This is the second part of a two-part interview with Jill Mulvay Derr, co-author of Eliza R Snow: The Complete Poetry (BYU Studies/University of Utah Press). We thank her for her time and insightful answers. Part one of the series is available here.
Are there specific themes that Eliza R. Snow returned to in her writing?
The overarching power and goodness of God, revelation, the capacity of men and women to become as the gods, obedience, resurrection, the priesthood as a revelatory, governing, and transformative power, freedom, the inability and/or unwillingness of the government to protect the Saints’ rights, the destiny of the Latter-day Saints as God’s chosen people to help usher in the millennial reign of Jesus Christ. [in case you want a short list]
Snow titled her two poetry volumes Poems: Religious, Historical, and Political, providing us some helpful classifications for recurring themes. She wrote on religious themes even before she became a Latter-day Saint but after her baptism she was fully committed to the theology she learned through Joseph Smith and his revelations. She wrote psalms and other poems that praise God and acknowledge His omnipotence. Her sacrament hymns are among numerous pieces that reverence the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The promise of the resurrection, and sometimes the process of the resurrection, are recurring themes in many of her poems about death. She celebrates prophets, first Joseph Smith and then Brigham Young, but also ancient prophets. She affirms her belief in revelation to prophets and to individuals, the connection between priesthood and the powers of heaven, and the importance of priesthood as the order through which God will bring to pass his purposes (immortality and eternal life) for all of humankind. She returns repeatedly to the capacity of both men and women to become as the gods and to associate with gods. This, as suggested in her beloved “O My Father,” is one of the primary ways she addresses women’s divinity and potential.
Some of Snow’s earliest poems mark current events (such as the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the removal of Native Americans) or celebrate historical events (such as the arrival of the first Massachusetts colonists). Once in Utah she wrote at least one poem or song and sometimes more for each Fourth of July or Twenty-Fourth of July celebration, looking backward to past events and shaping or reaffirming the mythical power of those events. She had a sense of history. Her poems often place events within the sweep of time, moving from ancient time to the present and on to the future; she frequently looks to the end times, the Millennium. Her poems mark scores of happenings, large and small. The martyrdom, the Saints’ westwards trek, the gathering, missionary comings and goings, the Civil War, ongoing conflicts with the federal government, the coming of the telegraph and the railroad, the laying of temple cornerstones, the dedication of Relief Society halls—all appear in her poems, along with birthdays, deaths, and funerals of well-known and lesser known figures, a few of whom were not Latter-day Saints.
Snow wrote a surprising number of political poems. “That ‘men are born poets’ is a common adage—I was born a patriot,” she wrote. Both of her grandfathers fought in the Revolutionary War and she fiercely prized the freedom for which they fought. Before she was baptized a Latter-day Saint she published poems praising the Greek war for independence and condemning self-serving politicians. Political debates, often in verse, were part of the poetry she read in her youth and poetry opened to her, as a woman, a forum for social commentary. Her experiences in Missouri and Illinois, where the Saints encountered unsympathetic and hostile government officials, enraged her and the ongoing conflict between Utah Saints and federal officials fed her anger. Her esteem for the Constitution, her respect for Revolutionary soldiers and Founding Fathers, and her love of liberty ring through her patriotic/political poems and songs. These are the poems where one feels her passion and where she employs irony and satire with considerable skill. Snow’s primary loyalty was always to the Kingdom of God but she, like other nineteenth-century Saints, was perpetually trying to sort out the relationship between the destiny of the nation and the destiny of the kingdom.
Beyond her religious, historical, and political poems, Eliza Snow penned dozens of poems to friends and family members. Generally these are sentimental poems of consolation and friendship that affirm the ties between heaven and earth and between individuals. Their simplicity often belies their doctrinal content.
Would you be willing to share some of your favorite poems with us?
I have too many favorites. I will share three with the understanding that they are a small portion of the Eliza Snow poems I have come to know and love.
