Elias; An Epic of the Ages ("Forgotten Classics" edition)
Orson F. Whitney
Blair Dee Hodges
Grandin Press, 2010
Reviewed by Blair Dee Hodges for the Association for Mormon Letters
Prior to becoming a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Orson
F. Whitney (b. July 1, 1855) wrote for the Deseret News, served a
mission to Europe and edited the Millennial Star, and taught English and
Theology at Brigham Young College in Logan, Utah. Before becoming an
apostle he also served as Assistant Church Historian. His literary bent
made him particularly sensitive to criticisms leveled against the
educational attainments of his fellow Latter-day Saints, “a people who
are popularly supposed to be enemies of education, despisers of
learning, haters of books and schools, and of everything, in fact, that
is pure, ennobling and refined.” In his 1888 youth conference speech,
which was later published in a Church periodical, Whitney sought to
correct the record with an aspirational description of his Church: “It
suffices me to know, and to testify, that this people are the friends,
not the foes, of education; that they are seekers after wisdom, lovers
of light and truth, universal Truth.” He had faith that literature
would play an important part in spreading the gospel: “It is by means of
literature that much of this great work will have to be
accomplished.” In typical Mormon fashion he sought to embody his
faith in works, spearheading the so-called “home literature movement”
with this still-quoted prophecy:
“We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.... In God's name and
by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven,
though its foundations may now be low in earth.”
Whitney himself sought to fill a Miltonic role for his people by
producing “An Epic of the Ages” called Elias (first published in 1904,
now re-released as part of Grandin Press’s new “Forgotten Classics”
series). The lengthy poem has been described by Terryl Givens as a
slightly “turgid” but overall successful invocation of “the shadow of
Milton.” Like Milton’s Paradise Lost--the epic to end all epics--
Whitney’s twelve-part poem covers heavenly councils and earthly drama to
trace the history of god and human kind.
Given the poem’s obvious affinity to Milton, it’s interesting to
consider Whitney’s less-quoted sentences preceding his call for Mormon
Miltons and Shakespeares:
“Our mission is diverse from all others; our literature must also be.
The odes of Anacreon, the satires of Horace and Juvenal, the epics of
Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton; the sublime tragedies of Shakspeare
[sic]; these are all excellent, all well enough in their way; but we
must not attempt to copy them. They cannot be reproduced. We may read,
we may gather sweets from all these flowers, but we must build our own
hive and honeycomb after God's supreme design.”
Perhaps Whitney felt his epic could reproduce the spirit of what Milton
accomplished, showing the world that Mormons were not simpletons unable
to hold a candle to the world’s great writers. And perhaps he viewed
Elias as itself being an Elias of sorts, that is, a forerunner of
greater things to come in Mormon literature. Throughout Whitney’s poem
Elias is a harbinger of dawn, a bringer of good tidings with promises of
better things to come. Joseph Smith acts as an Elias for the second
coming of Christ, for example (53).
The divisions of the poem cover the premortal council in heaven, the
apostasy following Christ’s establishment of His church in the meridian
of time, the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith, the
“pre-historic story of America” as outlined in the Book of Mormon (x),
new doctrines revealed to Joseph Smith including the three degrees of
glory, and concludes with three sections on the “history of the
latter-day Church from its inception to the martyrdom of its founder,
who is pictured as foretelling to his people their great destiny” (x).
I was surprised how much I enjoyed the work overall. Whitney’s prose
can, at times, be a bit over the top, as Givens noted one might expect
from a Miltonian piece of Victorian poetry, but it holds up well. It is
especially interesting to see what aspects of Mormonism Whitney selected
to weave into the epic’s narrative. Of particular interest to me was
Whitney’s lengthy aside about truth’s persistence even throughout the
time of apostasy. This excerpt will give you a feel for the poem and
also point out an interesting argument Whitney made about the apostasy
itself. It begins with the typical 19th-century Mormon rhetoric
condemning clergy but rises above it to express a measure of gratitude:
…What now, ye learned ones,
School-taught, self-sent, man-missioned ministers,
Creators of a vain divinity—
Likeness of naught, mirror of nothingness,
A god, than graven image, less divine!
Daring the thunders of the Decalogue,
Disputing Moses, Christ, and prophets all.
Gird up your loins and answer—what is God ?
"Impersonal, incomprehensible ;
Centre, as circle, everywhere, nowhere ;
All things made He from nothing" — Hold, enough!
Night and gross darkness — darken it no more.
Yet give to man his meed — him that hath kept,
Albeit in empty urn, the Name of Names,
And toiled and suffered sore transmitting it
From sire to son through shaded centuries;
As him that erst Messiah here proclaimed,
The trodden yet beneath oppression's heel.
Safe hoarding still the precious prophecy.
The Jew, the Christian, each hath played his part,
Each as a star hath heralded a morn.
And what of him, the fierce iconoclast,
Agnostic, doubting or denying all.
Ofttimes in hate and horrid ribaldry?
Maintains he not life's equilibrium?
A jet to cool fanaticism's flame,
A brake upon the wheel of bigotry?
Bold unbelief, reform's rough pioneer,
Unwittingly a warrior for the Cross,
A weapon for the right he ridicules.
