Think not All Is Won
Felicia Hemans and
the Making of Britons
poetic careers can have been more thoroughly devoted to the
construction of national identity than was that of Felicia Hemans's,
writes Tricia Lootens, in her contribution to Angela Leighton's
Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader (1996). For
the majority of Hemans's twentieth-century readers, there is
no question as to which nation was the object of Hemans's constructive
patriotism: of course it was that nation eulogised in such poems
as 'The Homes of England'. There are few more passionately jingoistic
poems in the English language than Hemans's 'The Name of England',
The trumpet of the battle
Hath a high and thrilling
And the first deep gun of an ocean-fight
Dread music all its own.
But a mightier power, my England!
Is in that name of thine,
To strike the fire from every heart
Along the banner'd line.
* * * *
A thousand ancient mountains
Its pealing note hath stirr'd,-
Sound on, and on, for evermore,
O thou victorious word! 
And yet, merely a glance at the contents
pages of a 'Complete' Hemans shows that the poet was equally
capable of empathising with the ancient mountains of her own
isle as they 'stirred' to the pealing note of an anti-English
patriotic war cry. In poems such as 'Chant of the Bards before
Their Massacre by Edward I' and 'Owen Glyndwr's War-Song',
the poetic voice takes up arms on behalf of the Welsh nation,
in its struggles against its thirteenth-century conquerors
and its later rebellions against English rule.
Welsh patriotic verses were published in the 1821 volume Welsh
Melodies, she was hailed by her contemporary Welsh audience
as a 'poet for Wales', and made an honorary member of the
Royal Cambrian Institution in acknowledgement of her role
as a popularizer of Welsh national identity. By birth of mixed
Irish, Italian and German ancestry, Hemans appears to have
been gratified by this reception. According to her own testimony
she regarded herself as a naturalised Welsh woman, having
resided in north Wales since 1800, when her father's failed
business necessitated a family retreat from Liverpool to Abergele
in Denbighshire: Felicia Browne, as she then was, was seven
years old at the time. Cefn yr Ogof Pass, which loomed up
immediately behind the Brownes' new home, for centuries was
a key battle site between the princes of Gwynedd in their
strongholds in Aberffraw and Dolbadarn to the west and the
invading armies of the Saxon, Norman and Plantagenet kings
of England, coming over Offa's Dyke to the east. According
to the nineteenth-century Welsh historian Jane Williams, 'no
spot in the Principality has been more thoroughly saturated
with blood'. 
This spot was Hemans's 'scene of writing' from 1800 to 1828,
during which years she composed by far the major part of her
oeuvre. At the time of the Browne family's arrival in Abergele,
a revival of antiquarian interest in Celtic history, led in
Wales by the recently established societies of the Cymmrodorion
and Gwyneddigion, promoted a local enthusiasm for the old
battle sites and their histories, in which Felicia, as a young
woman, seems to have participated. As some of her verses in
Welsh Melodies are translations from Welsh-language
originals, it would appear that she could also at least read,
if not speak, Welsh.
In 1822, Hemans
composed and delivered in person a poetical address for the
annual Welsh Eisteddfod in which she publicly presented herself
as working within the Welsh bardic tradition. The poem eulogises
the Welsh bards of old as inspired by their historic freedom-fighters:
Well might bold freedom's soul pervade the strains
Which startled eagles from their lone domains,
And like a breeze in chainless triumph went
Up through the blue resounding firmament.
Whence came the echoes to those numbers high?
'Twas from the battle-fields of days gone by,
And from the tombs of heroes laid to rest
With their good swords, upon the mountain's breast.
Nor are their latter-day counterparts, in whose
ranks Hemansthrough her use of the first-person plural
pronounhere firmly includes herself, wanting in Welsh
Land of the bard! our spirit flies to thee!
To thee our thoughts, our hopes, our hearts belong,
Our dreams are haunted by thy voice of song!
Nor yield our souls one patriot-feeling less
To the green memory of thy loveliness
Than theirs, whose harp-notes peal'd from every height,
In the sun's face, beneath the eye of light!
