Anthony Esolen’s ‘Word & Song’: ‘Education Fit for a Human Soul’
‘Reclaiming the realm of the imagination for the good, the true and the beautiful’ is the author and professor’s latest focus.
Known for his thoughtful analysis that touches so eloquently on the Catholic faith while cutting to the core of some of the biggest social plagues of our time, Esolen works now with the intention of “rebuilding our fractured American culture.” With Word & Song, he seems to be righting the wrongs of our postmodern world, a beautiful invitation to wake up to a shared memory that seems to be withering away in a digital age.
The online magazine offers beautiful commentaries and conversations on poetry and prose, the history of music and hymns spanning centuries, classical music and classic films, and even podcasts that feature himself and his lovely wife, Debra, in an effort to “reclaim the realm of the imagination for the good, the true and the beautiful.”
In a Zoom interview, Esolen spoke candidly with the Register about Word & Song, the loss of culture, the epidemic of loneliness in today's world, and how spoken word might inspire a renaissance from all the noise of the day.
You bring us a new weekly magazine, Word & Song, devoted to reviving great poetry, classical hymns and spoken word, so needed in today's world. Dr. Esolen, what sparked this dynamite idea?
When I wrote the book Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, I had said it in that book that I was not warning that the culture was going to fall apart. I was saying it had already. The city had already been reduced to rubble. With Word & Song, we’re rebuilding. We’re starting with what we can do: language, literature and hymnody. And my wife knows a great deal about popular music, and we know classical film. So we’ve started this web magazine, for our part, in reclaiming the realm of the imagination for the good and the true and the beautiful.
I grew up hearing my grandfather reciting poems, only to then listen to my grandmother finishing it from memory. And it really sparked in me a desire to read poetry. And I’ve always loved poetry. And I eagerly started reading poems and memorizing them. And I remember my grandmother saying, “It’s always best to know by one’s heart than share memory.” And this has always stuck with me, and you seem to be really tapping into a shared memory that seems to be slipping away.
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, [I will] describe for people the sort of thing that we’ve got going here [with Word & Song]. … So, on Monday, you get an excursion into the English language: what words mean and where they came from. ... There are really interesting cultural stories associated with words. On Tuesday, we have a hymn of the week. The long tradition of Christian hymns goes back; I guess the earliest hymn that we have a text [for] would date from about the time of St. Ambrose. So we’re talking about 1,650 years of hymns. Then there’s a poem of the week, which you can also get in audio form. I recite the poem after I discuss a bit. Also, a film recommendation of the week, and we discuss what the film is. My wife has a section called “Sometimes a Song”; we go to popular songs, popular music of the last 100-150 years, especially in America. And for full subscribers [we have]: podcasts; so you may get my discussion and reading of a rather long poem, or a podcast of a lecture of mine, or my reading from one of my books or a new lecture. It’s extremely rich, extremely varied. And we’re aiming to have people have a lot of fun with this, so that they can begin to enjoy what your grandparents enjoyed, right in the case of poetry.
Speaking of poetry, so many turn to your translations of Dante, in understanding The Divine Comedy, and Dante himself spoke of the poet. If “All the world’s a stage,” what role does the poet play, and why does it seem to be so trampled upon today?
Well, poets themselves have participated in trampling. Poets after World War I, for understandable reasons, turn to a poetry of dislocation, disharmony, disheartening. T.S. Eliot is the great leader in this now, of course, and what Eliott was trying to do was describe a broken society, a society in which everything was in ruins. And now, in some circles, poetry is considered to be great if it’s offensive, or if it’s so obscure nobody can make heads or tails of it. And, really, though, people ought to love poetry for the same reason that they ought to love music; the two should be intimately related. So, you know, we’re trying in my own poetry, and trying to move back towards the wellsprings of poetry, which are the wellsprings of music, the wellsprings of song, and those wellsprings: What do they have to do with the divine? Because, ultimately, man does not sing, except that he believes that he is in the presence of something that transcends him.
I’m just so inspired by what you’re doing with Word & Song, so rooted in faith, hope and love, and when you consider Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy, so many just read The Inferno. And it seems like we’ve descended into a real darkness, especially blurring the lines of reality, in so many ways. It does seem like we have “abandoned hope all ye who enter here …”
You don’t even understand The Inferno, I’ve told my students, unless you have read The Purgatory or The Paradise. It’s like going to Shakespeare’s King Lear and sitting for the first act. … Just read Inferno? I suppose it’s a cool sort of thing, to get into the appropriate punishments for various kinds of sin. But you really don’t know makes the sins themselves so destructive unless you understand what human beings are and the glory for which human beings are made; then you understand fully how terrible sin is. Yeah, it’s a terrible self-mutilation of the human being, a self-suicide of the soul, a self-harm, self-destruction. How can you understand unless you are given a vision of what human beings are, even in their human state before they have been exalted by grace to paradise? And that’s the kind of thing you learn in Purgatory, and then what they are made for [in The Paradise], which is beyond them, namely, to enjoy the very presence of God and the life of God.
