Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Alfred Lambourne on Poetry and Education

Alfred Lambourne

Those familiar with the arguments about what is appropriate in literature may recognize that much of this disagreement is found in differing views of literature: should it reflect reality and our culture? or should it educate about what the ideal should be? If literature should reflect reality and culture, then it is bound to show all the evil that exists today, as well as all the good. If it is meant to show how the world should be, educating and demonstrating what should be. I do not believe this is not an argument that can be resolved.

Alfred Lambourne’s response is that literature both reflects and educates. Lambourne, while less known today than many Mormon artists, was unusual because he was both an accomplished painter and a poet. As an artist, he fills the gap between the early Mormon art of C.C.A. Christensen and the later work of the artists of the Art Mission. He was well-known for his panoramic landscapes, which were included with those of fellow Mormon artist Reuben Kirkham in a “panoramic show” titled “Across the Continent” which traveled throughout the U.S. in 1876. As a poet he is perhaps less known, although he was a frequent contributor to LDS periodicals like the Improvement Era. By the time this article was written, Lambourne was 70 and was well respected in Utah as both poet and artist.

The following is an extract of an article written in response to the question ‘what is the relationship of poetry and art to education.’

The Relationship of Poetry and Art to Education

by Alfred Lambourne

“The arts which flourish,” says Francis Bacon, the great English philosopher and essayist, “when virtue is in the ascendant, are military; when virtue is in state, are liberal, and when virtue is in decline, are voluptuous.” But the art of the poet flourishes in all three stages of the state, and either guides or reflects them. Queen Elizabeth, and the supreme dramatist were contemporary; and in art, did not Phidias and Pericles flourish at the same period, as did Apelles and Alexander[1]? But there were both poets and artists who acted their parts as educators, in keeping with their times in all nations, ancient and modern. Read the poets, look upon the works of the artists of any country, and we learn thereby not only their history, but also their height of education and civilization.

“Give me the writing of the nation’s songs, and I care not who makes its laws!”[2] The exultation of the poet was justified. And yet, poetry may be said to work in harmony with law, in the highest of education.

Perhaps it is not to make too far a claim, that it was the poetry, the songs, the word of mouth, of the skalds and bards that, in the morning twilight of each nation, wrote its name the brightest in civilization, heralded the splendors of its coming day. And were not the great Grecian and Roman poets the educators of their time? We will go farther, the words poet and prophet are synonyms. In them we have the poet-teachers, the prophets of Holy Writ.

The part which is acted by the poet, his place in the scheme of human advancement, is a dual one. He, more than any other is a product and reflex of his time, and yet he is a teacher–an effect and yet a cause. The Catholic Dante, and the Puritan Milton most certainly were the results of two intense and extended theological movements in their day; and yet, in their famous poems, “The Divine Comedy” of Dante, and the “Paradise Lost” and the “Paradise Regained” of Milton, we are shown how they became the two great religious teachers, not only of their respective faiths, to the churches that created them as it were, but also teachers and refiners to the world. The labors of the poets tend to purify, make more beautiful, to spiritualize the material conceptions of primitive faith. Thus they become the teachers of the most exalted ideals; the seers of perfections that have been, the perfections that are, and the perfections that are to come. That is, the true poet perceives and teaches the physical beauty by which he is surrounded, and he comprehends the intellectual, and feels the spiritual and his highest teachings are of these.

The Relationship of Poetry and Art to Education
by Alfred Lambourne, Improvement Era v23 n09, Jul 1920

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find Orson F. Whitney’s idea that “the words poet and prophet are synonyms” here–I assume that Lambourne picked up the idea from Whitney, who, if I’m not mistaken, said this as early as the 1880s. [Whitney’s exposition of this idea was the subject of the first in this Sunday Lit Crit Sermon series, from his book The Strength of the Mormon Position (1917)].

Regardless, Lambourne’s point here, that the poet’s “place in the scheme of human advancement is a dual one,” is fascinating (as is his apparent familiarity with a range of classical authors and literary traditions). If the writer or poet is both a reflector of culture and a teacher, or as Lambourne puts it, “a product and reflex of his time, and yet he is a teacher–an effect and yet a cause,” then this issue of when and how to reflect and when and how to teach is a critical one, something that every author and every Mormon artist will and must face.

What I like most of all about this idea, is that it seems to me to fit very well with Wm’s idea of the Radical Middle. If so, then it is indeed unfortunate that Lambourne’s view didn’t become the main current in Mormon literature after he wrote this.

[1]Phidias (c 480 – 430 BC) was considered the greatest of classic Greek sculptors. His contemporary Pericles (c 495 – 429 BC) was the general and leader of Athens during the Peloponnesian war. Apelles, considered the great painter of ancient Greece, flourished in the 4th century BC and supposedly painted a portrait of Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC)[2]”I knew a very wise man so much of Sir Christopher’s sentiment, that he believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” — Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun (1655-1716) in An Account of a Conversation (1737?).

2 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Alfred Lambourne on Poetry and Education”

  1. Yes, Wm. It is, I think, an example of our unconscious bias towards our own position that we see things as either an effect or a cause. Usually each element is both an effect an a cause.

    Of course, in culture this is magnified, as influences travel in all directions. The Beatles were influenced by Elvis Presley, who was, in turn, influenced by the Beatles. “An effect and yet a cause.”

    Perhaps that muddies our understanding too much. But, I think reality is rarely simple.

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