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Praise

Verse written and illustrated by Gladys M Rees

An exploration of some Biblical Themes for children

There is nothing particularly special or unusual about this little book, of some 56 pages, which was published in London by The Sheldon Press in 1936. It is of interest and relevance here for two reasons. The first is that the copy being used for this short study had been purchased in Wales, or at least, purchased as a present for a child living in Wales, in June 1945.(1) Secondly, although nothing has been so far traced as to the biography of the author and illustrator, her name might indicate that she belonged to a family of Welsh origin or with Welsh connections. The short poems which make up the volume themselves give some hints as to their author. One, for example, might indicate a Public School education;(2) two that she travelled, both at home and abroad.(3) The internal evidence of several pieces, and of a number of the illustrations, is that her home was in Kent, and in the countryside. The poem ‘Thoughts beneath a tree” is subtitled “Canterbury Cathedral Close”, and the illustration on page 47 is of oast-houses. Among the illustrations rural scenes predominate, and only one, on page 17, depicts an industrial landscape.(4) Overwhelmingly the evidence is of a writer and artist whose loved and familiar surroundings are those of the south-east of England.

The publication of the book itself was, as the author admits, the fruit of the encouragement of two friends, named as Constance Duncan and Nora Simmons, and it was dedicated to two children, named only as Mary and John. The dedication appears in juxtaposition with an engraving of two children, a girl and a somewhat younger boy, seen from behind, and standing with a tame deer in a woodland glade, watching, with interest and amazement but without fear, a vision of the heavenly choir of angels. The angels, with their music and musical instruments, the adoration of the children and of the natural order, combine to give meaning to the book’s title, “Praise”.

The book is divided into three roughly equal sections, designated ‘Of Peace’, ‘Of Joy’ and ‘Of Beauty’. The verses in the first section are appropriate for young children, and in the other two for those slightly older. None, however, with two possible exceptions, discussed later, would have been inaccessible to children below the age of ten.

Although the illustrations and text are to some degree integrated, this is not to such an extent that they cannot be treated separately. That is what will be done here.

Biblically Inspired Illustrations

Only five of Rees’ illustrations have a direct or indirect Biblical reference, most notably that on page 7, which is an arresting, but traditional, evocation of the Nativity, including the figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child, along with the shepherds, the magi, and the ox – but not the ass. It is intended to illustrate the poem on the facing page 6, “A Song of Christmas”, which in its three verses directly addresses the shepherds, the wise men and Mary in turn. The poem and illustration therefore conflate the episodes described in Luke 2 and Matthew 2, with the traditional reference to Isaiah 1 v.3. Two other illustrations make an indirect reference to the Nativity narratives. The first is the frontispiece already referred to, which is inspired in part by Luke 2, vv.13-14, the heavenly host’s appearance to the shepherds and their hymn of praise. The second, on p.51, depicts a man in contemporary dress, walking alone on a winding path through a landscape at night, the whole scene illumined by the shining of a bright star. The associated poem on the same page is entitled “Three Men”, and although neither illustration nor verse makes any direct reference, the inspiration is clearly that of Matthew 2, especially verses 2 and 9-10.

Illustration showing the Nativity.

Two more illustrations are inspired by children. That on p.2 is clearly meant to depict a very young Jesus(5), shown seated naked on the ground, under a flowering tree, his right arm around a lamb. The child is shown singing (the juxtaposed poem is “A Song of Praise”) and this song is echoed by birds in the branches of the tree above him, and flying overhead. John 10 v.14 “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine” is the governing text here, with vv.11, 15 and 17, with their reference to the shepherd’s voluntary sacrifice for his sheep, in the background.

Child on a hilltop surrounded by animals.

The illustration on p.4 is inspired by Isaiah 11 vv.1-9. A small child is shown on a hilltop, surrounded by animals, including sheep, a goat, a donkey, a rabbit, a dog and a snake. The vision is that of the peaceable kingdom of Christ, as envisioned by Isaiah, and this identification is reinforced by Rees’ associated verse, “Jesus was a little child”, which includes the line “All God’s creatures loved Him well”.

The final overt Biblical reference comes with the full-page illustration on p.53, which is clearly inspired by Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World” and thus by John 8 v.12. The figure – a somewhat sinister one, it has to be admitted – is shown knocking on a closed cottage door, which lacks a handle (thus echoing Hunt’s reference to Revelation 3 v.20, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me”). As with the Nativity image, again it is the Christ figure, here turned away from the viewer and towards the door, which is the principal light source. Alongside the cottage door is a metal wall-tie, of traditional design, but significantly in the form of a cross. The associated poem, “Hospitality”, takes up the reference to Rev.3 v.20, but also refers to the ‘stranger’ as the ‘Man of Sorrows’, from Isaiah 53 v.3.

Cloaked figure knocking at a door.

To some extent, therefore, these illustrations presuppose a familiarity with the Biblical text, though all to episodes in the narrative with which children of the age of the dedicatees, Mary and John, would have been familiar from Sunday School and Bible-reading at home. The verses, on the other hand, not only take up these themes, but also explore others in somewhat greater depth. It is to the text of the verses themselves that we shall now turn.