But it is not
the Welsh, or even the British, dead who are eulogized in the
poemalso published in 1822which immediately precedes
'The Meeting of the Bards' in nineteenth-century editions of
Hemans's poetry. In 'England's Dead', while ostensibly mourning
those who fell in Britain's eighteenth-century imperial wars
and its more recent engagements with Napoleon, Hemans also by
implication glories in the world-wide expansion of English dominion:
Go stranger! track the deep-
Free, free the white sail spread!
Wave may not foam, nor wild wind sweep,
Where rest not England's dead. (p. 246)
Poems like 'England's Dead' established Hemans's
reputation, and accounted for both her immediate and subsequent
extensive popularity during the nineteenth century, not only
in Britain but in its most far-flung colonial settlements. But
the fact that Hemans's Welsh patriotic poems by no means gained
the same degree of international prominence in later Victorian
culture as did her English nationalist verse is, of course,
in part the consequence of the vast difference in terms of influence
and power between the two nations at that time, and should not
blind her late twentieth-century readers to the paradoxes in
her position. Is it possible to be the national poet of two
nations at once, particularly given a scenario in which the
existence of one of the nations in question can only be constructed
at the cost of deconstructing the 'greatness' of the other?
Not insubstantial numbers of England's military dead, albeit
of an earlier date, rested beneath Hemans's own back doorstep
in Abergele, but, in the poems in which she evokes the battles
in which they died, it is to their opponents that she accords
her moral appropriation and patriotic fealty. In this paper,
I intend to explore this apparent contradiction further, not
only in relation to Hemans's own writings, but also in terms
of its significance for the construction of early nineteenth-century
Britishas opposed to either Welsh or Englishidentity.
patriotic poems belong to one very specific period in her history
and that of Britain: they were composed during the years immediately
following the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Although
she wrote a few scattered incidental poems with Welsh settings
both before and after the years 1815 to 1822, they are local
rather than national poems, expressive of the warmth of her
feelings only for her immediate home environment and community
rather than for Wales as a nation or for the Welsh as a race.
According to Linda Colley, in her seminal study Britons:
Forging a Nation 1707-1837, the years which immediately
succeeded Waterloo constituted something of a crisis point in
terms of British identity. 'There was,' Colley says, 'a profound
loss of direction involved […] How was Britishness to
be defined now that it could no longer rely so absolutely on
a sense of beleaguered Protestantism and on regular conflict
with the Other in the shape of Catholic France?' 
Colley sees Britain as an invented nation, superimposedduring
the century which followed the Act of Union with Scotlandonto
much older English, Scottish and Welsh alignments and loyalties,
and one which was forged above all by war with France; Britons,
she says, defined themselves as Protestants struggling for survival
against the world's foremost Catholic power. During the 1790s
and early 1800s, British militarism could convincingly be represented
as pre-eminently defensive, as intent on resisting aggressive
French imperialist encroachments on both its own national liberty
and that of its weaker European neighbours: it was not, after
all, until 1805 that Napoleon was finally forced to abandon
his plans to invade Britain. Felicia Browne, at the age of fourteen,
had made her poetic debut with a paean in praise of Britain
as a pre-eminent world freedom-fighter. In her 'England and
Spain, or Valour and Patriotism', published in 1808, Freedom
is personified as the local deity of the British Isles (or rather
Immortal Freedom! daughter of the skies!
To thee shall Britain's grateful incense rise.
Ne'er, goddess, ne'er forsake thy favourite isle,
Still be thy Albion brighten'd with thy smile!
The desecrator of the goddess Freedom is of
course the 'Despot of France! destroyer of mankind!' who in
1808 continued to challenge the forces of Liberty through his
attempts to annex Spain. 'Wouldst thou yet by added crimes provoke
/ The bolt of heaven to launch the fatal stroke?' the young
Felicia asks of Bonaparte?
Bereave a nation of its rights revered,
Of all to mortals sacred and endear'd?
And shall they tamely liberty resign,
The soul of life, the source of bliss divine?
