The Edinburgh Monthly Review

The Edinburgh Monthly Review

April, 1820

ART. I. —The Sceptic; a Poem. By Mrs. HEMANS, author of "The Restoration of Works of Art to Italy;" "Modern Greece;" "Tales and Historic Scenes;" "Wallace's Invocation to Bruce." Murray. Lond. 1820.

We have, on more than one occasion, expressed the very high opinion which we entertain of the talents of this lady; and it is gratifying to find, that she gives us no reason to retract or modify in any degree the applause already bestowed, and that every fresh exhibition of her powers enhances and confirms her claims upon our admiration. Mrs. Hemans is indeed but in the infancy of her poetical career, but it is an infancy of unrivalled beauty and of very high promise. Not but that she has already performed more than has often been sufficient to win for other candidates no mean place in the roll of fame, but because what she has already done shrinks, when compared with what we consider to be her own great capacity; to mere incipient excellence—the intimation rather than the fulfilment of the high destiny of her genius.

We are aware, indeed, that this singular and gifted woman has not in every instance obtained that full share of celebrity, to which her merits so justly entitle her, and that, in speaking of her in the terms which we have been accustomed to use, we may appear to many readers to have been guilty of a deviation from the hackneyed usages of criticism, by bowing to an idol not yet recognized by the throng. It is true that Mrs. Hemans stands yet trembling on the threshold of fame, and that many of the veteran watchmen of the temple, instead of aiding the youthful and interesting votary, have left her to unbar the portals in the energy of her own strength alone, and looked with cold and stupid indifference upon her generous struggle. There might be some apology for this, were the neglect impartial, and had no undue facilities been accorded to those who have already found their way into the sanctuary, who occupy its chief places, and attract the admiring gaze of the multitude. But when we remember what motives of fear and favour have visibly operated upon the ephemeral distributors of fame,—with what increased alacrity their more generous and perhaps least grateful functions have been performed in the case of a personal friend or noted partizan—with what bustling and tremulous haste the experience, or the apprehension of a vigorous lampoon has summoned them to the aid even of a hostile bard—when we consider all these things, and think at once of the merit and the modesty of Mrs. Hemans, for whose gentle hands the auxiliary club of political warfare, and the sharp lash of personal satire are equally unsuited, we cannot but enter a complaint in her name, which she would not deign to make for herself, and appeal for her from the apathy of the superannuated tribunals to the living energy of general feeling upon which she may cast herself with full reliance, that her poetry requires only to be brought into contact with it, to kindle and exalt it into enthusiastic admiration.

The verses of Mrs. Hemans appear the spontaneous offspring of intense and noble feeling, governed by a clear understanding, and fashioned into elegance by an exquisite delicacy and precision of taste. With more than the force of many of her masculine competitors, she never ceases to be strictly feminine in the whole current of her thought and feeling, nor approaches by any chance, the verge of that free and intrepid course of speculation, of which the boldness is more conspicuous than the wisdom, but into which some of the most remarkable among the female literati of our times have freely and fearlessly plunged. She has, in the poem before us, made choice of a subject of which it would have been very difficult to have reconciled the treatment, in the hands of some female authors, to the delicacy which belongs to the sex, and the tenderness and enthusiasm which form its finest characteristic. A coarse and chilling cento of the exploded fancies of modern scepticism, done into rhyme by the hand of a woman, would have been doubly disgusting by the revival of absurdities long consigned to oblivion, and by the revolting exhibition of a female mind, shorn of all its attractions, and wrapt in darkness and defiance. But Mrs. Hemans has chosen the better and the nobler cause, and while she has left in the poem before us every trace of vigorous intellect of which the subject admitted, and has far transcended in energy of thought the prosing pioneers of unbelief; she has sustained throughout a tone of warm and confiding piety, and has thus proved that the humility of hope and of faith has in it none of the weakness with which it has been charged by the arrogance of impiety, but owns a divine and mysterious vigour residing under the very aspect of gentleness and devotion.

Nothing surely can be more beautiful and attractive than such a character as this,—richly endowed with every gift which is calculated to win regard or to command esteem, yet despising all false brilliancy, and keeping every talent in sweet and modest subordination to the dignity of womanhood,—emulating the other sex in the graceful vigour of genius, but scrupulously abstaining from all that may betray unfeminine temerity or coarseness in its exhibitions,—touching the dark regions of metaphysical debate, and striking upon them as with a sunbeam from her own pure and spotless spirit, and thus reinforcing the sterner champions of her country's faith with the charm of gentle but glowing sentiment, and the resistless appeal of the most impressive eloquence. It is here that we recognise the graceful and appropriate direction of the female intellect, and not in that sneering scepticism which in man is offensive—in woman, monstrous and revolting.

