Paint-by-Number Hymns | Anthony Esolen | Catholic World Report
Why, when we have a trove of profound, beautiful, and poignant hymns, do we have to endure what is banal, clunky, and silly?
“Are you interested in painting, sir?” asks the cheerful curator of the modern art museum.
“No, not me,” says the detective. He passes his hand across his rumpled hair. “Now, Mrs. Columbo, she’s different. That woman is into everything. She does a little painting herself.”
“Oh, yeah, all the time. She buys these kits where you put the color in according to the numbers—you’ve seen them? They actually come out pretty good.”
I like the joke there on modern painting, which to my eye sometimes looks as if the artist could have used a few numbers here or there. But because I have spent all my adult life studying and teaching poetry, from Homer to Robert Frost, I want to cry out to people who try their hands at it, “Please, please, study the masters! Don’t embarrass yourselves! It’s a lot harder than you think.” Indeed, my next book will be on the poetry of Christian hymns; I wish to show ordinary people who attend Mass and who want to lift their hearts in song just how rich the best of those poems are. I want to turn their attention to the artistry, both linguistic and theological. I’d like to be their guide, so to speak, saying, “Look over here—see what he’s done! Isn’t that stupendous?”
We do have a rich treasury of hymn-poems to read, to sing, and to keep close to the heart. Some of them are almost as old as Christianity itself. They come from Latin and Greek, from our own English, from French and German and all the languages of Europe. Some were written by saintly divines with a fine ear for poetry: John Henry Newman (“Praise to the Holiest in the Height”), Charles Wesley (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”). Many were written by the great Dr. Isaac Watts, who set the psalms to English meter and rhyme. Some rose up from an anonymous lyricist among the folk: “What Wondrous Love Is This.” Some entered our language by the skill of great translators, like John Mason Neale and Catherine Winkworth. Some were the work of pious laymen who meditated upon Scripture all their lives: so the blind Fanny Crosby gives us “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.” Just as many of our most beautiful melodies were written by the finest composers who ever lived—Bach, Handel, Haydn—so too many of our hymn lyrics were written by poets of some renown: George Herbert, Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Milton.
So why, then, why do we have verse-by-numbers lyrics posing as real poems in our hymnals? Why, when we have such a trove of the great, the profound, the beautiful, the memorable, the poignant, the splendid, do we have to endure what is banal, clunky, clumsy, dull, vague, and silly?