Part III: Poetry, Style and Literary Craft in the Book of Mormon
Often in Family Home Evening we would read from different translations of the Bible. Someone would have the KJV, someone else The Jerusalem Bible, another The Revised Standard or New English Version. We would take turns reading and the others would follow along in their translations, and sometimes comment on what we read. Shortly after my brother Kevin returned from his mission he read The Book of Mormon in Finnish and we followed along in English.
When we read Nephi’s lament at the death of Lehi in 2 Nephi 4 my father told us this was a psalm, and the only psalm in The Book of Mormon. I had begun noticing a lot of poetry in the Bible, partly because The Jerusalem Bible and others format the poetry as poetry, but thought there was not much in The Book of Mormon, except Alma’s “Oh, that I were an angel.” I know now there is a great deal more poetry in the Book of Mormon than Nephi’s psalm. Indeed, every time a writer says “Oh,” it is likely the start of a poem. Even without looking at chiasmus there is a lot of lyric poetry, including the Zoramites’ prayer on the Rameumptom and Nephi’s prayer on the garden tower.
But Mormon preserved more than his people’s poetry, he also gave us their prose style. For example, Alma, in his poetry, history, and sermons/essays sounds like a writer, someone who enjoys working with words. His son Helamam writes like a bureaucrat, uses lots passive voice and helper verbs, was desirous, rather than desired. Helaman the younger writes somewhat like his father, but not as wordy or awkward, though he uses exceeding many exceedings.
Mormon could have smoothed it out, brought up the style, as Washington Irving liked to do with documents he edited, but didn’t. He does juxtapose literary styles, though. After the two bureaucrat Helamans he returns to a prophet-poet as the Prophecy of Nephi (Helaman 7:16) opens with a scene that mingles pathos, comedy, satire, a lyric prayer and a poetic lament/sermon. Perhaps he didn’t have time to bring up the style as he watched his people self-destruct. Or perhaps he wanted us to know how the people he was abridging wrote, as well as what they wrote.
That is, the Book of Mormon now seems to me less Mormon’s book than Mormon’s abridgement. I’ve pretty much assumed that Mormon, like Ether, wrote a history–with lots of quotes thrown in. Now it feels like the thrown in part is Mormon’s comments. Indeed, he even uses the structure he found in their records. I’ve often wondered why, since Helaman wrote the last third of The Book of Alma, Mormon didn’t break the book at Chapter 45 and call the rest of it The First Book of Helaman.
I suspect Alma may have made a set of plates and Helaman finished his record on them, or bound his record with them rather than binding them as a separate book, and Mormon likely named his books by the name on the colophon for each set of plates.
Mormon’s editorial practices are more visible to us than those of the Hebrew Bible’s editor, but one meaning of “these last records . . . shall establish
the truth of the first” (I Ne. 13:40), may be that the Book of Mormon shows us how the Bible was put together. Thus, saying, “Moses didn’t write the Books of Moses” may be like saying, “Alma didn’t write the Book of Alma,” or “Mormon didn’t write the Book of Mormon” In all 3 cases there were multiple authors and at least one editor involved.
The Book of Mormon is a highly crafted literary work. We don’t usually think
about this because Joseph was not as good with the King’s English (so’s the
Queen–still) as the king’s men, his translators, so we think of The Book of Mormon as a pale imitation of the Bible stylistically. But it is a literary work in its own right, and very highly crafted. I learned this by studying Joseph Smith’s grammatical errors, and comparing Helaman’s style with Alma’s.
As a sidenote, the word or in The Book of Mormon often appears when Mormon wanted to revise a sentence, but couldn’t because he had already engraved it. Mining the or allows us to see Mormon at work as a literary craftsman.
So there’s the overview and I hope my writing has enough of craft (and of
Ammon’s guile) to convey (carry, bear, burden, the burthen of the prophet) a sense of the excitement and joy of working with a great literary and religious text, “that it might be for our profit and learning.”
22 thoughts on “Gadianton the Nobler, Reflections on Changes in the Book of Mormon”
As a literary reader, I’m always contrasting the different writers, comparing their styles with each other. And in line with Ether 12:27, the growth we see between early Moroni and late Moroni is remarkable and the best testimony of that verse I could offer.
Thanks, Theric. I would welcome some examples of the growth you see. I had a student who used the phrase “it has made my weak things become strong unto me” in a paper. I asked if he was aware he was quoting The Book of Mormon. “No.” That says something about the book’s influence on our speech patterns.
