Psychological Implications

Salter’s poem “Trompe l’Oeil,” is not, as its title suggests, only filled with illusions. It also contains beautiful visual images that take the reader to a warm and colorful Mediterranean climate and transport the reader inside and outside of the speaker’s world—both the physical and the psychological. Enhancing these images are playful word games that the poet uses to add dimension. These word plays come to the reader in the form of sound and also in the structure of oppositional pairs. With these devices, the short and seemingly simple poem lives up to its title, providing not only a description of various visual imaginings but becoming a bit of an illusion in itself as the poet exposes glimpses of her emotional reactions to things around her by hiding herself within the images.

The overall illusion that Salter presents in her poem is that of the imagined shutters. They are painted on the walls on either side of windows rather than being workable shutters made of wood and constructed to open or close, depending on the need for light or protection from a storm. In the second line of her poem, Salter first presents these painted shutters as if they are real, merely describing them as she sees them: “windows with open shutters.” With this statement, the poet conveys, along with her opening stanza, that she is visiting Genoa, and it can be assumed that at first sight of the houses, she feels welcomed. The shutters are open, as if the owners of the houses are greeting her, their arms wide open, mirroring the openness of the shutters.

By the third line in the first stanza, the speaker makes an abrupt turn. Whereas her first impressions were the welcoming, openly stretched arms of her presumed hosts, she quickly learns that this is only an illusion. The expressions of openness are false. The open shutters do not mean that the people are inviting the visitor inside their houses, which are filled with sunshine that is pouring into their shutter-less windows. Neither do they mean that storms are completely out of the forecast. All the false shutters signify is the craftiness of some artisan, who loves colorful adornment and, maybe more importantly, loves the grand art of illusion.

Coupled with the visual images of the first stanza are various psychological implications, which begin with the sense that the speaker feels taken, maybe even a little used, by the illusion of the painted shutters. The mood the poet paints is one filled with a sense of rejection. What was once an open feeling becomes one that is closed. In other words, if the open shutters are merely an illusion, then too might be her own feelings of openness. Another possible interpretation might be found in turning that image on its head. Maybe the speaker herself feels shuttered, as in having bars running across her line of vision, allowing her only a partial view of life. Maybe she is shuttered and only allows a portion of herself to show through. Although she might present an openness to the world, maybe that too is an illusion.

In the third line of the first stanza, the word play begins, and this mood of being tricked is intensified. Here the poet changes one letter in the word “shutters” to create the word “shatters.” It is with this small exchange of letters that the poet deepens the sense of gloom. She has been deceived and feels she may have been made a fool of. She believed in something that turned out to be an untruth. The question that the reader must decide might be: is the speaker the one who is taken by the illusion or is she the one who has created it? If readers probe this question a little deeper, they might find that the answer to this question might be an ambiguous “both.” They might discover that the speaker is both the creator of the illusion and the one who is duped by it.

A hint that the speaker supplies for the answer to this question might be found in the second stanza. It is here that she remembers a moment before the illusion had set in. It was during that moment, however brief, that she thought the shutters might have been merely painted on the wall. Then she concedes, reminding herself that she has been taken, “time and again.” She believes the shutters are real when she forgets the illusion. She suddenly remembers that they are painted, and she scoffs at the fantasy. She must want to believe in the illusion. Time and again, she says, she falls for the fake reproductions. The speaker admits to her own folly in the fifth stanza by...

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Critical Essay on “Trompe l’Oeil”

Throughout her illustrious career, Salter’s poetry has been lavished with recognition and awards, and rightly so. Her work offers a...

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