My recent study on the correspondence of Ina Coolbrith and Joseph F. Smith introduced me to three poems Mormon women wrote to the future prophet while he was on his first mission to the Sandwich Islands (1854-1858). While each poem shares some common themes and sentiments, their quality, style, and content vary in interesting and revealing ways.
The poems come from members of Joseph F. Smith’s family. Eliza R. Snow, Smith’s aunt through her plural marriage to Joseph Smith, wrote the earliest of the poem:
Lines address’d to Elder
Joseph Smith, Missionary to the Sandwich Islands
By Eliza R. Snow.
Joseph, the Lord has blest you
To be in early youth,
A herald of salvation—
A messenger of Truth.
And yet, the load is heavy
For youthful nerves to bear,
Amid the hosts of trials
The sons of Zion share.
Born in the midst of Zion,
And nurs’d in purity,
Your mind had never <scarcely> thought of
The world’s iniquity.
Accustom’d from your cradle
To hear the praise of God—
You know not the blasphemer
Until you went abroad.
Does not your young heart sicken
To see before your eyes,
The vices and and [sic] corruptions
In which the world now lies?
And does it not with pity
And warm compassion beat
At thought of human suff’rings
You’re often call’d to meet?
Be faithful—O be faithful
And ne’er from duty swerve,
But honor your high calling,
And honor Him you serve.
Bless thy young servant Joseph,
O God, our Father God!
Preserve him pure and spotless,
And guide his steps abroad.
Great Salt Lake City, July 20, 1855.
Snow, the oldest of the three poets, is a generation ahead of Smith and offers warnings and practical advice to the young missionary. In tone, the poem is more cautionary than intimate, more the words of a wise mentor than a dear aunt. Having endured the traumatic early persecution of the saints, Snow casts the world beyond Zion as full of vice, corruption, and blasphemy—a sharp contrast to the God-fearing home Smith knew in his youth. She concludes the poem urging the young man to be faithful and true to his calling and God, and asking a blessing on him that the corrupt world may not tarnish his purity.
The second poem, written about six months after Snow’s poem, is from Smith’s older half-sister, Sarah Smith Griffin, the youngest daughter of Hyrum Smith and his first wife Jerusha Barden. At the time of her writing, January 1856, Griffin was 18 and newly married. With misspellings and a crude meter, her epistolary poem is the simplest and roughest of the three:
1 Joseph, tis often I thik,
And as often wisehd to see,,
The Brother that is laboring,
Acoss the trcless [trackless?] sea.
2 But still I know for what,
You were sent to do,,
And will content <my>self,
Till Your missions through.
3 Often whn I am alone,
My reflections wander astray,,
And I often find myself A thinking,
Of my Brother faraway.
4 I often think and Pray,
That God your life will sPare,,
That I may once more be Blessed,
With seeing my Brother Dear.
Your affectionate Sister
Like Snow, Griffin addresses Smith by his first name and acknowledges the importance of his missionary call. Griffin’s poem is more personal and affectionate, though, betraying a close relationship with the recipient. The focus of her poem is the absence of her brother and the emotional effect it has on her. While she knows why he has to be absent from her life, she wishes to see him, thinks about him, and prays for his well-being. Tellingly, Griffin says nothing about the perils of the outside world, a major element in Snow’s poem, a consequence, perhaps, of the fact that she, like her brother, has spent much of her life in Utah.
The final poem is from Ina Coolbrith (born Josephine Donna Smith), Joseph F. Smith’s first cousin, and future California poet laureate. It was written sometime in 1857 when Coolbrith, the daughter of Joseph Smith’s younger brother Don Carlos, was 16. Something of a prodigy, Coolbrith was the youngest poet writing Joseph F. Smith, but also the most talented. Like Griffin’s poem, Coolbrith’s expresses sadness at Smith’s absence, and betrays a closeness with her cousin, but offers readers a more sophisticated array of images to accentuate her feelings:
We Miss Thee at Home
We miss thee at home—we miss thee,
Through the long, weary hours of the day;
And wonder how long, as a pilgrim,
In a far distant land thou wilt stray.
How long, ere thy wanderings are ended—
How long art thou fated to roam—
To the land of thy birth birth a stranger,
Far away, from the loved ones at home?
We miss thee at home, when the shadows
Of evening are hovering nigh;
When the morn, in her majesty, rises
To her home in the star-spangled sky.
Then we dream of the loved ones departed;—
Of the friends we may never see more;—
And sigh o’er the pleasure now faded—
And the joys time can never restore.
We miss thee at home—we miss thee,
“At morning—at noon—and at night;”
And ever to thee, dearest cousin,
Fond memory taketh its flight.
Thy seat at the fire-side is vacant—
Oh! haste, o’er the oceans dark foam,
To the hearts that are mourning thy absence,
To the loved ones, who miss thee at home!
Interestingly, Coolbrith published this poem in The Los Angeles Star on 12 September 1857, the day after the Mountain Meadows Massacre. At the time, Coolbrith was already publishing regularly in the newspaper and may have written it with publication in mind. Still, in referencing her “dearest cousin,” and reflecting on happier times and “loved ones departed”—a possible allusion to Joseph, Hyrum, and Don Carlos Smith—the poem remains as personal and heartfelt as Griffin’s—and reflects sentiments that Coolbrith herself expressed in letters to Smith at the time.
While the poems differ in content and quality, each expresses concern and implicit love and respect for the young missionary and his call. They also show how Latter-day Saint women in the nineteenth century used poetry to encourage and shore up missionaries and lend support to the church’s efforts to gather scattered Israel.