Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Alexander Hay Japp
Sarah Williams (Sadie) (18411868)
SARAH WILLIAMS, better known to many readers as Sadie (under which nom de plume she wrote during her life), was born in London in 1841. Her father was of Welsh extraction, and she to the end regarded that as the source of the bardic element in her. She was an only child, and from the first much attention was paid to her nurture and education. After having been for some time under governesses, she went to Queens College, Harley Street, where one of the teachers was Dr. Plumptre, late Dean of Wells, to whom she always attributed much impulse to authorship. He was one of the first to whom she showed her earliest printed book. Acquaintance being thus renewed, he aided and advised her in many ways, and afterwards wrote the little biography of her which is prefixed to her volume Twilight Hours. There was little change or incident in her life; it was that of the student and author, though I should not omit to say that she took a very keen interest in many forms of work among the poor, and dedicated to such work one-half of all she earned by her pen. Gods money she called it. Happily, she was pretty well independent, for her father had been very successful in life. She was deeply attached to him, and she never fully recovered from the shock of his sudden death, after a few days illness that occasioned but little concern, in January 1868. She herself was even then suffering from an incurable disease, which so far as possible she hid from her mother and friends, to save them pain. At last the fact had to be faced that an operation, which if successful might save her life, must be undergone. She made up her mind to submit to it, and succumbed under it only five months after her fathers death.
Sarah Williams is distinguished by originality, breadth, and versatility. She wrote many songs and hymns, touched with a mingled simplicity and subtlety, which greatly attracted the late Rev. F. D. Maurice, as well as the late Dean Plumptre. Her mind was very active; her sympathies were at once wide and keen. She tried to enter into and to understand the positions of others, and not only so, but to realise the determining motives, and even the evanescent fluctuations of feeling and sentiment, which do so much to modify habit and conduct, and so often impart an air of irresolution. Hence in a great portion of her poetic work she was really dramatic, though she loved to abide by the lyric form. Her longest and most sustained work is entitled Sospiri Volate; and it is really a dialogue (in a series of songs) between two lovers. In the course of this dialogue, many of the flying phases of human emotion that so mark an artificial age like ours are caught and cunningly presented. She had, like the hero of In Memoriam, faced the spectres of the mind and laid them, and would not make her judgment blind; and the sense of this imparts a reality and even a fascination to some of her poems.
With Dr. George Macdonald, whom she admired, but from whom she often differed, she could say,
The man that feareth, Lord, to doubt,
In that fear doubteth Thee.
In the sections of her poems headed Questionings, Responses, and Broken Chords this is very keenly felt: we realise that we are in contact with a very serious and penetrating nature, though it could be cheerful and humorous on occasion. Many of her most effective pieces, indeed, show the struggle with theological dogmas in many forms. The great interest she had for men like Maurice and Plumptre is thus accounted for. She often sets into clear and musical form what must have been vaguely present to such minds in many circumstances. Her poem, Is it so, O, Christ in Heaven? is an illustration of what we have just said.
Her humour is sometimes as fine as it is unexpected, and when she allied it with the lightsome fancy she could so well command, in the writing of childrens poems, she was not seldom especially felicitous.
Her childrens poems, indeed, are so original, and so marked by fancy, gaiety, and fun, that they alone would have justified her appearance in such a selection as this; but some idea of her range and the firmness with which she touched the various strings of the lyre may be realised by turning from these childrens verses to such powerful and impressive pieces as that entitled Baal, At the Breach, The Old Astronomer, The Coast-guards Story, or The Roundheads Chant. Indeed, in some of her pieces there is a direct dramatic strength, a power of what has been called vicarious thinking, such as is seldom found in a woman together with the highly-strung, sensitive, impassioned thrill which goes for so much in what has been called the lyrical cry.
Her volume titled Twilight Hours: A Legacy of Verse is a kind of autobiography indeed. It is one of the books written from a womans heart. She died whilst she was engaged in the work of arranging her poems for press, so that they are in the truest sense her legacy. This work was finished by the present writer, and Dean Plumptre, as already stated, wrote a Prefatory Memoir of her, in which he quoted extensively from a memorial sketch contributed by the present writer to the pages of Good Words shortly after her death. A third edition of her poems appeared in 1872 with additions, and a note by H. A. Page respecting these additions. Probably she owed something to the strain of Welsh blood she received from her father; but it was qualified and supported by genuine English sense and sober thought. Some of her hymnsmore especially Gods Way, which is quoted in this volumeare inspired by the truest religious experience.