Felicia Hemans, “The Image in Lava”

The Introduction

In her article “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Mary Louise Pratt defines the contact zone as the “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (34). Pratt’s conception of the contact zone stands in opposition to the utopian characterization of community set forth in such foundational works as Walter Benjamin’s Imagined Communities. For Pratt, the contact zone is a physical space that facilitates fraught collisions between cultures. Pratt’s definition of the contact zone closely aligns it with a heterogeneous community where different groups of people – different in terms of race, socio-economic status, language, or cultural customs – exist in the same space and engage in some type of power struggle or relationship defined by tension.

Pratt’s definition of the contact zone takes a narrow and specific approach to the term. For Pratt, the contact zone is a physical place that facilitates oppressive human relationships. While I certainly agree with Pratt’s use of the term, I argue throughout this introduction that the contact zone can been thought of metaphorically and applied to alternative– not necessarily negative – scenarios in order to explain the relationships between opposing ideals, materials, or social practices. In employing a broad definition that still relies on binaries relationships but moves beyond the physicality of human interaction, Felicia Hemans’ poem “The Image in Lava” can been considered a contact zone. “The Image in Lava” – as a poetic space and an arena for ideas – facilitates the collision of past and present historical moments; the collision of natural phenomena and human intervention; and the collision of a site that acts both as a place spiritual burial and as a historic monument.

Published first in 1827 in the New Monthly Magazine and republished in 1828 in Hemans’ poetic collections the Records of Woman, “The Image in Lava” unites the historical and geographical communities of nineteenth-century Britain and ancient, southern Italy. In AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, breaking “its centuries long silence,” and unleashing devastating results on the surrounding cities and their inhabitants (Roberts 272). The explosive nature of the eruption covered the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in volcanic ash effectively burying the civilizations for centuries (Roberts 282). Now, fast-forward nearly two thousand years. In 1823, after centuries of being hidden underneath Mount Vesuvius’ debris, British archaeologists set out to uncover the remains of these lost cities (Harding 143). As scholar Mary Beard recounts, “an old archaeological joke” told in response to the excavations is that “Pompeii has died twice: first, the sudden death caused by the eruption; second the slow death that the city has suffered since it began to be uncovered in the mid eighteenth century” (19).

The incredible discoveries that followed from the excavations in Italy made their way back to Britain through the newspapers. The communication between the excavations in Italy and the news reports in Britain directly connects to the poem through the Hemans’ footnote – included in both publications: “The impression of a woman’s form, with an infant clasped to the bosom, found at the uncovering of Herculaneum”. As scholar Isobel Armstrong notes, in the summer previous to the publication of “The Image in Lava,” The Times newspaper carried several reports of new findings at Pompeii – many of them related to the discoveries of human remains (218-219). While it is impossible to prove it was through this channel that Hemans’ first viewed “the image,” it is a likely prospect given that Hemans’ was an avid reader and the excavations in Italy were a popular subject amongst the masses.

The collision of ancient Italy and nineteenth-century Britain in Hemans’ text constructs it as a contact zone of history and culture. Hemans’ intriguing footnote creates an explicit connection between two – very distant – historical moments: the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the uncovering of the remains. Additionally, Hemans’ employment of the word “immortal” emphasizes the poems’ ability to unite history in a manner beyond human experience. Like the newspapers that publicized the excavation with voracious detail, Hemans’ poem transports its contemporary British audience to a foreign space. In traversing thousands of years and thousands of miles, “The Image in Lava” manifests itself as a contact zone through the facilitation of an interaction between two distant cultures.

“The Image in Lava” also creates a contact zone between nature and humanity by drawing attention to the shocking preservation and archaeological innovation surrounding the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. With a surge temperature estimated by vulcanologists to have been between 400-450°C, the populations of Pompeii and Herculaneum were essentially scorched into preservation (Roberts 285). The incredible temperature of the explosion accompanied by the rapid accumulation of “pumice, ash, lapilli, and other volcanic materials” buried the residents of the ancient civilizations before their bodies could begin to decay (Roberts 282). The incredibly nature of this phenomenon is reflected in the language of Hemans’ poem as she describes the child’s image as “enshrin’d” in the lava or “impress’d” in the ashes. In “The Image in Lava,” nature is given an active role in both the annihilation and preservation of the population of ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum.

But, Hemans’ work also acknowledges the necessity of human intervention in the recovery of these “images”. Even characterizing the monument as an “image” in the works’ title gestures towards the active role of human technology. An image often refers to a photograph or work of art – both of which present nature mediated through man. In this same sense, the recovery of human forms from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum demanded human innovation. In studying the cities’ fossilized remains “archaeologists working in Pompeii realized that plaster of Paris, poured into voids in the ash, created detailed impressions of long-vanished organic objects, such as door and furniture” (Roberts 296). Soon after the technique had proved successful in extracting moulds of inanimate objects, prominent archaeologist and lead investigator Giuseppe Fiorelli “decided to use the same technique on voids left by people” (Roberts 296). This blending of artistic technique and archaeological process resulted in shocking casts of human forms that took nineteenth-century society by storm.

