Perspectives of Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Joseph Spencer on Pratt’s Poetry

By August 10, 2009

[Yet another post in the Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography series. Joe recently received a MLS degree from San Jose State University, but has decided to turn from the practical back to the abstract and will be applying to PhD programs in philosophy this fall. He is active in the Society of Mormon Philosophy and Theology, Mormon Scholars in the Humanities, and the Mormon Theology Seminar, and is well-known in the bloggernacle for his Priesthood/RS lesson posts over at Feast Upon the Word blog. Joe is married with a  handful of kids, and his only flaw is his belief that continental philosophy can solve all the world’s problems.]

Parley P. Pratt is still well known for his poetry, didactic and pedestrian as it often enough is. And, as this series of discussions recognizes, he is equally well known for his obviously important autobiography. In my (all too orthogonal) contribution to the series, I would like to look at the intersection between Parley’s poetry and his autobiography, that is, at how Parley’s use of poetry shapes and frames the story he has to tell. I’ll look at only a single poem, in order to have the space to deal with it in some detail. For those reading along, the poem I will consider is the unnamed (or at least, unnamed in the autobiography) poem that concludes chapter 16 (part of it appears under the title of “The Falls of Niagara” in The Millennium of 1840).

Parley’s “The Falls of Niagara” appears in the autobiography at the point in the story when (surprise!) Parley visits the falls for the first time. Leading up to his reflections, he says:

As this was my first visit to this place it made a deep and awful impression on my mind. We halted a short time to view this wonder of nature, and to adore that God who had formed a world so sublimely grand. The leaping of a mighty river of waters over a perpendicular fall of one hundred and sixty feet, the foaming and dashing of its white spray upon the rocks beneath; the rising cloud of mist with its glittering rainbow, the yawning gulf with its thousand whirlpools; all conspired to fill the contemplative mind with wonder and admiration, and with reverence to the Great Author of all the wonders of creation; while its everlasting roar which may be heard for many miles distant, seemed a lively emblem of eternity.

While musing on this spot, I fell into the following train of reflection . . . .

The narrative here sets Parley up as the subject standing before the Kantian sublime. Absolutely crucial to such an experience of the sublime is, of course, the place of the observer, and Parley is emphatic about “this spot,” where he “fell” before the blow of the spectacle (of “the falls”).

The “train of reflection” that follows is part in prose and part in poetry. The prose serves to introduce the poem so that its first stanza will be understood to be made up of the words of the falls themselves. In essence, the paragraph and a half of prose functions as a kind of anticipatory summary, perhaps even a kind of commentary, of/on the (first part of the) poem. This introductory part of Parley’s “train of reflection” is worth quoting in full:

O Niagara! Generations may pass in long succession; ages may roll away and others still succeed; empires may rise and flourish, and pass away and be forgotten; but still thy deafening, they solemn and awful voice is heard in one eternal roar. The temples of marble may moulder to dust, the monuments of the great may crumble to decay, the palaces of kings fall to ruin and their very place become unknown, their history forgotten in the almost countless ages of antiquity; and still thy sound is heard in everlasting moan, as if mourning over the ruins of by-gone years.

With deepest eloquence thou seemest to speak in awful pride, saying: “Before Abraham was, I am;’ and with mingled feelings of pity and contempt thou seemest to inquire:—

The first sentence of the first paragraph here is little more than a summary of the first (lengthy) stanza of the poem. The second sentence (making up the remainder of the paragraph) is a parallel summary of the same stanza of the poem, but clearly inflected by the last (and shortest) stanza of the poem, exchanging the “eternal roar” of the first sentence (which summarizes Niagara’s “joy” in shouting with “the sons of God” in creation) for an “everlasting moan” of “mourning” (which plays off of the “weep on” and the “funeral dirge” of the last stanza of the poem).

That this paragraph is bound to both the first and the third stanzas of the poem in turn is significant. The third stanza (along with the second stanza) was not written until 1838 or 1839. When Parley published The Millennium, a collection of his poetry, in Nauvoo in 1840, he included “The Falls of Niagara,” under which title appear only the last two paragraphs of the poem that appears here in the autobiography. Significantly, “The Falls of Niagara” appears with this note in an explanatory heading: “Written in Prison.”

In the autobiography, on the other hand, Parley claims that his “train of reflection,” which would include the entirety of the poem, was something to which he fell subject “on [that] spot,” there before the falls, in 1836, only a month after the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. As the autobiography explains, Parley was on his way to Canada to carry out a prophecy-fulfilling mission now that he had been, along with the elders generally, endowed with power from on high. However, from The Millennium, it is clear that at least part of the poem was written only later, in either 1838 or 1839, while Parley was languishing in prison in Missouri.

There are several possibilities here, but the most likely two, it seems to me, are:

(1) Parley wrote the first stanza of the poem while he was at Niagara in 1836, and then countered these earlier sentiments in his prison poem; he then subsequently wove them together with an appropriate prose introduction in 1851-55, when he was working on the autobiography;

(2) Parley wrote the first stanza of the poem at some point after 1838-39, likely in 1851-55 while working on the autobiography, in order to set up the contrast that the poem exhibits between the romantic experience of the sublime in nature and the ascetic need to keep focused on the still-to-come events of the apocalypse.

Whichever of these two options is historically accurate, they both tell us something significant about the way that Parley reconstructed the story of his life as he wrote the autobiography. Whether he saw his reflections in prison as justifiably revising his earlier rapture, or whether he drew on his reflections in prison in order to set up a central but perhaps anachronistic tension in Mormonism, it is clear that he is in complete control of the shape he wants his life’s story to take.

