Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: J. H. Paul on status of Mormon Poetry, 1931

Joshua H Paul

Today those of us who are at least somewhat invested in Mormon Literature might be excused if we are defensive when Mormon Literature is attacked as not worthy of attention. I know that I, personally, would say something like “well, its not all that bad” or “I don’t think you’ve read enough of the better works of Mormon Literature to judge…” It turns out, we’re in good company.

Sometime before the following excerpt was written, Utah was attacked for its failure to produce worthy artists, and not just from any readers. Both H. L. Mencken and Bernard DeVoto, the latter a Utah native whose mother was Mormon, criticized the state, saying that it is a land devoid of literature, music, art–not having produced even “a critic, or educator, or editor, or publicist.”

On its face this claim seems clearly faulty, for Utah had by this point produced artists of many kinds. That fact leads me to suppose that Mencken and DeVoto meant that Utah hadn’t produced notable artists in these fields. And today, perhaps ignorant of what Mormon and Utah literature was like in 1931, we might agree with the critics. More than 80 years later, you would think that the best artists of that period would have been identified and promoted by academics as worthy of attention. Or maybe not.

In any case, the March 1931 Improvement Era set out to show that Mencken and DeVoto were wrong. To address the issue, Joshua H. Paul, professor of Natural Science at the University of Utah and former president of the Brigham Young College (aka the Agricultural College) in Logan–now Utah State University, wrote a long article suggesting that Utah had indeed produced artists and academics worthy of note.

Here’s what Paul had to say about Utah poetry:


Has the Desert Failed to Blossom?

Does Utah Lack Writers, Artists, Musicians, Thinkers?

By Joshua H. Paul, University of Utah


Certain Minor Writers

HAS Utah no literature? Those who imagine that no poets have come out of this community surely have not seen the work of Sarah Carmichael Williams, a Utah girl for much of her life. She wrote “The Feast of Lucretia Borgia,” a dramatic poem of merit; also “The Birth of Gold,” which Bryant includes in his collection of the best poetry; and “Amputated,” which is one of the most stirring patriotic fragments that has ever come to the writer’s notice. And we have numerous other women who write creditable verse in addition to rearing their children. Several of our men are writing strong stories.

“Mormon” hymnology (see poems by Eliza R. Snow, John Jaques, W. W. Phelps, and others) compares favorably with Christian hymns, though the latter are the product of 2,000 years of trial, whereas the “Mormon” output is limited to a single century.

A Major Poet?

WHETHER or not we have major poets in Utah will depend largely on our conception, our definition, our appreciation, of poetry. Few, I fancy, will discover much poetry in Young’s “Night Thoughts,” not because it is deficient in poetic power but because it consists of reflections on life, death, immortality–topics that have rarely been enjoyed by any but those who have suffered just such reverses and disappointments as the author himself underwent. Yet this work, sombre and gloomy, portrays in stately diction the grandeur of nature and the sublimity of the divine attributes; while its incisive arguments against sin and unbelief make a profound impression upon religious thinkers. Thus:

Poetry of Religion

We waste, not use our time; we breathe, not live;
Time wasted is existence; used, is life:
And bare existence man, to live ordained,
Wrings and oppresses with enormous weight.

Here the very meaning is obscure to all but language analysts, who perceive that “man” is the grammatical object of the verbs “wrings and oppresses.” Popular literature must be understandable at a glance. Again:

Be wise today; ’tis madness to defer:
Next day the fatal precedent will plead;
Thus on till wisdom is pushed out of life.
Procrastination is the thief of time;
Year after year it steals till all are fled,
And to the mercies of a moment leaves
The vast concern of an eternal scene.

Now, this is poetry; but how many are there that enjoy deep reasoning and philosophy in poetic garb? Consider a similar passage from O. F. Whitney, a Utah poet:

Elijah comes–Elijah, he whose rays
Bespeak the Lord of Glory, from whose light
All splendors, paling, hide their tapers dim.
He comes the world to reap, the vineyard prune,
The wheat to garner and the tares to burn;
He comes, his face a furnace, melting pride,
Consuming wickedness, and cleansing earth.
He comes the hearts of sons and sires to turn,
To plant anew the promises of old,
Binding the present to the parent past,
Part unto whole, time to eternity.

From “Elias,” Canto V.

