clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Eliza R. Snow was versatile, inconsistent poetess

She is still known as the "Mormon Poetess."

It's unlikely that any Latter-day Saint will usurp Eliza R. Snow as the embodiment of LDS literary relevance.

But

outside of her exquisite hymns, which include "How Great the Wisdom and

the Love" and "O My Father," few can explain what Snow's poetry was

like.

How does she stack up against

her contemporaries? We get a taste of American voices like Whitman,

Dickinson and Frost in the classroom — but no mention of Snow.

Jill

Mulvay Derr and Karen Davidson pulled together all the poems they could

find from the Mormon poetess and compiled then into a book. "Eliza R.

Snow: The Complete Poetry" gives readers an opportunity to judge Snow's

writing on whole.

"Some of them are simply wonderful," Davidson warns. "Some are awful. She's not consistent."

But

Snow is versatile. She experiments with various meters; she is as

religious as she is political; she is both reserved and ardent.

Snow's

poetry is ripe with classical allusion. In fact, she is often much more

the neoclassical poet than romantic. It seems Snow had a somewhat

Goethe-esque resistance to the "sickness" of being overly personal and

emotional.

Snow frequently uses

apostrophe, pens odes and even calls on "the muse" — a convention in

Latin and Greek poetry, primarily in epics, as demonstrated in poem

131, "Twilight Imaginings in Four Parts":

Slumb'ring Muse, can aught inspire thee

With Parnassus' fabl'd fire?

Yet

she also calls on herself, recognizing her own poetic genius, when

taking up the pen to write the more familiar line (Poem 45):

Awake! My slumbering Minstrel; thou has lain

Like one that's number'd with th'unheeded slain!

__IMAGE1__If

Snow does take a turn toward the personal, or more sentimental, it is

when writing about others. Many of her works are compositions for or

about friends and fellow Saints.

Davidson

and Derr both highlight poem 231, "To Mrs. Haywood," as a personal

favorite. It is a tribute that is more interesting and original than

some of the others.

It compares mortality to a masquerade in a conceit, or extended metaphor, in a charming and thought-provoking way:

In the transforming mask of mortality clad, Kings and princes and peasants appear;

All forgetting whatever acquaintance they had

In existence preceding this here.

The

language is carefully chosen in much of Snow's poetry, and is sometimes

surprisingly fresh and stirring. Poem 110, "Saturday Evening Thoughts,"

is described by Derr and Davidson as Snow's reflections on what it

means to be a Saint.

The final stanza that begins on line 93 reads:

Then let me be a Saint

For the approaching day, which like a snare

Will soon surprise the hypocrite — expose

The rottenness of human schemes — shake off

Oppressive fetters — break the gorgeous reins

Usurpers hold, and lay the pride of man,

And glory of the nations low in dust!

Snow's

poems were meant to be read aloud. The triumphant ring to the tone and

the startling sumptuousness of the language, such as "break the

gorgeous reins," beg for an enthusiastic orator.

Interestingly,

the most dated of Snow's poems are not her allegorical pieces but her

rhymes for children. Poem 355 is titled "To Children" and opens:

Children obey your parents

And give them honor due,

Is God's command, with promise

Of life and blessings too.

It

goes on to admonish children to shun evil practices and emulate the

noble. These poems would not feel out of place in Isaac Watts' Divine

Songs for Children with their basic rhymes and stanzas. (In other

words: You could imagine Lewis Carroll jovially mocking "To Children"

for its shameless didacticism.)

There

is certainly enough variety in Snow's poetry to attract an equal

variety of readers. Such a diverse and massive collection begs for

in-depth literary scholarship.

However,

if you are expecting a voice from the rear, watching the Saints file

by, making raw, introspective comments about what it is like to be

Mormon, you might be disappointed.

Snow

is not the voice from the rear — rather, she is the voluble herald in

the front, leading the march, steadfastly praising God (poem 154):

Altho' in woods and tents we dwell,

Shout, shout O Camp of Israel!

No Gentile mobs on earth can bind

Our thoughts, or steal our peace of mind.


E-mail: eschmuhl@desnews.com