Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 434 words.)