Sunday, June 25, 2017


“Caravaggio’s ‘Narcissus’ in Rome”

Because of her preference for traditional rhyme and meter, Elizabeth Jennings (19262001) is often associated with the group of British poets known as The Movement, which included Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn and Kingsley Amis. Jennings herself, however, resisted such labels, opting instead for a sincerity and spiritual awareness in her work not shared by many of her contemporaries. She often credited a three-month holiday in Rome with solidifying her devotion to the practice of poetry and reawakening her Roman Catholic faith.

In “Caravaggio’s ‘Narcissus’ in Rome”, published in the TLS in 1965, the speaker at first seems to address Narcissus. She suggests that visitors come to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome just to be in the presence of Caravaggio’s painting of him, which “holds the eye / By subject and by symmetry”, serving as a mirror perhaps (“Clear / As glass it is”) into our own daily acts of vanity. Yet, in the second stanza, she begins to speak to the artist, speculating that he “must have come to self-knowledge” through the act of creating “that subtle thing”, an image that portrays the twin poles of human “suffering” and “joy”. Seeming to write as an artist herself in the final stanza, the speaker describes Caravaggio’s accomplishment with no small degree of envy. Ironically, she points out, by capturing the vanity of this young Narcissus by creating a perfect image Caravaggio escaped “the stare / Fatal within”. But it was only by seeking meaning outside the self that artists such as Chagall or Blake could avoid the “fatal” gazing of self-obsession.

Caravaggio’s “Narcissus” in Rome

Look at yourself, the shine, the sheer
Embodiment thrown back in some
Medium like wood or glass. You stare,
And many to this gallery come
Simply to see the picture. Clear
As glass it is. It holds the eye
By subject and by symmetry.

Yes, something of yourself is said
In this great shining figure. You
Must have come to self-knowledge. Read
Yourself within that image who
Draws every visitor. You made
From gleaming paint that subtle thing
Man staring at his suffering

And at his joy. But you stopped where
We cannot pause; merely to make
The picture took you from the stare
Fatal within; Chagall or Blake
Have exorcized your gazing for
A meaning that you could not find
In the cold searchings of your mind.

(From TLS)

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