“Sick for Home”: the Figure of Ruth in the Romantic Imagination

This essay explores why so many nineteenth-century British writers and artists reimagined the biblical figure of Ruth, beginning with Keats’s "Ode to a Nightingale," which surprisingly depicts Ruth as “sick for home… amid the alien corn.” It also considers works by Felicia Hemans, Thomas Hood, John Adams-Acton, and Grace Aguilar that follow in Keats’s wake but have received little scholarly attention. I argue that Keats shaped a new representational tradition in which Ruth becomes a figure of alienation and homesickness. In doing so, Keats departs from the Bible but aligns with contemporaneous anxieties about psychological, national, religious, and even racial otherness.

“Sick for Home”: the Figure of Ruth in the Romantic Imagination

[E]ven Gentile writers are struck by [the Book of Ruth] and refer to it with high eulogiums on its touching beauty and impressive truth.
— Grace Aguilar, Women of Israel (1844)

The Book of Ruth can be read as a tale of incomplete mourning, a fable of failed transition.
—Bonnie Honig, "Ruth, the Model Émigré: Mourning and the Symbolic Politics of Immigration" (1998)

1.        In the penultimate stanza of "Ode to a Nightingale" (1819), Keats takes an unexpectedly biblical turn, describing how the titular bird’s song was once heard by Ruth “when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn” (lines 66–67). This reference to the protagonist of the Book of Ruth is unexpected first because the poem has previously eschewed religious allusions in favor of those from classical mythology, Shakespeare, and Milton; Keats himself privileged poetic imagination over religious revelation. As Adam Plunkett explains, “Shakespeare was scripture for him, and scripture was not; he knew them but didn’t revere them.” But it is even more unexpected because of its interpretation of Ruth herself. Keats’s description of Ruth as homesick in an “alien” land is, as we shall see, not in keeping with the biblical text nor with the general tenor of nineteenth-century responses to it—of which there were many. Indeed, along with Keats, the nineteenth-century British writers and artists who adapted or alluded to Ruth’s story include William Blake, Thomas Hood, Felicia Hemans, Christina Rossetti, Grace Aguilar, William Tennant, Benjamin Farjeon, George Eliot, George Dawe, Charles Eastlake, George Frederick Watts, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Walter Crane, Simeon Solomon, Thomas Matthews Rooke, and John Adams-Acton. Such a list, by no means comprehensive, prods us to consider why so many British artists and writers from this period imagined—and reimagined—Ruth.

2.        The Book of Ruth itself continues to generate diverse interpretations. Scholars as varied as J. Hillis Miller, Julia Kristeva, Sylvia Barack Fishman, and Bonnie Honig have read the Book of Ruth to comment on the nature of literary theory and translation, twentieth-century debates about European immigration, and the liberating power of mothers in the Bible, respectively. But nineteenth-century British cultural adaptations of the Book of Ruth have generated limited scholarly analysis. Given how deeply the Bible saturated this culture, this gap is surprising, and one I hope to begin to fill in by examining Romantic interpretations of Ruth, attending to the intertextuality of literary and artistic production. According to Northrop Frye, one of the few critics to treat literary adaptations of Ruth, this “comparative neglect” can be traced to what he terms “the irrepressible cheerfulness of the story, which is all about completely normal people fully understanding one another and leaves the literary imagination little to do.” [1] As I demonstrate, some of the nineteenth-century writers and artists who did imagine Ruth would disagree. For, as "Ode to a Nightingale" reminds us, their renderings of Ruth, particularly as a stranger in a strange land, a foreigner in a new nation, are not always “irrepressibl[y] cheerful.”

3.        There are many reasons Ruth became a compelling vehicle for Romantic writers and artists but all stem from the way the particulars of her biblical narrative chimed with the cultural dynamics of their own era. Despite being one of the shortest parts of the Bible, The Book of Ruth entails everything from religious conversion, mother-daughter relationships, and marriage laws, to agricultural practices and migration, not to mention love, loss, birth, and sex—in other words, topics with longstanding appeal but specific early nineteenth-century iterations. Like many of the writers I consider, I am particularly interested in Ruth as a figure who traverses geographic, religious, and national boundaries. In fact, the Book of Ruth has been read as a welcoming counterpoint to the ethnic isolationism and tribalism of later books Ezra and Nehemia.

4.        The story opens when Naomi, her husband, and her sons leave Bethlehem due to famine and arrive in Moab, where the sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. After the death of her sons and husband, Naomi decides to return to Israel, apparently never having felt at home in the “country of Moab” (King James Bible, Ruth 1.6), one of the first signals that the text conceptualizes “home” in both familial and national terms. Initially, Ruth and Orpah say they will follow Naomi. But when Naomi urges them to “return each to her mother's house,” only Ruth refuses, pledging in what have become among the Bible’s most quoted lines, “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (1.16). Together, they journey to Bethlehem. There, Ruth gleans in fields that turn out to belong to Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi’s who protects Ruth even though she is a “Moabitish damsel,” a “stranger” (2.6, 2.10). Through Ruth, the incorporation of strangers, foreigners, immigrants, into the Jewish people is celebrated, seen as her “full reward . . . given thee of the Lord God of Israel” (2.12), as well as Naomi’s reward for her past suffering. Boaz and Ruth go on to marry and have a son, Obed, who becomes a forbearer of David and Christ, making Ruth, an outsider, essential to both Jewish and Christian lineage.

