White Martyrdom

To learn the transport by the pain,
As blind men learn the sun;
To die of thirst, suspecting
That brooks in meadows run;

To stay the homesick, homesick feet
Upon a foreign shore
Haunted by native lands, the while,
And blue, beloved air—

This is the sovereign anguish,
This, the signal woe!
These are the patient laureates
Whose voices, trained below,

Ascend in ceaseless carol,
Inaudible, indeed,
To us, the duller scholars
Of the mysterious bard!

~Emily Dickinson

This poem is an interesting contrast to yesterday’s, in which the poet argues that something attained is worth less than it was before–that when a starving man finally gets food, that food loses its deliciousness simply by being available. This poem, on the other hand, argues that to never be able to reach something longed for is torment–“the sovereign anguish,” “the signal woe!”

Which one is it, Emily?

She is a study in contradictions. I’ve read I don’t know how many mentions and discussions of the paradoxes within Dickinson’s poems, but her whole body of work is rife with contradiction between one poem and the next, too.

I don’t know what to do with this poem, but I know that, aside from the infernal paradoxes, what intrigues me most is the second stanza. The speaker gives the example of someone far from home, longing for familiar places. She repeats the word “homesick” for emphasis, an interesting choice in a short poem that makes me wonder if this is really what this poem, at its heart, is all about.

Of course, because this is Dickinson, this is all liable to be heavily metaphorical and probably has a lot to do with death. But what it reminds me of is the concept of white martyrdom.

It seems that there is some disagreement over whether it is properly labeled “green” or “white,” but I’m going with “white” since that’s how I first encountered the term. In the lives of saints, martyrdom is typically bloody–“red martyrdom.” People die for their faith in spectacularly gory ways. But the desert hermits and many of the Irish monks pursued a different kind of holiness-through-suffering. They left behind the familiar, the beloved, and struck out for new and forbidding terrains, where landscape itself served as a reminder that this world is only temporary. Giving up your life and ascending to everlasting reward is one thing. Giving up your homeland and living out your days in separation from home is another. There is pain and privation in both, and while death is the ultimate sacrifice one can make in this world, the giving-up of home is a more prolonged suffering.

When Columcille and his monks set out in their curraghs for what would come to be called Skellig Michael, they were pursuing white martyrdom, leaving behind the green hills of Ireland for an existence eked out on a barren rock in the sea. Their experience must have been nearly identical to what Dickinson describes in this poem–except that they chose their lot, while the tone of the poem seems to suggest otherwise.