When Leonard Cohen said “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash,”[i] he probably didn’t have Joseph Smith in mind. Joseph Smith burned brightly in a world lit only by fire, and he left a splendid ash indeed, but Cohen most likely has never considered that ash. That is my task today.
On November 27th, 1832, Joseph Smith sent a letter from Kirtland, Ohio, to W. W. Phelps, the Church’s newspaper editor in Independence, Missouri, in which this poem appears:
Little Narrow Prison
Now Brother William if what I have said is true,
how careful then had men ought to be
what they do in the last days lest they are cut short
of their expectations, and they that think they stand
should fall because they keep not the Lord’s commandments,
whilst you who do the will of the Lord
and keep his commandments have need to rejoice
with unspeakable joy, for such shall be
exalted very high and shall be lifted up
in triumph above all the kingdoms of the world —
but I must drop this subject at the beginning.
Oh Lord when will the time come
when Brother William thy servant and myself
behold the day that we may stand together
and gaze upon eternal wisdom engraven
upon the heavens while the majesty
of our God holdeth up the dark curtain
until we may read the round of Eternity
to the fullness and satisfaction of our immortal
souls? Oh Lord God deliver us
in thy due time from the little narrow prison
almost as it were total darkness of paper
pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered
and imperfect language.[ii]
The letter was written largely on business matters, but part of it was canonized in 1876 as Section 85 of Doctrine and Covenants, dealing with consecration of property. This part was not canonized, and the text, as published by Dean Jessee, comes from a file copy of the letter in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams and Joseph Smith.[iii]
For those of you who have heard of Joseph Campbell’s outline of the hero’s journey — it was George Lucas’s inspiration for the narrative arc of the first Star Wars trilogy — the life of Joseph Smith might seem more like a legend than a biography. Consider this: he was born near the winter solstice — born on 23 December 1805; he underwent his first vision near the vernal equinox, early in the spring of 1820; the visitations by Moroni occured on 21 September 1823, the autumnal equinox, and each 21st of September for the next three years following, until he was given permission to retrieve the plates; and he was killed on 27 June 1844, shortly after Midsummer’s Day, the summer solstice. That pattern of significant events in a hero’s life being tied to those same times in the solar year is as old as the oldest tales of heroes. So when I see that pattern appearing in his life, I conclude that Joseph Smith’s was a hero’s journey if ever there was one.[iv]
One of the most frequent aspects of the hero’s journey is self-doubt. It occurs in almost every tale from the earliest we have — doubt about his tasks, about his calling, about his abilities. Another aspect is doubts of all those things and more by his community. And in that respect, too, Joseph Smith’s life resembles the hero’s journey. He talks frankly about his failings. The Lord rebukes him for his failings. His acquaintances doubted his story of the First Vision, and of the visitation of Moroni, and of his revelations in the ensuing years, and doubted his ability to build a New Testament community in Kirtland, and a new Zion in Missouri, and a New Jerusalem at Nauvoo. And as shown in the poem above, Joseph experienced his limitations on a cosmic, not just a personal, level.
One thing he appears to have had little doubt about is the reality of his revelations. But did he consider them poetry? It is of course easy for me to take a block of text, break it arbitrarily into short lines, and call it verse — but does that make the text a poem? What basis do I have, other than my fondness for the text, to call that excerpt a poem, let alone give it a title? I start with a simple fact: Joseph Smith did not write most of the texts connected with him. He dictated them. Most of us don’t see any difference between writing and dictating, because we have mechanized both processes. But linguists understand that speech and writing are different uses of language, and that speech is primary, and writing derivative of speech. We also punctuate our texts following arcane rules that require a book over a thousand pages long (including the preface)[v] to encompass them all. But the words Joseph Smith spoke were written in longhand by his scribes, who by and large eschewed punctuation, including capitalization. And the ones he wrote in his own hand show that same freedom.
