"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

12 September 2019

The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord

Review:  The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord 
by Anthony Esolen
Ignatius Press, 2019

Anthony Esolen has written numerous books and articles on faith and culture, has translated Dante’s Divine Comedyand other works, and has taught literature and classics for the past three decades, currently at Magdelen College in Warner, New Hampshire.

In The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, Anthony Esolen offers a masterpiece to draw us back into love with poetry – and with the God who gave man the gifts of language and beauty.  One hundred poems in varied forms unite to create one work of praise, encompassing the Word from Genesis to Revelation.  

In a 40-page introduction, Esolen presents the common reader with a crash course on reading poetry – the best I’ve seen in 35+ years of teaching the subject, and worth the price of the book in itself.  If you think poetry is over your head or too esoteric for ordinary enjoyment, attending to this introduction will allay your fears and open a whole new world of beauty.  

Modern education has left most of us sadly bereft of a tradition of art that leads to accessible yet deep and complex beauty that moves the heart, and Esolen calls The Hundredfold, which is solidly based on that tradition, “a first salvo in the Christian reclamation of the land of imagination and song.”  He wishes to suggest by it “what might be done by people with greater skill,” characterizing himself as “a battered old soldier on bad knees, who knows the hill must be charged . . . crying out instructions that he himself has not the strength to fulfill . . . .”

Having known Tony and his work for many years now, I know he is sincere in his self-assessment, hoping that more talented others will “charge past [him] in blood and triumph.”  They will, however, have to be very talented and work very hard to do so.  I have taught much, and read much more, of the world’s greatest literature, and have rarely been so stunned with gratitude at an excellence of craft and content.  Just the first 10-line poem has held me for a dozen readings, and I’m sure I haven’t yet plumbed its depths.  Not because it is hard to read or understand – enough to move the heart is readily available on a merely attentive first reading – but because, like all the greatest literature, it contains layer after layer of thought, new connections and allusions that the reader finds in each visit.  It is based on the Scripture “He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”

     God breathed, and man became a living soul;
     And still His gift is every breath I take.
     Each pulse of time is hastening to its goal;
     He sends His Spirit, and waves of being break
     On the shoals of a barren world; the flower
     Springs in the day, and birds and beasts awake,
     Blessed with a spray of life one glorious hour
     Till petals fall, and the heart rests in death.
     The Eternal grants to man a farther power:
     To live not only by but for His Breath.

The 67 lyric poems are meditations on lines from Scripture, ranging from 10-line curtal sonnets such as the one just quoted to a 100-line poem that concludes the collection.  Some are Esolen’s personal responses to the Word, such as one based on “How wonderful is thy name in all the earth,” which he begins with “I love Thy works, O Lord, and always will,” offering us the sun “shining forth in brash delight,” then “blushing gently in his evening fall,” and finally the “deeps of night . . . / A sea powdered with stars,” and ending “so from above / Glimmers a world of glory manifold, / And my return is gratitude and love.” 

Many explore the depths of a verse, others connect various characters or concepts (such as several that bring together Eve and Mary, Balaam and Saul, and so on), and still others explicitly tie the Scripture to our modern world.  One of these last, based on “You shall not make your children pass through fire,” laments the choice of barrenness so many people make today: “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.” It is a numbness of the modern age “to the pulse of both the night and day” that leads to a refusal to be open to life.  They do not need to “haunt where Moloch’s flames appall, / Because they would not bear a child at all.”

In a number of articles, Esolen has lamented the dearth of excellent new hymns, as well as the overuse of shallow praise ditties and performance music difficult for common parishioners to sing.  In The Hundredfold, we find 21 new hymns set to 21 traditional tunes with lyrics easy to understand but deeply resonant with Scriptural truth.  One example can’t show the breadth of style Esolen employs, but at least suggests the beauty contained; here is the last stanza from #XVI (to the tune Peel Castle):

     Except a grain fall to the earth and die,
     Alone and barren it must ever lie;
     Thou broken grain, bread for the wayward, be
     Thy fruit our own, that we may live with Thee.

