Poetry Is a “Powerful Historical Ally,” Church Historian Says

Contributed By By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 26 March 2014

Historian Brittany A. Chapman speaks to the audience in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square about poetry as a medium of history.  Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Article Highlights

  • Poetry can provide important historical insights as a story of relationships, a biographical record, a medium of conviction, and a tool to express sentiment.

The tradition of capturing life in poetry was strong in the 19th century, said Brittany A. Chapman March 13 in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square as she delivered the latest presentation in the monthly Men and Women of Faith Lecture Series organized by the Church History Library.

“If one is willing to stretch beyond the traditional sources of autobiography, journals, other archival records, and history books, one may find that poetry, including song lyrics, can be a powerful historical ally,” said Sister Chapman, a historian at the library.

“It gives insight into the past in dynamic ways and can help us piece together what it meant to live in eras gone by.”

In her lecture, she explored poetry in four areas: as a story of relationships, a biographical record, a medium of conviction, and a tool to express sentiment.

A story of relationships

As an example of poetry giving insights into relationships between people that might otherwise have been lost, she cited Barbara Matilda Neff Moses, who converted to the Church and moved with her family to Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844, where she married John Moses.

Exemplifying a tradition common in the Victorian era, Sister Moses kept an autograph book in which was preserved personal remembrances and words of wisdom from friends and sometimes famous people, most often set to rhyme.

In her autograph book was an inscription penned by the Prophet Joseph Smith:

Truth and virtue both are good

When rightly understood.

But charity is better, Miss,

That takes us home to bliss.

And so, forthwith, remember—

Joseph Smith

The autograph book contains a poem written by President Wilford Woodruff that is an acrostic, a form in which the first letter of each line spells out a word or group of words, in this case the name of Sister Moses.

A biographical record

That poetry can serve as a biographical record is exemplified by Ruth May Fox, Sister Chapman’s own ancestor, who served as general president of the YWMIA (forerunner to the Young Women program) from 1929 to 1937.

Sister Fox’s daughter, Emmeline Blanch (nicknamed Bee) was gravely ill with rheumatic heart disease, a condition that continued to worsen in adolescence and eventually took her life.

“In the hope of recovering Bee’s health, Ruth suspended her Church and civic activities for eight months and took Bee to Ocean Park, California,” Sister Chapman recounted.

“Ruth wrote very little about this experience with Bee in her personal writings,” she said. “She devotes only two sentences to it in her autobiography, and her journal skips over the months she spent there. … Gratefully, Ruth wrote a poem about their day-to-day life in Ocean Park. She likely included it in a letter she wrote to members of her family living in Salt Lake City.”

Brittany A. Chapman tells of the family of Ruth May Fox, to whom Sister Fox wrote a poem while she was in California with her daughter, Bee, who was convalescing from illness. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

A medium of conviction

Sister Chapman said, “Poetry, with its creative freedom, with its structure of rhythm and rhyme, provides an elastic medium for the expression of conviction that somehow cannot be matched by prose.”

Poems were a natural part of parties and celebrations during the era, and newspapers of the 19th century were “riddled with poetry,” she said.

Poetry was also an expression of political conviction, she said, and in Utah conveyed the strong advocacy of women for national suffrage, or the right to vote.

“Poetry set to music was a tool used to convey that vision to women, not just to the men who served as legislators,” Sister Chapman remarked. She introduced a group of young women who sang a song of the period set to the tune of the familiar Latter-day Saint hymn “Hope of Israel”:

Freedom’s daughter, rouse from slumber;

See, the curtains are withdrawn,

Which so long thy mind hath shrouded,

Lo! thy day begins to dawn.

Woman, ‘rise! thy penance o’er,

Sit thou in the dust no more;

Seize the scepter, hold the van,

Equal with thy brother, man.

A tool for expressing sentiment

Regarding poetry as a tool for expressing sentiment, Sister Chapman said, “Some authors of the 19th century leave very little record of their hearts on the page, including their love for others. Feelings when disappointments occurred, life’s joys and sorrows may appear to receive very little reflection in personal writing.”

Her ancestor Ruth May Fox, was such a person. Sister Fox wrote of the death of her daughter Bee.

“Looking solely at her autobiography and diaries, one may think that Ruth is cold hearted and question her feelings for her family, her feelings in tragedy and disappointment, and the color of her personality that made her who she was,” Sister Chapman remarked. “The place her heart is found is in poetry. She wrote a touching poem in her grief for Bee. The repeating stanza is ‘She flew, on the wings of the morning she flew, our beauteous Emmeline.’”

In later years, Sister Fox wrote a poem called “To My Children.” It was placed in an envelope meant to be opened after her death, but she lived on for 15 years.

At age 103, she asked that the envelope be opened and copies distributed to her family.

“Later that year [1957], a young man named Arthur Thomas Challis went to interview Ruth for his master’s thesis documenting Utah history,” Sister Chapman said. “He recorded that interview on reel-to-reel tape. Miraculously, through a series of wonderful events, this recording was uncovered only months ago and brought to the Church History Library in near perfect condition.”

For the Assembly Hall audience, Sister Chapman played a portion of the recording in which Sister Fox recites from memory her poem to her children.

The story of the discovery of the tape was reported last December 12 in a Deseret News article by Trent Toone. It can be accessed at this website, where audio portions can be played, including Sister Fox’s recitation of the poem to her children: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865592255/Lost-recording-of-an-interview-with-1867-Mormon-pioneer-found.html