God's perfect plan an ocean is, where range,
As minnows, monsters, of the wide wave realm,
Men's causes, creeds, and systems manifold;
Free as the will of Him who freedom willed,
While foiling here nor fettering aim divine.
E'en Lucifer, arch-foe to liberty,
Is free — though not to trench on freedom's ground.
All human schemes, all hell's conspiracies.
All chance, all accident, all agency.
All loves, hates, hopes, despairs, and blasphemies,
All rights, all wrongs, bend to one blest decree;
And truth — gold, found with dross, in every age
Hath wrought more good than ill to humankind.
But morn must rise, and night dismiss her stars;
And ocean summon home his seas and streams;
And Truth, the perfect, truth the part fulfill, —
As knowledge, faith; as history, prophecy.
Hark to a cry that cleaves the wilderness.
Pealing the clarion prelude to the dawn! (39-41)
Readers who are unfamiliar with the style of an epic poem may struggle
at first to grasp Whitney’s approach. As with Milton, who himself
followed earlier conventions, each line consists of ten syllables, and
they more often than not lack rhymes. In fact, the weakest part of the
poem in my view is Canto III (the third section of the poem), which is a
song regarding the “Elect of Elohim” in a conventional rhyming format.
This canto discusses the premortal council in heaven where Jesus is
chosen over Lucifer to bring about the salvation of humanity. Here, as
elsewhere in the poem, Whitney takes opportunity for a little
theologizing, as when he writes in behalf of God the Father:
Go forth, thou chosen of the Gods,
Whose strength shall in thee dwell!
Go down betime and rescue earth,
Dethroning death and hell.
On thee alone man’s fate depends,
The fate of beings all.
Thou shalt not fail, though thou art free—
Free, but too great, to fall (27).
Note the parenthetical comment about agency and the possibility of
Jesus’s failure to succeed--Jesus is “too great to fall,” though the
possibility remains even for him. The rhyming and meter make the section
seem less weighty than the other cantos, and, I believe, distract the
reader from the import of the section, although some readers will likely
prefer the rhyming to his epic style employed in the rest of the work.
As noted above, Grandin Press now offers a reprint of Whitney’s poem as
part of their new “Forgotten Classics” collection. The paperback volume
has an attractive cover with a new stylized picture of Orson F. Whitney,
and the font is much easier on the eyes than the .pdf’s of the original
poem which are available for free online. I personally prefer to
read a printed text, so this reasonably-priced forgotten classic can
make a nice addition to the bookshelf of those interested in older
Unfortunately, as with the other volumes in the series, this republished
edition is completely raw. The editors have not added any introductory
material, contextual essays, annotations, an index, or any other
additional material. Aside from a one-paragraph blurb on the back cover
the book even lacks bibliographic information on Whitney himself. It
would have been especially useful had the editors added line numbers,
which can act as verse numbers in the LDS books of scripture do in
helping readers quickly navigate to a particular spot in the work. They
also did not identify which edition they used for the republication.
Given these drawbacks the volumes work best for a popular audience who
is less interested in using the book itself for present or future
scholarship, a situation which I will discuss further after completing
reviews of the other two Whitney volumes in the “Forgotten Classics”
1. Orson F. Whitney, “Home Literature,” first delivered as a speech by
Bishop Orson F. Whitney, at the Y.M.M.I.A. Conference, June 3, 1888. See
4. Ibid. The quote was used by President Spencer W. Kimball to help
encourage Mormon artists during his presidency, see "The Gospel Vision
of the Arts," Ensign (July, 1977): 5. More recent white-whale
conversations about “The Great Mormon Novel” have also tipped their cap
to Whitney’s prediction, see David Haglund, “The Great Mormon Novel:
Where Is It?” Slate.com, 17 May 2010, http://www.slate.com/id/2253914/.
5. Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture,
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 286.
7. Water--in ocean, rivers, rain, or otherwise--is one of Whitney’s most
prominent epic similes.
8. As with Milton, freedom and agency are central to Whitney’s
description of God’s plans. However, the LDS view of the council in
heaven, with Lucifer’s depicted attempt to destroy man’s agency, has
some significant differences compared to Milton. See John S. Tanner,
“Making a Mormon of Milton,” BYU Studies 24/2 (Spring 1984), 191-208,
http://byustudies.byu.edu/showTitle.aspx?title=5627. A comprehensive
comparison of Whitney’s Elias and Milton’s Paradise Lost has yet to be
created as far as I have seen--one possible project the “Forgotten
Classics” series could help spur.
9. Most often Whitney sticks to the salvation of “man,” “kings and
priests,” etc., but at one point he breaks from that mold: “The gulf
that parts the lower from the higher/Bridged by development of son to
Sire,/Of daughter unto Mother’s high estate; For e’en as man’s, the
woman’s future fate” (85). Gender is another subject worthy of
attention, a project which “Forgotten Classics” might help spur and a
subject which a contextual essay in the volume itself might have
10. For instance, see
10 March 2011). Public domain books like those in the Forgotten Classics
series are even more easily accessible on e-readers like the Kindle or
Nook, another incentive for the editors to include something extra in
their reprinted editions to help justify the purchase.