literary and Historical Context

Literary and Historical Context

This section establishes political, literary and philosophical contexts for the poem, and provides access to contemporary reviews and letters from Hemans and Byron referred to throughout the site.

The Sceptic: A poem for its time?
An introductory essay by Barbara Taylor.
This essay demonstrates that The Sceptic was written in 1819 and that the poem is a response to the Peterloo Massacre. It therefore argues that, despite its apparently conservative message, The Sceptic is in fact a subtle critique of contemporary sexual politics.

Hemans, Hume, and Philosophical Scepticism
An extract from an as yet unpublished PhD thesis by Anne Hartman.
This extract focuses on the philosophical context of The Sceptic, exploring the connections implicit in the poem between Hemans and David Hume and the Common Sense philosophers.

Hartman writes of her extract: "While readers of The Sceptic have tended to identify Byron as the primary focus, we can now see that the poem's frame of reference is considerably wider. Philosophically speaking, the poem must also reference that most infamous of sceptics, David Hume, and his essay which shares the same title as Hemans's poem. The poem is an early indicator of Hemans's fascination with scepticism, while also reflecting her emerging interest in the Common Sense School. The evidence suggests that she was particularly aware of the ideas of the common sense philosophers Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown, whose theories constituted an elaboration of Humean thought with the important provision that scepticism be exchanged for common sense and intuition, most importantly an intuition of God.

"The extract that follows precedes a discussion of Hemans's later poem The Forest Sanctuary. Most significant is that in the later work Hemans cites Samuel Hibbert, author of The Philosophy of Apparitions, a text directly influenced by Thomas Brown but also committed to providing a materialist account of how the mind experiences ghosts, miracles and the like. Although she indicated disapproval of Hibbert in her letters, it is no small matter that Hemans would in her poem approvingly reference a text with a thesis similar to Hume's infamous Essay on Miracles, which was widely reviled as heretical. In the later poem, Hemans dramatises a philosophical account of the mind that draws upon and revises contemporary debates in the emergent science of the mind. While the register of the questions raised in The Sceptic may be largely theological, subsequent evidence suggests that she considered seriously the intellectual challenges presented by scientific accounts of the mind as matter."

Shelley's Sonnet, "England in 1819"
Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Edinburgh Monthly Review
The favorable but double edged review of The Sceptic discussed in both Taylor and Hartman's work.

Letters from Hemans to her publisher
The small collection of the letters concerning the publication of The Sceptic; with transcriptions provided by Barbara Taylor. Presented with the permission of the John Murray Archives.

Byron's letter to John Murray
Byron's letter of June 1820 where The Sceptic is mentioned, again with a transcription by Barbara Taylor. Presented with the permission of the John Murray Archives.

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Stanzas from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage with links to The Sceptic. Canto II photographed from the 1817 edition.