Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: W. W. Phelps on Sacred Poetry

0---WW-Phelps-290x405This is, as far as I can tell, either the first or second published discussion of literature in a Mormon source (an earlier article discussed writing letters). As might be expected from a Mormon periodical in 1832, Phelps’ arguments are very focused on the Bible as an inspired document, and one that is clearly superior in all respects to anything that man might come up with on his own. While I’m not sure I buy this entirely (I think I’ve read poetry that is better poetry than that found in the bible), I do think that we don’t see the Bible as literature as much as we should. And, it is often sublime.

Sacred Poetry

by W. W. Phelps

EVERY thing that comes from the Lord, is sublime; this sublimity clothing the prophecies, and giving the Psalms a glory and sweetness, touching the saint’s heart with thoughts that whisper like the still small voice to Elijah, and delighting the souls with words that moisten, as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for ever more; yea, this sublimity, which may be called the beauty of holiness, common writers have never touched: no; never; for that flight of mind which caused the Psalmist to exclaim:

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high, I cannot attain unto it.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
if I ascend up into heaven, thou art there;
if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
even there shall thy hand lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, surely the darkness shall cover me;
even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee;
but the night shineth as the day,
the darkness and the light are both alike to thee?
For thou hast possessed my reins,
thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb;
I will praise thee;
for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:
marvelous are thy works;
and that my soul knoweth right well:

Psalms 139:6-14

Yes, that peace of mind; that love of divine things; that confidence in the Lord; that saith in the world to come; that dependence upon Jesus Christ; and that joy of heart that gladdens the soul, and happifies the body in every place, and under all the trials and troubles of this present life, can not be found in common books: comfort and satisfaction, like light and truth, come from God. One reason, perhaps, that the sacred poets came nearer the standard of truth, or, in fact, came up to it, with less fancy, and more beauty, than common poets, is because the Hebrew, in which they wrote, was nearer the pure language, with which Adam gave names, than any other since used by man. Another reason, and one, too, that never fails, is that those holy men wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. One of the greatest specimen of Prophetic poetry, is found in the song of Moses. Nothing but the Spirit of the living God could have directed such sublime ideas: the first line is not spoken to earth, or heaven, alone, but is addressed to the heavens; and who can read it without being almost led within the veil; let us read:

The Song of Moses

Give ear O ye heavens, and I will speak;
and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.
My doctrine shall drop as the rain,
my speech shall distil [distill] as the dew,
as the small rain upon the tender herb,
and as the showers upon the grass:
because I will publish the name of the Lord:
ascribe ye greatness unto our God.
He is the Rock, his work is perfect:
for all his ways are judgment:
a God of truth and without iniquity,
just and right is he.
They have corrupted themselves,
their spot is not the spot of his children:
they are a perverse and crooked generation.
Do ye thus requite the Lord,
O foolish people and unwise?
is not he thy father that hath bought thee?
hath he not made thee, and established thee?
Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations:
ask thy father, and he will shew [show] thee;
thy elders, and they will tell thee.
When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of Adam,
he set the bounds of the people
according to the number of the children of Israel.
For the Lord’s portion is his people;
Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.
He found him in a desert land,
and in the waste howling wilderness;
he led him about, he instructed him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.
As an eagle stireth [stirreth] up her nest,
fluttereth over her young,
spreadeth abroad her wings,
taketh them, beareth them on her wings;
so the Lord alone did lead him,
and there was no strange god with him.
He made him ride on the high places of the earth,
that he might eat the increase of the fields;
and he made him to suck honey out of the rock,
and oil out of the flinty rock; butter of kine,
and milk of sheep, with fat of lambs,
and rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats,
with waxed fat of kidneys of wheat;
and thou didst drink the pure blood of grape.
But Jershurun waxed fat, and kicked:
thou art waxen fat, thou art grown thick,
thou art covered with fatness;
then he forsook God which made him,
and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation.
They provoked him to jealousy with strange gods,
with abominations provoked they him to anger.
They sacrificed unto devils, not to God;
to gods whom they knew not,
to new gods that came newly up,
whom your fathers feared not.
Of the Rock that begat thee thou art unmindful,
and hast forgotten God that formed thee.
And when the Lord saw it, he abhorred them,
because of the provoking of his sons,
and of his daughters.
And he said, I will hide my face from them,
I will see what their end shall be:
for they are a very froward generation,
children in whom is no faith.
They have moved me to jealousy
with that which is not God;
they have provoked me to anger
with their vanities: and I will move them
to jealousy with those which are not a people;
I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
For a fire is kindled in mine anger,
and shall burn unto the lowest hell,
and shall consume the earth with her increase,
and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.
I will heap mischiefs upon them;
I will spend mind arrows upon them.-
They shall be burnt with hunger,
and devoured with burning heat,
and with bitter destruction:
I will also send the teeth of beasts upon them,
with the poison of serpents of the dust.
The sword without, and terror within,
shall destroy both the young man and the virgin,
the suckling also with the man of gray hairs.
I said, I would scatter them into corners,
I would make them the remembrance of them
to cease from among men;
were it not that I feared the wrath of the enemy,
lest their adversaries should behave themselves strangely,
and lest they should say, our hand is high,
and the Lord hath not done all this.
For they are a nation void of counsel,
neither is there any understanding in them.
Oh that they were wise, that they understood this,
that they would consider their latter end!
How should one chase a thousand,
and two put ten thousand to flight,
except their Rock had sold them,
and the Lord had shut them up?
For their Rock is not as our Rock,
even our enemies themselves being judges:
for their vine is of the vine of Sodom,
and of the fields of Gomorrah [Gomorra]:
their grapes are grapes of gall,
their clusters are bitter:
their wine is the poison of dragons,
and the cruel venom of asps.
Is not this laid up in store with me,
and sealed up among my treasures?
To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense;
their foot shall slide in due time:
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
and the things that shall come upon them make haste.
For the Lord shall judge his people,
and repent himself for his servants;
when he seeth that their power is gone,
and there is none shut up, or left.
And he shall say, where are there gods,
there rock in whom they trusted,
which did eat the fat of their sacrifices,
and drank the wine of their drink-offerings?
let them rise up and help you, and be your protection.
See now that I, even I am he, and there is no god with me:
I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal:
neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand.
For I lift up my hand to heaven, and say, I live for ever.
If I whet my glittering sword, and my hand take hold on judgment;
I will render vengeance to mine enemies,
and will reward them that hate me.
I will make mine arrows drunk with blood,
and my sword shall devour flesh;
and that with the blood of the slain
and of the captives from the beginning
of revenges upon the enemy.
Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people:-
for he will avenge the blood of his servants,
and will render vengeance to his adversaries,
and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people.

