Felicia Dorothea Hemans
The poetry of Felicia Hemans (1793-1835) has only recently begun to be added to the modern literary canon. In her day, however, she was wildly popular; her poem “Casabianca,” which includes the famous line “The boy stood on the burning deck,” was once a staple of student oral recitations. Although, from a strictly chronological standpoint, the span of her life places her works with those of the Romantic poets rather than with those of the later Victorians, the themes and interests of her poetry frequently align her works more closely with those of later nineteenth-century female poets than with those of her male Romantic contemporaries, such as Byron and Shelley. Strong domestic focus and social engagement characterize her poetry, and, like many other writers of the nineteenth century, she frequently weaves a strong strain of medievalism into her poetry. Despite the attention paid to the movement, Elizabeth Fay’s Romantic Medievalism
scarcely mentions Hemans, acknowledging her only briefly as one of several later Romantic writers whose medievalist works were influenced by Joanna Baillie’s historical dramas (155-6).
Hemans was, however, an avid participant in the nineteenth-century turn toward medievalism; David Rothstein associates her with a “new strain of nationalist imagery and discourse” that was inspired by the medieval revival (49). Although her views on medievalism were influenced by her personal acquaintance with Sir Walter Scott, her works, according to Rothstein, “radically transformed the material she absorbed into her poetry, reconfiguring it according to a new domesticated, gendered, orthodox religious, and bourgeois-aristocratic class perspective” (49). According to Rothstein, this transformation both re-genders and re-domesticates the medieval hero: “In Hemans’ texts, the practice of memorialization, of bearing idealized memories of family and nation, performs a circular function of reorienting subjects towards fictional ideals of heart, home, and nation” (51). As Rothstein’s analysis suggests, Hemans’ texts offer a critical foundation for the domestic focus of the nineteenth-century crusades romance, which tends to concentrate upon domestic interaction rather than battles and warfare. Although medievalism could, as William Morris’ poetry suggests, engage with radical reform movements, Rothstein contends that Hemans’ recreation of England’s past is essentially conservative: “her ideology depends on the representation of social and familial disruptions as a way to promote the socially stabilizing and object-forming power of conservative nostalgia” (51). Rothstein mentions Hemans’ crusades poetry only briefly, but these poems and plays fit the broader patterns that he identities within her use of medievalism.
“Cœur de Lion at the Bier of His Father”
Hemans’ poem “Cœur De Lion at the Bier of His Father” removes Richard entirely from the field of chivalric battle and places him within the enclosed space of the church of Fontevraud, where his father was buried. Although this church is not a domestic space, the poem constantly re-focuses the reader’s attention onto the sociopolitical context that frames the dead king. For instance, the first stanza of the poem notes that “Banners of battle o’er him hung, / And warriors slept beneath” (stanza 1).1
A few lines later, just before the entrance of Richard, Hemans describes “the cross above, and the crown and sword, / And the silent king in sight” (3). These two contextualizing details place the king within the broader framework of the crusade, defined through the markers of battle and crusade, but also by a constant emphasis on the dead warriors that are its consequence. As these lines also suggest, religious and martial imagery work consistently work in opposition throughout the poem. Hemans constructs the attendant priests as a primarily domestic presence; she writes that “The marble floor was swept / By many a long dark stole” (3), an image that associates the priests with the feminine tasks of housekeeping. Nor is this comparison meant to diminish the impact of the religious service; the solemn grandeur of the poem’s imagery renders this “sweeping” a sanctified task. When Richard and his “steel-girt” men enter, however, the domesticity of the church is temporarily disrupted:
And the holy chant was hushed awhile,
As, by the torch’s flame,
A gleam of arms, up the sweeping aisle,
With a mail-clad leader came. (4)
By repeating the “sweeping” imagery in the context of the church, Hemans reinforces the domesticity of the church’s setting, stilled by the entry of the crusading knights. The term “hushed,” however, suggests a gentle cessation, motivated by the church’s own domestic framework, rather than a rude interruption by the entering knights. Despite the contrast between the “gleam of arms” and the church’s imagery, there is no sense that the martial invasion has the power to truly replace the domestic and religious imagery of the church. Indeed, the church successfully combines religious, political, and military authority: as the first stanza indicates, the praying monks are framed by a “the cross above, and the crown and sword.”
