Felicia Hemans and the Brow

Felicia Hemans is doubtless one of the most important writers of the early nineteenth century. Yet one of her signal achievements remains, to my knowledge, unremarked: Hemans is the most committed and innovative practitioner of the poetics of the brow. To wit, observe the doomed Antony at his last supper.

Thy cheek is sunk, and faded as thy fame,

O lost, devoted Roman! yet thy brow

To that ascendant and undying name,

Pleads with stern loftiness thy right e’en now.

Thy glory is departed, but hath left

A lingering light around thee—in decay

Not less than kingly, though of all bereft,

Thou seem’st as empire had not pass’d away. 1

Yes, the “lingering light” of departed glory Wordsworth elegized in the “Intimations” ode seems to have found a new home on Antony’s brow. The brow is the visible sign of an undiminished inner constitution, and it is the harbinger and source of the ill-fated revolts that pervade Hemans’s poems. Though the body is aged and worn, the brow won’t quit. It’s her version of the pineal gland. Yet while the brow guards the deepest resources of the self, it also tends to undermine its bearer, peeking through the camouflage of polite expression and accoutrement: “The pride his haughty brow reveals, / All other passion well conceals.” 2 Once more: “Far other meaning darkens o’er her brow: / Changed is her aspect, and her tone severe.” 3 It is the site of a latent unruliness equally tragic and heroic:

Yet that bright lady’s eye methinks hath less

Of deep, and still, and pensive tenderness,

That might beseem a mother’s;—on her brow

Something too much there sits of native scorn,

And her smile kindles with a conscious glow,

As from the thought of sovereign beauty born. 4

The coming rebellion has been anticipated by that revealing and exquisite brow. I’m fascinated by this use of the brow as a narrative fulcrum, but I don’t want to gloss over the sheer versatility of Hemans’s brows. There are “commanding” brows, brows of “care,” “gallant” brows, “radiant” brows, “marble” brows, “feverish” brows, “pale, virgin” brows, brows “serene,” “bright,” “clear-arched,” brows “proudly beautiful” and “savage,” and brows imbued with “calm grace.” 5 The brow is the seat of the crown or laurel, the vessel wherein inspiration enters the body, the “throne” of “majestic grace,” and the last bastion of fading life. 6 As Hemans’s Gertrude laments to Rudolph, “Hath the world aught for me to fear, / When death is on thy brow?” And as soon as Rudolph left this world behind, Gertrude “wiped the death-damps from his brow.” 7 Or again in the “The Indian City”: “The mist of death on his brow lay pale”—and sure enough, that brow is soon a “lifeless brow.” 8 The brow first foretells death’s coming, yet it’s the last thing to go.

I must pause to admit that I don’t really understand what part of the body she’s talking about. Sometimes the brow seems to narrowly designate the eyebrows. Sometimes it seems to mark the stretch of skin mobilized in the act of furrowing. And sometimes it refers to everything above the eyes, from crease of the lids through to the crown of the head. To the point: there is simply no naturalistic sense in which the brow can carry Hemans’s burden of signification. Undoubtedly Hemans was influenced by Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy, which Thomas Holcroft had translated in 1789. But Hemans does not rely on the kinds of physiognomic description so popular in the nineteenth-century—elaborately detailed workups of facial features from which character traits are inferred. Hemans does not tell us what the brow looks like, she tells us what it says. It is less a physical organ than a flexible space for the relay of meaning. The brow, not the eyes, is Hemans’s window to the soul.

Of course, Hemans did not invent the signifying brow ex nihilo. She works within an established tradition. Via the OED: “the seat of facial expressions of joy, sorrow, shame, anxiety, resolution, etc. poetic.” Her immediate precedent, here as elsewhere, is Byron. Byron’s complex brow-work is part of his inheritance of Miltonic Satanism, as where Milton has the Adversary respond to Gabriel “with contemptuous brow.” 9 But Byron doesn’t share Hemans’s unceasing devotion to the brow as the singular vehicle for disclosing the gap between inside and outside. I’m tempted to argue that Hemans’s rewriting (and re-gendering) of the Byronic hero turns upon her investment in the brow. Her innovation is to make the brow the seat of dramatic irony—illegible to all but the narrator, and by extension, the reader. What is writ on the brow escapes everyone’s notice, including the brow’s possessor—everyone except Hemans’s narrator. It is worth recalling here that Hemans’s material is almost always historical, that she is re-narrating what once was. This dynamic is inherently tragic, since the narrator can see the catastrophe to come, while her characters helplessly act out their parts. Such irony gestures outward towards Hemans’s broader interest in the nexus of social and historical forces that bind her protagonists. Yet the writing on the brow often suggests that even if her doomed heroines knew their end, they wouldn’t or couldn’t change a thing. More severely, the brow already knows with certainty that of which its carrier has only the dimmest awareness. It is the place where the inside comes out. It is the place where the necessity of history expresses itself from within, and at the same time, it is the place where resistance to history emerges.

One last note. Much has been written on Hemans’ trenchant analyses of the double-bind of female exposure, how the immense costs of fame prove impossibly steeper for women. Of interest here is the precise landing point of the burden of deathly fame. Hemans’s ode to Joan of arc concludes:

Oh! never did thine eye

Thro’ the green haunts of happy infancy

Wander again, Joanne!–too much of fame

Had shed its radiance on thy peasant-name;

And bought alone by gifts beyond all price,

The trusting heart’s repose, the paradise

Of home with all its loves, doth fate allow

The crown of glory unto woman’s brow. 10

Where else, in Hemans, could the prophetic soul bear the burdens of history—where else but upon the brow?

Notes:

  1. “The Last Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra” 41-48.
  2. “The Widow of Crescentius” 2.167-8.
  3. “The Lady of the Castle” 2.234-5.
  4. ibid. 9-14.
  5. “The Abencerrage” ll. 2.138; “The Last Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra” 32; “Arabella Stuart” 17, 52; “Imelda” 118; “Madeline” 79; “The Bride of the Greek Isles” 115; “The Peasant Girl of the Rhone” 55, 88; “Juana” 22; “The American Forest Girl” 33; “Madeline” 90.
  6. “The Queen of Prussia’s Tomb” 15.
  7. “Gertrude, or, Fidelity Till Death” 13-14, 41.
  8. 77, 116.
  9. Paradise Lost 4.885.
  10. “Joan of Arc in Rheims”87-94.