Felicia Hemans is little known today
and I was pleased to come across a copy of Hemans’ Poetical Works in a Hay-on-Wye bookshop some years ago. The volume extends to nearly 800 pages with
several hundred separate poems. There can be little doubt, however, that page 396 contains her most famous line
The boy stood on the burning deck
Thus begins the poem Casabianca, telling the tale of the Admiral’s thirteen years old son, who remained at his post on the ship Orient in the Battle of the Nile, perishing when the ship’s powder exploded. It is probably one the best-known lines in the whole of English verse. However, if her fame today is diminished it certainly shone brightly in the early nineteenth century. He volumes sold well both at home and in the USA and she drew praise from such discerning commentators as William Roscoe and Percy Shelley.
She was born in Liverpool as Felicia Dorothea Browne, at 118 Duke Street L1 on 25th September 1793. Her mother, Felicity, was the daughter of Benedict Wagner, a wine importer at 9 Wolstenholme Square, who served as the Tuscan and imperial consul in Liverpool. When she married George Browne he joined his father-in-law’s business, also succeeding him as Tuscan consul. The family moved to North Wales, near Abergele in 1800, moving to St Asaph in 1809. By this time the young Felicia had published her first two volumes of verse.
Felicia married Captain Alfred Hemans in 1812, moving to Daventry, but returning to St Asaph when he left the army in 1814. Between 1813 and 1817 the couple had five sons but then separated in 1818. He eventually settled in Rome. She successfully resumed her writing career, publishing over 350 poems in magazines and annuals.
In 1828, following the death of mother, she returned to Liverpool, taking lodgings at 17 Wavertree High Street L15. In 1831 she moved to Dublin on the advice of her doctors, continuing to write and publish verse. Her health declined quickly after she contracted scarlet fever in the autumn of 1834 and she died in Dublin on 16 May 1835.
There is a plaque to her memory in St Asaph Cathedral. The Felicia Hemans Prize is awarded annually by Liverpool University to "the author of 'a lyrical poem' of merit, published or unpublished”, it is open to past and present members and students of the University of Liverpool.
Felicia Hemans' birthplace and childhood home
Felicia Hemans' Wavertree home, sadly demolished in the 1950's
There is a comprehensive entry for Hemans in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
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