By contrast, this poem details the inadequacy of a purely military ethic of masculinity for coping with the complex demands of the crusade. Richard’s emotions, expressed through his body, are at odds: they cannot be contained by the static and inflexible form of his armor. Hemans’ initial description of Richard as “mail-clad” defines him through his inflexible exterior, but, as the poem progresses, that steel barrier disintegrates. Hemans writes:
He came with haughty look,
An eagle glance and clear;
But his proud heart through its breastplate shook,
When he stood beside the bier! (5)
As critics such as Ann Jessie van Sant have demonstrated, the eighteenth-century roots of sympathy are corporeal: the production of sympathy depends upon the body’s visceral reaction to affecting sights. Sympathy and sensibility were, however, traditionally categorized as feminine traits in the early-nineteenth century. Thus, by exhibiting Richard’s corporeal response to the sight of his father’s bier, Hemans demonstrates Richard’s capacity to participate in a reformed version of masculinity that combines chivalric and domestic discourses. As Rothstein notes, “Hemans appropriates Scott’s proud and impetuous King Richard from Ivanhoe
and The Talisman
, taming and correcting him by reorienting his subjectivity towards religious faith and domestic bonds” (50). As a result of this “correction” of chivalric masculinity, Richard’s body eventually transcends the bounds of the encasing steel:
And silently he strove
With the workings of his breast;
But there’s more in late repentant love
Than steel may keep supressed!
And his tears brake forth, at last, like rain,—
Men held their breath in awe;
For his face was seen by his warrior-train,
And he recked not that they saw. (stanza 6)
This stanza places the body of the knight and his “steel” encasement at odds: traditional chivalric standards, according to this portrait, conflict with the emotional constitution of the male body itself. Notably, Richard’s tears, which transcend the bounds of his armor, trigger “awe” in his watching men. The performance of emotional masculinity here, unlike Richard’s earlier silence, becomes an almost holy sight. It is also significance that Richard remains unaware that his warriors are watching him: it signals the collapse of the public and private spheres that are intended to divide nineteenth-century men’s domestic and commercial characters.
“The Crusader’s War Song”
“The Crusader’s War Song,” which appears to have been set to music in the later nineteenth-century, offers a martial call to battle. It opens with the lines, “Chieftains, lead on! Our hearts beat high— / Lead on to Salem’s towers!” (stanza 1). “Salem” here refers to Jerusalem, and Hemans offers a call to a to crusade. She follows this invigorating opening with the question, “Who would not deem it bliss to die, / Slain in a cause like ours?” (1). Indeed, the poem focuses much more on the crusaders’ deaths than on their lives; she invokes their presence, demanding that the departed rise to reassure the living about the rewards of crusading:
Souls of the slain in holy war!
Look from your sainted rest.
Tell us ye rose in Glory’s car,
To mingle with the blest;
Tell us how short the death pang’s power,
How bright the joys of your immortal bower. (1)
This invocation to the dead shifts the poem’s focus from the “war” so prominent in the title to the spiritual rewards that await the virtuous crusader. Hemans places far more emphasis on the glory of death in such a cause than upon battle itself, writing: “Envied be those for thee that fall, / Who find their graves beneath thy sacred wall” (3). Thus, although the speaker begins both the first and last stanzas of the poem with the invocation, “Chieftains, lead on! our hearts beat high,” the speaker aims to achieve a sanctified death on the fields of Jerusalem.
Death in the holy war, the poem indicates, canonizes the crusader and defines the material construction of the warrior’s grave: “The brave, who sleep in soil of thine, / Die not entombed, but shrined, O Palestine” (1). In some sense, then, religious warfare transforms the body of the crusaders, preserving them as saintly relics. Those who achieve this kind of death before the walls of Jerusalem require no physical marker, since the Holy Land itself has sanctified their fallen bodies:
For them no need that sculptured tomb
Should chronicle their fame,
Or pyramid record their doom,
Or deathless verse their name;
It is enough that dust of thine
Should shroud their forms, O blessed Palestine. (5)
And yet, despite these repeated assertions that the crusaders require no memorial, Hemans’ “deathless verse” creates its own monument to the fallen crusaders. Once shrouded by Palestine’s dust, the fallen are remembered and revived by this war song.
