Hemans’ “The Wife of Asdrubal” begins with a city on fire. Hemans states, “O’er Afric’s heaven the flames of Carthage throw; / . . . The sculptured altar, and the pillar’d hall, / Shine out in dreadful brightness ere they fall” (lines 2-8).
From the midst of these destructive sights, Asdrubal’s wife appears to look down on the city and the people her husband has destroyed. Hemans writes, “But mark! From yon fair temple’s loftiest height / What towering form bursts wildly on the sight, / All regal in magnificent attire, . . . / A being more than earthly, in whose eye / There dwells a strange and fierce ascendancy” (lines 15-23). From both her position and the description of her eyes, Asdrubal’s wife is on a plane above the chaos her husband has caused. From her perch, her children surround her. They seek both protection and comfort from her as their home burns around them. Hemans writes, “Are those her infants, that with suppliant-cry / Cling round her, shrinking as the flame draws nigh, . . . / Is that a mother’s glance, where stern disdain, / And passion awfully vindictive, reign?” (lines 33-38). Hemans questions whether she looks like a mother in this instant, and I would say no. By this point, she knows what her husband has done. She knows she and her children will not survive, and she is focused on Asdrubal. “Fix’d is her eye on Asdrubal, who stands, / Ignobly safe, amidst the conquering bands; / On him, who left her to that burning tomb, / Alone to share her children’s martyrdom” (lines 39-42). Asdrubal’s wife curses him for the part he has played in their deaths; she shouts, “Scorn’d and dishonour’d, live!—with blasted name, / . . . Still may the manes of thy children rise / To chase calm slumber from thy wearied eyes; / Still may their voices on the haunted air / In fearful whispers tell thee to despair, / Till vain remorse thy wither-d heart consume, / Scourged by relentless shadows of the tomb!” (lines 47-56). Asdrubal’s actions have killed her children, and his wife wants that knowledge to burn him alive as well. At the same time she wishes these horrors upon her husband, she refuses to let her children suffer.
At this point, Asdrubal’s wife says, “Think’st thou I love them not? . . . / ‘Tis mine with these to suffer and to die. / Behold their fate!—the arms that cannot save / Have been their cradle, and shall be their grave” (lines 59-62). Here, Asdrubal’s wife again acknowledges their fate but refuses to condemn her children to the end her husband has chosen for them. Her focus shifts back to her children. In a final act of love and mercy, she kills them. In those final moments, “With frantic laugh she clasps them to the breast / Whose woes and passions soon shall be at rest; / Lifts one appealing, frenzied glance on high, / Then deep midst rolling flames is lost to mortal eye” (lines 65-69). She saves them just in time—as they take their final breaths, the flames consume her. To me, the ending is one of absolute redeeming love. It seems as if she has just a moment or two left. Instead of saving herself from a painful death like Asdrubal did, his wife spends her last moments ensuring that her children do not suffer. In addition, she looks to heaven “frenzied” and “appealing” for forgiveness as she dies—an action Asdrubal never takes.