5.        Moreover, in both Jewish and Christian theology, Ruth has been seen as an early, if not the earliest, convert. But there is some ambiguity about just what she converted to: a family, a faith, an ethnic group, or something more like a nation? The ambiguity is embedded in Ruth’s pledge to Naomi. The “ands” (“. . . I will go; and where thou lodgest . . . thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God”) simultaneously elide and distinguish between territory, family, ethnicity, and religion. Because the Book of Ruth can be read at once as lauding and exposing the uncertainty of religious conversion and national belonging, its narrative resonated with nineteenth-century anxieties about Englishness and what Michael Ragussis has termed its “culture of conversion,” one fixated on Jews (15–17). Increasingly, writers, Christian and Jewish, employed the Book of Ruth as a lens through which to examine not only gender and conversion, but immigration, national belonging, and Jewish acceptance in modern England.

6.        In the works about Ruth I consider in this essay, these topics manifest themselves in the emphasis (or notable lack thereof) on Ruth’s familial relationships and faith in God, depictions of land and landscape, and conception of “home,” a frequently invoked term intertwined with English domestic ideology and experiences of migration. I focus on Keats’s "Ode," then consider works that follow in its wake: Felicia Hemans’s and Thomas Hood’s poems entitled "Ruth" and sculptor John Adams-Acton’s "Ruth Amid the Alien Corn." I conclude with a reading of Anglo-Jewish writer Grace Aguilar’s exegesis of Ruth in The Women of Israel (1886), which subtly fashions Ruth not just as a Moabite convert to Judaism but as a Jewish immigrant in England. How might Keats’s revision of Ruth—one that reads her against the grain, to use an apt harvest metaphor—elucidate Romantic dynamics of longing and belonging? What does it mean to recast Ruth as an emblem of loneliness, in effect as an out-of-place immigrant, at this moment in early nineteenth-century English culture? I argue that Keats shaped a new representational tradition in which Ruth becomes a figure of alienation and loss. In doing so, Keats departs from the Bible but aligns with contemporaneous sympathies and anxieties about psychological, national, and religious otherness. As Aguilar averred, “the women of the Bible are but mirrors of ourselves” (8). [2]

7.        That nineteenth-century writers saw England as analogous to Ruth’s Bethlehem is supported not only by the general view of England as a “new Israel” but by the specifics of the imagery and language used in some texts and visual art. Take Scottish poet William Tennant’s "Ruth and Naomi" (1836), a poem reprinted in journals and anthologies for several decades. Tennant concludes,

The younger [Ruth] with her mother [Naomi] went,
With gentle footsteps westward bent,
Till they reach’d Bethlehem’s green ascent. (58–60)
This description echoes both the end of Milton’s Paradise Lost and that of “England’s mountains green” in William Blake’s Milton, which also contains the most famous iteration of England as a new Jerusalem. Blake was likely the first figure associated with Romanticism to portray Ruth. In Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804–1820), Blake includes “Ruth the Moabite” in the sacred “Maternal Line” (213). He takes up Ruth in more detail in two captivating images, "Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab" (1795) and "Ruth the Dutiful Daughter-in-law" (1803). Both depict what Blake, in his Descriptive Catalogue, deemed “the most pathetic passage in the Book of Ruth, where Naomi having taken leave of her daughters in law, with intent to return to her own country; Ruth cannot leave her, but says, ‘Whither thou goest [. . .]’” (549). Blake translates this passage into a tableau of three figures at the moment of decision, Ruth clinging to Naomi on the left and Orpah turning away on the right. “Naomi entreating . . .” offers a sadder, gloomier take on the scene, with Naomi’s expression pained and Orpah bent in grief. Blake’s second version of this scene, still somber, is more uplifting. Naomi’s arms are literally raised up, Ruth no longer crouching. They embrace more naturally, eye-to-eye, as if the image endorses their union. In both compositions, Ruth and Naomi are offset by Orpah. She functions as Ruth’s mirror image, her body echoing Ruth’s but traveling in the opposite direction, back towards Moab, towards the familiar past, to accentuate Ruth’s movement towards the future.

8.        While Blake’s complex engagement with the Bible is well-covered, these images have received scant critical attention. In this, they are typical of Romantic representations of Ruth. Blake’s images are also typical—if anything in Blake’s idiosyncratic work can be deemed typical—in emphasizing Ruth’s relationship with Naomi and the moment of conversion and connection. [3] What stands out about visual representations of Ruth from this period is their relationality. Whether they envision her refusal to leave Naomi, her first conversation with Boaz in his fields, their first night together on the threshing floor, or her holding Obed, they see Ruth as a social being, reinforcing her official roles of daughter-in-law, wife, mother, and/or ancestress of the Jewish and Christian people. Blake’s images are certainly not “cheerful.” But their sorrow stems from Ruth’s fear of division from Naomi; for nineteenth-century viewers who, raised on the King James Bible, all knew what was coming, they contain the promise of Ruth’s future happiness in her soon-to-be-home of Bethlehem.

9.        With these iterations of Ruth in mind, I want to return to Keats, whose reference to Ruth is likely the most famous in nineteenth-century literature. "Ode to a Nightingale" is one of six odes now located at the heart of the Keats canon and the Romantic tradition. Keats was twenty-four, two years before his death from tuberculosis, when he composed the poem in the spring of 1819. "Ode to a Nightingale" has been read as a meditation on poetry’s power and limitations, as well as its relationship to music, represented by the nightingale’s “immortal” song (1ine 61). Also notable is the poem’s attraction to erasure and escape, what Helen Vendler has termed “imaginative self-annihilation,” all familiar Romantic concerns (102). In the stanza preceding Ruth’s appearance, for example, Keats’s confides in the nightingale that

