By Norman MacCaig
Choose a poem which revealed something to you about human nature. Show how the poet used poetic techniques to deepen your understanding of the theme.
"Assisi" by Norman MacCaig is a very poignant poem which touches upon the hypocritical and naive nature of our society. The poet uses many excellent techniques in order to show his intense emotions towards this moving issue. ln my essay I intend to examine some of the techniques used by the poet to do so.
This poem centres on a magnificent church in Assisi, ltaly. The church was built in order to commemorate a great saint- St. Francis, of Assisi. He was a man renowned for his humility, and love of both fellow humans and living creatures. However, outside this beautiful, grandiose church sits a dwarf who is extremely deformed. His heart—clenching condition is one, which is unforgivably ignored by the majority of the nearby tourists. They heartlessly rush inside the beautiful church, ignoring the beggar outside. This striking scene viewed by MacCaig, evoked great anger within him.
Right from the offset, the poet makes no apologies for the powerful image, he has launched into, and thrusts upon the reader. MacCaig uses many effective techniques in order to make the beggar seem less than human. One such is:
"The dwarf with his hands on backwards"
This is an extremely powerful image with which to start a poem. MacCaig emphasises the deformities of the beggar, by not only showing he is a dwarf, but that his hands, unlike the majority of people’s, are not facing the correct way. This harrowing scene strikes the reader instantly. MacCaig doesn’t "sugar-coat" this image at all. He simply decides the reader must be able to realise the overwhelming problems of the beggar accurately, and understand the lack of compassion God seems to have had in the making of this poor man. MacCaig’s techniques have a profound effect on making the beggar seem less human. The reader also learns that he. ..
"sat, slumped like a half—filled sack”
This is an excellent use of both alliteration and simile. MacCaig’s clever word choice paints a horrific picture for the reader. This quotation suggests the man has no control of his upper body. Consequently, this shows the reader what a pitiful sight the beggar must be. Furthermore, in comparing the beggar to a sack, the poet is perhaps suggesting, the lack of worth and human appearance the beggar presents to the public.
A little further on the poet again uses alliteration to emphasise the deformities of the beggar.
"on tiny twisted legs"
This use of alliteration again plants a harrowing image of the beggar in the readers’ mind. Moreover, the state of the man’s legs suggests, he cannot walk or do anything for himself. He is stuck outside this church begging for alms and in desperate need to someone’s anyone’s help. MacCaig’s clever use of techniques has effectively conveyed how badly deformed this man is, and the anger MacCaig has with society for ignoring his plight.
Also in this poem, MacCaig discreetly used striking contrast to again show his feelings. An apparent dissimilarity is created between the beggar and the Church. The reader is told how beautiful and magnificent this Church is:
". . .the three tiers of Church built in honour of St. Francis."
The beauty and splendour of this Church is evident in that it has not just one, but three floors. Consequently, this grandiose monument serves as a complete contrast to the harrowing figure outside. The beggar is referred to as the "mined temple" outside of the Church, and he contrasts sharply with the splendour within. Perhaps he is called a "ruined temple" because, in the eyes of God, he is seen as beautiful, and his body a temple. However, the fact he is "ruined" again alludes to the severity of his deformities. His status is also enhanced by the affluence of the tourists who visit the church; VERY few of whom apparently give him a second glance. MacCaig appears to be criticising the notion of Christianity held by tourists and reminds the reader that they simply pass by the beggar. This seems to anger MacCaig greatly, the selfishness of the people in our society.
Another phenomenal contrast is formed within the beggar himself. The pitiful remnant of humility, the dwarf, retains the finest quality of St Francis, that of humility and the gentle, trusting nature of a child:
l "whose lopsided mouth said °Grazie’ in a voice as sweet
As a child’s when she speaks to her mother or a bird’s
when it spoke to St Francis."
