“Nought but the blood-stain”: Resisting Memorialization in Hemans’ “The Suliote Mother”[1]

Elizabeth Bishop, SUNY Oswego

 

1.   Felicia Heman’s poetry (1793-1835) is replete with figures of death, from bodies on the battlefield to funereal objects such as gravestones and tombs. [2] Whereas her early work (e.g., England and Spain, 1808) glorifies death in the service of war, by the close of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 she is openly critical of its deleterious effects upon domestic life. In addition to this, Hemans was among a growing consensus who believed that historiography perpetuated a militaristic ideology by being a “a record of conflict, war, and destruction caused by and for men” (Kelly 29). Hemans’ corrective to these phenomena was to write poetry drawn from historical events but repositioned around an empathetic female persona. In collections such as The Forest Sanctuary; and Other Poems (1825) and Records of Woman (1828) she portrays the difficult circumstances women endure and the tragic deaths they suffer. Many of these poems function as epitaphs while others meditate upon surviving memorials.[3] Despite certain deviations, Hemans’ “The Suliote Mother”(1825) operates as an epitaph. My reading will analyze the formal tensions which culminate in the narrator’s failure to commemorate the mother’s death, and the ethical recuperation that occurs as a result. I will close by reading Hemans’ literary project with Walter Benjamin’s theory of cultural barbarism.

2.   “The Suliote Mother” establishes its historical credibility through its headnote, demonstrating the poet’s knowledge of the historical events the poem depicts, as well as their source. She wrote two versions: one for the poem’s initial publication in the New Monthly Magazine (NMM) and the second for its inclusion in The Forest Sanctuary later that year (1825). The headnote for the NMM reads,

Various modern writers on Modern Greece have related the fate of those Suliote women, who threw themselves, with their infants, from the precipices of their mountainous territory, on the conquest and approach of Ali Pacha (sic). One of those narrators adds, that a wild song was chanted by the mothers, before committing the act of desperation. (Wolfson 324n2)

The headnote for The Forest Sanctuary reads,

It is related, in a French Life of Ali Pacha (sic), that several of the Suliote women, on the advance of the Turkish troops into their mountain fastnesses, assembled on a lofty summit, and, after chanting a wild song, precipitated themselves, with their children, into the chasm below, to avoid becoming the slaves of the enemy. (Wolfson 322)

Both notes communicate roughly the same set of facts, but there are significant differences between them. The version for NMM is little more than a sketch that refers to “Various modern writers on Modern Greece” as her sources, offers no justification for the mothers’ actions and refers to the mother’s suicide and infanticide of her son as an “act of desperation” (324n2). In contrast, the version for Forest Sanctuary provides a synopsis that summarizes the plot before the poem opens. “Various modern writers” is replaced by “a French Life of Ali Pasha” as her source and the women’s “wild” song is repositioned as the penultimate act leading to their deaths (322). Most importantly, she provides a powerful rationale for the mothers’ actions: “to avoid becoming the slaves of the enemy” (322). By rewriting the headnote, Hemans transforms a scene of murder and mass suicide into a heroic call for liberty that forwards her political concerns.

3.   The poet’s political motivations do not translate seamlessly into the narration, however.[4] While the manifest claim of the poem is to commemorate the mother, the narrator fails to present a vivifying portrait of her material form and sensory perceptions, which I read as raising issues of legibility and orality. The poem opens with a curiously absent description of the mother’s face. “A bitter smile was on her cheek/And a dark flash in her eye” refers to a face, but strikingly foregrounds its expressions rather than its corporeal form (3-4). Without being anchored in the image of this particular woman, the language of smile, cheeks, and eye operate as empty signifiers, cut off from their referents in the “world of correspondences” (de Man 54). The absence of comprehension between the narrator and her subject reveal the mother as an illegible figure with a level of alterity that cannot be overcome. In addition to this, the narrator disregards the orality of the mother even as the headnote refers to the mother’s stanzas as a “wild song” and the mother refers to their tribal music as “Suli’s wild” (26). The mother’s indecipherable melody pales in comparison to the destructive guarantee of the enemy’s orality. The narrator accomplishes a totalizing cacophony by deploying metallic instruments whose noise ventriloquizes that of combat: “The horn’s loud blast,”  “the cymbal’s clang,” “the clash of steel,” “swell’d the horn,” and “the tambour’s peal”(21, 22, 31, 32, 33). This malevolence reverberates against the cliffs, forwarding a sonic threat that terrorizes the mother’s body before the army reaches her.

