In Santa Maria del Popolo

by Thom Gunn

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

“In Santa Maria del Popolo” is a poem about blindness and revelation and the relative abilities of religion and art to enlighten human experience. Gunn wrote in “My Life Up to Now” (1977) that he was “forever grateful” that he was “brought up in no religion at all.” Attracted to existentialism for its philosophy that each person makes his or her own meaning in an absurd universe, and to poetry as his chosen vehicle for creating that meaning, Gunn confronts the relative power of religion, art, and poetry.

Gunn undoubtedly identified with Caravaggio, a violent, sensual, risk-taking individualist known for his homoerotic renderings of traditional motifs. Gunn addresses the painter as one artist to another (“O wily painter”), complimenting him on his daring artistry: “limiting the scene/ From a cacophony of dusty forms/ To the one convulsion.” The word “cacophony” is the poet’s word of sound, not the painter’s of sight, and it seals their artistic fraternity. What Gunn wants to know, though, is “what is it you mean/ In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?”

The focus of the painting for Gunn is the “Candor and secrecy inside the skin” that leads to Saul’s conversion. But what secret? The second half of the stanza seems to suggest that Saul’s secret may have something to do with Caravaggio’s homoerotic paintings, specifically “that firm insolent/ Young whore in Venus’s clothes” and the “pudgy cheats” and “sharpers” of such paintings as Concert, Lute Player, and Bacchus. Accounts of Caravaggio’s death disagree, but Gunn accepts the account of violent death at the hands of one of these male prostitutes “picked off the streets.” The suggestion is that Saul (a famous misogynist) harbored a sensual secret, perhaps not unlike the homoerotic tendencies of Caravaggio and Gunn himself.

It is not Paul’s specific erotic preference that is important, however, but the “alternate/ Candor and secrecy” that caused him to be an outsider. Paul is representative of the “solitary man” of existential philosophy who resists “nothingness” by “embracing” it. Unlike the women in the church who keep their secrets “closeted” in their heads, as in the confessional, the artist confesses the “Candor and secrecy inside his skin.” The saint, too, admits his fallen state. Finally, the poem’s narrator, who leaves the church “hardly enlightened,” also admits his failure to achieve revelation through religion. This may only mean, however, that he leaves with the dark burden of what Caravaggio’s painting has shown him and that what enlightenment it has inspired in the creation of his own poem has not been easy.

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