Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Esolen’

Esolen: The Hundredfold

January 25, 2021

The Hundredfold
Songs for the Lord
Anthony Esolen
(Ignatius, 2019)
224 p.

“It is manna”

I am at peace under the open skies,
Gathering berries into a gallon pail,
As finches twitter, and the small gnats wail,
And if a cloudy empire lives or dies,
No news will reach me when the seagull cries;
More potent is the snuff of last year’s leaf
In the pouch of the earth where worms abound
And black ants carve their boroughs, reef to reef,
Reveling in the joy of being brief
Beneath the eye of heaven, where I have found
Blessings of God like hoarfrost on the ground.

Poetry was once more popular than it is today. We have the modernists to blame, at least in part, for that. Their abandonment of form, disdain of popularity, and retreat into something approaching private language left the reading public cold. But the problem goes deeper than that, for poetry itself — even the older, once popular, poetry of Blake, or Longfellow, or Frost — has been mostly abandoned. Modern life feels out of step with poetry. The nearest we get to it, I suppose, is in pop songs — a beggarly substitute, by and large.

Anthony Esolen has long been an advocate for our great poets, and for the reading of poetry. He sees in the decline of poetry’s fortunes a sign of cultural decay, and, likewise, in a revival of poetry a green shoot. But a revived poetry would be a poetry that once again touched the heart, and took up residence in the memory, of ordinary people.

Hence The Hundredfold, a long poem — a single poem, he is careful to insist — in one hundred parts, intended to be accessible and attractive to as many readers as will deign to pick it up. It is religious poetry, largely, as much of our greatest poetry has been. Like the Scriptures themselves, the poem follows an arc from creation to redemption, pivoting on the life of Christ, and especially on Easter.

The architecture of the poem has been carefully designed. I have said that it consists of 100 segments — which, for convenience, I shall call “poems” in their own right. Two-thirds of these (66) are short lyric poems, like the one above, each prefaced by a phrase from Scripture. Sometimes these poems are absorbed in the Scripture itself, and sometimes the verse of Scripture is the basis for a meditation on modern life:

“Then wrought Bezaleel and Aholiah, and every wise hearted man, in whom the Lord put wisdom.”

I was a boy, and gazed into the dome
Flocked with the saints and angels of the Lord:
Mysterious clarity, keen as any sword,
Alien shores and faraway, but home;
Holiday language of the loving eye
Summoning worshipers to rise and come
Robed in the heraldry of God on high.
Then came the learned with their sidelong speech,
And sat about the glory like a swarm
Of weevils on the corn in ear, to preach
Only such wonders as their wit could reach,
With the vague softness of the common worm:
Flesh without bone, and structure without form.

With these lyric poems are interwoven 21 hymns, written expressly to be sung to well-known hymn melodies. Taken as a group, these are, perhaps, my favourite parts of The Hundredfold, and I would love to see them incorporated into hymnals. As poems, they are vastly better than most of the recent material that fills modern hymnals. Esolen is a student of hymnody, and understands the appeal of sturdy, poetic song for group singing. He writes in the great tradition that has given us the lion’s share of our finest hymns. As an example, consider this hymn written for the tune CVM RHONDDA:

In this far-off land of famine,
Gentle Shepherd, come to me.
I have wondered from Thy plenty;
Sands and bones are all I see.
Son most faithful, Son most faithful,
Let me ever feast with Thee,
Let me ever feast with Thee.

Leave me not upon the journey,
Halt and lame and like to fall.
Hold my arm when I shall tremble,
When the thieves and death appall.
Stand beside me, stand beside me,
At the final trumpet-call,
At the final trumpet-call.

Break the bonds of flesh and darkness,
Thrust to hell the powers of night!
Shower Thy living grace upon me,
God of God and Light of Light!
Lord and Conqueror, Lord and Conqueror,
Let me praise Thee in Thy sight,
Let me praise Thee in Thy sight!

Tell me that doesn’t stir the heart!

