Prayer, Discipline and Secrecy in Felicia Hemans's Late Poetryby Christopher Stokes

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Women's Writing

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Prayer, Discipline and Secrecy in

Felicia Hemans's Late Poetry

Christopher Stokes

Published online: 07 Apr 2014.

To cite this article: Christopher Stokes (2014) Prayer, Discipline and Secrecy in Felicia Hemans's Late Poetry, Women's Writing, 21:1, 91-109, DOI: 10.1080/09699082.2014.881066

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Christopher Stokes



This article analyses prayer as a technics of female identity in late Hemans.

Differing prayers crystallize different kinds of self-definition. One important strand, foregrounded in Scenes and Hymns of Life (1834), sees the discipline of female affect and interiority translated into the roles and relations of domestic

Christianity. Although working within such pre-inscribed patriarchal categories need not be read negatively, there is nevertheless a sense of wound or unexpressed remainder. A second strand of biblical lyrics appears to attend to this remainder in exploring female secret prayer and less structured affectivity. However, the voices of prayer here tend to dissolve, appearing on the edge of discourse. A dilemma emerges: schematically, identities within patriarchal codes are threateningly dispossessing, whilst identities outside them are threateningly mute. The article concludes by looking at deathbed prayers as one possible space in which deep female interiority and a culturally normative sense of self overlap in interesting ways.

Prayer is not language that can be conceptualized in the same breath as religious belief, seen merely as its performance or practice. Whilst it is perhaps more straightforward for critics to analyse patterns of doctrine or ideological communities bound to religious identification, prayer is uncannily positioned in relation to these phenomena. It is an external ritual and duty, sanctioned by tradition and society, but also a practice of intimacy—that is, potentially a hyperbolically private act. The two exemplary passages on prayer in the New

Testament might well be Matthew 9.13 (the Lord’s Prayer, liturgical and formalized through scriptural warrant) and Romans 8.26 (prayer enwrapped with wordlessness, groans and deepest intimacy). For Anglicans, the Psalms are both a personal record of intense spiritual solitude—biblical poetry—and also, as the Psalter, at the heart of the liturgy and church calendar. It is prayer’s traversal of these oppositions that forms the subject of this article. I argue that prayer’s ambiguity—at the heart of religious duty, but also intertwined with solitariness, intensity and ecstasy—marks it as language which, when invoked in Hemans’s late poetry, both secures and overspills the limits of domestic ideology.

Women's Writing, 2014

Vol. 21, No. 1, 91–109, © 2014 Taylor & Francis

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As a corrective to readings that employed a simplistic binary of secular versus supernatural, recent Romantic scholarship has tended to study the fine grain of literature’s positioning against the historical context of Christianity at a given time. Mark Canuel’s analysis of toleration, Daniel White’s of the dissenting counter-sphere, or (of closer relevance to this article) Emma Mason’s tracing of religious identity in Hemans, Adelaide Anne Proctor and Dora

Greenwell would be typical examples.1 This essay does not attempt an account of the historical context in these terms. My subject here is prayer not as a given denominational practice, but as a cultural motif, literary representation and a kind of discourse. That is, of course, not to deny context: for instance, it is obviously a function of her Anglicanism (sharpened, perhaps, by her time in

Ireland) that Hemans is interested in Reformation martyrs. Nevertheless, I want to identify a broader kind of historical context (which would cross denominational lines) that saw prayer, especially personal prayer, as intimately connected with confessing or realizing the truth of the self. When Hemans’s poetry turns to prayer, it is nearly always as a defining moment in establishing identity, thus making it as much a rhetorical element within the dynamics of a given genre as something mapping onto actual religious practice.