A Legend of Saint Francis

By Isabella Fey



A park! That decorative note

Set in contemporary asphalt, pricked

By neat grasses, colored by the rote

Of ingeniously spaced annuals, and tricked

From nature’s purpose to pursuit

Of fenced frivolities; earth serves the will of civic gardeners

Who prize the surface green but not the root,

And fill each season with prefigured bruit

Of crying flowers: the tulip’s country dance, the blurs

Of royal iris, and canna, autumn’s flaming messengers.


Paths, benches, here and there a clock,

Signs indicating exits every block;

Children and nursemaids, old men out of work,

The labeled trees where neither mysteries nor dangers lurk,

The shallow lake, the times all out of joint,

And the great city visible from every point.


A park, then!

I offer no retreat

For poets, lovers, and such uneased men;

No sunlit magnitudes,

No desert wild and sweet

For contemplation of beatitudes.

I offer what’s to hand, poets have little choice

History supplies the happening, they the voice.

Yes, history—this tale I offer you,

Though in no standard text or book of fact,

Takes its sanction from the original act,

And like all truth, beyond all fact, is true.


The Sunday churchbells filled the air

That called to church but not to prayer,

Thousands of people in their Sunday best

Chatted and fidgeted while waiting to be blessed;

The streets were clean, the households, fresh and trim

And Monday droned already in the Sabbath hymn.

And in the park, the pagan sun held swy

And poured alike on pious man and sinner,

And favored with undichotomizing ray

Both those who do and don’t say grace at dinner.

And silence, that old priest, conducted mass

Liturgical above the humble grass,

And choral insects lent their silver score,

And dust thou art resolved to dust once more.


And presently along the path serene

A loiterer came, a young man darkly dressed,

Black coat fastened over sunken chest,

A folio in his arm, a hat of green

Crowning the dark abundance of his hair;

His face, limbs, general deportment, had the air

Of hunger suffered recently; his eyes,

Dark-lidded, had the depth but not the lightness of the skies,

For darkness like a double self companioned him,

One of the older and forgotten seraphim.

He walked along with strangely measured pace

As if some former life or discipline

Had tamed his eager feet and curbed his chin

And yoked his spirit to deliberate grace.


And no one noticed him. Children played

With deadly innocence upon the gravelled walk,

Nursemaids lined the benches with their envious talk,

Ceased talk to scold their charges, went to talk again;

A slight breeze swayed the grass; the old men swayed

Blown by the keen winds of regret; the loiterer stayed

Wrapped in a secret glowing, and betrayed

Only his outer darkness to the world of men.


And this particular Sabbath might have passed

Into the limbo of accomplished time

And left no story to complete this rhyme,

Had not the dark-robed visitor at last

Been moved to break his eremitic fast.

A crust of bread, unmoistened even by a tear

He drew from out his pocket; his wan mouth puckered as he held it near

But did not eat; for on the tailored lawn

A sudden flurry caught his eye, a sparrow’s flight,

A flock of sparrows greedy for the sight

Of that dry crust—the town’s free pensioners

Reduced to chilly want and feathered scrawn

By careless children and meticulous gardeners.


The stranger did not hesitate, he crushed

The dry bread with generous hands, and while the sparrows rushed

Pell-mell upon the feast, each shouldering out the others,

He murmured gently as of old: Come, eat, my Brothers!

And swallowing the wry juice of hunger, he stood stock still

And watched the ravenous sparrows work their will

Upon love’s meager sacrifice; until,

Bemused with love and hunger, he took his artist’s folio,

Propped it against a waste receptacle,

And sketched, more woe than comedy, more love than woe.


And now the world took notice. First a child

Came running curious and unskeptical

To see the picture; then a nursemaid smiled,

Nudged her companion and strained her eyes to see

What eccentricity this might be;

An old man loitered past, stopped, gave his approval grudgingly,

And then confided that he too had been

In youth an artist—but art is fair,

And beauty surely leads to sin, -‘

And now he slept in parks and dined upon despair.

A laborer came by, who cleaned the park at eve,

Taking his Sabbath holiday, and unable to conceive

Of other amusement, spent it in the park—

And seeing the stranger sketch, he thought it quite a lark

To find the place he cleaned at night

Transformed on paper to a thing of light.


And so the crowd grew larger, curious

To gape, to wonder and to criticize;

A nursemaid wiped the easy moisture from her eyes,

Another, moved more readily to despise,

Whispered that the thing was spurious,

Mere juggler’s trickery; and a third was furious

To see the Sabbath broken by a clown.

But the staring children did not smile or frown

Upon the sketcher’s efforts; they accepted him

Straight from the soul, with childhood’s golden clarity,

Not with the critic’s learned charity

For things attempted, but as cherubim

Must know the Lord, direct, unsullied by the mind’s disparity.

And all the while the sketcher did not turn

To note the idle crowd intruding on his task;.

His hand divinely swept with unconcern

Over the sketching block, whose empty mask

By charcoal stroke and smudge had been withdrawn

Upon a panorama of celestial lawn.

