In Search of Meaning: Analyzing the Poem Saint Sebastian by W.S. Mervin

Disclaimer: I am an atheist. I do not condone any of the messages found within this poem but simply believe it to be beautiful and worth unpacking. If you find yourself agreeing with this poem, good for you, but I don’t give a shit.

Here’s the poem: 

Saint Sebastian by W.S. Mervin

So many times I have felt them Lord.
The arrows (a coward dies often), so many times,

And worse, oh often worse than this. Neither breeze nor bird

Stirring the hazed peace through with the day climbs.

And slower even than the arrows, the few sounds that come,

Falling, as across water, from where farther off than the hills

The archers move in a different world in the same

Kingdom. Oh can the noise of angels,

The beat and whirring between Thy kingdoms,

Be ever by such cropped feathers raised? Not though 

With the wings of the morning may I fly from Thee; for it is

Thy Kingdom where (and the wind so still now)

I stand in pain; and, entered with pain as always,

Thy Kingdom that on these erring shafts comes. 

THE ANALYSIS

A prayer is a form of speech that tries to link the speaker as closely to God as possible. The common pleas for help when praying often contain messages of hope that suffering and hardship will soon cease or that a prosperous future may soon come to pass. The poem Saint Sebastian immediately begins with a sentence addressed directly to God. God does not respond within the poem yet multiple kingdoms and agents of God make their voices heard. Though the narrator’s messages to God speak of great torment, how does the poem’s religious imagery convey the narrator’s suffering as a battle between heaven and hell? The first part of this essay will be looking into the binary between bravery and cowardice and how the former is seen as a noble sacrifice whereas the latter is but a rounding error in the total tally of death. The second part of the essay will be analyzing the contrast between the two kingdoms, one inhabited by holy angels and the other by treacherous archers and how their opposition can be seen to represent the fight between heaven and hell.

In the beginning, there was God, the first line is an invitation to both the reader and the Lord to listen to the narrator’s pleas as his suffering is compared to those of cowards. There are multiple instances of repetition within the text, often of religious imagery, and whose purpose could be to parallel the cyclicality of death. The line “so many times” is seen twice in the first stanza when referring to the arrows piercing him, which emphasises his suffering and his unwillingness to leave this earth. Furthermore, he punctuates his plea to the Lord by proclaiming he “felt them” when alluding to the arrows. This sensory imagery depicts how he is not numb to the pain and evokes a sense of touch. Though the imagery never approaches gory details, the intensity of the pain is more synonymous with repetition. The narrator informs the reader that “(a coward dies often)” though does so through the discretion of parenthesis. The death of cowards is therefore never presented in the forefront and his sacrifice is portrayed as more courageous than one of cowards. This may suggest that the narrator did not deserve to perish in this manner, thus explaining Sebastian’s title as a ‘’Saint”. Martyrdom is a form of sanctified sacrifice and opens the gates of heaven whereas the cowards, like the many tortured souls in hell, remain nameless and multiple. The line “and worse, oh worse often than this” could refer to the plight of the damned. The repetition of “worse” juxtaposing the intensity of death with its cyclical undertones, even further reinforced by the words “often than this” which indicates this incident has occurred many times before. The noble nature of sacrifice is displayed in the final stanza wherein the narrator is entering the holy kingdom “with pain as always”. Though he suffered on Earth, it seems as though his suffering will continue in Heaven. Since he opens the poem addressing God, also known as the ultimate judge, he may be displaying his case for his entrance there, and since he uses the hyperbole “always”, he may be suggesting he deserves some relief from his pain. 

Those who inflict pain and those who are supposed to save the narrator from it become entrenched in two different kingdoms. The angels, normally a symbol of all that’s pure and holy, are in the service of God, and their realm is above and hard to reach. In this poem, they represent the good found in heaven opposing the devils, which are portrayed by “archers”. The enjambment in the lines “that come / Falling” juxtaposes the structure of the poem to angels physically and morally falling from heaven. In the line “such cropped feathers raised” puts to question whether these fallen angels could ever return to the kingdom of God, as if their feathers are cropped, they, like the narrator, have the inability to fly, which can also symbolize a lack of freedom. Feathers are a common trait shared in the poem by the angels and birds whose noise impact the narrator more than the pain of the arrows. The opposition shows a favorable light towards the angels who unlike their fallen brethren reside within a higher kingdom. Arrows may then represent the jealousy and violence inflicted from those below, unable to ascend to heaven. The archers, those imposing pain on the narrator, are said to “move in a different world in the same Kingdom”. This line weakens the distinction between heaven and hell, good and bad. As seen by the oxymoron “different” and “same”, those who are making the narrator suffer came from the same source as the holy angels. 

If God is to have no direct involvement with the narrator, his judgement is nevertheless felt throughout the poem. The use of repetition within the poem accentuates the narrator’s perception of death. Through his eyes, sacrifice and pain are the hallmarks of a noble death whereas those who inflict pain are cowards whose unimportance is marked by their endless number. The narrator’s struggle can also be paralleled in the contrast between archers and angels, though they seem to be opposing forces, their progenitor is God, the divinity addressed too directly throughout the poem. The poem ultimately can be seen to address the narrator’s pain and salvation, juxtaposed to the duality of heaven and hell, as a result of moral choices. To either choose in favor of God and fly free as a bird or to lose that privilege and become an emissary for the violence of the damned.


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