Another lovely fact about your new magazine, Word & Song: It seems to be a joint venture. You mentioned your wife, Debra, playing a role. What have you learned working together on this? And how do you hope it might spure us all to turn the TV off and gather together?
I’m hoping that that will happen. There are certain kinds of songs that you really can’t sing alone. People nowadays would be shocked to learn just how significant a part of ordinary life singing used to be. I have a book from Canada that’s basically falling apart from its long use: It’s about 110-120 years old; it’s in shreds, a community song book. It’s full of Canadian anthems, Canadian songs, but also songs from all kinds of countries, all kinds of cultures, including religious hymns, folk songs, love songs, silly songs — all kinds of things. The editor says that there is nothing that brings a community together so powerfully as community songs. But the idea that ordinary people, for the sheer fun of it, would get together, let’s say once a month, just to sing a bunch of songs, and then have food and drink and talk .,... I mean, that’s completely foreign to us. But apparently, it was a great big thing and an ordinary thing in people’s lives in the U.S. and Canada.
In Sometimes a Song, my wife Debra is really behind much of that section of our site. She knows more about popular music than anybody I know, and as she herself has sung much of it and played much of it also on the guitar, and as she grew up listening to it in the home, she has great insights that I could never hope to have, not if I lived another hundred years. If you want to know where the songs come from, what their singers were like, what they meant to the people who first sang them, you can't do better than to read her essays, which I think are the highlight of the week.
Music is so integrated into learning. Even as a mother, I’m always singing to my daughter. Now in preschool, she’s singing some songs, but then, in the course of typical academic life, it just seems to completely cut off. I don’t even think there’s any singing in kindergarten or first grade in most schools. In turn, it then becomes a juvenile thing, in a sense — it’s not established as something that is actually rich and deep and so integral to all of us.
When an ancient Greek kid first experienced Homer’s The Odyssey, or the Iliad, he experienced it as song by a professional singer. And then people themselves could join in. Anybody might be able to recite or chant, from memory, hundreds of lines of The Odyssey or The Iliad; they weren’t even written down until centuries later. Song is the fundamental human way of learning things, by music, and that our schools abandon it shows that we don’t really understand what education fit for a human soul is.
It’s beautiful to think to how much of our Catholic faith is recitation and shared in this way: song and prayers known by heart that are always close to one’s lips, set in communion with others.
We should have hundreds of hymns that we know very well. The old Protestant hymnals were scored for four-part harmony. I have friends who remember being part of congregations in which people sang four-part harmony. You learned how to do it when you were a kid, and it became second nature to you. And imagine what that would be like, right? Everybody starts to sing: Sopranos, altos, tenors, basses would be a glorious thing. And I am talking about hymns, also, whose texts were written before the Reformation. I can pick up an old Episcopalian hymnal, and there willl be 150-160 hymns in there whose texts were written before 1500 — and then translated into English. Those are part of our cultural heritage, our patrimony, and so how come we don’t know them? How come we never heard of them? Because of the bad state of hymnody today, and, I mean, nobody really appreciates what a good song is, what a good poem is. And so we’re trying to reintroduce people to what real hymns used to do.
A recent book you wrote seems to relate to Word & Song: No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men. It also seems to point to the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of giants in all things.
It seems to me that young guys get a really destructive message hurled at them every day, including when they’re just kids: “You are not needed; you’re not necessary: we could do better without you. Go away; you have nothing to offer.” And, first of all, that’s utterly false. That’s not true. It’s a destructive and nasty thing to suggest to anybody. To do that to children is criminal. But in the case of men, it’s just frankly absurd. If you look around, you see a world of roads, cars, big buildings, houses, fresh running water, good food trucked in. This massive highly technological society is built upon the shoulders and the backs of men, including working-class men who get no credit for anything. And it could not be otherwise. Otherwise, if men did not risk life and limb, there would be no bridges built anywhere.