it seems rich to die . . .
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!” (55–57)
By the seventh stanza, Keats follows the nightingale’s song back in time:
The voice I hear this passing night was heard 
In ancient days by emperor and clown: 
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path 
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, 
She stood in tears amid the alien corn; 
The same that oft-times hath 
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam 
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Of all the religious and literary figures to select, why Ruth? Why “alien,” why the tears? Scholars have tried to account for Keats’s decision in various ways. Barry Gradman, for example, theorizes that, “while Keats here is speaking consciously of Ruth, he may be thinking, unconsciously, of Cordelia in King Lear,” a link traced in part to their shared “filial piety” (16, 22)—despite the very different sources, natures, and endings of their filial affection. Victor Lams hears echoes of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Most persuasive is Jeffrey Baker’s connection to Wordsworth’s "Solitary Reaper" from 1807 (152). There are some notable resemblances that suggest Keats may have been influenced in part by Wordsworth’s poem; in addition to referencing a nightingale, "Solitary Reaper" features a woman “single in the field,” singing by herself a tune that haunts the speaker in ways that foreshadow the melancholy music of Keats’s nightingale. However, Wordsworth’s reaper is a generic “Highland lass,” a rural type rather than a specific individual or character, let alone one as well-known as a popular biblical figure.

10.        Keats himself provided no explanation for his incorporation of Ruth. His letters contain only one reference to Ruth, but unrelated to the composition of "Ode to a Nightingale"; he deems her a “deep one,” presumably due to her strategic enticement, at Naomi’s urging, of the sleeping Boaz on the threshing floor ("Complete Works" 124–25). This letter only adds to the uncertainty of Keats’s poetic adaptation of Ruth, since in the poem she seems neither sensual nor sly, neither marriageable nor manipulative. To the extent that Keats would have viewed Ruth in relation to the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, and/or Jews, we can examine his letters on these topics; they include a few references to connections with and a few disparaging jibes at Anglo-Jews. For instance, in a letter from the same year as "Ode," he remarked, “I hope I have learned a little better and . . . am confident to cheat as well as any literary Jew of the Market and shine up an article on any thing without much knowledge of the subject” (95). [4] This casual, depressingly familiar type of comment suggests Keats’s skepticism about the sincerity of Anglo-Jewish writers (note the way Jewish writers are figures of “the Market” rather than of the mind) but does little to illuminate his overarching opinions about Anglo-Jews, immigrants, or the Book of Ruth in this context. Thus, it is impossible to ascertain definitively what Keats was thinking when he selected Ruth for "Ode to a Nightingale."

11.        But the poem’s language, imbued with its historical context, can help us arrive at a better understanding of how Keats’s Ruth functions in the poem and might have resonated with his readers as an outcast, a psychological other. To fully understand Keats’s startling revision of Ruth, we must recognize the way the poem links her not just to a universal, ahistorical sadness but also to contemporaneous socio-political discussions about territory, immigration, and national belonging. Particularly revealing are the phrases “sick for home” and “alien corn,” the latter of which presents an especially original, memorable juxtaposition. These phrases evoke early nineteenth-century debates about whether foreigners, and Jews specifically, could join an Englishness that sometimes saw them as—and sometimes itself seemed— “alien.” Assessing the place of representations of Jews and Judaism in Romantic culture, Judith Page maintains that they “test the Romantic faith in the efficacy of sympathetic imagination and its implied ideal of an inclusive community” (xii). Keats’s Ruth, who calls forth the readers’ sympathies precisely because of her marginality, her sense of being cut off from her homeland, reinforces this analysis. Keats extends his sympathetic imagination to Ruth by contemplating what it might feel like to be a foreigner away from one’s original home, and does so in part by granting her a sympathetic imagination, one capable of memory and desire.

12.        Fittingly, the stanza featuring Ruth illustrates how the nightingale’s song can transcend the categories of time, nation, and class that structured early nineteenth-century English society. The poem tracks the song “[t]hrough . . . winding mossy ways,” back to the “ancient days” when it might have been heard by “emperor and clown.” The generality of these terms makes the arrival in the next lines of Ruth (the only specific character mentioned in the poem) all the more striking. Keats may have heard the same song as emperor and clown, but it is with Ruth that he feels a special kinship. From the ode’s opening confessional declaration—“My heart aches” (1) —Keats lays the groundwork for the parallel between Ruth’s “sad heart” and his own, transforming her into a figure of emotional struggle and estrangement. [5]

13.        But again, if Keats was looking for a literary or biblical figure symbolizing sorrow, surely there are more obvious choices. In the Bible, by the time she is gleaning, Ruth has already voluntarily pledged herself to this new land and people; while not yet married to Boaz, she is taking the first steps towards securing the happy ending: a successful marriage plot, to put it in nineteenth-century terms. The contrast between a more typical rendering of Ruth and Keats’s version can be illustrated by returning briefly to Tennant’s poem (published a few years after Keats’s but characteristic in its depiction of Ruth). Tennant’s version opens with Naomi telling her daughters-in-law to return home. Naomi, not Ruth, is the one who is “broken and forlorn” and “sick of heart” (6, 8); the phrase “lorn and sick of heart” becomes a kind of refrain, Naomi’s epithet. Following the biblical verses, Ruth and Orpah shed tears with Naomi at the thought of parting, but Orpah returns to Moab while Ruth vows to join Naomi as her comforter, preparing “sweet solace” (42) for her as they take their way to Bethlehem. As I noted at the start, this trajectory is presented in muted but optimistic tones, rising literally and figuratively with the poem’s final phrase: “green ascent.”