* * * * *
No, tyrant! no! Thy utmost force is vain
The patriot-arm of freedom to restrain.
The poem describes how, as the handmaiden of
the goddess Liberty, the British army under Arthur Wellesley
issued forth to join forces with the guerrilla fighters of Spain
and Portugal and wage the Peninsular Wars against France. It
hails the heroism of Spain's valiant British rescuers with a
patriotic fervour which was no doubt heightened by the fact
that two of Felicia's brothers served in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers,
and at least one of them was fighting in Spain at the time the
poem was composed:
Ye sons of Albion! first in danger's field,
The sword of Britain and of truth to wield! [.]
The reign of Freedom let your arms restore,
And bid oppression fallto rise no more!
and Spain' is not a poem which glorifies war as such, as opposed
to necessary wars in defence of Liberty: it closes with an eulogy
to the 'sweet Peace' which will return once 'mad ambition has
ceased to rage', and Napoleon has finally been taught his lesson.
The 'demon-breath' of war will be assuaged when 'the despot's
dread career is closed, / And might restrain'd and tyranny deposed!'
(pp. 6 and 9). After 1815, however, the problem for both Hemans
on a personal and familial level, and for Britain's image on
an international level, was that although Napoleon's 'mad ambition'
duly ended with his final surrender, neither Britain, nor the
Browne brothers, nor the infantry captain Felicia had married
in 1812, did in fact lay down their arms. On the contrary, the
Waterloo period, and the years immediately following Napoleon's
downfall, saw Britain annexing territories and conquering kingdoms
with as much avid imperialist greed as the French 'tyrant' had
shown at his most despotic. The Ascension Island, British Guiana,
the Ionian Islands, Malta, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Trinidad,
Tristan da Cunha, Tobago, and other territories ostensibly 'freed'
from Dutch or French rule during the Napoleonic wars were annexed
to the British Empire in the settlements of 1814 and 1815. The
Cape of Good Hope became a British colony in 1814; the King
of Kandy was deposed and Ceylon taken in 1815; the Himalayan
kingdom of Nepal conquered in 1816; Singapore taken in 1819;
Gambia and the Gold Coast placed under the British Crown in
1821; the Burmese kings conquered in a series of engagements
which began in 1824; and Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania
established as British territories in 1824-26. These military
engagements, bloody and long-lasting as many of them were, were
not easily construable as fought in the name of Britain's, or
any other nation's, freedom. And yet Felicia, as much as her
brothers and husband, had founded a public career on her role
as upholder and popularizer of Britain's image as the heroic
defender of smaller nations' liberties against the greed and
aggression of more powerful states.
Apart from the
references in the poem 'England's Dead' to far-flung English
corpses, Felicia Hemans wrote few verses either in praise or
disapprobation of these aggressively imperial British engagements.
And yet during the years 1815 to 1821 she continued to compose
poems with a markedly militaristic theme. But her concern now
was with the history of a very different epoch in which Britons,
albeit of a more Ancient variety, could still plausibly enough
be presented as fighting for freedom. In 1819 she won a Scottish
prize poem competition on the subject of William Wallace's invocation
to Bruce to take up arms against the English, and two years
later published her volume Welsh Melodies. That these
works not only operated to preserve the concept of British heroes
as freedom fighters but also, ironically enough at one level,
aided in the construction of a British, as opposed to an English,
Scottish or Welsh, identity, is suggested by one of the reviewers
of her 'Wallace's Invocation to Bruce':
That a Scottish prize,
for a poem on a subject purely, proudly Scottish, has been
adjudged to an English candidate […] demonstrates the
disappearance of those jealousies which, not a hundred years
ago, would have denied such a candidate any thing like a fair
chance with a native […] We delight in every gleam of
high feeling which warms the two nations alike, and ripens
yet more that confidence and sympathy which bind them together
in one great family. 
