1:52pm: Cool update at the end of this post.
One of my regular readers, Kaye, regularly points out in comments the titles that don’t make sense because they aren’t titles at all but rather first lines. I know from experience that if the first line doesn’t grab me, I don’t look further, and sometimes I wonder why we’d have a song about that.
And thus, sometimes this practice surprises me with a hymn I have regularly flipped past. Like today’s – a setting of a poem by Rachel Bates (more on that in a minute). It’s set to one of my favorite contemplative tunes, Danby, by the master Ralph Vaughn Williams – perhaps most familiarly known to us as the Advent hymn Let Christmas Come (which we’ll get to in May. Yes, May.).
The poetry is beautiful; its imagery is reminiscent of those too-infrequent moments of real quiet without the ambient noise of 21st century motors and currents. Its pattern brings to mind the Howard Thurman piece “When the song of the angels is stilled…” And the denouement is a beautiful meditative idea – after all of the noise and bright banging flashes and shouts and screams of war… “how sweet the darkness there.”
When windows that are black and cold are lit anew with fires of gold;
when dusk in quiet shall descend and darkness come once more a friend;
When wings pursue their proper flight and bring not terror but delight;
when clouds are innocent again and hide no storms of deadly rain;
And when the sky is swept of wars and keeps but gentle moon and stars,
that peaceful sky, harmless air, how sweet, how sweet, the darkness there.
Before we go… I promised a bit on Rachel Bates. Here’s what I know: Rachel Bates was an English woman from the Wirral (a peninsula between Liverpool and Wales) who wrote at least one poem during the First World War.
Yep, that’s all I know. I found her in a list of female war poets here. My google searches have come up with nothing useful – there are plenty of modern Rachel Bateses to fill up my search results, and no matter what details I put in, I can’t get anything other than this site.
And that to me is a real shame. Perhaps this was the only good poem Bates ever wrote. Perhaps it was the only poem period. Or perhaps she had a longer life as a poet but was obscured or cut short or… who knows. It makes me sad, and I hope her life wasn’t. I hope she found love, fulfillment, space to express her heart’s desire and her creative passion.
For all the Rachel Bateses of the world, and for those who bring them to our attention, if only for a moment, thank you.
UPDATE! After I posted, I decided to poke around the female war poets website and discovered that for £2 ($2.56) I could buy a PDF of the first compendium of poetry. It arrived about a half hour ago, and author Lucy London has this to say:
Rachel Bates was born in 1897 to parents Joseph Ambrose Bates and Edith Annie Grimshaw. The family lived in lived in Great Crosby, Waterloo, Merseyside, where she worked as a secretary at The Liverpool Daily Post and Echo in their editorial department.
In 1922 she produced her first volume of poetry entitled “Danae And Other Poems” which was published by Erskine MacDonald Ltd, London WC1.
During the Second World War, Rachel moved to Sawrey in the Lake District where she continued to write poetry.
In 1947 she produced a collection of poems about her lakeland surroundings called “Songs From A Lake” which was published by Hutchinson.
She died in 1966 and is buried at St Michael & All Angels cemetery in Hawkshead.
Hurrah! She was a published poet! She got some recognition! And it sound as if she lived a full life in Northwest England. Now to find her published collections…
The photograph is of a British soldier and his family, circa 1917. Is the woman Rachel Bates? Probably not, but who knows…
[…] we sang these words, written by English poet Rachel Bates. We know the hymn from STLT as When Windows That Are Black and Cold – a misleading title, which I note in the post about it. We sang it to Danby, a lovely Ralph […]