The intensity of the longing and the subtle dilemmas faced make the poem not an easy read, at least for this reader.
Stanza one first expresses a determination to continue serving the Beloved while also acknowledging that every ‘art’ or effort, ‘art’ is more here than just poetry, is a binding until shattered by His Grace. ‘Art’ might almost be read as ‘heart’.
I will not cease desiring to please that one who has won my heart,
Until His Grace shatters the silence held captive in my art.
The next stanza then admits that until the silence is activated or shattered by God’s Grace, its tranquility is at the mercy of Francis’ own actions.
So long as the silence sleeps, its form in love’s mirror
Is disturbed by the violence of every labour.
All his activity has been willfully goal directed, but now at least in Stanza 3 he can attempt to follow the desires and whims of the Beloved, offering some escape from his own controlling will. From our own human station the acts of God seem enigmatic to say the least.
My whole journey has been the seeking of various kinds of treasure;
Now my delight is to serve my Beloved’ wayward pleasure.
But this has its own frustration, for every act that attempts to be selfless service is given the reward of a blessing (verse 4).
Yet it always turns out that when I would serve Him, He serves me;
And so each pleasure in service becomes a new misery.
There is no real freedom to soar, no honour, in tasks undertaken in inescapable longing, even if it is the longing to serve. He lacks the instinctive freedom and spontaneous action of a bird.
I would that my two hands were the wings of my soul ready to fly;
There is no honour in spirit wasting itself in a sigh.
The image of the plain in verse 6 suggests a flatness that must passively await for stray showers of grace. The ‘wild flowers’ are not a planned and cultivated art but something that naturally springs up.
What with one thing and another my life has become a plain
That bears a few wild flowers once a year after the rain.
He must wait patiently for this blessing and weave the flowers which are not his creation but heaven’s gift into a garland for the Master.
Next time the rain falls I will not let them waste their fragrance on the air;
I will weave them into a garland which He may for a moment wear.
No guarantee mind you that He will accept but at least the offering will be made. Shades here perhaps of Gray’s famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
But in Francis’ poem there is a dramatic intensity of longing and a desperation at a more subtle level than most of us encounter. His determination to serve never wavers.