Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #82: Orson F. Whitney on what makes a poet

OFWhitneyWhile perhaps not as important a question as “what is poetry,” the question “what is a poet” is at least a significant part of the former question, if not an independent question. And when Orson F. Whitney defines a poet as a prophet, the definition might seem to be complete. But he sees something more than a simple association with a prophet. To Whitney, both prophets and poets are not made. To put it in familiar Mormon parlance: poets (and prophets) are foreordained to so be. They must be born with the spirit of poesy.

In the following extract, from the end of the 2nd part of the 5-part article he published in 1926, Whitney claims that poetry can’t be learned if the person doesn’t have the spirit of poesy:


Oratory, Poesy and Poetry

by Orson F. Whitney


Carlyle, that wonderful prose poet, whose poems are histories, essays and lectures, believed that one capable of being a great poet could be “all sorts of men,” or great in almost any direction. He cites Shakespeare, whose genius was so universal that all professions claim him; also Mirabeau, that fiery orator, who, he says, “could have written verses, tragedies, poems and touched all hearts in that way, had his course of life and education led him thitherward.” He adds convincingly: “The poet who could merely sit on a chair and compose stanzas, would never make a stanza worth much. The great heart, the clear, deep-seeing eye–there it lies!”

It was Byron’s conviction “that a man ought to do something more for society than make verses,” and this induced him to throw his life into the struggle for Greek independence. It was the opinion of our own Lowell, expressed in a reference to the heroic Milton, that “the poet’s lyre demands an arm of tougher sinew than the sword.” More modern instances of the same kind are the patriotic acts of D’Annunzio, the Italian poet, and of Paderewski, the Polish musician. Great painters, such as Raphael and Turner; great sculptors, like Phideas and Michael Angelo–were they not poets, creators, makers of the beautiful and sublime?

Carlyle’s belief as to Mirabeau’s potentialities rests upon the basis that Mirabeau was a poet, not merely an orator, and that it was chance or destiny that made the tongue, in lieu of the pen, his instrument of power. Our author allows for natural aptitude–Nature’s creation of great men in different moulds–but puts circumstance of birth, rearing and environment above all.

What is “natural aptitude?” Is it not partly, even largely, the result of prior education, in a world that went before this, in a life that witnessed the sowing of the seed of which this life’s conditions are the harvest? What is intuition but inborn knowledge, that which the spirit knoweth from of old?

“Study yourselves, and most of all note well
Wherein kind Nature meant you to excel.”

Good advice, Longfellow; but not always easy to follow. It is difficult at times to ascertain where natural aptitude lies. Demosthenes, a stammerer, stoop-shouldered, almost deformed, might well have doubted his natural aptitude for oratory. But intensive training developed him into the greatest orator of antiquity. Disraeli, whose first speech in Parliament was a failure, and who sat down amidst a storm of hisses, exclaiming, “The time will come when you will hear me,” might well have wondered whether he had not missed his forte in aiming to be a public speaker. But the spirit of poesy, the genius of prophecy, was in these men, and experience, the mighty educator, brought it forth.

Education cannot make a poet, but it can polish and develop one. The poetic faculty must first be there. Without it all the training in the world will not suffice to make the true poet or the genuine orator. Nothing proves more conclusively that oratory is a matter of education, than the experience of Demosthenes and Disraeli. They were born poets; they made themselves orators.

And it was because they were more than orators, that they were able to excel in oratory. Plato was more than a philosopher; he was a poet of the first rank; but “chose to utilize the poetic gift to an ulterior purpose.” Such is Emerson’s pronouncement upon him. “Every man,” says the American sage, “who would do anything well, must come to it from a higher ground.”

Improvement Era, v29 n6,
April 1926, p. 532-533


It is, unfortunately, impossible to prove Whitney’s claim that poets are taught or given before this life the spirit of poesy. But the idea is very Mormon, and perhaps easier to swallow than some vague claim that poets are “born with it.” The advantage of LDS beliefs about the pre-existence is that it explains why there are differences among people that apparently exist in them from birth.

But Whitney (and Mormonism) doesn’t dismiss the value of education or training or effort as a result. Instead, Whitney suggests “Education cannot make a poet, but it can polish and develop one” and gives examples of Demosthenes and Disraeli, who didn’t seem to have a talent for oratory at all–until they put in the effort to develop that talent.

Until we can tear back the veil and remember the pre-existence, we can’t know if Whitney is right or not, nor can we understand how such talents were developed there. Instead, we are, I think, left in about the same place as those who have no such belief at all. And all we can do is assume (or not) that we have a talent, and work hard to develop it.

So while the idea is fascinating and enticing because of its very Mormon viewpoint, I’m not sure that it is useful.

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