The 12 dramatic narratives are inevitably my favorite. Robert Browning developed and perfected the form, and until now I had never read any that approach his skill; Esolen’s have me feeling that I am in back in Brit Lit immersing myself in the master’s work.  It is not that Esolen imitates Browning; it is that he has mastered the form (much as one might master the sonnet or the villanelle) and offers it to us in brilliant new subjects.  His speakers include Mary the Mother of Jesus contemplating her sleeping Son, the Apostle Paul trying to persuade Gamaliel that Jesus is the awaited Messiah, the boy with the five loaves and two fish, blind Bartimaeus, St. Peter on his failure of courage, an adulterous centurion, a skeptical blacksmith, and more.  Each one reveals a character striving toward understanding, struggling perhaps with doubt or sin, celebrating the Christ and longing for His victory in the lives of His created ones.  

An old man tells his grandsons of following Christ about the countryside and then, one day, a miracle:  “It was the one good thing I did in life,” he urges them to remember.  Loving his wife, children, grandchildren – “It was all there that one day on the hill:  / I brought him two fish and five loaves of bread. / Do that, my boys, and never mind the rest.”

St. Peter cries out, “I have beheld your eyes / And that has ruined my sins forever, that / Has ruined my life”; and later, “I am / A sinful man, do not depart from me, / Never abandon me to be myself.”

“We must choose,” St. Paul writes to his teacher, who has ever counseled waiting to see if this Jesus could be Messiah, “Whether the season pleases us or  not, / We must, Gamaliel; let the pupil once / Instruct the teacher, let the fiery soul / Inflame the patient and the temperate. / Come with us, taste the goodness of the Lord! / In this sole hope I wait for your reply.”

Poems, Esolen says, “should bring to mind the human things, pure, corrupt, clear, confused; they should say things that matter, simply because we are human.”  Of this particular effort, his hope is that “wherever you find yourself in the Christian pilgrimage, and however the skies may look to you in the land where you are, you will hear something of your heart in the utterances and the cries of these lyrics.”  That hope has been fulfilled in my heart, and it is my prayer that this book will touch the lives of many, beauty showing us the way to praise.

18 August 2019

"Saviour of the World"

One of my children sent me the following prayer:
Saviour of the world,
What have You done to deserve this?
And what have we done to deserve You?
Strung up between criminals,
Cursed and spat upon,
You wait for death,
And look for us,
For us whose sin has crucified You.

To the mystery of undeserved suffering,
You bring the deeper mystery of unmerited love.
Forgive us for not knowing what we have done,
Open our eyes to see what You are doing now,
As, through the wood and nails,
You disempower our depravity
And transform us by Your grace.
(Church of Scotland, Common Order 1994)

12 August 2019

Hopkins Again

A couple of quotes from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and an early poem that I'd not seen before.  Enjoy!

(I capitalize pronouns referring to God though GMH does not, simply to avoid any confusion.)

"It is sad to think what disappointment must many times over have filled your heart for the darling children of your mind.  Nevertheless fame whether won or lost is a thing which lies in the award of a random, reckless, incompetent, and unjust judge, the public, the multitude.  The only just judge, the only just literary critic, is Christ, who prizes, is proud of, and admires, more than any man, more than the receiver himself can, the gifts of His own making . . . ."  (letter to R. W. Dixon, 15 June 1878)

"Also in some meditation today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions, not to preserve them from being lost or coming to nothing, for that I am very willing they should be, but that they might not do me harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He should have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He would see fit.  And this I believe is heard." (Retreat, 8 September 1883)

"The Habit of Perfection"
(sometime during 1864-1868)

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorled ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shelled, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide 
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

29 July 2019

"World without Event"

It was said, Gerard Manley Hopkins told his friend Robert Bridges, that Alphonsus Rodriguez, porter in a Majorcan monastery, was "bedeviled by evil spirits" throughout his life, but also "much favored by God" with visions of heavenly light.  For the saint's feast day, Hopkins wrote the following sonnet.

