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BRIAN P. ELLIOTT “Nothing beside remains”: Empty Icons and Elegiac Ekphrasis in Felicia Hemans And on the pedestal these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. —Percy Bysshe Shelley I N HER “NATURAL AND NATIONAL MONUMENTS---- FELICIA HEMANS’S ‘THE Image in Lava’: A Note,” Isobel Armstrong remarks that Hemans’s poem is “clearly in dialogue” with Shelley’s “Ozymandias” by virtue of “having its ‘monuments’ belong to dust and sand.”1 Among her many astute obser­ vations about the two poems, Armstrong notes the complexity of Shelley’s phrase “Nothing beside remains,” as the word “remains” “swings between noun and verb,” at once suggesting an absence or lack as well as the broken remnants that continue to exist.2 To take the idea even further, this presen­ tation of the crumbling colossus recreates it as a form of remains, a corpse left behind as the only marker of a spirit long departed from the nowlifeless physical site; it is a partially failed and still failing attempt at immor­ tality through materiality. The ruined monument becomes a strangely liminal art object, ambiguously isolated, without historical context, and therefore open to the free musings of poets. This liminality creates a per­ vading sense ofloss that allows the poem to hover somewhere between the traditions of ekphrasis and elegy, and it is this intermingling of genres that Felicia Hemans adopts and adapts for even greater uses in her own poetry. Discussing the elegies of Felicia Hemans, Michael T. Williamson observes that “Hemans writes elegiac poems that lament the waste of women’s psy­ chic and imaginative energy on a world tainted by male death, deplore the i. In Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Nanora Sweet and Julie Melnyk (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 214. 2. Armstrong, “Natural and National Monuments,” 216. SiR, 51 (Spring 2012) 25 26 BRIAN P. ELLIOTT absence of any commemorative interest in the histories of women, and represent dramatically disfiguring subject positions for women mourners.”-' While Williamson is speaking of Hemans’s actual elegies, this observation fits well with her ekphrastic poetry, which is also haunted by comparable feelings of loss and mourning. Hemans’s ekphrases parallel and intermix with her elegies in many ways; however, while it is true that the “engage­ ment with the aftermath of death insistently shifts our attention away from the significance (or symbolic potency) of the dead and toward the living figure of the woman mourner” in her elegies,3 4 the similar effect in He­ mans’s ekphrastic poetry has gone mostly unnoticed. The reexamination of Hemans’s ekphrastic poetry from the elegiac perspective provides new in­ sights into the poet’s conception of the purpose of ekphrasis and the possi­ bilities of a material afterlife. I will attempt to correct this oversight by examining the ways Hemans works to shift the engagement of her ekphrasis away from the object itself and onto the poem’s speaker. The discussion will center on two of He­ mans’s better-known works, “Properzia Rossi” and “The Image in Lava,” as examples of the way the poet creates a space for the speaker’s elegiac personal mourning by “emptying” the central objects of meaning. Hemans in both cases provides typological characters—figures that may be taken as iconic representatives of their conditions—that are themselves divorced from their true histories and emptied of their individual meaning, allowing the poems’ speakers to occupy this negative space with their individual interpretations and elegiac mourning. Unlike the ekphrases ofher contem­ poraries, which muse on the positive, a person or object ofprovable inde­ pendent physical existence, Hemans’s poems muse on the negative, on spaces or topics whose existence is unprovable or mitigated by unbridge­ able expanses. Hemans creates objects of contemplation that are ciphers, or what we might think ofas ahistorical “empty icons,” whose impersonal na­ ture opens up the possibility of intensely personal investment. The voids at the center of her images are occupied by the speaker’s personal reflections, not philosophical abstraction or the object’s history or biography. These elegiac musings on the emptied and refigured images lead...


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