The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is a long poem in free verse, its 552 lines divided into six verse paragraphs of unequal length. The title refers to a 1524 painting by the Italian artist Francesco Mazzola, also known as Il Parmigianino. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” makes the poet’s thoughts about Parmigianino’s painting the focus for a different kind of self-portrait, a self-portrait in words.

Although a poet may use the first person as the voice of a persona, a character whose outlook and experience are quite different from the poet’s, in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the voice is John Ashbery’s own. The poem represents the poet thinking out loud, revealing the processes of his own mind as he considers Parmigianino’s self-portrait.

In the first verse paragraph, Ashbery quotes from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550). Vasari describes how Parmigianino painted his self-portrait on half of a ball of wood as if his face were reflected in the surface of a convex mirror. In the resulting painting, Parmigianino’s right hand appears to be thrust forward “as though to protect/ What it advertises.” Describing the painting, the poet is also interpreting it, finding in it several paradoxes: a surface which appears to have depth, a “soul [that] is not a soul,” and “Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.”

The second verse paragraph suggests an interruption in Ashbery’s meditation. In fact, each verse paragraph represents a break in the poet’s attention as his thoughts move toward and away from the painting. As Ashbery’s attention draws away from the painting,...

(The entire section is 695 words.)