Hemans, Hume, and Philosophical Scepticism

Extract from Debating Confession: The Poetics of Self-expression, 1815-1850, an unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of London, 2001).

Anne Hartman

We present an extract (p.24-36) from Hartman's third chapter, "Tormenting the Confessor: Felicia Hemans and the Constructed Self."

Other poems investigated in this chapter are "A Spirit's Return" from Songs of the Affections (1829), "To My Own Portrait" (first published 1836) and "Our Daily Paths," one of Hemans's responses to Wordsworth. The chapter closes with a discussion of
The Forest Sanctuary.

Hemans, Hume, and Philosophical Scepticism

  1. The poems which I have discussed thus far were written in the later part of Hemans's career. I shall for the remainder of this chapter focus on a somewhat earlier period, in this section discussing The Sceptic (1820) and in the final section The Forest Sanctuary (1825). Having argued that Hemans writes a particular kind of confessional lyric, which takes the confessional lyric as its subject, I shall now focus my attention on the philosophical context for her desire to write a dramatic poem about the "record of a mind," her 1825 extended monodrama The Forest Sanctuary, the poem which she regarded as her finest and which is arguably her most intellectually ambitious and poetically accomplished. I shall be interested in delineating the exact nature of the debate in which she is involved, suggesting the reasons for her interest in the emergent science of the mind, and its consequences for her aesthetic. In my discussion of "Our Daily Paths," I pointed out how the speaker's experience of the world corresponds to the model of the mind proposed by empiricist philosophers, in particular Locke and Hume. I also have suggested that Hemans's aesthetic is of the Humean variety, and that she develops a model of the self as construct, querying how the mind becomes subject, as against the transcendental self of high romanticism.[1] While we can observe a strong current of Humean influence in her work, she acquires these Humean ideas via the Common Sense philosophers, whose work comes out of Humean arguments but differentiates itself from Hume, particularly with regard to the tendency of his arguments to undermine religious faith, and also the extreme form of scepticism with which he was associated, somewhat unfairly, at the time. Hemans's negotiation with Hume is linked with her investment in a poetics of sensibility and falls squarely within the position of the Common Sense philosophers, who sought to carry on the analysis of mind within a framework which gave credence to innate tendencies of human nature and intuition and which managed to reconcile the materialist tendencies of the science of the mind with a religious sensibility.

  2. As I have already suggested through my readings of her lyrics, Hemans mimics the gendered structure of metaphysical thought, but she does so in way which loosens its claims to truth. The discourse against which she is working is overtly displayed in the many reviews of her poetry; we may take as an example a commentary from The Edinburgh Monthly Review on The Sceptic, to which I shall be turning shortly. The review begins by positioning her work within the expressive paradigm and a gendered discourse of sensibility: "the verses of Mrs. Hemans appear the spontaneous offspring of intense and noble feeling, governed by a clear understanding, and fashioned into elegance by an exquisite delicacy and precision of taste."[2] As we have seen, in her lyrics Hemans partly occupies this characterization, but nearly always resists a complete identification with it. The reviewer initially applauds Hemans's choice of subject matter and her method of address, described as never ceasing in its delicacy to be "strictly feminine" (374). The reviewer imagines a worst-case scenario of "a coarse and chilling cento" written by a woman which displays "the revolting exhibition of a female mind, shorn of all its attractions, and wrapt in darkness and defiance" (374). For this reviewer, Hemans manages the remarkable feat of both achieving the qualities praised in male poets, while not trespassing the decorum required from a woman: she keeps
    [ . . .] every talent in sweet and modest subordination to the dignity of womanhood,–emulating the other sex in the graceful vigour of genius, but scrupulously abstaining from all that may betray unfeminine temerity or coarseness in its exhibitions. [. . .] It is here that we recognise the graceful and appropriate direction of the female intellect, and not in that sneering scepticism which in man is offensive–in woman, monstrous and revolting. (375) (Go to the Edinburgh Monthly Review)
    Venturing onto the grounds of philosophical inquiry was a risky move for a woman writer since the incorrect exercise of the female intellect can result in the monstrous, and Hemans is skillful in her ability to remain within the acceptable boundaries of feminine behaviour. Chad Edgar has shown how Hemans's career in the literary public sphere was effectively curtailed by her male reviewers when she attempted to write on political topics instead of the occasional effusive lyric.[3]

  3. The rigid gender essentialism of this discourse surrounding philosophical thought takes us quite far in understanding what Hemans has to gain from a model of self as construct, and as composed of difference, as opposed to the universal subject presumed by high romanticism. We find that Hume himself was vulnerable to attack on not dissimilar grounds for his own transgression of conventional gendered categories. In 1820, a reviewer in The Edinburgh Monthly Review assesses Hume, saying that while he possessed refinement of mind, good taste, a fine imagination, and a talent for composition, his reasoning power and judgment were severely lacking;
    His reasoning powers were not of that masculine and vigorous kind, which seizes at once the main points of the subject to which they are applied–shaking off all minor objections–diverging into no bye-paths – but holding an onward and undeviating course to the truth. The tendency of Hume's reasoning faculty was towards the examination of minor obstacles, and the exploring of untrodden paths.[4]
  4. To a late twentieth-century reader, this criticism works rather to endear Hume to us, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was seen as too open to an alarming relativism. Further, we can see how Hume's method of argumentation deviated from the norm of masculine rationality, thus disturbing the reigning gender ideology, which gives us a further clue to his appeal for the woman writer.