Mrs. Hemans, although she does not disown the touching and solemn influences of religion, is no devotee or ascetic, but has a mind profoundly alive to all that is beautiful or sublime in the creations of genius or in the fortunes of mankind. She has already hailed with fine and deep enthusiasm the rescuer of the immortal monuments of Italian art from the den of Gallic plunder; she has mourned over the desolation of Greece in strains that might sooth the spirit of its departed greatness; and she has embalmed the unpolished magnanimity of Caledonian patriotism in a rich glow of fond and admiring sympathy. Her piety is but the perfection of that lofty spirit which, with its deep sensibility to worldly and derivative grandeur, can never forget the great eternal cause of all that is beautiful or sublime in the aspect of matter or the workings of mind,—and is the surest pledge of the presence of that poetic genius which strikes deep its roots in the sympathies and aspirations of our common nature.

It must be owned, however that Mrs. Hemans has hitherto scarcely done full justice to her powers, nor made a fair experiment of the influence which she is capable of acquiring over the public mind. Her productions have been either of too desultory or too reflective a character, to meet the demand which exists for high excitement and sustained emotion. Beautiful as was her first poem on the Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy, and fine and classical as were the whole tissue and form of its composition, it was not precisely of that class which is fitted, at the present day, to make a profound impression on the public mind, or to lay the foundation of great and enduring fame to the author. For this purpose, some approach at least to a regular story is indispensible—some development of character, and conflict of passion. The reason why poetry of this kind is, generally speaking, more attractive than any other cannot be mistaken; and it is far from our purpose to enter into a tedious dissertation to discover the source of that deeper interest which we take in the actual collision of daring and impassioned characters, than in the mere reflections of the author, however beautiful, eloquent, or ingenious. The solution of the problem, indeed, lies on the very surface of speculation. The power of that species of poetry to which we allude is now greatly increased also, at least in extent of operation, by the admission among the number of judges, of so great a mass of half-educated persons, to whom the story is every thing, and the poetry almost nothing. Nor must we omit to mention among the disadvantages with which Mrs. Hemans has had to contend, in the form at least in which she has hitherto chosen to represent herself to the public, the practice of all the most popular living poets, who have by their example rendered a story almost essential to great popularity and success, and who would have been little heard of or known, had they trusted their fame to such casual efforts as those to which Mrs. Hemans has, generally speaking, hitherto confined herself.

But it will become her now to change her course, and to try a more expanded and adventurous flight. After the successful experiment of her powers within the limits to which she has hitherto circumscribed them, she may now collect herself for a more continuous effort, and, braving all their vicissitudes, wing her way through the lofty and troubled regions of passion. There is more than she is probably aware of in the happy selection of a subject. If the subject owe its embellishment to the author, he also has his obligations to his subject, for it becomes in some degree the base upon which his reputation is poised. The highest efforts of genius may be expended on some obscure and barren theme, and nothing remain of the laborious fabric except the memory of the author's imprudence, and the regret of his miscarriage, while far humbler powers, directed with a lucky precision to the springs of emotion and sentiment, shall achieve the prize, and float triumphant on the tide of popularity. The streams of Castalia may be lavished on the desart, only to be absorbed and lost for ever. The subject, in fact, must co-operate with the author in his ascent to the pinnacle of fame, and must place him at starting upon vantage ground, and not chain him down to the dark and hollow places of the earth, from which no mortal energy will serve for his extrication.

Some indeed there have been of surpassing intellect and genius, who have chosen to waste their talents on airy nothings, or on the gross and perishable materials presented by the fashion of their own times; or who have boldly essayed, not merely the work of poetical, but of moral creation, by endeavouring to recast the whole habitudes and sympathies of our nature. But where are now the greatest of such writers who have flourished in past times? Their names, perhaps, are remembered in the cold and distant admiration of the more curious lovers of poetry, but their works are unknown to all perusal, and strangers to every heart. We are as far as possible from insinuating that Mrs. Hemans belongs to either of the classes we have mentioned; but we wish, by these imperfect illustrations, to impress upon her a truth deeply interesting to her future celebrity, and to which she seems not hitherto to have been sufficiently alive—that the choice of a subject of commanding interest is essential to the full development of her powers, and the maturity of that reputation which we think she is yet destined to attain. It is not for one so gifted as she appears to us to be, to scatter the sweets of her genius upon any subject of ambiguous adaptation to the purposes of her art, or to neutralize, by dividing, the energy of her mind among the more minute and fugitive compartments of poetical interest, but, giving a fair chance to her talents, by their scrupulous and undeviating concentration to one great aim,—putting from her with scorn all ephemeral solicitation, and deaf to every whisper of fleeting and momentary interest, we yet expect to see her rise triumphant over all prejudice or neglect, and command from the elevation which belongs to her genius, the deep and willing homage of her country.

