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On Writing The Nephiad

Collings, Michael R. The Nephiad: An Epic Poem in XII Books. Borgo Press/Wildside Press, 24 February 2010, 202 pp., trade paperback, $14.99, ISBN-10: 1434457567; ISBN-13: 978-1434457561.


The roots of The Nephiad extend back nearly forty-five years, to 1965 and the spring of my senior year in high school, when my teacher assigned the class to read several sections of John Milton's Paradise Lost. The bits came nowhere near representing the whole poem; indeed, the selections covered only a few pages in our anthology, but that taste was enough.

I was hooked on Milton. Not merely for the grandeur of his language, which entranced me, but for the depth of his ideas and the excitement of his theology.

I decided then and there to go on to graduate school after finishing college (with no clear idea what that entailed), earn a doctorate in Milton studies (long before I had any accurate notion of what a dissertation was or what a doctorate meant), and then spend the rest of my life teaching Milton. And for the final ten years of my teaching career, I had achieved all three.

That my interest in things Miltonic might get slightly out of hand evidenced itself early the next summer. Following graduation, I worked at the local Boy Scout Council's summer camp for six weeks. It was a gloriously busy time, with more happening than I can now remember. But I do recall clearly finding spare hours in the afternoons to sit in a rickety wooden deck chair outside the Nature Lodge, usually in the shade of an enormous Ponderosa pine, and read…out loud…with full oratorical fervor…from the Norton Anthology edition of Paradise Lost.

Gradually I noticed that most of the scouts and many of my fellow councilors considered me a bit…odd. But that didn't keep me from finishing significant portions of the poem.

That fall, I attended Chapman College for one semester; over the next eighteen months, I finished three semesters at Bakersfield City College and earned my A.A. degree--with no additional formal opportunities to assuage my thirst for Milton--then transferred to Whittier College. At Whittier, my first course with Dr. William Geiger was Literary Criticism; my second, an omnibus course with the intriguing title of "Milton, Swift, and Wordsworth." It wasn't what I had originally hoped for--undiluted Milton--but as the course progressed, it ultimately satisfied my craving for Milton and introduced me to a number of other concerns relating to Epic. Dr. Geiger recognized my interest and encouraged me in it, so much so that when the time came to consider graduate school, he strongly recommended the University of California, Riverside. Riverside was my home town at the time, and I wasn't particularly thrilled about the prospect of attending school there, but, Dr. Geiger said, one of the finest Milton scholars in the country taught there. And thus I was introduced to Dr. John M. Steadman.

Before meeting Dr. Steadman in person, however, there was something I had to accomplish. In June of 1969 I left for the Language Training Mission in Provo, and two months later flew to Hamburg, Germany, to serve my mission. I ended spending twenty-one of my twenty-two month German mission in Hamburg, the last fourteen in the Mission Office as statistical secretary and editor of the weekly newsletter and monthly magazine.

Sometime in December 1969, I began doing something I had never considered doing: instead of writing about poetry, which didn't really fit into a missionary's schedule, I began writing poetry, most frequently as journal entries. After drafting a couple of preliminary short pieces, I found myself sitting in the bus or subway on the way to our appointments scribbling away on a piece of notebook paper, trying to transfer rhythms and images through pen onto paper. The result was a 113-line heroic saga on missionary work, written entirely in the alliterative half-lines characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, most notably, perhaps, in the great epic Beowulf.

That opened a floodgate. In January of the next year, I wrote "In Dubious Battle," borrowing a line from Milton, as well as the unrhymed decasyllabic verse form he mastered in Paradise Lost, to write another missionary poem in my journal. This one was shorter--only 69 lines. From then on, much of what I wrote was either formless free verse, or strict blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter.

In May, 1970, I entered poem #29 into my journal. It was title simply "Milton." I Had been thinking about the inspired predecessors of Joseph Smith who had prepared the foundations for the Restoration and realized that among them was John Milton. So, using his verse form, his conception of elevated language, his linguistic structures to the best of my ability, I wrote a tribute to him as a forerunner of the Restored Gospel.(Only years later, after much research and multiple readings of his poetry and prose did I begin to understand the many points at which his thinking anticipated many of Joseph Smith's teachings, often those that were considered 'unique' in the early nineteenth-century.)

Over the next year there followed poems on Joseph Smith, paraphrases of passages from the Book of Mormon, a long poem based on Moroni's repeated experiences engraving his words on the golden plates, a resurrection poem in German, and a number of short pieces tailored for the mission publication, Fishers of Men--almost always on the inside cover, so they didn't steal space from more valuable articles.

