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Captained by Christ

A type of poetic exchange sometimes occurred between Mormon poets and their non-LDS contemporaries. Several works are responses or rebuttals to specific catalyst poems doctrinally problematic for Mormons, such as William Ernest Henley’s“Invictus.”Building on the poetic tradition established earlier in the Millennial Star,in which published “invitational” poems “received” a published poem in response,Church leader and writer Orson F. Whitney chose poetry as the medium through which he countered what he felt was a pervasive and erroneous notion. Click on each title below to read in full or Humanist vs Christian for Dorothea Day comparison


The Soul’s Captain: An Answer to‘Invictus’”

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)

Orson F. Whitney (1855-1931)

Published 1875

Published 1926

Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul.

Art thou in truth? Then what of Him Who bought thee with His blood? Who plunged into devouring seas And snatched thee from the flood,

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbow’d.

Who bore for all our fallen race
What none but Him could bear—
That God who died that man might live And endless glory share.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid.

Of what avail thy vaunted strength Apart from His vast might?
Pray that His light may pierce the gloom That thou mayest see aright.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. (Norton 1052)

Men are as bubbles on the wave, As leaves upon the tree,
Thou, captain of thy soul! Forsooth, Who gave that place to thee?

Free will is thine—free agency, To wield for right or wrong;
But thou must answer unto Him To whom all souls belong.

Bend to the dust that “head unbowed,” Small part of life’s great whole,
And see in Him and Him alone,
The captain of thy soul. (Packer 282)

Whereas the persona in Henley’s poem thanks “whatever gods may be,”Whitney solves the identity crisis: it is the “God who died that man might live.”Just as Henley proudly concludes, “I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul,”Whitney immediately contradicts him with the question, “Art thou in truth?”Furthermore, the “master”/ “captain” terms of entitlement and rank are demoted to “bubbles” and “leaves”—mere by-products and off-shoots—connoting dependency, temporarily, and superficiality. Among Whitney’s purposes is to put Henley in his place.

Initially, Whitney’s verse might seem callous given the circumstances under which Henley wrote“Invictus”:he had just suffered bone tuberculosis, a risky amputation, and an extended hospitalization. But Whitney is not so much negating Henley’s defiance as he is positing the need for humility. (In fact, Whitney praised“Invictus”on several occasions.) He elaborates:

We all admire courage, fortitude, and the power to patiently endure; we recognize such traits as essential to success, both in spiritual and in temporal pursuits. But . . . in this wonderfully virile and powerful poem, there is no recognition of any need for divine help.“I am the captain of my soul,” is true only to a very limited extent. Man is a free agent, with a will of his own, with the power to achieve, to succeed or fail. That much is true. But there is a Greater Captain of our souls, to whom we all owe allegiance. Self- reliance is a good thing, if not carried too far. But self-assurance, self-sufficiency, self- conceit, is a bad thing. There is no such thing as absolute independence. We depend upon one another, and all are dependent upon God. (pars. 23-24, 26)

A caveat is warranted here: Whitney was not an immigrant; he was born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1855, among the first generation America-born Mormons of British ancestry. Nor was this poem, so far as is known, written during a transoceanic voyage. It is included here as an example of literary appropriation, an instance in which a particular literary genre is valued for its educational utility. It should also be noted that Whitney was highly literate and cultured: he served as a missionary in the British Isles and later as president of the European Mission. In addition to serving as chancellor of the University of Utah, Whitney, like Jaques, was assistant editor of the Millennial Star and assistant Church historian. His writings include the four- volume History of Utah,four biographies, several volumes of poetry, and an autobiography (Burton,“Orson F. Whitney”). He is perhaps best known for his Elias: An Epic for the Ages.Written over a four-year period and published in 1904, it consists of a prelude, ten cantos, and an epilogue—totaling almost 3,500 lines.
Captained by Christ

Jesus Savior, Pilot Me (hymn 104) by Edward Hopper and the story behind it are fitting.

  1. Jesus, Savior, pilot me
    Over life’s tempestuous sea;
    Unknown waves before me roll,
    Hiding rock and treach’rous shoal.
    Chart and compass came from thee;
    Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
  2. As a mother stills her child,
    Thou canst hush the ocean wild;
    Boist’rous waves obey thy will
    When thou say’st to them, “Be still!”
    Wondrous Sov’reign of the sea,
    Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
  3. When at last I near the shore,
    And the fearful breakers roar
    ‘Twixt me and the peaceful rest,
    Then, while leaning on thy breast,
    May I hear thee say to me,
    “Fear not; I will pilot thee.”
  4. Text: Edward Hopper, 1818-1888
    Music: John Edgar Gould, 1822-1875


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