One who does not know his Bible, or who is unfamiliar with the ideas set forth in these lines, will be unable to perceive their literary rank, though they are as truly poetic as the wonderful lines of the Russian poet Dershavin in his “Address to Deity.”

Poetry of Nature

TURNING to another type of poetry–the rhymed description of nature–we find in Byron’s “Childe Harold” stanzas that have been almost universally admired and commended:

Thou glorious mirror, where the Almighty’s form
Glasses itself in tempests; in all time,
Calm or convulsed, in breeze, or gale, or storm,
Icing the pole, or in the torrid clime
Dark-heaving, boundless, endless, and sublime–
The image of eternity, the throne
Of the Invisible; even from out thy slime
The monsters of the deep are made; each zone
Obeys thee; thou goest forth, dread, fathomless, alone.
And I have loved thee, Ocean! and my joy
Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be
Borne, like thy bubbles, onward. From a boy
I wantoned in thy breakers; they to me
Were a delight; and if the freshening sea
Made them a terror, ’twas a pleasing fear;
For I was, as it were, a child of thee,
And trusted to thy billows far and near,
And laid my hand upon thy mane, as I do here.

The critics are at one in holding that this is noble poetry. consider, then, from “The Soul of Song” in Whitney’s “Elias” the opening stanzas of Canto II:

Here let me linger, O my native hills,
Watchful and solemn warders o’er the waste;
With what a joy the bounding bosom thrills,
Whose steps, aspiring, mar your summits chaste!
Vain, language–richest robes and rarest taste.

How clothe description in befitting dress,
When halts imagination’s winged haste,
Wrapt in mute wonder’s conscious littleness,
Where loom the cloud-crowned monarchs of the wilderness?
Where o’er I roam, and still have loved to roam,
From childhood’s rose-hued, scarce-remembered day,
And found my pensive soul’s congenial home
Far from the depths where human passions play.
Born at their feet, my own have learned to stray
Familiar o’er these pathless heights, and feel,
As now, the mind assume a loftier sway,
Soaring for themes that o’er its summits steal,
Beyond all thought to reach, all utterance to reveal.

One may, of course, maintain that neither of these is poetry; but can any one consistently hold that Byron’s verses do, while Whitney’s do not, flame with poetic beauty and mount to poetic grandeur? Moreover, many a poet has written of the ocean; it is a theme that invites flights of fancy. Few, however, have succeeded with mountains–a fact that renders Whitney’s stirring lines the more noteworthy.


Improvement Era, March 1931


A few clarifications are perhaps in order. Sarah Carmichael Williams is better known as Sarah Elizabeth Carmichael, and her married name was actually Williamson. She died in 1901. I have so far been unable to find where her poem appears in Bryant’s works. I didn’t find it in his best known anthology, A New Library of Poetry and Song. Also, the poet Young, author of Night Thoughts, is probably Edward Young, an 18th century poet and non-Mormon used here as an example of poetry similar to Whitney’s work.

I’m not sure that Paul has made a very strong argument in the case of poets. He only talks about two poets, Carmichael and Whitney, in addition to the hymn writers he mentions in passing, and spends most of his argument comparing Whitney to Byron and Young — and in the case of Young (who isn’t remembered much today) he weakens his case by suggesting that Young isn’t very good. Its hard to see how that refutes Mencken and DeVoto’s claims.

But Paul’s argument about whether or not these poets are notable in some universal sense isn’t as interesting to me as those he mentions. Already at this time, Paul, from a 1931 perspective, sees Carmichael and Whitney as the best of Mormon poetry, perhaps except for some hymn writers. Others we know today, Lyon, Wells and Crocheron among others, aren’t listed, and their omission is also interesting. Of course, as literary fashion changes over time, who is seen as the better authors sometimes changes also. I’m not sure that today we would leave out so many. Nor am I sure that those we consider of most value today will be considered of most value in the future. So who Paul mentions may say more about him and about the time he lived in than what Mormon poets are notable.

Still, if nothing else, those who Paul included do give us a few names to look at, poets who were considered notable at that time. Someone else to read in addition to what we find in the hymnal. In the next posts in this series I hope to list the others Paul mentions, before coming to the best response he makes to Mencken and DeVoto’s criticisms, found at the end of his article. It holds much more weight than his claims about the notoriety of particular poets.

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