Francis: A Life in Songs by Ann Wroe
Jonathan Cape, 2018; 208 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
Ann Wroe’s Francis: A Life in Songs, creates a lyric biography of the man who publicly shook off his wealth to found a religious movement, one based in poverty and obedience. If your only exposure to the beloved saint is garden statues and bird feeders, be ready for the unwavering gaze of his vision and Wroe’s admiration for the man. If you’re already connected to Franciscan spirituality, allow yourself to forget the hagiography to be surprised by his relevance.
Wroe’s method is to create distinct sections, each made up of four parts. The opening quotes “from the earliest sources,” including Francis’ own writings, ground each section in a particular incident, commitment, or theme. These create the narrative pull of the biography. The poem that follows is an “evocation of Francis at this point,” so that the forward progression of storytelling hovers, suspending readers in a lyrical moment. These feel like midrash, a devotional and empathetic entering-into-another’s life.
The third part is a poem reflecting this theme in a contemporary setting, bringing the spirituality into daily life, a practice anyone who is attentive could engage in. Likewise, the brief final part of each section, Wroe says is a “grace-note” and acknowledges a “Franciscan echo in Nature.” They are designed to both cap off the theme but also hint at the next, but the experience is a haiku-like sense of stillness where a moment swells with attention. This fresh method is innovative in biography without drawing undo attention to its form.
Beginning with “The Call” and progressing toward “Sweet Death,” Francis’ life is told, but not comprehensively. If you want a traditional story of the saint’s life, you want a prose version. As Wroe says in her Forward, Francis’ life was one “lived in poetry rather than in prose.” Therefore, the book is lyric in the sense that at moments of heightened emotion or spiritual tension, one is moved to song. In this way, it is highly effective. The first pleasure of the book is this complex approach to biography, how it moves and hesitates, how it informs as it leads to savoring and considering, all aspects of contemplation.
The book is also pleasing because of the poetry. In the wrong hands, such an approach could have been saccharine. Wroe’s language is formal enough to feel elevated but conversational enough to feel intimate; above all, the language is musical, which is essential to live up to the book’s title. In one of the Francis poems, she address him, saying, “You tell of great angels you’ve met as you travel the land, / so lithe in their quicksilver mercies, so stern in command…” The assonance (and end-rhyme), parallelism, and the consonance throughout both lines make it fine mouth-music, but that “mercies” transforms the image away from a typical Christmas card angel into an idea worth entertaining.
In “Bread” the meditation is on God arriving in the simple element of bread, and the contemporary scene is a typical café, where bread is varied and specialty: “char-crusted sourdough honeycombed with air, / gilded baguettes crisp-splitting to the knife, / nibbed hazelnut as dense as fossil-stone, // silk-crumb brioche.” There is as much lushness in the language as in the actual baked goods. In the end, a street poet winds through the tables distributing his “home-made leaflets” for free. The poet comments that all four on the pink sheet are “quickly read.” However, “They may sustain us longer than this bread.”
It is clear that Wroe admires her subject and sees value in animating the spirituality in one’s life, aesthetically, if not religiously. In fact, it is her admiration that illuminates Francis’ complete devotion. Love and service which lead him to exclaim, “My God and my all!” also lead him to reach toward gestures that look outdated in contemporary eyes. His attitude toward the body—“The body is ever at variance with all that is good”—rings extreme. Still, as Wroe does, Francis’ life and spirituality are worth contemplating on their own terms and how they apply now. For example, calling coins “flies” and regarding money as no more valuable than dung, indicates the depth of his devotion to poverty, and it still issues its challenge.