The third main plank in the architecture consists of a set of 12 dramatic poems — epistles, monologues, and dialogues, in iambic pentameter — expressly after the manner of the master, Robert Browning. These are marvellous, and, if I may, I’ll change my mind and claim these as my favourite parts, albeit for private rather than communal enjoyment. The first eavesdrops on the thoughts of the Blessed Virgin as she silently ponders her sleeping son; another is told, many years after the fact, by the boy who had brought the loaves and fish when he went to hear Jesus preaching; another is spoken by Blind Bartimaeus; and still another relates a conversation between the two men whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus. These verses are wonderfully flexible, the characters vividly portrayed, with their own distinctive voices, and the poems themselves, like Browning’s exemplars, are deeply thoughtful and imaginative creations. By the very nature of their form, they are hard to excerpt, but let me illustrate with this passage which opens an epistolary poem written by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor:

To the Sun-Brilliant Giver of Increase,
The great Bridge-Builder spanning heaven and earth,
Chief of the Julian clan, First Citizen,
Mild Counselor to our gathering of old men,
Commander of armies fortressed from the banks
Of the Euphrates to the chilly Rhine —
Whose barbarous sots once struck from the black woods
And slaughtered a whole legion, while their whores
Poured like a swarm over the corpses, spoiling
The spoilers of their gold, so Parthian rings
Still wedged on dead men’s fingers shed their gleam
On the beer feasts of some grease-eating king
Who has to use two hands to count to ten,
Mocking with all his thanes your southern godhead
As his sheep leave their droppings in his hall —
To thee, O Claudius, from the rocks of Spain
I send obedient salutations: Hail.

The Hundredfold concludes with a tour de force: a 100 line coda written in 33 Dantean tercets. It’s a poetic form that is very difficult in English, but Esolen is equal to the task. (He has done it before, in the concluding canto of his translation of Dante.) The neat numerics of this coda are no accident; the whole of The Hundredfold is built on a strict numerical plan. The dramatic poems and hymns, together, are 33 in number — being the age of Christ at his Passion — and they total 3333 lines. The 66 lyric poems total 100 stanzas and 1000 lines. The coda, as I’ve already said, echoes the 33 and 100. I don’t know about you, but this kind of thing sets my heart racing and my palms to sweat.

It is not for me to say whether Esolen is a great poet, but I am confident in my judgement that he is a good poet. As a contribution to a revival of poetry, and of Christian culture, The Hundredfold is an admirable effort. I can recommend it unreservedly.

***

“You shall not make your children pass through fire.”

They are not half in love with easeful death,
They are not half in love with anything;
No field in summer makes them catch their breath
Where the corn ripens, and the sparrows sing;
The man wishes he had no seed to cast
In the warm spring upon the ready earth;
The woman, that her womb were bolted fast.
Death they may fear, but birth
Is perfect terror, or the sad and slow
Contraction of the little life they play,
Without a germ or root or bloom to show,
Numb to the pulse of both the night and day.
Nor do they haunt where Moloch’s flames appall,
Because they would not bear a child at all.

**

“Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.”

Because I lay under the weight of earth
And the dust was a pillow to my cheek —
The dust and blood that swaddled me at birth,
When I first wailed as if my heart would break —
I could but hear and speak
Faintly, and in confusion of the sound;
And all my fellow men who dwelt in tombs,
Where never a call of clarion trumpet comes,
Spoke and heard as if muffled by the ground
And by the crowds of buried men around.

Lord, let me not be deaf forevermore.
Open my clotted ear, untie my tongue,
Let me break forth in song,
The double prayer that ear and tongue are for.
Lead me to the clear air where I belong,
Where the least whisper is a call to be
One with the listening angels in their throng,
As they await the call of victory.

**

Christ is the image of the invisible God.

At the ninth height of being, eyes are bright
With what is now, what was, what is to be.
Shall we then cup our hands to sip the light?
Nay, in the river frolic and be free,
While the nine choirs like rollers of the sea
Sing of the far-flung spray of flower and star,
I have the abyss of glory here, for He
The Three and One, who thunders from afar,
Is the intimate wellspring where the blessed are.

