Poet Unmasked

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(This is an excerpt from Eliza: The Life and Faith of Eliza R. Snow by Karen Lynn Davidson and Jill Mulvay Derr.

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.

(Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson, Eliza: The Life and Faith of Eliza R. Snow [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013], 18-19.)

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