Open main menu

Alexander, Cecil Frances (DNB01)

ALEXANDER, Mrs. CECIL FRANCES (1818–1895), poetess, born in co. Wicklow in 1818, was the second daughter of John Humphreys, major in the royal marines, by his wife, the daughter of Captain Reed of Dublin, and niece of Sir Thomas Reed [q. v.] She began to write poetry at nine years of age, selecting tragic subjects like the death of Nelson and the massacre of Glencoe. While her father was living at Ballykean, in Wicklow, a friendship arose between Miss Humphreys and Lady Harriet Howard, the daughter of the Earl of Wicklow, herself an authoress. Their intimacy continued after Major Humphreys removed to Milltown, near Strabane, on the borders of Donegal and Tyrone. They came under the influence of the Oxford movement, and turned to writing tracts, the prose part of which Lady Harriet supplied, while Miss Humphreys contributed a number of poems. The tracts began to appear in 1842, excited some attention, and were collected into a volume in 1848. In 1846 Miss Humphreys published 'Verses for Holy Seasons' (London, 8vo), with a preface by Walter Farquhar Hook [q. v.]; it reached a sixth edition in 1888. There followed in 1848 her 'Hymns for Little Children,' for which John Keble [q. v.] wrote the preface; this volume reached a sixty-ninth edition in 1896. Many of her hymns, including 'All things bright and beautiful,' 'Once in royal David's city,' 'Jesus calls us o'er the tumult,' 'The roseate hues of early dawn,' 'When wounded sore the stricken soul,' and 'There is a green hill far away,' are in almost universal use in English-speaking communities. Gounod, when composing a musical setting for the last, said that the words seemed to set themselves to music.

On 15 Oct. 1850 Miss Humphreys was married at Camus-juxta-Mourne to the Rev. William Alexander, rector of Termonamongan in Tyrone. In 1855 her husband became rector of Upper Fahan on Lough Swilly, and in 1867 he was consecrated bishop of Derry and Raphoe. He remained in this diocese until 1896, the year after his wife's death, when he was created archbishop of Armagh. Mrs. Alexander devoted her life to charitable work, but she delighted in congenial society, and, apart from hymns, wrote much musical verse. Tennyson declared that he would be proud to be the author of her 'Legend of Stumpie's Brae.'

Mrs. Alexander died at the palace, Londonderry, on 12 Oct. 1895, and was buried on 18 Oct. at the city cemetery. She left two sons—Robert Jocelyn and Cecil John Francis—and two daughters, Eleanor Jane and Dorothea Agnes, married to George John Bowen.

Besides the works already mentioned, her chief publications are:

  1. 'The Lord of the Forest and his Vassals: an Allegory,' London, 1848, 8vo.
  2. 'Moral Songs,' London, 1849, 12mo; new edit., London, 1880, 8vo.
  3. 'Narrative Hymns for Village Schools,' London, 185.3, 4to; 8th edit., London, 1864, 16mo.
  4. 'Poems on Subjects in the Old Testament,' London, 1854, 8vo.
  5. 'Hymns, Descriptive and Devotional, for the use of Schools,' London, 1858, 32mo.
  6. 'The Legend of the Golden Prayers and other Poems,' London, 1859, 8vo.
  7. 'The Baron's Little Daughter and other Tales,' 6th edit., London, 1888, 8vo.

Mrs. Alexander also contributed to 'Lyra Anglicana,' to the 'Dublin University Magazine,' and to the 'Contemporary Review.' In 1864 she edited for 'Golden Treasury Series' a selection of poems by various authors, entitled 'The Sunday Book of Poetry.' In 1896 the archbishop of Armagh published, with a biographical preface, a collective edition of her previously published poems, excluding only some on scriptural subjects.

[Preface to Mrs. Alexander's Poems, 1894; Times, 14, 19 Oct. 1893; Irish Times, 19, 22 Oct. 1895; Londonderry Sentinel, 15, 17, 19, 22 Oct. 1895; Dublin University Magazine, October 1858, September 1859; Stephen Gwynn in Sunday Magazine, January 1896; Julian's Diet, of Hymnology.]

E. I. C.