I’ve noticed also that a lot of Conference speakers are using more alliteration, assonance, consonance, phrase-making, and rhetorical flourishes. I suppose that’s our answer to Maxwell’s silver hammer.
Way the by, this wasn’t supposed to be posted till tomorrow morning, but when I pressed Publish and scheduled it then brought up AMV, it was already published, so if something odd happens at 7:15 tomorrow morning I’ll repost.
Where do you teach?
Without citing specific examples, reading Moroni’s halting first chapters at the end of Mormon is nothing like the experience of reading Moroni 10 which is, for my money, one of the most transcendent passages in all scripture.
I think Moroni’s growth is notable because he’s the only writer we really see this in. Most writers get filtered through Mormon (or, as with Ether, Moroni); the exceptions being on the small plates. But Nephi started these plated after he’d been writing for years (decades?) and no one else wrote that much. And Moroni and Mormon seem to be the only writers who realize how directly there work will be received by us. They address us with a familiarity no other BofM writer can match. And, for much of his life, we’re about the only people Moroni has to talk with.
Maybe that’s why I feel closer to him than anyone else in the book. I feel like he is the human face of this book. He is the character who is so alive. And his bearing of his soul in Ether 12 is hugely vulnerable. And human. And without that moment, Moroni 10 could never have existed.
As a writer, Moroni’s example of humility comes to me as a pure example of the proper relationship between art and artist and deity.
“As a writer, Moroni’s example of humility comes to me as a pure example of the proper relationship between art and artist and deity.”
Very good point, Th. I hadn’t considered Moroni in this light before. In fact, I’ve only just begun to really consider the Book of Mormon in this literary light. Sure, I’ve been moved by the book’s most affective parts, especially the writings of Jacob and Moroni. But I’m thinking that a deeper consideration of the book as a work of literary art will help me as I try to find new ways of engaging with it year after year.
I think the contrast between Nephi and Moroni and their styles is also an interesting one to make. Nephi was deeply influenced by the writings of Isaiah and, at times, he comes across as somewhat self-righteous, especially when talks about his brothers—as if he’s trying to show us how much holier he was than they were. (Does anyone else get that or is it just me?) I notice this especially when I hear his voice juxtaposed with Jacob’s as the latter Lehite makes some commentary in 2 Nephi 6-10, then takes over the plates in Jacob.
Contrasting Nephi with Moroni, I find more of that humility you speak of, Th., in Moroni, though Nephi seems to point his humility and obedience out (another reflection, to me, of his higher degree of self-righteousness). Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the differences in their style: Nephi’s prose is more Isaiah-like in places, more attached to his self, while, as you also point out, Moroni is more audience-centered, speaking to us with a degree of familiarity that isn’t found throughout the rest of the book.
Thanks for this series of posts, Harlow. I’ve decided it’s time to get a non-versified copy of the book and read it that way. I’m pretty sure this will help me engage with these voices, with their literariness in a new way.
Are you kidding? I always dread finishing the Book of Mormon because that means I have to read Nephi again and I find him so annoying, so full of himself, so, as you say, self-righteous.
Just shut up, Nephi, I sometimes want to say. Just shut up.
Sometimes I wonder if I engage with the Book of Mormon a little too much…..
Nephi’s words are filtered through the lens of memory (he writes his life story many years after the most pivotal events). He knows the small plates are to teach us spiritual things, so he makes sure the moral(s) of the story are clearly communicated throughout. I have to give him props for 2 Nephi 4, though.
Moroni’s words are more raw because he’s writing as he goes. There’s a tension and an uncertainty in his writing because he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll live. He essentially bids us farewell at least 3-4 times before the end of Moroni 10.
For me, I see two Moronis in the Book of Mormon: the one in Mormon 8:1-13 and the one that appears beginning in verse 14. Something happens to him between verses 13 and 14 that I would love to know more about. You can sense it in his writing style, as he changes from a sad-sack defeated general (he even bids us a Book of Omni-type farewell) into a prophet. It always thrills me to read him roaring back to life in that chapter.
I couldn’t agree more. The multiple goodbyes are part of what I love about him. So human.
And I agree. There are moments in his writing where he is suddenly a new man. There are stories yet to be told.
“Just shut up, Nephi, I sometimes want to say. Just shut up.”
Took the words right out of my mouth…
And that’s why I’m going to hell…..
Hey, that’s what my wife just said when I told her about our discussion. Does seeing a prophet as human, as one with imperfections, cut us off from God?
Maybe only if it goes too far…
I don’t think it does.
In my first response to you I searched my blog looking for all the mean things I had said about Nephi, but there really weren’t any good examples. Most of what I found was me quoting him and speaking of him as a prophet. Not quite as damning.