One thing only we would remark about the style and manner of Mrs. Hemans, before proceeding to give the copious extracts which we intend to make from the fine poem before us. The sensibility of her taste, joined to her innate modesty, has deeply impressed upon her mind, the beautiful colours of style and expression with which some of the great masters of English poetry have been accustomed to invest their thoughts, and led her occasionally and unconsciously into an external resemblance of their manner. This, when it does occur, is, as we have just said, the obvious result of her fine taste, and her unnecessary diffidence of her own powers. She has long been in reverential communion with the spirits of these great authors and it is no wonder that she comes forth redolent in some degree of the grace and dignity which characterize their deportment. We should like to see more of this in the present day--for the restoration of the classical costume, if not accomplished in a spirit of servility, but under a sense of its elegance and adaptation to the wearer, would be a sure symptom of a generally returning gracefulness and vigour. Every pretender can advance in his own strange and harlequin garment, and claim the praise of a revolting originality; but there are few who can bear the tightened cincture, or manage the graceful drapery of Dryden and Pope. It is not the least praise of the style of the author before us, that, with her modest and occasional approximations to the manner of these great masters, she has discovered at the same time a capacity of invention and fertility of genius, which must for ever secure her against the reproach of any servile imitation of them; and shews that, if a lively relish for what is powerful and elegant in composition has led her into a casual resemblance of her models, she has the power also of extending their appropriate range of excellence without departing from its characteristic principles, or most graceful and attractive peculiarities.

The subject of the poem before us is one of deep and enduring importance; but it is not well adapted to the very highest purposes of poetry. As Mrs. Hemans has treated it, we have a fine and eloquent appeal indeed to the noblest feelings of our nature, against that dreary delusion which seeks to crush and extinguish them—we have much beautiful and impassioned declamation—a full flow of elegant diction—and uninterrupted harmony of numbers. A finer subject could not be found for displaying, in the form of an oration, the very highest powers of eloquence; but the most attractive and popular poetry is still something different from eloquence; and a moral essay, we are afraid, however animated and brilliant, will not command the suffrages of those who have been accustomed to the more intense excitement afforded by the popular performances of the day. We shall not revert to this subject however, but proceed to give our promised extracts. The opening of the poem is at once brilliant and powerful.

WHEN the young Eagle, with exulting eye,
Has learn'd to dare the splendor of the sky,
And leave the Alps beneath him in his course,
To bathe his crest in morn's empyreal source,
Will his free wing, from that majestic height,
Descend to follow some wild meteor's light,
Which far below, with evanescent fire,
Shines to delude, and dazzles to expire?
No! still thro' clouds he wins his upward way
And proudly claims his heritage of day!
—And shall the spirit, on whose ardent gaze,
The day-spring from on high hath pour d its blaze,
Turn from that pure effulgence, to the beam
Of earth-born light, that sheds a treacherous gleam,
Luring the wanderer, from the star of faith,
To the deep valley of the shades of death?
What bright exchange, what treasure shall be given,
For the high birth-right of its hope in Heaven?
If lost the gem which empires could riot not buy,
Yet remains ?—a dark eternity!
Pp. 5,6.

After sending the Sceptic whose thoughts travel not beyond this chequered state of existence, to the full indulgence of its fleeting and perishable pleasures, she reminds him that " life hath sterner tasks," and then addresses him in these striking and impressive lines:

When years, with silent might, thy frame have bow'd,
And o'er thy spirit cast their wintry cloud,
Will Memory soothe thee on thy bed of pain,
With the bright images of pleasure's train ?
Yes ! as the sight of some far distant shore,
Whose well-known scenes his foot shall tread no more,
Would cheer the seaman, by the eddying wave
Drawn, vainly struggling, to the unfathom'd grave!
Shall Hope, the faithful cherub, hear thy call,
She, who, like heaven's own sun-beam, smiles for all?
Will she speak comfort?—Thou hast shorn her plume,
That might have raised thee far above the tomb,
And hush'd the only voice whose angel tone
Soothes when all melodies of joy are flown!
For she was born beyond the stars to soar,
And kindling at the source of life, adore;
Thou could'st not, mortal! rivet to the earth
Her eye, whose beam is of celestial birth;
She dwells with those who leave her pinion free,
And sheds the dews of heaven on all but thee

