And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

fredag 20. januar 2017

Geoffrey Hill's "The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian"

Today is the feast of Saint Sebastian, who, according to tradition, was a Christian soldier in the Roman army during the reign of Diocletian. Since Christianity was forbidden, Sebastian was arrested when his Christianity was found out, and he is said to have suffered martyrdom around 300. This martyrdom is often depicted as Sebastian being tied to a tree and pierced by arrows, but this was only the first part of his passion story. According to legend, Sebastian was later taken care of by a woman called Irene, later known as Irene of Rome, and he recovered from his wounds. His martyrdom was later consummated when Diocletian had his soldiers beat him to death with clubs when Sebastian confronted the emperor.

The story of Sebastian has enjoyed varied but immense popularity through the Middle Ages, and the arresting quality of his iconography - owing in part to its likeness with Christ's crucifixion - has inspired later legends as well as later art.

The image of Saint Sebastian has been used as the starting  point of a poem by Geoffrey Hill in his sequence Of Commerce and Society from his first poetry collection. The poem itself is a social commentary and has little to do with the story of Sebastian itself, and even his cause of death is incorrectly stated as being the arrows. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful poem whose reliance on the haunting imagery of Sebastian's passion story heightens the sense of drama and adds drama to the social commentary.

From Of Commerce and Society

6 The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

Homage to Henry James
'But then face to face'

Naked, as if for swimming, the martyr
Catches his death in a little flutter
Of plain arrows. A grotesque situation,
But priceless, and harmless to the nation.

Consider such pains 'crystalline': then fine art
Persists where most crystals accumulate.
History can be scraped clean of its old price.
Engrossed in the cold blood of sacrifice

The provident and self-healing gods
Destroy only to save. Well-stocked with foods,
Englarged and deep-oiled, America
Detects music, apprehends the day-star

Where, sensitive and half-under a cloud,
Europe muddles her dreaming, is loud
And criticial beneath the varied domes
Resonant with tribute and with commerce.
- Published in For the Unfallen (1959)

Martyrdom of Sebastian
Aix-en-Provence - BM - ms. 0016, f.278, Book of Hours, Use of Paris, between 1480-90
(Courtesy of

For other blogposts on Saint Sebastian:

Poems on Saint Sebastian

On Sebastian and hedgehog iconography in the legend of Saint Edmund Martyr

Guillaume Dufay's two motets for Saint Sebastian

On Sebastian depicted with a beard

Two Tuscan depictions of Sebastian's martyrdom

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