Way over yonder

June 16, 2017

A few interesting items I’ve stumbled upon in the last few weeks:

  • When Mother Teresa was canonized last year, I missed this superb reflection on her life by Fr George Rutler, who knew her personally. “The canonization of Teresa of Calcutta gives the kind of satisfaction that comes from having your mother declared Mother of the Year.” It’s a quite beautiful tribute to her and her significance for the rest of us.
  • Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture finally appeared, and it’s well worth a listen (or, if you must, a read). Fr Schall has interesting things to say about it, both for better and worse, although I think he underestimates the degree to which Dylan’s body of work has a transcendent dimension.
  • Speaking of Dylan, one of the best things I’ve read about him since he won the Nobel last year is this essay by Carl Eric Scott, published in Modern Age. Scott selects “To Ramona” as one of Dylan’s most underrated songs, a judgement with which I heartily agree.
  • At City Journal, John Tierney writes about something we don’t hear much about: the left-wing war on science.
  • Ben Blatt has written a book called Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, in which he subjects famous works of literature to statistical analyses. It prompted one of the most enjoyable scathing reviews that I’ve seen in a long while, from Matthew Walther: “Never, I think, has a purported piece of “literary criticism” been so disconnected from literature and non-suggestive of all the things that might, and very frequently do, induce people to read.” The review was so withering that I actually got the book, just to see how bad it was. It’s tremendously bad.
  • In the midst of a stew of troubles, Anthony Esolen wrote a graceful critique of illiberal habits of education. It was an elegant farewell note to Providence College.
  • And finally, from New Criterion, a very interesting biographical essay about Fr Reginald Foster, an American priest who was for many years the Vatican’s chief Latinist.

For an envoi, here is Bob Dylan singing “To Ramona”, live in Manchester in 1965:

Wonder and imagination

March 10, 2016

Here’s a quite wonderful lecture by Anthony Esolen on education and the imaginative life, in which he circles around that most wonderful of plays, The Tempest.

Books briefly noted

July 11, 2014

A few quick notes on books I’ve read over the past few months:

wolfe-backtobloodBack to Blood
Tom Wolfe
(Little, Brown, & Co., 2012)
720 p.

Tom Wolfe returned after an hiatus of nearly ten years with this cheerful mess of a novel about life in the city of Miami. It’s a diffuse sort of story, but to the extent that it has a central character that character is Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban-American police officer with an unwitting talent for stirring the racial tensions present just beneath the surface of the city’s life. Unlike Wolfe’s better novels, the central plot of Back to Blood feels disconnected from the social and moral issues that he wants to explore — principally multiculturalism in a modern urban center. Though patchy at times, it is a lively story, told with Wolfe’s usual half-unhinged winsomeness. There is a most regrettable subplot — totally inessential, as it turns out — about pornography addiction; sure, it’s “topical”, but it feels shoehorned in and I, for one, could have really, really done without it. Really.

Bring Up The Bodiesmantel-bodies
Hilary Mantel
(HarperCollins, 2012)
432 p.

Last year I wrote with mixed impressions of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which followed Thomas Cromwell’s life from his childhood up to his establishment in the court of Henry VIII. It was from that lofty perch that he presided over Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and the executions of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. This sequel, which, like its predecessor, won the Man Booker Prize, has a tighter focus: the action covers the period 1535-36 and Henry’s waning devotion to Anne Boleyn as his hopes alight upon Jane Seymour. As the title of the book suggests, this volatility in the royal affections results in a bloodbath, including, of course, in the final pages, the execution of Anne herself.

Given that gruesome terminus, it might be perverse to say that I enjoyed this panel of the story, and enjoyed it more than the first, but it is nonetheless true. I objected in Wolf Hall to what I took (and take) to be Mantel’s unjust portrait of More, but here I had no reason to take such offense (perhaps simply because of my own ignorance; I make no special claim for this novel’s historical accuracy). Interestingly, one of the literary aspects of the previous novel that I had praised — namely, the way in which Mantel, through artful use of pronouns, saturated the very grammar of her story with the force of Cromwell’s character — is downplayed in this second volume; there are an abundance of clarificatory “he, Cromwell”s to steady the reader, and this I found a little disappointing. I leave open the possibility, however, that it was done precisely to begin eroding our confidence in his competence and security.

