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26 April 2020

The Martyr Poets – did not tell –


The Martyr Poets – did not tell –
But wrought their Pang in syllable –
That when their mortal name be numb –
Their mortal fate – encourage Some –

The Martyr Painters  – never spoke –
Bequeathing – rather – to their Work –
That when their conscious fingers cease –
Some seek in Art – the Art of Peace –
                                                            Fr665 (1863)  J544


In this hymn-like poem Dickinson pairs "Martyr" Poets and Painters who, like religious martyrs who died rather than betray their beliefs, died to this world so that their works might live. She uses the past tense throughout the poem, so presumably is thinking of poets and painters past rather than present or future.

These artistic martyrs poured their souls into compositions rather than conversations: the Poets 'did not tell' and the Painters 'never spoke'. They also spent their health. We know from her letters that Dickinson admired John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – both poets associated with the Romantic Movement and both of whom kept writing through poverty and the illnesses that consumed them. Both wrote poems about truth and beauty.
Posthumous portrait of John Keats, William Hilton 
            In "On a Grecian Urn", Keats embodies that urge to 'seek in Art – the Art of Peace'. The poet describes the painting on the urn and how its depictions 'dost tease us out of thought', concluding with the famous lines, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
            In Browning's "A Vision of Poets" the foreheads of true poets were 'royal with the truth'. They gave their lives for their work; they did not compromise for fame or popularity even if they starved for it. 'These were poets true", she writes, "who died for Beauty, as martyrs do / for Truth – the ends being scarcely two."


It's hard to know just which poets and painters Dickinson might have had in mind. I couldn't find any Dickinson scholars who discussed it. Neither does the poem delve into or offer much in the way of artistic aesthetics or content that might engender martyrdom. It is likely enough that the self-sacrifice of health, popularity, and material comfort might be what she intends.

The poem is written in a different meter than Dickinson typically employs. Rather than the common hymn meter of much of her poems (four-line stanzas alternating iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter and rhyming abcb), this one is all in iambic tetrameter with an aabb rhyme. Although I don't particularly like this poem I do very much enjoy the first two lines with the tell / syllable rhyme.

2 comments:

  1. I also don't like this poem so much. I think it is the sing song meter and trite theme. But there is always something in ED's poems. I love the idea that the poet's mortal life and example "encourages" us. And "conscious fingers" here is a powerful phrase.

    I can't help but mention EDs ode to Keats -- I died for Beauty -- but was scarce". I love Keats. He is more conventional and less of a modern poet -- but he shares with Dickinson powerful phrasing ("alien corn"; "wild surmise"). And he recognizes in poetry a truth that is beyond thought or rationality or logic -- what he called in a letter a poet's "negative capability". I am sure that this would have resonated with ED ("Tell all the truth but tell it slant").

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    1. Thank you for referring to "I died for Beauty" -- I forgot to link to it: https://bloggingdickinson.blogspot.com/2013/05/i-died-for-beauty-but-was-scarce.html
      'alien corn' is one of my all time poetic favorite phrases -- and the larger phrase, 'She stood in tears amid the alien corn'.

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