In a very real sense, John Lyon’s claim that poetry “has been cultivated more or less by all classes, learned or illiterate” has been fulfilled. The most prevalent form of poetry today has to be music, and much of the poetry in popular music is written by those unschooled as poets. And with the expansion of digital expression, whatever barriers to those not trained in poetry there may have been in the past are being rapidly dismantled.
Lyon’s sees this as an explanation for the volume of Mormon poetry and song–“the common endowment of the whole human family,” poetry is the first expression that humans turn to for understanding their lives.
A Scottish convert, Lyon might be seen as the poetical sparring partner to Eliza R. Snow, for they wrote poetry to each other, and both produced a substantial body of work. In my view, Lyon is more interesting, both because he is the most important of Mormonism’s early international poets, and because he was able to address the mundane in life as well as high-minded subjects. In terms of subject matter, I think he had a much greater range than Snow.
Here are his thoughts on Mormon Poetry, from a general treatise on poetry he wrote for the Contributor:
by John Lyon
It is a well known fact that poetry, when properly directed, inspires in the mind a love of country whether native or adopted; it stimulates the slave with a love of liberty or freedom, and freemen with heroic valor against oppression. It clothes the rusticity of life with the robes of innocence, makes social conviviality burst its sides with laughter, and imprints a never-to-be-forgotten veneration on the minds of the religious. In fact, nothing in the shape of literature ever has left or will leave such an indelible impression on the minds of any people of the past, present or future as poetry. The only reason we can advance in proof of this is, that all men and women are, more or less, developed with the same physical organization, including similar feelings, sentiments, passions, tastes and desires; so that poetry, instead of being an extraordinary and rare gift, is the common endowment of the whole human family, savage, barbarous or civilized. It is laid in the constitution of man as the basis of all that is called oratory, eloquence or composition. It is the father of music, and the life-giving spirit of devotion. Learning may refine it, but never can produce it as an art. It takes the precedence of all other forms of literature, because it is the foundation and structure of thought. Happy expression is the spirit of poetry; no words can paint the beauty of the heavenly spheres, the raging stormy seas, the terrific cyclone, the boiling volcano and the heaving earth-quake, nor paint in ideas the feelings of friendship and the love that binds the sons of God to one another; all that is social, moral and physical in the formation of sound belongs to poetry.
Nothing can illustrate these ideas more vividly than the history of the Latter-day Saints. Gathered as they are from the four quarters of the earth, and that, too, in poverty, and without the advantages of liberal education, they are, nevertheless, filled with the spirit of poetry, which is the spirit of revelation. The songs of Zion have been sung in every country under heaven. The life of Joseph the Seer, and his martyrdom; the coming forth of the Priesthood; the building of holy Temples; the exodus, and triumphs of the First Presidency, and the establishment of the Saints in the Rocky Mountains. All these and a countless number of other songs, are as popular and inspiring as the songs of any people on the earth. They may be rude when compared with the classical refinement of modern nations; still, they will progress from their present infancy, and the day is not far distant when they will be more than equal, if not beyond comparison with the most enlightened of any other people on the globe. We can number a few already, and one in particular, whose spirit has given vent in songs of the deepest veneration, the purest sympathy, and the most heaven-inspiring philosophical devotion. Others in her wake have followed, no less inspiring and full of inspiration.
But some invidious critic may ask, “Where was their poetry and valor in flying like fugitives from the land of their adoption, leaving their homes in flames in the midst of winter? Where was their reliance in their faith on God?” Why, in facing the dreary, trackless wilderness, in traveling over mountains and ferrying over rivers without the means of water carriage, invaded by hostile Indians, and sometimes destitute of proper nourishment for the sick and feeble; all these combined only inspired them with songs of hope, which were composed in the midst of their trials, and sung by their camp fires, joined in chorus by the distant wolves who were watching for their prey, less ravenous than the human wolves they had left behind.
To conclude, we believe poetry to be the undisguised sentiment of feeling, of truthful perception and delineation of character; not of wild imagination, nor the fabulous conceits of insane, dreamy likelihoods, but the undisguised language of simple, naked truth. Whether it be expressed in the sweetest tones of eloquence or in the monotones of the Deseret Alphabet, or whether it be spoken by the Spirit of the Lord, like the songs of Deborah, Miriam, Mary, Elizabeth, David, Isaiah or Jeremiah; whether it be in praise, lamentation, panegyric, satire, reproof or devotion, nothing is so simple or primitive in its nature, so beautiful in its description, nor so sublime in its research. Music, eloquence and oratory may influence and stir the passions, and in ecstacy waft the immortal spirit of man to the confines of heaven, but poetry opens the everlasting gates and leads the soul far up the golden streets of the New Jerusalem. If all that is grand, beautiful and glorious be the ornaments of celestial life, and truth the latch-key to enter on its enjoyment, how base the literature of lies, made to suit a mystified world, called the sublime! Here no shying Pegasus nor Parnasian hill of difficulty will obstruct the way to the fame of an immortal reward, not of time but all eternity.
From Poetry by John Lyon
in The Contributor 4 (April 1883)
I’m not sure how many academics or critics would agree with Lyon’s views, which seem to be drawn so much from suppositions and generalizations about poetry. But I tend to agree with his views on Mormon Poetry (mainly in the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs above). The volume of poetry in the early Church, as I’ve said here before, seems really quite large for the number of Mormons. Their sufferings, hopes, and spiritual insights found their way into early poetry. But then I, probably like Lyon, can’t definitively say that what was produced was more or better. It just seems like it.
Like Lyon, I do believe, without real evidence one way or another, that poetry “opens the everlasting gates and leads the soul far up the golden streets of the New Jerusalem.”
2 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: John Lyon on Mormon Poetry”
“or in the monotones of the Deseret Alphabet”
I know! Its really an odd phrase, because the Deseret Alphabet doesn’t have a different pronunciation from English. It is an alphabet, not a language.
Of course, the DA is kind of monotonous to look at, IMO — so many rounded letters that they tend to all look the same. And no lower case makes reading in it a bit of a chore. Perhaps that is what he meant? (I kind of doubt it, but what other explanation is there?)