March 11, 2011

Review: Orson F. Whitney, "Elias—An Epic of the Ages"

Title: Elias—An Epic of the Ages
("Forgotten Classics" edition)
Author: Orson F. Whitney
Publisher: Grandin Press
Genre: Poetry
Year: 2010
Pages: 135
ISBN13: 978-1-936416-19-6
Binding: softcover
Price: $13.95

Prior to becoming a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Orson F. Whitney (b. July 1, 1855) wrote for the Deseret News, served a mission to Europe and edited the Millennial Star, and taught English and Theology at Brigham Young College in Logan, Utah. Before becoming an apostle he also served as Assistant Church Historian. His literary bent made him particularly sensitive to criticisms leveled against the educational attainments of his fellow Latter-day Saints, “a people who are popularly supposed to be enemies of education, despisers of learning, haters of books and schools, and of everything, in fact, that is pure, ennobling and refined.”1 In his 1888 youth conference speech, which was later published in a Church periodical, Whitney sought to correct the record with an aspirational description of his Church: “It suffices me to know, and to testify, that this people are the friends, not the foes, of education; that they are seekers after wisdom, lovers of light and truth, universal Truth.”2 He had faith that literature would play an important part in spreading the gospel: “It is by means of literature that much of this great work will have to be accomplished.”3 In typical Mormon fashion he sought to embody his faith in works, spearheading the so-called “home literature movement” with this still-quoted prophecy:

“We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own… In God's name and by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth.”4 
Whitney himself sought to fill a Miltonic role for his people by producing “An Epic of the Ages” called Elias (first published in 1904, re-published in 2010 as part of Grandin Press’s new “Forgotten Classics” series).5 The lengthy poem has been described by Terryl Givens as a somewhat “turgid,” but overall successful invocation of “the shadow of Milton.” Like Milton’s Paradise Lost—the epic to end all epics—Whitney’s twelve-part poem covers heavenly councils and earthly drama to trace the history of god and human kind.6

Given the poem’s obvious affinity to Milton's epic, it is interesting to consider Whitney’s less-quoted sentences preceding his call for Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares:

“Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be. The odes of Anacreon, the satires of Horace and Juvenal, the epics of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton; the sublime tragedies of Shakspeare [sic]; these are all excellent, all well enough in their way; but we must not attempt to copy them. They cannot be reproduced. We may read, we may gather sweets from all these flowers, but we must build our own hive and honeycomb after God's supreme design.”7
Perhaps Whitney felt his epic could reproduce the spirit of what Milton accomplished, showing the world that Mormons were not simpletons unable to hold a candle to the world’s great writers. And perhaps he viewed Elias itself as being an Elias of sorts, that is, a forerunner of greater things to come in Mormon literature. Throughout Whitney’s poem the figure of Elias represents various harbingers of dawn, a bringer of good tidings with promises of better things to come. Joseph Smith acts as an Elias for the second coming of Christ, for example (53).

The divisions of the poem cover the premortal council in heaven, the apostasy following Christ’s establishment of the church in the meridian of time, the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith, the “pre-historic story of America” as outlined in the Book of Mormon (x), new doctrines revealed to Joseph Smith including the three degrees of glory, and concluding with three sections on the “history of the latter-day Church from its inception to the martyrdom of its founder, who is pictured as foretelling to his people their great destiny” (x).

I was surprised how much I enjoyed the work overall. Whitney’s prose can, at times, be a bit over the top, as givens noted one might expect from Victorian poetry, but it holds up well. It is especially interesting to see what aspects of Mormonism Whitney selected to weave into the epic’s narrative. Of particular interest to me was Whitney’s lengthy aside about truth’s persistence even throughout the time of apostasy. This excerpt will give you a feel for the poem and also point out an interesting argument Whitney made about the apostasy itself. It begins with the typical 19th-century Mormon rhetoric condemning clergy but rises above it to express a measure of gratitude:

* * *

…What now, ye learned ones,
School-taught, self-sent, man-missioned ministers,
Creators of a vain divinity—
Likeness of naught, mirror of nothingness,
A god, than graven image, less divine!
Daring the thunders of the Decalogue,
Disputing Moses, Christ, and prophets all.
Gird up your loins and answer—what is God ?

"Impersonal, incomprehensible ;
Centre, as circle, everywhere, nowhere ;
All things made He from nothing " — Hold, enough!
Night and gross darkness — darken it no more.

Yet give to man his meed — him that hath kept,
Albeit in empty urn, the Name of Names,
And toiled and suffered sore transmitting it
From sire to son through shaded centuries;
As him that erst Messiah here proclaimed,
The trodden yet beneath oppression's heel.
Safe hoarding still the precious prophecy.
The Jew, the Christian, each hath played his part,
Each as a star hath heralded a morn.

And what of him, the fierce iconoclast,
Agnostic, doubting or denying all.
Ofttimes in hate and horrid ribaldry ?
Maintains he not life's equilibrium ?
A jet to cool fanaticism's flame,
A brake upon the wheel of bigotry ?
Bold unbelief, reform's rough pioneer,
Unwittingly a warrior for the Cross,
A weapon for the right he ridicules.

God's perfect plan an ocean is,8 where range,
As minnows, monsters, of the wide wave realm,
Men's causes, creeds, and systems manifold;
Free as the will of Him who freedom willed,
While foiling here nor fettering aim divine.
E'en Lucifer, arch-foe to liberty,
Is free — though not to trench on freedom's ground.9
All human schemes, all hell's conspiracies.
All chance, all accident, all agency.
All loves, hates, hopes, despairs, and blasphemies,
All rights, all wrongs, bend to one blest decree;
And truth — gold, found with dross, in every age
Hath wrought more good than ill to humankind.