Binding together the English, Welsh and Scots
in one great fighting family would appear to be part of the
purpose of Hemans's Scottish and Welsh verses. They frequently
work to suggest that the Welsh and Scots should not forget their
historical fighting prowess, but should resurrect and exercise
it in the interests of present-day Britannia. In 'The Fair Isle'
from Welsh Melodies, for example, the native Britons
are rallied in defeat after the coming of the Anglo-Saxons by
a bardic voice which prophesies their final triumph:
Sons of the Fair Isle! forget not the time
Ere spoilers had breathed the free air of your clime [.]
Ages may roll ere your children regain
The land for which heroes have perish'd in vain;
Yet, in the sound of your names shall be power,
Around her still gathering in glory's full hour.
Strong in the fame of the mighty that sleep,
Your Britain shall sit on the throne of the deep. (p. 152)
In so far as the last line quoted above means
anything at all, it presumably refers to that British naval
supremacy which was the primary cause of Napoleon's downfall.
The poet, then, speaking as a prophet, appears to be exhorting
Britain's aboriginal tribes to take an active pride in its future
nineteenth-century imperial triumphs, and to see them as redeeming
their lost honour and liberties. Both the Scots and the Welsh
are pre-eminently interpolated as heroic freedom-fighters in
Hemans's verse of this period.
device, used by Hemans in both 'Wallace's Invocation to Bruce'
and Welsh Melodies, is her frequent reference to those
battles in which Britain's early freedom fighters successfullyaccording
to Hemansvanquished an earlier southern European imperial
invading army, the Romans this time rather than the French.
That the Romans left Britain because Rome was threatened by
the Goths rather than because they had not entirely subjugated
Britain's Northern and Western fringes is ignored in these poems,
and Ancient British valour stressed. Wallace after his defeat
Shrouded in Scotland's blood-stain'd plaid,
Low are her mountain-warriors laid;
They fell, on that proud soil whose mould
Was blent with heroes' dust of old,
And, guarded by the free and brave,
Yielded the Romanbut a grave! (p. 64)
And in Welsh Melodies Caswallon, a king
of the Ancient Britons jeers after the departing Romans, 'Lords
of earth! to Rome returning, / Tell how Britain combat wages!'
('Caswallon's Triumph', p. 150)
The Romans, like
the French, constituted an unproblematic 'Other' against which
'Britain' could readily be represented as united. But the entry
of the Anglo-Saxon into this happy British fighting family required
more delicate negotiation. In the Welsh poems this negotiation
is accomplished through a very particular use of racial terminology:
a splitting of the sign 'Anglo-Saxon', in which Hemans is aided
by the fact that the Welsh and Gaelic terms for the English
as a race'Saeson' and 'Sassenach'derive from the
name of the Saxon—rather than the Anglo-Germanic tribe.
For Hemans in these poems it is not a matter of the Welsh versus
the English but of 'Cambrians' or 'Britons' versus 'Saxons'
only. In 'The Dying Bard's Prophecy' for example, a Welsh bard,
after Edward I's final defeat of the last native Welsh prince
in 1282, interpolates the enemy as Saxon, rather than as Anglo-Norman
or English. With his last breath the bard proclaims:
'Saxon, think not all is won. [.]
Dreamer! that numberest with the dead
The burning spirit of the mountain-land!
Think'st thou, because the song hath ceased,
The soul of song is fled?' (p.
Here the 'Saxon' features as a brute materialist,
unmindful of the power of poetry and the resistant spirit of
the freedom fighter mystically united with his land, but the
'Angles' are not necessarily implicated in his disgrace. Even
as late as 1400 to 1415, during the period of Owain Glyndwr's
ill-fated rebellion, the Cambrians are still only fighting the
Saxons in Hemans's poetry, although by then it would appear
a gross historical inaccuracy to designate their enemy as anything
other than English. 'A sound is on the breeze,' says the doomed
but still resistant Owain, 'A murmur as of swelling seas! /
The Saxon on his way!' (p. 149). In the interest of constructing
the image of the Britons as a united family of liberty-lovers,
Hemans appears ready to sacrifice that lower-ranking, and not
even Christian, churl, the Saxon, but 'the name of England'
must not be defiled.