It’s amazing to think that now that idea, in some sense, is taboo; that one can’t think like that. And it really seems like much of your work, Dr. Esolen, has been about a call to culture. And now we seem to be in such a dilution of ideas that masculinity is now labeled as “toxic.” And your note on this move is so perfectly articulated. You write:
“It’s like someone's sprinkling a bit of strychnine in the soup, not enough to kill, but certainly enough to make the diner sick.”
And it’s such a tragic thing to think this is being taught to boys and young men, especially when we look at poetry and song, the classics. They would be nothing without heroes.
And Hollywood now is all about casting. The villains are almost always going to be men; you know, and the idiots, too. And, you know, this is just so bizarre. I don’t know whether we should call what we have right now a culture, but no culture before ours has ever done this. It’s self-destructive. I recall Theodore Roosevelt, right. He was no moron and often quite liberal and radical in his ideas. But he says, you know, America is not going to be great unless American manhood is great. And that will not happen unless we see to the raising of boys to be responsible, brave, daring and intelligent men.
You also write:
“You can have your own politics or your own social theories, perhaps. But try as you may, and these days, a lot of people are trying very hard, you cannot have your own biology, you cannot have your own physics; that block of stone does not care for democratic or egalitarian ideology.”
And this, Dr. Esolen, seems also to be truly under attack right now. And we are nothing without the feminine and masculine; when you look at any poem or song, as you write, the sexes were made for each other.
Right? I mean, if you can’t get man and woman right in their natural fallen versions, then forget it: You can’t get anything right. Socially, you’re just gonna mess up everything. The love between man and woman that issues forth in children, oriented towards the future ... looks back to the past because each one was a child of a man and woman who came together in love. If you don’t have that, we don’t have a society; you have a mess. You have an aggregate of individual persons governed by a state. You don’t even really have citizens anymore. I mean, there’s no real social fabric if you fray that fundamental relationship between man and woman. And what we’re doing flies in the face of all culture, all history and biology.
Especially when considering children and how they learn to perceive the world. Everything regarding family to my daughter is all about a mommy, a daddy and a baby. It’s such a perversion to try to wipe that away or or not give the tangibility of that to a child.
I think people forget how beautiful it is, that boys and girls, when they get a little bit older, should start to look at each other with attention and to fall in love and each sex to appreciate the strengths and the beauty of the other sex: That is a wonderful and glorious thing.
The sexes are more alienated now than perhaps they’ve ever been. They’ve got nothing good to say about each other. When was the last time you heard somebody sing a love song from the sheer delight of it? [Modern] music is about sexual expression, sexual aggression, anger, vengeance, song, disappointment, disillusionment. Who can even now think of what kind of spirit it took to animate the old folk songs that were love songs, like Annie Laurie — “And for bonnie Annie Laurie I’d lay me down and dee” — that the very mood of such a song seems incomprehensible to us because we’ve marred that each sex is for the other.
Word & Song seems to be a call to a refinement that has been lacking these days. The digital era, when you think about it, has also birthed an entire generation of people who are depressed. People now consider loneliness an epidemic these days. I heard you recently discuss the fact that the word “loneliness” did not even really exist in Middle English. Can you expound on that?
Yeah, I tried for many years to find a word in Middle English that would correspond to our word “loneliness,” and I I’ve never been able to find it. I suggest that the word wasn’t there because, in fact, people weren’t lonely. It was impossible to be lonely at a time when everyone is around so many people all the time, right? You’re living largely outdoors, not indoors. You have a family; you have relations; you’ve got neighbors. Sometimes you may fight; you may hate each other, whatever. But people were always in groups. Bad people, good people, saints and sinners, but they weren’t lonely. And we are. And the sexual revolution has made matters far worse, in this regard. So I have long called it the “lonely revolution”: alienating boys and girls, men and women from each other and breaking families so that you end up with kids who don’t know their father, don’t know their mother.
It’s interesting to consider spoken word; and maybe here I mean soliloquy, the interior voice, the interior self, and I think that’s really what attracted me to poetry as a young girl. Is part of our cultural crisis hinging on the fact that many of us take so much in but have snuffed out the voice inside?
Yes, what we take in is noise. And the old philosopher Max Picard picked up on something; so did Dietrich von Hildebrand: that there is an intimate relationship between silence and music. It’s noise that is opposed to both. And noise can be audible; can also be visual; can be political. It’s unmusical and makes it nearly impossible for you to hear your own conscience, your own thoughts or for you to pause and notice even the beautiful world that God has made. Like how many people now, for all that, they are loaded with information from the internet? How many people can identify one tree from another or one bird by its song? The internet is loud. And it keeps us from real thought and from both music and silence.
Thank you for your time, Dr. Esolen!