  5. Feminist philosophers have much invested in defining identity as something which is a process and which is relational and fluid, rather than that which is premised upon a priori, transcendental grounds. A recent example of this can be found in Christine Battersby's The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity (1998) which outlines a "theoretical grounding for a self which is born, and which is gradually shaped as it negotiates and renegotiates otherness, registering the resonances and echoes that the repeated movements produce."[5] While Battersby is pursuing a phenomenological approach to identity, we can see how the Humean model of the self provides a similar kind of latitude. Feminist philosophers have in recent years rediscovered Hume as possible source for a feminist epistemology, although there are differences in opinion on this account.[6] Annette Baier, perhaps Hume's most influential feminist advocate, believes that, philosophically, his outsider status invoked his self-definition as "monstrous," and as such he was "an unwitting virtual woman."[7] Baier emphasizes how Hume achieved a shift in the understanding of reason:
    From being a quasi-divine faculty and something that we share with God, it becomes a natural capacity and one that we essentially share with those who learn from experience in the way we do, sharing expressive body language, sharing or able to share a language, sharing or able to share our sentiments, sharing or able to share intellectual, moral and aesthetic standards, and sharing or aspiring to share in the setting of those standards.[8]
  6. Baier is convinced by the collaborative tendencies of Hume's model, a view also shared by Sarah A. Bishop Merrill, who focuses on Hume's theory of identity, and claims that it is useful because of the way it foregrounds social interaction.[9] The interest which Hume holds for current feminist philosophers helps illuminate the attraction which Humean-derived ideas would have for a woman poet. The legacies of the Humean system—a more flexible model of the mind, an interrogation into the grounds of identity, and an emphasis on the sociality of the passions—all find their way into Hemans's poetic.

  7. When we turn to evaluate the influence of Hume, it is most relevant to see how his ideas were circulated and interpreted at the time amongst Hemans's contemporaries. The "correct" understanding of Hume is thus less relevant for my purposes than the contemporary misreadings of Hume. Nonetheless, it will be useful here to summarize the key notions in his thought, which are set out in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). According to Hume, there are no innate ideas in the mind; all ideas are derived from impressions, which arise through sense experience. There are certain tendencies regarding how the mind organizes ideas through association—such as a predilection to perceive causality, and a liking for resemblance and contiguity—but these tendencies merely have to do with how we organize our ideas and impressions, not with their origin, which is for Hume always sense experience. Hume does not believe that there is any proof for either the notion of the continued existence of objects, or causation. Although he is accepting of the mind's tendency to attribute these relations, he holds that in fact all we have are fleeting perceptions of objects, and they do not exist outside of these sense perceptions. Particularly infamous is the direction Hume's thinking takes when he comes to consider the putative existence of the self. The self turns out to be simply another object, and as is the case with all objects, we can have nothing but fleeting impressions of ourselves: "what we call a mind, is nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions, united together by certain relations, and suppos'd, tho' falsely, to be endow'd with a perfect simplicity and identity."[10] This account of the mind as lacking substantive identity produces profound antireligious consequences.[11] This Proteus-like mind, forever eluding self-identity, "is not subject; it is subjected" as Deleuze will come to claim in his study of Hume, Empiricism and Subjectivity.[12]

  8. It is generally agreed that Hume is actually less of a sceptic than has often been supposed, as he is more concerned to provide a system purged of false rationalism than to reject notions of truth and falsity altogether. Although often quoted as saying that reason is the slave of the passions, the effect of Hume's philosophy was to interrogate the limitations of reason.[13] For Hume, it is not so much that objects do not exist outside our perception of them; its just that we have no way of proving that they exist. Moreover, Hume is persistent in acknowledging the human tendency to attribute existence and constancy to objects outside of perception, even though this cannot be proven.[14] One useful source for evaluating the response to Hume not only in the early nineteenth century but for the Victorians proper is Leslie Stephen's History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876). Here is Stephens's summary of the nineteenth-century understanding of the Humean system:
    The "substance" in which the qualities of the phenomenal world are thought to inhere is a concept emptied of all contents, and a word without a meaning. The external world, which supports the phenomena, is but a "fiction" of the mind; the mind, which in the same way affords a substratum for the impressions, is itself a fiction; and the divine substance, which, according to the Cartesians, causes the correlation between those two fictions, must–that is the natural inference–be equally a fiction.[15]
  9. This extreme interpretation of Hume, where certainty exists neither in the world nor in the mind, cannot find support in his texts, but it is not difficult to see how his thinking was open to such a misreading. Hume's texts were frequently the object of misrepresentation, primarily for his writings on religion (which I shall address shortly) but also for the particular style of his argumentation, which in its restless questioning could be seen to continually undermine even those premises on which his argument might be seen be based.

