The Bad Poetry of Modern Hymnody

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In an earlier column, I asked why we could not sing hymns from the Christian treasury, which is nearly two thousand years old, and which features composers with names like Bach and Handel and poets from Prudentius to Thomas Aquinas to Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, and John Henry Newman, rather than silly, sloppy, banally sentimental, and often ungrammatical lyrics set to off-off-Broadway show tunes. I sensed from the comments that people don’t consider metrical poetry to be an art, with standards of excellence or at least of good workmanship, nor do they consider that the lyrics of hymns are supposed to be poems and should be judged as such.

I think I know what explains this disregard of the poetic art. Poetry has simply vanished from what remains of popular culture. It’s not an important part of the lives of ordinary people. I have a copy of the poems of Bliss Carman, from the 1930s, given as a birthday gift from one woman to another and signed inside the cover. Carman was popular, in the true sense of the word, as were Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. When Henry Longfellow was an old man, several boys showed up at his door in Cambridge because they loved his poems. They had never met him, but they knew it was his birthday, and they came to thank him and congratulate him. Longfellow welcomed them and they enjoyed the afternoon together. That was Longfellow’s seventy-fifth birthday, his last in the world.

Louis Untermeyer, in his wonderful textbook Doorways to Poetry (1938), tells of a high school class in which each student had to recite a poem by heart, giving it an interpretive performance. One of the boys recited Gray’s Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, in which the poet sees schoolboys playing ball and meditates rather sadly upon the future they will know. The poem ends with the wistful and now proverbial wisdom: “No more; where ignorance is bliss, / ‘Tis folly to be wise.” After the recitation was done, the teacher turned to one of the other boys, a football player, and asked him to evaluate it. The big fellow, clearly moved, declined. “He did a fine job,” said the boy. “I can’t say anything about it. It is my favorite poem in the world.” Such a moment now seems unimaginable, and not least because, as I know from experience, poetry has been almost wholly abandoned in our schools.  What little survives does so under duress or is political doggerel.

The folk springs of music and metrical song have dried up, and the high culture of great poetry from the masters has been discarded or smeared with the excrementa of teachers who resent greatness. This state of affairs is unprecedented. Cultures—before ours—have always had their immemorial songs, passed down through the centuries. Such songs were the seedbed of Homer and Hesiod. We have no such thing. Nor do we have any broad knowledge of the classics. We who love poetry are like gardeners trying to grow roses in a land that is both sunless and dry. There is no life—and nobody notices the lack.

 

The Poetry of Our Hymns
To ask that the hymns we sing at Mass actually be poems, and that the poems be workmanlike at the worst and at times sublime, is to invite not opposition but incomprehension. If you ask an Eskimo on the shores of the Great Slave Lake to show you where the figs grow, he will not be angry with you. Nevertheless, he will not know what you are talking about. He will shrug and walk away.

Suppose for the sake of argument we consider another one of the arts. Suppose we are talking about painting and, in particular, painting the human face or the human figure in action. Would we allow just anybody to cover our church’s walls with paint? We know from our failures that it requires a special skill to draw a passable human body, let alone to paint it so that it looks like a work of art and not a bad cartoon. It is not something that you decide to do one morning: “We’re building a new church, and, hey, I have an idea about a scene from the Gospels. I wonder if the priest will let me paint the multiplication of the loaves and fishes?”

Have you studied anatomy? Can you draw? Do you know anything about color? Have you any idea how the scene has been painted before? Have you studied perspective? Do you know about the techniques of layering paint upon paint? Do you know what chiaroscuro means? Have you tried imitating the techniques of Murillo, Caravaggio, Titian, Giotto—anybody? Do you know how to mix paints? Do you know what works on one surface rather than another? Can you paint folds of clothing?  Can you paint a face? Do you know the geometric differences between a man’s face and a woman’s face? Do you know the proportions of a man’s arm, and hand, and torso? Have you thought about how a painting would fit into the architecture and the lighting that the wall will provide? Do you actually know what you are doing?

With painting, we see the problem immediately. Yet for some reason people believe they can compose good poems without years of painstaking study. Well, they can’t. They haven’t.

Let’s look at one of the poems most frequently sung in Catholic churches: the cringingly earnest, politically correct, theologically dubious, and poetically weird and clunky “Gather Us In” by Marty Haugen. First stanza:

Here in this place, new light is streaming,
Now is the darkness vanished away.
See in this space our fears and our dreamings,
Brought to you here in the light of this day.
Gather us in, the lost and forsaken,
Gather us in, the blind and the lame;
Call to us now, and we shall awaken,
We shall arise at the sound of our name.

