One might be tempted to dismiss Professor Arthur Henry King as an eccentric, elitist Englishman. That would be a mistake. A big mistake. I know, I almost made that mistake.
Though I never took a class from him and was not formally one of his students, much less one of his "honorary children," nevertheless, this charming, given to absolutes, teacher influenced me immeasurably.
I discovered Arthur Henry King during my first year in law school in the mid-1970s. In a classic example of that important rule in life of never underestimating the role of serendipity, in one of my first classes I happened to sit next to Casey Christensen, one of Professor King's "honorary children." Casey invited me to join a law student study group, which turned out to include a number of Dr. King's "honorary children." These were remarkable young men, and I was deeply impressed that though very different in personality, they each bore the strong imprint of Professor King, the common denominator among them.
Intrigued, I would periodically venture across the street and sit in on some of Professor King's classes. His influence was immediate and arresting. To this day, I have vivid recollections of those classes and can still hear his strong British voice thundering in my head.
Though I can't summarize everything I learned from Professor King, the following are some of the nuggets that stand out as I reflect on his influence on me. In some cases, where his writing reflects greater precision than my recollection, I will quote from his 1998 book, "Arm the Children, Faith's Response to a Violent World."
Overarching every lesson taught by Professor King was his deeply embedded approach to seeing everything in art, literature, music and history through the gospel lens. In the case of music, for example, does a piece of music incline us more to the worship of God or to the worship of ourselves or the material world we live in? It had never occurred to me to think that there might be such a differentiation between a Bach and a Mozart on the one hand, and a Beethoven or a Wagner on the other hand.
King believed that Wagner was saturated in eroticism and self-pity. In a commencement address at Brigham Young University following the performance of the "Liebestod" in "Tristan und Isolde," King noted "that I had to struggle for five years, from the age of 13 to the age of 18, to rid Wagner from my soul."
Beethoven, on the other hand, was obsessed with self-assertion and defiance. I remember King, imitating his sense of Beethoven by thrusting his fist heavenward with a streak of defiance, saying, "I, Beethoven, am still here." "From obsession with the erotic, the sentimental, the self-pitying, the self-assertive, the arid and the violent, it is refreshing to return to the religious music of the 17th and 18th centuries, and particularly that of Bach and Mozart (and I would add Haydn). These two in their musical practice exemplify the unity we find in the gospel of obedience and the following of a strict form with a sense of freedom and joy overflowing from the form. It is difficult to imagine better examples of this combination of discipline and freedom in a sense of liberated joy."
It is not possible to overstate King's commitment to the importance of reading. And not just any reading, but close, careful, and importantly, slow reading. King felt that the most important thing we could read ourselves or to our children is the scriptures. "The scriptures can be a complete education, as has been shown by those in the past who truly educated themselves from the scriptures when they had no other education. But all of us can get something if we will be read the scriptures. And, indeed, by reading the scriptures thoroughly, we can get a better education than we can in any other way.
"Learning to read is a lifetime process, and it increasingly has enemies. Its principal enemies at the moment are the mass media and that dreadful thing that our modern life has forced upon us, the need to read quickly. Our major task is not to learn to read quickly but to learn to read slowly — slowly enough to have some understanding of what we are reading. The more quickly we read, the fewer our thoughts will be, but the more slowly we read, the more our thoughts will come thronging in. It is not the speed at which we read that counts, but the speed at which thoughts come."
"We should ask ourselves about literature other than the scriptures, 'Is this literature before me worthy of being read in comparison with the gospel? Will this literature help me with the gospel?' If the answers are yes, read it; if they are no, leave it. If you felt when you were picking up a piece of trash (and most things that are printed are trash) — if you felt suddenly, 'this doesn't compare with the scriptures' — wouldn't you throw it into the fire instead of continuing to read it? What goes for literature goes for the other arts as well. If we are soaked in the scriptures, we shan't want to look at bad things on our walls or listen to bad music because those things won't fit. We shall intuitively reject them, just as we shall embrace what is good, because we shall have in our minds a firm and sound sense of what is in good taste."
Finally, it is not possible to think of Arthur Henry King and not think of Shakespeare in general and King Lear in particular. I believe I am on safe ground in saying that no one in history has wrung more meaning out of any play than King has of King Lear. "Shakespeare's moral discrimination is subtle and profound. More so than anything else we have outside of the scriptures. There is hardly any play of Shakespeare's that doesn't concern itself with mainly the punishment of sin, the reward of virtue, with repentance and reconciliation. We Mormons have a community with Shakespeare that the non-Christian outside world has lost. We have a better opportunity of understanding him because we believe in Christian doctrine, and therefore we have that much in common with him and his audience."
Arthur Henry King, blessed be his memory.
Celebrating Arthur Henry King
You may have never heard of BYU professor Arthur Henry King. He would have liked that. He published seldom — and was, according to one of his research assistants, proud of that fact. But for former students and those who have read his insightful and challenging essays and poems, King is worth knowing.Comment on this story
"Arthur King may be the best-educated man in the history of the church," said C. Terry Warner, BYU professor and friend of King. "He was astonishingly insightful about language and all manner of other things. He just works in a world of deep and careful thought that takes a lifetime to prepare for."
King, who died in 2000, would have celebrated his 100th birthday this Saturday, Feb. 20. Mormon Times offers a few articles in this issue that look at his life, his thought, his poems and his impact on others.