The foxes have their holes, the birds their nests and men their beds,
But the swagmen of God have nowhere to lay their heads.
Well, what is that to others? We should have stuck to the ways
Of fireside and family and the craftsman’s measured days.
No one made us leave honest work and start building ships;
To leave our women for a dream of impossible lips.
The nightingale sings to the rose – not at the rose’s behest.
It’s time to bring in a new rule: every bird to its own nest.
The best way to sing the Beloved’s praise is through one’s hands.
God created the hearth; we, by building ships, made foreign lands.
I was a prince when I used to drive a straight shining furrow.
Now I am lord of a bit of scrub and a wombat’s burrow.
And nights when the fiddles sawed and I led my girl out to dance –
Love was a proud thing then, not a hole-in-the-corner romance.
The poem begins with an echo of Jesus’ saying that the son of man has nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9.58) but said with a bit of self mockery, not in order to compare poet seekers to Jesus! It sets the ruefully humorous tone of the poem, the fall from ‘prince’ to swagman, the poet seeker as setting out on a voyage quest in quixotic fashion leaving the sensible real world for a dream. The poem ends in strong irony, seeing the whole idealistic quest as “hole-in-the-corner romance”. This colloquial expression suggests both the trivial and the clandestine.
Even when the traditional image of nightingale singing to the rose is used it is used with irony. It is a good example of how he can by using traditional symbols convey a wealth of meaning. In the Persian story the bird is the lover who seeks vainly to unite with his beloved the white rose. She responds but does not unfurl to him since she knows this will mean the near end of her beauty. In his overpowering longing he impales himself on her thorns. She blooms and withers and her petals mingle with his blood on the ground. A new life springs up which is the red rose. The spiritual beauty of the well known story is obvious; but here Francis is wryly asking why does the bird not go back to nature and his nest. After all, the rose didn’t tell him to be so foolish! And he remembers his own early life where he could be natural and not bothered by this quest for impossible lips and foreign lands. Why leave home? After all God created the hearth, (a play on “God created the earth”), the hearth as symbol of domestic security and comfort.