Portrait of Hemans
Portrait of Hemans

Felicia Hemans’s poetry may not always be intended to valorize war but might also laments over the loss it creates. She is recognized as a poet who upholds national ideals and who is patriotic, but Hemans’s poetry seems to reveal a darker side of war. Such a perspective produces grief in the reader rather than a sense of glory or national pride. The most salient example is exhibited in her most well-known poem, “Casabianca,” which accounts the death of a young boy. The character’s parental devotion leads to his death. He does not leave a ship his father is an officer of until he receives permission from him. His father is left unconscious during battle and when the ship is under attack, he continues to seek permission until he burns in fire. The poem can be interpreted as a means of teaching children to obey their parents and as representing the military’s loyalty in obeying orders. However, Hemans might also be presenting the negative consequences of war and the loss it leads to.

1970s illustration of Casabianca
1970s illustration of Casabianca

War not only has the potential to destroy countries, its lands and natural landscapes but can also dissipate life, obliterating it to the point where nothing is left and where nothing seems to have ever existed. Hemans says in her poem, “There came a burst of thunder sound/The boyoh! where was he?/Ask of the winds that far around/With fragments strewed the sea!” (33-36) This description might be intended to evoke a sense of grief for the loss of life, particularly one that has been lost meaninglessly. Though readers will remember his “faithful heart” and unwavering obedience, they might also experience a feeling of grief at the way life is lost during war. This might be a contemporary interpretation imposed on the poem, but it is possible for readers to feel the senselessness of such a loss, one incurred in the absence of receiving an order, which is a mundane or everyday occurrence in war.

Siege of Valencia during the Napoleonic Wars
Siege of Valencia during the Napoleonic Wars

Another poem that expresses a similar sentiment on war is Heman’s “The Siege of Valencia.” Although it valorizes the bravery of those who die in war, it also laments the loss of life. Like “Casabianca,” this poem mourns the loss of young life: “But it is not youth which turns/From the field of spears again/For the boy’s high heart too wildly burns/Till it rests amidst the slain.” (45-48). In this poem, Hemans might be expressing the feverence with which young boys go to war or the anxiousness they feel in desiring to go to war. Her point might be that they leave in glory and pride but never even reach manhood when they do. Often times, emotions of grief and loss are counterbalanced by descriptions that valorize war. Hemans says, “Thou canst not say that he lies low/The lovely and the brave/Oh, none could look on his joyous brow/And think upon the grave!” (49-52). Yet, following these lines she also says, “Dark, dark perchance the day/Hath been with valour’s fate” (53-54). Though he has gone to war with pride and he dies with the same feelings of glory, the day he meets his fate is “dark.” Thus, there is nothing victorious or valorous in death.

Hemans poetry on war seems to offer mixed sentiments as it does not lead readers with positive emotions on war; indeed, it leaves them in a state of ambivalence. Furthermore, it is difficult to access where Hemans stands on war as she may not be as patriotic as most of her contemporaries have assumed.

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