Monday, May 2, 2011

For Mother’s Day, a tribute …

Felicia Hemans
Felicia Hemans was a single working mother who raised five children by herself. What’s more, she supported her family writing poetry -- in the early 19th century.

That she would write poetry throughout her life was probably inevitable. She was a precocious child, homeschooled by her mother, and became fluent in Latin, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and French, as well as English, by the time she was a teenager. Later, she taught herself German. She wrote poetry from an early age.

Family was very important to her, and though her father abandoned the family, she remained close to her mother and her brothers. She was the fifth of seven children. Her father was a successful merchant but lost his fortune in an economic downturn. The family moved from her birthplace in Liverpool to a naturally beautiful region of northern Wales. Shortly after their move, her father went to Canada to try to regain his fortune, but he failed to do so and died in Quebec, without ever seeing his family again.

 The natural countryside in Wales was the perfect setting to inspire young Felicia. She was at home there.

She memorized long passages from the Bible and the work of contemporary poets, and entertained her family with recitations. She also wrote poetry, and when she was 15, her family published her first book,  a slim volume called Poems.

She was a beautiful young teenager, and this, along with her poetical talent, drew the attention of young Percy Bysshe Shelley, who started writing her letters. Felicia's mother didn’t approve of Shelley and discouraged the relationship.

When she was about 14, Felicia became enamored with a handsome army officer who was as friend of her older brother. Her brother served with the young man in the Peninsula War against Napoleon III. Within a year or so, Felicia and Capt. Alfred Hemans were engaged, but as Felicia's mother disapproved of this relationship as well, Felicia delayed a wedding. Finally, when Felicia was 19, her mother relented and the couple was married.

Felicia’s third book, Domestic Affections and Other Poems, was published shortly before the wedding. It examined the woman’s place in the home and some say it idealized domestic bliss. In any case, it was perfect for the Victorian era in which she lived.

For the next six years, Felicia had babies and wrote poetry. She published three more books. Capt. Heman was discharged from the army and only received half the pay he had received on active duty. To make ends meet, the family moved in with Felicia’s mother.

Felicia was pregnant with their fifth son when Alfred abandoned the family and moved to Italy, ostensibly to recover from an illness. Scholars think the couple just separated. Felicia never visited her husband and they rarely exchanged letters. In any case, she never saw him again.

For the next nine years, Felicia raised her boys and focused on her writing when she could, though it was a struggle finding the peace and quiet necessary for concentration in a household of rambunctious youngsters. She wrote to her sister “When you talk of tranaquility and a quiet home, I stare about in wonder, having almost lost the recollection of such things.”

Felicia did find a place of refuge, however. She wrote her favorite poem, The Forest Sanctuary, in the laundry room.

She wrote relentlessly and of necessity, pursuing anything that would bring in income, including songs, translations and magazine articles. She also tried her hand at writing plays. Her first, The Vespers of Palermo, was produced in Edinburgh and Covent Garden in London. She was paid 200 guineas. But the play failed to find a following and closed. She tried twice more but those efforts failed too, and she gave up playwriting.

Still, her poetry was very popular both in Great Britain and the United States. She grew in prominence and was acknowledged as a serious poet during her lifetime. In all, 19 books of her work were published during her lifetime. One of the most popular was Records of Woman: With Other Poems. A copy of the American edition published in 1828 is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

Felicia Hemans died in 1835 at the age of 41.

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