05 May 2008

Joseph, the Poetic Seer

As a young man, Joseph Smith shaped his future by developing observant—and even poetic—qualities that later served him in his capacity as “a seer, a prophet, [and] an apostle” (D&C 21:1, emphasis mine). The title “seer” deserves more careful attention as we examine its meaning in the context of Joseph’s era. Ralph Waldo Emerson described a defining characteristic of a poet, or seer, during the same time-frame as Joseph’s “First Vision” as becoming “a transparent eye-ball” (Emerson, “Nature,” 905). Removing the observer from surrounding influences and seeing things as they are, without changing or corrupting them, affords greater insight than most experience. Doing so allows one to observe and experience nature as God created it. Emerson’s description truly describes a seer—one who sees and feels clearly. As seen through his writings and his actions, Joseph’s experience and personality fit Emerson’s definition of a “seer” as a special kind of poet.

The genre of poetry can be widely misinterpreted, misunderstood, or misrepresented; and to fully understand Joseph Smith as a poet, one must understand poetry. As one of Smith’s contemporaries, Emerson offers insight pertinent to our inquiries. He cited Aristotle, who described poetry as coming “‘nearer to vital truth than history’” (“Nature,” 928). Poetry arrives at truth differently than does history or other empirical inquiries into truth; through poetry, the imagination fuses with reality to find “vital truth” by directly connecting to the divine. Vital truth might also differ from objective studies of the past in that it pertains directly to the life of the learner. Emerson further defined the place of poetry in literature, declaring “it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem” (“The Poet,” 987). The poet, then, becomes “the Father, the Spirit, and the Son . . . the Knower, the Doer, and the Sayer” (“The Poet,” 986). To get a better idea of Joseph as a seer, we can identify him as a poet, who sees and feels things more clearly than do others and who gives voice to these observations and feelings. An examination of Joseph’s writings illustrates that he was the embodiment of Emerson’s “poet,” gaining knowledge, acting according to that knowledge, and preaching or writing the things that he learned through meter-making argument and language.

Joseph Smith unknowingly followed Emerson’s admonition to “dare to love God without mediator or veil” (“The Divinity School Address,” 953). In approaching God as Emerson suggests, Joseph received an answer now known as the “First Vision.” That initial answer, at first perceived by Joseph more as a comforting acknowledgment of forgiveness than as a prophetic call, gives us a pattern for approaching God ourselves. As Joseph was immersed in the "Great Apostasy," so too, we sometimes find ourselves in the midst of personal apostasy. Joseph's "First Vision" gives us a pattern that can pierce the veil of darkness and lead us into our own encounters with divinity. From Joseph's experience, we can learn not only about his prophetic call, which he later perceived as beginning on the spring morning of 1820; we also learn how we can have a personal restoration to the Lord to overcome the darkness of personal apostasies.

The office of seer includes that of poet; Joseph acted as “Knower, Doer, and Sayer,” and by so doing became both poet and seer. Descriptive language indicates the quality of Joseph’s “sayings.” His account of the “First Vision” avoids sensationalizing words in preference to descriptive language. He describes his feelings prior to his experience as “deep and . . . poignant” (JSH 1: 8), rather than creating a scenario that would invoke greater emotion. Subsequently, Joseph indicates the confusion and difficulty that he experienced during the “cry and tumult” of the various religious groups. Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility” could be accurately imposed on Joseph’s first-hand accounts of his visionary experience. Joseph’s words do not rush through the experience to prove any certain point; he merely attempts to depict the events as they happened. Joseph acted as poet and seer literally when he recast his D&C 76 from prose to poetry, giving a dual account of the Vision. Both Emerson’s and Wordsworth’s definitions of poetry were contemporary to Joseph and accurately describe his ministry as “Knower.”

In addition to Joseph’s writings in first person, his scriptural translations can be regarded as examining ideas from the Bible, spiritual insights, and ancient texts, and clothing them with the language native to translator and poet. Reading about Enoch’s vision, this poetic translation process becomes more apparent. Joseph wrote:

How is it that the heavens weep,

And shed forth their tears

As the rain upon the mountains? . . .

How is it that thou canst weep,

Seeing thou art holy,

And from all eternity to all eternity?

