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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Maurice Francis Egan (1852–1924)

By Saint Francis of Assisi (1182–1226)

FRANCIS D’ASSISI was at first called Francis Bernardone. His father Pietro was a merchant of Assisi, much given to the pomps and vanities of the world, a lover of France and of everything French. It was after a visit to France in 1182 that, rejoining his beloved wife Pica in the vale of Umbria, he found that God had given to him a little son. Pica called the boy John, in honor of the playmate of the little Christ; but Pietro commanded that he should be named Francis, because of the bright land from whence he drew the rich silks and thick velvets he liked to handle and to sell.

The vale of Umbria is the place for poets; it should be visited in the summer, when the roses bloom on the trellises which the early Italian painters put as backgrounds to their mothers and children. Florence is not far away; and near is the birthplace of one of the fathers of the sonnet, Fra Guittone, and of another poet, Propertius.

Francis’s childhood, boyhood, and later youth were happy. His father denied him no luxury in his power to give; he was sent to the priests of the church of St. George. They taught him some Latin and much of the Provençal tongue,—for at that time there was no Italian language; there were only dialects, and the Provençal was used by the elegant, those who loved poetry. Francis Bernardone was one of these; he sang the popular Provençal songs of the day to the lute, for he had learned music. And so passionately did he long for “excess of it,” that, the legend says, he stayed up all one night singing a duet with a nightingale. The bird conquered; and later, Francis made a poem glorifying the Creator who had given such a thrilling voice to it.

Up to the age of twenty-four Francis had been one of the lightest hearted and the lightest headed of the rich young men of Assisi. His father openly rejoiced in his extravagance, and admired the graceful manner with which he wore gay clothes cut in latest fashions of France. Madonna Pica, his mother, trembled for his future, while she adored him and in spite of herself believed in him. Her neighbors reproached her: “Your son throws money away; he is the son of a prince!” And Pica, troubled, answered, “He whom you call the child of a prince will one day be a child of God.”

Pietro was delighted to see his son lead in all the sports of the corti of Assisi. The corti were associations of young men addicted to Provençal poetry and music and all sorts of gayety. Folgore da San Gemiano gives, in a series of sonnets, well translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, descriptions of their sports arranged according to the months. March was the season for

  • “—lamprey, salmon, eel, and trout,
  • Dental and dolphin, sturgeon, all the rout
  • Of fish in all the streams that fill the seas.”
  • In April are dances:—

  • “And through hollow brass
  • A sound of German music on the air.”
  • When summer came, Folgore says the corti had other things:—

  • “For July, in Siena by the willow-tree
  • I give you barrels of white Tuscan wine,
  • In ice far down your cellars stored supine;
  • And morn and eve to eat, in company,
  • Of those vast jellies dear to you and me;
  • Of partridges and youngling pheasants sweet,
  • Boiled capons, sovereign kids;—and let their treat
  • Be veal and garlic, with whom these agree.”
  • Francis was permeated with the ideas of chivalry, and his language was its phraseology. So much was he in love with chivalry that he became the founder of a new order, whose patroness should be the Lady Poverty. Never had there been a time in Europe since the decay of the Roman empire, when poverty was more derided. Princes, merchants, even many prelates and priests, neglected and contemned the poor. The voices of the outcasts and the leper went up to God, and he sent their terrible echoes to awaken the heart of Francis.

    In Sicily, Frederick II.—the Julian of the time—lived among fountains and orange blossoms and gorgeous pomegranate arches,—a type of the arrogant voluptuousness of the time, a voluptuousness which Dante symbolized later as the leopard. Against this luxury Francis put the lady of his love, Poverty. In the ‘Poètes Franciscains,’ Frederick Ozanam says:—

    “He thus designated what had become for him the ideal of all perfection,—the type of all moral beauty. He loved to personify Poverty as the symbolic genius of his time: he imagined her as the daughter of Heaven; and he called her by turns the lady of his thoughts, his affianced, and his bride.”

    The towns of Italy were continually at war, in 1206 and thereabout. Francis was taken prisoner in a battle of his native townsmen with the Perugians. Restless and depressed, unsatisfied by the revelry of his comrades, he threw himself into the train of the Count de Brienne, who was making war on the German Emperor for the two Sicilies. About this time, he was moved to give his fine military clothes to a shivering soldier. At Spoleto, after this act of charity, he dreamed that the voice of God asked what he valued most in life. “Earthly fame,” he said.—“But which of two is better for you,—the Master, or the servant? And why will you forsake the Master for the servant, the Lord for the slave?”—“O Lord, what shall I do?” asked Francis.—“Return unto the city,” said the voice, “and there it will be told you what you shall do and how you may interpret this vision.”