Cries of approval from the crowd: But he can sketch!

A starveling talent! How much does it fetch?

The grudging praise of men whose souls are mute,

And, unable to assert, can but dispute.


And now the miracle begins: One greedy bird

Distracted from his world of grub and crumbs

By sounds not understood and dimly heard

Beyond the sparrow-level, leaves his greedier chums

Deep in the grass still struggling for the bread,

Pecking and squawking and each stealing from his neighbors,

He rises and circles ‘round the artist’s head,

Beholds the work of art, and now he drums

With eloquent wings upon the air,

His comrades leave their labors,

And lo, the whole flock flutters there,

The dark aerial halo of the artist’s sable hair.


And human vision takes the wheeling flock:

For there in the compass of the sketching block

These birds behold such vistas and such trees

As never sparrow nested in; no flower such as these

Found blossom in a single summer; the shallow lake

Has grown into the lake of Galilee;

Paths straight-stretching to eternity;

The city fades to sloping mount and hill

Where men may walk and talk with godhead still.

And just in the center of this transformed park

The artist sketched a thing far stranger than the rest:

Himself he stands, dark-garmented, but dressed

For more than mortal sorrow, his face no longer dark,

And on his hands and brow and breast

The signs well known of old were pressed,

Where love and death had stricken him with the self-same mark;

And instead of saintly blood,

Light poured from these stigmata in a flood.


And lastly the quarreling sparrow flock

Had undergone transcendent change: a snow-white brotherhood

Of gentle doves, they perched on tree and rock

And even upon his shoulders, who had wrought their good,

The saints own brothers, without hunger and without fear they stood.

The living sparrows, filled with human vision.

Experience a miracle of envy and of rage;

They flap their wings and twitter high derision,

Recall their wintry hungers, and how gardeners wage

Each spring a scarecrow battle for the seed

Designed by Providence to fill a sparrow’s need,

While pigeons and doves grow fat in man-made nests,

Loved, petted, gutted with crumbs—the city’s welcome guests.

And shrill with exasperation, the outraged sparrows

Fall on the artist like keen darting arrows,

Beaks poison-sharp and wildly drumming wings,

They stab him on head and hands with multitudinous stings,

And so wreak vengeance for their bitter lot

On the one being who has harmed them not.


The artist endures it, but the Sabbath crowd

Confused by the onslaught, tries to flee

From the charmed circle, a nursemaid screams aloud,

The old men crush one another trying to get free,

A child is trampled, panic reigns, a mob forms suddenly

From the Sunday loiterers, blows are exchanged,

Women cry hysterically, the trampled child

Uninjured, bites someone’s ankle, and as if arranged

By signal, a young girl faints and the mob goes wild.

Somewhere a policeman’s stick tattoos

A riot-call, park attendants in their uniforms appear

Abruptly from nowhere, traveling in safe twos,

They fall upon the crowd, and not taking time to hear

Precisely what happened, nor having wish to know,

They collar the innocent and let the guilty go,

Handcuff the artist, disperse the excited horde,

And law and order are immediately restored.


So far the miracle. Now human thought

Supplants divine intention. The offending visitor was brought

Post-haste to the station, examined, registered, arraigned

For disturbance of the peace, tried, found guilty, sentenced to thirty days

Or thirty dollars. He served an uneventful term,

Emerged with six pounds evidently gained

From wholesome county diet, promised to mend his ways,

And thanked the prison doctor that no germ

Had festered the wounds on hands and breast and brow

Pecked by the angry sparrows. The wounds were cleanly healed, and now

He had only the tell-tale scars, the secular mark

Of some would-be miracle miscarried in the park.


And that was the last of him. For the old men and children, those

Who might have borne witness to an uncommon thing

Saw little meaning in a sparrow’s wing,

And when that Sabbath drew to its undistinguished close,

The high music of one miraculous Sunday

Faltered and died in the urgent prose of Monday.


Yet the event was not immediately dismissed.

The Sergeant of Police, to whom the park

Sent two officials, discussed the curious twist

Whereby the thing had happened; and all three were in the dark,

For the City’s Ordinances, when carefully re-read,

Said nowhere that art or artists were prohibited.

Yet the unfortunate incident called for some clear measure

To safeguard public grounds for public pleasure.

After much legal head-scratching and conferring,

The Sergeant, whose tact in civics was unerring,

Suggested for the safety of the crowd,

That conspicuous signs be posted:



And so it came to pass that that same employee

Who cleaned the park at eve, and who did see

The nameless miracle, and did remember,

And who, after the crowd dispersed

Did rescue the drawing and hide it in his breast—

This very worker, not wiser but more humble than the rest,

And having no fear that the drawing might be cursed,

Said nothing about the material evidence,

Took home the picture, though ignorant of its sense,

And hung it in a niche above a waxen taper

Where he might sometimes look at it while deciphering his Sunday paper.


THE COMMONWEAL November 10, 1939