Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: William H. Apperley on the Kinds of Poetry

2.3.13 | | no comments

WHApperleyIs there a pattern to how literature changes? A sentence in the passage below makes me wonder if literature somehow evolves from one form to another as culture changes, and ponder on what else might explain the changes in the popularity and attention given to different forms, genres and styles, to say nothing of literary movements. While literature has shifted from classical to baroque to romantic to realism to modernism to post-modernism it sometimes seems like it is evolving. Add to these changes the shift in the dominant form from poetry to short fiction to the novel and the driver for change in literature seems anything but clear.

The author of this passage, William Henry Apperley, was born in Ireland and at 9 years of age immigrated to Utah in 1855 with his parents. By 1877 he had married and was named a professor at the newly-opened Brigham Young College in Logan, where he spent most of the rest of his life, aside from a mission to England in 1882. The college circular for 1893 reports that he taught “Spanish, Book-keeping, Grammar, (Winter Course), Book of Mormon Studies, Key to Theology, Orthography and Punctuation, English Classics, Ethics.” He published a slim volume of poetry in 1910, A Souvenier, and gave one of the lectures in the Logan Temple Lectures series (1885-1886, published 1886) entitled Language and English Literature. This extract is taken from that lecture.

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Language and English Literature

by William H. Apperley

We will now pass on to the kinds of poetry. That which lashes the vices and follies of men is satirical poetry. Byron’s “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” is one of the best satires in the English language. The spirit of this kind of poetry is cruel and destructive. Since Addison’s day no great satire has been produced in English poetry, and we trust there will never be another. Prose is the most fitting dress for unkind thoughts and cruel retaliation. Epic poetry deals with the life of some real or mythic hero. Milton’s Paradise Lost is a great epic poem. We have but few great epics in English Literature, and we are not likely to receive any addition for some time. Modern novels, so far as subject is concerned, have taken the place of epic poetry. Dramatic poetry is written to be acted and may be divided into tragic and comedy; the former is written to interest the earnest mind and the latter to produce amusement. The Old Testament contains instances of dramatic dialogue, but the drama, properly, originated in Greece with the worship of Bacchus, the god of wine. Pastoral poetry is that which deals with objects in nature. It paints in beautiful colors the meadows, woods and plains. It describes rural life in all its changes. The pearly dewdrop, the flowers that bloom beneath our feet, the golden grain, the burning mountain, the roaring cataract, and the mighty ocean-all have been beautifully described in poetic language. The best Pastoral poem of ancient times is Solomon’s Song. One of our finest modern productions is an “Elegy written in a country churchyard” by Thos. Gray. The fifth and the last division of poetry that I shall mention is Lyric poetry. Through this species of poetry the poet gives expression to his own thoughts and emotions; generally in the form of song, which may be sacred, as hymns or psalms, or secular as love songs and songs of war. Sir Andrew Fletcher says, “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads of a nation, he need not care who should make its laws.” We who have listened so often to the sweet strains of the Logan choir can appreciate the calm and holy influence of lyric poetry. We can pursue this deeply interesting subject no further at present. I will close to-day’s lecture with a short extract from Shaw’s English Literature:

“Poetry is the earlier expression of every literature. The first writers whose works are preserved are the writers of verse. The rhythm of their song, the pictures of their excited fancy, the stories they tell, catch and enchain the popular attention. But prose is now in the ascendant over poetry. Spencer, Milton and Byron are not read as they once were. What has brought about the change? There is the same lofty theme, there is the same resounding line, there is the same poetic inspiration. But the taste and thought of the readers have changed. They are in sympathy with what is called the practical spirit of the age. They lead to the instructive novel, to books of travel, to biography, to history. They compel readers to seek for information as well as entertainment and elegant culture in literature. The virtues of this century are supplying what is demanded by an increasing number of thoughtful readers. The chief external influence has come from Germany. Coleridge introduced it and it has been followed by Carlyle. Our age doubtless will be regarded by the future historian as the age of German influence.1

“Logan Temple Lectures: Language and English Literature”
in The Contributor, v7 n2, November 1885, p. 58-63.
Also published in Logan Temple Lectures: a series of lectures
delivered before the Temple School of Science during the years 1885-6
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Logan: Utah Journal Company, 1886. pp. 13-22.
.

What made me think of literary evolution was this line, which seems to imply that Apperley sees novels taking over for epic poetry in a kind of evolution of purpose:

“We have but few great epics in English Literature, and we are not likely to receive any addition for some time. Modern novels, so far as subject is concerned, have taken the place of epic poetry.”

But I’m not sure that is what Apperley means, given his quotation of Shaw2, and the suggestion there that it is the audience’s taste and thought that drives change. So I wonder, what does drive change? When a new style, or literary movement or genre or a new preference arises, why does it appear? What makes it acceptable or popular? Did Orson F. Whitney really drive the beginning of the ‘home literature’ movement with a single speech? Was it the developing understanding of a group of Mormon leaders? Or was the Mormon audience ready for that movement, and they simply needed someone to put their need into words?

Perhaps more important for us to day is the question “what will drive the next movement in Mormon literature?”

  1. Backus, Truman J. Shaw’s New History of English Literature. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1882
  2. actually Backus is the author, since this quotation doesn’t appear in Shaw’s original manual, but in the 1882 revision that Backus prepared.

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