Part III: Poetry, Style and Literary Craft in the Book of Mormon
Often in Family Home Evening we would read from different translations of the Bible. Someone would have the KJV, someone else The Jerusalem Bible, another The Revised Standard or New English Version. We would take turns reading and the others would follow along in their translations, and sometimes comment on what we read. Shortly after my brother Kevin returned from his mission he read The Book of Mormon in Finnish and we followed along in English.
When we read Nephi’s lament at the death of Lehi in 2 Nephi 4 my father told us this was a psalm, and the only psalm in The Book of Mormon. I had begun noticing a lot of poetry in the Bible, partly because The Jerusalem Bible and others format the poetry as poetry, but thought there was not much in The Book of Mormon, except Alma’s “Oh, that I were an angel.” I know now there is a great deal more poetry in the Book of Mormon than Nephi’s psalm. Indeed, every time a writer says “Oh,” it is likely the start of a poem. Even without looking at chiasmus there is a lot of lyric poetry, including the Zoramites’ prayer on the Rameumptom and Nephi’s prayer on the garden tower.
But Mormon preserved more than his people’s poetry, he also gave us their prose style. For example, Alma, in his poetry, history, and sermons/essays sounds like a writer, someone who enjoys working with words. His son Helamam writes like a bureaucrat, uses lots passive voice and helper verbs, was desirous, rather than desired. Helaman the younger writes somewhat like his father, but not as wordy or awkward, though he uses exceeding many exceedings.
Mormon could have smoothed it out, brought up the style, as Washington Irving liked to do with documents he edited, but didn’t. He does juxtapose literary styles, though. After the two bureaucrat Helamans he returns to a prophet-poet as the Prophecy of Nephi (Helaman 7:16) opens with a scene that mingles pathos, comedy, satire, a lyric prayer and a poetic lament/sermon. Perhaps he didn’t have time to bring up the style as he watched his people self-destruct. Or perhaps he wanted us to know how the people he was abridging wrote, as well as what they wrote.
That is, the Book of Mormon now seems to me less Mormon’s book than Mormon’s abridgement. I’ve pretty much assumed that Mormon, like Ether, wrote a history–with lots of quotes thrown in. Now it feels like the thrown in part is Mormon’s comments. Indeed, he even uses the structure he found in their records. I’ve often wondered why, since Helaman wrote the last third of The Book of Alma, Mormon didn’t break the book at Chapter 45 and call the rest of it The First Book of Helaman.
I suspect Alma may have made a set of plates and Helaman finished his record on them, or bound his record with them rather than binding them as a separate book, and Mormon likely named his books by the name on the colophon for each set of plates.
Mormon’s editorial practices are more visible to us than those of the Hebrew Bible’s editor, but one meaning of “these last records . . . shall establish
the truth of the first” (I Ne. 13:40), may be that the Book of Mormon shows us how the Bible was put together. Thus, saying, “Moses didn’t write the Books of Moses” may be like saying, “Alma didn’t write the Book of Alma,” or “Mormon didn’t write the Book of Mormon” In all 3 cases there were multiple authors and at least one editor involved.
The Book of Mormon is a highly crafted literary work. We don’t usually think
about this because Joseph was not as good with the King’s English (so’s the
Queen–still) as the king’s men, his translators, so we think of The Book of Mormon as a pale imitation of the Bible stylistically. But it is a literary work in its own right, and very highly crafted. I learned this by studying Joseph Smith’s grammatical errors, and comparing Helaman’s style with Alma’s.
As a sidenote, the word or in The Book of Mormon often appears when Mormon wanted to revise a sentence, but couldn’t because he had already engraved it. Mining the or allows us to see Mormon at work as a literary craftsman.
So there’s the overview and I hope my writing has enough of craft (and of
Ammon’s guile) to convey (carry, bear, burden, the burthen of the prophet) a sense of the excitement and joy of working with a great literary and religious text, “that it might be for our profit and learning.”