The Sanctity Of Motherhood In Felecia Hemans’ Poems

Felecia Hemans presents readers with two poems seemingly connected through the sacrificial deaths of both mothers and their children. While it can be argued that “The Image in Lava” does not depict a mother consciously sacrificing herself as in “The Suliote Mother,” I claim instead that the poem argues the importance of the mother’s death with the death of the child rather than enduring the grief that would ensue had only one of them survived, as corresponds with “The Suliote Mother.” Both poems acknowledge the importance of the mother’s role in the child’s life, as well as the freedom and love they provide the children, and the possibility of the lack of these things in each child’s life without their mother’s presence. Both ‘The Suliote Mother,” and “The Image in Lava,” connect the importance of the mother’s role in their children’s lives through emphasizing their likeness to heroes and warriors, and the indication of death being a better outcome than the alternative for everyone involved.

What might seem like an unrelated detail now, actually sets up an important factor later — the ways in which the women and children die. Both sets of individuals are physically impacted by the earth. In “The Suliote Mother,” the mother carried her child to a cliff, and “from the arrowy peak she sprung,” with all that is told of their final moments being, “a cry — and all was o’er!”. Knowing she jumped off the cliff with her baby ultimately means knowing that they hit the ground at the bottom, as is supported by the indication of wind around them, “a veil upon the wind was flung,” as they fell through the air. Although the impressions their bodies made on the ground once they hit is not largely permanent in the same way it is in “The Image in Lava,” it can be argued that it acts in the same way, somewhat immortalizing the sacrifice the mother made for her child. The ground, however so slightly, was altered by the bodies hitting, creating a reminder of the deaths that took place there. It also acted as a visual representation of the sacrifice made as a parallel to the deaths of her husband and son, whom the mother refers to as, “her warrior”. The speaker indicates that the bodies of her husband and son can be seen, “ the strait beneath/Lay Suliot sire, and son:” and by jumping off the cliff to land next to them, her sacrifice is immortalized for the enemy to see once they reach the site.

As discussed in class, “The Image in Lava” also creates a death scene that is immortalized in the earth, the lava encompassing the two figures, creating a permanent, natural statue to be discovered and viewed long in the future. This image then acts as a way for the love of a mother for her child to be seen forever, “a woman’s heart hath left a trace / Those glories to outlast”. These lines precede a discussion of past places as, “temple and tower have mouldered / Empires from earth have passed,” and give agency to the importance of mothers and motherly love and the all-encompassing nature if it. The permanence of their existence, physically entwined together, “survives the proud memorials reared / By conquerors of mankind” and thus acknowledges the mother’s vital importance in the scene, and in the child’s once-life, nearly comparing her to that of historical conquerors and leaders of empires, people who controlled and were sworn to protect large groups of people, entire communities, entire countries. In a sense, both of these women are depicted as warriors for their sacrifices in death, and are immortalized as a way to give agency to their battle.

The connection between warriors and mothers in the poem is exemplified through the language of the works. While not always discussing direct comparisons between the two, the language and form lends itself to the reading of women as warrior figures, for themselves, and their children, as potential stand-ins for the picturesque warrior, protecting their community or country. This is especially noticeable in “The Suliote Mother.” The poem begins with an abab rhyme-schemed-quatrain, but has resemblance to heroic couplets of more historical works. While not in pentameter, the lines are in iamb, and seem to act as a narrative description of a heroic scene taking place. In the first quatrain I discussed above, the mother is described similarly to that of a warrior archetype as:

She stood upon the loftiest peak,

Amidst the clear blue sky;

A bitter smile was on her cheek,

And a dark flash in her eye.

Hemans uses spatial distance, and the vastness of the surrounding landscape to parallel the facial expressions of the mother and convey the seriousness, yet resilience of the woman being described. A “bitter smile,” seems to indicate a tension in the woman, she knows something readers don’t, and a “dark flash in her eye” makes readers unsure of what will happen, but creates the potential for her to have something planned. These are similar descriptions to what could be given for warriors in battle, the potential for them to have a hidden plan as a way to override defeat at the last moment, and as the poem unfurls, readers understand that this is true. These quatrains continue throughout the poem, and act as plot summary in between the mother’s discussions with her child of their future. She is, if nothing else, literally standing in the middle of a battle, as “...nearer came the clash of steel / and louder swelled the horn / and farther yet the tambour’s peal”. The importance of her as a warrior, however, is not in the plan of action itself, it is instead because of what she is protecting — her child. While she does choose to have them die together, it is the notion that she will not let them live and become separated as slaves that exemplifies the sanctity of motherhood in the life of her child. Near the end of the poem, before she jumps with the baby, the language begins to shift from violent descriptions and loud noises, to a speech that mentions the blessedness of the child, the importance of freedom, and the cherishment the mother feels for her child. When discussing the baby’s father, she calls him, “her warrior,” and says, “He too hath blessed thee / as I have done!”. Through this, the mother is discussing her place in her baby’s life as a blessing and the importance of their freedom, from whatever source it stems.

The way in which the mother in “The Image in Lava” is described as a warrior is not direct as it is in “The Suliote Mother,” but is done so through the connections and examples made around the mother and child statue, and the endurance of its impact on those who view it. This poem also begins with a quatrain that describes the long-lasting nature of the image readers are about to see, and also emphasizes the importance of it, as:

Thou thing of years departed!

