Literary DCGD #19: Spirit Memories

Joseph L Townsend

Joseph L Townsend

How thin is the veil? Might we remember bits of our experience there? Could a melody we heard there be familiar to us here? (assuming we even heard melodies there).

The idea of the pre-existence and of the other elements of the plan of salvation, discussed in D&C Gospel Doctrine lesson 19, are a source of endless wonder and speculation. We just don’t know much about what our existence before and after this life was and will be like.

But, perhaps nothing says more about our belief in the plan of salvation than our fascination with speculating about what the life before this one was like, and what the life after this one will be like.

The author of this poem, Joseph Townsend, was one of the most widely published poets of late 19th century Mormonism. Today Townsend is best known as the author of 10 of the hymns in our hymnal, including “Choose the Right,” “The Iron Rod,” “Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words To Each Other,” and “Hope of Israel.” Born in Pennsylvania in 1872, Townsend came to Salt Lake City, Utah to improve is health and discovered Mormonism there as well. He served an LDS mission to the Southern States, owned and ran a drugstore in Payson, Utah for 15 years and then taught at Brigham Young Academy (the high-school predecessor of BYU) for a couple of years before teaching at Salt Lake City High School. And he wrote poetry which was frequently published in LDS publications like The Contributor.


Spirit Memories

By J. L. Townsend

There’s a song of songs in my heart to-day,

A song the angels are singing;
While my thoughts in holiest faith essay

To gather the music ringing.
‘Tis a song whose words in a sweet refrain,

And melody sweetly falling,
Are like dreams, that, vanishing, yet remain

In memories faint recalling.
And the song that lingers in memory,

Recalls a heavenly glory;
In the scenes of elysian homes I see

That faintly are shown before me.
There’s a home where brothers and sisters dear,

And mother, a queen of heaven,
As a childhood’s dream of another sphere,

Appears through a vail light riven;
And the glimpse I see of this home of love,

My heart oft thrills with the longing
To regain this beautiful home above,

With spiritual kindred thronging;
And the song of songs in my heart must be

A song I have joined in singing
With my kindred there, ere eternity

Rolled on, my probation bringing.
And this song of songs I may hope to hear,

The vail be completely riven,
When my spirit meets with the angels near,

Returning in joy to heaven.

The Contributor 3 (1881-1882) p. 249


Even if the idea that we might remember something like music from the pre-existence is problematic, I like Townsend’s use of music as a connecting element in the poem, leading the reader from a song heard today to memories of pre-mortal life, to a hope for the life to come. While he clearly romanticizes the pre-mortal life in this poem (e.g. ‘elysian homes’), I must admit that it is hard to imagine anything different. If the pre- and post-mortal worlds aren’t anything different or better than what we know now, doesn’t that change our understanding of the plan of salvation?

Another interesting element in the poem is the veil. While normally the veil is portrayed as impenetrable to humans, here it is “riven” both in dream (“…another sphere, / Appears through a vail light riven…”) and in future expectations (“…I may hope to hear, / The vail be completely riven…”). Yet it remains in place in the dream, partly obscuring the past and keeping us from seeing until it is finally “riven” in the future.

The veil is, of course, the key issue here. It requires our belief in the life before this as well as the life after this. It is, in this sense, a key part of the plan of salvation.

2 comments for “Literary DCGD #19: Spirit Memories

  1. I am not a seer or a rememberer. I cannot say that I have experienced much leakage from the previous existence. If I have, it is in regard to Eliza Snow’s poem, Oh, My Father:

    Yet ofttimes a secret something
    Whispered, “You’re a stranger here,”
    And I felt that I had wandered
    From a more exalted sphere.

    This feeling has occurred several times in my life. This reflects the Wordsworth poem, Intimations of Immortality:

    Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
    The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
    Hath had elsewhere its setting,
    And cometh from afar:
    Not in entire forgetfulness,
    And not in utter nakedness,
    But trailing clouds of glory do we come
    From God, who is our home:
    Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
    Shades of the prison-house begin to close
    Upon the growing Boy,
    But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
    He sees it in his joy; (lines 58–70)

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