14.        In contrast, there is no green ascent, no hopeful progress or welcomed familial inclusion for Ruth in "Ode to a Nightingale." By the next stanza, the poem’s last, Ruth has also been cut off from Keats, or rather Keats has been cut off from her. The “forlorn” at the end of the Ruth stanza is repeated at the next stanza’s start. Keats is left with his “sole self” (72), a phrase underlining his aloneness, since by definition the self is one’s own. We might say he has been alienated from his fellow aliens. In fact, Keats excises all the other figures from the biblical story: his Ruth is neither daughter-in-law, wife/widow, vulnerable supplicant/youthful seductress, nor new wife/mother. Instead, she floats free from the Book of Ruth’s plot, almost as if she has been dropped into the poem’s dreamscape of “alien corn,” emphasizing the disconnect between Ruth and the land.

15.        The only part of the Bible story that remains is her status as “a stranger,” though her attitude towards that status is quite different. Moab is unnamed, but presumably it is the “home” for which she longs. It’s as if Keats’s Ruth has a touch of Orpah in her, a reluctance to leave what Keats implies was her true country. The description of Ruth raises the question: can one actually be “sick” for home? The concept of homesickness or nostalgia was comparatively new, emerging in the mid-1700s among soldiers, travelers, and immigrants in an increasingly mobile European society; starting with Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in the late 1680s, it was thought to be an actual, physiological disease—meaning one could literally be “sick for home.” [6] Perhaps Keats, who trained as a surgeon, would have been familiar with this diagnosis. In any case, Keats creates a Ruth who is out of place, nostalgic for her lost country. He implicitly adopts the immigrant condition as a symbol of his own dislocation and emotional exile. In doing so, he modifies the pattern of Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, all of whom at some point appropriated the figure of the Wandering Jew to embody a broader or more personal sense of restless estrangement from normative English life. [7]

16.        The Book of Ruth, Adele Berlin asserts, is about “the continuity of the people and its land” (260), from exile and return, to customs governing harvest and land inheritance. Similarly, J. Hillis Miller sees the Book as a “story . . . organized around the crossing of borders and the establishment of territorial rights” (217). In "The Politics of Gleaning in Keats," Andrew Bennett elucidates an aspect of these territorial rights relevant to Keats’s cultural moment. Bennett explains that in 1818, due to new laws governing enclosures that restricted access to land previously available for harvest, the “the very concept of the gleaner underwent a sea-change—from the archetypal beneficiary of charity to a criminal . . .” (34–38). Building on Bennett’s analysis of those excluded from the bounty of English land, I want to add another implication of “alien corn.”

17.        In early nineteenth-century culture, the term “alien” was one with dual registers. There is the emotional alienation associated with Romantic poets and that we have already seen at work in Keats’s poem (“do I wake or sleep?”). But there is also a national meaning of “alien”: an immigrant or outsider from Englishness. “Alien” did not refer to Jews only, yet the term was regularly used to describe them and surfaced often in deliberations over their legal and cultural status. From the so-called “Jew Bill” of 1753 to the Aliens Act and creation of the Aliens Office in 1793, and early efforts at Jewish emancipation, Keats was writing during a period in which there was a proliferation of parliamentary speeches, sermons, novels, and articles about whether Jews belonged in England (which had only allowed them back under Cromwell in 1656), whether they could or must convert to Protestantism, and whether they deserved “alien” status. Examples range from texts as different as Reports on the diseases in London: particularly during the years 1796–1800 (“I have seen [the disease ‘lethargy’] mostly in Jews and other aliens of a dark, swarthy complexion” [Willan 277]) to the 1810 article "Progress and Practice of the Jews in England" (“the Jews, in the eye of the Common Law, were always looked upon as Aliens; neither natural-born subjects, nor capable of being naturalized; but to remain perpetual Aliens” [Lemoine 18]). Within a decade after the publication of "Ode to a Nightingale," during Parliamentary deliberations over the proposal for the Removal of Jewish Disabilities, Robert Peel would endorse the view that “The Jew . . . is regarded in the light of an alien—he is excluded because he will not amalgamate with us in any of his usages or habits.” In contrast, Thomas Macaulay would reject the logic that Jews “cannot be made Englishmen altogether. The statesman who treats them as aliens, and then abuses them for not entertaining all the feelings of natives, is as unreasonable as the tyrant who punished their fathers for not making bricks without straw” (150). [8] This kind of public discourse, I suggest, informed the way Keats’s readers encountered his Ruth, a Jew who is also not a Jew and an alien who is also not an alien, when they found her “amidst the alien corn.” She can be read as a woman gleaning simultaneously in the fields of ancient Bethlehem and early nineteenth-century England, a convert to (proto) Judaism in the Bible and as a Jewish immigrant to modern England.


18.        "Ode to a Nightingale" inaugurated a new way of envisioning Ruth, one that grew alongside more familiar depictions of Ruth in the nineteenth-century cultural imaginary. The impact of Keats’s Ruth can be traced in the works of both those who followed his interpretive lead and those who responded to and countered it. John Adams-Acton’s sculpture "Ruth Amid the Alien Corn" (c.1863) [9] and Somerset Maugham’s story "Alien Corn" (1931), for instance, take their titles from Keats. Maugham’s story—a fascinating, disturbing account of the fatal hybridity of a young Englishman who discovers his Jewish roots—is subtler in its debts to Keats and beyond the historical scope of this essay. [10] But Adams-Acton’s Ruth is directly mediated by Keats’s poem; the line “Ruth, when, sick for home, she stood in tears amid the alien corn” is engraved at the bottom of the pedestal upon which she stands. Even without the quotation, this Ruth captures a Keatsian sorrow and isolation in marble. She stands, leaning on one hip, knee slightly bent, head down. She looks as if she has fallen into an unhappy memory, having ceased the gleaning indicated by the sheaves of wheat at her side. Her youthful face and despondent pose radiate homesickness, while her unclothed torso adds an element of eroticism, making her a figure of sympathy and sexual appeal.

