Was Joseph Smith a poet? In the first post in this series Orson F. Whitney argued that Prophets are the greatest poets, implying that he was. But in 1905, 12 years earlier than the source of that initial post, The Strength of the Mormon Position, Whitney looked at Joseph Smith’s literary role in an article published for the centenary of his birth.
Whitney not only had an expansive view of poetry, he also had an expansive view of literature in general, which also comes out in the excerpt of his 1905 article included today. Here Whitney claims that “Learning is another name for literature” and claims that Joseph Smith’s teaching that we should seek learning also means that we should cultivate literature.
The more I read of Elder Orson F. Whitney, the more convinced I am that he was the most literary of our modern Apostles. A literary viewpoint influenced much of what he wrote about the gospel in a variety of settings. And his discussion of literary concepts and issues is not only frequent, but covers many of the major concepts that might be considered in a text covering the philosophy of literature.
Today’s quotation is no exception. Here, in a defense of the Pearl of Great Price, he covers two significant issues in literary criticism. First, he weighs in on how to judge literary work, coming up with an answer that is probably not acceptable to most literary theorists today. Second, he emphasizes the individuality of each author’s style (and, perhaps by extension, the necessity of that individuality).
If we define literary criticism as any discussion of literature or its role, then LDS General Authorities have frequently been literary critics, from the beginning of Mormon publishing. Yesterday I came across the following description from Orson F. Whitney, buried, of all places, in his pamphlet/short book, The strength of the “Mormon” position.
Of all the words and phrases that are common in or unique to Mormonism, added upon is perhaps the most connected with a work of literature. Though perhaps infrequently used today in Mormon vernacular (except to refer to the book Added Upon), in the past it was frequently used in discussing Mormon doctrine, and it is still used today because it appears in scripture and refers to a key concept of that doctrine, one touched on in my recent definition of the Mormon use of the word exaltation.
Unlike exaltation, however, added upon is today almost exclusively Mormon.
I’ve been at my parents house in Texas all week. They have a worn, original edition of Emmeline B. Wells’ Memories and Musings so I thought that it’d be nice to wrap up this run of Weekend Poetry (it will be back at some point — but next week I’m starting up Short Story Friday, again) with one of her poems. Wells was a key figure in the Home Literature movement, and her poetry reflects its neo-Romanticism and concern with showing Mormonism as capable of producing, if not literary genius, at the very least a certain refined, literary respectability. What I found interesting about perusing Memories and Musings is how much of the poetry is written for family and friends and special occassions. Not at all unusual for the times, of course, but it reflects a writer very much enmeshed in a community, responding to it, defending it, seeking to explain it — and especially doing so in dialogue with the Romantic poets and the tropes and figures and allusions they relied on.
I can’t say that any of her work immedietly impressed me with its skill and candor. It comes across as pretty old-fashioned and fairly provincial to my modern eyes. But I can also say that I didn’t spend the time with it that it deserves. I think that there’s much to be learned from her work. Here’s a taste of why I think that is so:
I see adown the shadows of long years,
The faint, dim outlines of a dreamy land,
And glit’ring thro’ the pearly mists of tears,
There seem reflected on that far-off strand,
The keenest hopes and joys my life has known,
And silent griefs which I had borne alone.
I dreamed not that the passion of an hour,
Could leave its ipress in the realm of space;
Or that an angel hand had skill and power,
The ideal picture of a love to trace,
And true to realistic thoughts and fears,
Preserve the record of the passing years.
If poetry is out of fashion to a great degree, then epic poetry is almost prehistoric. Most people, if they have any idea of what epic poetry is, think of the Homerian and Vergilian ouverve — The Odyssey, the Iliad and the Aneid. With a little thought, they might also come up with some of the midieval and early modern epics like the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and, my favorite, The Lusiad. Of Wikipedia’s list of poetic epics, the only post 1700 work in English I recognized was Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.
Given the perception of epic poetry as works written many hundreds or even thousands of years ago, I’m sure most Mormons are ignorant of Mormon epic poetry.
So for National Poetry Month, I looked at what has been written, and found 7 works of Mormon epic poetry.
So by now, most of you probably are aware of the origins of the name A Motley Vision. But the excerpt there is only part of Whitney’s description of the Grand Canyon, and because I wrote a senior thesis on it (and other instances of red rock poetry), and because I’m also (slowly) working on a Mormon-themed critical essay on it, I have the full description in my possession. Here it is. Enjoy!
Excerpt from Love and the Light: An Idyl of the Westland
by Orson F. Whitney
Chief among the sights compelling
Mingled awe and admiration,
Far along a great gulf opened,
Monster-jawed, as though devouring
In its wide voracious vastness,
In its Saturn-mouth, unsated
As the hungry deeps of Sheol,
Storm-stuck, down-hurled cities, temples,
In its fell maw crusht and crumbling.
Cleft and sundered Earth there yawning
O’er abysmal dark Perdition!
Fancied so the spelled beholder,
Halting on the marge precarious
Of that ghoul-like gulf appalling.