  10. In any case, the arguments in the Treatise of Human Nature are not that with which he was primarily associated during the nineteenth century, but rather his undermining of religious belief, primarily through his Essay on Miracles (1740-41), now considered a relatively minor chapter in his work.[16] The remarks of Leslie Stephen passionately convey the impact of Humean scepticism upon the religious sensibility of the era: "We have in his pages the ultimate expression of the acutist scepticism of the eighteenth century; the one articulate English statement of a philosophical judgment upon the central questions at issue."[17] Stephens is apologetic when he comes to focus upon Hume's writings on religion, explaining that "he is known as the author of this particular dilemma; all else that he wrote is ignored."[18] Hume sought to bring science to the study of human nature, and as such he demanded empirical evidence to back up what he considered to be the largely groundless speculations of previous philosophy and theology. His Essay on Miracles had become infamous for its attack upon the faith required by Christians; the essay argues that empirical evidence for miracles does not exist, and therefore they cannot be accepted as proven. Any argument for the influence of Humean thinking in the period must take into consideration that he was primarily reviled as a heretical thinker for his writing on religion.[19]

  11. Although it would be reasonable to conclude that Hume's ideas in the Treatise would not have survived these ad hominem attacks, they were in fact kept strongly in circulation through the work of the Scottish Common Sense philosophers–primarily Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart, and Thomas Brown–and this was the route through which Hemans would have been acquainted with his ideas. Although eager to position themselves against what was taken to be a dangerous scepticism, the Common Sense school were all heavily indebted to Hume, and even while opposing themselves to him they were inadvertently continuing his influence. The Common Sense school sought to continue the theory of experience initiated by Hume, while attempting to avoid the dangerous element of scepticism–injecting "common sense" to fill in those troubling areas of doubt. Hemans was personally acquainted with Stewart and the work of Brown was particularly in vogue during the early 1820s; after his death in 1820, Brown's lectures were published for the first time and were reviewed with much interest in the same periodicals in which Hemans's work was published and reviewed.[20] I shall be particularly interested in examining the influence of Brown upon Hemans's thinking in my later discussion of The Forest Sanctuary.

  12. In the period prior to 1820, roughly the first half of her career, Hemans's poetic is characterized by historical subjects, particularly deriving from the Mediterranean.[21] The Sceptic is pivotal in her career, as it signals a shift from historical themes to philosophical and moral ones, a shift which will culminate in 1825 with The Forest Sanctuary, which although ostensibly a poem with a historical subject takes a philosophical imperative, as it is as much about the process of experience and memory as it is about history proper. We can see Hemans's poetry shot through with the influence of Hume, but also struggling to articulate a distinction which will keep at bay the points of his thinking which undermine religious faith. It is not clear whether Hemans had first-hand knowledge of Hume, but she was certainly exposed to his ideas, through, as I have suggested, the work of Stewart and Brown, with which she was familiar, and more broadly through the discourse of sensibility, so indebted to Humean thought, through which she works. She undertakes a new direction at this point in her career, and she does it through inquiring into many of the philosophical questions in circulation during her day. Her earlier work, although in a classical mode, is infused with the philosophical ideas which created sentimental styles which had gone out of fashion decades before. When she seeks a change of direction, she inquires more deeply into the premises of her language of affect and sensibility. As such, she takes part in the same conversation with Hume as the Common Sense philosophers, in holding on to the model proposed by Hume while infusing it with other elements to renew it as a viable discourse for a Christian culture. It is not entirely coincidental that Hume published an essay also entitled "The Sceptic" (1741-42) although Hemans's poem by the same name makes only glancing reference to it. [22]

  13. In the next section, on The Forest Sanctuary, we will see a direct intertexuality between her writing and that of Hume's inheritors, the Common Sense philosophers. However, I do not want to argue that there is a clear intertextual link between Hume's writings and Hemans's poem, because although studying the two texts alongside one another is suggestive, there is no evidence to suggest that Hemans wrote her poem as a direct rebuttal to Hume. Nevertheless, Hemans's poem does reflect the contemporary circulation of Hume's thought. The poem's overtly moral project was well-received by contemporaries such as Hannah More, and was applauded in notices in the The Quarterly and The Edinburgh Monthly Review, the latter which described the poem as a "moral essay."[23] With its moral, didactic subject and marching meter, the poem is quite unlike any other in Hemans's corpus. Chorley calls The Sceptic the only poem "of a purely didactic character, ever written by Mrs Hemans."[24] The poem takes on a variety of those false philosophies which divert the Christian from faith and the hope of afterlife, "Luring the wanderer, from the star of faith,/To the deep valley of the shades of death."[25] What this scepticism proposes is no point beyond "a dark eternity," and the poem addresses itself to those who have wandered from faith:
    Is all so cloudless and so calm below,
    We seek no fairer scenes than life can show?
    That the cold Sceptic, in his pride elate,
    Rejects the promise of a brighter state,
    And leaves the rock, no tempest shall displace,
    To rear his dwelling on the quicksand's base?

