Friday, September 9, 2011

I Make a Pact with You, Sister Snow: A Review of "Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poems"

Over the past two years or so I’ve become an unwitting fan of nineteenth-century literature. During my undergraduate English studies, which began ten years ago this week, I was more interested in reading Medieval epics and William Faulkner than anything by Poe, Hawthorne, or Melville. Not much changed during the two years of my MA program, except that I stopped reading Dante and Chaucer and started reading more contemporary American and Mormon fiction. Even in my spare time, which was rare, I never picked up anything literary written before 1920.[1]

This changed when I started my Ph.D. and took two seminars on nineteenth-century American literature—one on the American Romantics, the other on women writers—that left me wondering why no one had clued me in on the poetry of Emily Dickinson and stories like Hawthorne’s “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” Poe’s “Hop-Frog,” and Melville’s “Bartleby.”

Now, one-third of the texts I’m reading for my Ph.D. qualifying exams are Nineteenth-century American literary texts. My dissertation, of course, will still be on Mormon fiction, and contemporary American fiction will probably remain my primary area of expertise, but I’m actively looking into ways to make nineteenth-century America and its literature a more significant part of my research and studies. I mean, I like to keep my options open.[2]

I bring this up because I am yet to catch the nineteenth-century Mormon literature bug.[3] I have tried—earnestly—to get excited about it, but every time I pick up a poem by Parley P. Pratt, Orson F. Whitney, or John Lyon I get about half-way through it before I lose all consciousness in my brain and experience temporary paralysis in every fiber of my being.[4]

So, it is with some reluctance that I review this massive volume lying open on the floor beside me, Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson’s Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry (Brigham Young University Press, 2009). I have neither read the entire book—I don’t know how anyone ever could—nor do I ever hope to. Part of this, I expect, has to do with my ambivalence toward poetry in general. While I have been known to write the occasional poem,[5] I don’t read much of it any more. Fiction is my thing. Poetry is more of a hobby.

Also, Sister Snow—even at her best—doesn’t really write the kind of poetry I like. In fact, no one in the nineteenth century, with the exception of maybe Emily Dickinson and a few other abnormalities, writes the kind of poetry I like.[6] For a reader like me, therefore, the value of a book like Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry is not in the poetry itself, but rather in the work of the editors.

In this respect, Eliza R. Snow shines. Not only does the introductory essay by Derr and Davidson provide an insightful, honest analysis of Snow’s talent, as well as a thorough overview of her life, but it also introduces each of its nine chapters and all 507 of its poems with commentary that is both impressive and essential for anyone who wishes to gain a deeper appreciation for Snow’s work.

One insight, for instance, that I have found most useful in my haphazard reading of the poems is Derr and Davidson’s observation that “Snow’s well-known public role [as “Zion’s poet laureate] complicated and sometimes obscured her self-expression.” Unlike Dickinson, in other words, whose poetry is often marked by the painful nakedness and intense interiority of its narrative voice, Snow, tightly buttoned, keeps her readers at more than arm’s length. Indeed, as Derr and Davidson note, “Contemporary readers” are not likely to warm up to Sister Snow and her poems because her apparent “reluctance to allow a personal, lyric, truly revealing voice to break through the persona of Zion’s Poetess” sometimes makes for chilly reading (xvi).[7]

Of course, reading their commentary on Snow’s poetry, it is clear that Derr and Davidson have great affection for Zion’s Poetess, although they readily acknowledge that not all of Snow’s poetry is of the highest aesthetic quality. “No poet’s reputation,” they write, “is likely to benefit from the publication of that poet’s complete works” (xv). This is certainly the case, for example, when you read a poem like “Lines, on the Death of Bishop N. K. Whitney” (#206), which begins

A mighty man, a man of worth,
            A father and a friend,
Has left the narrow sphere of earth
            His upward course to wend.

and limps along dismally until its predictable conclusion:

The stroke is with a heavy rod—
            But while our hearts deplore
His loss, we’ll own the hand of God,
            That God whom we adore. (404-405)

With poems like this in the mix, Derr and Davidson do a great service to their subject by reminding readers that “Snow deserves—as does any poet—to be judged by her best poems” (xv).[8] That means, of course, that readers are going to have to sift through a lot of Snow’s lesser poems—the trite memorial or missionary farewell pieces—to get at the heart of this book.