By the time I returned to California in the summer of 1971, the journal contained nearly fifty poems, each of them representing in some specific way my thoughts, experiences, spiritual and physical condition, and emotional responses to my mission. By the end of the journal, they far outnumbered the prose entries.

The transition from full-time missionary to full-time graduate student in only two months was difficult. But many of the difficulties were alleviated by the fact that my first course toward my doctorate would be a two-semester seminar from Professor John M. Steadman on the Epic. After listening to his first lecture, which dealt with the metamorphosis of epic form and lasted over an hour and a half--without notes--I had pretty much decided to go out the next day and look for a job as a ditch digger. Obviously, I didn't have the intellectual apparatus or preparation to understand a word the man said. During the break, however, I happened to overhear two fourth-year grads asking each other, "Did you understand any of that?" I figured perhaps I wasn't doing all that badly if no one else in the class had any idea what he was saying.

It didn't take long, however, to discover the Steadman not only knew what he was talking about but that he was one of the greatest teachers I would have during my years at UCR. He had out-published the entire English department, with nearly a dozen books and dozens of articles to his credit; he was a Senior Research Fellow at the prestigious Huntington Library in San Marino and editor of the Huntington Library Quarterly; and he was one of the only humanities professors ever appointed to be a University Scholar at the University of California. The appointment meant that he could teach what he wanted, when he wanted, at any UC campus, an honor usually reserved for professors in the hard sciences. And he taught only one course per quarter at UCR.

During the Epic Seminar, we read twenty-five epics, in chronological order, from the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian Genesis) and The Epic of Gilgamesh, through classical Greek and Roman poems, then into the heroic sagas of the Middle Ages, on to Beowulf, and through the flowering of epic as genre in the Renaissance, capping the trip with a full month on Paradise Lost. Then we moved on to more modern manifestations of the form: satires and anti-epics such as Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, Lord Byron's Don Juan, Tennyson's The Idylls of the King. The last book on the reading list was Nikos Kazantzakis's 33,000 line continuation of Homer's Odyssey (written 1924-1938). The course was rigorous, demanding, and utterly exhilarating.

Following a required pre-seminar in Renaissance literature the next fall, I enrolled in Steadman's Milton seminar in January of 1973. By then I had completed a 2,000-line five-act Shakespearean verse drama on Ammon and King Lamoni, The Nephite; and a 1,700 thematic epic on the conquest of Mexico, The Pinnacles of Stone. Knowing that Steadman would, as usual for him, require a final exam in the Milton course, I decided that the best way to understand the structure and development of Renaissance epic would be to write one, one specifically based on Paradise Lost. Remembering my old mission poem, "Milton," I realized that I already had a solid beginning.

The first version of the epic was completed in June 1974. Shortly thereafter, my wife Judi and I were in Salt Lake City and had the opportunity to meet with the owner of Hawkes Publications to discuss the progress of my first book of poetry, an LDS compilation entitled A Season of Calm Weather (1974). While there I mentioned The Nephiad and asked if he had any interest in publishing it. His response was illuminating in many ways: "Why can't you creative people write things that will sell!" Enough said.

Later that fall, I had an opportunity to discuss the epic with the Institute director at UCR. After hearing some of the details of the poem, he simply stated that I should not publish it. Not that I would not be able to, but that I should not. The Nephiad differed in several particulars from the original Book of Mormon account, he noted; therefore the poem should not be published lest it confuse readers into thinking that I was correcting the Book of Mormon. Enough said.

I had also sent a typescript of the poem to a prominent professor at Brigham Young University, whose historical and cultural studies of the Near East had proven invaluable both in my writing my dissertation and in my conception of backgrounds for The Nephiad. He responded with a four-page, single-spaced, typed letter that boiled down to a couple of questions: "The Book of Mormon already told the story with admirable directness and simplicity, so why had I bothered to make it more complex?" and "Why had none of my colleagues clued me into the fact that I was wasting my time by writing such an artifact?" He also noted that, typical of traditional "Iadic poems," The Nephiad succeeded only in creaking along, encumbered by the weight of its own ornamentations. Enough said.

Given the tenor of those responses I could see little reason to do more than shrug my shoulders, prepare a couple of typescripts for friends interested in seeing the poem, bind a copy for my archives, and give a short presentation and partial reading for the local public library in 1976. Otherwise, I generally let the matter rest.

It rested for a little over twenty years. During that time I completed my doctoral program at UCR, taught part-time for several local junior colleges (usually freshman composition or survey of English literature), taught one year at UCLA (again freshman composition), and began what would ultimately be a twenty-seven year career at Seaver College, the undergraduate core of Pepperdine University. There I taught a range of courses including all levels of composition, business writing, creative writing, survey and upper-division English courses, and--finally--courses in Renaissance literature that allowed me to work directly with Milton and his contemporaries. I even had a chance to teach a graduate-level seminar in the history of the epic.