    Votary of doubt! then join the festal throng,
    Bask in the sunbeam, listen to the song,
    Spread the rich board, and fill the wine-cup high,
    And bind the wreath ere yet the roses die!
    'Tis well, thine eye is yet undimm'd by time,
    And thy heart bounds, exulting in its prime;
    Smile then unmov'd at Wisdom's warning voice,
    And, in the glory of thy strength, rejoice!
    [ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
    But thou! whose thoughts have no blest home above,
    Captive of earth! [ . . . ]
    To fix each hope, concentrate every tie,
    On one frail idol,–destined to die,
    [ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
    Then tremble! cling to every passing joy,
    Twin'd with the life a moment may destroy! (23-80)
    (Go to The Sceptic, line 23)
  14. The cold Sceptic in this poem is a figure who has rejected religious belief to focus his attention on earthly pleasure. Byron is the figure most behind her sceptic, but Hume is also a figure sitting behind the "cold Sceptic."[26] (Go to The Sceptic, line 25) A reviewer in Blackwood's in 1818, in an article which proclaims Hume's inferiority as a philosopher to his contemporary Samuel Johnson, explains how "the coldness of David Hume's character enabled him to shake off all vulgar peculiarities of thought and feeling, and to ascend into the regions of pure and classical intellect. No English writer delivers his remarks with such grace."[27]

  15. Turning to Hume, here I quote at length from the famous conclusion to the first part of the Treatise, the confessional moment of the text, where Hume exposes his self-doubt. The passage is conspicuous in the text, as Hume sets aside his philosophical musings for personal rumination.
    Methinks I am like a man, who having struck on many shoals, and having narrowly escap'd ship-wreck in passing a small frith, has yet the temerity to put out to sea in the same leaky weather-beaten vessel, and even carries his ambition so far as to think of compassing the globe under these disadvantageous circumstances. My memory of past errors and perplexities, makes me diffident for the future. The wretched condition, weakness, and disorder of the faculties, I must employ in my enquiries, encrease my apprehensions. And the impossibility of amending or correcting these faculties, reduces me almost to despair, and makes me resolve to perish on the barren rock, on which I am at present, rather than venture myself upon that boundless ocean, which runs out into immensity. This sudden view of my danger strikes me with melancholy; and as 'tis usual for that passion, above all others, to indulge itself; I cannot forbear feeding my despair, with all those desponding reflections, which the present subject furnishes me with in such abundance.

    I am first affrighted and confounded with that forelorn solitude, in which I am plac'd in my philosophy, and fancy myself some strange uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been expell'd all human commerce, and left utterly abandon'd and disconsolate. [. . .] Every one keeps at a distance, and dreads that storm, which beats upon me from every side.[28]
  16. He describes himself as in despair at the immensity of the journey which he has undertaken, shaken by the "disorder of the faculties" upon which he must rely. Hume continues to describe his disillusionment with his philosophical vocation, which leads his brain to become "heated" and to ask of himself such questions as "From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return?" Relief from his despair comes in the form of rest and relaxation:
    Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bend of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour's amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.[29]
  17. He continues to explain that his disillusionment with philosophy is expelled by the natural inclination he possesses for speculative thought, so that after he has tired of merriment and sociability "I feel my mind all collected within itself, and am naturally inclin'd" to continue his philosophical work.[30] Later in the same passage he makes a reference to the superiority of philosophy over religion, saying that "generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous."[31] Even without his remarks which clearly reveal his religious disbelief, this could be assumed from his philosophy: he allows no constancy to the self, and so it would be hard to imagine him believing in the immortality of the soul.

  18. Hume's passage presents the archetypal attitude of the sceptic, as Hemans phrases it, seeking "no fairer scenes than life can show." In his despair, full of "desponding reflections," Hume describes himself as resolving to "perish on the barren rock" rather than venture out into the "boundless ocean" of his speculations. Hemans describes the sceptic as one who "rejects the promise of a brighter state,/And leaves the rock, no tempest shall displace,/To rear his dwelling on the quicksand's base" (6). (Go to The Sceptic, line 27.) Hume begins his passage by likening his state to one who has undertaken a journey on a "leaky weather-beaten vessel" and then describes his lashing from public opinion as "that storm, which beats upon me from every side." Hemans informs the sceptic who is floundering in an ideological tempest that "No strange, unwonted storm there needs,/To wreck at once thy fragile ark of reeds" (10).