(Moses 7: 28-29)

While the original text was written in prose, recasting it into poetry, as I did above, clarifies the meaning and emotion of Enoch’s experience: God, being holy and eternal, feels powerful emotions. Rather than make any attempt at precisely articulating the feelings invoked by this vision, Joseph described the conversation, allowing the reader to vicariously feel the powerful emotion recalled in tranquility. Joseph Smith’s account of his experiences, as well as those of others, gives an adequate argument for his role as “Sayer.”

Poetry can be expressed in both words and actions; Joseph’s role as “Doer” distinguishes him from many other would-be-poets that clearly could be described as “Knowers” and “Sayers,” but didn’t live a poetic life. To be a poet, one must grasp for experience and hold onto it with an iron grip, finding opportunity to live richly in each moment. Poetic expression conveys the feelings and emotions that such an individual experiences. Joseph Smith was a poet because he did the things that he learned and said. His poetry can be read in the works that he translated, but examining his life exhibits more of his poetry than does a study of his literary achievements.

Joseph’s life was filled with difficulties and trials. Some of his most eloquent writing emerged from the depths of these trials. At Liberty Jail, Joseph was imprisoned and felt the weight of the church, the responsibility that he bore as its leader, and his family, collectively placed upon his shoulders. Joseph wrote:

If thou art called to pass through tribulation; . . . if

Thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if

Thine enemies fall upon thee; if

They tear thee from the society

Of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if . . .

Thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and . . . thine elder son . . .shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? . . .

And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit,

Or into the hands of murderers . . . if

The billowing surge conspire against thee; if

Fierce winds become thine enemy; if

The heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way;

And above all, if

The very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee,

Know thou,

My son,

That all these things shall give thee experience,

And shall be for thy good.

The Son of Man hath descended below them all.

Art thou greater than he?

(D&C 122: 5-8; poetic recasting by author).

By describing—rather than complaining about—his difficulties, Joseph establishes that his purpose as a writer was to explain his experiences, rather than to invoke the emotions of his audience. His descriptive language and objective voice allow the message of the passage to shine through the words used to convey it. The passage becomes an example of the poet, or seer, manifest in Joseph Smith. Another part of the letter reads:

My son,

Peace be unto thy soul;

Thine adversity and thine afflictions

Shall be but a small moment;

And then, if thou endure it well,

God shall exalt thee on high

(D&C 121: 7-8; poetic recasting by author).

The voice of this passage is the voice of the Lord, but Joseph understood the message in his own words and wrote it according to his own vocabulary and understanding. The words themselves convey both a message and a feeling of peace; they patiently and deliberately convey the idea of enduring afflictions. Because the words obey the message that they bear, the poetry of the message and of its receiver can be readily observed. Joseph was a “Doer” as well as a “Knower” and a “Sayer.” His life and writings illustrate that one could not fit the definitions of poets or seers contemporary to Joseph Smith better than he did himself.

While Joseph received very little formal education, the language that he used in conveying the words and messages from scripture and from the Lord qualify him as one of the great poets of literature. He fits the mold established by Emerson for poets and teachers of truth. As “Knower, Doer, and Sayer,” Joseph Smith left a legacy of poetry in his words and actions. His knowledge of truth, dedication to the cause of Jesus Christ, and eloquence in teachings all establish that he lived outside of his own life. By so doing, he established a much larger way of life that incorporated poetry to achieve a larger goal of raising humanity to a higher plane of interaction and harmony. Joseph Smith was a poet and a seer under every definition of the words. Indeed, the final words which he uttered at his martyrdom, "Oh Lord my God!" (D&C 135:1) convey, in addition to other meanings, the poetic, prayerful return of this Prophet to his Master, of whom Joseph bore poetic witness.


Mormon Paleo said...

Very good article. I find it quite compelling.

When I was at BYU, I saw an interesting book at the library that broke nearly all of the triple combination into a poetic structure. I think there were parts (for instance, segments of D&C 134 or 135) that were prose, but nearly all scripture can be broken up into some sort of poetic structure. I found that concept quite interesting.

MattM said...

Thank you, Paleo. I'd be interested in finding that book. Maybe I'll have to find a way of searching the BYU catalog...

I also find it interesting that scripture lends itself so well toward poetry. Even more interesting is how most translations of the Bible cast God's words in poetic form, even while retaining a "prose" feel during much of the text. Poetry in the Gospel is something that could be more avidly pursued.