Despite the frequent references to Palestine, reclaiming Jerusalem, and burial in the Holy Land, the “cause” that Hemans invokes is somewhat undefined. Because the poem focuses so exclusively on the heroes rather the villains, it becomes irrelevant whether Hemans is referring to medieval wars in the East, a modern war, or a nineteenth-century moral crusade. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest reference to the term “crusade” in a moral context is taken from Thomas Jefferson’s Writings
, published in in 1859; this definition also applies in the 1830s, when Hemans was writing.1
For this reason, the idea of “crusade” had become surprisingly non-specific at the time of Hemans’s writing; this poem was anthologized by Hemans’s contemporaries alongside her other martial poetry. An 1841 edition of “The Complete Poetical Works of Felicia Hemans,” for example, was placed alongside “Dirge of the Highland Chief in Waverly,
” “To the Memory of Sir Henry Ellis, Who Fell in the Battle of Waterloo,” and “The Aged Indian,” which begins with a similar invocation to “Warriors”. Thus, the inspiring rhetoric that Hemans invokes in this poem could fuel both military and moral fervor across nineteenth-century society; it was not limited to its historical context.
These lines, like the poem as a whole, are ambiguous. The “cause” that Hemans invokes is undefined: it is unclear whether she is referring to medieval wars in the East or a nineteenth-century moral
De Chantillon, or the Crusaders, a Tragedy
In De Chatillon
, a play that was never performed, Hemans offers one of the very few straightforward examinations of interracial romance that occurs in nineteenth-century crusades romance. Like many nineteenth-century crusades texts, however, it establishes a basic conflict between the knights’ domestic felicity and their knightly duty. The play opens with an encounter between Rainier de Chatillon and Pope Urban; Rainier bears the bier of his father, who died from grief rather than in battle, and seeks to alleviate his pain through knightly conflict. Informed by Urban that “the fierce Kaled’s host” is advancing on the city, Rainier exclaims, “That were joy to know! . . . There’s a weight / That must be heaved from off my troubled heart / By the strong tide of battle” (286-7). His brother Aymer, by contrast, has fallen in love with an Eastern woman whom he has captured and, at her bidding, reluctantly agrees to forgo vengeance for his fallen father and refrain from further battle against her kinsmen. The play focuses primarily on the struggle between Rainier’s eager desire for vengeance and Aymer’s divided wishes to avenge his father and obey the commands of his lover.
Other examples of miscegenetic relationships in the nineteenth-century Crusades romance include H. Rider Haggard’s The Brethren
, John Richardson’s The Monk-Knight of Saint John
, and Sofie Cottin’s The Saracen; or, Mathilda and Malek Adhel
. Unlike these romances, however, De Chatillon
places little emphasis on the individual physical characteristics of the foreign romantic partner. Instead, the terms that Aymer uses to describe Moraima, his Saracen beloved, are not personal; they could refer to the seductive qualities of the East itself:
You see it not—you know not that your voice
Hath power in its low mournfulness to shake
Mine inmost soul?—That you but look on me,
With the soft darkness of your earnest eyes,
And bid the world fade from me, and call up
A thousand passionate dreams, which wrap my life
As with a troubled cloud? (289)
Genre undoubtedly has much to do with this absence—the play’s narrative framework allows for little physical description—but Hemans also chooses not to place these physical descriptions in the mouths of the other characters. Instead, she constructs Aymer de Chatillon’s infatuation as an outgrowth of his martial engagement with the Saracens, despite the subsequent conflicts between his love and his honor. Aymer cries to Moraima:
. . . I was rear’d in arms,
And the proud blast of trumpets, and the shouts
Of banner’d armies—these were joy to me,
Enough of joy! Till you—I look’d on you—
We met where swords were flashing, and the light
Of burning towers glared wildly on the slain— (289)
Romantic love and battle become deeply intertwined in this passage. Aymer suggests that his love was kindled by the sight of Moraima in the light of “flashing swords” and “burning towers.” Indeed, although heterosexual Muslim-Christian romances are rare in nineteenth-century British literature, similarly eroticized bonds frequently form between Muslim and Christian knights who encounter each other in battle.