By 1996, I had managed to transcribe almost all of my earlier poetry onto the computer, excepting only two longer works, The Nephite and The Nephiad. Of the two, the latter seemed to have survived the intervening years more successfully, so I began the task of transferring it to disc. It didn't take long for me to realize, however, that while the poem might have held up fairly well, I had changed…grown in many ways as a person and a poet. My understanding of Milton's achievement had deepened through my engagement with creative writing, particularly poetry, and through my preparation for various courses in Renaissance literature. I had a stronger sense for the time, the culture, the history, the purposes behind his writing. And I had developed a different, more assured personal poetics. As a result, I almost immediately found it impossible merely to transcribe The Nephiad. Within the first few pages I was making unconscious and conscious corrections, adding a bit here, removing a bit there. Somewhere in the process, I decided to completely revise the poem, concentrating on language and expression as well as on consistency of tone. When I finished, the original 5,818 lines had expanded to 6,587, and the poem felt more complete, more polished for the additions.

At about the same time, I had been experimenting with self-publication--printing the texts of books using my desk-top computer, then hand-binding the results. It seemed a natural to do the same for The Nephiad. Over the next few years, I hand-crafted perhaps twenty copies, primarily for friends, including a presentation copy for Dr. Steadman. Occasionally the book emerged temporarily from obscurity.

In July 1999, I presented a paper on LDS epic, which included reading portions of the poem, to the Sunstone Foundation annual meeting in Salt Lake City. In August 2004, William Morris wrote a brief article on the poem for the online site, A Motley Vision; shortly thereafter, he posted an excerpt from Book V. In 2006, as part of a special poetry issue, Irreantum: A Review of Mormon Literature and Film published most of Book XII as one example of attempts at Mormon Epic. In June 2009, yet another online site, David West's Nephite Blood, Spartan Heart, published an article on the poem, along with another brief excerpt. Finally, in April 2009, Kent Larsen posted a list of seven LDS verse epics written between 1884 and 1996, including The Nephiad.

The capstone, as it were, occurred in late February, 2010. Since summer of 2006, Borgo/Wildside Press has been reprinting many of my now out-of-print books, primarily those dealing with the writings of Stephen King as well as a number of additional titles. The twentieth in that series is The Nephiad, now readily available in trade paperback. Finally. After a tortuous journey lasting nearly half a century.

"Long choosing and beginning late"

Selecting a subject for poetic epic--the epic fable--is a serious matter. Traditionally an epic is a long narrative poem, told in an elevated style, about a single individual (or, rarely, a group of like-minded individuals) upon whom rests the fate of a tribe, nation, or people. Some fables are imposed upon the poet for cultural, social, or historical reasons. Virgil's Aeneid, for example, was essentially intended to legitimize the reign of Augustus Caesar by identifying his ancestor (by adoption) as both the founder of the Roman Empire and the forbear of Julius Caesar. Other subsequent poems, especially those written during the Renaissance, openly glorified the founding ancestors of the poets' aristocratic patrons or great characters and events in their nations' histories. Even Spenser's Faerie Queene was constructed around the image of Queen Elizabeth as Gloriana, to whose court the various heroes and heroines of the poem were journeying and where they would eventually--and presumably, since the poem remains unfinished--meet Arthur himself, thus validating mythically and literarily the Tudor monarchy.

For Milton the selection was more difficult. One of his first public appearances as a poet, the occasion of "Upon a College Exercise," written in his nineteenth year, briefly outlines his search for "some graver subject" for his genius. He suggests that his urges might lead him to exalted lyric, then to more elevated poems dealing with creation and the natural world, and finally to epics on "Kings and Queens and Heroes old." In a Latin verse-letter written to the Italian poet and patron John Baptista Manso a decade or so later, he mentions as a possible subject for his poem Arthur and his wars beneath the earth. In the Trinity manuscript, so named because it is preserved at Trinity College, Cambridge, the young Milton listed nearly thirty possible subjects for epic or heroic drama. Yet by the time he made his final decision on his fable--"long choosing and beginning late"--possibly some time in the late 1650s, he realized that the traditional poems glorifying king and country would be impossible for him, given his antipathy toward monarchy and the mistakes and misdirections he saw the Commonwealth taking. Instead of a great hero, in fact, he chose what might be called a great error, the Fall of Adam and Eve. As Paradise Lost develops, of course, we come to realize that, far from being a tragedy, the Fall offers Adam and Eve the possibility of union with God and is thus, in Adam's term, "fortunate."

