St Francis and the Birds is based on the painting of the same name to be found in the Tate collection. The painting is stylised and very Stanley Spencer’ish.
The feature I remember first noticing about the painting is the use of colour, which seems to get lost on the internet but often appears vibrant and challenging in print. I have tried to capture that light in the poem. As I looked more closely, the strangeness of the painting became more interesting to me. The saint appears more as a tramp or old man, dressed in slippers and a dressing gown, striding down a road and being followed not by disciples or monks, but by a variety of birds, who do not seem in the least bit disturbed by him. This is in striking contrast to the remaining people, a boy and a woman, who both seem very disturbed indeed.
To further add to my fascination, the painting of the hands is odd. They seem to take an important place in the painting, hanging down from the boy and bent out of position, or grasping and shielding the eyes of the woman, or flat palmed and on the ends of arms in an exagerated marching action in the case of the saint.
The final aspect that I have tried to grasp is the sensation of space and time. Space and time, for me, is very important in a poem, fixing it into a four dimensional location, and this time the location came from research. (Strangely enough, I once walked through Cookham on one of the hottest summer days I can remember, totally ignorant of the Spencer connection.) The other aspect to the location is the clearly defined pantiled house and tree in the background which, I have read, places the saint between Fernlea and The Nest in Cookham. I have not been back yet, but I hope to check this one day.
Writing the poem was a quick affair, and this shows. It is not a highly polished work, and tries to reflect some of that carefully crafted innocence that Spenser shows in his later work. It works using some simple techniques – the seperation of concepts into stanzas and the seperation of ideas into lines. The stanzas reflect location and the birds, location and the people and finally location and the spiritual (if I may use such an abstract word).
The seperation of ideas can be illustrated in stanza 2 for example. Location and location show in lines 10 and 11, fixing the location in space and providing two poles which will be reflected in later lines. The action of the principal in line 12 and apparel in line 13 pivots the poem around St Francis. Lines 14 and 15 reflect the location defined in lines 10 and 11, but also fix two more poles in place, male and female, youth and adult. The stanza finishes with a symbolic gesture and a pun in line 16, an action in line 17 and an object in line 18.
Why start with a location in this stanza? Because the previous stanza ends with a movement to that precise location with the description of the pantiles. I also liked the assonance in Fan-tail and Fernlea. Why introduce the flowers in line 18? It draws attention to the hands, the major symbol in the next stanza.
There are many other features to look out for in this poem, but many of them fell out naturally rather than being inserted or sculpted into place. The painting speaks for itself, and that’s what the poem should do. Simple language, simple description but great meaning.