19.        Perhaps Adams-Acton was thinking, too, of Thomas Hood’s poem "Ruth" (1827), which eyes Ruth through the desirous gaze of Boaz, the poem’s speaker. Hood moved in similar circles to and was deeply influenced by Keats in his serious verse, including his "Ruth," published eight years after Keats’s "Ode" (Whitley 39). Like Keats, Hood envisions Ruth not with Naomi, but in the fields: “Thus she stood amid the stooks . . .” (15). Yet the similarities end here. Boaz paints Ruth as both sexually fertile (“she stood breast high amid the corn” [l.1], her skin is “ripened” and has the “glowing kiss” of the sun [6, 4]), and domestically devoted (“Praising God with sweetest looks” [16]). The poem concludes by offering an implicit alternative to Keats’s “homesick,” alienated Ruth. Boaz’s final line offers to “share my harvest and my home” (20). The alliterative linkage between “harvest” and “home” underscores the biblical narrative of Ruth’s integration into a new “home” through immigration and intermarriage. Her gleaning—and Boaz’s willingness to share—analogizes the view of immigrants as welcomed to the fruits of the land.

20.        The most interesting, in my view, of the texts resembling Keats’s "Ode" is Felicia Hemans’s sonnet "Ruth" from her late collection Female Characters of Scripture: A Series of Sonnets (1833, 1834). The most famous poet of the era, Hemans was “met with immediate and extensive popularity,” according to one Victorian critic (qtd. in Wolfson 602–3); her best-known poems became “virtual national anthems” (Wolfson xiii). Over the past two decades, scholars have reassessed Hemans’s ambiguous place within the (traditionally masculine) Romantic literary landscape—including whether she should be seen as Romantic at all or rather as an early Victorian—and debated her constructions of gender, nationalism, and empire (Leighton 2, Cronin 67–109). Throughout her poetry, themes of motherhood, faith, “feminine” subservience and yet also female self-expression predominate. Her work might be said, drawing on titles to two of her collections, to offer Records of Woman with a particular, if not untroubled, focus on championing Domestic Affections.

21.        Despite such engagement with domesticity and gendered spirituality, Hemans’s late work on biblical women has garnered relatively little attention, her portrayal of "Ruth" even less. (For instance, accomplished recent readings of Hemans’s work by Wolfson, Angela Leighton, Jason Rudy and others do not discuss these sonnets at all.) There are a few helpful exceptions. In "Glorification of the Lowly in Felicia Hemans’ Sonnets ‘Female Characters of Scripture’," Anne Nichols laments the overlooking of Hemans’s late religious works in part because they capture “the ambivalence [Hemans] and many of her contemporaries held towards the position of women,” ultimately employing biblical figures to “broad[en] standard definitions of acceptable femininity” (559, 574). Others have noted the sonnets’ “contradictory combination of the emancipatory and the conservative,” concluding that the collection is more gender-flexible than readers might expect (Mason and Roberts 73). [11] "Ruth" offers a test case for Hemans’s emphasis on women’s power, one that hinges on the now-familiar, if frequently contested, “sense of home” in early nineteenth-century culture and Romantic tradition.

22.        "Ruth" is one of fifteen sonnets in Female Characters of Scripture, first published in Blackwood’s in 1833. The collection was initially divided into two sections: one featured Old Testament "Daughters of Judah," from Miriam and Ruth to Rizpah and the Shunamite woman; the other focused on New Testament figures such as Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the "Penitent Anointing Christ’s Feet." That Hemans (who earlier published "The Hebrew Mother") frames Ruth with the Hebrew Bible suggests she views Ruth in a specifically Jewish but also a typologically-driven “Judeo-Christian” context. [12] The collection opens with a bifurcated invocation. The first part summons “the gracious Forms” of Old Testament women, with their “dark prophetic Eastern eyes,” to return and “renew” contemporary England (597)—a figurative, poetic immigration of sorts. The second part shifts to New Testament women, who are praised not for their “prophetic” power but for their “heart subdued” (597). The first sonnet, a tribute to Miriam, provides the clearest championing of female poetic skill (Melnyk 74). However, "Ruth," the second sonnet, retreats from that “prophetic” vision, resting Ruth’s appeal on her “calm heart” and “gentle eye.” I cite the sonnet in full:

The plume-like swaying of the auburn corn,
By soft winds to a dreamy motion fann’d,
Still brings me back thine image—O forlorn,
Yet not forsaken Ruth! I see thee stand
Lone, midst the gladness of the harvest-band—
Lone, as a wood-bird on the ocean’s foam
Fall’n in its weariness. Thy fatherland
Smiles far away! yet to the sense of home—
That finest, purest, which can recognise
Home in affection’s glance—for ever true
Beats thy calm heart; and if thy gentle eyes
Gleam tremulous through tears, ’tis not to rue
Those words, immortal in their deep love’s tone,
“Thy people and thy God shall be mine own!” (598)
Compared to Keats, Hemans draws more overtly on the Biblical account. As in the Bible, Ruth’s gentleness and devotion are prominent, particularly her devotion to God. Hemans repurposes the best-known part of Ruth’s pledge as the sonnet’s final line, emphasizing its import with the couplet’s rhyme (“tone”/“own”). (Weaving the language of the Bible directly into verse was a common strategy in poetic representations of biblical figures at this time.)

