Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Alfred H. Miles
Emily H. Hickey (1845–1924)
EMILY HENRIETTA HICKEY was born at Macmine Castle, near Enniscorthy, co. Wexford, Ireland, on the 12th of April, 1845. Her first published poem—“Told in the Firelight”—appeared in the Cornhill Magazine in 1866; and was followed by others contributed to various magazines, and afterwards collected into volumes, bearing titles as follows:—“A Sculptor and Other Poems” (1881), “Verse Tales, Lyrics and Translations” (1889), “Michael Villiers, Idealist, and Other Poems” (1891). In 1881 Miss Hickey co-operated with Dr. Furnivall in founding the Browning Society, of which she was for some time the honorary secretary. An edition of Browning’s Strafford with annotations by her, appeared in 1884. Her later works are “Poems” (1896); “Ancilla Domini”—privately published—(1898); “Our Lady of May, and Other Poems” (1902), and “Havelok the Dane” (1902).  1
  Miss Hickey’s poems embrace many varieties of form and theme, from lyrics of love and nature to ballads of modern life and blank verse discussions of politico-economic and socialistic questions. That she sings often for song’s sake is proved by many a spontaneous lyric, but that she is often deeply stirred by an earnest underlying purpose is clear in her longer and more important poems. There is with her no blind acceptance of traditionary bonds either in religious, social, or political thought, and she claims her right, and shows her ability to discuss without prejudice fundamental questions too often accepted as settled. Of spontaneous lyrics the following “Love-song” may serve as an example:—

        “I know not whether to laugh or cry,
So greatly, utterly glad am I:
For one, whose beautiful love-lit face
The distance hid for a weary space,
Has come this day of all days to me
Who am his home and his own country.
What shall I say who am here at rest,
Led from the good things up to the best?
Little my knowledge, but this I know,
It was God said ‘Love each other so,’
O love, my love, who hast come to me,
Thy love, thy home, and thy own country.”
  Such poems as “Her Dream,” however, represent Miss Hickey at her best in lyric measures, while “A Sea Story” shows concentrated strength and no little dramatic power. Of her ballads, “Paddy” is one of the best, though they all maintain a fairly even level of merit. “For Richer, for Poorer” may represent her work in sonnet form:—

        “OH, give us of your oil, our lamps go out:
  Your well-fed lamps are clear and bright to see;
  And, if we go to buy us oil, maybe,
Far off our ears shall hear the jubilant shout,
‘Behold the Bridegroom cometh, zoned about
  With utter light and utter harmony.’
  Then leave us not to weep continually
In darkness, for our souls’ hunger and drought.”
Then turned one virgin of the virgins wise
  To one among the foolish, with a low
Sweet cry, and looked her, lovelike, in the eyes,
  Saying, “My oil is thine; for weal, for woe,
  We two are one, and where thou goest I go,
One lot being ours for aye, where’er it lies.”
  Miss Hickey’s next work, “Michael Villiers, Idealist,” was a much more ambitious effort. The taste for what is brief and essentially slight in poetry, so that it be fresh and graceful and delicately finished, leads one to fear for a poem of some ninety-four pages, in which the sterner tragedies of social life, and the deeper aspirations stirred by them in natures instinct with the passion and pity of justice, find fervent expression; and where even such questions as the rights and wrongs of Ireland, the wages of matchbox-makers, and the ownership of the soil, are touched with courage and frankness. But, at least, “Michael Villiers” gives no support to those who excuse their preference for mere art and grace over thought and aim, by hinting that in poetry these are incompatible with each other. Nor is the work marred by the one-sided zeal which is so often unloving and unjust even in its very demanding of love and justice. Miss Hickey is not merely an enthusiast or reformer; she is a Christian poet, penetrated with a poet’s reverence for all that is fair in the past, and having a poet’s insight into varying human types and human standpoints and difficulties. Her ideal leader is a strong figure, drawn by a strong hand, and best described in her own language:—