That said, I don’t think Nephi would be amused. I think Joseph Smith would chuckle if we said this stuff about him. Nephi might pop us one in the mouth.
(Incidentally, my wife has said the same about me, but she finds Nephi as irritating as I do, so at least I’ll have company.)
Tyler, and Theric and Bryan, when you compare Nephi and Moroni do you think of Nephi the self-righteous 14 year old as the same person who wrote a psalm to help himself grieve for his father?
I’m not asking to be argumentative. I’m working on a longer reply about Nephi’s approach to memoir but it started with asking myself this question, so I thought I’d pose the question first.
Actually, I don’t share Th. and Tyler’s opinion of Nephi. In my comment, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt if he ever came across as self-righteous and condescending, which he hasn’t to me.
Note that I mentioned 2 Nephi 4, which is the very psalm you’re referring to.
In any case, my comment was mostly about Moroni, and I’m glad there are receptive ears to it here.
Thanks for your comments, Tyler, Theric and Bryan. Nephi does something very difficult, something few writers do, partly, I suspect, because they don’t know why they should.
In graduate school I took a class in teaching composition from William Irmscher. He was the author of a widely used handbook in the 80s, and I think I took the class more because he was teaching it than because I wanted to teach composition. (I did teach composition for almost 4 years at Utah Valley State College, but teaching, or classroom management, or grading papers, or teaching 18 year olds (depending on who you talk to–the dep’t chair said he thought my teaching style better suited to grad students) doesn’t seem to be my gift, at least not as much as writing is.
Anyway Irmscher based a lot of his approach to teaching on Kenneth Burke’s approach (I may have even taken his class on Burke), and he told us that Burke will often start down a path and realize it’s not where he wants to go, but instead of erasing what he has written he will say something like, “this isn’t going where I wanted to, let’s back up and try something else.” Burke wants his readers to know how he got to a conclusion, and how ideas connect and don’t connect, rather than just what his conclusion is.
When Irmscher said that I realized I didn’t have to go back and revise out all my digressions and word play. As I’ve been thinking about the comments today it occurs to me that Nephi does something very similar to what Burke permitted me to do.
It’s evident that Nephi is writing decades after the events happened, but he relates the event in the voice he would have used if he was writing at the time. Consider what Marden Clark does at the beginning of his story “Much of a River.” It’s the first in a book of stories called Morgan Triumphs. I grew up hearing stories of Halloween pranks like tipping over outhouses, or other pranks like hiding the music teacher’s car–thinking the man would surely go out into his garage, but it took a muffled phone call to get him out there and find his car.
The stories are all there and I thought they would be funny, but there’s an edge of sadness. The narrator in the stories is not simply looking back on funny pranks he pulled, he’s looking at how the teen he was influenced the man he now is, but he is also as old or older than the people he pulled pranks on. So here’s the opening of the second paragraph:
Of course we were always running the last hundred yards, with the inevitable “last one in is a nigger baby.” (Yes, we used that expression, like everyone else, with a strange blend of ignorance and unaware malice that could sense nothing of how it would feel to a later generation.)
(Dialogue Volume 17, Number 3, Autumn 1984
(I’m going to split the reply here. It’s 1071 words and there may be some vertu in not having a single reply that goes on for screens and screens)
Nephi does not reflect on his his early life, doesn’t overlay his later perceptions on his early actions, as Alma does when he’s describinh the things he was ashamed of to his son Corianton. When Nephi’s writing about a self-righteous teenager he lets his actions stand without comment, just as he does when recording how he grieved for his father.
(Here’s the 2nd half of my reply)
And yet there’s a lot of pain in his memoir. “And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property” (I Ne 4:11) Notice that the Spirit’s words are a simple declaration. There is no attempt to justify constraining Nephi to kill Laban. Nephi’s response is pure rationalization. Any parent (or judge) has heard the excuse,’I got him before he could get me.’
Nephi the old man writing about his younger self knows this, but he does not comment on it, he simply lets us feel the pain he’s still feeling, the pain that caused him to “[say] in [his] heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.” The memory of killing a defenseless man still causes him to shrink.
Nephi doesn’t have to tell us all these embarrassing things, but he does, and I admire him for it. Such openness earns my trust.
I’ve been thinking about this episode and why I trust Nephi for several years, but it was just this morning, thinking about the comments,that I realized Nephi was writing each section as he would have written it at the time (and maybe he did keep a journal of some sort). And then I asked myself, why? Why did Nephi write it that way?
