Departures & Advents
I wonder sometimes at modern man’s restless hope, mingled with dread, to meet some being from beyond our world, someone endowed with wisdom and power, or perhaps, as more like our own selves, not wise but dangerously clever, and seeking to suppress and to dominate. To meet the latter, we need but go to a board room or a congress. To meet the former—I write partly in jest—we need but open a book written by or about someone alive a hundred years before our time of schooling as widespread as an underground fungus, with ignorance in its trail; a time when a man might die young of overwork in the fields, or of an outbreak of fever, and no one consider it unusual; when the exigencies of human life made it necessary for you to earn your bread by actually knowing how to do things with your back or your hands or your brain, and to do them well.
Joseph Anstice, the author of the Advent hymn “When Came in Flesh the Incarnate Word,” was only 28 years old when he died in 1836. He was an Oxford scholar, a teacher, a literary historian, and a poet, having published, among other things, a book of English verse translations of selections from the greatest Greek and Latin poets of antiquity. He seems to have been a devout and diligent man, not one to let his lamps run out of oil.
When he lay dying at Torquay, he would spend his mornings with his pupils, because he was then most at ease and cheerful, but when afternoon came on, the teaching became too strenuous for him. So, oppressed by the illness—tuberculosis, most likely—that would take him from this world, he tried to rest, while dictating hymns to his wife, because he knew his time was short. There were 52 of them, all composed in his last few weeks, in his mind and not with pen in hand. Later, Mrs. Anstice put them together in a book for his friends; in 1841, the indefatigable Frances Mary Yonge included many of them in The Child’s Christian Year.
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Anthony Esolen is the author of over thirty books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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