Literary DCGD #3: The Young Seer

January 15, 2013 | 6 comments
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[I am traveling for the 4th annual Brazilian Mormon Studies Conference — please excuse the delay in posting this.]

Of our mythic founding stories, the First Vision is surely the most important. It appears regularly in manuals and conference talks, as well as in the missionary lessons, where it is among the first things that converts to Mormonism learn. So naturally it is a frequent subject for Mormon poetry.

But most of the poetical treatments of the First Vision that come to my mind are descriptive, tell what happened instead of the role of the First Vision in the ages. And even when that role is discussed, I haven’t seen a more unusual approach than the excerpt below, which brings rich imagery to its view of the initial event of the restoration.

But despite the exceptional quality of this poem, I haven’t found out much about its author, Anna Musser—at least nothing that would definitively connect her with any one of the several Anna Mussers that were apparently living in Utah at the time this was published. There is an art student at the University of Utah by this name, a friend of General Relief Society President Louise Robison with this name, and a daughter of polygamist Joseph W. Musser with this name, as well as at least a couple of others. There are also several other poems from this time period published in LDS magazines by Anna Musser. Which of these is the author of this poem I do not know—at least not yet. I don’t have the skills of Ardis Parshall or her knowledge of where to look, but I think I’ll come across more information eventually, or someone will give me more information.

But whoever this Anna Musser is, she left us, in my view, a great poem:

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The Young Seer

by Anna Musser

The lofty quiet of cathedrals
May be as prayer, or it may be death,
A dim-walled tomb for human seeking.
Religion had been made incarnate,
And the body, growing old, was still worshiped and exalted,
And entombed.
Color and movement, and the whole hushed music,
Were all as for a funeral, drawing toward silence,
Closing men’s eyes aforetime.
Why did they make Death to be their God,
And the sleep of death their peace?
Life is everywhere, where laughter is permitted,
For there is childhood, wide eyes and questions.
There is laughter still for America’s youth,
And the rawness of our farm-boy days,
Our heritage all measureless, our future wholly marvelous,
While our present was a lean log-house.
There were wooded hills and valley lands,
And any sons to work them,
And reading of the Bible by the evening fire.
And the matter of God could never be settled –
Methodists and Baptists and staunch Presbyterians,
Testifying, proselyting, arguing salvation.
From among these men rose Joseph the Prophet,
Young as America itself,
Tall with a good inheritance,
Intent with his race’s questioning,
No longer to be turned aside.
O young seer of the New World,
Kneeling near the great trees and asking of God,
Surely it is you who can save us at last
From the darkness that came upon our fathers.
Ere yet we grow to manhood and awareness of death,
Teach us the full honest faith of youth,
Lest we too turn and cower for shelter
Within dark words and dark walls,
Calling them sanctuary, worshiping of God.

1931. (ht: Keepapitchinin)

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I love Musser’s progression, painting the apostasy as a kind of death, cold, entombed, lost from the religion encarnate it once was. This she then contrasts with life and laughter and “the rawness of our farm-boy days,” in a skillful segue into the life of Joseph Smith, painted as the common life of the America of his age.

Her imagery is really effective. I love the suggestion that the “lofty quiet of cathedrals” “May be as prayer, or it may be death,” followed by the condemnation:

Why did they make Death to be their God,
And the sleep of death their peace?

Musser’s imagery clearly ties to Mormon theology, she hints at the apostasy in her suggestion that religion was “closing men’s eyes aforetime,” and contrasts it with the restoration where “our heritage all measureless, our future wholly marvelous.” And she ties this together in the last stanza, addressing to the young seer the question:

Surely it is you who can save us at last
From the darkness that came upon our fathers.

I think this is wonderfully put. Likely the best of the poems I’ve featured in this series. You shouldn’t hesitate to read this in Sunday’s Gospel Doctrine lesson.

6 Responses to Literary DCGD #3: The Young Seer

  1. Karen D. Austin on January 15, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    I like the images of birth, death and rebirth. It has that Old World (decaying old man) vs New World (pure youth) contrast that Whitman and Emerson employ in their literary criticism. And it has the contrast of nature (the setting of the first vision) vs civilization (an ornate, man-made building). Lots of romantic themes emerging here. Thanks for putting this in my path.

  2. Kent Larsen on January 15, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    If it isn’t clear above, I owe finding this one to Ardis, who posted it on Keepapitchinin.

  3. Amy T on January 15, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    Well, I certainly don’t have anything approaching Ardis’s skills, either, but it looks like your identification was correct in all regards. (It’s all the same woman.)

    Anna Borgquist Musser, born 1905, was the daughter of Mormon fundamentalist Joseph White Musser and his first wife Rose Borgquist Musser.

    Anna was a well-educated artist and poet, well-connected in Utah social circles, and seems not to have been a fundamentalist herself. She married Rulon Stevenson in the Salt Lake Temple and was a member of the Sunset Ward in San Francisco. She designed a bas-relief for the exterior of the Sunset Ward building showing Joseph Smith in prayer with the text “If any of ye lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” Here are some pictures of the building from the LDS Architecture blog. They don’t show the Joseph Smith sculpture (was it made?) but they do show a beehive and seagull crest she also designed:

    http://ldsarchitecture.wordpress.com/category/meetinghouses/united-states/california/sunset-ward/

    She died in 1999 in Berkeley, California.

  4. Kent Larsen on January 15, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    Wow! Thanks Amy.

  5. Bro. Jones on January 20, 2013 at 8:53 am

    I may read this in my gospel doctrine class today. Thank you! Lovely poem. Sister Musser had me at the alliteration in “lean log home.”

  6. Kent Larsen on January 20, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Glad to hear it.