Over on AML-List we’ve been having a long discussion about whether or not Stephanie Meyer can write, and whether huge sales means something is good. Then a couple suggested that the real question was “the elusive gem that made money success happen,” and that the discussion had turned up that gem when some of the women were talking about female fantasies. “Meyer hit on the need for a woman to be able to submit safely and to have a male who loves her so much he would protect her and self-sacrifice to do it.” (02/12/09 7:15 AM [aml-list] The crowd factor was “vindication”)
And, so this morning I thought, ‘I’ve found Nephi’s elusive gem.’ Killing Laban was a defining moment for Nephi, and he wants us to understand the experience through the eyes of the person he was then.
Several years ago I was discussing (or mildly arguing) nonviolence and pacifism with my niece and she brought up the command to kill Laban. I said, “The message of that story is, if you kill someone, even if the Lord commands you to, it will haunt you for the rest of your life.”
So I suppose Nephi tells his story through the eyes of his younger self because he wants us to understand how horrible killing Laban was to him then, and how he could have done that, and not just how it haunts him after a lifetime of reflection.
I think we never see “Nephi the self-righteous 14 year old” — not directly. What we read is written by an older Nephi as he writes a condensed history. His stated goal for the Small Plates is to preserve a spiritual record, but I think it’s clear he is also using this space to defend his political history as well: he is showing that he was right to take control, to abandon the original settlement, that his brothers were undeserving, etc. I don’t mean to accuse him of purposefully distorting the record, but he’s certainly a biased observer. It’s not going to do his story any good to show Laman saving a drowning kitten, if you know what I mean.
I often wonder if the way Nephi comes off (to me at least) is an accurate representation of him. I feel that it is, but it may be that he felt obliged to represent himself as prophety somehow and this was the only way he knew. Or perhaps he was just a little inept at nuanced character development.
I think it’s clear to everyone here, but just to be safe, let me assure passresby that I feel Nephi is a significant prophet and a righteous man. I just don’t think, if he invited me over for dinner, that we would get along well enough to be invited again. We don’t really have matching personalities.
But think of the times that were his to live in: someone less hardcore might not have been able to pull off what he did. The right prophet for the right time.
First of all, Harlow, kudos on a great article. I’ve always found the linguistics and the multiple authors’ voices subjects in the Book of Mormon to be fascinating.
As to Nephi, I’ve certainly seen when he seems to come off as self righteous, but I think that’s the point. Nephi was dedicated enough not to care about how he was perceived. That’s why he was with his parents at the Tree of Life, and Laman and Lemuel were in the Great and Spacious building.
Laman’s character is interesting in this regard, I think. He seems to be the type who would have been good at words, good at persuading people without them feeling as if they were being preached to (although it appears he wasn’t above mocking those who disagreed with him). A “born leader,” as we say. But he uses that natural ability as a tool of manipulation instead of a bonafide reason to lead people to God.
So on the other side, although he certainly seems self-aware of the fact, Nephi IS the one who follows through. He is the one who gets the plates (which, by killing Laban, is at the cost of the one thing he most valued– his confidence in his virtue. His own Abrahamic sacrifice). He is the one can be guided by the Liahona. He is the one with the gumption not to despair at the broken bow.
Sometimes we may not like the fact that he knows and points out that he’s doing the right thing, but that doesn’t change the fact that he really is doing just that.
And I think it’s important to remember that the Lord told Nephi that he was going to be a teacher over his brothers. It was his calling. Instead of putting on a false humility and saying, oh, I don’t know if I’m worthy, I don’t know if I can do this… instead of that kind of self degradation, he mans up and says to himself, “I will go and do.” And he does.
Not to say that Moroni’s approach is any less effective. I agree with the praise heaped on him here. He and Mormon are my favorites in the Book of Mormon. There is a tragic, harrowed, haunted effect in their writing, while maintaining a stirring courage and spirituality… it gets me every time.
Thanks for the examples, Theric. Moroni’s farewell is indeed moving and personal, but we see the beginnings of it in that astonishing statement in Mormon 8:35 “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing.”
When I had been out of grad school a couple of years and decided in late 1990 that I ought to join the Association for Mormon Letters and start presenting papers, my first paper was a meditation on a phrase from Lionel Trilling’s essay, “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (in Beyond Culture). Trilling taught the first modern lit class at Columbia and says he was initially reluctant to grant his students’ request for the class because of the tremendous destructive power of modern lit–you don’t aim a howitzer at your students without calculating how much damage you could do, he says–a power rooted in the insistent and personal nature of literature from the modern period.
