by Michael Woods
Saint Francis was the founder of an order of monks who came to be known as the Franciscans. They wore brown habits and were required to live simple lives close to nature. Saint Francis famously gave a sermon to the birds and praised all creation in his famous 'Canticle of the Sun'. This canticle thanks God for the elements of earth, air, fire and water as well as the massive variety of living things.
Like 'Eley's Bullet', this poem explores the potentially dangerous consequences of love. There is a homoerotic impulse communicated in the depiction of physical closeness between the man and Francis. For example, he speaks of his mentor's hands as being 'a woman's and he weeps 'like a boy' in his arms. The details of lighting a fire in a forest (lines 13-16) suggest passion. The phrases, 'I start up a flame' and 'He sees my jealousy flare' convey powerful feelings of someone who does not want to share the object of their passion with 'company.' Although the man's passion is not communicated verbally to Francis he is aware of it, 'He knows. / I know he knows.' The man thinks that Francis must realise that for all his miraculous power over animals he cannot 'tame' the feelings of the disciple. We are also left wondering is there is the possibility of some reciprocation of feeling as we are told that Francis is 'hoping for fire'. It could be that the untameable feelings are present in both men.
The man muses on his own state o distraction by comparing Francis's reputation for being 'crazy' as a preacher to birds. He decides that he cannot live without Francis and takes his family along with him as he follows him. The details in lines 21-22 remind us of the idea that creation was thought to be singing a hymn of praise to God, just as Francis praises him in his canticle. The deliberate act of 'Following Francis' is, as the man says, pursued 'from choice'. The reader is left musing upon the real motives for this choice. It appears that a conventional monastic vocation is absent. The final line of the poem symbolically presents the danger of pursuing such a course of action. It seems that the man will shed many more tears. The power Francis has over the man is made clear while the bird of prey he controls reminds us that love can have lethal consequences. A hawk's swoop, as part of its natural behaviour, indicates that it is moving in for the kill. It is not suggested here that St. Francis has homicidal tendencies but to emphasise the potentially damaging effects of passion or infatuation.
The voice of common sense represented by the wife's mater of fact words inject realistic drama and help to show, by contrast, the extremity of the man's feelings. His repetition of the name, 'Francis. Francis.' suggests monomania or obsession.
This poem and 'Eley's Bullet' explore the other country of passion and the dangers associated with it. The adult experiences of passionate attachment are certainly foreign to the childhood experiences charted in some of the earlier poems in the collection.