The ‘Canticle of Brother Sun, Praises of the Creatures’, by St Francis of Assisi, is an example of the Italian vernacular religious poetry that flourished in the early thirteenth century. Sometime in the first two decades of the twentieth, it was paraphrased by William Henry Draper, a Church of England priest, for a children’s choir festival. The result, ‘All creatures of our God and King’, was published in 1919, paired with the seventeenth-century German tune (‘Lasst uns erfreuen’, in Vaughan Williams’s arrangement that had appeared in the 1906 English Hymnal) with which it has always subsequently been associated.
Draper’s version makes a fine hymn in itself and conveys much of the sense of the original. It misses, however, the striking brother/sister language and some of the characteristics ascribed to the forces of nature: Sister Water is ‘very useful and humble and precious and chaste’; Brother Fire is ‘beautiful and playful and robust and strong’. (It also considerably softens the original’s language concerning death.) A very much closer translation by Howard Chandler Robbins, worth comparing to the more familiar text, is found at Hymn 406/407.
St Francis is much beloved today for his close association with nature (a theme found by no means in his hagiography alone: it speaks of a return to the Edenic state said to be characteristic of many saints). Garden statues of the saint, blessings of companion animals, Christmas crèches, and this hymn are welcome reminders of his life and witness. But they should remind us that that life was one of radical repentance, of rejection of all status and all ‘possessions’, of absolute poverty, of total identification with the humility and suffering of Christ and his beloved poor. Only this will have allowed him to tame the beasts and preach to the birds, to see all of creation as one family. And something like it is required of us, who daily, continually, assault our Sister Mother Earth, inflicting horrible wounds upon her and all our sisters and brothers who are all part of her and of each other.
When we sing ‘All creatures of our God and King’, then, let us by all means bless and worship our Creator. But let us also pray for the conversion that came to Francis, for only then might we reclaim our true kinship with Christ, with creation and his blessed ones, which Francis so clearly felt.