In “The Image in Lava,” Hemans describes the impression as a “trace.” This word signifies the symbiotic relationship between humanity and the environment in the text: the female form is pressed into the volcanic debris, leaving a decipherable mark of humanity on nature. Armstrong goes as far as to argue that this impression is the “nearest thing to a ‘natural’ monument, a ‘pure’ unmediated aesthetic, a poesis of earth itself” because it collides and unites natural forces with human ones (214). Recalling the disastrous event that catalyzed the creation of this “rude monument” shows the relationship to be in line with Pratt’s original definition of the contact zone as a collision defined by oppression. The language utilized by Hemans emphasizes and constructs the poem as a contact zone between a natural phenomenon and human innovation.

Finally, the liminal position of the impression referenced in this poem – between characterizing itself as spiritual burial site or a historic monument – facilitates a final contact zone. Scholars in the past have been quick to compare Hemans’ “The Image in Lava” to Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias” because both of the poems discuss powerful civilizations that have since fallen into ruin. “The Image in Lava” and “Ozymandias” both elude the tumultuous relationship between nature and humanity: “Ozymandias” depicts the destruction of a human monument by the eternal force or nature and “The Image in Lava” shows a human impression forced upon the natural landscape. In the end, both poems “talk about monuments belonging to dust and sand” (Armstrong 214). In creating a dialogue between “The Image in Lava” and “Ozymandias,” the image in Hemans’ poem becomes a representation of history. The same way Ozymandias’ statue was erected to commemorate a great civilization; the impression in Hemans’ poem can be conceptualized as a stand in for the immortality of Pompeii and Herculaneum – despite their destruction the population lives in on the construction of these casts.

However, the intensely personal and intimate qualities of the impression in Hemans’ poem balk against understanding it as a historical monument like that of the statue of Ozymandias. The “rude monument” preserves an image of a woman clasping her child to her chest. Hemans writes about the incredible affection leaping forth from the static image through its “impassion’d grasp.” In fact, Hemans’ sets the impression in opposition to the relics of a city or “pomps of old.” Taking these details into account, “The Image in Lava” is may be more accurately understood as gravesite remembering the woman and child than a commemorative artefact – a gravesite that Hemans’ visits as an imaginary necro-tourist.

In his book Necroromanticism, Paul Westover discusses the burgeoning of necro-tourism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (3). Necro-tourism was the activity of traveling to and visiting burial locations as a form of tourism. Westover argues that necro-tourism grew out of a population obsessed with “antiquitarian revival” and accessing the dead (3). Necro-tourism also fosters the “interplay between geographical and imaginary terrains” (Westover 5). In “The Image in Lava,” Hemans’ virtually transports herself to the site of the impression or gravesite. This imaginary transportation to a real, geographical location manifests Westover’s definition of necro-tourism. Uniting the similarities between “The Image and Lava” and “Ozymadias” with the characteristics of Hemans’ work that figure it as a site necro-tourism, “The Image in Lava” can be understood a material artifact that hangs in the balance. As a commemorative, historical monument and an individual, spiritual gravesite, the “image” in “The Image in Lava” constructs a third and final contact zone between different types of memorials.

Often described as a poetess – in the worst sense of word – Felicia Hemans’ poetry has the tendency to been unrightfully dismissed and discounted as the musings of an overly emotional woman. However, as this introduction has demonstrated, in “The Image in Lava” Hemans constructs an space of collision between the past and the present; the natural and the manmade; and the spiritual and the historic –making the poem an incredible and innovative witness to Pratt’s theory of the contact zone.

The Text

“The Image in Lava” was published both in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal (1827) and Hemans’ poetry collection Records of Woman (1828). The version duplicated below is a reproduction of the poem as it appeared in the edition of Records of Woman. However, the differences between the serial and monograph publications are noted in the annotations.

The Image in Lava.*

THOU thing of years departed!
What ages have gone by,
Since here the mournful seal was set
By love and agony! (1)

Temple and tower have moulder’d,
Empires from earth have pass’d,– (2)
And woman’s heart hath left a trace
Those glories to outlast!

And childhood’s fragile image
Thus fearfully enshrin’d,
Survives the proud memorials rear’d
By conquerors of mankind. (3)

Babe! wert thou brightly slumbering (4)
Upon thy mother’s breast,
When suddenly the fiery tomb
Shut round each gentle guest?

A strange, dark fate o’ertook you, (5)
Fair babe and loving heart!
One moment of a thousand pangs–
Yet better than to part!

Haply of that fond bosom
On ashes here impress’d,
Thou wert the only treasure, child!
Whereon a hope might rest. 

Perchance all vainly lavish’d
Its other love had been,
And where it trusted, nought remain’d
But thorns on which to lean. (6)

Far better then to perish,
Thy form within its clasp,
Than live and lose thee, precious one!
From that impassion’d grasp.

Oh! I could pass all relics
Left by the pomps of old,
To gaze on this rude monument,
Cast in affection’s mould. (7)

Love, human love! what art thou?
Thy print upon the dust (8)
Outlives the cities of renown
Wherein the mighty trust!

Immortal, oh! immortal
Thou art, whose earthly glow
Hath given these ashes holiness–
It must, it must be so!

*The impression of a woman’s form, with an infant clasped to the bosom, found at the uncovering of Herculaneum.

[This footnote was included by Hemans to accompany the poem’s publication. For more information on the artistic and cultural phenomenon of these “impressions,” click here]