The Poetry of Eliza R. Snow: An interview with Jill Mulvay Derr, Part 2

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.

Eliza R. Snow - Representative Woman

Eliza R. Snow - Representative Woman

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

Comments

  1. Thank you again, Jill. I especially appreciated the poem to “Mrs. Haywood.” Juanita Brooks’ edition of her diaries is a wonderful read.

  2. Thanks, Jill (and BCC).

  3. Thanks again. This is great.

  4. Wordy wrangles. Nice.

    Yes, thanks for this.

    In part one, Jill mentions that Eliza R. Snow wrote an epic poem in blank verse and wrote in multiple meters. Does anyone know how experimental she got with here meter and rhyme schemes?

  5. Jill, the poems are so vibrant. I also really liked the second one best, but the third one made me giggle–probably not an appropriate response, but I just think she captured a feeling that still somewhat defines discourse in Utah.

  6. Karen Davidson says:

    Jill has provided a wonderful overview in her two-part interview. It has been a privilege working with her as co-editor. I will chime in with just a few sentences in answer to William Morris’s question about how experimental Eliza was in her use of meter and rhyme. It’s a great question that leads in a lot of directions.
    I don’t think “experimental” would really describe Snow’s rhymes. The more polished poems tend to have more exact rhymes. Rhyming words seemed to come easily to her. The question of meter is a little more complicated. She couldn’t be described as experimental, but she was certainly versatile.
    The meters of most of her poems could be placed into three categories:
    First would be blank verse, that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter. (The lines have ten syllables, with the stress falling on the even-numbered ones.) Blank verse is the favorite meter of most of the important poets who have written in English (and we know she was familiar with Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope). Snow used it often, and some of her finest poems are in blank verse. See, for example, Poem #50, “My First View of a Western Prairie,” and #426, “A Winter Soliloquy.”
    A second kind of meter might be referred to, collectively, as the familiar meters of hymn and children’s rhymes, various combinations of six-syllable and eight-syllable lines. Snow’s hymns (my favorite is #433, “How Great the Wisdom and the Love”), her children’s poems, and many others would fall in this category.
    A third kind of meter would emerge when Snow wrote poems with an existing tune in mind, which she did dozens of times. The tune would then govern the stanza form. Examples would be #282, “’Young Sam’ and his Uncle,” which she wrote to be sung to “Camptown Races,” and #321, “Song for the Fourth of July, 1862,” written to fit the parlor ballad “Lily Dale.”
    Snow was not always wise in her choice of meter. In #148, “To President Brigham Young,” for example, the triple meter undercuts the seriousness of the tribute. But in other ways she showed great metrical skills. She was particularly good at switching meters, for special effect, within a poem. For instance, in #58, “The Year Has Gone,” she alternates four-foot and two-foot lines, allowing the shorter lines to represent a solemn, tolling bell. And in her 1800-line epic, #456, “Personification of Truth, Error, Etc.,” she relieves the potential monotony of the blank verse by interspersing poems in other meters, including a tender love ballad sung by poor, deluded Content to her husband, Stupidity.

  7. A bibliographic quibble: the publishers are BYU Studies and BYU Press rather than BYU Studies and U of U Press.

  8. Thanks for the correction Jim. I could have sworn that when I saw the PR at MHA last spring it was with BYUStudies/UUPress like the Frontier Guardian Volume and the Mountain Meadows Massacre Documents. I guess that idea had just stuck with me. Will fix it right away.

  9. This is great. And nice to see Karen Davidson chiming in, too. I enjoyed reading these three poems aloud. Thanks for selecting a few favorites.

    I have a follow-up question to the original query (“Are there specific themes that Eliza R. Snow returned to in her writing?”). All of the themes listed seem to portray a very confident and strong person. My question is whether any of the poems deal with any “darker” themes? Anything reflective of doubt? Or worry? Or insecurity? The closest thing to any of that above, I think, is the comment that after all the travail, Eliza’s “constitution and [her] strength Have almost fail’d.” But she still says she is yet happy, and blessed with friends.

    Said otherwise, is there any of the spirit of an Emily Dickinson in Eliza Snow’s poetry?

  10. Well, it appears that the post originally was correct. The Publisher is actually BYU Studies/UUPress, and I will be reverting the post text to reflect that.