4.   The narrator’s failure to account for the mother’s sensory world is heightened by the rhetoric of vision the mother employs throughout her song to the infant son in her arms. She repeatedly implores the babe with the injunction “Dost thou see,” beseeching him to observe the horrors encompassing them, from his dead father and kinsmen on the battlefield below to the “gleam[ing]” armor of the approaching force (5-10). She then directs her son’s gaze towards their mountain home as she envisions past moments of domestic bliss in their family:

There, where the hunter laid by his spear,
There, where the lyre hath been sweet to hear,
There, where I sang thee, fair babe! to sleep,
Nought but the blood-stain our trace shall keep!’ (17-20)

The repetition of “There” anchors her memories to the mountain while accentuating her own temporality in the face of death. Although she only voices domestic memories, her impending death encompasses more than a personal tragedy. Her death will mark the extermination of a tribe and their oral testimonies. While she grieves for this fact, she imagines no intervention that might save them, or even commemorate their struggle posthumously. She communicates this with devastating finality: “Nought but the blood-stain our trace shall keep!” (20). The only form which will keep their “trace” is the very blood each of them will exsanguinate as they die. In the final stanza of her song, she explains to her son why they both must now die. She is not responding to just any threat of violence, but that of enslavement by the enemy. Emphatically, she reminds him that he was born free, the son of a warrior, “Ay, and unchain’d must his lov’d ones be­—/Freedom, young Suliote! For thee and me!” (39-40). This declaration—the choice of death over a life enslaved—are her final words before she steps off the mountain cliff with her son:

And from the arrowy peak she sprung,
And fast the fair child bore:
A veil upon the wind was flung,
A cry—and all was o’er! (40-44)

The narrator’s inability to countenance the mother hinders commemoration throughout the poem, but the mother’s departure between the penultimate and ultimate stanzas finally forecloses attempts at an epitaph. In the absence of the mother’s body and her song, poetic revelry founders. The final lines bear little resemblance to the rich, dexterous language of the previous stanzas. The narrator cannot locate the mother “in the rocky strait beneath,” in which the enemy “heap’d high the piles of death” as she did with the husband’s body (13). By jumping off the cliff the mother bars the narrator from locating her body or the place of her death. This refusal to be memorialized is paradoxically what secures her subjectivity in death.[5] The stanza closes, exhausted by two fragments of temporality: “a veil upon the wind” and a disembodied cry (43, 44).

5.   Whereas I focus on Hemans’ narrator in my reading of “The Suliote Mother,” Brian P. Elliott directs his critique at the poet herself. Through a reading of ekphrasis in Records of Woman he argues, “Hemans will recast the ekphrastic object, imbuing it with her own voice and version of its emotional history” which “silenc[es] the object/monument’s ability to speak for the dead, inserting her own voice instead” (Elliott 30, 29). This may in fact be deeply problematic, although I would argue that Elliott’s objections are based on an unproductive comparison of Hemans’s ekphrastic practices to those of Shelley and Keats. Elliot defines Hemans’ work by an “investment in interestedness and the affective dimensions of the art object, as opposed to [the] purely aesthetic grounds and larger abstractions” of Keats and Shelley (29). Hemans’s “investment in interestedness” is perhaps better served by the work of Amy L. Gates (Elliott 29). She argues that Hemans’ poems operate as an “effigial form[s]” by which the “materiality of the dead human form allows Hemans to preserve the dead through the immateriality of poetic form” (Gates 59, 62).[6] The poem can thus stand in as an epitaph for memorials that were lost or never written to begin with. Gates envisions an inclusive communitarian ethos that can arise from such practices by “keep[ing] the dead visibly present and actively participatory among the living by commanding attention, raising questions, and inciting imaginative responses and reconsiderations” (66). While the projects of Elliott and Gates are diametrically opposed, they are both are concerned with an ethics of testimony and the commemoration of the dead which runs through Hemans work.

