I’ve been at my parents house in Texas all week. They have a worn, original edition of Emmeline B. Wells’ Memories and Musings so I thought that it’d be nice to wrap up this run of Weekend Poetry (it will be back at some point — but next week I’m starting up Short Story Friday, again) with one of her poems. Wells was a key figure in the Home Literature movement, and her poetry reflects its neo-Romanticism and concern with showing Mormonism as capable of producing, if not literary genius, at the very least a certain refined, literary respectability. What I found interesting about perusing Memories and Musings is how much of the poetry is written for family and friends and special occassions. Not at all unusual for the times, of course, but it reflects a writer very much enmeshed in a community, responding to it, defending it, seeking to explain it — and especially doing so in dialogue with the Romantic poets and the tropes and figures and allusions they relied on.
I can’t say that any of her work immedietly impressed me with its skill and candor. It comes across as pretty old-fashioned and fairly provincial to my modern eyes. But I can also say that I didn’t spend the time with it that it deserves. I think that there’s much to be learned from her work. Here’s a taste of why I think that is so:
I see adown the shadows of long years,
The faint, dim outlines of a dreamy land,
And glit’ring thro’ the pearly mists of tears,
There seem reflected on that far-off strand,
The keenest hopes and joys my life has known,
And silent griefs which I had borne alone.
I dreamed not that the passion of an hour,
Could leave its ipress in the realm of space;
Or that an angel hand had skill and power,
The ideal picture of a love to trace,
And true to realistic thoughts and fears,
Preserve the record of the passing years.
We know not all the mysteries of earth,
Nor how with good and ill our lives are woven;
We cannot solve the secret of our birth,
Much less recall the sciences of heaven,
Nor what we saw and heard before we came;
We do not even know our former name.
And yet somewhere there must be silent force,
Which acts upon the soul with subtle skill;
We cannot see the process of its course,
Nor can we bend it to our feeble will;
But true to life, reflection there will be,
And sometime we shall know the mystery.
Then those who’ve suffered most, and silent kept,
Will see in that bright mirror, heaven’s blue,
How wrongs and evil doings which have slept,
Will penetrate the hearts of ages through;
And in the light of eternal dawn,
Expose the pictures which this life has drawn.
There’s One above who watches o’er us all,
Who even hears the lonely raven’s cry.
He notes each little sparrow if it fall,
And to the humble He is ever nigh. [63-64, Musings and Memories, 1915: The Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah, second edition]
Bonus Weekend Poetry
And now a bonus for Theric — the last stanza from Orson F. Whitney’s poem ” The Poet’s Prayer”:
Roll on my days responsive to thy rule,
This tongue thine oracle, this pen thy tool;
Designed to soar, or doomed to lowly plod —
Amanuensis of the mind of God.
London, January, 1882
[11, The Poetical Writings of Orson F. Whitney, 1889 Juvenile Instructor Office, Salt Lake City, Utah]
10 thoughts on “Weekend Poetry: “Somewhere” by Emmeline B. Wells”
I liked this much more than I expected. It was a quiet gentle poem and I appreciated its, mm, soul. Maybe. Vocabulary is failing me here.
Even without the connection to my comment, I have to say this is the best conceit we’ve seen from Whitney yet! What a curious idea….
I think that in the poem Emmeline is reflecting on some of the tragedies and trials in her own life.
Her first husband James Harris ,that she married in Nauvoo as a teenager ,deserted her. She thought he was dead but later learned that he had tried to contact her and her parents hid the letters.
Her second husband waa Newell K. Whitney a much older man that she married in a polygamous relationship. He died after a few years and she married Daniel H. Wells , who later became a member of the first presidency. While she honored and respected him she seems to have felt that there was not the companionship and closeeness in her marriage that she would of liked.
Of course she was enormously influential in her editorship of the Womens Exponent , her friendship with suffragette leaders like Susan B. Anthony and becoming Relief Sociey President.
You can get a sense of all this in reading her biography by Carol Madsen and watching the one woman play about her life that is avaiable on DVD.
Absolutely. Thanks for adding that context. Quite a few of her poems reflect on the trials and tragedies of life and contrast them with the light that Joseph Smith brought to life and even more on the promises of the next life.
Perhaps it’s already been done, but there’s a dissertation (or at least a master’s thesis) in Whitney’s conception of poetry and prophecy and his particular brand of neo-Romanticism.
I copied out a few passages from the preface to his collection that I’ll be featuring in a future AMV post.
Excellent. The more I learn about him the more intrigued I get. I often flip through his books while I’m copying the bulletin. One of these days I may even actually take one home.
Is the short line near the end of the poem meant to be a sort of ellipsis? I’d like to see the whole poem.
I helped a friend bury his wife yesterday. For 10 months we stood by her side as she battled cancer. This poem is especially touching to me at this time.
It’s the whole poem. Several of Wells’ poems have 1 or 2 codas separated from the other stanzas by a short line. I considered cutting the coda off of this one because it (and the other codas) gets a bit didactic, but I didn’t.
And: I’m sorry to hear of your friend’s loss. As mentioned above much of Wells’ work deals with loss. I found it very touching.
Thank you for your reply to my question.
Another question, please. In the second stanza, is the word “ipress” correct? Should it be “impress”? Thanks.
Yep. It should be impress. My transcription skills are not the greatest.