The wretched and forlorn condition of the Sceptic, when the ties of love or friendship are snapped asunder by death, is thus powerfully depicted:

Yet few there are, so lonely, so bereft,
But some true heart, that beats to theirs, is left,
And, haply, one whose strong affection's power,
Unchanged may triumph through misfortune's hour,
Still with fond care supports thy languid head,
And keeps unwearied vigils by thy bed.
But thou! whose thoughts have no blest home above;
Captive of earth! and canst thou dare to love?
To nurse such feelings as delight to rest,
Within that hallow'd shrine—a parent's breast,
To fix each hope, concentrate every tie,
On one frail idol,—destined but to die,
Yet mock the faith that points to worlds of light,
Where sever'd souls, made perfect, re-unite.
Then tremble! cling to every passing joy,
Twin'd with the life a moment may destroy
If there be sorrow in a parting tear,
Still let "for ever" vibrate on thine ear!
If some bright hour on rapture's wing hath flown,
Find more than anguish in the thought—'tis gone!
Go! to a voice such magic influence give,
Thou canst not lose its melody, and live;
And make an eye the lode star of thy soul,
And let a glance the springs of thought controul;
Gaze on a mortal form with fond delight,
Till the fair vision mingles with thy sight;
There seek thy blessings, there repose thy trust,
Lean on the willow, idolize the dust
Then, when thy treasure best repays thy care,
Think on that dread "for ever"—and despair!
Pp. 8-10

The agony of soul produced by the first transition from intellectual darkness to the light of truth, is thus finely illustrated:

—He, who hath pin'd in dungeons, midst the shade
Of such deep night as man for man hath made,
Through lingering years; if call'd at length to be,
Once more, by nature's boundless charter, free,
Shrinks feebly back, the blaze of noon to shun,
Fainting at day, and blasted by the sun!
Thus, when the captive soul hath long remained
In its own dread abyss of darkness chained,
If the Deliverer, in his might, at last,
Its fetters, born of earth, to earth should cast,
The beam of truth o'erpowers its dazzled sight,
Trembling it sinks, and finds no joy in light.
But this will pass away—that spark of mind,
Within thy frame unquenchably enshrin'd,
Shall live to triumph in its brightening ray,
Born to be fostered with etherial day.
Then wilt thou bless the hour, when o'er thee pass'd,
On wing of flame, the purifying blast,
And sorrow's voice, through paths before untrod,
Like Sinai's trumpet, call'd thee to thy God!
Pp 14,15

Then follows this powerful passage:

Oh! what is nature's strength? the vacant eye,
By mind deserted, hath a dread reply!
The wild delirious laughter of despair,
The mirth of frenzy—seek an answer there!
Turn not away, though pity's cheek grow pale,
Close not thine ear against their awful tale.
They tell thee, reason, wandering from the ray
Of Faith, the blazing pillar of her way,
In the mid-darkness of the stormy wave,
Forsook the struggling soul she could not save!
Weep not, sad moralist! o'er desert plains,
Strew'd with the wrecks of grandeur-mouldering fanes,
Arches of triumph, long with weeds o'ergrown,
And regal cities, now the serpent's own
Earth has more awful ruins—one lost mind,
Whose star is quench'd, hath lessons for mankind,
Of deeper import than each prostrate dome,
Mingling its marble with the dust of Rome.
But who with eye unshrinking shall explore
That waste, illumn' d by reason's beam so more?
Who pierce the deep, mysterious clouds that roll
Around the shatter'd temple of the soul,
Curtain'd with midnight?—low its columns lie,
And dark the chambers of its imag'ry,
Sunk are its idols now—and God alone
May rear the fabric, by their fall o'erthrown!
Yet, from its inmost shrine, by storms laid bare,
Is heard an oracle that cries—, Beware!
Child of the dust! but ransom'd of the skies!
One breath of Heaven—and thus thy glory dies
Haste, ere the hour of doom, draw nigh to Him
Who dwells above between the cherubim!
Pp. 16-18.

