The poem “Corinne at the Capitol” by Felicia Hemans can easily be viewed as a celebratory and jubilant piece of prose that extols womanhood just as easily as it reveals to what extent women are frequently stereotyped and categorized. In extolling the virtues of a heroic woman who is politically-minded, Hemans’ poem can easily be juxtaposed to more conventional literature such as Alexander Pope’s poem “Epistle to a Lady” which stem from antifeminist discourse. In this essay, I will be analyzing Hemans’ radical views and characterizations of women and will argue that she successful builds upon and departs from misogynistic talk adopted by writers such as Alexander Pope or Geoffrey Chaucer.
In literature, women are easily vilified, ridiculed and cast aside. Written in 1743, Pope’s satirical poem “Epistle to a Lady”, reminds readers that women’s proper place is to be found in domestic circles. Comparing ladies to “variegated Tulips” (line 40), Pope launches into a long and exhaustive allegory, delighting in his depiction of women as delicate, weak and vulnerable creatures who need men at their sides at all times. After giving readers a lengthy description of how beautiful and pleasing to the eye women can be, Pope reminds us of women’s ultimate characteristic that everyone must beware of: their fickleness. He writes: “And yet, believe me, good as well as ill/ Woman’s at best a Contradiction still” (lines 269-270). In bearing Pope’s misogynistic and unflattering account of women and of womanhood in mind, it is easy to conclude that women are chastised for escaping the kitchen and for turning their interests to subjects such as politics or history. Similar to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” tale in the Canterbury Tales, women are typified as simple-minded, beautiful but rather useless creatures that exist on this earth simply to be admired and marvelled at.
As such, Hemans’ “Corinne at the Capitol” can be viewed as a radical departure from such simplistic understandings of gender and of gender roles. Throughout Hemans’ poem, women are encouraged to widen their horizons and to seek solace and satisfaction derived from meaningful work. By comparing a happy housewife to a trailblazer, Hemans points out that a woman’s job must extend beyond the borders and delineations of the home hearth. At times, Hemans seems to celebrate women who choose to dedicate themselves to principles other than housewifery and motherhood. For example, at the onset of the poem Hemans calls the politically fervent modern woman the “Daughter of th’ Italian Heaven” (line 1) and at others “the Radiant daughter of the sun” (line 41).
In conclusion, it is remarkable that the two aforementioned Victorian poets, Alexander Pope and Felicia Hemans, lived to be contemporaries, given their remarkably different approach to womanhood and to gender roles. Both employed allusions and imagery to color and embellish their works, yet both held dramatically differing views on what constitutes true womanhood and how society should regard and respect women. Whereas Pope was comfortably settled as a successful male writer of his time, Hemans was forced to push the limits imposed upon her sex by highlighting the challenges that aspiring women must face on a daily basis. In “Corinne at the Capitol” and “Woman and Fame”, for instance, Hemans strives for egalitarian recognition of women as powerful forces in their own right. Sadly, the Victorian times she lived in were not progressive enough to warrant her sex much recognition, but we may conclude that she is today justifiably celebrated as a woman poet who did her best to extol the virtues of women, whether they were gentle housewives, dutiful mothers or forward-thinking political agents.