Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Alfred H. Miles
Emily H. Hickey (18451924)
EMILY HENRIETTA HICKEY was born at Macmine Castle, near Enniscorthy, co. Wexford, Ireland, on the 12th of April, 1845. Her first published poemTold in the Firelightappeared 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 Brownings Strafford with annotations by her, appeared in 1884. Her later works are Poems (1896); Ancilla Dominiprivately published(1898); Our Lady of May, and Other Poems (1902), and Havelok the Dane (1902).
Miss Hickeys 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 songs 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:
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:
Miss Hickeys 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 poets reverence for all that is fair in the past, and having a poets 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:
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. Georges 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 Michaels sympathy for the weak, finds a place almost as cordial in the readers 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 Michaels birth, of his mothers and his fathers 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:
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.