Woman’s Exponent—Poetry Proponent

    Faye Fischer, Church history specialist
    28 May 2019

    This third installment of the Woman’s Exponent series explores the significance and the beauty of the poetry published in the magazine.

    The Woman’s Exponent magazine was more than just the typical ladies’ publication of the era. The women of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints craved a way to accurately represent and defend themselves to a nation confused by their religious practices. As stated in the Prospectus of Woman’s Exponent, a Utah Ladies’ Journal, the document drafted to announce the purpose of the new endeavor, “Who are so well able to speak for the women of Utah as the women of Utah themselves? ‘It is better to represent ourselves than to be misrepresented by others!’”1 From its conception in 1872, it was intended to be a platform and a voice for discerning women who were its sole editors and main contributors.

    That sentiment is captured in the first two stanzas of a poem entitled “The ‘Woman’s Exponent,’” published in the January 1873 volume:

    We’re no longer contented
    To be misrepresented,
    In all matters by an opponent;
    So with common consenting,
    We are now representing
    Ourselves, in the WOMAN’S EXPONENT.

    ’Tis a small publication,
    Full of choice information,
    Which the Saints in all places should favor
    For, our faith in explaining
    And our rights in sustaining,
    There’s none that is truer or braver.2

    The poem continues with a plea for subscriptions and submissions for the blossoming publication. Poetry is an important element of the Woman’s Exponent. Every issue contains at least one poem. Some poems are attributed, others anonymous; some are reprinted from other publications, while many were commissioned for the magazine. Several prominent women in the Church were poets, including Eliza R. Snow, the president of the Relief Society organization when the magazine was founded. Many of her poems are published in the Exponent—for example, “Spirit Whisperings,” which contains the following inspirational lines on listening to the Spirit:

    The whisperings of angels, and loved ones,
    In that fair mystic beyond;
    The voice of our infinite Father,
    To whom our feelings respond.3

    The end of the 19th century also saw the rise of female poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Brontë sisters. Poems by both Browning and Emily Brontë are featured in the Woman’s Exponent, as well as works of Tennyson, Louisa May Alcott,4 Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Rudyard Kipling. Poetry was a dominant form of entertainment at the time. Many prominent periodicals of the day featured poems—most written in the popular rhyming couplets and sonnets—that were likely read aloud and shared with family and friends.

    Literature and poetry were an important aspect of life in early Utah. Doctrine and Covenants 109:7 states, in part, “Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith.” Women expressed that faith through the works of poetry they published for their sister Saints. Through verse they bore testimony, taught doctrine, and expounded on scripture. Celebrated poet and hymn writer Emily Woodmansee penned these lines on the promises of the Beatitudes:

    His gifts and his grace, God hath promised the lowly,
    That the feeble and faint, consolation may drink;
    He gives not the proud what is sacred and holy;
    Nor leaves those who love him to helplessly sink.5

    Contributing poets wrote frequently about Zion as the kingdom of God on earth. Among the many titles are “Put on Thy Strength, Oh Zion!” “A Prayer for Zion,” and “A Song of Zion.” They also used poems to express the injustice they felt as many of them watched their husbands go to prison for violating federal antipolygamy laws. “Impromptu Lines,” “Captured, but Not Conquered,” “God Bless You!” and “The Stepping Stone Is Sacrifice” exemplify such poems.

    Women contributed poems on lighter subjects as well, such as nature, the seasons, love, holidays, the turn of the century, travel, and even popular culture. Some of the lighter poems were cautionary in nature, warning women to avoid temptations or encouraging them to retrench (avoid the worldly fashion trends of the day). Take, for instance, the first two lines of this poem for young women: “Don’t always flirt; dearest Bessie, believe me, / You will repent it some day if you do,”6 advising of the dangers of keeping too many beaus in the wings. Or the poem, “Why Stain the Silver Crown?” on the merits of aging naturally:

    That halo rich of whitening hair
    Yet daily seems to grow
    More glorious, as it changes still,
    To sheen of purest snow.7

    Many poems gave comfort and voice to women dealing with an all-too-common hardship at the turn of the century: child mortality. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, 30 percent of all deaths in the United States in 1900 were children younger than five.8 Poems like this one, entitled “Empty,” reprinted in the Exponent from the Atlantic Monthly, expressed the pain of a mother’s loss:

    Empty the home where, frolicsome and fair,
    Your precious presence made so bright a part;
    Empty your little crib, your clothes, your chair,
    But emptiest of all your mother’s heart!9

    Poems like these appear in issues throughout the magazine’s tenure, communicating both the despair of losing young children and the admonition to love and care for them while you can.

    Orson F. Whitney, an early Latter-day Saint poet and scholar, stated in a lecture recorded in the Exponent, “Poetry is that sentiment of the soul, or faculty of the mind, which enables its possessor to appreciate and realize the heights and depths of human experience.”10 This was profound truth for the women of the early Church. Through poetry they shared the commonality of their human experience. In our modern world, poetry may not be the first way we express ourselves, but perhaps this form of expression has its modern equal in social media as we reach out to provide support, share the gospel, and take social action. As we compose the digital story of our lives, we can take a cue from the female poets of Zion in early days of the Church and take up the symbolic pen: “Remove from off thy point the gathering rust / And to the weary whisper hope and trust.”11