Advent by Patrick Kavanagh

We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and please
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.

 

Most Irish adults over 30 will be familiar with Soundings, the Interim (!) Anthology of poetry edited by the late great Augustine Martin, which was used for many years as a Leaving Cert Poetry Anthology.  ‘Advent’ is one of the many gems which lie within its covers and surely this poem qualifies for what Seamus Heaney describes as one of the many, ‘lyrics which now belongs in the common mind as if they were prenatal possessions’.  On the centenary of Kavanagh’s birth in October 2004, Heaney praised him for his, “indefectible gift for discovering the mystical body of the world in the bits and pieces of every day.”  Nowhere is this more evident than in this beautiful seasonal poem.

In this poem Kavanagh experiments with the sonnet form.  It is an amalgam of two sonnets, but the stanza pattern is neither Petrarchan nor Shakespearean.  The opening two stanzas each contain seven lines, and are meant to represent the period of Advent before Christmas. The third stanza representing an entire sonnet is meant to represent the changes which will follow after this period of penance  has ended – here Advent is seen as a ‘mini-Lent’.  In actual fact maybe we are reading too much into the fact that there are 28 lines in the poem and 28 days in the Season of Advent itself!

‘Advent’ uses religion both as a theme and as its main source of imagery. The theme of the poem is penance-forgiveness-grace, which reflects the theology surrounding the Catholic church’s season of Advent and the Nativity.  He desires to return to the state of childish innocence and Christmas surely brings out the child in all of us!  His reasons, I think, are twofold: after this period of denial and fasting – a 1950’s version of detox! – he will become a better Christian and he will also become a better poet if he can look at the world again through the eyes of a child.  This theme is followed up in ‘Canal Bank Walk’ where the idea of redemption is introduced, as Kavanagh draws analogies between the waters of baptism and the water of the canal.

‘Advent’, therefore,  is a very religious poem – religious at a personal level.  Kavanagh feels that experience has corrupted him – he has ‘tested and tasted too much’.  ‘Tested and tasted’ indicate seeking pleasure for the mind (Knowledge and analysis) and pleasure for the body.  He has lost his innocence.  Now he wants to recapture that lost state.  He is going to do it through penance, by self-denial and sacrifice, through ‘the dry black bread’ and ‘the sugarless tea of penance’.  He will ‘coax back the luxury of a child’s soul’.  By this he means that he will try to rediscover the innocence of a child and the ability to wonder.  He wants, as it were, to begin again in innocence – to be, in effect, the very first Born-Again-Christian in 1950’s Catholic Ireland!   He wants to bring back the newness that was in the world before things grew stale through over-familiarity.  A ‘black slanting Ulster hill’ will be new again;  the boring chat of a tedious old man will become wonderful.  The whole ordinary, ‘banal’, common world of reality is renewed; wonderful now will be ‘whins’, ‘bogholes’, ‘cart-tracks’, ‘old stables’.

When he has been purified and renewed through penance and self-denial he won’t have to go searching for the newness and the wonder in ordinary things; the whole world will be new and alive and fresh and cliché free – ‘We’ll have no need to go searching for the difference that sets an old phrase burning’.  There will be wonder and newness all around in the very ordinary things – ‘in the whispered argument of a churning’ or in a sight as common as a few local lads holding up the wall, or in the sight of,  ‘men barrowing dung to gardens under trees’.  There will be wonder and newness where things are growing – ‘where-ever life pours ordinary plenty’.   This childlike inquisitiveness will also do wonders for his poetic inspiration – he will now have no end of subjects to write about.

Now he will be rich – spiritually rich.  He does not intend to destroy this wonder by questioning, by analysis, by asking the why of things.  He will be content to revel in wonder.  No more intellectualising… ‘..to look on is enough in the business of love’.  He has abandoned the process of analysis, he has thrown all that into the dust-bin, and he can see Christ all around …’in the January flower’.  He can do this because now he has spiritual eyes – he has been renewed through penance and self-denial.

Therefore, this poem is a search for lost innocence, an attempt to recapture the ability to wonder – ‘discovering the mystical body of the world in the bits and pieces of every day’.

Joe Little RTE News..

