In Santa Maria del Popolo

by Thom Gunn

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The Poem

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“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.

Forms and Devices

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The practice of writing poems about paintings is common, especially in the twentieth century. Examples of the practice are W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” William Carlos Williams’s “The Dance,” and John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Poets often use such poems to state their affinity with the artist’s sensibility or aesthetic. A poet will approach a painting in a way different from that of a scholar, yet if his poem is to be more than impressionistic description, he must know some of what the scholar knows.

Thom Gunn, who has done his homework, translates the artist’s pictorial effects into poetic devices. The poem, for example, sets the painting within a narrative frame: The poet enters the church, waits for the good “oblique” light, views the painting, and then, upon leaving, considers how he has been “enlightened.”

This play of light and dark is echoed in other dualities, such as the identity of “Saul becoming Paul” and the stanzas’ two-part structure. Caravaggio is known for his manipulation of light and dark, a device called tenebrism, or the “dark manner.” He creates highly dramatic, realistic effects by highlighting physical forms that seem to lurch out of the darkness toward the viewer, often at...

(This entire section contains 449 words.)

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unusual angles. Gunn re-creates this angular effect first by describing the light in the church with an unusual syntax: “the sun an hour or less/ Conveniently oblique makes visible/ the painting.” He then highlights the physical forms of the “dim horse’s haunch and various limbs” of Paul.

Paul’s figure is “Foreshortened from the head, with hidden face.” Caravaggio uses this over-the-shoulder point of view to encourage the viewer to identify with Paul, just as Gunn allows the reader to see the painting through his eyes, never putting himself in the foreground of the poem.

Caravaggio was also known for his disregard of convention. His figures, composition, and color were pictorial heresy to his contemporaries. His depiction of Paul beneath his horse lacks the decorum of most treatments of scripture. His composition can be defended by pointing out that in the moment depicted, Saul has not yet become Paul. Unconverted, Saul is still in the realm of the profane. His future conversion is unavailable to the artist, whose subject is the visible world: “The painter saw what was.”

Gunn notices that Caravaggio’s emphasis on the horse’s backside detracts from the supposed focus on Paul, whose “various limbs” hardly identify him as the saint of the painting’s title. It is this compositional decision to shift the focus away from Paul that intrigues Gunn, however, and becomes the center for his own interpretive re-creation of the painting.