There is Mormon Epic Poetry?

4.21.09 | | 28 comments

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.

An epic is “a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation.” (see Epic Poetry) I think it also needs to be distinguished slightly from more recent forms, such as works made up of multiple poems on a common theme. The difference here is analagous to the difference between novels and short story collections with a common theme and narrative (think The Martian Chronicles). In Mormon literature, this makes Orson F. Whitney’s Elias, an Epic of the Ages, an epic poem, but excludes S. Dilworth Young’s The Long Road: From Vermont to Carthage.

I have not read and don’t have copies of all these works, so I won’t try to make any kind of comparison or evaluation. But I do think that having this list around may be useful to those interested in Mormon literature, and especially to those interested in Mormon poetry.

Mormon Epic Poetry

  • Collings, Michael R. The Nephiad: An Epic Poem in Twelve Books. 1996.
  • Cracroft, R. Paul. A Certain Testimony: A Mormon Epic in Twelve Books. 1979.
  • Dunn, Charles W. The Master’s Other Sheep: An Epic of Ancient America. 1929.
  • King, Hannah Tapfield. An Epic Poem: A synopsis of the Rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the birth of the prophet Joseph Smith to the arrival on the spot which the prophet Brigham Young pronounced to be the site of the future Salt Lake City. 1884.
  • Osmond, Alfred. The Exiles: A True and Tragic Story of Heroic Struggles and Masterful Achievements. 1926.
  • Whitney, Orson F. Elias: An Epic of the Ages. 1904.
  • Wilkins, Olive McFate. From Cumorah’s Lonely Hill: An Epic of the Book of Mormon. 1950.

A couple of additional works that came up in my searches bear mentioning. While the titles and other information about these works make it sound like they could be epic poetry, both of these works are satires, and the first, at least, is an anti-Mormon work:

  • The Mormoniad. 1858.
  • Taylor, Alva A. Plates of Brass, 1917.

I should also note that only 5 of the 7 works of epic poetry can be found in the Mormon Literature and Creative Arts database, and one of those works isn’t classified as epic poetry. I’ve been trying for at least 3 years to get works added to the database — does anyone know how to make that happen?

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28 comments: “There is Mormon Epic Poetry?

  1. Angela

    Kent, the issue of Irreantum that Laraine Wilkins was editing at the time of her death and that I ended up completing (Vol. 8 No.1 2006) has a whole section dedicated to epic poetry. Michael Collings wrote an introductory essay on the form, “Some Thoughts on the Mormon Epic,” and six epic poems were printed, some in full and others excerpted. The poems are:

    -“Emerging at Easter,” Janean Justham
    -“The Exiled King,” Brian Monte
    -“The Road to Carthage,” Alan Rex Mitchell
    -“rough stone,” Dennis Marden Clark
    -“O Sing Now, Muse,” Thomas Kohler
    -“The Nephiad,” Michael R. Collings

    If you don’t have that issue and are interested, you can get it for $3.00 here: http://www.irreantum.mormonletters.org/BackIssues.aspx

  2. Kent Larsen Post author

    Great news, Angela. I missed that issue of Irreantum. Can you tell me if these were book-length poems? I assume that the Nephiad (the one that I listed in my post) is book-length, because it exists in Worldcat.

    I’m also wondering if Collings had his own list of past epics, and if so, whether all the works I listed are also on his list.

    I guess I should make clear that the list in my post is only book-length works that have been published on their own. If the above works haven’t been published on their own, or hadn’t been published before, it would be difficult to find them.

  3. Ardis E. Parshall

    I’ve read Mormoniad. It is at least as much anti-Buchanan-Administration as it is anti-Mormon. For that reason, I wouldn’t class it as anti-Mormon. It’s pure orneriness at [then-]current politics.

    I also have a copy of Osmonds Exiles — hard to read without giggling because it follows the pounding “by the shores of gitchegumee, by the shining big sea waters” meter so relentlessly that you soon find yourself thinking and speaking in that meter, but some of its sections are actually pretty good — relentless, pounding meter aside.

    Do any of Edward Tullidge’s works come into the category of epic?

  4. Th.

    .

    I didn’t know the Nephiad had been published. But I hear much of Collings work has been published in small homebrew batches. The same here, I presume?

  5. Kent Larsen Post author

    William, I got the impression somewhere that Whitney’s Love and the Light is an excerpt from his Elias: An Epic of the Ages. Is that not correct?

  6. Wm Morris

    Now that you mention it, I have no idea. I haven’t read Elias — What have is a copy of Love and the Light that was published as a complete piece. When I get back from vacation, I’ll look closely at it and see how it is presented in the front matter, etc. and cross-reference the work with Elias.

  7. Kent Larsen Post author

    BTW, I should mention, just so that its clear, that the Mormoniad (1858) mentioned in the post and discussed by Ardis in comment #3 is NOT the same as the Mormoniad by Peter J. Sorensen mentioned by William in #5. Sorensen’s work is contemporary and, as far as I know, unpublished.

  8. Lee Allred

    Kent,

    I seem to remember attending an AML session at Westminster back in the late ’90s (’97? ’98? ’99?) where a (long lost) self-published (?) Mormon epic poem was discussed, one that I don’t think is on your list. Can’t remember the name or author.

