Francis of Assisi’s life in poetry will stay in the mind forever

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

This passionate series of engagements with the life of St Francis will stay in my mind for a very long time — I hope forever. Ann Wroe describes it as ‘A Life in Songs’, and it does, indeed, rehearse the familiar story of the rich young merchant’s son dispossessing himself, and giving his life to Christ so wholeheartedly that not only he, but the world, was transfigured. We revisit the kissing of the leper, the preaching to the birds, the founding of the order, the call of St Clare, the mission to the Middle East to bring peace to the Crusades, the gift of the stigmata. All these familiar events are rendered in a series of verses, sometimes metrical and rhyming, sometimes free.

The sequence of the sermon to the birds is especially successful:

They did not stir. Perhaps each phrase
slid off their smooth enamelled backs
like rain, like light. Yet, on one limb
set separately the wisest bird,
wide-eyed and cowled, weighed every word.

They are interlaced — and this is what makes the retelling of the Francis story so riveting — with a whole series of poetically captured snapshots of the contemporary scene. These modern episodes usually take place in London or Sussex — but not always. Sometimes we find the poet herself in modern Italy, following in the footsteps of the saint. Some of the juxtapositions are almost commonplace — Francis cuts the hair of St Clare on one page, and on the next, a schoolgirl has her hair plaited in modern Wimbledon — a very beautiful poem, that one.

A characteristic juxtaposition is found at the moment when Francis kissed the leper:

You hardly know
where in this scene you should belong,
distant or near,
staying or fleeing; fending off
contagious fear
with both imploring hands, or else
embracing it.

On the facing page, we are in the check-out queue at Morrisons, St James’s Street, Brighton where a ragged man, stinking of ‘ancient piss’, is given a wide berth by the other shoppers:

Within the beard, his delicate small lips
murmur a silent word — might take a kiss—

The subject of these poems is nothing less than the revolution which took place in history at the time of the Incarnation, when God put down the mighty from their seats and exalted the humble; when the rich were sent empty away and the poor and the lepers and the dispossessed were found to be carrying the mystery of the Kingdom.

Its ramifications were perhaps never more dramatically explored than by St Francis of Assisi — in Dante’s view the first since Christ himself fully to embrace the implications of Holy Poverty. From him, Dante wrote, sprang streams with which the Catholic orchard is watered.

This is demonstrated by Wroe in a number of overpowering vignettes. Perhaps none of them is more extraordinary than the scene, reported in the Daily Mirror on
8 November 1940, when the figure of the crucified Christ, pierced and bleeding and surrounded by the angels, was witnessed in the night sky by a shepherd at Firle in Sussex:

as Fred came down the hill, his old coat flapping.
feathered with bracken, bowler hat and crook
clamped into place, his flock as loud as ever,
and nothing out of usual in his look,

he told the Mirror it was like a film show,
at least as film shows were described to him:
but much more real, what with that blaze, that glory.
The vicar said he had not seen a thing.

This is a poet with a distinctive voice, a command of form and a lightness of touch matched by a depth of heart. It made me think that the reason so much modern Christianity is unpalatable to so many people is a simple failure of the imagination — both on the Church’s part and on the side of those who reject it. People say they have no faith, and they mean they have not tried to exercise the imagination in the way that Wroe so triumphantly does in poem after poem. Inspired by Francis, she sees Christ in the figure of a junkie, dancing on the pavement by Mornington Crescent Underground Station. William Blake would have done the same.

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