  19. I will now turn to another instance of parallelism between the two texts. In his essay "The Sceptic," Hume places his own philosophy alongside those philosophers he disputes, pointing out how their root deficiency is to underestimate the diversity and variety of the world and attempt to set down maxims which do not account for this diversity: "They confine too much their principles, and make no account of that vast variety which nature has so much affected in all her operations."[32] He promotes an extreme subjectivity, suggesting that things acquire their characteristics through "the particular constitution and fabric of human sentiment and affection" (164). He delineates the operation of passions and affections, and claims that "some passions or inclinations, in the enjoyment of their object, are not so steady or constant as others, nor convey such durable pleasure and satisfaction" (169). The object which religion offers does not rank highly in this schema: "an abstract, invisible object, like that which natural religion alone presents to us, cannot long actuate the mind, or be of any moment in life. To render the passion of continuance, we must find some method of affecting the senses and imagination, and must embrace some historicalas well as philosophical account of the Divinity" (170). In the latter part of his essay, Hume holds up celebrated philosophical aphorisms to critique. One of the aphorisms he disputes–"All ills arise from the order of the universe, which is absolutely perfect. Would you wish to disturb so divine an order for the sake of your own particular interest?" (176) –is also present in Hemans's poem:
    Oh! vainly reason's scornful voice would prove
    That life hath nought to claim such lingering love,
    And ask, if e'er the captive, half unchain'd,
    Clung to the links which yet his step restrain'd?
    In vain philosophy, with tranquil pride,
    Would mock the feelings she perchance can hide,
    Call up the countless armies of the dead,
    Point to the pathway beaten by their tread,
    And say–"What wouldst thou? Shall the fix'd decree,
    Made for creation, be revers'd for thee?" (26-27)
    (Go to The Sceptic, line 383)
  20. Despite the fact that Hemans strongly rejects Hume's anti-religious stance, his claims about the importance of "human sentiment and affection" are ideas which the poet shares. In The Forest Sanctuary, an essentially Humean account of the mind and human sympathy are joined within a religious framework.

  21. While it is interesting to see how The Sceptic indicates the seriousness of Hemans's critique of Humean attitudes, there is also much to be gained from close attention to reviews of the poem. It is here that we can pinpoint the impetus for the poet's experimentation with dramatic modes in the twenties. Paula R. Feldman has indicated the nature of the relationship between Hemans's literary production and the literary market, and how she skillfully negotiated with her publishers to ensure an income which could support herself and her five sons. This entailed a keen awareness of public interest and a willingness to allow her work to be influenced by the vagaries of public taste. Feldman offers many revealing extracts from Hemans's correspondence with her publishers which indicate how her choice of subject matter and style was often dictated by what she thought would be profitable. In a letter of 1817 to John Murray she tells him that she "shall be much favoured by your suggesting to me any subject, or style of writing, likely to be more popular."[33] In another letter of the same year she confesses that "I have now seen how little any work of mere sentiment or description is likely to obtain popularity, and have had warning enough to give up that style of writing altogether."[34] With regard to The Sceptic, she writes in 1819 her sense that the poem would be appealing to public taste, saying "it is entirely free from political allusions, and is merely meant as a picture of the dangers resulting to public and private virtue and happiness, from the doctrines of Infidelity."[35] Feldman claims that "drama was to be her big money maker, if not her artistic triumph," referring to her tragedy The Vespers of Palermo, first produced in Covent Garden in 1823.[36] Edgar presents a slightly different narrative; he maintains that the move into drama signalled an attempt by Hemans to move into "a predominantly male literary sphere," and that the play's failure led to the subsequent experiment of The Forest Sanctuary, which was so unpopular that Hemans was dropped by her publisher, John Murray.[37] There is no doubt, however, that her move into drama shifts the tenor of all of her subsequent work. Drama is her escape route from sentimental narratives and the limitations of expressive theory.

