Mormon Poetry

A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints

Section Introduction: Poetry

Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert, editors

If you'd correctly write in rhyme,
Make equal feet to sound in time,
For one small word will mar the chime
And spoil the metre.
As want of music is a crime,
But sound is sweeter.
--John Lyon (c. 1860)

[1]   While the Latter-day Saints were reticent at first about fiction, they were never reticent about poetry, which to them was clearly a vehicle for preaching the gospel. Most of the early leaders of the Church wrote poetry, and Eliza R. Snow Smith, one of Mormonism's most prominent and influential women, was the faith's leading poet. Heavily influenced during the early years by, among others, Wordsworth, Byron, Milton, and Shakespeare and in later years by Tennyson and other Victorian poets, Mormon poets chose to apply such influences to far different and formally incongruous themes--the gathering to Zion, praise of Church leaders (especially Joseph and Hyrum Smith and their martyrdom), the pioneer movement, the Book of Mormon, and particular LDS doctrines. Like most of the popular poetry written in that era, much Mormon poetry, derivative and didactic, is regrettably forgettable. Stiff, cliche-ridden, and sing-song in its verse, much of it offers little to the modern reader. However, Eliza R. Snow, Augusta Joyce Crocheron, Josephine Spencer, and a few others deserve some study and attention for their uneven but often good contributions.

[2]   It is, however, as writers of hymns that the Mormon poets showed their mettle. Influenced by their rich and varied backgrounds in other protestant faiths, these early converts were steeped in the hymn stanza and in the images of the Holy Bible. This background, combined with the Millennial fervor of Mormonism, with its sense of persecution and exile in the Rocky Mountains, produced some memorable hymns, and Parley P. Pratt, John L. Townsend, W. W. Phelps, and others have provided modern Mormonism with some lovely lyrics, interesting because of their anachronistic militant stances and their bold and imaginative statements of doctrine. Mormon hymns provide a fascinating study in the attitudes of the Saints. Few, for example, can read Penrose's "Up Awake Ye Defenders of Zion" without hearing martial drums beating a call to arms; for, after all, the Lord's Chosen People were brashly at war with the United States of America--and completely assured of victory! It is this kind of confidence and zeal which make the hymns interesting today, an interest compounded by the fact that a number of them are very good poems.

[3]   In the twentieth century, Mormon poets have broken loose from the traditional shackles which bound such writers as Orson F. Whitney. In poetry, as in the short story, twentieth-century writers have seen the power of Mormon history, faith, and symbols as literary subjects and have focused increasingly upon the human meaning of Latter-day Saint history, the personal tragedies inherent in the confrontation of faith with doubt. It is interesting that, as a body, modern Mormon poets seem to yearn for an era when the issues were clearer, the lines between the Mormon world and the non-Mormon world more clearly drawn--for an idyllic era when fewer compromises were demanded by a more spiritual world. Yet as the twentieth century advances, there seem to be more poets who, maintaining their believing vision in the present, probe the problems of keeping vigorous a Mormon faith in an existential universe which proclaims that God is dead, or, at very least, doesn't want to get involved. Because of these tendencies and because of the willingness of Mormon journals to publish, Mormon poetry is in a vigorous state, and even the proselyting-oriented Church magazines are publishing less didactic and more aesthetic verse. The trend bodes well for Latter-day Saints who desire to examine vigorously the meaning of their faith in dialogue with a wider world, for in the last half of the twentieth century, Mormonism has increasingly shed its Rocky Mountain homespun for the more colorful robes of an international Church.

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