Throughout the text, Hemans offers no clear judgment between the brothers’ divergent positions. Indeed, within the ideological schema that characterizes Hemans’ works, there can be no
choice made between the brothers’ loyalties: both are driven by fundamentally domestic affections. As the passage quoted earlier suggests, Rainier’s desire to fight the Saracen armies stems from his desire to avenge his father. Hemans continually reinforces this point throughout the play: near the end of Act 2 Scene I, for instance, he cries, “How do they rest, unburied on their field, / Our brethren slain by Gaza?” (295). A few lines later, he summons the men, saying, “Our field was lost / Our city’s strength laid low—one mighty heart / Broken! Let none forget it!” (295). Rainier thus roots the stimulus of his crusading fervor in domestic affection. Likewise, Aymer is initially moved to vow vengeance, but is interrupted by news that Moraima’s brother, wounded by his hand, has died. Although Rainier reacts with scornful derision, exclaiming, “All the deep-stirring tones of Honour’s voice / In a moment silenced!” (294), Hemans clearly indicates the moral ambiguity of Aymer’s position. First, she demonstrates the potential for love to convert Moraima through a verbal slip. Enquiring after the leader of the Eastern army, Moraima asks: “Aymer! who leads the foe? / I meant—I mean—my people!—Who is he, / My people’s leader?” (297). As Cottin’s Matilda and Malek Adhel
suggests, in the eyes of the Victorian domestic novelist, conversion rather than conquest is frequently the highest priority of the crusade. Moreover, Aymer places his devotion to Moraima above his devotion to battle when he, unaware of its import at the time, upholds his promise not to fight her brother Kaled, thus forfitting his honor and chance for revenge: “My knightly faith, my life, my honour—all, / I pledge thee all to grant it!” (298). He does indeed forfeit his “knightly…honour” for her. However, breaking the domestic bonds dictated by romantic love would jeopardize Aymer’s very status as a knight as well as his personal romantic interest: the two have become hopelessly intertwined.
In the knights’ eyes, Moraima bears the brunt of the blame for Aymer’s decision to remove himself from the fighting. Herman, one of Rainier’s men, suggests that Aymer’s conversion to Islam is an inevitable result of his love: “Hath he let go / Name—Kindred—Honour—for an infidel, / And will he grasp his faith?” (305-6). Rainier initially reacts with anger to the very suggestion, crying “If he were that, had my life’s blood that taint, / This hand should pour it out. He is not that.” As the other men continue to argue for the Muslim woman’s ability to seduce Aymer away from Christianity, however, Rainier relates a tale of one of his ancestors had “A younger son” who brought a “Paynim bride” home from Crusade, though Rainier is careful to recognize that he himself is “not of his
line” (307). According to Rainier, this son subsequently refuses to respond to the call to crusade, and his father, fearing the Muslim woman’s influence, turns against her. Rainier suggestively tells the other men, “Why, thou
hast seen the very spot of blood / On the dark floor!—He slew the Paynim bride; / Was it not well? My brother must not fall!” (308).
Hemans, however, deconstructs the prescribed role of the Saracen seductress by documenting Moraima’s own responses to the accusations. Rainier confronts Moraima in the tomb of her brother, intending to murder her. He hesitates, uncertain whether the deed is commensurate with his knightly honor, but, as Moraima invokes his name to save herself, exclaims, “There’s a name / To bring back strength! / Shall I not strike to save / His honour and his life? Were his life
all—” (310). Moraima herself, however, hearing that Aymer’s honour is jeopardized, promptly offers herself as sacrifice: “To save his life and honour?—will my death— / Do it with one stroke! I may not live
for him!” (310). Rainier, moved by Moraima’s nobility and “high thoughts,” resolves instead to conceal her from Aylmer and inform him that she is dead. Like many other writers of nineteenth-century crusades romances, however, Hemans suggests that romantic love is essential to the very chivalric honor that it deconstructs. After leading Aymer to believe that he has killed Moraima, Raimer offers his brother a banner marked with the cross, but Aymer throws it aside: “The worthless thing! / Fame!—she
is dead!—give a king’s robe to one / Stretch’d on the rack! Hence with your pageantries, / Down to the dust!” (314).