 

 

 

 

 

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Cardinal Raymond Burke, recently demoted by Pope Francis from his post in the Vatican, addressed a Conference in Limerick on Saturday, November 15th., on the issue of same sex marriage. This Conference was attended by 200 people and was the subject of a news report on the main Nine O’Clock News on RTE Television on Saturday night. It emerged that RTE were not actually allowed in to film or pick up some sound bites, although Joe Little did manage a twenty second garbled interview with the Cardinal. Most of the footage used seemed to come from the recent Synod in Rome.

Up the road, at the exact same time, in Mary Immaculate College another bishop, Bishop Brendan Leahy, was busy addressing 350 delegates representing all parishes and organisations in his diocese. Bishop Leahy has recently convoked a Diocesan Synod (the first in Ireland since 1955) to help chart the future direction of the Limerick Diocese. The journey began on Saturday and the Synod itself will take place on the 8th., 9th., and 10th. of April 1916.

Was Bishop Leahy interviewed by Joe Little?

Did RTE send Joe and a crew to capture the buzz of excitement in the packed Limetree Theatre in Mary I with their cameras?

Seemingly, RTE don’t do good news stories!

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne – Review by Vincent Hanley

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John Boyne’s central character in A History of Loneliness is very wishy washy – he is, in effect, the embodiment of a blasphemous blessed trinity of monkeys – he sees no evil, he hears no evil, he speaks no evil. He is completely overshadowed in the novel by the monstrous presence of the notorious Tom Cardle, who bestrides the novel like a venomous, predatory, fiendish and malignant Brendan Smyth. Over the course of the novel Odran Yates shows himself to be, naïve, innocent and clueless. It cannot be claimed, as Tom Cardle accuses him towards the end of the novel, that Odran Yates has been complicit in the events that effected his family and his Church – if anything, the only accusation we can make is that he has been like the proverbial ostrich with his head in the sand for most of his priestly life.

The blurb at the beginning of the novel suggests that, ‘Fr. Odran Yates is a good man’ – not so. As the novel unfolds he is depicted as weak and insipid, he lacks passion, a real calling; he allows evil to flourish by his silence. I find very little to admire in Fr. Yates and this is obviously the author’s main aim. Fr. Yates’ narrative voice is akin to Heaney’s phrase in “Harvest Bow”, ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’. We are forced to continuously read between the lines – his greatest sins are sins of omission. This is a deliberate ploy by the author. In Odran Yates we are presented with the embodiment of the unquestioning functionary who never questions authority. Are we therefore to presume that this is John Boyne’s thesis: that this insidious and widespread abuse continued on a vast scale because ‘good men’ like Fr. Yates stayed quiet – like good children of the 50’s they were seen but never heard?

This new and ambitious novel is set in Ireland, mainly in Dublin and Wexford, also in Rome and Lillehammer, Norway. The first thing that struck me, despite the mainly Irish setting, was that many of the family names are English – Yates, Cooper, Cordington, Camwell, Cardle, etc.

The relevance of the title of the novel, A History of Loneliness, is never nailed down. Loneliness is first mentioned on p442 and then again at the very end when Tom Cardle uses the phrase, ‘But then I have a history of loneliness. Don’t you?’, to Odran after his release from prison. This, I presume, suggests that the priestly vocation is a lonely road to undertake and that this loneliness has led us to the present impasse. To me, this is a very narrow and stereotypical and simplistic explanation for the horrors which have been revealed over the past number of years and is also based on a faulty understanding of priestly celibacy.

Boyne decides not to tell his story chronologically and this leads to some confusion, tooing and froing, backwards and forwards. The novel begins in 2001, then moves to 2006, 1964, 1980, 1972, 2010, 1973, 2011, 1978, 1990, 2007, 1994, 1978, 2008, 2012, and ends in 2013. Boyne is at his best in the 2000’s and his depiction of Ireland and its society is very realistic – as are his descriptions of events in Rome and Norway. However, his depiction of Ireland in the 60’s and 70’s, 80’s is less assured and this reader fumed at much of the lazy stereotypes used by the author. This material grated heavily on my nerves and, to me, was very exaggerated, stereotyped and, quite honestly, lacked credibility. Remember most of his readers will have lived through the years from the mid-fifties and many, like this reader, expected more. To me, it became obvious that the writer, far from trying to depict a sad and despicable period in the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland, has his own axe to grind.

