Francis: A life in songs is best read as a poem sequence with marginalia, a fugal meditation on what the man stood for and how we might understand him today. And there is plenty to admire: the formal ambition, for instance; and a purity of tone which may sound unfashionable, yet finds “a place for the genuine”. If Wroe is not especially attuned to the musical interiors of language and if her rhymes don’t quite come as naturally as leaves to a tree (some of those ababquatrains reserved for Francis, for instance), there are nevertheless lyrical successes – and plenty of imaginative touches.
The poems themselves are beautiful and clever. Wroe has taken 40 odd stories or sermons associated with the life of Francis and for each crafted a poetic liturgy. In the stories a first poem re-imagines the scene as the saint’s own experience of the divine, often in the second person. (“By the night window you breathe deep.”) A second poem meditates on echoes of Francis’ teachings in contemporary life; a third “grace-note”, with all the brief freshness of a haiku, unites key images from each poem and introduces the theme of the next.
Like Francis, Francis seems destined to make converts. This is a book to press into the hands of anyone who has decided they have up on "difficult modern poetry". It's so quietly traditional, so unashamedly lovely, that it seems almost radical...Wroe's impeccable neatness can occasionally become twee, as in the cartoonish closing couplet to her bird-sermon poem: "Set separately the wisest bird,/ wide-eyed and cowled, weighed every word." At her best, however, she recalls John Clare in her close attentiveness to the natural world and the way she can convey a sense of simple, spontaneous joy.
This is a book stamped with a brilliant seal. Ms Wroe, Obituaries editor of The Economist and the author of allusive lives of Pontius Pilate, Shelley and Orpheus, holds St Francis up to the light and turns him this way and that to catch the gleam... There is something here of the inspired vision of William Blake and the elegiac bathos of Philip Larkin at his “Church Going” best.
This passionate series of engagements with the life of St Francis will stay in my mind for a very long time — I hope forever... familiar events are rendered in a series of verses, sometimes metrical and rhyming, sometimes free... They are interlaced — and this is what makes the retelling of the Francis story so riveting — with a whole series of poetically captured snapshots of the contemporary scene. These modern episodes usually take place in London or Sussex — but not always. Sometimes we find the poet herself in modern Italy, following in the footsteps of the saint. Some of the juxtapositions are almost commonplace — Francis cuts the hair of St Clare on one page, and on the next, a schoolgirl has her hair plaited in modern Wimbledon — a very beautiful poem, that one... People say they have no faith, and they mean they have not tried to exercise the imagination in the way that Wroe so triumphantly does in poem after poem.
When Ann Wroe wanted to write a biography of St Francis of Assisi, she decided it was a life best expressed in poetry. And so comes about the structure of this extraordinary book... The effect is quite haunting. Francis of Assisi is a figure whose life was effortlessly poetical; there was an extravagance about everything he did, including his renunciation of the world... This isn’t a book intended just for the faithful; it’s for lovers of poetry in life and literature... Indeed, the best parts of the book are, of course, the extracts from the life of Francis himself, which are remarkable in their lyrical simplicity. But the poems that Wroe writes to bounce off Francis are haunting too, in four-beat rhythm mostly. They are oblique... This is a patchwork of prose and poetry: a wonderful little book.