This is a stark contrast between the horrible state of the beggar, and the beautiful, angelic voice within. This again frustrates MacCaig, who sees a beautiful human being in front of him, unlike the hypocritical society which passes by, not giving him a second glance. Furthermore, St Francis was seen to be "the brother of the poor", and if he was on the scene the beggar would be the first person he would help. He would be utterly disgusted at the grandiose Church built in his honour, being such a simple, humble man, who took a vow of poverty to help those in need in the world around him.
Consequently, MacCaig is disgusted that these ‘people’ claim to follow in his footsteps, being so very interested in St Francis that they flock to see the Church built to commemorate him. Yet, not one of them stops to help the beggar, who should have been their first priority, if they were true followers of St Francis.
The poet, in stanza two, then brings the reader inside the Church, to an even more disgusting and harrowing sight. The priest is showing and explaining to the tourists how clever Giotto was to make his frescoes reveal to the illiterate,
"The goodness ofGod and the suffering of his son."
A large group of tourists are listening contentedly to the priest, again completely ignoring the poor sight outside. The poet then goes on to say:
"l understood the explanation and the cleverness."
MacCaig has to be complimented for the subtle nature in which he expresses his frustration. Ironically, the reader can only assume that MacCaig is referring to the "cleverness" of the priest. These frescoes are self-explanatory and there is therefore no need for the priest to explain their meaning. Again, the reader can only assume that, perhaps, the priest is trying to earn money by showing the tourists around the Church. Whilst people are on holiday, they are more relaxed, and more likely to part with money. Moreover, this cynicism and ambiguous act is again detracting attention, from the person that needs any alms at all — the beggar. The priest is more than happy to unnecessarily, give a guided tour to the tourists, whilst also ignoring his duty, andleaving this poor beggar with no help at all.
MacCaig’s use of excellent farmyard imagery had again, shown the hypocritical nature of our society. In stanza three. the poet effectively uses imagery of the farmyard, to describe the tourists who "cluck contentedly" after the priest.This is an excellent use of alliteration. as it shows how naive society is. The very fact the tourists are ‘hanging’ onto every word made by the priest, shows both the appalling and unchristian nature of these ‘people’. Again, this conveys MacCaig’s frustration with our society. Perhaps the tourists being compared to chickens is to give emphasis to the ease with which they are swayed by the priest, and the ability he has to capture their attention, unlike the poor beggar outside. The issue is made even more infuriating, as, most likely, these ARE educated people, who should be able to see through the priest, and should feel drawn to helping the poor beggar.
MacCaig also tends to use Biblical allusion in this poem. The reader may see this as a very suitable technique considering the title and the content. MacCaig says:
"he scattered the grain of the word."
Again this is hugely ironic, as the priest is telling the tourists of the good of God, whilst he himself and the tourists are completely ignoring the one person in need of God’s goodness. This frustrates MacCaig who parodies a parable of the ‘Sower and the Seed." He tends to see the tourists as the “Bad Samaritans" who didn’t stop to help a man hugely in need.
Lastly, the symbol of this poem again through MacCaig evokes the anger within the reader. The dwarf is situated outside the Church, and very much ignored by it. This may be symbolic of the majority of the human race - excluded by religion, obsessed with wealth and unwilling to admit the need of others. St Francis should be remembered as a huge symbol of Christian values; charity and brotherhood, whereas the lavish Church and its contents display with extreme irony, the opposite impression to that which it was originally intended.
This poem has had an extremely strong impression on me. It has shown me the hypocritical and naive nature of our society and, in some instances, the Church, furthermore, how easily people ignore things which they believe not ‘to be their problem.’ There are many questions we must ask ourselves, regarding our own sense of charity and humility. MacCaig has, very cleverly, managed to address these issues within the confines of a church and a humble, poverty—stricken dwarf. Personally, I will most definitely think twice before passing by a beggar, in the street, again. ..
To conclude, "Assisi" by Norman MacCaig is an excellent poem, which addresses the hypocritical nature of both our society and the Church. l\/IacCaig uses many excellent techniques to show his intense anger at the situation before his eyes. Furthermore, he shares his frustration with the reader, who will most likely also be angered at the helpless plight of this beggar. This made "Assisi" a very moving poem.