The fact of dictation leads to my second point: while it is possible to recover some information about the voice in which Joseph dictated many of his texts, we don’t have a lot of direct evidence about this text, because this is transcribed from a file copy — this transcription is not from a dictation, but from a copying over of the dictated letter. Which may explain why the writing of two hands appear in the copy, of Frederick G. Williams and Joseph Smith. Both men took part in making the copy. I don’t know the circumstances under which that occurred, but it appears from the pagination in Jessee’s transcript that Williams went from copying the first page of the letter to copying the fourth page, then Smith took up the task, then Williams to near the end of the 4th page, then someone noticed that they hadn’t copied pages 2 and 3, so someone crossed out what had been miscopied, Williams began the corrected copy and Smith finished it, except for the postscript. That’s why the text I call “Little Narrow Prison” appears twice in this copy of the letter. I believe that Smith wanted to preserve it, and wanted it copied correctly. The second time it appears in his own hand.
That leaves me in the situation of those who produced the Book of Mormon critical text. They worked “with a view to coming as close as possible to establishing the intention and dictation of Joseph Smith himself”[vi], listing
the substantive differences crucial to an establishing of the actual words dictated by Joseph Smith, Jr., to his various scribes in 1829…. For ease of reading, we have adopted the same sort of layout by phrase which was recently employed so well by Bradbury Thompson for the Washburn Bible.[vii]
That scheme for reproducing the rhythms of dictation seems to me to be as good as any other, although you have doubtless noticed that I am not strictly bound by phrase; many of the lines I have laid out are five-stress lines, and several are iambic, regardless of phrase.
Joseph called the Book of Mormon into existence through the power of his voice. Our access to its sources ends with the manuscript he dictated. But perhaps Brigham Young recognized the power of that voice as poetry. In comments attributed to him by a correspondent for the New York Herald, ca. September 1877, he said:
It seems to me that humility and obedience are something very profound, and too deep for me. But Joseph Smith was a poet, and poets are not like other men; their gaze is deeper, and reaches the root of the soul; it is like that of the searching eyes of angels; they catch the swift thought of God and reveal it to us….[viii]
So what am I suggesting? That you can tell the difference between Joseph’s poetic utterances and his prosaic voice — I would submit that, in his letter of 20 March 1839, from Liberty Jail, you see a contrast between the parts canonized in Doctrine and Covenants as section 122, a pure poem, and section 121, an assembled poem with prose parts, and section 123, pretty much straight prose.
But I’ll take that up in my next text. Today is July 24th, what my pagan sister calls “Pie’n’beer Day,” and when she said that I knew it was true — or, as the hymn text has it:
They, the builders of the nation,
Blazing trails along the way;
Stepping-stones for generations
Were their deeds of ev’ry day.
Building new and firm foundations,
Pushing on the wild frontier,
Forging onward, ever onward,
Blessed, honored Pie ‘n’ beer!
But soft, what’s that I hear you say? You really wish I hadn’t dragged in even one bad pun to diminish the effect of my excellent discussion thus far?
[i] Transcribed from a poster advertising the documentary Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man at the Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, Friday, 27 January 2006.
[ii] This text follows Dean Jessee’s transcription of the letter in Personal writings of Joseph Smith. — Revised edition / compiled and edited by Dean C. Jessee. — Salt Lake City : Deseret Book ; Provo, Utah : Brigham Young University Press, c2002, pp. 286-287. I have, however, normalized spelling and supplied my own punctuation, along with the line breaks.
[iii] The letter was published, with some emendations, in volume 1 of History of the Church, on pp. 297-299, and I am not to first to notice the power of the poem “Little Narrow Prison.” Jessee called my attention to it in his introduction to Personal writings of Joseph Smith, on pages 2 & 3.
[iv] This was pointed out by Daniel Peterson in a discussion at Doug Thayer’s regarding the Salamander Letter in the winter of 1984.
[v] I refer, of course, to The Chicago manual of style. — 15th edition. — Chicago ; London : University of Chicago Press, c2003. There is probably a thicker, more recent edition.
[vi] Book of Mormon critical text : a tool for scholarly reference. — Second ed., second print. — Provo, Utah : F.A.R.M.S., c1987, v. 1, p. iii (emphasis added). I realize that this text has been supplemented by The Book of Mormon : the earliest text / edited by Royal Skousen. — New Haven ; London : Yale University Press, c2009, but for my purposes, this quote will do.
[vii] Ibid., v. 1, p. vii (emphasis added).
[viii] I’d like to believe this is a true reflection of Young’s attitude towards Smith, but the veracity of the correspondent has been called into question. The quote is found in The essential Brigham Young / foreword by Eugene E. Campbell. — Salt Lake City : Signature Books, 1992, p. 241.