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23 August 2012

Read—Sweet—how others—strove—

Read—Sweet—how others—strove—
Till we—are stouter—
What they—renounced—
Till we—are less afraid—
How many times they—bore the faithful witness—
Till we—are helped—
As if a Kingdom—cared!

Read then—of faith—
That shone above the fagot—
Clear strains of Hymn
The River could not drown—
Brave names of Men—
And Celestial Women—
Passed out—of Record
Death of Archbishop Cranmer
Joseph Martin Kronheim, 1887,
Foxe's Book of Martyrs
                                                            F323 (1862)  260

Emily Dickinson included Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in her go-to reading (along with Shakespeare and Keats). There is sort of a morbid attraction to all the sufferings and hideous goings-on the woodcuts and verbal descriptions portray. But in this poem, Dickinson exhorts herself and someone she calls “Sweet” to be inspired by the martyred saints examples. “Read—Sweet,” she says, about what trials the saints went through until we ourselves have more courage. Just reading about their experiences is so beneficial that it is as if the Kingdom of the dead martyrs had actually and actively helped them.
            The second stanza is a simple paean to the martyrs. “Read,” she continues, about their amazing and brave faith. They might have died but they earned ‘Renown.’”
            The three repetitions of “Till we” in the first stanza begins the poem with a liturgical feel. “We” will read the martyr stories until we are “stouter,” “less afraid,” and “helped.”  In the second stanza three lines begin with two accented syllables (spondees) to create a magisterial pace and to emphasize the words: “Clear strains,” Brave names,” and “Passed out.” 


  1. Good interpretation. What's your source for ED's reading of the Book of Martyrs?

    1. I could have sworn it was in a book describing Sue and Emily poring over the pages, but now cannot dig it up. Also, though in Trying to Think with Emily Dickinson (Jedd Deppman); another reference just in passing from Google Books exerpts from Marianne Noble's The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature. Todd and Higginson titled the poem "The Book of Martyrs" -- which may indicate the presence of and Dickinson family familiarity with the book.

  2. Then there’s the toss-off aside - “As if a Kingdom -cared!”
    She just couldn’t resist getting in a little dig.

    1. Agreed -- it makes the poem Dickinsonian! but I find the comment ambiguous: Kingdom of Heaven? Cared about the martyrs or about the speaker and her Sweet:

  3. The more typical spelling is 'faggot' and it means a bundle of wood, usually for burning.

  4. ‘Read—Sweet—how others—strove’ is not about pleasing God with martyrdom (as of He cared), but rather about setting examples that help us, the living, live stouter, braver lives.

    The martyrs’ faith gave them courage to face faggots’ fire and sing louder than the river’s roar. These brave men and women, cut by death from church lists, we, the living, remember and revere.

  5. The unanswered question: Who is “Sweet”? Two candidates pop to the top of my list: Susan Dickinson and Charles Wadsworth. A search of all 1789 ED poems turns up 45 instances of the word, “sweet”, but only seven are endearments with a capital S, beginning with this poem, F323.

    Fortunately, one of the seven, F816, has two variants differing by only one word, Sue and Sweet:

    F816 (Variant A, about 1864, signed and sent to Sue)

    "I could not drink it, Sue,
    Till You had tasted first,
    Though cooler than the Water was
    The Thoughtfullness of Thirst."

    F816 (Variant B, about 1865, ED's unbound copy)

    I could not drink it, Sweet,
    Till You had tasted first,
    Though cooler than the Water was
    The Thoughtfullness of Thirst.

    This, of course, doesn’t prove the identity of “Sweet” in F323, but it’s circumstantial evidence that Sue and Sweet are the same person.

    The seven “Sweet” poems are listed below by Franklin number and date:

    F323 About early 1862
    F470 About late 1862
    F652 About second half 1863
    F661 About second half 1863
    F734 About the second half 1863
    F816 About 1864 (A) and about 1865 (B)
    F1061 About 1865