    He obeyed; he left the army; his old companions were glad to see him, and again he joined the corti. But he was paler and more silent. “You are in love!” his companions said, laughingly.

    “I am in truth thinking of a bride more noble, more richly dowered, and more beautiful than the world has ever seen.”

    Pietro was away from home, and his son made donations to the poor. He grew more tranquil, though the Voice had not explained its message. He knelt at the foot of the crucifix one day in the old chapel of St. Damian, and waited. Then the revelation came:—“Francis, go to rebuild my house, which is falling into ruin!”

    Francis took this command, which seemed to have come from the lips of his crucified Redeemer, literally. It meant that he should repair the chapel of St. Damian. Later, he accepted it in a broader sense. More important things than the walls of St. Damian were falling into ruin.

    Francis was a man of action, and one who took life literally. He went to his father’s shop, chose some precious stuffs, and sold them with his horse at Foliquo, for much below their value. Pietro had brought Francis up in a princely fashion: why should he not behave as a prince? And surely the father who had not grudged the richest of his stuffs for the celebrations of the corti, would not object to their sacrifice at the command of the Voice for the repairing of St. Damian! Pietro, who had not heard the Voice, vowed vengeance on his son for his foolishness. The priest at St. Damian’s had refused the money; but Francis threw it into the window, and Pietro, finding it, went away swearing that his son had kept some of it. Francis wandered about begging stones for the rebuilding of St. Damian’s. Pietro, maddened by the foolishness of his son, appealed to a magistrate. Francis cast off all his garments, and gave them to his father. The Bishop of Assisi covered his nakedness with his own mantle until the gown of a poor laborer was brought to him. Dipping his right hand in a pile of mortar, Francis drew a rough cross upon his breast: “Pietro Bernardone,” he said, “until now I have called you my father; henceforth I can truly say, ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ for he is my wealth, and in him do I place all my hope.”

    Francis went away, to build his chapel and sing in the Provençal speech hymns in honor of God and of love for his greatness. In June 1208 he began to preach. He converted two men, one rich and of rank, the other a priest. They gave all to the poor, and took up their abode near a hospital for lepers. They had no home but the chapel of the Angels, near the Portiuncula. This was the beginning of the great order of the Friars Minors, the Franciscans.

    Francis was the first poet to use the Italian speech—a poet who was inspired to change the fate of Europe. “He would never,” the author of a recent monograph on St. Francis says, “destroy or tread on a written page. If it were Christian writing, it might contain the name of God; even if it were the work of a pagan, it contained the letters that make up the sacred name. When St. Francis, of the people and singing for the people, wrote in the vernacular, he asked Fra Pacifico, who had been a great poet in the world, to reduce his verses to the rules of metre.”

    St. Bonaventura, Jacomino di Verona, and Jacopone di Todi, the author of the ‘Stabat Mater,’ were Franciscans who followed in his footsteps. “The Crusades were,” to quote again, “defensive as well as offensive. The Sultan, whom St. Francis visited and filled with respect, was not far from Christendom.” Frederick of Sicily, with his Saracens, menaced Assisi itself. Hideous doctrines and practices were rife; and the thirty thousand friars who soon enrolled themselves in the band of Francis gained the love of the people, preached Christianity anew, symbolized it rudely for folk that could not read, and, as St. Francis had done, they appealed to the imagination. The legends of St. Francis—one can find them in the ‘Little Flowers,’ of which there are at least two good English translations—became the tenderest poems of the poor.

    If St. Francis had been less of a poet, he would have been less of a saint. He died a poet, on October 4, 1226: he asked to be buried on the Infernal Hill of Assisi, where the crusaders were laid to rest; “and,” he said, “sing my ‘Canticle of the Sun,’ so that I may add a song in praise of my sister Death. The lines,” he added, “will be found at the end of the ‘Cantico del Sole.’”

    Paul Sabatier’s ‘Life of St. Francis,’ and Mrs. Oliphant’s, are best known to English-speaking readers. The most exhaustive ‘Life’ is by the Abbé Leon Le Monnier, in two volumes. It has lately been translated into English.