Most Ancient of All Splendors,
by Johann Moser.
Sophia Institute Press, 1989.
Hardcover, 94 pages, $15.

It was difficult to believe, until this book arrived at my desk, that in this fin de siècle of computers, word processors, videos, and other robots, poems still are written, are accepted for publication, and are beautifully published. All this in ninety-four pages, not the hundreds of pages in which pedantic professors express their world-saving panaceas!

What first strikes the reader is the poet’s daring to use words well beyond the mechanized citizen’s poor little vocabulary or the student’s two-hundred-word vocabulary for term papers and doctoral dissertations. Moser challenges a whole civilization when he employs the full resources of the English language—plus Latin, French, German, and Greek—dusts off old words and makes them work for the expression of the noble passion, the distilled sensation, the hard-to-articulate sentiment. The universe, taken apart by experts into insignificant bits, suddenly acquires meaning. The unusual image, ignored in urban lifestyle, springs before us, shaking up our routine-bound eyes and ears with color, sound, and savor, as if the cosmos had regained the significances and symbols which used to proliferate but are now caged. Master of words, Johann Moser discovers their magic intent, the times when the uttered formula had powers of incantation, changing reality or at least recombining its elements.

Words evoke worlds. But enough of incoherent enthusiasm. My favorite among these remarkable poems is “Bordeaux, 408 A.D.” Stupendous four pages! The last Roman armies are leaving territory once occupied, civilized, latinized. Ships in the harbor, legions abandon old fortifications. The barbaroi already have been sighted while Roman gentlemen converse in half-sentences. Like childhood, decadence speaks in brief phrases, for it has seen all; swiftly it captures thoughts, impressions, memories. The new people too “shall aptly raise basilicas of thought into the heavens.” “Until then?” “Until then the wine, my friend, a final cup; the night is growing heavy … among the sepulchers of our fathers in their sleep.”

In his own self-assured way, this poet gives life to ancient splendors. There are Grecian urns aplenty in poetic literature. What Moser does is to animate museum pieces, making them parts of a sensual vision. Moser seems to let loose all the instincts and passions; yet he controls them with form learned in the school of the Middle Ages.

This book rehabilitates language—and with it, objective reality. Paul Claudel would applaud. Let us not now lament the “cultural” horrors of our time-the wooden language, the shrinking vocabulary, the impoverished concepts. I vainly tell students that the outside world is infinitely rich, beyond their hedonistic dreams; that it is prosaic and poetic; and that words generously serve as transliterators of all you ever would wish to say. Students do not believe me; or rather, they don’t care: How can they, when announcers and headlines bark nouns, ignore verbs, adjectives, and adverbs; ungrammatizing the once-meaningful sentence?

Moser ignores this red-light district of cheapened meanings. Mention of the poems’ titles restores one’s imagination: a lament for Gilgamesh of Uruk; Henry the Fowler; Aeneas Sylvius Poccolomini; Galileo; etc. Many verses and stanzas ought to be quoted, and greeted joyfully for resurrecting reality; celebrating reality’s wedding with the Word. Speaking in tongues, the poet recovers the rights of language, which had been thrown into the junkyard by demagogues.  

“The universality of the sacred and its unbroken presence in some cultural contexts explain why those inside its world do not actually apprehend its presence, just as they hardly notice ordinary habitual occurrences. For the same reason, members of a desacralized civilization—our civilization—are not aware that practically all reference to the sacred has been erased from our daily existence.”

—Thomas Molnar, Twin Powers: Politics and the Sacred (Eerdmans, 1988)

Thomas Molnar is the author of a great many serious books, among the better-known of which are The Decline of the Intellectual, The Counter ­Revolution, Politics and the State, Utopia, the Perennial Heresy, and The Two Faces of American Foreign Policy.