In Honour of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez

Glory is a flame off exploit, so we say,
And those fell strokes that once scarred flesh, scored shield,
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
Record, and on the fighter forge the day.
On Christ they do, they on the martyr may;
But where war is within, what sword we wield
Not seen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.

Yet, he that hews out mountain, continent,
Earth, all, at last; who with fine increment
Trickling, veins violets and tall trees makes more
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

We crave glory in action – to be seen as victors, awarded the laurel or the oak and hailed in the streets (or on the Internet).  If we die for a cause, we hope to be immortalized in song and story. It’s human nature, to want to do brave deeds and to be rewarded for our doing.

Hopkins recognizes this in the first five lines of the sonnet: it’s the warrior’s exploits that we say give off the fire of glory; his “scarred flesh” and “scored shield” should record his deeds and keep them in memory.  However, he seems to be not completely confident, the phrase “so we say” suggesting that perhaps the assertion is at least open to question:  we say that glory “flames off exploit,” but is this always the case?  Yes, he asserts with confidence, the scars of Christ do indeed bring Him glory, but the scars of the martyrs only “may” do so – and glory from literal war is perhaps even less sure.  

Why his hesitancy to assign glory to the exploits of literal battle? Because there is another kind of battle men engage in that no one sees but that is no less important – and perhaps more so.  “The war within” is unseen and unsung by other men, no matter how intense it may be.  This warrior of the heart carries no tangible sword, wears no steel armor, makes no resounding battle-cry, even  in the “fiercest fray.”  Certainly the world neither sees his scars nor rewards his victories.

But God sees.  The God who created the earth itself with its most magnificent features – mountains, continents; the God who created the most delicate details of nature – the growth of trees, the veins of a violet . . . this God sees the inner conflict.  And He cares: He “crowds career with conquest”; He gives victory in these battles, even when they last a lifetime, “years and years” while little else goes on in the world and the warrior merely watches a door which is never challenged.

Hope should spring from this realization.  Few of us, in the end, will do great deeds to be memorialized in song; few of us will become well-known martyrs for the faith.  But all of us will battle inner demons: sinful thoughts and desires, discouragement and despair.  While Satan himself may well torment us, even without his harassment there will be plenty to battle.  I find myself so easily leaping to anger, unjustified criticism, guilt true or false, loss of hope.  It is all too easy to give in to these enemies, to dwell on them.

But this is not who I am.  It is who I was, and the patterns reassert themselves when I lose sight of my real identity: a daughter of the King, a servant of the Lord God.  In Him, I am the one who can repent of my sin and seek reconciliation with God and man; I am the one who can offer patient love to one who irritates me; I am the one who sees beauty everywhere, who finds joy in the darkest hours.  I am the one who wakes in the middle of the night with the words “I love you, Father,” inexplicably echoing in my mind and heart, and who understands that Christ in me speaks those words – and because I am hidden in Him, cloaked in His love, they are my honest words as well.  

Certainly, until He returns or I am removed to His presence through death, I will struggle with the sinful and dispiriting patterns of the old man.  But I will struggle:  I will fight the battle and know that victory is already mine – I am made new in Christ who lives in me, and however fiercely the battle rages at times, He is my Champion, and even in this life I may at least begin to see the fruit of refusing to lay down my arms in despair.  No matter what others see or know, I can know that He sees it all, and upholds and strengthens me, and will give me whatever due reward He Himself has earned for me. 

Matt 6:6 But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

14 December 2018

Birds in the Rain

Looking out my study window, I saw

          a flock of robins,
          at least seven bluejays,
          at least four cardinal pairs,
          one dove,
          assorted finches and sparrows,
          two wrens,
          a woodpecker.

They were never still.  They'd flit to the bird feeders or to the seed on the ground, then flit into the trees.  They'd light on the sidewalk and search its borders.  They'd soar from tree to tree.  One male cardinal chased another through the trees and across the street, then returned calmly to his browsing of the lawn.  The rest seemed content to eat in harmony.  

