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A Brother of St. Francis, by Grace Rhys


Born in Knockadoo in County Sligo, Ireland, Grace Rhys (1865-1929) spent most of her adult life in London. A poet, novelist, and essayist, she also wrote and edited several books for children.

In the short essay "A Brother of St. Francis," from the collection About Many Things (1920), Rhys draws some thoughtful comparisons between humans and pigs.

A Brother of St. Francis

by Grace Rhys

When talking to a wise friend a while ago I told her of the feeling of horror which had invaded me when watching a hippopotamus.

"Indeed," said she, "you do not need to go to the hippopotamus for a sensation. Look at a pig! There is something dire in the face of a pig. To think the same power should have created it that created a star!"

Those who love beauty and peace are often tempted to scamp their thinking, to avoid the elemental terrors that bring night into the mind. Yet if the fearful things of life are there, why not pluck up heart and look at them? Better have no Bluebeard's chamber in the mind. Better go boldly in and see what hangs by the wall. So salt, so medicinal is Truth, that even the bitterest draught may be made wholesome to the gentlest soul. So I would recommend anyone who can bear to think to leave the flower garden and go down and spend an hour by the pigstye.

There lies our friend in the sun upon his straw, blinking his clever little eye. Half friendly is his look. (He does not know that I--Heaven forgive me!--sometimes have bacon for breakfast!) Plainly, with that gashed mouth, those dreadful cheeks, and that sprawl of his, he belongs to an older world; that older world when first the mud and slime rose and moved, and, roaring, found a voice; aye, and no doubt enjoyed life, and in harsh and fearful sounds praised the Creator at the sunrising.

To prove the origin of the pig, let him out, and he will celebrate it by making straight for the nearest mud and diving into it. So strange is his aspect, so unreal to me, that it is almost as if the sunshine falling upon him might dissolve him, and resolve him into his original element. But no; there he is, perfectly real; as real as the good Christians and philosophers who will eventually eat him. While he lies there let me reflect in all charity on the disagreeable things I have heard about him.

He is dirty, people say. Nay, is he as dirty (or, at least, as complicated in his dirt) as his brother man can be? Let those who know the dens of London give the answer. Leave the pig to himself, and he is not so bad. He knows his mother mud is cleansing; he rolls partly because he loves her and partly because he wishes to be clean.

He is greedy? In my mind's eye there rises the picture of human gormandisers, fat-necked, with half-buried eyes and toddling step. How long since the giant Gluttony was slain? or does he still keep his monstrous table d'hote?

The pig pushes his brother from the trough? Why, that is a commonplace of our life. There is a whole school of so-called philosophers and political economists busied in elevating the pig's shove into a social and political necessity.

He screams horribly if you touch him or his share of victuals? I have heard a polite gathering of the best people turn senseless and rave at a mild suggestion of Christian Socialism. He is bitter-tempered? God knows, so are we. He has carnal desires? The worst sinner is man. He will fight? Look to the underside of war. He is cruel? Well, boys do queer things sometimes. For the rest, read the blacker pages of history; not as they are served up for the schoolroom by private national vanity, but after the facts.

If a cow or a sheep is sick or wounded and the pig can get at it, he will worry it to death? So does tyranny with subject peoples.

He loves to lie in the sun among his brothers, idle and at his ease? Aye, but suppose this one called himself a lord pig and lay in the sun with a necklace of gold about his throat and jewels in his ears, having found means to drive his brethren (merry little pigs and all) out of the sun for his own benefit, what should we say of him then?

No; he has none of our cold cunning. He is all simplicity. I am told it is possible to love him. I know a kindly Frenchwoman who takes her pig for an airing on the sands of Saint-Michel-en-Grève every summer afternoon. Knitting, she walks along, and calls gaily and endearingly to the delighted creature; he follows at a word, gambolling with flapping ears over the ribs of sand, pasturing on shrimps and seaweed while he enjoys the salt air. Clearly, then, the pig is our good little brother, and we have no right to be disgusted at him. Clearly our own feet are planted in the clay. Clearly the same Voice once called to our ears while yet unformed. Clearly we, too, have arisen from that fearful bed, and the slime of it clings to us still. Cleanse ourselves as we may, and repenting, renew the whiteness of our garments, we and the nations are for ever slipping back into the native element. What a fearful command the "Be ye perfect" to earth-born creatures, but half-emerged, the star upon their foreheads bespattered and dimmed! But let us (even those of us who have courage to know the worst of man) take heart. In the terror of our origin, in the struggle to stand upon our feet, to cleanse ourselves, and cast an eye heavenward, our glory is come by. The darker our naissance, the greater the terrors that have brooded round that strife, the more august and puissant shines the angel in man.

"A Brother of St. Francis," by Grace Rhys originally appeared in the collection About Many Things (Methuen, 1920)

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