Literary DCGD #35: Wakeful Winter Nights

In recent years the attention on the tragedy of the Martin and Willie handcart companies seems to have increased. Their situation and rescue has been the subject of books and movies (and lessons) in a process that seems to mythologize the events. The current lesson (#35 in the Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine manual) explores the saving nature of the rescue, and compares that to the Savior’s atonement and our own responsibility to save those who are lost. The following poem helps to set the stage for this discussion, describing the difficulty and the courage necessary to face it.

I don’t know that the author of this poem, Eva Willes Wangsgaard, was thinking specifically of the Martin and Willie companies, but I don’t see anything in the text that conflicts with their situation. Wangsgaard was born in 1893 in Lehi, Utah. She married Dava Wangsgaard and moved to Ogden, Utah where she taught public school and gained a reputation as an exceptional poet. She won the annual Deseret News writing contest seven times and published five volumes of poetry, in addition to regularly appearing in the pages of the Relief Society Magazine, Improvement Era and in a variety of national magazines in the U.S. She passed away in April, 1967.


Wakeful Winter Nights

by Eva Willes Wangsgaard

On winds of wintry dark I hear it yet,
A woman’s smothered weeping in the night,
The muffled sobs of one who can’t forget,
Who shudders more from loneliness than fright.


For when the wilderness was under snow
That even hid the friendly wagon track,
How heavily a heart would beat, to know
The weight of thoughts forever turning back!


And cottonwoods gave poor companionship
To one who felt her child was insecure,
While ice was all their stiffened limbs could grip


And “Patience” was their only signature.
On wakeful winter nights, one truth is clear:
What courage had the woman pioneer!

Improvement Era, v43, n1, January, 1940
[H.T. Keepapitchinin, 1 Dec 2011]


More than saving, this poem is about courage. But I think it helps us to realize that even those who are courageous often need saving, and even saving from their own errors.

Wangsgaard hints at some of that. She suggests that her courageous woman pioneer cries “The muffled sobs of one who can’t forget” and suffers “The weight of thoughts forever turning back,” perhaps to events that put her in danger. Certainly the Willie and Martin companies must have regretted leaving so late in the season when the early storms trapped them in Wyoming. But despite their regrets, they had little choice but to face the situation courageously, and hope for the rescue that, for too many was too late.

Indeed, although I’m sometimes uncomfortable with the mythologizing of the story of this tragedy, I must admit, especially after reading this poem, that even though mistakes were made, the courage these pioneers displayed, and the heroics of those who rescued them, are worthy of admiration.

Too often today we condemn those in need of rescue. We suggest that it is their own fault, because of the errors they made, as if that somehow justifies failing to save them. We don’t realize that the fact that we avoided an error doesn’t mean that those who make the error are somehow unworthy.

Instead, may we see the courage in the struggles of our fellow children of God who are in need of heroic rescue, and do what we should.

4 comments for “Literary DCGD #35: Wakeful Winter Nights

  1. If you didn’t know, this poem structure is a sonnet, one that Shakespeare used quite frequently: 14 lines in iambic pentameter with a final rhyming couplet. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Eva Wangsgaard was my grandmother. Her own grandmothers were among the Mormon pioneers, though not in the handcart companies, and their personal stories influenced much of her writing. She also won the Relief Society magazine’s Eliza R. Snow poetry contest many times, so many that family lore holds that they changed the rules to allow an individual to win only every other year because of it. One small correction to what I’m sure much be a typo: Her husband was David Orson Wangsgaard. They had three children, my two uncles and my mother.

    The lines you quote, “The weight of thoughts forever turning back,” most likely refer to her grandmother Elizabeth Collis Munns’ longing for her childhood home in England. Elizabeth was the daughter of a fairly wealthy merchant in Oxford, if I recall correctly. She fell in love with the gardener and was subsequently disowned. Eva always said, “That he was a mere gardener they might have forgiven; that he was a Mormon they could not.” He was, of course, discharged from the family’s service without a reference and he and Elizabeth struggled to sustain their family in deep poverty for several years before they emigrated and joined the Saints in Zion.

    Eva’s other grandmother was Melissa Lott (Smith) Willes, who had been one of the Prophet Joseph’s plural wives. Melissa crossed Iowa to Winter Quarters and remained there with her father’s family until they made the trek to Utah in ’48. (Her father, by the way, was Cornelius Peter Lott, the infamous company captain in the Mary Fielding Smith saga.)

  3. Tiger, of course it is. I could kick myself for not noticing.

    I’ve gone ahead and re-formatted the poem as a sonnet to emphasize that fact. Thanks for pointing it out.

  4. Mama Lynnie, I must admit I had a devil of a time finding biographical information on Eva Wangsgaard. I usually try to find a photograph of the author on each of these posts, but I couldn’t find anything online for her. May I encourage you or someone in your family to create a Wikipedia page for her, or, if you would like, forward information to me so that I can help with it?

    I’m sure the Association for Mormon Literature would also love biographical information for their database.

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