Biblical Themes in Rees’ verses

Of the three sections into which the book is divided, the first, “Peace”, is the most theologically explicit. Here Rees concentrates particularly upon the Nativity of Jesus, though there is almost no exploration of the doctrine of the Incarnation. Only in “Once in a Starry Night” (p 5) is there an oblique reference to it(6) and by association, to the doctrine of kenosis.(7) Otherwise Rees emphasises the humanity of the Christ-child, and links with her meditations upon his birth themes which are among her major preoccupations, God’s providence, His peace and love, and our necessary response in praise and thanksgiving, and with joy.(8)

Rees has little to say, by contrast, on the Passion and suffering of Christ. Only one short poem, of two verses, “Calvary”, on p 23, deals with this, though it is among the more challenging of her compositions.(9) She emphasizes the indifference and complacency of those who “sat and watched” on Calvary,(10) and then poses the question to her readers “And shall we crucify Him still? / And shall our cold indifference make / A starker and a harder Cross / A deeper wound, His heart to break?” The framing verses to this poem, on pp 23 and 24, lack the force of “Calvary”, and are a very lightweight treatment of the Easter doctrine of the Resurrection.(11)

One of the more interesting poems is “Gifts”, on p 14. Here we find Rees’ only – and oblique – reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, for the verse opens with a prayer to “Dear Lord God…” and concludes with “As Thou gav’st Thyself for me…”, thus moving from the Fatherhood of God to the sacrifice of the Son in the space of six lines. It is this verse, too, which contains a direct reference to the doctrine of Imago Dei, taken from Genesis 1 v.27. “Dear Lord God, who madest me / Image of Thyself to be…”

The predominant note of the corpus of poems, as might be expected from the book’s title, is praise. Again and again, this theme is coupled with Rees’ reverence for, and love of, nature and the work of creation. We have noted already how many of her illustrations also reflect these emphases, but in the verses her theology can become panentheistic.(12) In “God is in the Spring” (p 14) this is made explicit: “God’s Love and Joy and Light in everything”. This, perhaps, verges upon the heterodox. However, when in “Jesus was a little child” (p 4) Rees affirms her belief that “All God’s creatures loved Him well / When He came on earth to dwell. / Still they praise Him day by day, / Each and all in their own way”, she is not being sentimental, but faithful to patristic tradition.

Rees’ theology is perhaps best summed up in “If all we have – “ p.16, which is therefore worth quoting in full. “If all we have be not of God, / How little it availeth. / If all we do be not for God, / How seldom good prevaileth. / If all we see lack His sweet light, / Grey mist our way confuses. / If all we are be not all His, / What love our soul refuses.” There is more force in these couplets than in almost anything else in the book.

Conclusion

This slim volume of 1936 is a useful example of a simple introduction, by way of verse and (very competent) illustration, to some fundamental Biblical and Christian theology, aimed at young children, with Sunday School and home reading in mind. (The simple metres and short span of many of the verses would have made them easy to memorize.) But, as the foregoing analysis has attempted to show, there is here a serious lack of balance, and, perhaps, an unwillingness to engage with the “harder” doctrines. There is considerable emphasis upon the Nativity, but not upon the doctrine of the Incarnation which gives that Nativity meaning and purpose. There is only slight reference to suffering, or to the Passion, and almost none to the Resurrection. Sin is not mentioned directly, and where it appears, the emphasis is more upon the sins of omission than of commission. Intended as it was for younger children, the lack of balance unfortunately results in a rather ‘sanitized’ view of the Christian faith.(13) There is more substance and appeal in Rees’ illustrations for her verses, than in the verses themselves.

John Morgan-Guy
October 2006

 

We would welcome any biographical information regarding Gladys M Rees, or information about the copyright ownership of her work.

1. It bears the inscription: “To Lucy, Wishing you many happy returns and all the best for the future. Audrey and Margaret, June 1945”.

2. Grace Fanner (Lines spoken in the school by an Old Girl, to a beloved Headmistress, on her retirement).

3. In the Train; Friendly Eyes (Lake Como).

4. See for example pp 15, 31, 33, 34, 38, 40, 43 and 55. That on p.49 is of the seashore, and is associated with the poem “The Fisherman’s Secret” on p 48.

5. The image is unique in the volume in having indications of a halo. Even in the depiction of the Nativity on p 7 none of the figures have halos, though the newborn Jesus in the manger is the only light-source, illuminating the whole scene.

6. “Once in a starry night / The Prince of Peace came down”. John 1 vv 1-14 and the Nicene Creed lie behind these lines.

7. The following lines, “No sceptre in His hand, / Upon His head no crown”. Cf Philippians 2 vv.7-8.

8. It is in her verses on the Nativity that she makes one rather obvious mistake. In “Unity”, p 9, she refers to “Three shepherds were led by a shining star”. Luke 2 vv.8-16 makes no reference to the number of shepherds, nor to their being led to the newborn Jesus by a star. It is the magi of Matthew 2 who are led by a star. Matthew also makes no mention of the number three; because the magi offer three gifts (v.11) it has been traditionally assumed that there were three of them, but there is no basis for this in scripture.

9. The penultimate poem, “Hospitality”, on p 52 touches upon the theme, with its reiterated reference to the ‘Man of Sorrows’ of Isaiah  53 v.3, traditionally interpreted as a ‘type’ of Jesus.

10. Eg Matthew 27 vv 35-36 and vv.38–44; John 19 vv.23–24.

11. Rees has almost nothing to say of the Holy Spirit, and makes only one reference, in “A song of praise” p 3, to the Second Coming. However, even here, she is silent on Judgement.

12. There is, for example, in “Beauty”, p 36, when speaking of sunshine, birdsong, spring flowers, etc the assertion “All this is Beauty, and true Beauty, God”

13. In this respect, it is worth noting that two of the poems, “The Gipsy” (p 40) and “The Fisherman’s Secret” (p 48) have the more adult theme of love and attraction between the sexes. In the former, Rees openly avows “I fell in love with a gipsy, / A real brown gipsy man…” and in the latter she reveals an equal attraction to one who “is bronzed and strong and he watches the sea…” Neither poem fits easily into the theme of the book, and one can only be rather puzzled by their inclusion.

 

Illustration showing children watching angels singing.
Gladys M Rees, image from the frontispiece of Praise, c.1936. © Estate of Gladys M Rees