The ‘Irish Mammy’, for example, is depicted in a very stereotypical fashion – ‘Our mammies had set us down one day and told us that we had vocations and so there we were, ready to dedicate our lives to God’. His own mother, ‘..had an epiphany one night while she was watching the Late Late Show’ to the effect that Odran was blessed with a calling from God. In general he suggests that all women in the 50’s lived rather sad lives – ‘.. and after all, that is what women did in those days: they went to school. They got a job, they found a husband, and they left the job and retired to the home to look after the family.’

His exaggerated strereotyping of women, priests, guards and politicians leaves a sour taste. On p.428 we are again presented with a less than credible scenario when he is leaving Pearse Street Garda station and the duty sergeant behind the desk hisses the word ‘Paedo’ as Odran leaves the station! Is this realistic or am I the naïve one? Politicians too are ridiculed as they come under the microscope, ‘Charles Haughey’s terrible crooked head grinning out from the front page with an expression that said that while he had not quite emptied the pockets of the Irish people just yet, he soon would.’

However, in my view, there is a noticeable improvement in the novel beginning with Chapter Six: 2010. There is less clichéd characterisation, less lazy stereotyping. Unfortunately, at this stage, we’re on p. 257 (iPad edition). Many readers will have by this point given up in frustration or disappointment.

However, Boyne has a number of ‘purple patches’ in the novel when the writing is superb; the Rome episodes, the episode when his parishioner, Ann Sullivan, brings her son to the priest, and nearly all the events depicted in the 2000’s are very credible, particularly the radio interview between Cardinal Cordington and Liam Scott and later his eventual journey to Lillehammer and his moving reconciliation with his nephew Aidan.

The episode where Ann Sullivan brings her son who has announced to her that he is gay is an excellent piece of writing. This shows John Boyne and his central character, at their best. Ann brings her son to the priest and during the conversation he mentions that he has a nephew who is gay and he recounts to the mother discussions he has had with Jonas concerning his awakening sexuality. Odran asks his nephew how he knew he was gay and Jonas replies, ‘that he had known since he was nine years old, that the video of a song called ‘Pray’ by Take That had set off the alarm bells.’ This is excellent, this is the John Boyne I remember – the writer who has the uncanny ability to make me feel compassion, even for a Nazi, once upon a time!

As well as Tom Cardle and Cardinal Cordington, Boyne’s other bête noir in the novel is John Paul II. There are numerous unflattering references to the Polish Pope – there is a very vehement and sustained attack on him – presumably because ‘he knew everything and did nothing’. He refers to him as ‘that Polish prick’. There are numerous examples of this vitriol, but I will recount just one: it occurs shortly after Odran’s ordination in Rome, which was performed by John Paul II. His sister, Hannah, was wearing a pale green shawl at the ordination and it slipped slightly as she came forward to be presented to the Pope, ‘and the Holy Father reached out immediately, an expression of near disgust on his face’. He is later described as being ‘a hater of women’.

Indeed, it would seem that Boyne is very harsh on the modern Church and its efforts to come to terms with the scandals that have befallen it. His depiction of lay involvement in the Church, for example, is very inaccurate – ‘the men helped to write the parish newsletter, but the women delivered it; the men organised the church social evenings, but the women cleaned up when they were over….etc.’

For me, the ending of the novel is disappointing and does not follow logically from what goes before. Odran now realises that he has wasted his life, that he, ‘had known everything, right from the start, and never acted on any of it’, that he, ‘was just as guilty as the rest of them’. I find this ending highly disconnected from what has gone before, it is a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise excellent read. Therefore, for me, the novel is somewhat of a curate’s egg of a novel – good in parts!However, the definitive narrative of Ireland’s disgrace remains to be captured in an honest and realistic way – maybe the film version of A History of Loneliness will hopefully better achieve this balance?

Errata:

  • Chapter Three:1964, his mother pays a specialist 40 pence – surely it should have been 3 shillings and 4 pence – he even confuses himself by flipping backwards and forwards across the decades!!!
  • ‘he enrolled as a novitiate in St. Patrick’s College’ – should read he enrolled as a novice in the novitiate in St. Patrick’s College….!
  • On p.502 Tom Cardle (in 1990!) takes £6 from the collection box….