All the more helpful here is the placement of this poem in the story. As mentioned, it comes in the middle of a journey to Canada, where Parley was to perform his first post-endowment mission. Immediately before and immediately after the pages dealing with Niagara, the autobiography records in rather bare language the basic itinerary of the journey. From before the Niagara experience:

I took an affectionate leave of my wife, mother and friends, and started for Canada in company with a brother Nickerson, who kindly offered to bear my expenses. After a long and tedious passage in a public coach (the roads being very bad and the lake not open), we arrived at the Falls of Niagara sometime in the month of April, 1836.

From after the Niagara experience:

Leaving the Falls we continued our journey for a day or two on foot, and as the Sabbath approached, we halted in the neighborhood of Hamilton, and gave out two or three appointments for meetings. Brother Nickerson now left me to fill these appointments, and passed on to his home, in a distant part of the province. I preached to the people, and was kindly entertained till Monday morning, when I took leave and entered Hamilton, a flourishing town at the head of Lake Ontario; but my place of destination was Toronto, around on the north side of the lake.

The question, then: Why does Parley break up the relatively short travel itinerary with such a lengthy reflection on his reflection on his reflection on Niagara Falls? What does this do to the narrative he constructs?

Whichever of the above two historical reconstructions of Parley’s actual writing of the various parts of the poem turns out to be true, it seems clear that Parley, in telling the story of his travels from Kirtland to Toronto, wanted to touch on Niagara, since—however things happened—it is clear that the visit had a powerful impact on him. The problem he was faced with, then, in constructing his narrative of the journey was: How could he describe the power of the experience without distracting from his primary narrative purposes?

Here, it seems to me, one can discover the significance of the first stanza’s being in the first person, cast as the boast of the falls themselves. Parley presents himself through the prose introduction to the poem as certainly transfixed, indeed, as entranced enough to be able to hear Niagara’s boast. But then he goes on to present himself, through the second and third stanzas of the poem, written in 1838-39, as being detached enough to be able to deliver a beautifully-worded but nonetheless didactic poetic response to Niagara’s boast.

The narrative effect is interesting: Parley presents himself as having been detained for a moment during his travels, but makes it clear that he was—even in his being stalled in his journey—very much the apostle, ready to declare the truth of his curiously apocalyptic gospel even to nature itself.

In this regard, let me offer one last passing reflection on Parley’s last stanza. By telling Niagara that her incessant cascades of water were actually, though she couldn’t see it, the tears of her weeping, the rhythm of her funeral dirge, he plays the part of the (almost Nietzschean but certainly Freudian) psychologist. That is, he is bold enough to tell the falls their true significance. Psychologist, then, or better: typologist. The gospel Parley had received and had the duty to announce was something that, he came to see if he didn’t already see in 1836, called for a drastic reinterpretation of everything, the very features of nature included. In this regard, it is not surprising to find Parley later speaking of the gospel as a “revolution without reserve,” one that he believed was strong enough, if it had the appropriate militants declaring fidelity to it, to overturn “the miseries / Of a fallen world in anguish deep.”

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Cultural History Intellectual History


Comments

  1. Thank you for the post, Joe. As someone commented previously, it’s good to see a classic text examined in new ways.

    Comment by Jared T — August 10, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

  2. The formal pause at Niagara Falls to contemplate divine evidence in nature may have been somewhat formulaic among itinterant preachers of that era. John Colby (age twenty-two) stopped there in 1810, for example, and recounted his experience as follows:

    . . . I proceeded on my journey, and went down the river till I came to the Falls. I here beheld one of the greatest curiosities in nature. The river at this place is said to be 742 yards wide. The water falls 150 feet, perpendicular height. I descended on a ladder eighty feet, and the remainder of the distance was not so steep but that I could walk down. I there beheld, with astonishment, the majestick scene! While beholding, I was struck with a deep and awful sense of the majesty of Him who made heaven and earth, and the seas, and the fountains of water. I can truly say, I had an excellent meeting, and sweet communion, while standing below the Falls, though no mortal was near me. My text was, the [117th] Psalm. I there enjoyed a happy season.

    Levi Parsons’ preaching took him past Niagara in 1819, at age twenty-six . . .

    . . . In a few moments we were completely dripping with the spray; in which appeared a rainbow with all its bright and glowing colours. Here we stood, and with wonder adored the great Original. Every object seemed to adore, and in silent accents proclaim the power of the eternal I AM. Debased and stupid must be that individual who can behold all this, without raising to heaven a soul filled with reverence and adoration. Returning the same way, and with our little canoe tossed upon the foaming billows, we sung the following lines, ‘Our little bark on boisterous seas,’ &c. . . .

    Comment by Rick Grunder — August 10, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

  3. Very cool. Thanks for the analysis.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 11, 2009 @ 3:34 am

  4. Thanks for your contribution to the series, Joe. I will never read PPP’s autobiography the same again.

    Comment by Christopher — August 11, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

  5. Great close reading, Joe. Perhaps you saw my earlier post that dealt with “Falls of Niagara” also. One of my speculations there, that Parley’s Romantic attitudes became eclipsed by his ecclesiastical sense, seems compatible with your reading as well. However, your reading (plausibly) seems to indicate that the Autobiography was more an apostolic than literary act.

    Comment by Ryan T — August 11, 2009 @ 10:04 pm

  6. Very nice, Joe! Very insightful. Well done.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — August 11, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

  7. Thanks all.

    Ryan, I think you’re right, though I think I would phrase your final point: The Autobiography was an apostolicization of the literary.

    Comment by Joe Spencer — August 12, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  8. […] Joseph Spencer: Parley Pratt’s Poetry […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Series Wrap-up — September 8, 2009 @ 9:51 am


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