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)