Here Rise to Life Again, Dead Poetry!

That headline is what Dante said in his stirring invocation to the Muses, at the beginning of the Purgatory, after he and his guide Virgil have gotten free of Hell, the stifling sinkhole of the universe, to stand on the surface of the earth again and look up to the stars.

He was referring to the kind of verse he had to write to describe the realm of evil—crack-throated, strained, bitter. If he were alive now, he might utter those same words as a cry of despair, because poetry itself might as well be dead, for all that popular culture is concerned. And it might as well be dead, for all that the Church is concerned.

Not for us at Thomas More College, and not for professors and students at the University of Dallas, and Christendom College, and those other brave places where beauty is still honored and loved. More about that in a moment. First let me relate why I am thinking now about poetry, dead—run over with a backhoe, that great tool for digging in the earth and burying thirty feet deep.

I was at Mass, on what used to be the Feast of the Precious Blood. I have no ill feeling for the people who ran the Mass. They are good folk, who love their church, and who do most of the repairs and the maintenance of the building and the grounds with their own hands. The words of Jesus come to mind: “They know not what they do.”

I’ll dispense with criticizing the gab-fest before Mass, and the Mistress of Ceremonies at the pulpit announcing the names of everybody who was doing Something Really Special for the Mass that day, and the gab-fest after the “gathering” hymn. I’ll go straight to the words of one of the songs, projected up onto the wall of the sanctuary so that everybody could read them. Here is the first stanza, repeated as a refrain throughout:

Holy words long preserved
for our walk in this world,
They resound with God’s own heart
Oh, let the Ancient words impart.

The other stanzas are just as bad.

Somehow, the priest and the music director and the choir and every responsible adult in the congregation could not stop to notice that you can’t, in English, impart. You have to impart something:

“Jimmy, what are you doing?”

“Nothing, Mom.”

“You must be doing something.”

“Well, I’m imparting.

“Imparting what?”

“Nothing. Just imparting.”

“All right, but can you do it somewhere else?” Darn kid, she thought in her kindly and grouchy way, always imparting.

And this is the faith that gave us Bach, Raphael, and Milton. How do we go from “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” to what doesn’t even rise to the level of doggerel?

Perhaps my readers will say that the hymns in Glory ‘n’ Praise, Gadder, and the others that come from the usual Catholic presses are not quite so bad as that. Lay not that flattering unction to thy souls, dear readers. The hymn I’ve quoted is pretty bad work for a nine-year-old kid, but it is not stupid in a way that requires real effort. There aren’t any “loud boiling test-tubes” in it, or any “‘you’ you hide,” or some “courage to enter the song” and not be a wallflower or something. It is also not heretical or politically tendentious or a tissue of social jargon. It’s lousy in an honest way.

Please, Lord, let the dead poetry arise! And to that end, as part of the regular curriculum, I’ll be introducing our sophomores, come September, to poetry: what it is, how it works, how to read it, and more than read, how to speak it and hear it. Poetry has always been, until our deadening time, the single form of art that all men have enjoyed, because it relies upon no particular material—marble, wood, paint, glass, stone—and upon no particular instrument other than the human memory and the human voice. Eskimos out on the ice of the Hudson Bay, spearing fish, have known it as well as Socrates relaxing under the plane tree on the road out of Athens. The Church has known it and cherished it. Christians have a trove of many thousands of hymns, from the days of Prudentius and Saint Ambrose to the years of cultural amnesia that we have been suffering now.

I will be showing my students that, too. I have a dream: that one day, some of my students will know how to tell a good poem from garbage, and a great poem from a merely good one, and will come to demand real poetry for our hymns, poetry as good and solid as that written by Thomas Aquinas, or the Wesleys, or Isaac Watts, or John Henry Newman; translated from the ancient Latin and Greek by the great John Mason Neale; German chorales translated by Catherine Winkworth; many thousands of hymns for all feasts, all occasions, all seasons of the year and hours of the day; hymns for the fighting Church, hymns of consolation, of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise, of sorrow, and of joy.

And who knows? Maybe one of the students will someday write a hymn that is worthy of being sung. If that happens, it will be one of only a small handful of such, since 1960. But we have to begin somewhere.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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