Anthony Esolen, in Praise of Poetry
BOOK PICK: The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord
THE HUNDREDFOLD: SONGS FOR THE LORD
By Anthony Esolen
Ignatius Press, 2019
224 pages, $17.95
To order: ignatius.com or (800) 651-1531 (online discounts available)
One can claim that literature — especially Catholic literature — is in crisis today. Where is today’s Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Georges Bernanos or Rumer Godden? Poetry, among all literary genres, seems especially to have lost readership. What about Catholic poetry? Most of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems were penned by 1884, and even Joyce Kilmer’s been dead a century.
Kudos, then, to Anthony Esolen for taking up the poetic gauntlet, and for doing it so well.
Esolen, erstwhile professor at Providence College and now professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, is well-prepared for the task. His translations of Dante, Lucretius and Tasso are recognized for their excellence. He is an incisive cultural critic. This book demonstrates his strengths as an author.
The author’s skills as a cultural critic are on display in the superb 40-page introduction to this book, in which Esolen explains the music of poetry (while also noting what’s made that music bad in the English-speaking world). Those three dozen or so pages are an ideal crash course in understanding and appreciating poetry.
But this is not a book about poetry; it’s a book of poetry.
Esolen’s poetry ranges across the Bible. It brings new ways to look at familiar figures. It invites us to imagine what might have been some of their “backstories.” It helps us look at what modern eyes might overlook. It forces us to think.
And it does so with rhyme and reason, because it often does so with rhyme and verse. Esolen’s poems are musical. They avoid the deadening “forms” into which modern poetry has been straitjacketed — forms that win plaudits from the critics even as poetry hemorrhages its readers. Esolen shows us how English can sing.
Consider this stanza, honoring the birth of Christ but weaving together many biblical motifs into a Eucharistic whole:
He who builds the sparrow’s nest,
He who feeds the raven,
Takes His milk from Mary’s breast,
In the manger-haven.
We are hungry, too, and lost.
Who will feed us without cost,
Weakest of the weak?
From His lips in time to be
We shall hear that only He
Is the bread we seek.
Or take his poetic prayer about what really matters in life:
Should I grow blind, let it not be
From squinting at an atom or a sun,
When the more radiant beings near to me
Can daze the eye and stun.
A soul that dwells on them devotedly:
Love, be it love that steals my sight,
Then in the deeps of night
I shall hear voices, warm and wise and mild,
As old Tobias heard his wife and child
Moments before his world was filled with light.
Esolen sings of a Roman centurion, bored with wine and women, who hands his concubine “a last kiss, and the fee. I wish it were more, for your sake. What I can give, I give,” just as he sets down the road to hear an intriguing itinerant preacher. Esolen extols the blind Bartimaeus, who opens our eyes to what is light. He pries into the correspondence of a cynical Pilate who resignedly tells his patron, “Do with me what you will.”
Don’t let poetry intimidate you! Done right (i.e., not like many “poets” do it today) it can be beautiful, and people need beauty. “‘Why bother with poetry at all?’ It is rather like asking why we should bother to listen to a beautiful piece of sad music rather than just read a message across a screen, announcing ‘I am blue.’ Art reveals to us the mysteries of our existence.”
Interested in helping revive the art of Catholic poetry? I can’t think of a more beautiful little gift than this fine book of verse under your Christmas tree this year.
John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia. All views are exclusively his.