Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #87: Orson F. Whitney on Oratory as Milk

3.16.14 | | no comments

OFWhitneyIn the past 40 years the descriptions of Mormon literature published by Eugene England and his successors have designated oratory as one of the primary forms of our literary output, one that Church members are most familiar with. It is in oratory, as well as the personal essay, that Mormons are sometimes thought to excel. Given the pattern of Mormon worship, that makes sense.

But we also might ask whether a strength in oratory is best for our literature. Are some forms of literature inherently better than others? And does the Mormon view differ from that of others who have examined literature?

Its no surprise that Orson F. Whitney had has opinion about oratory:

In Whitney’s view, found in his 1926 Improvement Era essay, Oratory, Poesy and Prophecy, oratory is inferior to poetry and is, in fact, “diluted poetry.” This extract is from the end of the third part.

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Extract from Oratory, Poesy and Prophecy

by Orson F. Whitney

Not often is the great poet a, great orator, nor the great orator a great poet. Cicero wrote poems, but they were not equal to his orations. “Oh that so great a statesman should be so poor a poet!” Bulwer makes the monk Joseph say of Richelieu. Genius is said to be “born of a disproportion in faculties.” Where there are hills there must be hollows. Where there are summits there shall also be gulfs.

Oratory is diluted poetry, “the milk of the word,” while poetry is the “meat,” too strong for some minds to digest. A poet and an orator once entered into a contest to describe sunrise. The orator enlarged [upon the theme in glowing and gorgeous phrases, talked of golden beams and purple clouds, of receding shadows! and sparkling streamlets, painting the precise picture in every detail. The poet simply said: "The sun parleys with the mountain tops." How much finer this, than a long drawn out description, however eloquent and beautiful. It is almost equal to Shakespeare's: "Look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill."

And yet, many would think the orator's description superior to the poet's. It is for such that the orator has his being, his mission. Poetry is above and beyond them. They cannot appreciate its concentrated light and heat. The wine must be mixed with water, weakened, suited to the taste of the comparatively unpoetic throng. It then becomes oratory, of which the thirsty masses, eager for poetry without knowing it, drink and are satisfied.

Improvement Era, v29 n7
May 1926, p. 629-630

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I must admit some discomfort with the idea that one form of literature is somehow better than another. I suspect forms arise more because of need and not because of choice. It is rare that we see the novel or any other long-form of literature delivered orally to a large group. And even poetry, while it is often consumed orally, seems better intended for repeated consumption—where the details of its symbolism and alliteration can be appreciated—than for the one-time sermon. [On the other hand, President Monson and other long-term general authorities have been known to repeat their sermons, usually years later.]

But even if I am wrong that the form of literature arises from need rather than choice, I wonder if Whitney’s basis for this judgment makes sense. Perhaps the artistic value of poetry is better than that of oratory, but should these forms be judged on the basis of artistic merit? or on the basis of how well or how likely they are to influence their audience?

I guess the problem comes back to the issue of to what degree it is even of value to rank literature in any way. Given that we need bad literature as much as we need good literature (at least in my opinion), why do we need to decide whether poetry or oratory is better?

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