Saint Francis and the Sow

by Galway Kinnell
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1120

Lines: 1-2
“The bud / stands for all things,” are the first two lines of this poem, and in a few, simple words, makes a profound claim. It declares that this sin- gle phenomenon of nature, the bud, has an elemental, omnipresent power, and that “All things” incorporate something of its essence. Yet, powerful as “the bud” is in the universe of this poem, it stands small and vulnerable on a line by itself. There is an infant tenderness to the two-syllable line that is itself quite bud-like. Flower images are common to poetry, so it is not the presence of a “bud” that is surprising. Rather it is the unfolding juxtaposition of bud with sow, and it is on this pairing that the metaphorical power of the poem rests.

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Lines: 3-4
The next lines explore the meaning of “all things,” and help explain the symbolic power of the bud. A bud contains within itself all that is needed for full flowering. It is pure potential, a flower fully present, but yet-to-be revealed. Some things, for whatever reason, do not ultimately flower, at least visibly. The bud “stands” for those things too, says the poem, because a certain kind of flowering still occurs—“from within.” And the agent of such inner unfolding is “self-blessing.” If “bud” is the kernel of all nouns in this poem, “blessing” is the essential verb. The capacity to flower, whether without, or from within (an ability “everything” has) is a matter of being blessed.

Lines: 5-11
The poem continues to unfold this connection between bud and blessing in a somewhat abstract way, using the unspecified noun “thing” as the object of blessing, and the one performing the blessing, also unnamed. The dialogue between inner and outer also continues. Everything, being bud-like, has the capacity to bless itself. But “sometimes it is necessary / to reteach a thing its loveliness,” because it may have forgotten how to flower “from within, of self-blessing.” Some other presence or power comes with “words and touch” to affect the healing. Even though both the one giving and receiving such a “reteaching” are kept vague in these lines, the manner of touching is quite specific and concrete; it is necessary “to put a hand on its brow / of the flower / and retell it in words and in touch / it is lovely.”

Line: 12
Were it not for concrete words such as “bud,” “hand,” “brow,” and “flower,” the first half of the poem would be largely conceptual. The second half of “Saint Francis and the Sow,” however, introduces us to a particular human and specific animal, the giver and receiver of blessing who together flesh out the teaching introduced in the first half of the poem. In the context of Kinnell’s broader poetics—“ a poetics of the physical world”—it makes perfect sense that Francis of Assisi would appear as the conveyor of blessing and transformation.

Born into a wealthy Italian merchant family in 1182, the young Francis Bernadone turned his back on prosperity and adopted a life of poverty and radical simplicity. The barefooted beggar-monk showed compassion and respect not only to every person, peasant or pope, but to every creature, whether petted or reviled. Paintings and frescoes show the Saint preaching to the birds or miraculously taming the devouring wolf of Grubbio. He showed no hesitation in kissing and laying hands on the lepers outside the city wall in gestures of love and compassion, and showed no more fear in converting a murderer than a scholar. He is wellknown for his practice of oneness with all creation. In his famous song of praise, “Canticle to the Sun,” Francis addresses the sun, moon, wind, water, earth, and fire as “brother” or “sister.” His many followers founded the Franciscan order, still active today, and Francis is now considered the patron saint of ecology.

Line: 13-15
The legends surrounding Saint Francis, especially those recorded in The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, make this poem’s “historical fiction” entirely plausible. Given Francis’s radical gestures of blessing, it is easy to imagine his putting a “hand on the creased forehead / of the sow” and helping her flower again “from within.”

The association of pig with earth is strong. Fewer animals seem more “earthy” in their habits and habitat. Despite their intelligence, pigs are the inspiration for so many insults. Yet in these lines, the sow’s very earthen nature is the root of her blessing. “In words and in touch” the Saint helps her remember her elemental home and being as a blessing.

Lines: 16-18
The sow responds to the blessing quite physically and completely, from “the earthen snout” to the “spiritual curl of the tail,” and through all the “fodder and slops” in between. The poem refuses to “prettify” the pig in the process of describing her response to the Saint’s touch. She seems to become more “pig,” more herself, not less. The poem’s diction, or choice of words, keeps the “blessings of earth” grounded, quite literally, in the actual details of the sow’s body and her pen.

Lines: 19-23
The continued repetition of “from … through … to … ” in the description of this sow and her “flowering” emphasizes both the wholeness of the blessing and the completeness of the creature. In the preceding lines the description followed the horizontal axis: from nose to tail. Here it follows the vertical axis: from the spine, “down” through the heart, to the teats below. The axes cross in the “great broken heart,” whose suffering remains a mystery.

This sense of completion is furthered by the perfect match between fourteen teats and fourteen mouths. Not one shoat is missing, and the mother’s ample ability to nourish them all is conveyed by the vivid physicality of verbs, “spurting and shuddering,” “sucking and blowing.” The portrait is also enriched by the paradoxes of “hard spininess and “milken dreaminess.” Through this close attention to the sow’s actual creatureliness in all its completed dimensions, the poem becomes an antidote to the pigs of cartoons, caricatures, toys, and slang.

Line: 24
The first line of this poem began with a simple noun phrase; so does the last. In between is one single, complex sentence that journeys metaphorically from “bud” to “sow.” “The bud” begins this poem as a symbol of the potential perfection and loveliness of all things. “Saint Francis” bends in compassion at its very center (line 12). The sow, at its end, embodies the blessing that has flowered to perfection. As a result of the poem’s careful “reteaching,” from concept, down through concrete particulars, to actual embodiment, the reader can reach an understanding of perfection and loveliness quite different from the teachings of modern media and mass culture.

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