Mantel does seem to be preparing us for his eventual downfall. There is a moment in Bring up the Bodies when his position in the court is suddenly shown to be very precarious indeed, and it comes as something of a shock to realize that even so expert a political animal as Cromwell can find himself outmaneuvered by events. He has the wit to call himself “a man whose only friend is the King of England,” but there is a hard truth behind the jest that will, I expect, be brought into the foreground in the projected next volume. In the meantime, Mantel’s traversal of this much-travelled historical territory makes for engrossing reading.

esolen-ironiesIronies of Faith
Anthony Esolen
(ISI, 2007)
420 p.

Irony might be thought to be the special province of post-modern skeptics, who have made much hay with it: cool detachment, hip knowingness, cynical distance. Irony can be, and has been, deployed as a kind of “universal solvent,” an engine of deconstruction. But Anthony Esolen wants to rescue irony from those associations and recover its place — a joyful, enriching, surprising place — at the heart of Christian devotion. In this book he plumbs great Christian literature for ironic themes and presents them for our consideration.

Is it surprising that there should be a place for irony in Christianity? This is a religion that plays endlessly with interchanges of first and last, mighty and lowly, strong and weak; it identifies a little baby with the Creator of all things, and worships as Lord an executed criminal. Esolen wants to stress that deep irony does not arrive from mere cleverness, but is rooted in a problem of knowledge. Irony arises, he argues, when an author reveals to the reader “a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows,” and he finds it pervades the Christian imagination.

The book ranges widely, with chapters devoted to Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Spenser, Dostoyevsky, Hopkins, Tolkien, and many others. Some authors — Francois Mauriac and Alessandro Manzoni, for instance — I am not familiar with, and I confess I skipped over those chapters; I’ll return to them when the time comes. There is a very fine closing chapter devoted to the anonymous medieval poem “Pearl”, which Esolen calls “the greatest religious lyric in English”. It is indeed a superb poem, and this is the best and most accessible introduction to it that I have seen.

Literary criticism is not really my thing, but I found this book rewarding nonetheless, not so much for its ironic insights — irony is not really my thing either, I must admit — but for its thoughtful exploration of literary works that are deeper and richer than my reading can plumb. This is literary criticism born of love and informed by a long tradition of moral reflection. It is a very worthwhile book.

Esolen on Fox: Homo ludens meets TV

November 27, 2012

Anthony Esolen appeared earlier this week on a Fox News program called “Fox & Friends” to talk about his wonderful book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He took a risk, adopting for the interview the Screwtape-inspired perspective from which the book is written: up is down, black is white, left is right, the Left is right, etc. Evidently this proved too much for the hosts:

The befuddled looks and hasty retreat make his point for him. It’s a missed opportunity to promote an excellent book, and I am sure he was not pleased with the outcome — and, in fairness, he did stumble a little out of the gate — but I hope he laughed on his way home anyway.

**

Obviously this curtailed interview didn’t allow time for Esolen to say much of anything. Happily his pen has been busy:

  • At Crisis Magazine, he has launched a projected series on Catholic social teaching:

    I’m sick of it.  I’m sick of hearing that Catholic teaching regarding sex and marriage is one thing, in that old-fashioned trinket box over there, while Catholic teaching regarding stewardship and our duties to the poor is another thing, on that marble pedestal over here.  I’m sick of hearing that Catholic teaching regarding the Church and her authority is one thing, the embarrassing Latinate red-edged tome tucked away in that closet, while Catholic teaching regarding the laity is another, and pass that bread this way!  No, it is all of a piece.

  • Also at Crisis, a piece on cultivating a culture of courtship and romance within the Church:

    It is irresponsible in us, then, to let our youth muddle and meander; to suppose that marriage will eventually “happen.”  For my whole life, the ecclesially minded have asked, “What can we do to keep our youth in the Church?”  And their attempts haven’t worked, because they have viewed young people as consumers of a churchly product, rather than as boys and girls, young men and young women, with obvious natures and needs.So then—I call upon every parish in the United States to do the sweet and simple and ordinary things.

  • And at Front Porch Republic he has been writing a provocative series on education called “Life under Compulsion”:

    Why do people invariably enjoy visiting old one-room schoolhouses?  They are human places, on a human scale, for the education of little human beings.  It isn’t just that one knows, without having to think about it consciously, that the planks and joists where pegged together by the hands of the same people whose children would go to school there.  It’s that the whole idea of the school is founded upon their natural desires and intentions.

But I doubt Fox will have him back to talk about those things.

