Remembering Titian's Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence Themes

Jorie Graham

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Toward the end of the poem, Graham seems to be imagining the ascension of the saint into the heavens. As he rises on the blue river of light that flows from the sky, the speaker’s feelings are of both awe and indignation, as she demands of the saint how he can know and judge humankind: “how can you know/ when you see us,” she asks, “the terrible deficit/ we work into? . . .” These lines express the speaker’s anger that this saint and his world could presume to exercise judgment over the living.

The postulate of the painting—that there exists an immutable world, an immutable body—is ferociously rejected. The speaker almost plunges her hands into flame to feel the human condition and to deny the argument made by the painting. Human life is not like the lives of the martyred saints, which can, so the painting suggests, be reconfigured and redeemed in the light of a flawless heaven. No, humans, for the speaker of the poem, work into a “terrible deficit.” For humans, there can be no reparations or reimbursements, only, as the poem says earlier, the muscular spirit whose progess through the world scours its own passage, roils mud into the sky, and finally incinerates itself.

The thematic concerns of this poem echo, but interestingly vary, a perennial modern theme, the idea that perfection is grossly discordant with the life of humanity. Like William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Sylvia Plath, to name only a few of her predecessors, Graham finally says that humans live in a world of changes, and most painful ones. The rebellious, muscular rejection of perfection is perhaps the distinctive tonalty that Graham adds to the music that surrounds this theme.