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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.


  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").

    1. Thank you for referring to "I died for Beauty" -- I forgot to link to it:
      'alien corn' is one of my all time poetic favorite phrases -- and the larger phrase, 'She stood in tears amid the alien corn'.

  2. I appreciate the insight this poem gives us into ED's mind set. As a poet she is inspired by, and aligning herself with, martyrs.

    "The Martyr poets -- did not tell" It can sometimes be frustrating that there is so little "telling" in a Dickinson poem. We want to know more. But we get a clue here what she is up to. Ironically the poet is telling us something here about why she isn't telling more.

    Instead, she is showing, she is wringing ("wrought") her pang into the sound of the words themselves. The word "pang" is, itself, a good example. It literally sounds like pain, but with a hard G. Pain UGH.

    The final syllable of the word syllable in line two is the sound "bell". This line rings out like a bell, but instead of ringing, or even clanging, the sound of this bell goes "pang". Wrought is a powerful word, as it has the connotation of great effort, of something wrought in iron, like a bell.

    The third line I think of Keats, his gravestone: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." Part of what attracts us to ED's poems, I think, is that they so clearly were not written for egoistic attention. Because of her shying away from publicity, we trust them more.

    In the fourth line you see that the martyring, the self-denial, has a Christ-like quality. The strength the martyr shows in turning pain into poetry is! We can see her love for ourself in these lines. There is a real sense that these poems are written as hard-won self-sacrificial gifts meant to encourage us. There is a heartfelt selfless love for humanity in this that is itself encouraging.

    The second stanza doesn't add much to the first, except to expand the sense of the medium. Poetry and painting are aligned, and, by extension, all art. "The art of peace." I think of Van Gogh's words: “In painting I want to say something comforting in the way that music is comforting.” What IS the art of peace? Perhaps every poem answers this question in its own unique way. This particular poem becomes a lens through which to see all of ED's poems, words that are meant to encourage us, long after the demise of the poet, and are meant to help us achieve peace. The poets in this poem may written about in past tense, but ED was writing into a future in which she herself would be included in that past tense. She is describing her own goal, and in that description itself her goal is being met.

    It is interesting this poem appears in fascicle 30 directly after fr664, a poem about being addicted to our grief, stuck in a Bliss which is like Murder. We love our wounds, and won't drop the dagger that killed us, but instead just keep stabbing ourselves over and over with the same dagger. The "art of peace" shows us this pang, in all its murderous intensity, from a place of experience. "WE will not drop the dirk" it states. Once we see this tendency in ourselves, then perhaps we can finally drop the knife we are killing ourselves with over and over again and, instead of being reminded that we died, be reminded that we live.

    It's interesting that the alternative word for "fate" in this poem is "fame". (learned via Christanne Miller's book). I like "fate" better. Fame feels more closely akin to the ego, whereas ED eschewed fame and left her poems up to fate. She knew there was a reason she was a poet.

    1. This commentary is just wonderful and thought-provoking thoughout. Thank you!

  3. The Kornfeld/d scribe combo portends incredible days for TPBers. Your generous explications above enrich us immeasurably. Thank you Susan, and THANK YOU d scribe, for stepping up. We TPBers are privileged more than we can ever repay.

    1. Thank YOU, Larry -- for all you bring to the blog -- and for all the nice words!

    2. Does anyone know of a link between ED and Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)? Or is the co-occurrence of the phrase, "the Art of Peace –", co-incidental?

      Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969) was history’s greatest martial artist. He was the founder of Aikido, which can be translated as “The Art of Peace.”

  4. ED Lex tells us that when ED uses “martyr” as an adjective, as she does here, its definition is “Suffering; persecuted; oppressed; misunderstood; unappreciated; self-sacrificing.” Of these, “misunderstood, unappreciated” seem right for “Martyr Poets & Painters”.

    She believes dead poets may offer encouragement for some readers, but doesn’t specify what she means. For painters, she is specific, “Some seek in Art – the Art of Peace”. She told Higginson (L261) she writes poetry to relieve “terror”.

    Apparently, for her, writing poetry is “the Art of [personal inner] Peace”. She says she hopes the same for her readers "when [her] mortal name be numb".