6.   Hemans’ scenes of violent procession call forward to Thesis VII of Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History,” which uncannily appears to speak right back to Hemans. Benjamin writes,

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which current rulers step over those who are lying prostrate…There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is never free of barbarism, so barbarism taints the manner in which it was transmitted from one hand to another…He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain. (391-2)

Benjamin insists upon a recognition of the presence of barbarism in all cultural objects, which by virtue of their survival proves their barbaric provenance. This not only taints the object, but also “the manner in which it was transmitted” (392). By figuring the action “from one hand to another” Benjamin implicates all individuals as guilty; barbarism is not merely perceived, it is communicated by the whole of society (392). In the context of literature, I read “the manner” here to include the genre by which it takes form. “The Suliote Mother” represents the complex set of ethical and political contestations which Hemans navigated on a discrete aesthetic level and which continue to play out across time. Hemans’ historiographic project is a powerful recuperation of women’s history, but one must always remain mindful that to engage with these histories—and language itself—is to engage with the ideologies of barbarism. “The Suliote Mother” attests to this through its proliferation of violence, as I have discussed above. The narrator stands in for Hemans’s own complicity by portraying the Turk’s violence in sensuous detail while failing to commemorate the mother. This failure is a productive one for the poet. The mother’s refusal of a grave (“Nought but the blood-stain our trace shall keep”) recognizes that only violence will make an accounting of her (20). To provide a false epitaph would only perpetuate an ideology of barbarism. The poem instead witnesses the narrator’s failure to account for the mother, which culminates in her departure and the fragmented close of the text. In this way, the poem mimics a document of barbarism, while in fact providing a powerful testimony of it. “The Suliote Mother” succeeds through its ability to forge a space from which moments of resistance can arise that disrupt hegemonic accounts of history, and the manners by which they are accounted.

 


 

[1] To read the poem as it appears in The Forest Sanctuary, see UC Davis’ excellent website, British Women Romantic Poets http://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bwrp/HemaFFores/1:6.20?rgn=div2;view=fulltext

[2] Scholars have interpreted these scenes variously, as a romantic desire for meaningful death (see Gary Kelley) to Amy L. Gates’ argument that Hemans’s work extends the “franchise of memorialization” (Gates 58). See Kelley’s “Introduction” to Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Prose, and Letters, Kelley’s “Death and the Matron: Felicia Hemans, Romantic Death, and the Founding of the Modern Liberal State,” Amy L. Gates’s “Fixing Memory: Effigial Forms in Felicia Hemans and Jeremy Bentham,” and Myra Cottingham’s “Felicia Heman’s Dead and Dying Bodies.”

[3]“ The Effigies,” from Records of Woman, exemplifies the poet’s critique of warfare and history by first ventriloquizing laud for a fallen hero, then examining the maiden chiseled onto the tomb at his side. She asks the woman, “What was thy tale?/…What bard hath sung of thee?,” the implied answer being “none (29, 32). “The Effigies” reading of the tomb contrasts starkly with “The Suliote Mother,” which forecloses any possibility of a headstone being raised for the poet to consider. In “Fixing Memory” Gates presents a robust argument for reading Hemans’ poems as textual monuments (59).

[4] Scholars generally read Hemans’ narrators as extensions of her poetic persona and thus are gendered as female. I will follow this convention for the purposes of this essay, although a fascinating argument can be made to read the narrator as a soldier, who, according to Wolfson’ gloss of Henry Holland’s account, witnessed the mothers “precipitat[e]”their children and then themselves over the cliffs (Wolfson 2, 324). Wolfson does not state if it is Holland’s account Hemans refers to in the headnotes although certain phrases arguably do echo Holland. (See Holland, Travels in the Ionian Isles, Albania, etc., during the years 1812 and 1813.)

[5] For contemporaneous examples of commemoration of the dead in Hemans’ work see “The Farewell To The Dead,” which follows “The Suliote Mother” in The Forest Sanctuary and “The Effigies” from Records of Woman.

[6]See Amy L. Gates, Myra Cottingham, and Gary Kelley’s “Introduction” to Felicia Hemans Selected Poems, Prose, and Letters,especially pages 27-29 on romantic death and funerary art.