What ages have gone by

Since here the mournful seal was set

By love and agony.

The speaker, through exclamation and dramatically-painful descriptions, sets up the story as something of a past legend that is to be told because of its long-standing importance, similar to that of stories of battles or of legendary figures. While the speaker addresses the image of the mother and child directly, they seem to be exemplifying the pair as something to be celebrated, and the mother to be a sacrificial hero. In the second stanza, the speaker begins describing the natural statue, and discusses the mother’s role directly, saying, “Temples and tower have mouldered, / Empires from earth have passed”. By correlating the image of the mother and child to that of fallen cities and large empires that were ruled by important warriors, they are indirectly connecting the mother to these, predominantly, men, historical figures. The speaker’s connection lies in the importance of what they think is resilient, which is that, “...woman’s heart hath left a trace / Those glories to outlast!”. In this sense, the mother then acts as a different kind of warrior, a warrior of the heart, and of love as a means of protecting her own, which the speaker says is why it will outlast all of the empires and cities. The speaker later addresses the image of the child and how it, “...fearfully enshrined / Survives the proud memorials reared / by conquerors of mankind”. It is because of the mother’s choice to stay and “enshrine” her child that it now acts as its own type of monument, directly comparing it to war figures, and therefore indirectly comparing the mother and child to that of warriors, rather just a different kind. Similar to “The Suliote Mother,” the end of the poem also begins to shift tone and describe the divine nature of the action that took place, and of the mother and child as the speaker calls it “immortal,” and then addresses the pair, saying, “Thou art, whose earthly glow / Hath given these ashes holiness / It must, it must be so!”. The speaker, through the italicized “must” seems to demand that that the statue is holy because of the pair’s love for one another, and the importance of the mother’s love for her child. It is the mother’s decision not to leave her child behind to save herself, or to give the child to another to save it and not herself, and the poem indicates the importance of their physical connection because in both poems discussed, death together is better than the alternative.

When looking at the sanctity of motherhood, both poems address this in similar ways, through the idea that death together is better than living a life without one another. In “The Suliote Mother,” throughout the poem, when talking with the child, the mother discusses the things she did with him in their past, and how she is unwilling to part with him during this battle. The intimacy of their relationship is revealed through these small remembrances, as she calls her son, “My babe, that I cradled on my breast!” and when looking at the approaching soldiers, points out to her son, “There, where I sang thee, fair babe! To sleep,” to identify that their memories of place are being taken over by the enemy, and she indicates early on that she will not surrender herself or her child as she says to him, “Naught but the blood-stain on our trace shall keep!”. For the mother, their death together is about the need for freedom in their lives, to live and love as they want, as she says that when she birthed her son he was “cherished,” and how her husband fought for their freedom, so “...unchained must his loved ones be —” because all that matters is that together they are able to have, “Freedom, young Suliote! For thee and me!”. She would rather them die together and be free, then live and have to be separated as slaves. In this sense, the mother is a warrior for freedom in her family’s life, and a protector of her child, even though the circumstances of her protection are not ideal. In this way, her role as mother equates to her role as protector and guardian, and therefore sanctifies her position with her family.

“The Image in Lava,” also explicitly identifies death together as the better alternative to the situation of the mother and child. The speaker seems to indicate early on that it is a better death, to be immortalized together, than to separate, as “a strange dark fate o’ertook you, / Fair babe and loving heart!” acknowledging the fear of the child directly, but then continuing with, “One moment of a thousand pangs — / Yet better than to part!”. The speakers reasoning for why it is better for them to die together than to part is because, speaking again directly to the child, “Thou were the only treasure, child! / Whereon a hope might rest”. This seems to acknowledge the importance of the child to the mother, and by using the word ‘only’ it is to say that without the child, the mother could not or would not treasure or cherish anything else. The child brings the mother hope, and the mother gives the child love, without both of these things in their lives, to live without one another would be more painful than to die together. The speaker again acknowledges death as the better option, as they say, “Far better, then, to perish, / Thy form within its clasp,” speaking to the child within the mother’s arm, “Than live and lose thee, precious one / From that impassioned grasp”. By calling the mother’s grasp “impassioned” the speaker gives agency to her protectiveness and her sacrificial love. It is the love she bears for her child that surpasses all, as “Love! human love! what art thou? / Thy print upon the dust / Outlives the cities of renown” and without so would only cause pain in either of their lives.

The sanctity of motherhood in both of Felecia Hemans poems emphasizes the sacrificial nature of human and motherly love, and the pervasive nature of its grasp. Both mothers act as warriors, as protectors, and both choose to end their lives with their children rather than die and have their children navigate lives where they cannot protect them. The language of the poems acts as retellings of legendary, memorable scenes, as well as the holiness of motherly and child love. Both indicate the likeness between men battling in war, and women protecting their children, and serve as memorials for the bravery of what it means to love another more than yourself.

Works Cited

  • Hemans, Felecia. “The Image in Lava.” The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory, edited by Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne Rundle, Broadview Press, 2005, pp. 21.
  • Hemans, Felecia. “The Suliote Mother.” The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory, edited by Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne Rundle, Broadview Press, 2005, pp. 13–14. 
16 August 2021
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