[Please note that poetic spacing is difficult to reproduce in html, and readers should therefore look to the published editions for the most faithful renderings]
To Elder P. B. L. [Philip B. Lewis]
The following is a response to a solicitation to write, on no particular subject.
Sir, I had once a home and wealth,
Sound constitution and good health;
And then, if call’d at any time
For friends or Press to furnish rhyme,
I to my study could retire,
And, undisturb’d, awake the lyre;
Or labor through the day, and then,
While others slept, employ the pen.
Life’s circumstances ebb and flow:
I’ve since been tossing to and fro.
The rugged scenes I’ve struggl’d through,
And sickly climate of Nauvoo,
Have tax’d my nature, till at length
My constitution and my strength
Have almost fail’d. While I apply,
Like Paul, “these hands” to satisfy
My daily wants, it is too hard
At present to support the Bard.
Yet I am happy—I am blest
With friends, the wisest and the best.
If, by the bye, I should be blest
With home and means, with time and rest,
These snow-crown’d mountains, towering high,
And verdant vales that ’neath them lie;
The City, ushering into life,
With all the wealth of nature rife;
The “stone,” the power which we suppose
Will here commence to crush the toes
Of Daniel’s “image,” and go forth
Subduing all the powers on earth;
May be the subjects of my pen:
You’ll please excuse my lyre till then,
When, though across the western sea,
Upon the Isles perchance you’ll be,
From time to time you’ll hear from me.
composed May 1849
published in Poems 1, 1856
To Mrs. Haywood [Martha Spence Heywood]
Like the figures incog., in a masquerade scene,
Are some spirits now dwelling on earth;
And we judge of them only by actions and mien,
Unappriz’d of all relative worth.
In the transforming mask of mortality clad,
Kings and princes and peasants appear;
All forgetting whatever acquaintance they had
In existence preceding this here.
When the past shall develop, the future unfold,
When the present its sequel shall tell—
When unmask’d we shall know, be beheld, and behold;
O how blest, if incog. we’ve done well.
composed 27 May 1853
published in Poems 1, 1856
The Fathers—Wouldn’t They Be Astonished?
COULD our country’s noble sages,
Who have gone to reap their wages,
Reap rewards for their well doing,
When on earth they were pursuing
This great nation’s peace and honor
In erecting Freedom’s banner;
Could they get one full expression
Of our Congress’ present session—
Could they take one single peep in,
They would surely fall to weeping.
They would weep and blush and wonder
At the noisy wind and thunder—
At the boisterous, wrathy prattle—
At the steam and tittle tattle—
At the ghosts with human faces,
Filling honorable places.
Could our Washington and Adams,
Jefferson and other sages,
Look upon the present scenery,
With its underwire machinery—
All the multiform dissentions
Of the multiplied conventions;
Some intent on office seeking—
Some intent on money eking—
All mix’d up in twists and jangles,
All absorb’d in wordy wrangles.
Could they take one squint at Utah,
See the army made a cat’s paw
Just to drain the nation’s coffers,
To appease the scoundrels’ offers—
Just to fatten speculators,
Base, blood-thirsty instigators,
Who blew hard to raise a bubble—
Who created all the trouble—
See the “Mormons” scourg’d like minions
For their worship and opinions;
Just one glance would make them wonder
If the nation had gone under,
And our country’s boasted White House
Metamorphos’d to a light-house,
A tall beacon, just to show their
Once “fam’d liberty” is nowhere—
That the freedom of men’s conscience,
Guaranteed to us, is nonsense.
If they look for “Rights” as equal,
As they hop’d for in the sequel
Of their hardships and privations—
Of their wise deliberations,
When the government they founded—
When the trump of peace they sounded;
They would think their labors wasted
And the fruits thereof, untasted—
That altho’ their deeds are boasted,
And their names on way-marks posted;
They are virtually forgotten,
And the Constitution rotten.
published in The Mountaineer, 21 July 1860