  22. The Sceptic was reviewed with particular care in The Edinburgh Monthly Review, a commentary which I discussed at the beginning of this section with regard to its gendered discourse of poetic creativity. After the review's glowing praise of the poet's perfect "dignity of womanhood," the review shifts in tenor, advising her to pay more attention to public taste in order to achieve "the influence which she is capable of acquiring over the public mind":
    Her productions have been either of too desultory or too reflective a character, to meet the demand which exists for high excitement and sustained emotion. [. . .] For this purpose, some approach at least to a regular story is indispensable–some development of character, and conflict of passion [. . .] that deeper interest which we take in the actual collision of daring and impassioned characters, than in the mere reflections of the author, however beautiful, eloquent, or ingenious. [. . .] The subject of the poem before us is one of deep and enduring importance; but it is not well adapted to the very highest purpose of poetry. As Mrs Hemans has treated it, we have a fine and eloquent appeal indeed to the noblest feelings of our nature, against that dreary delusion which seeks to crush and extinguish them–we have much beautiful and impassioned declamation–a full flow of elegant diction–and uninterrupted harmony of numbers. A finer subject could not be found for displaying, in the form of an oration, the very highest powers of eloquence; but the most attractive and popular poetry is still something different from eloquence; and a moral essay, we are afraid, however animated and brilliant, will not command the suffrages of those who have been accustomed to the more intense excitement afforded by the popular performances of the day.[38]
  23. Although the reviewer applauds Hemans's eloquent treatment of her subject, he advises her to make her poetry more appealing to a public accustomed to dramatic performances. If the first half of Hemans's career is taken up with an interest in historical subject matter, particularly influenced by the Mediterranean, after The Sceptic her interests shift to drama. This is in part a result of her attentiveness to public opinion, which was stressed by the Edinburgh reviewer, but it is also tied in with her philosophical interests. She made two significant attempts at drama in 1823, with The Siege of Valencia and The Vespers of Palermo, with the latter being performed in that same year in Covent Garden, and in Edinburgh the following year, neither with great success.

  24. After this, Hemans began to search for a new subject which could take an analytical account of the mind in action; she chooses the drama of the mind rather than "the actual collision of daring and impassioned characters."[39] As has been most impressively documented by Ekbert Faas, the new mental science which developed out of eighteenth-century empiricism nurtured the desire to objectify introspection, and there is a clear parallel development in poetic genre.[40] Shifts from romantic into Victorian genres show a pervasive tendency to objectify subjective utterance, and this is a useful context for understanding Hemans's generic experimentation with dramatic modes in the 1820's. The Forest Sanctuary is a dramatic poem; it is usually categorized as an extended monodrama, and fits neatly with Alan Sinfield's description of "the dramatic monologue which seeks the reader's sympathetic involvement," of which Southey's Monodramas are a prime example.[41] Sinfield explains the connection between sympathy and drama, which we see in Hemans's poetry:
    In the eighteenth century sympathetic identification with the emotions of another came to be valued in itself as the foundation of moral sensibility. An influential theory was that man is motivated by feeling rather than reason and hence that consideration for others can derive only from a full imaginative appreciation of the consequences of one's actions for others. With this was associated a greater humanitarian concern for the weak and oppressed. These attitudes stimulated an extension in the use of the dramatic complaint to arouse the reader's sympathetic involvement with a speaker.[42]
  25. She began working on The Forest Sanctuary in 1824, and comments from her correspondence from this period shed light on the path her thinking was taking. In 1823, she wrote that "there can be no real grandeur unless mind is made the ruling power, and its ascendancy asserted, even amidst the wildest storms of passion."[43] The sentiments and affections which had formed the subtext for her earlier historical works are now perceived as secondary to a more probing enquiry into how the mind gains ascendancy over the onslaught of sensation. In 1824, she wrote regarding a historical narrative she had been reading that "the revolutions in a powerful mind, under circumstances so changeful and extraordinary, would, I think, be more impressive than those of an empire."[44]

  26. This is the subject which she takes for The Forest Sanctuary, an ambitious extended monodrama about the process of the mind in experience and memory. The preface to the poem reads "the following poem is intended to describe the mental conflicts, as well as outward sufferings, of a Spaniard, who, flying from the religious persecutions of his own country in the 16th century, takes refuge with his child in a North American Forest. The story is supposed to be related by himself amidst the wilderness which has afforded him an asylum." Gary Kelly's edition of the poem reveals that in the manuscript of the poem, appended to the last sentence is the phrase "and is intended more as the record of a Mind, than as a tale abounding with romantic and extraordinary incident." [45] In this it resonates with Alastor, which is described in its preface as being about "one of the most interesting situations of the human mind" (2). In the next section I will discuss the poem in detail, which will further my discussion of the way Hemans adopts Humean thought, moralized through the Common Sense philosophers.


1. There are political ramifications for each of the philosophical positions of empiricism and transcendentalism. Most commonly, we assume that transcendentalism goes along with some form of political conservatism, since it is concerned to define universal notions of the nature of human experience and intuition. Empiricism, because it starts with an equalising blank slate model of the mind and encourages sceptical debates, tends to be associated with more progressive thinkers, like John Stuart Mill. But then political delineations shift considerably, so we can see a socially-progressive thinker like Charles Taylor showing considerable sympathy with transcendental arguments. When we intervene in these positions with gender, however, transcendental arguments come out as in need of considerable revision, for they tend to allow gender to remain unthematised yet a constitutive part of their thought.

2. Rev. of The Sceptic, by Felicia Hemans, Edinburgh Monthly Review 16 (April 1820): 374. Hereafter noted in the text parenthetically by page number.