I watched for at least twenty minutes.  All at once, in a flurry of wings, every bird swooped up from the ground and the lower branches into high branches of the trees or into the wood across the street.  A predatory bird above them, a cat or dog nosing its way toward the yard?  I saw nothing, but something had alerted them all at the same time and they were gone.

A lovely twenty minutes on a grey day with rain, rain, rain sprinkling down seemingly never-ending.  

Thanks to God for beauty in the world.

24 November 2018

On Dictionaries: A Musing on Serendipity, Awe, and Precision

I am currently immersed in Alan Jacobs' essay collection Wayfaring.  I have admired his work for years, since I first encountered it at The New Atlantis.  One of my favorite nonfiction books ever is his A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, which challenged me greatly since I know so little of philosophy, but blessed me greatly both because of the challenge and because of the subject.  Wayfaring contains short essays on a mix of subjects from Harry Potter to Kahlil Gibran to trees to Christian faith and living to . . . dictionaries.

Jacobs is no Luddite.  However, he has wisdom and discernment, and he is properly thoughtful about new technologies and their possible unintended effects.  In "Bran Flakes and Harmless Drudges," he explores the history of dictionary making and dictionary use.  Toward the end, he considers advantages of the online dictionary and its disadvantages; to my mind, and I think to his, the latter outweigh the former by quite a lot. 

"[T]he exhibition of sheer potential embodied in every dictionary," he writes, "only happens, it seems to me, when the dictionary actually has a [physical] body.  Surely every user of dictionaries or encyclopedias can recall many serendipitous discoveries: as we flip through pages in search of some particular chunk of information, our eyes are snagged by some oddity, some word or phrase or person or place, unlooked-for but all the more irresistible for that. [. . .] The great blessing of Google is its uncanny skill in finding what you're looking for; the curse is that it so rarely finds any of those lovely odd things you're not looking for.  For that pleasure, it seems, we need books."

Later, Jacobs notes that someone has said that the linear text of books "narrows and impoverishes" our views (as opposed to hypertext).  However, he objects, "it turns out that, when it comes to dictionaries anyway, it's hypertext that narrows and impoverishes.  The simple fact that I cannot pick up a [physical] dictionary and turn to the precise page I wish, or even if I could do that, focus my eyes only on the one definition I was looking for -- the very crudity, as it were, of the technology is what enriches me and opens my world to possibilities.  Only when I hold the printed book can I be ushered into the world of sheer fascination with proliferating language that people like Maria Moliner and Samuel Johnson inhabited, and encourage us to inhabit."

I am reminded of a story one of my high school teacher friends once told me.  As they were working in the library one day, a student asked her what a word meant, so she referred him to the print dictionary in the reference section.  After a bit, she looked over to see him staring at it with a look of awe.  "I never knew there were so many words," he murmured to her.  

And the fewer of those words we know, the less able we are to think and talk and write precisely and well about our world.  I am constantly taken aback at complaints about how hard my college students found certain readings because of the vocabulary, when it is often nothing I and my peers had not encountered well before entering college.  And then the resistance to learning those new words . . . as if they are too impatient to learn, to know, as if they are content to stagnate at age 18.  

I am more of a Luddite than Jacobs and than most people I know, but certainly I acknowledge the benefits of much modern technology and use a fair amount of it.  However, I've often thought about what we lose in our rush to embrace every new wonder, because losses there must be.  Awe before the remarkable gift of language, the serendipity of discovery, precision -- these are losses, and, since language is our means of knowing and thinking about our world, one has to wonder how much loss we dare incur.  

03 September 2018

On Seeking a Net to Catch the Days

A distinctly rambling consideration of the use of time when others are no longer telling me how to use each minute.

In Chapter Two of The Writing Life, Annie Dillard contemplates the place of routine in our lives, noting that it "defends from chaos and whim":  

"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.  What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.  A schedule defends from chaos and whim.  It is a net for catching days.  It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.  A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order -- willed, faked, and so brought into being; it a a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.  Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern."