It is a glob of feelings and piety-talk. What exactly is happening? Who is speaking to whom? What is the “new light”? What is “this place”? The church building? If so, why refer to it again with the banal filler “this space”? If we have brought our “fears and our dreamings” to the unnamed “you,” doesn’t this imply that we are awake? So why do we need to be waked up in line seven? Is “dreamings” tossed in to provide an awkward almost-rhyme with “streaming,” or is “streaming” there to be a rhyme for “dreamings”? Is there something special about “this day”—like “this place” and “this space”? Is the light of the day the same as the “new light” in the first line? What does Haugen intend to do with the motif of being blind or lame? Is it there only because it’s in the Gospels? Second stanza:

We are the young, our lives are a mystery,
We are the old, who yearn for your face.
We have been sung throughout all of history,
Called to be light to the whole human race.
Gather us in, the rich and the haughty,
Gather us in, the proud and the strong;
Give us a heart, so meek and so lowly,
Give us the courage to enter the song.

We can see how bad the third line is if we substitute singular for plural: “I have been sung throughout all of history.” No, I haven’t. I haven’t been sung for five minutes. It’s a stupid and narcissistic thing to say. Jesus was born to be the light of mankind, and Jesus says that we are to be the light of the world. But this takes place through his work, not ours. May I ask what has happened to the “new light” of the first stanza? What was that new light? Am I the “new light”? What has happened to the lost, the forsaken, the blind, and the lame? In this stanza, it’s all self-celebration. It’s rather odd, then, to direct a cold eye toward the “rich,” the “haughty,” “the proud and the strong.” Have they also been “sung throughout all of history”? What the heck does the final line mean? How do you “enter” a song?  By singing it? Does he really mean you have to be brave to sing about how you have been called to be light to the whole human race? Nervy, maybe, but not brave. Third stanza:

Here we will take the wine and the water,
Here we will take the bread of new birth;
Here you shall call your sons and your daughters,
Call us anew to be salt for the earth.
Give us to drink the wine of compassion,
Give us to eat the bread that is you;
Nourish us well, and teach us to fashion
Lives that are holy and hearts that are true.

What’s happened now to the young and the old? As well as the blind, forsaken, lost, lame, rich, haughty, and so forth? And the “new light” and its streams? There is not one sharply drawn image in the poem, not one clearly conceived dramatic moment, nothing specific, and nothing deeply personal. What is the “bread of new birth”?  Is “birth” there to provide a rhyme for “earth”? Jesus said to his disciples that they were the “salt of the earth,” but what can it mean to be salt for the earth? Do you strew the ground with salt for the delectation of earthworms? What does “compassion” have to do with being “sung throughout all of history”? Why is the agent for the first two lines we? Why are we fashioning lives that are holy? What do true hearts have to do with anything that has come before? Notice the function-words “that are,” which are repeated to limp along and fill the last line.

The last stanza is appalling:

Not in the dark of buildings confining,
Not in some heaven, light-years away,
Here in this place, the new light is shining,
Now is the kingdom, and now is the day.
Gather us in, and hold us forever,
Gather us in, and make us your own;
Gather us in, all peoples together,
Fire of love in our flesh and our bone.

I suppose Haugen is thinking of a church with the clumsy “buildings confining,” but I thought we were supposed to see the church as filled with light? The Star Trek “light-years” is badly out of place, and the “some” in “some heaven” is either contemptuous of ordinary believers, or it is an unnecessary slap at atheists who do not find God on the other side of the moon. “Now is the kingdom and now is the day,” says Haugen, but that is and is not so. The Kingdom of God is in our midst, but it is also what we long for, what is at hand but not yet.  Perhaps the idea is that, if we are the right kind of people, we can, as another bad hymn puts it, “build the city of God.” If so, this has the builder’s identity mixed up: God builds us and, from us, his city. The final two lines have nothing to do with anything that has come before, but are simply there to wind up the rhymes.

It’s a lousy poem.

Here, by contrast, is a very good poem, in ballad meter. No image is tossed in for the sake of a rhyme or because the poet was toking from some Bible-hookah. The focus is on Jesus, not on us. There is no nonsense about being “sung throughout all of history,” or about having the “courage to enter the song.”  It has clarity, coherence, honesty, simplicity, economy of expression; a dramatic human situation; movement to a quiet finality; and, most of all, gratitude:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down
Thy head upon my breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary and worn and sad;
I found in Him a resting place,
And He has made me glad.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
The living water, thirsty one;
Stoop down, and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that life-giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
And now I live in Him.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“I am this dark world’s light;
Look unto me, thy morn shall rise,
And all thy day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found
In Him my star, my sun;
And in that light of life I’ll walk
Till traveling days are done.

All ye who would write songs: learn the craft. It may take years. You may not have an ear for it. If not, yield to others who do. In the meantime, may we please sing real poetry?

Anthony Esolen

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Anthony Esolen is Professor and Writer in Residence at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); and Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018).

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