Nine of Ten Ways

June 15, 2011

For the past few months I have been slowly reading through Anthony Esolen’s latest book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. It is so packed full of (inverted) good sense that I thought I would try to get it a little more exposure: I asked our local city library to acquire a copy. To my delight, they ordered nine. Today I went to see if anyone has noticed them, and, to my even greater delight, I see that they are all in active circulation (except for one, which is apparently already lost).

I do believe that I have done a good deed, and made this city a little better than it was before. (It doesn’t take much.)

On the contrary

November 6, 2009

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization
Anthony Esolen (Regnary, 2007)
340 p.  First reading.

Normally I would not bother with a book that flaunts its “politically incorrect” credentials.  It is almost certainly going to generate more heat than light.  My native reluctance was overcome in this case because of the author. Anthony Esolen is a translator, essayist, and author whom I admire.  He is robustly politically incorrect, to be sure, but in a thoughtful and eloquent way, and I thought the book would be worthwhile.

By and large, I was right.  There are a few cases in which he goes a little too far out of his way to get in a “zinger”, and the tone does occasionally tip over into stridency, but those are exceptions.  Essentially the book is an accessible but intelligent survey of Western culture, from the Greeks through to the present, in which Esolen systematically challenges received wisdom.

He admires the achievements of the Greeks and the Romans and acknowledges our debt to them.  In some circles that is already politically incorrect, especially when accompanied (as here) by the claim that Greek and Roman culture was, in various ways, superior to that found among other peoples.  Going a step further, both in historical chronology and in political incorrectness, he then argues that our debt to the Jewish people and to Jesus is at least as great as that owed to Greco-Roman civilization. This is a truth which a great many people today would rather forget. His discussion of the medieval era is perhaps a little rosier than is strictly warranted, but this is a justifiable strategy given the absurd views most people have about the period.  He challenges the common view of the Renaissance as a triumph of reason over superstition, and argues that the Enlightenment laid the groundwork for the tyrannies and violence of the last 150 years. Both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries he sees as periods of decline and decadence, characterized especially by debasement in politics, the arts, and education.  By our own day, the West has become alienated from itself, embarrassed of its origins and its history, and is consequently dying — in some quarters, literally so.  There is no joy in Esolen’s prognosis: he loves Western culture and would see it restored if possible, but he believes that this cannot happen unless we return to our roots.

As in any good story, there are villains and heroes.  Among the villains are Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, and Dewey; the heroes include Plato, Aquinas, Pascal, Johnson, Shakespeare, Browning, Dostoyevsky.  Esolen praises those who have honoured tradition, taught the importance of virtue, conscience, and community, defended human dignity, respected the natural law, and sought to preserve an expansive liberty for a man to shoulder his own responsibilities and to order his life, in concert with those of his neighbours, as he thinks best.  Consequently, he opposes those who seek to sever us from our traditions, who regard human beings as mere animals, who despise religion, who regard our nature as malleable and our customs as prejudices, who deny the moral law, and who would cede their rightful liberties and responsibilities to the state in exchange for security and creature comforts.  Clearly, there is a certain kind of reader who will find this very unpalatable.

For me the best part of the book was the early chapter on Israel.  It follows chapters on Greece and on Rome, and as much as I enjoy reading about Aristotle and the Stoics and Roman civic virtue, there is something missing. When we turn to the Jews, we find a world of fresh wind and fire: “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing,” said God to Abraham; “Be of good cheer: I have overcome the world,” said Jesus.  Socrates, for all his merits, never said anything like that.  Esolen does a superb job is showing how the faith of Israel brought a new thing into history, one that affected a deep change in our understanding of the human person, of the nature of political power and of nature, and of the possibilities of human life.  More than that — and here we reach a fevered pitch of political incorrectness — Esolen believes that this inheritance is the most important element of Western culture, and that only if we cease our rebellion against it will we restore our health.

I share Esolen’s love for Western civilization, and I have dedicated many hours of study to the hope that, in some real if modest way, this great inheritance will find in me a receptive heart and mind able to pass it forward to the next generation as a living thing.  I am startled to realize that, if Esolen’s thesis is correct, this love and this commitment make me politically incorrect.  Well, don’t tell anyone.