Are you happy with your job? your marriage? your family? Are you saved or damned? These are all impolite questions and modern lit insists on them. I suggested in one paper that the modern period coincides with the dedication of the Kirtland temple, and that the power of its literature was called forth in the dedicatory prayer.
Later, in an essay called “Lucid Dreaming,” I said The Book of Mormon asks all the impolite questions, insists on them, especially, “Are you saved or damned?” Imagine a literary work asking you to pray to know if the words you are reading are true, and promising you that if you pray wanting to know you will. That is a stunningly personal thing to say.
After writing my long two-part comment a little earlier I think The Book of Mormon also begins with a stunningly personal and powerful scene.
I had an aesthetics class from Charles Johnson about 3 years before he won The National Book Award for Middle Passage. He told us one day about how aggressively personal James Baldwin is: You don’t like blacks? I’ll show you what it’s like to be black. You don’t like homosexuals? I’ll show you what it’s like to be homosexual. By the time you finish a Baldwin novel you know. (I really do want to read Go Tell it on the Mountain–if I can find where I put my father’s copy.)
After writing my long comment earlier it occurred to me that in the way he tells about killing Laban Nephi raises the question, what would you have done? and answers, “I’ll show you what it’s like.” And no answer you can give to Nephi’s question is without pain, enormous pain, if you let yourself liken the story unto yourself.
Interesting commentary on Nephi, Harlow, especially his defining moment with Laban. I hadn’t considered before that Nephi might be writing as his younger self.
As I’ve been contemplating your question about how I view Nephi, I should first, like Th., share my witness that I know he was a prophet for his times, a man endowed with power from God and called to do a difficult work; and second, admit that I’ve been deeply touched at times by his words. I think he’s the most transcendent in 2 Nephi 4 and 31-32. I return again and again to his question and then his answer in 32:2-3: “How could ye speak with the tongue of angels save it were by the Holy Ghost? Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost.” To learn to speak with the tongue of angels, I think, is one motivation behind why I write, why I teach.
Having said that, I think another probable reason for why Nephi comes off to me as somewhat self-righteous—and I find this mostly in 1 Nephi—is because he seems to be writing with some degree of detachment (emotional and otherwise) from his experiences. This likely has something to do with the fact that he wrote his account years after these moments occurred and also with the highly structured way in which he’s writing, especially in 1 Nephi, which is chiastic in structure. Both of these factors, coupled with his political intent (i.e. his declaration of the Nephites’ right to authority), bring a certain degree of separation between the writer and his record.
As for the moment when he tells about killing Laban, I don’t know how much he really shows us what it was like to kill man; he seems a bit more detached in his explanation, like he’s holding his doubts back and trying to rationalize his way through the experience years later. His wrestle with the spirit and the emotions underlying his use of Laban’s sword to cut off the ruler’s head, seem much less attached and less detailed, than his oddly specific description of that sword. His grief at this moment seems to come through later, though, in his psalm, when he laments: “And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins” (2 Ne. 4:19). Though this doesn’t specifically tie his pain to Laban’s murder, I’m convinced it does suggest that, years later, he’s still struggling to come to terms with what he’s done—that it haunts him and comes rushing back in his moments of weakness.
So, while I guess my detachment from Nephi may have been a calculated effort on his part, I am stirred at times by his words. And I do admit, as God states in Doctrine and Covenants 10, that “there are many things engraven upon the plates of Nephi which do throw greater views upon [the] gospel.” There are just other times when I have trouble breaking through Nephi’s veneer of (self?)righteousness.
I’ve also just considered the possibility that Nephi might come off to some as self-righteous because he’s writing to convince us, to convince himself that, despite this moment of violence in which he took a man’s life, he’s still a good person. Perhaps he takes it over the top to suggest to us that his actions were justified by the spirit…
I’ld also like to throw in that I’m a big fan of the final three chapters of 2 Nephi—in my case, 33 in particular.
It’s interesting to me that my favorite bit of Nephi parallels heavily Moroni 10 (which I’ve already talked up). He’s addressing us, he’s putting his cards on the table, he’s looking forward to judgment which he views as, yes, something to look forward to. I love that.
I’ve just reread comment 15 and realized I left out a few words. The fourth paragraph from the end should start thus. I’ve marked my omission with Asterixes
Over on AML-List we’ve been having a long discussion about whether or not Stephanie Meyer can write, and whether huge sales means something is good. Then a **couple of weeks ago Veda Hale** suggested that the real question was “the elusive gem that made money success happen,” and that the discussion had turned up that gem when some of the women were talking about female fantasies.