I have had such a schedule for some 35 years now as a teacher of college literature and writing.  The semesters form the underlying structure, with their predictable beginnings and endings and breaks, and the days themselves move hour to hour, five days a week precisely scheduled from class to meeting to class to prep to class to grading to class to conferences . . .   Then summers to recuperate a bit and prepare for another year.  Day after day, semester after semester, year after year indeed blend into one another in a pattern both blurred (individual details must be sought within the pattern; they don't stand out immediately) and powerful (this was a good life; it held meaning every moment of every day).  

Now what?  If schedules keep our lives productive -- and if the family genes hold true I may have a significant span of life left to me -- how shall I form a schedule that allows me the peace and rest that I need while creating a new pattern that will lend significance to what I do?

I am finding that being able to sleep until my body tells me it is ready to get up has already made a difference -- I still tire easily (I tired easily when I was a child), but I do not begin every day utterly weary and drag myself through each week never feeling well.  So part of my new schedule will not be "arise at X time every day."  Nor will it be "go to bed at X time every night" -- chronic pain is better or worse on any given day and largely dictates when it is likely I'll be tired enough to fall asleep without hours of tossing and turning.  Nor will I avoid naps if my body cries out for sleep; rest during the day often helps control pain.  This is the greatest boon of retirement: beginning to find physical rest far more often than has been my wont.  (That and not grading papers.)

I let myself have this summer to simply live moment by moment.  I had tasks on a list, but I never planned on accomplishing them more than a day in advance, and I didn't hold myself even to that plan; maybe my husband would suggest an outing, or I'd be in more pain than usual, so I'd let it go.  But the tasks, clearly in mind and needing to be done, have mostly been accomplished.  (We can find things in the kitchen cabinets and drawers now, for example, without having to take everything out.)  There's a bit more of this kind of thing to be done, but there is no urgency to it; it will get done as I am ready (probably when I wish to procrastinate from something else . . .).

And I finished a special cross-stitch project recently, just awaiting a frame to be sent to its destination.  I learned one new minor technique in the process, and I'm looking forward to designing more projects and learning more techniques I've admired for years.

Other than that, it has mostly been reading -- visiting new novels I've had on my list forever, and re-visiting dozens of old favorites.  I've not challenged myself a great deal -- except that every time I read, even books I've read a dozen times, I am finding something new about the characters, the plots, the themes . . . I read for pleasure, but not mindlessly, because the understanding alongside the storyline is what makes reading most pleasurable for me.

I've started turning to the more challenging books now -- Roger Scruton, Matthew Arnold's prose, Josef Pieper, Alan Jacobs.  I have to re-attune my mind to this level; exhaustion for the last several years has kept me lazy for this kind of reading.  But the benefits of course will be more than I will ever be able to explain.  

I've not done a great deal of writing yet, but am easing myself back into it.  The problem is not lack of ideas; the problem is far too many, and being unclear as to where I want to focus my energy.  I can count four very different directions without thinking, and more with a little contemplation.  But all I've done so far is revise a short essay about my friend who died in the spring, write a short review of a book new to me, start an essay in response to questions someone posed, and work on a presentation I'll give in a colleague's class next week.  And some journaling along the way.  All very different forms and subjects.

 I hear so many people say they are bored when they retire.  And so many of my colleagues kept asking me, "But what are you going to do when you retire?" as if life is made up of grading papers.  My problem is the opposite: I have so many things I want to do I can't settle into them.  I'm not concerned about this yet; I'm still recovering from the past few years of physical and mental exhaustion and I'm fine with that for now.  But it's time to start figuring things out, and I'm wondering what kind of schedule might help me do that.

Domestic tasks, needlework, reading, writing, rest.  I like being able to take off with my husband when he appears at the study door and asks if I want to go here or there with him, so I don't want to schedule myself out of spontaneity.  I intend to take care of my need for rest, so hourly schedules are going to end up as mostly mere suggestions anyway.  I've been told that I must act in retirement as I've always done, with a schedule to keep to as if it were imposed from outside -- but that seems counterproductive to my greatest needs.  But the need for rest cannot take over the need to give -- to keep learning and growing and to offer what I can to my neighbor.