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Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Critical and Biographical Essay by Alfred H. Miles

Sarah Flower Adams (1805–1848)

SARAH FULLER FLOWER, better known as Sarah Flower Adams, was born at Harlow, in Essex, on the 22nd of February, 1805. She was the younger sister of Eliza Flower, who was a gifted musician and composer. Eliza and Sarah were the only children of Benjamin Flower, at one time a printer at Cambridge, and afterwards editor of the Cambridge Intelligencer, a paper in which he advocated liberal principles and dared free criticism, for which he suffered fine and imprisonment. Mrs. Flower died in 1810, and Benjamin Flower in 1829. In 1820 the family removed to Dalston, London, then a rural spot, where they numbered among their friends Harriet Martineau, Robert Browning, and others afterwards distinguished in literature. Mrs. Bridell-Fox, in a short memoir contributed to the last edition of “Vivia Perpetua,” says of this latter friendship: “He, ‘Robert Browning,’ is often referred to in letters as ‘The Boy Poet’ by the elder sister; also, in 1827, as anxiously discussing religious doubts and difficulties with the younger sister, Browning being then a lad of fifteen, and his confidanté, Sarah, twenty-two. During the years 1832–5 Sarah became a contributor to the pages of the Monthly Repository, then edited by Mr. W. Johnson Fox, and contributed to by John Stuart Mill, Crabb Robinson, Robert Browning, R. H. Horne, Leigh Hunt, and other distinguished writers. Her articles bear the signature S. Y., which, as Mrs. Bridell-Fox says, “indicated her pet name Sally to her personal friends.” On the 24th of September, 1834, she was married at St. John’s, Hackney, to Mr. John Brydges Adams, the “Junius Redivivus” of the Monthly Repository, whom she first met at the House of Mrs. John Taylor (afterwards Mrs. John Stuart Mill).

“After her marriage, with the hearty sympathy and concurrence of her husband,” says Mrs. Bridell-Fox, “she sought to carry out her youthful ambition of adopting the stage as a profession. She entertained the idea that the life of an actress, a life devoted to the constant expression of the highest poetry, ought to be really—as it was theoretically—a life in unison with the high thoughts to which she has habitually to give utterance. ‘The drama,’ she writes in one of her note-books, ‘is an epitome of the mind and manners of mankind, and wise men in all ages have agreed to make it, what in truth it ought to be, a supplement to the pulpit.’

“Mrs Adams possessed a rich, mellow, contralto voice, and from girlhood she had been in the habit of studying songs in which she could unite dramatic action and costume. It was a quite original idea in her young days, and she carried it out in a charming and very effective manner. The most striking songs among her varied repertoire were ‘The Erl King’ (music by Schubert), ‘The Cid’ (music by Lodge Ellerton), Campbell’s ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter,’ Scott’s ‘Hallowmas Eve,’ and Madge Wildfire’s song (the music of the two latter by her sister, who always accompanied on the piano these private performances); also others of a lighter character, such as ‘My Boy Tammie,’ ‘There’s nae Luck about the House.’ Selected scenes from Shakespeare often varied these domestic entertainments. In 1837 she made her first attempt in public, appearing at the little Richmond theatre as Lady Macbeth with considerable success. ‘The performance was strongly marked by original conception and dramatic power,’ observes the Court Journal, in the course of a long and laudatory article on her performance. Portia and Lady Teazle were to follow. Her success resulted in a good engagement for the Bath Theatre, then considered the best training school for aspirants for the London Stage, obtained partly, no doubt, by a flattering introduction from Macready, who thought highly of her powers. And then—then her health again gave way, and instead of fulfilling her engagement she lay prostrate with illness at Bath.”

Finding herself physically incapable of sustaining the strain of public performances, Mrs. Adams now determined to devote her efforts entirely to literature, with the result that her dramatic poem, “Vivia Perpetua,” was published in 1841. Her hymns (fourteen in all, besides some translations) were published in the collection of Hymns and Anthems made by Mr. W. Johnson Fox for the use of his congregation at South Place Chapel, Finsbury. Most of them were set to music by her sister, Eliza Flower, who took a large share in the direction of the music at South Place. Eliza died of consumption in December 1846, and Sarah (surviving her sister less than two years) on the 14th of August, 1848.

A selection from “Vivia Perpetua” is given in Vol. VII. of this work, where it is prefaced by a short critique from the pen of Dr. Garnett, who says of it, “‘Vivia Perpetua’ is unsatisfactory as a play but has deep human interest as an idealised representation of the authoress’s mind and heart. In the character of Vivia she has shadowed forth her own moral affections and intellectual convictions, and the intensity of her feelings frequently exalts her diction, else artless and slightly conventional, into genuine eloquence. The moral charm, however, takes precedence of the artistic, as is to be expected in the work of a true woman. Lyrical enthusiasm atones in no small measure for the lack of the constructive faculty, and ‘Vivia Perpetua’ fulfils better than many more ambitious works Milton’s demand that poetry should be ‘simple, sensuous, and passionate.’ The authoress would probably have left a higher reputation if she had given freer scope to her natural instinct for lyrical poetry, instead of devoting her most strenuous endeavour to the difficult undertaking of reviving the poetical drama.” Her hymn, “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” has been one of the most popular of modern hymns, as it is certainly one of the most beautiful. Others less known, if but little inferior, will be found here.