Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Stayner on Interpreting Scriptural Poetry

7.15.12 | | no comments

psalmsbookIf a prophet-poet writes scripture and has to make a choice, does he make his poem more Beautiful? or more True? Or, since poetry is usually about expressing some kind of Truth Beautifully, where is the balance between Beauty and Truth? Is the balance always the same regardless of the subject or the role of the poem?

Speaking in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, Charles W. Stayner gave a short answer to the first of these questions, at least in passing. Stayner was born in 1841 and grew up in pioneer Utah. He married in the Endowment House in 1868 and eventually became involved in politics and served as a justice of the peace. In 1880 he served a mission to England, and in the 1890s was called as president of the Northern States Mission. Stayner was also a poet, and his works include one poem that was in the 1951 LDS hymnal, Merry, Merry Children, Sweetly Sing. He died in 1899.

Here is his take on poetry as scripture:

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Ancient Apostles

by Elder C. W. Stayner

In rising to address the congregation this afternoon, a brief passage of Scripture is suggested to my mind, as the basis for such remarks as I may make. It is the latter part of the seventh verse of the fourteenth chapter of the Book of Revelation, and reads as follows: “and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.” Believing with the ancient Apostles that “no prophecy of scripture is of any private interpretation… but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost,” and that “all scriptures were written for our profit and learning that we through faith in them, might have hope.” I am firmly convinced that the words of the text have a profound significance; for although it is acknowledged that the sacred writings contain the most sublime language, and furnish the most poetic quotations, still I do not believe that those holy men sought to round off their sentences, simply for the sake of the music they would afford to the ear of the reader; but that beneath all the poetry and sublimity of the language, there is a beautiful meaning to every sentence recorded, involving the most important truths for the benefit of mankind.

While in exile in accordance with this sentence, St. John was made the happy recipient of the most wonderful visions of things to come to pass in the future history of the world. Enwrapped in heavenly vision he beheld, among other important matters, an “angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation and kindred, and tongue and people, Saying with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come:” and then the words of our text, “and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.” Thus then we find this text was the enunciation of an angel; and as the time when this angel was to come is plainly shown to be at a most important crisis of the world’s history, “the hour of God’s judgment,” it may well be supposed he did not waste time in poetic fancy or simply the elegant rounding of periods, but that every word he uttered carried with it a depth of meaning, and was in every way calculated to impress those to whom he was sent, with the importance of his message. What then was his reason for using this particular language? Why did he not close without uttering the last words? Or why did he not call the attention of earth’s inhabitants to some other peculiarity of the Divine greatness? First because it is customary with the Lord and his angelic messengers to generally give some reason for the requirements made by them; God is ever willing to show his children why we should obey his commands, we find his doctrines reasonable; his requirements reasonable, and his revelations reasonable; hence the angel added by way of reasonable argument, “and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.” But why did he not call attention to some of the great things in the unseen world; why not refer to the hosts of heaven or the majestic glory of God, as he sat upon his throne; or any others of the numerous existences that create joy or wonder “behind the veil?” No doubt, because the angel could see prophetically that when the time should arrive for him to deliver his heavenly message, at the hour of God’s judgment, the whole world would have reached what may be called a scientific age, an epoch of “Materialism” a time when the universal scientific thought would be centered on that which was material in its character; and that people would be more devoted to searching out the matters of the visible world, than the hidden mysteries that lay beyond the veil. …

Discourse in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City,
Sunday Afternoon, May 25th, 1879.

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I don’t think this analysis is so broad that it is true of all poetry. I’m quite sure that not all poetry expresses some Truth (or Beauty, for that matter), and I believe that even some poems that seem to express Truth in fact communicate falsehoods instead. I’m not sure that Ogden Nash or Edward Lear were trying at all to express truth, except in the general absurdist sense.

In my mind, even Stayner’s suggestion about poetry in scripture may not be correct. While I believe that ideally scripture should express Truth, the Bible, at least, has hardly arrived in our day unadulterated. And even with the unadulterated text of scripture, cultural change can eventually make even the plainest of scriptural texts unintelligible. Translator’s see this kind of difficulty arise all the time because they are almost always translating between cultures as well as languages. Often (and especially in poetry) each of the possible translations only address one aspect of the meaning of a phrase while not quite expressing other meanings—so every translation loses something from the original. And in these cases there is no “right” translation, only several possible translations that are each wrong to one degree or another. Even without a change of language this can be true, when a text moves from one culture to another—and each of our “personal cultures” are different from each other.

As a result, for more than 100 years scholars have used many tools to shed light on the scriptures in addition to traditional readings (and in addition to what can be gained by inspiration, at least in some cases). Among these tools are those that make up textual criticism, which uses the internal features of a text—its grammar, word usage, semantics, composition, etc., (and even the structure of a poem) to make sense of a text. While fairly widely employed today, even among LDS scholars, textual criticism has been criticized by LDS leaders in the past.

It is interesting to see, therefore, Charles W. Stayner employ, in this talk, a kind of analysis that seems to me very similar to textual criticism. He essentially suggests that by examining the structure of the poetry in the bible, we can learn something about the author, and how faithful the author is to either Beauty or Truth.

Do you think his logic is valid?

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