23.        Yet the “image” of Ruth that is “brought back” to Hemans, I argue, derives more from Keats than the King James. [13] There are many echoes of "Ode to a Nightingale" here: corn, bird, tears, weariness, the Romantic atmospherics of “dreamy motion fann’d.” Both poets approach Ruth from the perspective of the lyric I rather than a detached third-person observer or Ruth herself. Nor do they write from the position of another figure from the story, as Hood does with Boaz. In fact, Boaz and Naomi are notably absent from Hemans’s adaptation just as they are from Keats’s (technically Naomi is implied by “thy,” but the referent is never made explicit). In Hemans, the speaker seems almost to be re-living an experience of witnessing Ruth in the fields at harvest time: “I see thee stand / Lone, midst the gladness of the harvest-band,” the speaker recounts. Whether this “I” is part of the “harvest-band,” a detached observer, or perhaps Hemans herself is unclear. But it is the Romantic affiliation with Ruth’s marginalized condition and the implicit testament to the power of imagination to call it forth from personal or cultural memory that is central.

24.        As this reference to Ruth’s loneliness indicates, the resemblance to Keats is most significant in the way Hemans, too, fashions a sympathetically isolated Ruth. The poem ostensibly argues for the lack of regret Ruth feels having chosen her new family and faith in Bethlehem:

and if thy gentle eyes
Gleam tremulous through tears, ’tis not to rue
Those words, immortal in their deep love’s tone,
“Thy people and thy God shall be mine own!” (598)
In other words, Hemans implies that Ruth’s nostalgic sorrow for her people and her nation (“fatherland”) is exceeded by her religious faith.

25.        Yet the poem’s muted tone and repetition of Ruth’s solitude run counter to this argument. There is something insistent and almost monitory in “’tis not to rue,” as if the speaker is trying to convince Ruth, readers, and herself that Ruth has no second thoughts. The “forlornness” of the epithet “O forlorn / Yet not forsaken Ruth!” lingers on. In fact, “forlorn” lingers from Keats, who uses the word twice in "Ode to a Nightingale." Hemans paints Ruth “lone, as a wood-bird” allied with nature rather than the surrounding people. Even within nature, Hemans describes Ruth as a bird in the wrong natural space—a wood-bird stranded, fatally, over the ocean. (The brutality of “fall’n in its weariness” can be missed upon first reading—“perilous seas” indeed.) Hemans further isolates Ruth “lone, midst the gladness of the harvest-band.” She is cut off from the comfort of both nature and culture; the “harvest-band” in Bethlehem is rejoicing without her and Moab is “smil[ing] far away!” Again, it is worth noting this puzzling departure from the Book of Ruth, in which Moab is not depicted sentimentally. No substantive details about the land are provided, aside from the fact that this is where Naomi’s husband and two sons die. Ruth herself never looks homeward or signals any doubts about her decision. Instead, she repeatedly expresses gratitude for the kindness shown to her as “a Moabitish damsel” in this new land of promise and plenty (Ruth 2.6).

26.        The alienation of Hemans’s Ruth is mitigated by the poem’s reliance on the gendered trope of home. Hemans’s investment in home, Deborah Kennedy argues, should not be read as merely a sign of “conventional domesticity. If we only view the word ‘home’ as an encoded term for the oppression of women, then we deprive it of a complex of significations” (281–2). (Kennedy does not address "Ruth" but her analysis of home in Hemans’s oeuvre can apply to Female Characters of Scripture.) "Ruth" implies that its protagonist, despite mourning her homeland, has forged a more valuable, transportable version of home. “Home” is contained in the feminine “affectionate . . . glance” rather than a physical space. This notion of “home” embodied, literally, in women’s bodies offers some measure of control and “calm” in an unpredictable world.

27.        But the notion that home can be constructed out of woman’s love and embodied affection is undercut by the ultimate aloneness and loneliness of Hemans’s Ruth. If “home” resides in a woman’s glance, who will actually look into Ruth’s “gleam[ing]” eyes? Who will “recognise” Ruth’s “pure” love? Emma Mason and Jonathan Roberts read the absence of male biblical figures in the sonnet collection as a strategy Hemans employs to redistribute narrative power to women (72). This rings true for Hemans’s account of Miriam, and might make sense in terms of leaving out Boaz, or even Obed. But what about Naomi? Would not the poem’s articulation of female influence through shared affection be more powerful if Ruth had someone with whom she could share it? The biblical text as well as the many visual representations of Ruth provided a range of representational strategies embodying Ruth’s inclusion. By choosing to focus on Ruth weeping rather than entwined with Naomi, Boaz, or Obed, Keats and Hemans rewrite Ruth’s defining characteristics as loneliness, alienation, and nostalgia.


28.         The last text in this essay’s lineage of Ruths is Grace Aguilar’s "Women of Israel" (1844). Aguilar is a fitting writer with whom to conclude because she was indebted to Romanticism’s language of feeling, particularly Hemans’s narratives of domesticity and spirituality (Galchinsky 373); like Keats, Hood, and Hemans, her understanding of Ruth pivoted on conceptions of home as domestic and national space. Yet she offers a distinctive Anglo-Jewish rebuttal to the construction of an alienated Ruth. “No Jewish female author has attained the . . . well-deserved popularity achieved by Grace Aguilar,” The Jewish Chronicle declared: “Her numerous literary productions have been read and appreciated in England, America, Germany, and France. Her Women of Israel . . . is a book teeming with powerful lessons to her own sex and eloquent exhortation to the opposite sex” (qtd. in Cyclopædia 69). The foundational lesson Aguilar imparts is not just the value of Jewish women in biblical history, something she thinks has been overlooked both in the patriarchal Jewish exegetical tradition and the Protestant mythologizing of Jewish women, but their striking relevance. She follows Hemans’s lead to consider how “female characters of scripture” might serve as “warning” and “example” for nineteenth-century women, Anglo-Jewish women in particular (7). As “mirrors of ourselves” (14), the Women of Israel refract nineteenth-century concerns about the compatibility of Englishness and Jewishness. This is particularly marked in Aguilar’s reading of Ruth. Part literary biography, part midrash, part conduct book, [14] her chapter on the Book of Ruth begins:

