Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #80: Orson F. Whitney on Poetry and Oratory

OFWhitneyWhen Mormon Literature folk think of Orson F. Whitney, it is usually in regard to his 1886 talk that predicted that Mormonism would yet have “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” But in 1926, after two decades as an Apostle, Whitney was still writing about literature and the role it would play in Mormonism. That year Whitney penned a five-part article for the Improvement Era in which he explored the question of literature and Mormonism, and in doing so came closer than any previous author to a Mormon theory of literature.

The article wasn’t quite structured that way, and may be somewhat misleading, since Whitney says he is talking about three things he believes to be related: Oratory, Poesy and Prophecy. However, in doing so, even in this short, 3-page initial part of the 19 page article, Whitney covers many of the basic questions of a theory of literature.


Oratory, Poesy and Prophecy

By Orson F. Whitney


In selecting for my present purpose the triple theme of oratory, poesy and prophecy, I am not unmindful of the fact that any one of these subjects is capable of almost infinite elaboration, and would of itself suffice for a long and interesting treatise. I combine them because I believe them to be related–three God-given graces which, like charity, hope and faith, have a perfect right to go hand in hand. To point out this relationship, rather than to deal with any theme exhaustively, constitutes my present purpose.

That the gift of oratory is poetic, and the gift of poesy prophetic, I need not inform anyone who has given the matter more than superficial consideration. Moreover, not only poets, but orators are sometimes prophets; and prophets are or may be both poets and orators.

Oratory is the offspring of poesy, bearing the same relation to it as the child does to the parent, as sound does to silence, as speech to thought, as expression to imagination. Poesy is creation; oratory, manifestation. Consequently, oratory is less than poesy, as the thing created must always be less than the power that creates it. Poesy is the creater of oratory. “We are born poets, we make ourselves orators,” says Cicero. This being true–and it was one of the greatest orators who said it,–there can be no question as to which is the greater, that which is “born,” God-created, or that which man has “made.”

This is not to say that some orators are not greater than some poets. It is between the gifts of poesy and oratory that the parallel is being drawn. An orator of the first class may be superior to a poet of the second class, but speaking in the abstract and without reference to individual cases, the sphere of the poet is above the sphere of the orator.

As a matter of course, one must first understand what poesy means, and what oratory means, in order to appreciate this distinction. Not to those who judge after the seeing of the eye and the hearing of the ear, is it given to comprehend such a question. Worshipers) of sound and show, who know naught of “that within which passeth show;” who recognize God in the earthquake and the whirlwind, rather than in “the still small voice”–not to such is oratory less than poesy. “The applause of listening senates to command,” to be praised and appreciated in the present, is so much greater to the ordinary mind than to endure lifelong poverty and obscurity, neglected and depreciated while living, extolled and honored only when dead–the frequent fate of poets and prophets in the past–that it seems impossible to such that poesy or even prophecy can be equal, let alone superior, to oratory.

Poesy, I say, is the creator of oratory, a fact shown in part by the meaning of the two terms. Poesy springs from a Greek word meaning “to make;” oratory, from a Latin word signifying “to speak.” Hence, as Dryden observes, “a poet is a maker”¦ and he who cannot make, that is, invent, hath his name for nothing.”

But the orator “makes speeches,” some will say. Is he not therefore a maker? and must he not be “born” just as much as the poet? and must not the poet be “made” quite as much as the orator? These questions bring us face to face with the whole problem whose solution I am attempting. I will endeavor to answer. But bear in mind what I have already sought to emphasize, that it is of powers and functions that I am speaking, independently of persons who may possess and exercise any or all of them.

To begin then: Is the orator in the strictest sense of the term a speech-maker? I answer, No. The orator does not make the speech–it is the poet or thinker within him that does that. The orator speaks the speech after the poet has made it. The orator “makes a speech” as the traveler “makes a journey,” over a road already constructed, or as the actor “makes a part,” creates a role, which has been written for him by another. True, the traveler may make a journey over a road constructed by himself; and the actor, if a playwright, may give the original portrayal of a character which his own pen, his own mind has created. The case is just the same with the orator; he and the poet may be the same person, one individual possessing two powers and exercising two functions. It is the poetic part of him that thinks, invents or “makes,” for that is the meaning of poesy; it is the oratorical part that “speaks,” gives oral utterance to the thought inwardly created, for that is the meaning of oratory.

All men who think are, therefore, poetic to some extent. They may use either pen or tongue to express their thoughts; but whether those thoughts are set forth in a poem or in a speech, it is the poet or thinker, not the writer or speaker, who is the author of them.

“We are all poets,” says Carlyle, “when we read a poem well. The imagination that shudders at the hell of Dante, is not that the same faculty, weaker in degree, as Dante’s own?”

Still, imagination must be wedded to expression, in order that thought may be born. As it requires the art of the printer and illustrator to properly present or render attractive the ideas embodied in a poem, so it requires! the powers and graces of elocution, of facial expression and gesture, to fully interpret to and impress upon the mind the ideas embodied in an oration. Elocution is another name for oratory; for elocution means the power of expressing thought by speech and gesture, and that is virtually the meaning of oratory.

Some might say that one point of difference between them is, that oratory presupposes originality, the orator voicing his own thought, while the elocutionist or actor expresses the thoughts of others. It is true that the actor or elocutionist, in the exercise of his profession, generally utilizes the thoughts of others; but it is also true that some orators and some writers do precisely the same thing.

The reader has heard, perhaps, of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s famous reply to an opponent in Parliament: “The gentleman has said much that is good, and much that is original; but that which was original was not good, and that which was good was not original.”

There is no greatness without originality. “He is great,” says Emerson, “who is what he is from nature, and who never reminds us of others.” That is, by servile imitation. Nevertheless there have been great orators who were not altogether original. “The secret of oratory,” says George Eliot, “lies not in saying new things, but in saying things with a certain power that moves the hearer.”


Improvement Era, v29 n5,
March 1926, pp. 401-403.


It may seem like a lot of this is semantics–that is true enough, I suppose. But any theory is built on definition, so discovering what we man by terms like “Literature,” “Poetry,” “Oratory,” and the like is necessary. Whitney begins by establishing the difference and similarities between Oratory and Poesy, and in the process uses a very broad definition of Poesy–one that makes it virtually the same as what we call literature today. And by the end of this initial part, Whitney has pointed out that literature has those we call creators (or poets) and those who are readers, with some intermediaries (orators and actors), who present the work of a creator.

But he also points out that there is creativity  in all these positions. “All men who think are, therefore, poetic to some extent” he says, and then cites Carlyle: “We are all poets when we read a poem well. The imagination that shudders at the hell of Dante, is not that the same faculty, weaker in degree, as Dante’s own?”

These concepts are, I think, the basics of literary theory and all communication. Authors create  works of literature that are sometimes interpreted by intermediaries, and readers then understand and interpret these works in some fashion. And Whitney is using this understanding to suggest the difference between Oratory and Poesy, and suggest something that is at least religious, if not Mormon–that God can or does play some role in this process, just as he does with prophecy. In fact, Whitney sees prophecy as almost indistinguishable from poetry.

On this structure has to hang the rest of what we understand about literature, at least, I believe, in Whitney’s view. It may be that in the remaining pages of his article he addresses more than this.

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