‘A Thousand Martyrs’ by Aphra Behn is a three-stanza poem which is made up of sets of six lines or sestets. The stanzas conform to a structured and consistent rhyme scheme of ababcc, alternating as the lines progress from beginning to end.
Additionally, each stanza ends with a set of rhyming lines, known as a couplet. In this piece, each couplet contributes an entirely new thought to the poem and could be read separately from the rest of the text.
The poem begins with her stating that she has made “A thousand martyrs” to the cause of her own pleasure. They come to her willingly, and she burns them up until she is tired of them. When these undefined people first came to her they were wild and “wandering” in thought. Her “hand” controlled and changed them.
In the second stanza, the speaker states that no move she made was done in “vain.” She did not waste a single word. They were all well “reciev’d” by those who would become her martyrs. In the second half, she explains how the “fair” does not have to wait long for their wishes to be granted. People will do whatever they can to please the most beautiful in society.
In the final stanza, she relishes in the fact that she has not had to put out any effort to get what she has. She can carry away her earnings, laughing as she does. There were no pains of hell, only joys of heaven.
Analysis of A Thousand Martyrs
A thousand martyrs I have made,
All sacrific’d to my desire;
A thousand beauties have betray’d,
That languish in resistless fire.
The untam’d heart to hand I brought,
And fixed the wild and wandering thought.
In the first stanza, the speaker begins by utilizing the line which became the title of the poem. This line is one to which a reader should refer throughout the poem. It works as a summary of the general wrongs done by the speaker and her obsession with self-aggrandizing advancement. This phrase refers to her ability to create martyrs, or people willing to sacrifice themselves for her. These people are numerous, reaching into the thousands.
In the second line, the speaker reveals how and why the martyrs are created. They were not sacrificed for any great purpose, but instead for the speaker’s own “desire.” These people to whom she refers were used as the speaker wanted and then sent to the “resistless fire.” They happily present themselves to the speaker and willingly go to the “fire” of which she speaks. The men and women destroy themselves for her and “languish” in their own deaths.
In the concluding couplet of the poem, the speaker describes how she acquired these people and then ended up controlling them. Before they came to her they were “untam’d,” or untamed. There was a wildness in their hearts that was molded and “brought” to heel in her “hand.” She “fixed the wild” and stopped their thoughts from “wandering.”
Due to the way she sculpted their mental and emotional being, they came totally under her control. They would do for her anything she wanted.
I never vow’d nor sigh’d in vain
But both, tho’ false, were well receiv’d.
The fair are pleas’d to give us pain,
And what they wish is soon believ’d.
And tho’ I talk’d of wounds and smart,
Love’s pleasures only touched my heart.
In the first line of the second stanza, the speaker declares that she never made an effort, vow or sigh, useless. Everything she did successfully. There was no breath wasted. All the statements she made were “well reciev’d” and believed by those who heard them. She was utterly convincing in what she said.
In the next lines, she describes what it is about “The fair” that attracts those who are not. She is speaking as someone who knows, but as if she is not one of the “fair” of whom she speaks. The speaker knows that the most beautiful and grand people are always willing and happy to “give us pain.” The “us” refers to those deemed “lesser.” These would be the martyrs who sacrificed themselves for the speaker.
Additionally, she knows that the wishes of “the fair” are easily met. A beautiful person does not have to wait long for someone to do as they wish.
In the couplet that concludes this stanza the speaker returns to her own personal experience and says that she spoke with the “martyrs” of “wounds and smart.” She discussed a variety of topics and subjects, but the only thing which really mattered to her was “Love’s pleasures.” They were the only emotions that “touched [her] heart.”
Alone the glory and the spoil
I always laughing bore away;
The triumphs, without pain or toil,
Without the hell, the heav’n of joy.
And while I thus at random rove
Despis’d the fools that whine for love.
In the final sestet of the poem, the speaker describes how she has been utterly triumphant in everything she set out to do. Those who came to her were used up and discarded. She took what she wanted, and is now able to carry off all of the “glory and spoil[s].” The world, it seems, is totally under her control. She relishes this victory, laughing as she examines all she has gained.
Her “triumphs” to which she refers, were gained without “pain or toil” on her part. She did not have to put out any effort to get all she has. In amongst what she received were the joys of heaven, but no pains of “hell.”
In the final couplet, the speaker states that she has been traveling around the world this way. She “rove[s]” from place to place taking what she wants. All through her travels and triumphant conquests she “Despis[es] those who “whine for love.” This statement is extremely poignant as she clearly knows nothing of wanting something she cannot have.