Nor did the historical
heroes of Catholic Ireland find inclusion in Hemans's Great
British fighting family. Irish freedom fighters are not registered
in her roll-call of the great, which with hindsight was just
as well, given that, after she finally left Wales in 1828, Hemans
was to spend her last years in the Dublin residence of her brother
Lieutenant-Colonel George Browne, the then British Commissioner
of Police in Ireland. As her brother was tasked with the repression
and policing of any incipient contemporary uprisings against
the British Crown in Ireland, it would have been curious, to
say the least, had family loyalties compelled him to welcome
to his home one who had espoused in her verse the cause of those
rebels' predecessors. But Hemans's 'Fair Isle' is always singular,
a Britannia without Ireland, and a Britannia which, moreover,
after 1821, with British unity and its global supremacy apparently
secularly established, she reverts to calling simply 'England'.
Hemans, 'The Name of England', Poems of Felicia Hemans
(Edinburgh and London: Blackwood, 1852), p. 567. All subsequent
references to Hemans' poetry are taken from this edition.
Williams, The Literary Women of England (London: Saunders,
Otley, and Co, 1861), p. 393.
'The Meeting of the Bards', Poems, pp. 246-47; the
italicised last line is a translated quotation from the Welsh
Eisteddfod prayer'Yng ngwyneb haul ac yn llygaid
Colley, Britons: Forging a Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven
and London: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 322.
Monthly Review 2 (1819), on Felicia Hemans' prize-winning
poem 'Wallace's Invocation to Bruce'.
Felicia Hemans (17931835):
Bibliography of Works Held in the Corvey Microfiche Edition
Tales, and Historic Scenes, in Verse. By Felicia Hemans.
(London: John Murray, 1819). 116p.
Corvey (CME 3-628-54233-2).
The Sceptic: A Poem, by Mrs. Hemans. (London: John
Murray, 1820). 38p.
Corvey (CME 3-628-54400-9).
Stanzas to the Memory of the Late King. By
Mrs. Hemans. (London: John Murray, 1820). 16p.
Corvey (CME 3-628-54173-5).
The Siege of Valencia: A Dramatic Poem. The Last Constantine.
With Other Poems. By Mrs. Hemans. (London: John Murray,
1823). iv, 319p.
Corvey (CME 3-628-54746-6).
The Vespers of Palermo: A Tragedy, in Five
Acts. (London: John Murray, 1823). 116p.
Corvey (CME 3-628-53891-2).
Records of Woman: With Other Poems, by Felicia Hemans.
(Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1828). viii, 320p.
Corvey (CME 3-628-54236-7).
The Sister's Budget: A Collection of Original Tales
in Prose and Verse; in Two Volumes. By the Authors of "The
Odd Volume," &c. With Contributions from Mrs. Hemans
[…] (London: Whittaker, Treacher, 1831). 2 vols.
Corvey (CME 3-628-54798-9).
This article is copyright © 2000 Centre for Editorial
and Intertextual Research, and is the result of the independent
labour of the scholar or scholars credited with authorship. The
material contained in this document may be freely distributed,
as long as the origin of information used has been properly
credited in the appropriate manner (e.g. through bibliographic
Referring to this
J. AARON. ' "Saxon, Think not All Is Won": Felicia Hemans
and the Making of the Britons', Cardiff Corvey: Reading
the Romantic Text 4 (May 2000). Online: Internet (date
This article is a revised version
of a paper originally presented at the 'Scenes of Writing,
1750-1850' conference, held 20-23 July 1998, in Gregynog Hall,
Jane Aaron was recently appointed Professor of English Literature
at the University of Glamorgan, after having been Senior Lecturer
at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Her research interests
include the intersections between Anglo-Welsh literature and
the Romantic era. Publications include A View across the
Valley: Short Stories by Women from Wales c.1850-1950
(Honno, 1998), Our Sisters Land: The Changing Identities
of Women in Wales (University of Wales Press, 1994), and
A Double Singleness: Gender and the Writings of Charles
and Mary Lamb (Clarendon, 1991).
10 September, 2007
This document is maintained by Anthony Mandal