Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Last Night with Rafaella” is one of what is considered St. John’s “Pasolini sequence,” or poems written about his year in Rome. The speaker in the poem may be seen as the passive, languorous poet, who drinks, sits, and converses with Rafaella, seeking an end to his disenchantment with “the ordinary world,” to his ennui, and to his romantic longing. In this view of the speaker’s position in the poem, Rafaella is the stronger, more centered, more knowing figure. Yet, as already acknowledged, the speaker also casts Rafaella in a more frivolous role, a makeup artist for fashion models, sophisticated in only the most superficial sense of the word. St. John may be subtly humorous here, even ironic about his life as a poet, seeking meaning perhaps too passively at the hands of fashion models.

However, this view is belied by the lush, richly sensual, even mystical images surrounding Rafaella, particularly in the second half of the poem. It is hard to ignore that the stars shift “in their rack of black complexities above,” as Rafaella’s hair falls on the speaker’s shoulder, and that that very hair is likened to a ladder that leads to “some whole other level of breath.” It may be the natural movement of the constellations across the waning night sky, but it seems more likely that Rafaella is the bearer of some cosmic significance, some transcendent power, and that sexual communion with her has the ability to dissolve spiritual as well as physical boundaries.

It may be more than mere coincidence that Rafaella is the feminine form of Raphael, who stands as one of the most evolved painters of the High Renaissance, whose approach to art meant that a painting was no longer the mere portrayal of an event, but a translation and interpretation of its subject matter through its composition. Everything in a Raphael painting is aimed at harmonious balance, wherein the movement of the body becomes understood as an analogy for the animation of the spirit, and each individual figure becomes an inseparable part of the whole. Rafaella may be Raphael’s true namesake, weaving the mystery of the sacred into what St. John has called the “slow dance of men and women.”