Sunday Lit Crit Sermon

If we define literary criticism as any discussion of literature or its role, then LDS General Authorities have frequently been literary critics, from the beginning of Mormon publishing. Yesterday I came across the following description from Orson F. Whitney, buried, of all places, in his pamphlet/short book, The strength of the “Mormon” position.

The Poet’s Mission

An American poet, Doctor J. G. Holland, has this to say of the poet and his mission: “The poets of the world are the prophets of humanity. They forever reach after and foresee the ultimate good. They are evermore building the Paradise that it is to be, painting the Millennium that is to come. When the world shall reach the poet’s ideal, it will arrive at perfection; and much good will it do the world to measure itself by this ideal and struggle to lift the real to its lofty level.”

In the light of such a noble utterance, how paltry the ordinary concept of the poet as a mere verse builder. His true mission is to lift up the ideal and encourage the real to advance towards it and eventually attain perfection. The poet, in this age of money worship, is often ridiculed as a “dreamer”; but the ridicule, when applied to a genuine son of song, is pointless. The poet is a dreamer; but so is the architect, and the projector of railroads. If there were no dreamers, there would be no builders; if there were no poets, there would be no progress. Poets are prophets of a lesser degree, and the prophets are the mightiest of the poets. They hold the key to the symbolism of the universe, and they alone are qualified to interpret it. There are plenty of rhymesters who are neither poets nor prophets, and there are poets and prophets who never build a verse, nor make a rhyme.

Rhyme is no essential element of poetry. Versification is an art employed by the poet to make his thought more attractive. The rhyme helps the sentiment to reach the heart. A musical instrument, say a piano or an organ, is painted and gilded, not to improve its musical powers, but to make it beautiful to the eye, while its music appeals to the ear and charms the soul. Rhyme has about the same relation to poetry as paint or gold leaf to the organ or piano, and no more.

The essence of poetry is in its idealism. God has built his universe upon symbols, the lesser suggesting and leading up to the greater; and the poetic faculty, possessed by the prophet in fulness, recognizes and interprets it. All creations testify of their creator. They point to something above and beyond. That is why poetry of the highest order is always prophetic, or infinitely suggestive; and that is why the poet is a prophet, and why there is such a thing as poetic prose.

A thing is poetic when it suggests something greater than itself. Man, fashioned in the divine image, suggests God, and is therefore “a symbol of God,” as Carlyle affirms. But Joseph Smith goes further. He declares God to be “an exalted Man.” To narrow minds this is blasphemy; but to the broad-minded it is poetry–poetry of the sublimest type.

In the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, what is there of sacred efficacy in the bread and water, taken alone? There is not water enough in the ocean, nor bread enough in all the bakeries of the world, to constitute the Lord’s Supper. All that makes it effective as a sacrament is the blessing pronounced upon it by the priesthood, and the symbolism whereby those elements are made to represent something greater than themselves, namely, the body and blood of the Savior. What is done then becomes a holy ordinance, full of force and effect, a poem in action.

The same is true of baptism. Jesus said: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” He meant baptism, which symbolizes birth or begetting. The priest when baptizing performs in a mystical or spiritual way the function of fatherhood. Motherhood is symbolized by the baptismal font. “Children of my begetting,” is a phrase used by the ancient apostles to characterize their converts, who are also referred to as “babes in Christ,” fed upon “the milk of the word.” Paul says, concerning baptism: “We are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4.) This shows that baptism, when properly administered, is a symbol of burial and resurrection–rebirth. But the symbolism must be perfect or the ordinance is void. To sprinkle or pour water upon the candidate for baptism, destroys the symbolism, or the poetry of the ordinance. It does not represent a birth–a burial and a resurrection. When the body is immersed, however,–and that is the meaning of the Greek term to baptize–descent into the grave is typified; and when the body is brought up out of the water, birth or coming forth from the grave is symbolized. To be baptized or resurrected is equivalent to being “born again.” The soul, cleansed from sin, is typical of the soul raised to immortality. Such is the poetry of baptism and the resurrection.

Jesus Christ, the greatest of all prophets, was likewise the greatest of all poets. He comprehended the universe and its symbolism as no one else ever did, and he taught in poetic parables, taking simple things as types, and teaching lessons that lead the mind upward and onward toward the ideal, toward perfection. We must not despise poetry; it is indispensable, even in practical affairs. The Gospel of Christ is replete with poetry. None but the ignorant pass it by as a thing of naught.

Whitney, Orson F., The strength of the “Mormon” position.

Deseret News Press, 1917

Whitney has more to say, of course, but the above is, I think, one of the strongest statements in support of literature from a General Authority that I’ve seen (Whitney was called to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1906, so this statement was written while he was an Apostle.) I particularly like the connect of poet with prophet.

Perhaps, as we start this year, we can find a way to live up to Whitney’s views of literature.

16 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon”

  1. Excellent find, Kent.

    “We must not despise poetry; it is indispensable, even in practical affairs.”

    I wonder what OFW means by that.

  2. Wm, I’m not positive, but I suspect he is drawing on the idea of poetry as similar to prophesy – just as we as Mormons would say that prophesy (or at least revelation) is indispensable, so too poetry is indispensable.

    I don’t know if I can go quite as far as Whitney is going (I’d have to think about it more at least), but at least I like the idea that “we must not despite poetry.” I’m afraid too many people do that today.

  3. The most harrowing bit of general-authority criticism… Monson’s disgusted rendering of John Lennon’s greatest lyric of all time. (All you need is Luurve)… the prophet has ruined the beatles for me. Ruined them. At it was awesome.

  4. ANd I can only forgive him because, of all the prophets we’ve had, he clearly has perhaps the most ardent love of the written word. Still, I wish he’d sometimes quote something more modern… I can’t see President Monson working e.e. cummings in a talk, though.

  5. Theric, that is an interesting article. I hadn’t thought of it in that light. Things to ponder…

    I actually did feel a bit of a zing to the spirit or whatever you might call it when Monson said that. Because I love the Beatles so, I have been blind to the arrogance they had about their own importance and artistry… this, along with something my uncle wrote on the family blog a few months ago, have caused me to view Lennon and McCartney in a newish sort of light. Idealists, amazing poets (at times) wonderful at creating melodies… connecting back to the original post, you could say they were poet/musician/prophets of the time and social trends during which they created. But the message “all you need is love” can be read several different ways, as the writer of your article points out. Automatically you think of the free love of the 60’s, but then there’s the all-applying love of the atonement, and the love we should have for our fellow men, etc.

  6. .

    What I wish is that President Monson had gotten more into the layers of meaning. After all, “all you need is love” is an exceedingly Christian idea—something Jesus said over and over again. To say nothing of Paul and Mormon and plenty of others. Without charity, we are nothing. Dismissing the statement may, I’m afraid, lead to gross overapplication.

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