‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror‘ by John Ashbery stands as a contemplation on the intricacies of self-portraiture and the confines of representation. The inspiration for this poetic work is drawn from Parmigianino’s eponymous painting, an exquisite piece from the Italian Renaissance.
The painting captures the artist gazing into a convex mirror, where the optical distortion renders his head smaller and his hand magnified. This visual play on proportions serves as a metaphor for the artist’s idea of self-awareness, acknowledging the inherent constraints of his own perspective.
Explore Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror‘ by John Ashbery is a poem about the limitations of self-portraiture, inspired by the painting of the same name by Parmigianino.
The convex mirror distorts the image, reflecting the artist’s sense of self-awareness and the elusiveness of the self.
The poem ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror‘ refers to the painting of Parmigianino. It begins with the poet describing the painting’s distortion of the artist’s image. The hand is elongated, the face is distorted, and the whole image is “recessed.” The poet then asks how far the self can “swim out through the eyes.” This question suggests that the self is always elusive and that representation can never fully capture it.
The poem concludes with the poet reflecting on the limitations of representation. The mirror can only reflect what is in front of it, and it cannot capture the full complexity of the self. The poet also suggests that the painting is a reflection of the artist’s own self-awareness, reflecting that he knows the limitations of his own perspective.
Structure and Form
‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror‘ by John Ashbery is a masterful exploration of self-representation encapsulated within a complex structure and form. The poem, which has one long stanza, is basically divided into three sections, each contributing to its thematic depth and intricacy.
Each section serves a distinct purpose, crafting perspectives on the self. The first section dissects the titular painting, magnifying the juxtaposition of a larger hand and a smaller head while touching upon themes of protection and exposure. The second section, framed by Vasari’s narrative, delves into the meticulous act of self-replication, crafting a reflection upon a reflection. The third section offers a philosophical culmination, questioning the depth of introspection through the eyes and pondering the essence of self as it interacts with its own image.
Structurally, the poem adopts a free verse format devoid of a strict rhyme scheme or meter. This artistic choice mirrors the theme of self-distortion and the limitations of artistic portrayal. The poem’s lengthier lines often wind and meander, emulating the enigmatic distortions of the convex mirror itself. These lines fluidly navigate between introspective pondering and vivid description, reflecting the oscillation of self-perception. Additionally, Ashbery employs enjambment to enhance the poem’s continuity, crafting a sense of uninterrupted contemplation.
In its entirety, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror‘ is an interesting verse that mirrors its themes through its structure and form. Ashbery’s artistic prowess lies in his ability to weave complex ideas into a visually striking and thought-provoking tapestry of language.
In ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,’ the poet employs a variety of literary devices to enhance its depth and convey its themes, such as:
- Metaphor: The entire poem is centered around the metaphor of the “convex mirror.” This mirror becomes a symbol of the distortion of self-perception and the limitations of representation. The larger hand and smaller head in the mirror serve as a metaphorical representation of protection and vulnerability.
- Simile: In the lines, “And swerving easily away, as though to protect / In a movement supporting the face, which swims / Toward and away like the hand,” – The comparison of the face’s movement to the hand’s swerving creates a vivid image of the intricate dance between introspection and self-protection.
- Allusion: The reference to Parmigianino and Vasari’s account alludes to the artistic process and the historical context of portraiture, adding layers of depth to the poem’s exploration of self-representation.
- Imagery: The poem is rich in visual imagery, such as “leaded panes, old beams, Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together” and “the density of the light / Adhering to the face.” These vivid descriptions immerse the reader in the sensory experience of both the painting and the act of introspection.
- Enjambment: The use of enjambment, where lines run over into the next without a pause, creates a sense of fluidity and continuity, echoing the distortions of the convex mirror and the stream of consciousness inherent in introspection.
- Symbolism: The “convex mirror” symbolizes the complexities of self-awareness and the impossibility of grasping a complete and undistorted sense of self.
- Ambiguity: The poem’s open-ended language and metaphors leave room for interpretation, reflecting the elusive and multifaceted nature of self-identity and representation.
- Personification: “The soul establishes itself” anthropomorphizes the soul, endowing it with agency in the act of self-recognition, which is a classic example of personification.
Lines 1- 4
As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
The poem ‘Self-Portrait in a convex mirror‘ begins by referencing the Italian Renaissance painter Parmigianino, who created the painting that inspired the poem. The first thing the speaker notices is the artist’s right hand, which is larger than his head and thrust out at the viewer. The elongated hand is a distortion caused by the convex mirror that the artist used to create the painting.
The line, “swerving easily away,” suggests that the hand also seems to be in motion, as though it is about to withdraw from the viewer’s view. Further, the speaker uses the word “advertises,” hence creating a contradiction where the hand is hiding something, but it is also drawing attention to it. In the fourth line, the poet also describes the background of the painting, which is embellished with details.
These opening lines are full of contradictions and ambiguities. The hand is both aggressive and defensive, and it is both protecting something and advertising it, creating a sense of unease and uncertainty. This is appropriate for a poem that is about the limitations of self-portraiture.
