Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by H. J. Gibbs
Adelaide Anne Procter (18251864)
IN his sympathetic and touching preface to the Legends and Lyrics of Adelaide Anne Procter, Charles Dickens gave a characteristic account of the connection which had grown up between himselfas Editor of Household Wordsand the gentle and delicate lyrist whose works he was then introducing. Her father, Bryan Waller Procter, better known as Barry Cornwall, himself a lyrist of no mean power, had befriended Dickens when he was a young literary aspirant, and a life-long friendship had ensued between them. Dickens had known Adelaide Procter as a child, and had watched her develop into young womanhood. She was a gay, sprightly girl, of great energy and rare sympathy of character, strenuous and eager in every study, passionately fond of books and of music. Highly cultured, intensely sympathetic, and surrounded by a rare intellectual atmosphere, it was not remarkable that she should seek to give expression to her thoughts and feelings in literary shape; and when at length she determined on making some of her verses public, she sent them, under an assumed name, to her fathers friend, Charles Dickens. Their merit was at once discerned, and further contributions were invited and secured for publication in Household Words. How the humorous and imaginative editor built up in his mind a little romance about his unknown contributor, Miss Mary Berwick, and how it at length became known to him that she was none other than the daughter of his old friend, is most delightfully told in the preface to her collected works.
Born in Bedford Square, London, October 30th, 1825, Adelaide Procter early manifested a love of poetry. A tiny album, into which her favourite verses were copied by her mothers hand, was carried about by her as another child carries about her doll. She soon displayed a remarkable memory and great quickness of apprehension, and as she grew older she acquired the French, Italian, and German languages, and great skill as a pianoforte player. At the age of twenty-six she adopted the Roman Catholic faith, and though her special views of religion are not obtruded in her works, a generally devout tone, deep admiration for Christian heroism, devotion, and self-abnegation are conspicuously manifest in her subsequent writings. She spent her life between contemplation, poetical composition, and active benevolence. Always impelled by the conviction that her life must not be dreamed away, and that her indulgence in her favourite pursuits must be balanced by action in the real world around her, she was indefatigable in her endeavours to do some good . Now it was the visitation of the sick that had possession of her; now it was the sheltering of the houseless; now it was the elementary teaching of the densely ignorant; now it was the raising up of those who had wandered and got trodden under foot; now it was all these things at once. Perfectly unselfish, swift to sympathise, and eager to relieve, she wrought at such designs with a flushed earnestness that disregarded season, weather, time of day or night, food and rest. Thus wrote Charles Dickens. No wonder that a constitution so overtaxed succumbed under the burdens imposed upon it. After a lingering illness of fifteen months, borne with patience, resignation and hope, she died, in her mothers arms, on the 2nd of February, 1864. Adelaide Procters best work was the fruit of the last ten years of her life; for though she had published a few verses before that date, it was not until the spring of 1853 that Mary Berwick sent her first contribution to Household Words, and her career was over, as we have seen, in 1864. Her poetry may be classified as narrative, lyrical, and devotional, though, as we have already observed, the deeply religious and devotional cast of their authors mind is manifest in all of them. Nor is their purpose unapparent, though their didacticism is kept under admirable restraint. All of them faithfully reflect the deeper convictions of her mind, and it is matter for observation that though she lived till 1864, in the midst of intellectual people, many of whom must have been profoundly influenced by the scepticism, the unrest, the despair, of the time, no trace of it is to be discovered in her writings,a remarkable fact in connection with the work of one so eager, so sympathetic, so impetuous. So far as books inspired her songs, she might have drawn all her inspiration from the New Testament. We must strive. Yes; she accepts, cheerfully accepts, this nineteenth century admonition; but we must wait and pray too.
Full of faith and hope, she is yet practical and sensible in her view of life. She finds the world full of sorrow and suffering and accepts it without a murmur; nay, rather glories in the imperfect and transient nature of earthly joys. The ministry of suffering is a favourite theme with her, and this without any affected cynicism as to the joy of the whole earth. There can be no doubt as to the genuineness of the joy that sings
My God, I thank Thee who hast made
The Earth so bright;
So full of splendour and of joy,
Beauty and light;
So many glorious things are here
Noble and right!
I thank Thee, too, that Thou hast made
Joy to abound;
So many gentle thoughts and deeds
Circling us round,
That in the darkest spot of Earth
Some love is found.
Nor is it possible to deny the high standard of self-discipline, of calm, hopeful and resigned confidence attained by the spirit that can sing with her
I thank Thee more that all our joy
Is touched with pain;
That shadows fall on brightest hours;
That thorns remain;
So that Earths bliss may be our guide,
And not our chain.
* * * * *
I thank Thee, Lord, that Thou hast kept
The best in store;
We have enough, yet not too much
To long for more:
A yearning for a deeper peace,
Not known before.
I thank Thee, Lord, that here our souls,
Though amply blest,
Can never find, although they seek,
A perfect rest
Nor ever shall, until they lean
On Jesus breast!
Surely here she gives lyric expression to a very rare attainment of even Christian faith. Her message to suffering humanity is characteristically given in the poem Friend Sorrow:
Do not cheat thy Heart and tell her
Grief will pass away,
Hope for fairer times in future,
And forget to-day.
Tell her, if you will, that sorrow
Need not come in vain;
Tell her that the lesson taught her
Far outweighs the pain.
Her narrative poems have remarkably good qualities. The stories are vivid; the reader is quickly interested, and reads right to the end. Witness the two entitled respectively, A Legend of Bregenz, and A Legend of Provence. In the former, the story of the young Tyrolean maid, faithfully performing the daily round, the common task, of humble servitude in the household of strangers, placid and content, all unconscious of the heroic potentiality within her, suddenly aroused into a burning anxiety to save her native town from attack, is powerfully though simply told, and the readers anxiety and sympathy for the maiden, as she scales the steep banks and conveys the warning to her townsmen, is complete.
References to the power of Music are scattered throughout her poems, and two of her lyrics, expressive of its magical efficiency in ministering to the souls needs, have become widely popular. We refer to A Lost Chord, and Sent to Heaven (The Message). How exquisitely lyrical are the lines
Adelaide Procter is never obscure. She never struggles to find utterance for any perplexed meanings; all she says is clear, simple, direct. On the other hand, it is not often that she touches a very deep note in the human heart. There are no flashes of inspiration, no revelations of truths before unrecognised. Perhaps she penetrates deepest in Judge Not.
Judge not; the workings of his brain
And of his heart thou canst not see;
What looks to thy dim eyes a stain,
In Gods pure light may only be
A scar, bright from some well-won field,
Where thou wouldst only faint and yield.
* * * * *
The fall thou darest to despise
May be the angels slackened hand
Has suffered it, that he may rise
And take a firmer, surer stand;
Or, trusting less to earthly things,
May henceforth learn to use his wings.
One of her best and most characteristic pieces is, undoubtedly, The Story of the Faithful Soul. To compare her for a moment with another sweet religious singer of this century,Kebleit might be said that, while she instils the same precepts and inculcates the same duties, she has never attained to his height. Wisdom and sight are well, but Trust is best, she wrote. Keble, in treating of the same theme, wrote,