Assisi by Norman MacCaig – Literature Review

A poem which explores an important theme is Assisi by Norman MacCaig. The reader is drawn into an uncomfortable tableau where the themes of hypocrisy and corruption inherent in the affectation of religious piety are brought into sharp relief. Written in the poetic form of free verse, the poet sidesteps the traditional form of rhyme and rhythm in an attempt to develop this idea of corruption. Through careful word choice and stark imagery the poet presents a vivid depiction of both the duality of man and the societal dichotomy of wealth and poverty.

The poet immediately introduces this separation through the title. Ambiguously referring to either the city of Assisi or St. Francis of Assisi, the title Assisi alludes to both. The city of Assisi is known to be ornate and grandiose; home of magnificent architecture and associated with great wealth. In direct contrast, St Francis of Assisi dedicated his life to the poor and gave up his aristocratic riches for a monastic life, symbolising great poverty. Hence, the one-word title, before even being aware of the situation of the poem, is skilfully used by MacCaig to introduce the theme of hypocrisy.

This theme, together with corruption in the modern Church, is developed throughout the poem. Assisiis the story of a deformed dwarf who sits outside the Church of St. Francis. Whilst a priest conducts a guided tour inside, the dwarf sits begging on the stairs outside: a subtle reference to the social divide. Through the personification of these characters, MacCaig develops the main themes.

In the first stanza, MacCaig introduces the dwarf as a pitiful figure by describing his hands as being ‘on backwards’. Both literally and metaphorically portraying the dwarf’s uselessness, the subsequent line ‘sat slumped like a half-filled sack’ develops this idea. Suggesting a lack of rigidity, the simile invokes an image of the dwarf being misshapen and deformed, whilst sibilance is used by MacCaig to heighten the feeling of disconcertion in the reader.

The piteous image of the dwarf is expanded in the lines ‘tiny twisted legs from which/Sawdust might run’. In fact, in these two lines alone, MacCaig employs a myriad of techniques to develop the image of the dwarf’s worthlessness: lexical choice of ‘twisted’, which not only suggests pain and functional ineptitude but has connotations of inversion and corruption, which also intimates to the central theme of the poem; the use of consonance on the hard ‘t’, used to promote an emotional response of unease; and enjambment on ‘Sawdust’, highlighting his objectification of the dwarf. The metaphor is extended from the previous line and is intended to dehumanise the dwarf, characterising him as an insentient article, and stripping him of human quality.

A dry, sarcastic tone is adopted by MacCaig in the next line. He describes the ‘three tiers of churches built” to show how elaborate the Church is and to highlight the irony of such a pitiful creature being in such a grandiose setting. We are also told that the church is built “In honour of St. Francis”. St Francis was a humble man, who would not have cared for opulent cathedrals being built in his name. He surrendered such riches to help people like the dwarf, therefore the fact that he sits outside hungry and destitute is deeply ironic. Other techniques are employed by the poet to emphasise this. For example, the enjambement of this line highlights the large scale of the building. Similarly, MacCaig changes the expected syntax of the last line of this stanza “Of not being dead yet” to emphasize the irony. This inversion also reflects inequality and injustice, whilst simultaneously perpetuating a disconcerting tone.

In the second stanza, we are introduced to the priest who is conducting a guided tour of Giotto’s frescoes inside the church. This is poignant because it illustrates the corruption prevalent in the Church. The frescoes were originally commissioned to teach the poor the stories from the Bible. In Assisi, they are being used as a source for capital gain, and not for spiritual development, as was their original purpose. The priest’s role has been diverted from that of a spiritual guide, to that of a tour guide and MacCaig uses a self-deprecating tone in this stanza to underline the palpable hypocrisy. He also reveals his contempt for a social duality; that great riches and great poverty often exists side by side. This is evident from the lines “… I understood/The explanation and/The cleverness”. Enjambement is used by MacCaig to great effect here, showing his contempt for the priest’s neglect, and by extension, society’s neglect.

In the final stanza, MacCaig uses other techniques to explore the main themes. Firstly, he uses an extended metaphor the priest as a farmer. He describes a “rush” of tourists “clucking contentedly”. The word “rush” connotes an absence of deliberation, suggesting that the tourists are unaware of the irony of the situation. The use of the alliteration and onomatopoeia alludes to the tourists being simple-minded and unthinking, like chickens. The metaphor is extended by describing the tourists as “fluttering”, conjuring an image of them blindly following the priest, ignorant of any hypocrisy. Another technique used by MacCaig to reflect the main themes is also used here: “… as he scattered the grain of the word”. This corruption of a phrase used in the Bible is deliberately intended to echo corruption of the Church’s values. It also reflects that, in the poet’s opinion, the priest has forgotten his spiritual responsibilities and the tone is rather disparaging.

In the close of the poem, MacCaig further displays his revulsion and a sense of injustice. He tells us “it was they who had passed/The ruined temple outside”. The word “they” conveys an accusatory tone. The group had failed to notice the dwarf’s suffering, too absorbed and shallow to realise how hypocritical they were being: it is here we learn that the poet is repulsed by this situation. The juxtaposition of “ruined temple” conveys a powerful message. The word “ruined” symbolises the dwarf’s broken physical exterior, whilst in contrast, the word “temple” symbolises the dwarf’s perfect and sacred interior i.e. his humanity.

The imagery of the dwarf in this last stanza is particularly poignant and successfully unites the poem’s main themes. MacCaig, quite brutally, further describes the dwarf’s physical appearance: “… whose eyes/Wept pus, whose back was higher/Than his head, whose lopsided mouth… “). This harsh depiction of the dwarf is employed to create a particular effect: to shock the reader into feeling pity; in fact, we are being defied to withhold it. In the final lines of the poem, MacCaig reclaims the dwarfs humanity by revealing his inner beauty. The simile “… voice as sweet/As a child’s when she speaks to her mother/Or a bird’s when it spoke to St Francis” very clearly displays the purity and innocence of the dwarf. The tone also represents the sheer injustice and unnecessary pain that is obviously a big part of the dwarf’s life. Why should his suffering go unnoticed?

Through a plethora of techniques, MacCaig successfully engages our sympathy and through exploration themes such as corruption and hypocrisy, we are forced to question what it means to be human. The duality of man unfolds through both characters. The priest may be a man who serves God, but the role he plays serves only capitalism. The dwarf, who is broken, is also whole – deformed to the world, but perfect to God. Through the structure of the poem we observe these two lives as separate, yet MacCaig communicates absolute synonymy. Thus we have Assisi: a poem of conscience.