Saint Francis and the Birds

Saint Francis and the Birds

Inspired, perhaps, by the sights and sounds of bird-flight around the areas in front of Italian cathedrals and churches, Heaney celebrates an admired religious figure’s relationship with the natural world. The saint’s mission to spread his message is not dissimilar to that of the poet.


In the poem’s setting, the eponymous Francis preached love to the birds. Using the cleric’s mystical reputation for communication, Heaney fuses words and birds into a surreal visual animation: having listened they took off, fluttered, throttled up/ … like a flock of words/ Released for fun from his holy lips.

Then they wheeled back, whirred about his head, showing their delight, transmitting his message of love to those congregated via the way they revolved around the clerics walking by Pirouetted on brothers’ capes, Danced on the wing, for sheer joy played/ And sang.

The power of love woven into Heaney’s images in flight is what Francis’ devotion is best remembered for:  the best poem Francis made. What the saint thought and the mild way he delivered his convictions enjoy Heaney’s full approval: His argument true, his tone light.

  • Francis of Assisi (Giovanni Francesco Bernardone; (1181/1182 – 1226) was a friar and founder of the Order commonly known as the Franciscans, an Italian Catholic saint whose statue is to be found around countless churches, not least in Assisi;
  • he is particularly known as the patron saint of animals and it is customary for Catholic churches to hold ceremonies celebrating animals around his feast day of 4 October. Many of the stories that surround the life of St Francis deal with his love for animals. Perhaps the most famous incident that illustrates the Saint’s humility towards nature is recounted in the ‘Fioretti’ (The “Little Flowers”), a collection of legends and folk-lore that sprang up after the Saint’s death. It is said that one day while Francis was traveling with some companions they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds”. The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice;
  • three triplets and a single line; based on 8 syllables; a further variation in rhyme scheme: the odd lines of each triplet (axa byb); the final couplets twinned dede.
  • the poem’s form interweaves two motifs that echo across 10 lines and are summed up in the final line: words and birds become one; love is true; preaching’s tone is light; Heaney, the poet, recognizes a third element: Francis’ preaching is poetry in motion;
  • jubilation of love: fun/ joy/ sang; vocabulary of bird-flight: that both defies the laws of gravity and represents spiritual uplift: fluttered/ up/ played/ danced/ wheeled etc.;
  • Light: deliberate play on words: anti-gravity; bearing a spiritual message;
  • ‘sound’ words: delicate fluttered/ whirred; modern combustion-engine-like power required to rise into the air: throttled;
  • similes introduced by like; chiasmus effect (X –shaped) using inverted word order: Danced on the wing, for sheer joy played;
  • fusion of the creativity of preacher and poet is reflected via a cinematic visual effect that allows birds to be words and images in flight and supports the judgment: best poem;
  • sound effects in pairs: [t] fluttered/ throttled; [i:]wheeled/ whirred; [p] pirouetted/ capes; extended: His argument true, his tone light;
  • for all its past tense, the story has a timeless ‘present-ness’ about it.