When I read “Woman and Fame” by Felicia Hemans, the emphasis on womanhood versus fame was hard to miss, but it was not until I read Hemans’ biography in the anthology that I realized that “fame” could be read as masculine during Hemans’ time. Of course, this meant that I returned to the poem and reread it to see how Hemans coded “fame” as masculine.
Before her poem even starts, Hemans refers to a previous work of hers and paraphrases lines 45-48 of her poem “Corinne at the Capitol”:
“Happy—happier than thou,
With the laurel on thy brow;
She that makes the humblest hearth,
Lovely but to one on earth.”
At first glance, I did not think much of it, but after rereading it with the idea of “fame” being masculine, I realized that she is talking to “fame” and is positioning it as opposite of women. This opposition does not necessarily mean that “fame” is masculine, but the opposition is developed further in the poem to the point that a person could interpret “fame” as masculine. For instance, there is a emphasis on the speaker as a woman: ” . . . to me—a woman—bring/Sweet waters from affection’s spring” (ll. 5-6). Hemans wrote it so that “a woman” would be separated on either side by a dash, creating a pause and isolating the label to draw attention to it.
The idea of “a woman” versus “fame” is furthered when there is once again attention drawn to the speaker as a woman instead of whatever “fame” is: “But mine, let mine—a woman’s breast/By words of home-born love be bless’d” (ll. 17-18). Again, Hemans utilizes the dash to separate “woman” from the rest of the line, drawing attention onto the idea. Since Hemans had created such opposition of “a woman” and “fame,” it stirs up ideas of what “fame” could be interpreted as.
After reading her biography, I would say that “fame” is masculine due to men being an obvious opposite of a woman (especially in the early 1800s in England). Hemans does support this idea in the poem with mentioning masculine experiences. For instance, the speaker talks about “fame’s” voice: “as when a trumpet’s note hath blown/Calling the brave to meet” (ll. 15-16). What I found particularly masculine was “the brave.” It made me think of like heroes and soldiers, which would have been only men in Hemans’ time. Thus, I read that part with a masculine overtone.
Despite that instance, I think it is interesting that currently “the brave” would not necessarily reference only men. In some places (like the US), women can now enlist and serve their country. So while I think that “fame” was meant to read as masculine, that overtone and interpretation can be lost nowadays if someone does not think about the publication date and original audience.
(Word count: 470)