3. Chad L. Edgar, The Negotiations of the Romantic Popular Poet: A Comparison of the Careers of Felicia Hemans and Lord Byron, diss., New York U, 1996 (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1996, 9621805), 100. Edgar's work is invaluable for understanding the nature of Hemans's negotiation with the literary marketplace.

4. Rev. of Remarks on Scepticism, by Thomas Rennell, Edinburgh Monthly Review 13 (January 1820): 74.

5. Battersby, The Phenomenal Woman. Battersby's exploration of a feminist, descriptive metaphysics starts with the question: "could we retain a notion of self-identity if we did not privilege that which is self-contained and self-directed?" (2). Battersby, unlike many post-structuralist feminists, wishes to explore and transform notions of self and identity rather than reject them altogether; her approach is phenomenological, and as such rejects the notion of the self as a thing, but rather sees it as a process: "it is more like an 'event' that is 'born' in the space and time of interactive forces" (8).

6. For an account of Hume which argues against his viability for feminists, see Marcia Lind, "Indians, Savages, Peasants and Women: Hume's Aesthetics," Modern Engendering: Critical Feminist Readings in Modern Western Philosophy, ed. Bat-Ami Bar On (Albany, NY: New York State UP, 1994), 51-67.

7. Annette C. Baier, "Hume: The Reflective Women's Epistemologist?," A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity, ed. Louise M. Antony and Charlotte Witt (Boulder, CO: Westview P, 1993), 37.

8. Baier, "Hume: The Reflective Women's Epistemologist?" 47.

9. Merrill's reading of Hume's theory of personhood concludes that "the knowledge of persons, and their very existence, occurs only pragmatically, through social interaction, the use of language and imaginative projection, and the reflection on common need"; Sarah A. Bishop Merrill, "A Feminist Use for Hume's Moral Ontology," Modern Engendering, ed. Bar On, 78.

10. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 207.

11. Don Garrett, Cognition and Commitment in Hume's Philosophy (New York: Oxford UP, 1997), 164.

12. Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume's Theory of Human Nature, trans. Constantin V. Boundas (1953; New York: Columbia UP, 1991), 31. For an excellent discussion of the problem of identity in Hume, see Garrett, who explains that the Humean account of identity assumes that since human identity is variable there can be no strict sense of identity. What we attribute identity to is the set of relations between perceptions, which are imperfect; Garrett, 163.

13. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 415. H. O. Mounce gives an excellent summary of the legacy of Hume for the nineteenth century: "He had revealed the bankruptcy of eighteenth-century empiricism. Whether or not he was a sceptic, he had shown that our fundamental beliefs cannot be explained in empiricist terms. Consequently, our ability to know the world through sense experience was no longer seen as the solution to the problem of knowledge. It was itself a problem. The question was: how is it possible to know the world through sense experience? Kant and the Scottish naturalists arrived independently at similar solutions. Sense experience is unintelligible except within categories or forms of belief which in the empiricist sense are a priori. Unless we are already adjusted to know the world, we cannot know it through sense experience. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, this view was dominant both in Britain and on the continent"; H.O. Mounce, Hume's Naturalism (London: Routledge, 1999), 131.

14. For Hume's own view on extreme scepticism, from which he differentiates himself, see his comment: "Shou'd it here be ask'd me, whether I sincerely assent to this argument, which I seem to take such pains to inculcate, and whether I be really one of those sceptics, who hold that all is uncertain, and that our judgment is not in any thing possest of any measures of truth and falshood; I shou'd reply, that this question is entirely superfluous, and that neither I, nor any other person was ever sincerely and constantly of that opinion. Nature, by an absolute and uncontroulable necessity has determin'd us to judge as well as to breathe and feel; nor can we any more forbear viewing certain objects in a stronger and fuller light, upon account of their customary connexion with a present impression, than we can hinder ourselves from thinking as long as we are awake, or seeing the surrounding bodies, when we turn our eyes towards them in broad sunshine. Whoever has taken the pains to refute the cavils of this total scepticism, has really disputed without an antagonist, and endeavour'd by arguments to establish a faculty, which nature has antecedently implanted in the mind, and render'd unavoidable." Thus Hume accepts that the mind has innate tendencies, but he seeks to extend the interrogation of these tendencies. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature 183.

15. Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 3rd ed., vol. I (1876; London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1902), 315.

16. David Hume, "Essay on Miracles," Essays: Moral, Political and Literary (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1963), 517-544.

17. Stephen, 312.

18. Stephen, 310.

19. Refutations of Hume's thought produced in the eighteenth century were still in circulation; George Campbell's A Dissertation on Miracles (1762; Edinburgh, 1812) was one of the best known, where he says that "the Essay on Miracles deserves to be considered as one of the most dangerous attacks that have been made on our religion" (v); George Horne claimed, regarding Hume's theories, that "the design of them is to banish out of the world every idea of truth and comfort, salvation and immortality, a future state, and the providence, and even existence of God"; A Letter to Adam Smith on the Life, Death, and Philosophy of his Friend David Hume (1777; London, 1819), 5.

