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.