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Essay

IN ASSISI, THE SKY vaults clouded and serene against the foothills.

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Pietro, known as Francesco, devoted brother of his order, put quill to thirteenth-century parchment and began to praise. His inspiration was Psalm 148, whose Hebrew exhortations spur the sun and moon, the stars and highest heavens, tempests and mountains and wingèd birds to sing their Lord’s splendid name. Barchu and Hallelu.

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In the trees that ring the great cathedral at Assisi, birds trill an antiphon in the innumerable dialects of their collected species.

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Laudatu si mi signore per sora nostra morte corporale, Francis wrote in his backwater dialect, da la quale nullu homo vivente po skappare. Be praised, my Lord, through our sister, Death-of-the-Flesh, from whom no living mortal can escape.

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William Henry Draper lost his first wife in childbirth. He lost his second wife in her youth. He lost three sons in World War I and a daughter in her childhood.

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In Francesco’s hymn, the psalm’s call to worship forges familial bonds, each voice enfolded into the household: My Lord Brother Sun. Sister Moon and Sister Water, Brother Fire and Brother Wind.

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Twice widowed, four times unfathered, William Henry Draper served as rector of the parish church in Leeds, where, in 1919, he translated a centuries-old poem by an Umbrian monk for a Whitsunday children’s concert.

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On Whitsunday, the Assisi cathedral is afire with cloven tongues, pilgrims murmuring a babel of prayer.

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Thou rushing wind that art so strong

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At the wind of the day I walked the fortress wall on Assisi’s hilltop as the houselights came on below. A mighty fortress is our God, another word-dazzled monk would write three centuries after Francesco threw open the enclosures of monastic care to the lazar-house, the beggars, the birds.

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At a piazza dinner in the hilltop town of Perugia, against which the young soldier Pietro called Francesco marched impenitent and won a year in prison for his pains, I overhear a tourist family at the next table. In New Jersey cadence, the mother suggests a next day’s trip to the basilica in Assisi. She sells it: “It’s where Saint Francis is from.” Her son whines, “Who’s Saint Francis?” The mother pauses. The pavement birds are belled into the evening sky. “He’s this really famous Franciscan monk.”

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In the basilica, the nave vaults with sky, a gloaming blue clouded with verdant green. Gold stars fan out like finches. Like gilt notes on an ethereal staff.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams, son of a vicar, took up an old German tune, “Lasst uns Erfreuen” (“Let Us Rejoice”), harmonizing his Anglican to that melody’s spare Jesuit. And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?

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It’s not the repeated alleluia. It’s not the catalogue of earthy beauty. It’s not the open-throated Ptolemaic chime. What undoes me is the single minor chord.

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Undone. Unfathered. Lazar-house. Lost. Tempest. Prison. Babel. Evening. Sora nostra morte corporale.

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The minor chord: unheard in the tune’s Teutonic plainchants, unheard before Vaughan Williams’s harmonies. It falls at the end of the penultimate line of each verse—in some versions of Draper’s English text, the minored syllable is him, and in some it is jah; either way, God takes the fall.

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Vaughan Williams’s minor chord is the musical cognate of Francesco’s steadfast praise in and through the death of the flesh: a gut punch that refuses to be redeemed by the next line’s joy.

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Confiteor: The next line’s return to D major requires a resolve that, many days, I don’t have.

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In the Upper Church in Assisi, the fresco cycle attributed (probably wrongly) to Giotto includes San Francesco d’Assisi predica agli uccelli. There are doves, of course, in the saint’s congregation. There is a woodcock, I think. A robin. They will not fly until his sermon is finished. Until he follows the downpour with worms.

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Nearby, another fresco shows Francis struck with stigmata; each wound an asterisk, a caveat. A flurry of wings above his head.

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You lights of evening

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At the altar in Assisi, my vespers are belled into the vault, where they flock and cloud.

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Outside, rain. The birds tangle among the leaves, sustain their refractory antiphon. All with one accord in one place.

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perdonano per lo tue amore / infirmitate e tribulatione

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Pardon and love. Weakness and wrack. Blame and whine, and worms and no escape. O praise Him.

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A creaturely hymn for us creatures: Pietro called Francesco, faux Giotto, bereft William, Ralph, the variant birds, and myself. Each of us cloven by major and minor, each our own Pentecost.

Kimberly Johnson’s recent books include the poetry collection Uncommon Prayer (Persea), a translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony (Northwestern), and Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (Yale), co-edited with Jay Hopler.

This essay and the eight that accompany it in our issue will appear as part of Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns and Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey Johnson and forthcoming this fall from Orison Books.


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