We now come to a portion of our history as women of Israel which from the loveliness of female character that it displays, has in neither history nor romance been equaled. In the Bible it is termed the book of Ruth; but as Ruth does not properly belong by birth and ancestry to the women of Israel, Naomi must be the subject of our consideration. With her history, however, Ruth is so entwined that we cannot reflect on the one without also pausing on the touching beauty of the other. (223)
This seemingly perfunctory introduction, with its familiar gendered praise, perfectly captures the paradox of Ruth’s belonging: on the one hand, Aguilar claims that she “does not properly belong,” a belonging predicated on lineage and ethnicity that cannot be erased even after conversion, marriage, or immigration. With its vaguely coercive “must,” the passage redirects our attention to Naomi. On the other hand, Aguilar recognizes that Ruth is “so entwined” with Jews, that it’s impossible to ignore her. Nor, it seems as the chapter progresses, does Aguilar want to.

29.        In fact, what makes Aguilar’s interpretation of Ruth so interesting—on its own terms and in light of the trajectory of Ruths previously surveyed—is how it subtly inverts the original story, aligning the non-Jewish Ruth with Victorian Jews and the Jewish Naomi with Protestant England. This inversion is evident in Aguilar’s repeated emphasis on Ruth’s choosing to become a Jew, which makes her “as worthy if not even more so to be the ancestress of David than the lineal descendants of Abraham” (236). Aguilar writes:

When Ruth resigned alike home, parents, and the gods of her youth, she voluntarily engrafted herself upon the children of God . . . her acceptance of, and obedience to, the Law were entirely voluntary not merely received from education and as heritage. (235)
In this reading, Anglo-Jews are like Ruth in that they (or their ancestors) voluntarily chose to move to England and accept English laws and habits; thus they could be viewed as not only equal but more worthy of Englishness than those who have “merely” inherited it.

30.        To a writer who articulated her frustration that in England “Jews are still considered aliens and foreigners” and thus “separated . . . from sympathy and fellowship” (Aguilar, "History" 332), Keats’s version of Ruth in the “alien corn” might have struck a discordant note. Yet Aguilar’s reading of Ruth likewise meditates upon what Ruth might have remembered about her past and whether true belonging in a new land is possible. Aguilar is clear that Ruth has not forgotten—“We never find Ruth forgetting her origin” (244), we are reassured—but she differentiates between forgetting and nostalgizing. By privileging choice and faith over blood and race, Aguilar attempts to transform the potentially unsettling fact that Ruth continues to be seen as simultaneously Israelite and Moabite into a model for Anglo-Jews to be both English and Jewish. Her Ruth preserves a degree of difference, yet is emphatically part of the national family. In Bethlehem/England, she is not “sick for home”: she is home.

31.        In situating Aguilar in an artistic lineage—a “maternal line”?—of Ruths, my aim has been to demonstrate that such Romantic adaptations of Ruth were in conversation with each other, conversations that crossed medium and genre. Moreover, I hope to have demonstrated that such works were also in conversation with fundamental nineteenth-century cultural concerns not often seen as relevant to the seemingly “cheerful,” pastoral idyll of the Book of Ruth. Without registering the backdrop of British desires and anxieties about forms of alienation, belonging, and belief, we risk missing what made Ruth both so popular and so meaningful. For it is not despite but precisely because there is a debate about whether Ruth “does not properly belong” that she is so “entwined” with—indeed, so at home in—the nineteenth-century cultural imagination.

Works Cited

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Aguilar, Grace. "History of the Jews in England." Grace Aguilar: Selected Writings, edited by Michael Galchinsky, Broadview, 2003, pp. 313–53.

———. The Women of Israel, or, Characters and Sketches from the Holy Scripture and Jewish History. 16th ed. Groombridge and Sons, 1886.

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Baker, Jeffrey. John Keats and Symbolism. St. Martin’s, 1986.

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Bennett, Andrew J. "The Politics of Gleaning in Keats's ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘To Autumn.’" Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 39, 1990, pp. 34–38.

Berlin, Adele. "Ruth and the Continuity of Israel." Kates and Reimer, pp. 255–60.

The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.

Blake, William. Jerusalem. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David V. Erdman, U of California P, 2008.

———. "Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab." 1795, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1795-William-Blake-Naomi-entreating-Ruth-Orpah.jpg.

———. "Ruth the Dutiful Daughter-in-law." 1803, Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Blake,_Ruth_the_Dutiful_Daughter-in-law,_1803_Southampton_Art_Gallery.jpg.

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Cronin, Richard. Romantic Victorians: English Literature 1824–40. Palgrave, 2002.

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Dames, Nicholas. Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction. Oxford UP, 2001.

Dodman, Thomas. What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion. U of Chicago P, 2018.

Dwor, Richa. Jewish Feeling: Difference and Affect in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Women’s Writing. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

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Frye, Northrop. "The Bride from a Strange Land." The Eternal Act of Creation: Essays, 1979–1990, edited by Robert D. Denham, Indiana UP, 1993.

Galchinsky, Michael. The Origin of the Modern Jewish Woman Writer: Romance and Reform in Victorian England. Wayne State UP, 1996.

———."Romantic and Victorian Reflections on ‘the Jewish Question.’" Grace Aguilar: Selected Writings, edited by Michael Galchinsky, Broadview, 2003, pp. 372–82.

