Doing Nothing by Halves

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(This is an excerpt from the book Eliza by Karen Lynn Davidson and Jill Mulvay Derr.)

Eliza R. Snow did nothing by halves. She treasured the unfolding doctrines and revelations as taught by Joseph Smith, and her belief in his prophetic calling was firm. Her acceptance of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ would shape the rest of her life, determining not only her beliefs but her location, her associates, and her work. After her baptism, she would live with the Saints, suffer with them in their forced expulsions and resettlements, and dedicate her talents to their cause.

Under Joseph’s direction in Kirtland, Ohio, a town only a few miles from Eliza’s longtime family home in Mantua, Latter-day Saint converts steadily gathered to build homes and begin work on a temple. After her baptism in April 1835, Eliza remained at Mantua until the year’s end; her younger sister Melissa died there in December. Eliza moved to Kirtland that month, boarding with Joseph and Emma Smith and teaching school, but she returned “at the close of the [spring] term” to her parents’ home in Mantua. It is probably accurate to say that Eliza’s decision to relocate once and for all to Kirtland in January 1837 required her to begin to confront true adulthood for the first time in her life. After she “bade a final adieu to the home of my youth, to share the fortunes of the people of God,” she was no longer the sheltered daughter in a long-established and comfortable Mantua home. She began a more independent life in Kirtland, one that was unfamiliar and yet anchored by the new faith she had embraced.

How did Eliza’s conversion affect her poetry? A look at how she signed her poems, before and after her conversion, helps to answer this question. During the years before her baptism, Eliza had used a series of pen names, concealing her identity under such fictional identities as Angerona, Pocahontas, and Tullia. Pseudonyms can be a form of modesty, a way of declining credit and recognition for a poem, but of course they also can be a way of escaping responsibility. Eliza’s first two hymn texts mark a major turning point in her poetic career, symbolized by a bold decision: She signed these hymn texts with her own name and thereafter took ownership of all the poems she wrote for the rest of her life.

The abandonment of pen names was part of her decision to consecrate her poetic gifts to the cause of the gospel. Several years later, in a poem she wrote to a fellow poet, she described her decision to acknowledge her authorship and speak out courageously, without the mask of a pseudonym, on behalf of her beliefs:

When young in years—in all a child—
With thought untrain’d, and fancy wild
’Twas my delight to spend an hour
Beneath the Muse’s fav’rite bow’r;
While then I fan’d Parnassus’ fire
The letter’d pinions ask’d my lyre;
I deeply scorn’d the Poet’s fame
And from the world witheld my name.
But when from the eternal throne,
The truth of God around me shone; Its glories my affections drew
And soon I tun’d my harp anew:
By counsel which I’d fain abide
I laid fictitious names aside:
My duty, not a love of fame
Induc’d me to divulge my name.
It surely is a glorious thing
To mount imagination’s wing;
With Inspiration’s chart unfurl’d
That bids defiance to the world;
And ride triumphantly abroad
Where the unthinking never trod,
And gain an empire for the mind
That leaves tradition’s throne behind.

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