  “The Man we need this nineteenth century
Is no enthusiast of the hollow jaws,
And fever-lighted eyes, and hectic flush
On the spare cheek, and slender blue-veined hands
The morbid soul beats through; not such as this
No mediæval mystic, drained of blood,
And stript of flesh; all natural desires
Dazed in hysterica passio; he being fain
Annihilate the flesh and leave the soul
Calm in her freedom; cutting off his wings
To fly unhindered. Nay, O world of ours,
Not such as this must thy redeemer be!
Nor yet the man who sayeth in his heart,
There is no God, nor any need of Him:
Nor even he who knows the basal needs
Of body, soul, and spirit, and denies
No part of man: for more than this we cry!
Not even the stronger than the strong for us;
We need the Christ in man; not one strong man,
But a developed manhood; we must fight
And bear, before we get Him;—but, some day,
If so we grudge not freedom’s heavy price,
Our loins shall teem with freeborn citizens,
Having the Christhood’s glory on their heads.
*        *        *        *        *
Now God bless all true workers, let us pray:
The night-time cometh when we all must rest:
Strive we, and do, lest by-and-by we sit
In that blind life to which all other fate
Is cause for envy; with the naked souls
Who never lived, knowing nor praise nor blame,
But kept themselves in mean neutrality,
Hateful alike to God and to His foes.”
  Full of inspiration for other idealists of to-day are her pictures of Michael and of the fair woman of his love, who “went among a set of working girls, rough, rude, unchaste in word if not in deed, and was a very light of joy to them in all the lovely rondure of her life and royal dower of inward happiness.” But not even these are drawn with more strength and tenderness than the kindly, genial, old baronet, who has found nothing wanting in the good old-world commonplaces about rich and poor; and, after the manner of his sires, has drawn gold in plenty from his Irish lands, and spent it all at St. George’s other side. Always the realism is of that nobler kind, which is the strength, not the weakness, of both art and life; the thought is as broad and kindly as it is high; and even the college friend, who brings the cool sophisms of pseudo-political economy to front the quick passion of Michael’s sympathy for the weak, finds a place almost as cordial in the reader’s liking as in that of the idealist himself. Very tender is the picture of the fair Irish girl and the vision which came to her: a vision of that perfected love of humanity, to which, at all cost of pain or strife to him, she would consecrate her unborn child:—

  “But when at night upon her bed she lay,
That heart of hers was full of a strange light
Caught from the shining wings of motherhood
Which brooded warm and fair upon her life.
And happy thoughts went softly floating on,
Each with each blended, dear as undefined,
Breathing out scent, and light, and melody,
In one sweet fusion, till her heart was fain
To ease itself with tears. So the night wore,
With no unquiet counting of the hours;
And just before the dawn there came to her
A sudden dreadful poignancy of joy,
Piercing her soul like pain; and she cried out,
Her seemed, but John awaking heard as though
She laughed a little joyous laugh; and rose
To look upon her lovely face that lay
Sweet in the rippling sunshine of a smile,
In the grey quiet of the faded night;
Then kissed her with his eyes, because his mouth
Might break the slumber that she needed much,
And laid him down again saying, ‘she dreams
Sleep on, beloved, and wake to sweeter things
Than sweetest dreams can bring you!’ And he slept,
Unwitting of the vision Mary saw.”

The story of Michael’s birth, of his mother’s and his father’s death, of his adoption by his uncle, and of the travail of soul in which he sought for the clearer vision, of his love for “Burd Lucy,” and his devotion to the cause of human brotherhood, is told with both power and beauty, and the whole fitly closes with the following lines:—

  “Burd Lucy, who have put your hand in mine,
And laid that head of yours upon my breast;
Burd Lucy, who have crowned me on the brows
With a fair crown which once I feared to wear;
We stand together, my beloved, we two,
And front the future with unfearing eyes.
We have not solved the mystery of our world,
But yet have seen the heaving of its breast
With the great love which throbs for aye beneath:
And we trust God and man, and we go on
To live out what we think to be the truth.
We who believe in man, ay, and in men;
We who would work as if upon our work
Hung the supremest issue; and would wait
As if our patience had the key of heaven.
We who have clasped this faith unto our hearts,
God never wastes, but only spends; although
Man’s eyes unpurged discern not use from waste.
And, for the day which we believe will be,
We love and work for that; and go in faith
That He who comes will come, whate’er the time.”
  To say that with all its earnestness of purpose, its frequent beauty of thought, and its many felicities of expression, its artistic success is not complete, is to say what has been said of all attempts to treat the problems of modern life in the form of “novels in verse,” from “Aurora Leigh” downwards. Among such works, however, it takes a high place, and it can hardly be that literature and humanity are not the better for its publication.  6

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