Lines 5 – 17
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.
In the fifth line, the poet continues with the details of the painting’s background, where we can see fur, neatly pleated muslin, and a coral ring. These materials create a sense of richness and elegance, which is in contrast to the distorted and fragmented image of the artist’s face. The materials are described as “running together, in a movement that supports the face,” suggesting that maybe the materials are not simply decorative but they also have a functional purpose. They help to frame the face and to draw attention to it.
Further, the face is described as “swimming toward and away like the hand,” which suggests that the face is not fixed or static but that it is in constant motion. This motion is created by the distortion of the convex mirror, but it also reflects the artist’s own self-awareness. He is aware of the limitations of his own perspective, and he is also aware of the elusiveness of the self. In the next lines, the face is described as being in “repose,” which means that it is calm and still. However, the word “sequestered” suggests that the face is also hidden or protected. This is in contrast to the hand, which is aggressive and defensive.
In the following lines, the speaker quotes from the Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari, who wrote about Parmigianino’s self-portrait in his book “Lives of the Artists.” Vasari describes how Parmigianino used a convex mirror to create the painting, and he also mentions the ball of wood that Parmigianino used to make the mirror. Vasari states that Parmigianino was not simply painting a picture of himself, but he was also exploring his own identity and his own place in the world. The use of a convex mirror is significant because it deforms the image of the artist, reflecting the artist’s own self-awareness, as he is aware of the limitations of his own perspective.
The fact that Parmigianino brought the ball of wood to the size of the mirror suggests that he was meticulous in his work. “Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait, Is the reflection once removed,” in these lines, Ashbery introduces the concept of reflection within the reflection. This layering of reflection emphasizes the complex nature of representation and the inherent distortion that occurs when translating a three-dimensional image onto a two-dimensional surface.
Together, these lines highlight the paradoxical challenge of capturing one’s own self in art. The act of creating a self-portrait involves multiple levels of interpretation and distortion, each step further removing the image from its source. This exploration aligns with the overarching themes of the poem, which meditates on the limitations of self-awareness, representation, and the intricate dance between the artist’s intentions and the inherent distortions of perception.
Lines 18- 25
The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes.
The eighteenth line of the poem ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror‘ subtly personifies the glass, attributing a conscious choice to it. It reflects what Francesco, the artist, observed in it, emphasizing the direct connection between perception and representation. The choice of the word “chose” also underlines the selective nature of self-perception. In the next line, the speaker says that Francesco’s purpose in gazing into the convex mirror was to capture his own image. The reflection, albeit distorted by the convex curvature of the glass, serves its intended purpose of providing a basis for his self-portrait. This mirrors the idea that people often portray themselves based on their own perception, regardless of their potential shortcomings.
Further, the poet describes the self-portrait, which is “glazed” and “embalmed” with meticulous care, like a preserved artifact. The reference to being “projected at a 180-degree angle” means the image is incomplete. It is a snapshot of the artist at a particular moment in time, but it does not capture the full complexity of his identity. In the next line, the poet uses light as a metaphor for the passage of time, suggesting that the face is constantly changing with each passing day.
In the following line, “lovely and intact” appearance of the portrait is sustained, oscillating in a “recurring wave / Of arrival,” and is used as imagery reflecting the cyclic nature of art’s impact on the viewer. It suggests that every time one gazes upon the portrait, it is as if encountering it anew. Further, in the line, “The soul establishes itself,” the focus shifts to a deeper level. The soul, the core essence of the subject, establishes its presence within the portrait. The act of creating art is depicted as a way for the inner self to manifest and make itself known.
The poem closes with a contemplative question about the depth of self-revelation. The eyes, often considered windows to the soul, serve as a conduit for introspection and self-awareness. The question highlights the inherent limitation of self-expression and the challenge of fully conveying one’s inner self through artistic or introspective endeavors.
‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror‘ was first published in the year 1975 in a poetry collection by the same name by Viking Press.
The tone of ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror‘ by John Ashbery is contemplative and introspective.
Giorgio Vasari was a heavy-weight historian of art, and his books on art remain an important resource for scholars, art enthusiasts, and anyone interested in the history of art. And that is the reason Ashbery quoted Vasari in his poem.
The title ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror‘ is highly apt as it captures the essence of the poem, signaling its focus on introspection, representation, and the intricate interplay between self-perception and the artistic endeavor to capture one’s identity.
In case you liked ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,’ you will also like these poems about introspection.
- ‘Miami Heart‘ by Jane Miller: It explores modern society’s pursuits, mortality, and introspection.
- ‘Song of the Open Road‘ by Walt Whitman: It describes a trip the speaker takes in order to learn about himself.
- ‘Air‘ by W S Merwin: This verse is about the personified air, introspecting on its role in nature.
- ‘Black Hair‘ by Gary Soto: It is a poem that offers an introspective look at a child watching a baseball game.