The energy of the following pious supplication has seldom been surpassed:

Oh ! by His love, who, veiling Godhead's light,
To moments circumscrib'd the Infinite,
And heaven and earth disdain'd not to allay
By that dread union—Man with Deity;
Immortal tears o'er mortal woes who shed,
And, ere he rais'd them, wept above the dead;
Save, or we perish!—let Thy word controul
The earthquakes of that universe—the soul;
Pervade the depths of passion—speak once more
The mighty mandate, guard of every shore,
"Here shall thy waves be staid"—in grief, in pain,
The fearful poise of reason's sphere maintain,
Thou, by whom suns are balanc'd !—thus secure
In thee shall Faith and Fortitude endure;
Conscious of Thee, unfaltering shall the just
Look upward still, in high and holy trust,
And, by affliction guided to Thy shrine,
The first, last thought of suffering hearts be Thine.
And oh ! be near, when, cloth'd with conquering power
The King of Terrors claims his own dread hour
When, on the edge of that unknown abyss,
Which darkly parts us from the realm of bliss,
Awe-struck alike the timid and the brave,
Alike subdued the monarch and the slave,
Must drink the cup of trembling—when we see
Nought in the universe but death and Thee,
Forsake us not;—if still, when life was young,
Faith to Thy bosom, as her home, hath sprung,
If Hope's retreat hath—been, through all the past,
The shadow by the Rock of Ages cast,
Father forsake us not !—when tortures urge
The shrinking soul to that mysterious verge.
When from Thy justice to Thy love we fly,
On nature's conflict look with pitying eye,
Bid the strong wind, the fire, the earthquake cease,
Come in the still small voice, and whisper—peace!
Pp. 22-24.

In the midst of an eloquent and impassioned remonstrance with the Sceptic who, even when overwhelmed by the disasters of a present world, renounces all trust in futurity, she weaves some touching reflections upon a catastrophe, the remembrance of which will ever fall with surpassing sadness upon the spirit of a great people.

And say, cold Sophist! if by thee bereft
Of that high hope, to misery what were left?
But for the vision of the days to be,
But for the Comforter, despis'd by thee,
Should we not wither at the Chastener's look,
Should we not sink beneath our God's rebuke,
When o'er our heads the desolating blast,
Fraught with inscrutable decrees, hath pass'd,
And the stern power who seeks the noblest prey,
Hath call'd our fairest and our best away?
Should we not madden, when our eyes behold
All that we lov'd in marble stillness cold,
No more responsive to our smile or sigh,
Fix'd—frozen—silent—all mortality?
But for the promise, all shall yet be well,
Would not the spirit in its pangs rebel,
Beneath such clouds as darkend, when the hand
Of wrath lay heavy on our prostrate land,
And Thou, just lent thy gladden'd isles to bless,
Then snatch'd from earth with all thy loveliness,
With all a nation's blessings on thy head,
O England's flower! wert gathered to the dead?
But Thou didst teach us. Thou to every heart,
Faith's lofty lesson didst thyself impart!
When fled the hope through all thy pangs which smil'd,
When thy young bosom, o'er thy lifeless child,
Yearn'd with vain longing—still thy patient eye,
To its last light, beam'd holy constancy!
Torn from a lot in cloudless sunshine cast,
Amidst those agonies—thy first and last,
Thy pale lip, quivering with convulsive throes,
Breath'd not a plaint—and settled in repose;
While bow'd thy royal head to Him, whose power
Spoke in the fiat of that midnight hour,
Who from the brightest vision of a throne,
Love, glory, empire, claim'd thee for his own,
And spread such terror o'er the sea-girt coast,
As blasted Israel, when her ark was lost!
"It is the will of God!"—yet, yet we hear
The words which clos'd thy beautiful career,
Yet should we mourn thee in thy blest abode,
But for that thought— It is the will of God!"
Who shall arraign th' Eternal's dark decree,
If not one murmur then escap'd from thee?
Oh ! still tho' vanishing without a trace,
Thou hast not left one scion of thy race,
Still may thy memory bloom our vales among,
Hallow'd by freedom, and enshrin'd in song !
Still may thy pure, majestic spirit dwell,
Bright on the isles which lov'd thy name so well,
E'en as an angel, with presiding care,
To wake and guard thine own high virtues there.
Pp. 30-33.

These passages must, we think, convey to every reader a very favourable impression of the talents of their author, and of the admirable purposes to which her high gifts are directed. It is the great defect, as we imagine, of some of the most popular writers of the day, that they are not sufficiently attentive to the moral dignity of their performances—it is the deep, and will be the lasting reproach of others, that in this point of view they have wantonly sought and realized the most profound literary debasement. With the promise of talents not inferior to any, and far superior to most of them, the author before us is not only free from every stain, but breathes all moral beauty and loveliness; and it will be a memorable coincidence, if the era of a woman's sway in literature shall become coeval with the return of its moral purity and elevation.