    Might want to skim through the AML proceedings volumes.

    — Lee Allred

  9. Ardis E. Parshall

    I’m just reading a 1935 Sunday School adult class lesson on the plan of salvation which says: “The late Elder Orson F. Whitney in his epic poem Elias, gives in poetic form in Canto Three, a stirring reconstruction of the Council in Heaven. (The student is urged strongly to read Elder Whitney’s poem.)”

    Aside from the clunky style of that sentence, I betcha wish today’s Gospel Doctrine lessons urged students to read Mormon poetry!

  10. Kent Larsen Post author

    Ardis, I would settle for a few lines by a Mormon poet (other than the text of a hymn) being read in Conference.

    BTW, I can’t resist bragging, but my copy of Elias is 1st edition and signed by the author – dedicated to my great grandparents.

    Because of that, of all the Mormon epic poetry written, I’m kind of partial to Elias.

  11. Th.

    .

    I checked out Love and the Light: An Idyl of the Westland and Elias: An Epic of the Ages today from my ward library and they are decidedly two different books. I also got Poetical Writing of O. F. Whitney which is the loveliest book I’ve seen in some time. I’m going to try and make an honest effort to read some Whitney this time.

    Maybe.

  12. Marny Parkin

    Eliza R. Snow wrote three epic poems: “Time and Change,” published by Ebenezer Robinson in 1841; “Two Chapters of the Life of President Joseph Smith,” published in ERS’s first book of poetry in 1856; and “Personification of Truth, Error, Etc.: An Epic Poem in Five Chapters,” published in her second book of poetry in 1877.

  13. Bill MacKinnon

    Anyone know who wrote “Mormoniad,” the 1858 epic satire on the Utah War published anonymously in Boston in 1858 (not to be confused with Peter J. Sorensen’s relatively recent work of similar name)? I’ve been trying to wrestle this mystery to the ground for fifty years. In the early 1980s I introduced Bill Deverell (now of USC’s history faculty) to this poem, and I note that in his 2007 Tanner Lecture for the Mormon History Association’s annual conference that he too has joined this long-term, tantalizing hunt.

  14. Kent Larsen Post author

    Bill, I’m afraid that we aren’t going to know. At least I have no idea. Off the top of my head the first possibility that occurs to me is George J. Adams — who was in the area at the time — but I don’t have any other basis for that suggestion.

    I think we would be interested to know if the puzzle is solved.

  15. Michael R. Collings

    It might be of interest that “The Nephiad” is currently in press by Borgo/Wildside Press. I’ve spoken with the publisher and have been told that it should be released sometime before the end of May this year. Wildside is a small press but the poem will at least be in print and available.

  16. William Morris

    Excellent! Thanks for checking in, Michael. Please do drop me a line [my first name]@motleyvision.org when it is released so I can direct AMV’s readers to it.

  17. Michael R. Collings

    TOWARD OTHER WORLDS is with the publisher/editor at the moment. Once he returns the galley files, the book could be published within a few months. I hope sometime by summer.

    My big news, however, is that THE NEPHIAD is OUT! After 35 years of failing to interest a poublisher, it finally appealed to Wildside…and they packaged it with a wonderful cover (that and other cover scans are online at: http://www.wildsidebooks.com/COLLINGS-Michael-R_c_595.html ).

  18. Harlow

    Lee, #12, The session you’re thinking about was Richard Y Thurman’s presentation on R. Paul Cracroft’s A Certain Testimony, which he thought was sadly neglected.

  19. Ronald Wilcox

    Kent Larsen:

    There is Mormon Epic Poetry? | A Motley Vision

    May I call your attention to

    http://www.mormonepic.com.

    I rarely (never) do this, but you seem a
    friendly sort. I’m in the middle of a
    middling meddling motley muddle.

    I’m out of people I trust for suggestions
    (Eugene England, Karl Keller, Clinton.
    F. Larson). I hate to bother Lavina
    Fielding Anderson. She has taken my
    insults very well every time I submit
    poetry to Dialogue, but a mile of scroll
    on a screen seems more than motley;
    it seemeth downright extravagant.

    Mormonepic is entirely an on-line
    endeavor. I’ve no intention of seeing it
    published on paper pages, although it does
    begin with Quantum Gospel, already
    published by Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon
    Thought, Vol. 40, No. 2, Summer 2007.

    I’m going by rules I make up as I go
    along. I’ve outlined my goals for a web site
    in an introduction, as well as a foreword,
    i.e., my intentions for the epic itself.

    I would be interested in any response
    you (or any of your readers) might have in
    regard to such an obviously
    impossible undertaking.

    Take note, however: this email is dated April 6.

    Maybe a Mormon Epic is not impossible,
    just tough slogging stanza by stanza.

    Trekking to the Salt Lake Valley,
    I’m told,
    is tough on sissies or the elderly,
    both of which I am,
    but someone also once told me
    miracles happen ….

    We’ll see.

    Ron Wilcox
    http://www.mormonepic.com
    iamron2@verizon.net

  20. Kent Larsen Post author

    I just discovered another possible Epic poem:

    Ursenbach, Octave F., “Redemption: An Epic of the Divine Tragedy…” (1928)

    I haven’t read it or seen a copy, so it is simply a possibility until someone can take a look at it and verify what it is.

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