20. In particular, see John Wilson, "Professor Brown's Outlines of the Philosophy of the Human Mind," Blackwood's Magazine 37 (April 1820), 62-71.

21. See Nanora Sweet, The Bowl of Liberty: Felicia Hemans and the Romantic Mediterranean, diss., U of Michigan, 1994 (Ann Arbor, MI: DAI 1994, 9332173) for a thorough and probing account of the texts and contexts for these early narrative poems.

22. David Hume, "The Sceptic," Essays: Moral, Political and Literary (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1963), 161-184.

23. Chorley 107; Rev. of The Sceptic, Quarterly Review 24 (Oct 1820): 130-39; Rev. of The Sceptic, Edinburgh Monthly Review 16 (April 1820): 375-378.

24. Chorley, 51.

25. Felicia Hemans, The Sceptic: A Poem (London, 1820), 6. Hereafter noted in the text parenthetically by page number.

26. Nanora Sweet reads The Sceptic as a rejoinder to the religious scepticism of Byron and Shelley; she also suggests that it "interrupts their philosophical debate with ideological dilemmas that are importantly, if not exclusively, experienced by women: intimacy with death and its conduct and enforced deference to the church and enforced deferral of hope to an afterlife"; The Bowl of Liberty, 333. For a detailed reading of the intertextual relationship between Hemans's poem and Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, as well as useful contextual material on the Cato Street Conspiracy and the Queen Caroline affair, see Derek Lance Furr, Sympathetic Readings: Evaluating English Sentimental Poetry, 1820-1840, diss., U. of Virginia, 1997 (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 1997, 9724714), 35-109. Furr shows how Hemans's rejection of scepticism was not only part of an attempt to distinguish herself from Byron, but was also related to the Tory establishment's rebuttal of political radicalism, long associated with religious scepticism.

27. William Howison, "Samuel Johnson and David Hume," Blackwood's Magazine 17 (Aug 1818), 512.

28. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 263-264.

29. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 269.

30. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 270.

31. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 272.

32. David Hume, "The Sceptic," 161. Hereafter noted in the text parenthetically by page number.

33. Quoted in Feldman, "The Poet and the Profits," 75.

34. Quoted in Feldman, 76.

35. Quoted in Feldman, 78.

36. Feldman, 78.

37. Edgar, 192. Edgar also points out that after The Forest Sanctuary's failure, the value of her lyrics rose, due to the expanding sphere of publishing available to women represented by the annuals and less serious periodicals (228). Edgar claims that this material reality of publishing for poets like Hemans, Landon, and Jewsbury constituted a public realm for exploring female subjectivity, and he suggests that the focus on female subjectivity in Records of Woman was a matter of Hemans "using the increasing availability of public explorations of female subjectivity to understand and interrogate her own subjectivity" (237). For a more detailed version of the story behind Hemans's change of publishers in 1826, see Taylor's unpublished Ph. D. thesis, Felicia Hemans : The Making of a Professional Poet, 96-103.

38. Rev. of The Sceptic, Edinburgh Monthly Review 16 (April 1820): 375-78.

39. Rev. of The Sceptic, Edinburgh Monthly Review 16 (April 1820), 376.

40. Ekbert Faas, Retreat into the Mind: Victorian Poetry and the Rise of Psychiatry (Princeton UP: Princeton, 1988),14. In the previous chapter, I set out the argument of Charles Taylor regarding what he considers to be the problematic tendency in modern philosophy to give pride of place to the "punctual self"–a self which can take an objective stance towards itself. Taylor characterizes this paradoxical objectivity which demands a radical subjectivity as deeply flawed. In his more recent Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995), Taylor explains that this is a problem rooted in the privilege given to epistemology, which has gone hand-in-hand with scientific development, working to substantiate science's claims to knowledge (1). For Taylor, the problem with the emphasis on epistemology is that "it assumes wrongly that we can get to the bottom of what knowledge is, without drawing on our never-fully-articulable understanding of human life and experience" (vii-viii).

41. Alan Sinfield, Dramatic Monologue (London: Methuen, 1977), 45.

42. Sinfield, 43-44.

43. Letter of Felicia Hemans to unidentified recipient, 14 May 1823, quoted in Chorley 1:93

44. Letter of Felicia Hemans to unidentified recipient, 6 March 1824, quoted in Chorley 1:100-101.

45. Hemans, prefatory note, The Forest Sanctuary, Liverpool MS, Liverpool Public Library Record Office. Quoted with permission from Gary Kelly's edition of The Forest Sanctuary in Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Prose and Letters (Ontario: Broadview, 2002), 228, note 1.