Deuteronomy 32:1-43

What a prophecy is contained in the last verse! He will be merciful unto his land, and to his people: so he will; and we can exclaim: O that the Lord were come to Zion, that his saints might see eye to eye, and might speak a pure language! But the time is short, for Zephaniah says, the determination of the Lord is, to gather the nations, that he may assemble the kingdoms, to pour upon them his indignation, even all his fierce anger; for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of his jealousy. For then will he turn unto the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent. From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia his suppliants, even the daughter of his dispersed, shall bring his offering. In that day shalt thou not be ashamed for all thy doings, wherein thou hast transgressed against him; for then he will take away out of the midst of thee them that rejoice in thy pride, and thou shalt no more be haughty because of his holy mountain. He will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the Lord. The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies; neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth: for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid. Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. The Lord hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the King of Israel, even the Lord, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more. In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not: and to Zion, Let not thy hands be slack. The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty, he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing. He will gather them that are sorrowful for the solemn assembly, who are of thee, to whom the reproach of it was a burden. Behold, at that time he will undo all that afflict thee: and he will save her that halteth, and gather her that was driven out; and he will get them praise and fame in every land where they have been put to shame. At that time will he bring you again, even in the time that he gathers you: for he will make you a name and a praise among all people of the earth, when he turns back your captivity before your eyes, saith the Lord.

The Evening and the Morning Star, November 1832, p. 45.

I think the citation of the Song of Moses is interesting, at least. Mormons seem less likely than other Christians to refer to portions of the bible by the traditional names that have developed. Yes, we refer to the Sermon on the Mount and a few others, but there are many, many more passages, like the Song of Moses, that have been given names that we don’t use. I wonder if I could find a list somewhere.

This is, I think, an interesting start for Mormon literary criticism, one that says a lot about where Mormon thought was at that point.

8 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: W. W. Phelps on Sacred Poetry”

  1. Wonderful post, Kent.

    As to viewing Biblical passages as poetry, I’d highly reccommend as supplementary reading Rudyard Kipling’s marvelous “Proofs of Holy Writ.”

    “Proofs” was Kipling’s last story and it surmises Ben Jonson and Wm. Shakespeare sitting down as part of the commission to translate the King James Version and hashing out a poetic rendition of an Isaih passage. Moving on both spiriutual and writerly levels, (and deliciously subersive).

    Story text at the Kipling Society:

    — Lee

  2. Thank you, what a fascinating post! This was a very welcome read to me, because it states the exact opposite what I’ve thought for a long time: I have consciously excluded scriptures from classification as literature, because in my mind the two are so very different in purpose and origin that there is no point in mixing them, and because so often I have come across people who read and judge scripture as if it was nothing more than literature.

  3. .

    I personally find that treating scripture like literature helps me to understand it better. Largely that’s because I understand the methods and processes of analyzing literature, but also, as you say, because scriptures do have a different purpose. But that sideways attack seems to open the scriptures to me all the more.

  4. My favorite bible poetry is Isaiah. The whole book. I’m not sure I can say I’ve read anything I like more than Isaiah (poetically speaking) but then, I’m not a very grounded poet yet, and so my tastes are likely simplistic. But this couplet:

    I have graven thee in the palms of my hands
    Thy walls are continually before me

    Is perhaps my favorite piece of poetry.

  5. Also I love Nephi’s Psalm in chapter 4 of second Nephi. It’s not as ascetic or subtle but I feel like the experience is such a universal one, one that so many identify with but find themselves unable to express.

  6. Interesting. It seems to me that even within the relatively short space of this article, Phelps goes back and forth on the basic question of to what degree God is the author of the scriptures (including the poetry therein) versus inspired men being the authors — a question that still (it seems to me) vexes LDS criptural exegesis.

  7. Indeed, Jonathan. But its not just this question. As I think this series will show in the future, there has never been any consistent attitude towards literature among the GAs — and probably not even in any single GA!

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