Adelaide Procter is almost forgotten today, but she was Queen Victoria’s favorite poet, and in her time (1825-1864) she was second only to Tennyson in sales and popularity. She was admired and published by Dickens, and if today she is remembered at all, it is either for their work together, or for Arthur Sullivan‘s setting of her poem, “A Lost Chord.”
Procter, Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Wilkie Collins collaborated on “A House to Let” and “The Haunted House,” and Dickens wrote a lengthy encomium to introduce a posthumous edition of her poems. In it, he alluded to the cause of her death at age 38 being related to her tireless charitable work, thus placing her firmly in the mold of the Idealized Dickensian Woman Who Sacrifices Herself.
Procter’s work with the poor–particularly women–was extensive, and inspired by her conversion to Catholicism in 1851. She was friends with writer and feminist Bessie Parkes, who would also later convert to Catholicism and give the world a couple of famous children. Procter , Parkes, and their circle worked to uplift the condition of the poor, with a focus on helping women to be self-sufficient.
Her faith deeply informed her work, which is rich in Catholic imagery and symbolism, particularly “A Chaplet of Verses,” published to benefit the Providence Row Night Refuge for the Homeless Poor. Moderns tend to dismiss Victorian poetry–particularly religious poetry–not just because of its traditional forms, but because of a misunderstanding of Victorian piety, which they associate with treacly verse and lace holy cards featuring a cherubic, rosy-cheeked infant Jesus. If you want a better sense of Victorian piety, think of this. There was a deep concern for the social ills of the time, which naturally flowed from Christianity. This was more than mere surface piety: it was a deep faith that moved people like Procter to help those in need while also expressing her faith through her art.
Procter deserves to be read today, and I intended to run one of her Christmas poems, but “The Church in 1849” seemed important to share. We all think we’re sailing through unique trials that will shake the church, but every generation faces such trials. We will face our difficulties, particularly since a majority of coreligionists voted for a man actively hostile to our beliefs, but try to keep it perspective, and remember this: the Catholic Emancipation Act passed in Procter’s lifetime.
Here is Procter writing about the state of her church in 1849. Every line could be written today. If we are indeed sailing into several years of troubled waters, perhaps her words can give us heart:
THE CHURCH IN 1849
by Adelaide Procter
OH, mighty Mother, hearken! for thy foes
Gather around thee, and exulting cry
That thine old strength is gone and thou must die,
Pointing with fierce rejoicing to thy woes.
And is it so? The raging whirlwind blows
No stronger now than it has done of yore:
Rebellion, strife, and sin have been before;
The same companions whom thy Master chose.
We too rejoice: we know thy might is more
When to the world thy glory seemeth dim;
Nor can Hell’s gates prevail to conquer Thee,
Who hearest over all the voice of Him
Who chose thy first and greatest Prince should be
A fisher on the Lake of Galilee.