Remembering Titian's Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence Analysis

Jorie Graham

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although American, Jorie Graham grew up in Italy and received much of her education in Europe. “Remembering Titian’s Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence,” like many of Graham’s poems, comes from her Italian experience. The poem describes a religious painting by the Renaissance painter Titian, a painting that exists in two versions. In both versions, the painting’s foreground features Saint Lawrence, who reclines on a grill with a fire burning beneath him. In the earlier version of the painting (completed about 1557), the martyrdom is set in front of a temple façade, while in the later version (painted 1564-1567 by Titian and his workshop), the martyrdom occurs in an open archway. Smaller differences between the two versions abound. (In the painting’s second version, for example, the human figures that surround Saint Lawrence are more grotesque, and two cherubs holding a crown descend from the sky.)

As Graham remembers the painting, she seems to be blending details from the two versions. This conflation may be unintentional, or she may be repainting Titian’s martyrdom to suit thematic purposes of her own.

“Remembering Titian’s Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” is very much like the many other poems about paintings in Graham’s second volume of poetry, Erosion (1983). In these poems, Graham describes a painting in detail but often freely alters these details, perhaps fulfilling what she calls in an interview her “rage to change” what is fixed and finished. The poems about painting—fitting into a subgenre of lyric poetry called ecphrastic poetry—follow a typical pattern of description modulating into meditation. The clearly meditative sections of Graham’s ecphrastic poems often involve sudden plunges into metaphysical questioning about time and eternity, for instance, or permanence and impermanence, or the relation between spirit and flesh. Many critics of Graham’s poetry have called her a philosophical poet, a very apt description as long as it does not imply that her poems are abstract or unsenuous. Graham is, however, one of the few contemporary poets who acclaims abstractions because she feels that they are messengers of silence and implicitly mark the failures of language.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “Remembering Titian’s Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence,” Graham remembers most vividly the roiling smoke of the painting and its dominating lights—red from the fire, which flickers eerily and searchingly over the helmets and breastplates of the soldiers and the body of Saint Lawrence; and a blue light, which streams from the heavens and penetrates smoke and flame to brand, as the poem says, “even the meanest/ twig or/ fingertip.” The lights of the painting irradiate not only Saint Lawrence and every detail of the painting but also the painting’s circumambient air and, most intensely, the viewer of the painting:

Seehow the two lightstwine, over my face, my hands.Every pocket will be found out,every hollowness forgiven.

It is the way in which the painting’s lights search out the viewer that most amazes and troubles the speaker of the poem. The blue and red lights are so lurid and searching that it is the viewer rather than the saint himself that must suffer the painting. The saint is, paradoxically, untouched by his own martyrdom: “Even the excitements/ of the smoke/ glide over him/ unshadowing.” It is the viewer who is touched, ultimately examined, and judged by the painting.

Graham uses this and...

(The entire section is 624 words.)