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Francis: A Life in Songs by Ann Wroe review – the saint’s life in poetry

A rich and intriguing verse biography that balances intimacy and distance, the word and the flesh

Among the stranger moments in the saga that is Brexit was Michael Gove’s suggestion that Theresa May, “our first Catholic prime minister”, is insufficiently attuned to the mood of Protestant Britain to see the project through. This would be the same Michael Gove who hailed Geoffrey Hill as “our greatest living poet”, despite that writer’s saturation in Anglo-Catholicism, the counter-reformation and proneness to celebrate visionary European saints and mystics. In her splendid Francis: A Life in Songs, Ann Wroe has produced a book that Hill, for one, might have relished, however awkwardly it sits with Britain’s current difficulties with Catholic Europe.

As a non-fiction writer whose previous books have included studies of the Iran-Contra scandal and Perkin Warbeck, Wroe’s embrace of the verse biography carries an element of surprise. Her choice of genre, she writes, was inspired by Francis “having lived in poetry rather than prose”. He is frequently compared to a troubadour, and A Life in Songs rings with echoes of his poems, or canticles. Inspired by the saint’s devotion to the fourfold sign of the Cross, Wroe pursues a fourfold pattern of her own: quotations from contemporary hagiographies, a poem about Francis, a poem in a modern setting and a short free-floating fragment.

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