“In Santa Maria del Popolo” is composed of four stanzas, each containing eight lines of iambic pentameter, with the rhyme scheme ababcdcd. The title refers to a famous church in Rome, Italy, which houses the painting The Conversion of Saint Paul by Caravaggio (1573-1610). The painting depicts the moment in the biblical story (Acts 9) in which Saul of Tarsus is blinded by a heavenly light and falls to the ground. Later, Saul is cured of his blindness by Ananías and converted, eventually to become Saint Paul. The poem’s title, however, focuses on the painting’s location and, therefore, on the poet’s experience of viewing the painting.
“In Santa Maria del Popolo” opens with the narrator waiting in the dim church for the light to strike the painting in just the right way. His knowledge of the artist makes it clear that he has sought out the painting in a kind of pilgrimage. The dim light is fortuitous because it shows something essential about the painting: “how shadow in the painting brims/ With a real shadow, drowning all shapes out.” Only the horse’s backside and the “various limbs” of the fallen rider are highlighted. These dominant physical details seem to put in doubt “the very subject” of the painting, supposedly the conversion of Saint Paul.
The second stanza completes the description of the painting. Then the narrator begins to interpret the painting by asking the “wily” painter what he means by “limiting the scene” to the “one convulsion” of Saul lifting his arms “in that wide gesture” toward the horse.
The third stanza’s mention of Ananías reminds the reader that Saul’s sight has not yet been restored, nor has he been converted. The painter sees not what is to be, but only “what was,” including “an alternate/ Candor and secrecy inside the skin.” This enigma is somewhat clarified when the second half of the stanza mentions Caravaggio’s models, “pudgy cheats” and “sharpers,” who may have led to the artist’s death in a brawl.
The poem concludes with the narrator turning away from the painting, “hardly enlightened.” In the “dim interior” of the church, he sees old women praying, their arms “too tired” to make the “large gesture of the solitary man.” Unlike Saul, or perhaps the narrator, they cannot make the heroic act of “Resistingnothingness” by “embracing” it.