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Felicia Hemans 1793 – 1835


The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck,
Shone round him o’er the dead.

Shortly before her death, Felicia Hemans predicted that ‘my poetry, except some half dozen pieces, may be consigned to oblivion.’ It was a strange statement coming as it did from someone already famous and celebrated as one of the most popular poets of her day, and given that her contemporaries included Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Scott. Achieving fame as a poet was a considerable accomplishment, for a ‘poetess.’ Felicia Hemans was certainly encouraged and respected by her peers and developed personal friendships with both William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott.

Felicia Dorothea Hemans  was an English poet. Two of her opening lines, The boy stood on the burning deck and The stately homes of England, have acquired classic status. Felicia Hemans' paternal grandfather was George Browne of Passage, County Cork, Ireland; her maternal grandparents were Benedict Paul Wagner a wine importer at 9 Wolstenholme Square, Liverpool, and Elizabeth Haydock Wagner of Lancashire. Felicia Dorothea Browne was the fourth of six Browne children (three boys and three girls) to survive infancy. Of her two sisters, Elizabeth died about 1807 at the age of eighteen and Harriet Mary Browne Owen married first the Revd T. Hughes, then the Revd W. Hicks Owen.

She was born Felicia Dorothea Browne on 25th September 1793 in Liverpool. When her father's business failed about 1800, the family moved first to Gwrych, an isolated Welsh seaside house; then, in 1809, to St. Asaph, Wales. Felicia was a clever child who began to read at an early age and did so voraciously from the well-stocked family library. She read novels and poetry, learned several languages, and studied music, primarily under the direction of her mother. According to her sister, Felicia "could repeat pages of poetry from her favourite authors, after having read them but once over." When she was eleven or twelve she spent two successive winters in London, where she was awed by the paintings and sculptures.

Grade I listed Gwrych Castle overlooks the 500 year old Hen Wrych Hall,
 once home to the poet Felicia Hemans

Her first poems, dedicated to the Prince of Wales, were published in Liverpool in 1808, when she was only fourteen, arousing the interest of no less a person than Percy Bysshe Shelley, who briefly corresponded with her. She quickly followed them up with "England and Spain" published in 1808 and later “The domestic affections", published in 1812, the year of her marriage to Captain Alfred Hemans, an Irish army officer some years older than herself. The marriage took her away from Wales, to Daventry in Northamptonshire until 1814.

During their first six years of marriage, Felicia gave birth to five sons, including Charles Isidore Hemans, and then the couple separated. Marriage had not, however, prevented her from continuing her literary career, with several volumes of poetry being published by the respected firm of John Murray in the period after 1816, beginning with "The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy" (1816) and "Modern Greece" (1817). "Tales and Historic Scenes" was the collection which came out in 1819, the year of their separation. Felicia Hemans moved to Dublin in 1831, where she could be near one of her brothers. Her poetic output continued. Her major collections, including The Forest Sanctuary (1825), Records of Woman and Songs of the Affections (1830) were immensely popular.

First published in August 1826 the poem Casabianca (also known as The Boy stood on the Burning Deck) by Felicia Hemans depicts Captain Louis de Casabianca and his 12-year-old son, Giocante, who both perished aboard the ship Orient during the Battle of the Nile. The poem was very popular from the 1850s on and was memorized in elementary schools for literary practice.

Her second book, England and Spain, or, Valour and Patriotism, was published in 1808 and was a narrative poem honouring her brother and his military service in the Peninsular War. The poem called for an end of the tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte and for a long lasting peace after the war. The poem is very patriotic towards Great Britain as seen in Heman's multiple references to "Albion" which is an older name for the isles of Great Britain.

She died in Dublin on the 16th of May, 1835, at the age of 41. Her death was attributed to a weak heart, which may have been the common affliction of rheumatic fever.

Memorial tablet to Felicia Hemans in St Ann's church,
Dublin. Photograph by Jeremy Taylor.


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