Obviously, tried-and-true Snow poems, like “My Father in Heaven” [“O My Father”] (#152) and “Sacramental Hymn” [“How great the wisdom and the love”] (#433), resonate with readers because of their enduring place as hymns in Latter-day Saint worship services. Other poems, like “Your Portrait” (#104), make up for their mediocre construction with keen observations, clever arguments, and unique views into nineteenth-century life. Snow, after all, wasn’t always a great poet, but she had a lot of important things to say about the big issues of her day. In fact, some of her most energetic—and surprising—poems are venomous responses to the United States government and its anti-polygamy crusade of the 1860s, 70s, and 80s:

My Country, O, my Country! My heart bleeds for thee—I mourn
thy corruption and degradation—thy glory has departed—thy fame
is extinguished—thy peace and honor, swindled; and “the dear old
flag” which once floated in glorious majesty, is now slowly and
solemnly undulating at half mast, as a requiem of thy departed
liberty, which thou has sacrificed on the shrine of political
emolument. (“My Country—A Lamentation,” [#424], 816)[9]

In their introduction, Derr and Davidson wisely direct readers to the best of Eliza R. Snow, poems like “A Winter Soliloquy” (#426), “Narcissa to Narcissus” (#51), “To Mrs. Heywood” (#231), and “My First View of a Western Prairie” (#433). For what it’s worth, my recommendation is that readers open the book at random and read until they find something that catches them. Out of 507 poems, readers are bound to find a few they like.  

Admittedly, my opinion of nineteenth-century Mormon poetry is not likely to change in the years to come, yet I am glad to have Eliza R. Snow on my bookshelf. As the only complete collection of Snow’s poetry, it is an invaluable resource for those, like me, who take Mormon literature seriously. Additionally, the fine editorial work of Derr and Davidson make it one of the more significant published contributions to Mormon literary studies in recent years. With any luck, a few enthusiastic graduate students with interests in Mormon poetry will get their hands on it and build upon the conversations Derr and Davidson have graciously begun within its pages.

Post Script: Speaking of Mormon poetry, I was pleased today to see that the cover of the latest anthology of Mormon poetry, Fire in the Pasture: Twenty-first Century Mormon Poets, was released by its publisher, Peculiar Pages.  If the fetching William Blake-esque cover is any indicator of the poetry contained therein, it promises to improve upon the great legacy of Sister Snow.  I look forward to reading and reviewing it.


[1] Unless you count the scriptures, of course.

[2] If you’re interested in my work on the ways the nineteenth century and the twentieth and twenty-first centuries intersect, check out my other blog, Fenimore’s Ghost.

[3] This is kind of ironic since most of the research I’ve done on contemporary Mormon literature—none of which I have published—looks back on nineteenth-century Mormon history. In fact, if everything goes according to plan—and I say this as a kind of teaser—nineteenth-century Mormon history will play a nice supporting role in my dissertation. Mormon literature from that time, however, will not.

[4] For this reason, I’ve made it a point never to read Elias: An Epic of the Ages and walk at the same time.

[5] But never an occasional poem.

[6] For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention here that I once had a dream in which I was caught in a love triangle involving both Emily Dickinson and Eliza R. Snow. I was an undergraduate at the time, probably taking an American literature survey, so try not to judge me too harshly. Since dreams have a way of not ending in any clear manner, I can’t remember who won out. I do remember, though, that Sister Snow’s hair was removable and made of the same material as a wasp’s nest. Analyze that.

[7] I’m resisting the temptation to evoke the surname of Zion’s Poetess here and make a pun bad enough to rival that used in Windows of Heaven, the short 1963 film about Eliza’s younger brother, Lorenzo, who became president of the LDS Church in 1898. In the film—if my memory is correct—President Snow (that is, the actor playing President Snow) cracks a smile behind his fake beard and says something like, “It will take more than a little sun to melt this snow!” I’ve probably botched the line, but you get the idea.  

[8] Having written my own share of dismal poems, I tend to agree with the editors.

[9] Should you continue on with this poem, you will find that Sister Snow warns the U.S.A. that “a day of retribution awaits thee.” And this was after the Civil War.  

5 comments:

  1. I'm pleased to hear of your conversion. My concentration for my undergrad major was American and British literature ~1840 to 1920 so I'm pleased that you've caught on to the virtues of the 19th century.

    Have you read The Golden Bowl yet?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Not yet. From an early age I was taught that reading Henry James's big novels was like earning the Eagle Scout: a lot of hard work with a big payoff.

    Since I didn't really enjoy earning my Eagle, I didn't think big James was for me.

    Now, post-conversion, I'm ready to give the big novels a try. I've got to read The Portrait of a Lady for my exams. Maybe I'll tackle The Golden Bowl while I'm looking for a job. It might take that long.

    ReplyDelete
  3. .

    (Thanks for the plug.)

    There's a gentleman in our ward who is a major Eliza Snow-fanboy and loves this volume above all others (and he has a terrific library). I never quote know what to say to him.

    ReplyDelete
  4. (No problem)

    I wonder if said gentleman has an opinion/theory on the staircase controversy (http://fairmormon.org/Joseph_Smith/Polygamy/Plural_wives/Eliza_R._Snow/Emma_pushing_Eliza_down_the_stairs) fictionalized so dramatically in Orson Scott Card's SAints.

    ReplyDelete
  5. .

    Don't know. Not sure how to broach it.

    ReplyDelete