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I found the above phrase in the book "The story of my life" by Helen Keller. The actual sentence is below.

It has been my privilege to meet a few great actors and actress who have the power of so bewitching you that you forget time and place and live again in the romantic past. I have been permitted to touch the face and costume of Miss Ellen Terry as she impersonated our ideal of a queen; and there was about her that divinity that hedges sublimest woe

I am having a hard time grasping the meaning of "divinity that hedges sublimest woe". What is the exact meaning of it for the given context?

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3 Answers 3

I find “there was about her that divinity that hedges sublimest woe” difficult to understand unequivocally; I think verb to hedge in this case means to bound or to limit, and think sublimest woe means extreme woe. If the text mentions the role Ellen Terry was playing, that may help understand the meaning.

Five extracts from relevant senses in OED1 are shown below. Some are in line with the interpretation above, and some are not.

3b. To arrange so as to form a barrier.
4 fig. To bound, limit, define. Obs.
5b. To hem in, so as to prevent escape or free movement ; to confine, restrict.
6. To obstruct as with a hedge ; also hedge up.
9. intr. To go aside from the straight way ; to shift, shuffle, dodge ; to trim ; to avoid committing oneself irrevocably ; to leave open a way of retreat or escape.

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I have been added preceeding sentence to the given sentence for your convenience. Yes, Mr Ellen Terry was playing a role. –  Ramya Dec 4 '12 at 8:25
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Miss (not Mr.) Ellen Terry played numerous roles, among them Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, and Queen Katherine in plays of Shakespeare, Queen Henrietta Maria in Wills' Charles 1, etc. Which Queen was she playing when Keller met her? –  jwpat7 Dec 4 '12 at 15:00
    
You are definitely on the right track here; the allusion to Hamlet seals the deal. –  Mark Beadles Dec 4 '12 at 18:41

Ellen Terry was noted as a Shakespearean actress. The turn of phrase is a direct allusion to Claudius' lines in Shakespeare; Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5:

What is the cause, Laertes,
That thy rebellion looks so giant-like?—
Let him go, Gertrude. Do not fear our person.
There’s such divinity doth hedge a king
That treason can but peep to what it would,
Acts little of his will.

which No Fear Shakespeare glosses as:

Laertes, what makes you so rebellious? Let him go, Gertrude. Don’t worry about my getting hurt. God protects the king, so traitors can’t hurt him

So in this case, we can say that Ms Terry's performance as Queen was like a goddess that blocked (hedged) extreme sorrow (sublimest woe).

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This is normally how I dissect troubling quotes...

Divinity: state of being divine (like a god).

Hedging: avoiding the answer or fulfillment.

Sublimest: the most excellent, so as to inspire admiration.

Woe: great sorrow or distress.

"...and there was about her that godlikeness that avoided answering the greatest sorrow."

"...and there was a godlikeness about her that avoided answering the greatest sorrow."

So, the quality of Miss Ellen Terry that made the narrator think of her as godlike, was so prestigious and above-all that she seldom answered even those in dire distress.

Well, at least that's what I got from it. She was so great, that she ignored those beneath her status. Don't quote me on it. It even sounds wrong...

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I think you've chosen the wrong definition for hedge. Here it means to put up a barrier against. She was so divine that even someone in a state of utter and complete sorrow could not help but be lifted out of it. Helen Keller would never have said anyone was conceited and contemptuous. –  Jim Dec 4 '12 at 8:47

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