Saint Francis and the Birds

In the footsteps of the Irish literary giant of Synge on Aran Heaney celebrates a much revered Catholic icon. The landscape of a weather-beaten island off the south-west Irish coast gives way to the mild calm of a southere European setting where inspired by birds flying around the parvis of a meridional church Heaney honours a saint whose relationship with the natural world is not dissimilar to his own relationship with words. Both he and Francis have a message to transmit.

In a scene where the eponymous Francis preached love to the birds Heaney reworks the friar’s mystical gift of communication, weaving words and birds into a surreal animation: having listened they took off, hovered for an instant (fluttered) before accelerating away (throttled up) their pictorial shape transliterated into a flock of words/ Released for fun from his holy lips.

Words-as-birds, birds-as-words returned (wheeled back, whirred about his head), sharing their delight with passers-by, spinning around the clerics (Pirouetted on brothers’ capes), performing aerial routines (Danced on the wing), forthright in their spiritual celebration: for sheer joy played/ And sang.

Heaney weaves the saint’s power of love into images in flight precisely what he is best remembered for: the best poem Francis made.

The saint’s sincerity (His argument true) and the modest way he delivered his convictions (his tone light) have Heaney’s full approval.

  • Francis of Assisi (Giovanni Francesco Bernardone; (1181– 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;
  • preached: deliver religious address;
  • fluttered: flapped their wings;
  • throttled: provided the energy to fly;
  • blue: sky identified by its colour:
  • flock of words: words flying together like birds;
  • for fun: for amusement, non-serious;
  • wheeled: circled;
  • whirr: sound of rapid movements;
  • pirouette: spin round;
  • brother: member of a religious order;
  • capes: sleeveless cloaks;
  • sheer: utter, complete;
  • took flight: both ‘took off and flew’ and ‘fled’;
  • argument: set of views/ reasons;
  • light: balanced;

Francis of Assisi is particularly known as the patron saint of animals and it is customary for Catholic churches to hold ceremonies honouring 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): and the final coouplets twinned dede.
  • the poem’s form interweaves two motifs that echo across 10 lines and are summed up in the final line: 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;
  • light: deliberate play on words: anti-gravity; bearing a spiritual message;
  • ‘sound’ words: delicate fluttered/ whirred; engine-like power required to rise into the air: throttled;
  • similes introduced by like; chiasmus effect 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 leads to 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 an eternal ‘presentness’ about it;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: eleven assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies;
  • the first lines, for example, weave together labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], a cluster of plosives (bilabial[p] [b], alveolar [t][d]) alongside sibilant [s] [z] and nasal [n];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang


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