Gracombe, Sarah. Cultural Englishness and the "Homeopathic Dose": Jewishness in the Victorian Novel. 2005. Columbia University, PhD dissertation.

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Gradman, Barry. "King Lear and the Image of Ruth in Keats's ‘Nightingale’ Ode." Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 25, 1976, pp. 15–22.

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[1] Frye discusses the Book of Ruth in "The Bride from a Strange Land" (58). Eve Stoddard’s A Genealogy of Ruths: From Alien Harvester to Fallen Woman in Nineteenth-Century England is the only other attempt to assess Ruth as a nineteenth-century figure I have encountered. Stoddard focuses on echoes of Ruth in poems about harvesting that do not mention the Book of Ruth. She also hears echoes of the biblical Ruth in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth and Wordsworth’s poem of an abandoned, mad young woman named Ruth, leading Stoddard to argue for connections between the biblical story and female fallenness (though she admits that the connection is “somewhat tenuous and ironic” in Wordsworth’s case (53)). While very interesting, these biblical echoes are somewhat faint. BACK

[2] All Aguilar quotations come from Women of Israel (1844) unless otherwise noted. BACK

[3] Among other artists to do the same in the years after Blake were his admirer and friend George Richmond ["Ruth and Naomi," c. 1837–40], George Dawe ["Naomi and her Daughters" (1804)], Thomas Rooke ["Naomi, Ruth and Obed" (1876)], and Simeon Solomon, the Anglo-Jewish Pre-Raphaelite who painted and drew Ruth repeatedly. BACK

[4] For further comments on Anglo-Jews, see Keats’s letter of Feb. 24th, 1819 to George and Georgiana, in which he describes going to a chapel built by “a great Jew converter” who has spent lots of money on “a great number of poor Jews.” Keats adds that “of course his communion plate was stolen” and that the “converter” spoke to his [presumably Jewish] clerk, who apologized and said, “‘I dare shay, your honor, it’s among ush’” (26). According to Andrew Motion, Keats’s mother may have lived with a Jewish man named Abraham after his father’s death, while Fanny Brawn married a Sephardic Jew after Keats’s death (32, 568). BACK

[5] In Imagination Transformed: the Evolution of the Female Character in Keats’s Poetry, Karla Alwes briefly analyzes Ruth in similar, ahistorical terms as “a wanderer and stranger” for whom “earth holds no solace” but does not note the significant departure this constitutes from the biblical account of Ruth, whose solace arguably derives in part through her gleaning from the earth’s bounty (125). BACK

[6] The OED cites 1748 as the first use of “homesick.” On the history of nostalgia in the early nineteenth-century, see Thomas Dodman, What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion and Nicholas Dames, Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction (29–31). BACK

[7] See Wordsworth’s "Song for the Wandering Jew" (c. 1800), Shelley’s "The Wandering Jew" (c. 1809), and Coleridge’s "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798), as well as much Gothic fiction from the era. BACK

[8] See Thomas Babbington Macaulay, "Jewish Civil Disabilities" (1829). The Aliens Act of 1793 also continued to have implications for Jews, occasionally being used to deport “suspicious” Jewish peddlers (Endelman 276). Although they do not address Ruth in Keats, Hemans, or Aguilar, Sheila Spector’s two edited collections of work on British Romanticism and Jews offer helpful overviews of the way Jews informed and were informed by Romanticism and English politics between the defeat of the “Jew Bill” and Emancipation. BACK

[9] The sculpture was exhibited at the International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, Dublin, in 1865 and likely made in 1863 ("International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, Dublin, 1865"). In 2013, Christie’s listed a version by the “workshop of John Adams-Acton” as, according to the Italian inscription “Originale John Adams Acton Fect Roma 1863.” BACK

[10] See the conclusion of Cultural Englishness and the "Homeopathic Dose": Jewishness in the Victorian Novel for my reading of Maugham’s "Alien Corn." BACK

[11] See "Glorification of the Lowly in Felicia Hemans’ Sonnets ‘Female Characters of Scripture" (559, 574). Nichols offers a rare reading of Hemans’s "Ruth," one that emphasizes her domesticity and her progress from “lowly” to “exalted” in ways that typologically align with Hemans’s representations of New Testament women. See also Emma Mason and Jonathan Roberts (72–83). BACK

[12] Cynthia Scheinberg notes that the rise of the female poet (as cultural image and economic figure) parallels the rise of discussions of Jewish identity and nationality (35). BACK

[13] There is, to my knowledge, no direct documentary evidence that Hemans modeled her sonnet on Keats, but she read widely in the literature of the period, was personally friendly with Wordsworth, Shelley, and other Romantic poets, and also seems to echo Keats in other poems; Gary Kelly, for instance, notes the resemblance between a passage in Keats’s "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and one of Hemans’s in Forest Sanctuary (Felicia Hemans 233n1). Ultimately, I think the similarities of language and approach in the texts themselves constitute sufficient evidence to support this reading. Even if Hemans did not know "Ode to a Nightingale," her sonnet would still buttress my thesis that there was a cultural shift towards representing Ruth as alienated and homesick. BACK

[14] See Galchinsky’s Origins of the Modern Jewish Woman Writer for the fullest account of Aguilar’s work and its reception history. On Aguilar’s debts to the female conduct manual genre, see Valman (93); on her debts to and adaptation of midrash, see Dwor. I briefly explore Aguilar’s depiction of Ruth in "Reflections on Ruth in Grace Aguilar’s The Women of Israel (1887)." Taking Turns: New Perspectives on Jews and Conversion: An Online Exhibition from the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies 2010-2011 Fellows at the University of Pennsylvania (2011). BACK