  11. J. Stapley. Don’t correct just yet. I am not sure who published the book. The U of U says it is theirs (http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/upcat&CISOPTR=1538&CISOBOX=1&REC=13); Amazon says that it is a BYU Studies / BYU Press publication (http://www.amazon.com/Eliza-R-Snow-Complete-Poetry/dp/0842527370/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1253902499&sr=8-1). I’d understood the latter in this case, but now I’m simply not sure.

  12. Jim the book itself lists BYU Studies/UU Press, which the authors confirm. In this case, Amazon is mistaken

  13. Making mountains out of molehills (which is my job as a professor): As I understand it, the title page lists the publishers as Brigham Young University Press, Provo, Utah, and University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. The bibliographic page says that the book is distributed by the U of U and says “This volume is part of the BYU Studies series Documents in Latter-day Saint History. Other volumes in this series: . . . .” In that case BYU Press (rather than BYU Studies) and U of U Press are the publishers, but it is easy to see how people can be confused about this–assuming that they care.

    In any case, it is a fine volume.

  14. Heather Seferovich says:

    Let’s settle the publication question once and for all. I am the Senior Executive Editor at BYU Studies and was the lead editor on this Eliza R. Snow project.

    Books that are published by any BYU entity can go through an additional stage of peer review by a committee of scholars. If the book meets their high academic standards, it will receive the BYU Press imprint. This process takes time because of the lengthy and thorough review, and some books are on a tighter publication deadline. This is why some of the titles we publish have the BYU Studies imprint instead of BYU Press.

    Earlier in 2009 the office of BYU Studies and the University of Utah Press entered into an arrangement to copublish selected titles. In some cases, BYU Studies will be the primary publisher of a book and in others the U will be the primary publisher.

    Typically the primary publisher is responsible for acquiring the manuscript, editing and layout, and printing. The secondary publisher acknowledges that the book meets their publishing mission and that it would be of interest to their readership; this publisher then begins advertising and distributing the title, as if it were their own, to their target audience.

    Copublication is an accepted practice that occurs mostly in scholarly publishing because of limited resources and because each press can reach different audiences. One example that many of you might be familiar with is The Journals of William E. McLellin that was copublished between BYU Studies and the University of Illinois Press.

    The first book to receive both the BYU Press and the U of U Press imprint was the reprint of Ronald W. Walker’s book Wayward Saints: The Social and Religious Protests of the Godbeites against Brigham Young, which came out in July. The second was Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, which came out in August. And the next book that will be copublished by both presses is the edited collection of documents by Richard E. Turley Jr. and Ronald W. Walker titled Mountain Meadows Massacre: The Andrew Jenson and David H. Morris Collections, which is due back from the printer in late October.

  15. Thanks for download, Heather.

  16. Jill Mulvay Derr says:

    I’ve enjoyed the comments and questions about ERS and her poetry! In response to the question Hunter asked (#9): Though there is very little “of the spirit of an Emily Dickinson in Eliza Snow’s poetry,” the private, vulnerable Eliza emerges in a handful of poems (such as unpublished poems 15, 44, 107, 111). Snow, like most of her contemporaries in the nineteenth century, did not view poetry as a venue for personal disclosure and reflection. Most of her poetry is public. Often it was intended to be read or sung at a particular gathering. Many of her newspaper poems are the equivalent of a sermon or an op-ed piece. Snow was capable of artistry, as Karen Davidson explained (#6), but from the time she was young she was committed to being “useful as a writer.” Sentiment is not absent from her poems, but when she expresses sorrow, hope, frustration or anger, (sometimes with great passion), she is generally speaking both personally and on behalf of the community, as she does in most of her hymns. The sentimental poems she wrote to family and friends are not devoid of sincerity and feeling but nor are they explicitly self-revealing. However, as Maureen Ursenbach Beecher explained in her 1990 Dialogue article “Inadvertent Disclosure: Autobiography in the Poetry of Eliza R. Snow,” a careful reading of some of Snow’s texts can reveal the private woman inside the public verse. It will be interesting to see how other readers begin to discover Eliza in her texts.

  17. Thanks for that response. I will check out that Dialogue article. And I look forward to reading through Eliza’s poetry. Thank you.

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