But morn must rise, and night dismiss her stars;
And ocean summon home his seas and streams;
And Truth, the perfect, truth the part fulfill, —
As knowledge, faith; as history, prophecy.

Hark to a cry that cleaves the wilderness.
Pealing the clarion prelude to the dawn! (39-41)

* * *

Readers who are unfamiliar with the style of an epic poem may struggle at first to grasp Whitney’s approach. As with Milton, who himself followed earlier conventions, each line consists of ten syllables, and they more often than not lack rhymes. In fact, the weakest part of the poem in my view is Canto III (the third section of the poem), which is a song regarding the “Elect of Elohim” in a conventional rhyming format. This canto discusses the premortal council in heaven where Jesus is chosen over Lucifer to bring about the salvation of humanity. Here, as elsewhere in the poem, Whitney takes the opportunity for a little theologizing, as when he writes in behalf of God the Father:

Go forth, thou chosen of the Gods,
      Whose strength shall in thee dwell!
Go down betime and rescue earth,
      Dethroning death and hell.
On thee alone man’s10 fate depends,
      The fate of beings all.
Thou shalt not fail, though thou art free—
      Free, but too great, to fall (27).

Note the parenthetical comment about agency and the possibility of Jesus’s failure to succeed—Jesus is “too great to fall,” though the possibility remains even for him. As with Milton's Paradise Lost, it is not immediately apparent when Whitney is representing normative Mormon views of his day and when he is offering a diverging perspective.11 The rhyming and meter make the section seem less weighty than the other cantos, and, I believe, distract the reader from the import of the section, although some readers will likely prefer the rhyming to his epic style employed in the rest of the work.

As mentioned above, Grandin Press now offers this reprint of Whitney’s poem as part of their new “Forgotten Classics” collection. The paperback volume has an attractive cover with a new stylized picture of Orson F. Whitney, and the font is much easier on the eyes than the .pdf’s of the original poem which are available for free online.12 I personally prefer to read a printed text, so this reasonably-priced forgotten classic can make a nice addition to the bookshelf of those interested in older Mormon publications.

Unfortunately, as with the other volumes in the series, this republished edition is completely raw. The editors have not added any introductory material, contextual essays, annotations, an index, or any other additional material. Aside from a one-paragraph blurb on the back cover the book even lacks bibliographic information on Whitney himself. It would have been especially useful had the editors added line numbers, which can act as verse numbers in the LDS books of scripture do in helping readers quickly navigate to a particular spot in the work. They also did not identify which edition they used for the republication. Given these drawbacks the volumes work best for a popular audience who is less interested in using the book itself for present or future scholarship, a situation which I will discuss further after completing reviews of the other two Whitney volumes in the “Forgotten Classics” series.



Footnotes:

1. Orson F. Whitney, “Home Literature,” first delivered as a speech by Bishop Orson F. Whitney, at the Y.M.M.I.A. Conference, June 3, 1888. See http://mldb.byu.edu/homelit.htm.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid. The quote was used by President Spencer W. Kimball to help encourage Mormon artists during his presidency, see "The Gospel Vision of the Arts," Ensign (July, 1977): 5. More recent white-whale conversations about “The Great Mormon Novel” have also tipped their cap to Whitney’s prediction, see David Haglund, “The Great Mormon Novel: Where Is It?Slate.com, 17 May 2010.

5. See http://grandinpress.com/forgotten-classics.html. Blooger dltayman has written reviews of several other "Forgotten Classics" books, see here and here.

6. Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 286.

7. Ibid.

8. Water—in ocean, rivers, rain, or otherwise—is one of Whitney’s most prominent epic similes.

9. As with Milton, freedom and agency are central to Whitney’s description of God’s plans. However, the LDS view of the council in heaven, with Lucifer’s depicted attempt to destroy man’s agency, has some significant differences compared to Milton. See John S. Tanner, “Making a Mormon of Milton,” BYU Studies 24/2 (Spring 1984), 191-208. As far as I am aware, a comprehensive comparison of Whitney’s Elias and Milton’s Paradise Lost has yet to be composed—one possible project the “Forgotten Classics” series could help inspire.

10. Most often Whitney sticks to the salvation of “man,” “kings and priests,” etc., but at one point he breaks from that mold: “The gulf that parts the lower from the higher/Bridged by development of son to Sire,/Of daughter unto Mother’s high estate; For e’en as man’s, the woman’s future fate” (85). Gender is another subject worthy of attention, a project which “Forgotten Classics” might help spur or which a contextual essay in the volume itself might have fruitfully discussed.

11. Another question which a contextual essay of the work might address.

12. For instance, see http://www04.us.archive.org/details/eliasepicofages00byuwhit. Versions like this are even more accessible for users of e-readers like the Kindle or the Nook, which ought to be another incentive for the series editors to include something extra in their reprinted editions to help justify the purchase.

9 comments:

BHodges said...

Thanks to ep over at http://scholaristas.wordpress.com/ for some advice on this one.

BHodges said...

Oops, heres a handy hyperlink to the Scholaristas blog.

Dallin and Janelle Lewis said...

Great review, Blair. As a big Milton-fan, I need to read this.

BHodges said...

thanks yo

BHodges said...

when you read it, send along your thoughts

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