Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #81: Orson F. Whitney on the Essence of Poetry

12.8.13 | | no comments

OFWhitneyTo a large extent, theory is definition. A theory of literature is therefore definition of its many elements and how they work together to allow the creation of literature. And as far as I can tell, before Orson F. Whitney, few Mormons attempted anything near a theory of literature. A few definitions of elements of literature appeared here and there, but no one covered as many elements of literature as Whitney.

In the following extract, also from the 5-part article he published in 1926, Whitney discusses poetry, and after rejecting  a common definition, he provides his own:

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Oratory, Poesy and Prophecy

By Orson F. Whitney

II.

The commonest error in relation to poetry is the notion that it resides wholly in the art of versification, that it consists merely of metre and rhyme. Any two lines that are made to jingle at the end, no matter how puerile the content, are by most people supposed to be poetic, representative of the divine gift of song. A greater mistake is hardly conceivable.

“God bless me and my wife,
My son John and his wife,
We four
And no more.”

That’s not poetry; but there are people simple enough to think so—because, forsooth, it rhymes!

The essence of poetry is in thought, sentiment, symbolism, and the power of suggestion. It is the music of ideas, as well as the music of language. Many a verse, perfect in rhyme and metre, has little or no poetry, while prose is ofttimes replete with it.

Rhyme bears about the same relation to poetry, as paint or polish to a piano or an organ, made beautiful by such embellishment. It would be an organ or a piano without the paint or polish, but it would not be as pleasing to the eye. “The apparel oft proclaims the man,” says Shakespeare. True, but it does not make the man; it only makes him more presentable in society. Even so, the rhyme is not the poem proper. It is an artifice used by the poet to make his thought more attractive. The ear must be charmed before the sentiment can reach the heart.

Some poems are of such superior merit as to need no rhyme. The beauty of the thought, the rhythm and majesty of the movement, suffice. The jingle of rhyme would mar rather than enhance the effect. Most of our great poems are rhymeless. Homer’s Iliad, Shakespeare’s plays, and Milton’s Paradise Lost are in blank verse. The Book of Job, the Psalms of David, the prophesies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the parables of Jesus, the Revelation of St. John, the Vision of Joseph and Sidney1—how much would they gain by being put into rhyme. Nothing at all. Rather would they lose’ irreparably.

Poetry is of three kinds, or it has three grand divisions: lyric, epic and dramatic. Lyric poetry comprises the songs, sacred or secular, in which the poet voices his own thoughts and emotions. Epic poetry is heroic narrative—the poet outside of himself, relating the exploits and achievements of others. Dramatic poetry consists of plays put upon the stage or read in private—character impersonations, real or fanciful, and the portrayal of human passions and feelings. Notable examples in lyric poetry are the Psalms of David, and the ballads of Robert Burns and Thomas Moore; in epic poetry, Homer’s Iliad, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Tasso’s Jerusalem; in dramatic poetry, the Greek tragedies, the plays of Shakespeare, and works of other dramatists.

By many, poesy is regarded as something vain, frothy, and of no substantial worth. This is because it is not generally understood. The poet holds aloft an ideal, and beckons to the real to “come up higher.” Hence he is deemed an idle dreamer, a visionary, an ideologist.

Well, the poet is a dreamer. But so is the architect, and the builder of railroads. If there were no dreamers, there would be no builders. It is only a seeming gulf that separates the poetic and the practical, or it only exists because the poet’s dream—”the light that never was on sea or land”—must always be in advance of the real, to incite progress. There were poets before there were pedagogues, philosophers or historians. Poesy is the elder sister of History, the mother of Language, the ancestress of Civilization.

Many who dislike poetry, or think they dislike it, deeming it unworthy the consideration of utilitarian minds, are poetic in their natures, and are indebted to it for the success they achieve even in practical pursuits, and for the enjoyment that their lives afford them. Notably is this the case with public speakers, the best of whom owe to the poetry within them the emotional and dramatic power with which they sway the minds and hearts of the multitude. Where there is no poetry there can be no real eloquence. The orator must be a poet, must have a poetic soul, if his orations are to be anything more than emanations of “a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.”

Improvement Era, v29 n6,
April 1926, pp. 530-531

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I don’t think that Whitney’s definition of poetry is all that careful—he doesn’t appear to me to have accounted for all poetry—but I do think it is none the less interesting. While rejecting the idea that poetry is simply a text that rhymes and has meter, he provides an initial, broad, vague definition of poetry:

The essence of poetry is in thought, sentiment, symbolism, and the power of suggestion. It is the music of ideas, as well as the music of language.

Whitney is a little less vague later, when he broaches the relative misunderstanding, still present today, of poetry. He claims that this misunderstanding of poetry is rooted in the perception of poetry as something “vain, frothy, and of no substantial worth.” He counters, defining poetry as an expression of the ideal:

The poet holds aloft an ideal, and beckons to the real to “come up higher.” Hence he is deemed an idle dreamer, a visionary, an ideologist.

Well, the poet is a dreamer. But so is the architect, and the builder of railroads. If there were no dreamers, there would be no builders. It is only a seeming gulf that separates the poetic and the practical, or it only exists because the poet’s dream—”the light that never was on sea or land”—must always be in advance of the real, to incite progress. There were poets before there were pedagogues, philosophers or historians. Poesy is the elder sister of History, the mother of Language, the ancestress of Civilization.

And a few lines later, Whitney defines poetry again, perhaps in a different way:

Where there is no poetry there can be no real eloquence.

While these statements are certainly provocative and eloquent themselves, they are so broad that they aren’t all that helpful on any practical level. They include a lot of what we might call “poetic” prose in this definition—prose that is poetic “thought, sentiment, symbolism,” and suggestive; prose that espouses an ideal, and which is eloquent—but prose that is not usually regarded as poetry.

Despite the problematic definitions, Whitney’s prose is quite persuasive and eloquent. And it is, you might say, thoughtful, full of sentiment and symbolism, and espousing an ideal. I suppose we could call it “poetic.”

  1. This sounds like Whitney was unaware of W. W. Phelps’ rendition of The Vision into verse. I do think he is correct, however, in claiming that rendering it into verse doesn’t add anything

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