Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #77: Orson F. Whitney on poetry and religion

Orson F. WhitneyWhile I’m a little embarrassed that it has taken me 3 months to get back to this series, I’m pleased to pick it up again and hope that it is warmly received. I’ve also updated my list of these posts and discovered that I’ve already produced 77 (including the present number) and, more importantly, have enough material to continue for quite a while.

Nor have I quite finished with the writ and wisdom of Whitney. In the preface to his 1889 poetry collection, Poetical Writings, he recognizes the aversion of some readers to religious poetry, apparently because critics found so much of it of low quality. Whitney, of course, disagreed:



by Orson F. Whitney

“¦ though I may not hope to win for my verse favor and recognition, such as are accorded to and merited by productions of poetic genius, it may be these humble songs will help dispel the dense cloud of prejudice and misapprehension hanging like a pall over the true history and character of my people, and show that the author of these lines, if he cannot create poetry, can at least admire it, and linger if not follow in the footsteps of those whose divine mission is to make the world more lovely and more lovable by producing it. That the name “Mormon” is not necessarily a synonym for coarseness and carnality, need not be told to those cognizant of the truth. But what a vast mine of poetry, no less than of science and philosophy, lies hidden in the mystic depths of what is mistermed “Mormonism,” neither the wise world, nor we ourselves, I trow, are half aware. A few golden nuggets dug from earth, a few precious pearls fished up as from caves of the sea, are all we have, so far, to bespeak buried treasures illimitable and untold.

If most of the following poems are recognized as religious, and stigmatized as such by some, I shall neither deny “the soft impeachment,” nor apologize to the sapient critic who fain would place outside the pale of poesy what I esteem to be its very source and origin. All poetry is religious, whether sacred or secular, and whatsoever is irreligious, unchaste, unjust, unheroic, untrue in spirit, is not, and cannot be, true poetry. God is love ; love is poetry, and poetry is religion.

Nor need it be said, save to the uninformed, that all poetry is not expressed in verse. The essence of poetry is in thought and sentiment, not rhythm and rhyme, though these are a beautiful means of embellishment. Many a verse, perfect in rhyme and meter, has little or no poetry, while prose is ofttimes replete with it.


Whitney, Orson F. Poetical Writings (Juvenile Instructor, 1889)


Like much of Whitney’s writings on literature, the provocative sound-bite sized quotations in this text are legion. Whitney says that far from stigmatizing much poetry, religion is “its very source and origin.” He continues:

All poetry is religious, whether sacred or secular.

In fact, Whitney claims, we are unaware of what is available in Mormonism:

what a vast mine of poetry”¦ lies hidden in the mystic depths of what is mistermed “Mormonism”

and he later sums up his point:

God is love ; love is poetry, and poetry is religion.

Put that on a bumper sticker!

3 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #77: Orson F. Whitney on poetry and religion”

  1. The audience for poetry is either seriously atrophying, or the number of people who can read is steadily growing larger and isn’t educated to enjoy poetry, so those of us who enjoy it are a statistically smaller part of the reading population.

    … I have friends who admit they dislike poerty and find it to be sophist rambling. These are people who are opera or ballet officianados, even. It makes me sad.

    Tyler’s book goes into some depth on this theme–why poetry has redemptive power, specifically.

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