In the case of The Nephiad, the fable almost immediately presented itself. Given that the poem was to have a clearly Latter-day Saint orientation, the obvious source would be either the First Vision or the Book of Mormon. Considering the viability of each as fable, I decided that my inadequacies as a poet precluded tackling the First Vision, with the concomitant requirement of portraying the Father and Son, not in visions or revelations, but as central characters in the poem--its heroes, in fact. Rather than that, I chose to approach the requirement of "significant event" for fable from a different perspective. After the First Vision, the most distinctive element of LDS history, culture, and theology, is the Book of Mormon; thus, it should be the focus of the poem. And within that book, there was a single episode upon which the entire possibility of preserving the history of its peoples depended--Nephi's gaining the Brass Plates from Laban. A single episode with the possibility of expansion through its various sub-elements; a single character upon whom rests the fate of his people, Nephi; and a significant action upon which that fate is predicated--the death of Laban. The challenge in writing The Nephiad would be to make an act of conscious murder into a righteous moment.

Elevated diction and grand style

A second crucial requirement still had to be met. The Nephiad would be a long narrative poem, in twelve books since that was the number Milton eventually decided upon for Paradise Lost (in its first edition, there were only ten; he subsequently revised the poem, in part so that it would parallel the standards set by Homer, Virgil, and others). It would concentrate on a significant action by the clear hero of the opening pages of the Book of Mormon, Nephi.

And it had to be written in an elevated style.

Conventionally, the language of epic fulfilled several functions, the first being to announce unhesitatingly that something of importance is about to start. From the "Sing, Muse" of Homer and his later imitators to the abrupt "Hwæt" of Beowulf(variously translated as "Lo," "Behold," "Listen" and other similar terms but perhaps best considered as a verbal trumpet-blast calling for attention) epic diction and style immediately set the following poem apart, asserted that it was something special, meriting the full attention of its audience. And once that attention is gained, the language was used to maintain the sense of significance throughout the entire performance--either spoken or read--of the epic.

The choice of an artificially elevated diction and grand style was more than mere convention. It would be possible to write a long narrative poem about a single character and do so using far more colloquial language than Milton did. Virtually all mainstream twentieth-century attempts at verse epic struggled with the task of bringing the language down to a more commonplace level. Besides, the argument went, Miltonic style, as a viable mode of using the English language, died out at least two hundred years ago.

There were imitations following Milton, of course, but rarely did they succeed as epic. Alexander Pope's magnificent The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714, 1717) used elevated style as a primary technique for comedy and satire, treating a trivial event--the cutting of a lock of hair--as if it were cataclysmic, thus creating one of the most memorable mock-epics in the English language. His The Dunciad (1728, 1729) employs the full panoply of epic traditions to savage contemporary poets, again using the form to create a vicious satire. Joel Barlow's Columbiad (1807) adhered strictly to his Miltonic model, treating a significant event with elevated style; the result was, unfortunately, true to his original but ultimately boring. Byron's Don Juan (written 1818-1824) returned to Pope's approach, using epic conventions to create a comic satire.

By the mid-nineteenth-century, the form and structures of epic had become so apparently sterile, as well as so completely supplanted in the public imagination by the immediacy of the prose epic, that the idea of attempting a verse epic seemed insurmountably intimidating. When Tennyson came to write what was essentially an Arthuriad, his sequence of twelve narrative poems composing The Idylls of the King (written 1856-1885), he chose to dissociate his effort from traditional epic by consciously referring to the pieces as idylls, a term referring to short, rustic pieces modeled on Theocritus's pastoral Idylls--about as distanced from elevated epic as possible.

Twentieth-century claimants to epic profited from both Pope and Tennyson. The content of verse epics became increasingly satirical and the tone increasingly contemporary if not colloquial. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), perhaps one of the most important and influential poems of the century, has been referred to as the ultimate anti-epic. David Jones's In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathémata (1956) used an uncomfortable blend of prose and verse to make sense of war and empire. William Carlos William's Paterson (published 1946-1958, 1963), his acknowledged epic, is, as he states, "a long poem on the resemblance between the mind of modern man and a city"; it combines prose with modernist, breath-unit free verse to create an image of mid-century America. But by far the most successful and popular forays into epic occurred through the medium of the prose novel…and particularly through science fiction and fantasy. J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (published 1954-1955), Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) and its multiple sequels; Stephen King's The Stand (1978, uncut edition, 1990); and other such novels provided the impetus to propel the epic into the twenty-first century.

