Reading the Book of Mormon is a lot like reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” While one is a lengthy work of scripture and the other is a 54-line poem, both works are, at their core, fragments. They are incomplete documents that ask their readers to imagine the rest of the story, and in fact they both locate transcendence in the act of completing the fragmentary text.
“Khubla Khan” opens with what at first glance seem to be historical figures and places, but there is friction between secular history and the entities in the poem, which have been loaded down with sacral and symbolic significance:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless seaâ€¦
The poem gestures toward civilized achievement, which stands in contrast to the ominous wilderness, and suggests a cataclysmic conflict:
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled roundâ€¦
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
But then, two-thirds of the way through the poem, the scene changes to that of a lone woman playing a dulcimer and singing, and then the narration breaks off altogether. In its place, an authorial voice intervenes; the vision has been lost. If only the vision could be regained, the author says, the wonders only glimpsed in narration could become real and tangible:
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Coleridge had a story about the origin of “Kubla Khan” involving opium-induced dreams, which many scholars find unconvincing. What they do find, among other things, are textual influences, including some echoes of Marco Poloâ€™s travel writing, and a near-perfect invocation of the Romantic ideal of the fragment.
Many scholars find Joseph Smith’s account of the Book of Mormon’s origins even less convincing, but the far more interesting parallel is how the poem and the scriptural book ask readers to do much the same thing. Both inside its text and as a matter of historical fact, the Book of Mormon is a fragment. It describes its own textual history as an assemblage from disparate parts, some of which are pared down by editing, and some of which are sealed and inaccessible. The Book of Mormon actually has the better historical claim to be a true fragment (rather than a poetic invocation of fragmentariness), for its first 116 manuscript pages really were lost. The Book of Mormon, as a fragment, challenges its readers to extend the text, by faith or by imagination, until the world of the text articulates with the world of fact. This is not an easy task and may require the mystical shortcut offered in Moroni 10:3-5, but restoring the Book of Mormon from fragment to complete text (even if only as a matter of faith) also promises a level of transcendenceâ€”salvation, reversing the Fall, partaking of the Tree of Lifeâ€”exactly equal to Coleridgeâ€™s draught of the milk of Paradise.
In this sense of restoring a fragmentary work to wholeness through a combination of faith, critical reasoning, and speculation, John Sorensonâ€™s An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon is perhaps the quintessential work of LDS interpretive criticism. If there is a distinctive Mormon way of interpretation, then it will be based in part on the faculties of criticism and imagination required to restore fragments to completion.