Ultimately, De Chatillon
’s blurring of Muslim and Christian identities proves fatal to both brothers. Just as Moraima demonstrates the flexibility of Hemans’ racial stereotypes, the physical markers of race also become interchangeable in De Chatillon
. Rather than rejoining the Christians in battle, Aymer allies himself with a band of Arabs, assuming a Saracen identity. Gaston, Rainier’s informant, relates that Aymer is “Turban’d and robed like them,” having abandoned the outward markers of his Christian identity (320). Although Rainier is appalled and disgusted at these tidings, he responds by mirroring Aymer’s transformation, disguising himself as a “dervise” in order to win his brother back to the Christian cause (322). Their transgressions of European identities, however, prove fatal. As he attempts to persuade Aymer to return to the Christian army, Rainier throws off his disguise and Aymer calls his new Arab confederates to capture his brother, whom he believes a murderer (326). Rainier is taken prisoner, triggering Aymer’s return to the Christian camps. Aymer persuades the Christian armies to accompany him on the rescue mission, thus redeeming himself in his brother’s eyes, but is mortally wounded in the process. In many ways, this is an inevitable conclusion: outside of the domain of the erotic novel, a narrative containing consummated romance between Christian and Muslim remains unsustainable. To underline this point, Moraima is unable to save Rainier, who hurls himself upon her father’s spears after Aymer’s death, even though they are reconciled. Yet the play ends with Rainier’s reaffirming the crusaders’ mission: “Knights of France! . . . / Your
hour will come! Must the old war-cry cease? / For the Cross—De Chatillon!” (334).
“The Troubadour, and Richard Cœur de Lion”
“The Troubadour, and Richard Cœur de Lion,” a poem originally printed in Hemans’ Tales and Historic Scenes
, recounts the traditional discovery of the imprisoned Richard by Blondel, his minstrel; since this scene emphases the values associated with Victorian medievalism—chivalric loyalty, semi-romantic bonds of love between men, and the restoration of absent crusaders to England—it appears frequently in nineteenth-century crusades romances (see also, for instance, Paul Creswick’s With Richard the Fearless: A Tale of the Red Crusade
). Hemans’ spelling suggests that the widely-performed 1786 French opera Richard Cœur-de-lion
[music composed by André Grétry and the text by Michel-Jean Sedaine] may have been a source for this poem, although no source exists to document the connection. Unlike Hemans’ “Richard Cœur de Lion at the Bier of his Father,” this poem includes a historical preface. It begins with a direct quotation from Russell’s Modern Europe
that details Blondel’s discovery of Richard’s prison. The historical frame suggests the poem’s dual literary and educational purposes: it is intended to stimulate the readers’ emotional response to the past while conveying information about England’s heroic past. Hemans’ immediate historical contextualization of the poem is important because it demonstrates her desire to merge the planes of fiction and history: the readers’ encounter with crusades-inspired poetry should drive them towards a more direct and literal encounter with England’s history, which, in turn will shape their encounter with the modern nineteenth-century world. The excerpt from Russell’s
—beginning with “Not only the place of Richard’s confinement . . . if we believe the literary history of the times, but even the circumstances of his captivity, was carefully concealed by his vindictive enemies” (153)—cautions its audience to understand medieval histories as potentially unreliable due to their literary qualities. This phrase—and Hemans’ inclusion of it at the start of her poem—indicates that, even for the ardent medievalist poet, the overlap between literature and history is not complete.
The majority of nineteenth-century literary works that feature Richard channel their story through a different narrator; Hemans’ poem is no exception. By avoiding direct identification with Richard’s feelings and motivations, these literary works allow themselves critical distance for the analysis and re-interpretation that is essential to Victorian medievalism. Nineteenth-century medievalism demands a revised version of England’s past. As Hemans’ poem follows the passage of the Troubadour in his quest for Richard, it emphasizes that:
He hath sought his prince, the loved, the brave;
And yet, if still on earth thou art,
Monarch of the lion-heart!
The faithful spirit, which distress
But heightens to devotedness,
By toil and trial vanquished not,
Shall guide thy minstrel to the spot. (153-4)
Like Hemans’ previous poem on Richard Cœur de Lion, “The Troubadour” romanticizes the relationships among men, merging chivalric and domestic tropes in order to redefine the performance of masculinity. Indeed, the preface from Russell’s
history shares this emphasis on male friendship and its centrality to chivalry: Russell notes the “grateful attachment” of the minstrel, the “sacred impulse” that convinces Blondel that Richard lies captive within a particular German castle, and his “unspeakable joy” upon hearing Richard join in the song (153). As the stanza above suggests, the poem heavily emphasizes the romantic qualities of male friendship; the connection between the two men and Blondel’s desolate quest through the sublime landscape entirely occupy the first half of the poem. As noted in other entries, romanticized male friendship was a central motif of nineteenth-century medievalism; works such as Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men
and James Eli Adams’ Dandies and Desert Saints
suggest that England’s increasing turn towards mechanical labor caused a crisis in masculinity in the nineteenth century. Consequently, nineteenth-century novels frequently attempt to construct a unified, un-alienated version of modern masculinity that relies upon close bonds among men.