The thought-provoking poem, Assisi, written by Norman MacCaig is based on when MacCaig went to Assisi to visit the beautiful church built in St Francis’ name. The main character we read about, a dwarf sitting outside the church, is described in a way which evokes great sympathy for him. The writer achieves this by forming a vivid description of the dwarf and using different techniques helping him create sympathy for the dwarf from the reader. The first four lines of the poem create an image of the dwarf which is not very pleasant.
“The dwarf with his hands on backwards/ Sat, slumped like a half-filled sack/ On tiny twisted legs from which/ Sawdust might run” The very first line of the poem is a very direct, blunt opening statement. The idea of the dwarfs hands being on ‘backwards’ is so disturbing that at once the reader starts to pity the dwarf. Using alliteration in the second line ‘sat slumped’ makes it seem that the dwarf sees no point in living anymore.
The poet uses a simile to describe the way the dwarf was sitting, depicting him as a ‘half filled sack’ showing that the dwarf had been dehumanized by everyone surrounding him, making the writer annoyed that nobody is noticing the dwarf.
MacCaig uses a metaphor on the third and fourth lines of the poem, ‘tiny twisted legs from which saw dust might run’ giving an idea of how small and weak the dwarf really is, not being able to move very far, therefore living a miserable life in the same place. MacCaig refers back to the dwarf nearer the end of the poem, evoking even greater sympathy for him. “The ruined temple outside, whose eyes/ Wept pus, whose back was higher/ Than his head, whose lopsided mouth/ Said grazie in a voice as sweet/ As a child’s when she spoke to her mother/ Or a bird when it spoke/ To St Francis.
”The poet uses the phrase ‘ruined temple’ to show that the dwarf’s appearance is made in God’s image and even though his appearance may be destroyed, inside he is still just a normal man, like everyone else. MacCaig using the words ‘wept pus’ creates a very unpleasant picture with the idea of pus coming out of the dwarfs eyes but also a very sad picture with the idea that the dwarf was crying. ‘Whose back was higher than his head, whose lopsided mouth’, the writer says this to, again, accentuate the disturbing appearance of the dwarf, implying that the dwarf has a hunchback.
At the end of the stanza, the poet surprises the reader when he uses the simile ‘as sweet as a child’ as coming from a man with such a bad physical appearance, the reader does not expect the dwarfs’ voice to be sweet. Throughout the poem, the dwarf is compared to different people and the church. In the first stanza MacCaig uses juxtaposition between the dwarf and the extraordinary building of the church, at the beginning he introduces the dwarf, and he then describes the church.
He shows the comparison of how elaborate and wonderful the church at Assisi is, and how there is a dwarf, with a very miserable life, sitting outside. There is also a sense or irony in that, even though St Francis strived to help poor people, so much so that he got a church built in his name, there is still a very poor man sitting outside the church and nobody tries to help him. The second stanza concentrates on the priest, a man who is supposed to understand and share the meaning of God’s word. “A priest explained/
How clever it was of Giotto/ To make his frescoes tell stories/ That would reveal to the illiterate the goodness/ Of god and the suffering/ Of his son. I understand/ The explanation and/ The cleverness. ” The word ‘a’ is used by MacCaig to introduce the priest. This indefinite article makes it seem like the priest is one of many, perhaps in criticism of the church itself, yet when he addresses the dwarf, the poet uses the word ‘the’ which suggests that the poet saw the dwarf as an individual, not like the priest who is just one of many.
In this stanza the priest is showing the tourists around the church, showing them the frescoes that Giotto produced, explaining the word of god in pictures so that the illiterate could understand God’s word. The priest uses a very condescending tone when he speaks to the tourists, using a tone that suggests that he wanted to show off his church and his frescoes because he wanted the tourists to think that the he was very important. At the start of the final stanza, in reference to the second stanza, the writer describes how the tourists were acting.
“A rush of tourists, clucking contentedly,/ Fluttered after him as he scattered/ The grain of the Word. It was they who had passed. ” Here, the tourists are compared to hens who are clucking, chasing their master trying to get some grain, in this case God’s word. This refers to the parable ‘the sewer and the seed’. They represent the seeds that could not grow, who got caught in the thorns or thrown on the path, not understanding God’s word and therefore not growing into a healthy crop.
The Priest would represent the farmer, sharing God’s word amongst the tourists. There are many themes in this poem but one of the main themes is the hypocrisy of the church. We see the church as an organisation that we expect to do good and help people less fortunate than themselves, and yet in the poem, Assisi, the priest, a representative of the church completely ignores the dwarf, an example of a poor man who the church should be helping, walking straight past him, not even acknowledging the dwarfs existence.
This suggests that the church and also the priest don’t understand the meaning of what they are meant to be sharing, the true meaning of God, to help others. In conclusion, MacCaig manages to evoke a lot of sympathy for the dwarf. He does this by using detailed descriptions and comparisons between the dwarf and the church and priest. This makes for an interesting, thought provoking poem.