Given this history, why then does The Nephiad hearken back to a poetics and a stylistics long since superseded by more contemporary forms? Partially, of course, the answer lies in my fascination with Milton and his poetry--his structures, his language, his grace and artistry. Partially, the answer lies in the fact that during Joseph Smith's early years--the years of the translation of the Book of Mormon--Milton was one of the most influential writers available to readers. It has been noted that if a household had one book, it would be the Bible; if two, the second would be Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress; if three, the third would be Paradise Lost. Milton was, as was Joseph Smith, strongly influenced by the language of the King James Bible, by the early nineteenth-century already slightly archaic but considered a key model for serious religious writing. An epic with a Book of Mormon theme, constructed on the pattern of Paradise Lost, should logically imitate the fable of the former, the form and structure of the latter. And finally, The Nephiad was originally conceived of as an exercise, a means of understanding (to the extent that such a thing is possible) Milton's decisions as poet, as Christian, as representative voice for his time and place. The mid-seventeenth century was a period of unprecedented upheaval, as the medieval worldview passed and the modern struggled to be born; the late twentieth century was equally a period of upheaval, as the worldview of faith waned and a new conception of the universe, requiring the worship of science, threatened to become paramount. For both periods, the control, the self-conscious elegance, the arbitrary and often exaggerated elevation of content and style become a way of imposing order on a world that is increasingly disordered and, in many ways, unintelligible.

Invention or deviation

A final point should, I think, be addressed as part of this essay: the difference between invention and deviation.

Invention refers to one of the classical canons of rhetoric, generally accepted as the first or most important: the discovery and arraying of points relevant to and persuasive of an argument. For epic theory, it connects closely with the epic fable, with identifying elements of the story that will make it both probable and believable.

In the case of Paradise Lost, it defines Milton's bringing decades of scriptural and exegetical study, his extensive background in constructing and defending arguments, and his prodigious memory and imagination to bear on his primary objective: to illuminate the repercussions of the most crucial event in human history, the Fall of Adam and Eve. Virtually everything he had done in his life previous to composing the poem became part of the tapestry he wove to "justify the ways of God to man." This included using extra-scriptural elements as part of his imagery; his development of plot through epic similes, often integrating classical mythology and learning with Christian truth; his weaving of past, present, and future within a single narrative. It includes, for example, his invention (to use the word in a slightly different sense) of an episode--clearly not in his biblical or exegetical sources--in which Satan, leaving Hell to search for the newly created Earth, encounters Sin and Death at Hell's Gate (Book II) and engages them in a game of mutual recrimination and blame. Sin and Death are not philosophical abstractions; they are characters, as solid and physical as Satan himself. Even more impelling, the reader discovers that Satan has fathered Sin, who Athena-like erupts from his forehead while he is still in Heaven, and then incestuously fathers Death upon her. Powerful imagery, certainly, but definitely not biblical.

In a similar fashion The Nephiad attempts to incorporate as much evidence as possible--to use invention as freely as need be--to validate its central fable. As with Paradise Lost, the poem blends Christian and classical, historical and mythological, scriptural and extra-scriptural elements to enhance its argument. In particular, the poem incorporates an additional voice at a pivotal moment, as Nephi contemplates the rightness and wrongness of committing murder. Standing over the insensate Laban, he is counseled by the Spirit to disobey a cardinal law and kill Laban: "better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief" (I Nephi 4:13). In order better to illuminate and externalize an inner debate, The Nephiad presents the episode as a confrontation and debate between two angels, one urging Nephi to kill, the other reminding him that it is against all of God's laws to shed another's blood. Essentially the angels represent allegorical personifications speaking externally to reveal Nephi's internal struggle.

Accordingly, the poem deviates from its source text, but in a way particular to epic poetry. The Nephiad is not history. It is not revelation. It does not correct an error in the Book of Mormon. It does not claim to persuade through the marshalling of bare facts. It is instead a poem. It is imagination. It is image itself serving a different kind of truth, one not restricted to fact. A poet is, in the strictest objective, scientific sense, a liar, reveling in things that are not, were not, or perhaps can never be. Yet beneath that, the poet deals in Truth. Sir Philip Sidney's sixteenth-century "Defence of Poesy" (1595) ranks the poet above the historian. The latter is limited to telling what is or has been. The poet, on the other hand, explores not humanity as it is or was but as it should be. As Sidney puts it:

Nature never set foorth the earth in so rich Tapistry as diverse Poets have done, neither with so pleasaunt rivers, fruitfull trees, sweete smelling flowers, nor whatsoever els may make the too much loved earth more lovely: her world is brasen, the Poets only deliver a golden.

The Nephiad may not be 'golden' in execution, but it is so in design and intent.

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