Speechless Without the Bard

 

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The English language may have ‘seen better days’ but ‘for better or for worse’, even ‘blinking idiots’ still quote Shakespeare liberally, albeit without knowing it. Indeed, if it were not for these bon mots we’d be nearly speechless.

We have all come across Shakespeare in school, we may even have seen one of his plays on television or in the cinema, yet there are few of us – even those of few words – who don’t quote Shakespeare almost every day. Once in a while we know we’re doing so, but most of the time we use his words to season our speech without knowing the source. Some of his expressions have changed a little with 400 years of everyday use, though even these can easily be traced to him.

If this doesn’t make sense to you and you say, it’s Greek to me, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you think my point is without rhyme or reason and you say I’m a laughing stock or a blinking idiot or bloody minded or a rotten apple or a stony-hearted villain or even the devil incarnate, you are also quoting him. And if you bid me good riddance or send me packing or wish I was hoist with his own petard or dead as a doornailat one fell swoop – you are still quoting him.

When we say that it’s a mad world or not in my book or neither here nor there or last but not least, these phrases – and all the others in bold print here – are Shakespeare’s. And when we use such expressions such as poor but honest or as luck would have it or what’s done is done, we’re equally indebted to him. Whether you are holding your tongue or simply tongue-tied, you just can’t get away from the fact (the more fool you are) that you are quoting Shakespeare. But maybe that was the unkindest cut of all. And if you think this remark smells to heaven, you’re at it once more.

Be that as it may – and though you still insist that I’m living in a fool’s paradisewe can have too much of a good thing. And there we go quoting him again. For the long and the short of it is that we’d be nearly speechless without Shakespeare.

When we talk of someone showing his heels or having no stomach for a fight or leading a charmed life; when we speak of cold comfort or grim necessity or bag and baggage or the mind’s eye, we’re quoting him. When we refer to our salad days or our heart of hearts or our heart’s desire; when we deplore the beginning of the end we’re doing the same.

If we claim to be more sinned against than sinning; if we act more in sorrow than in anger; if our wish is father to the thought; if something we’ve lost has vanished into thin air, we’re borrowing from the Bard. If we refuse to budge an inch or suffer from green-eyed jealousy; if we’ve played fast and loose; if we’ve been a tower of strength or hoodwinked or in a pickle, we’re still doing so.

If you have knitted your brows or stood on ceremony or made a virtue of necessity or danced attendance on or laughed yourself into stitches or had short shrift, you’re using Shakespeare’s words. If you say you haven’t slept a wink or are as sound as a bell or can only die once or that your family is eating you out of house and home, you’re not being very original.

When you state that love is blind or there is method in his madness (or someone has made you mad) or the truth will come to light or the world is my oyster, you are also borrowing your bon mots from the Bard. If you have seen better days or think it is early days yet or high time; if you lie low till the crack of doom, because you suspect foul play; if you tell the truth and shame the devil, even if it involves your own flesh and blood and you believe the game is up, you are at the same game as before!

If you have your teeth set on edge or have a tongue in your head, then by Jove or Tut, tut or for goodness sake or what the dickens or but me no buts – it’s all one to me, for you are simply quoting Shakespeare.

Besides these and many more of our everyday phrases, we are also indebted to him for a host of words. Accommodation, assassination, dexterously, obscene, premeditated, reliance, allurement, alliance, antipathy, critical, armada, demonstrate, dire, emphasis, emulate, horrid, initiate, mediate, modest, vast and submerged are only a few that made their first appearance in his plays.

Indeed, it is obvious that Shakespeare was a man who loved to experiment with words. Most of all he had an extraordinary ability to write memorable combinations of words. Scores of his phrases, as we have seen, have entered the English language and some have even become clichés. One play alone, Hamlet, is a treasure house of ‘quotable quotes’ or, as someone once said, it is ‘full of quotations’! Among them are the following: Frailty thy name is woman!…..The primrose path of dalliance… Something is rotten in the state of Denmark  … Brevity is the soul of wit…… I must be cruel, only to be kind …  The rest is silence.

The English-speaking world is indeed indebted to William Shakespeare more than to any writer in any language who ever lived. “He was not of an age,” said his contemporary Ben Jonson, “but for all time”.

Adapted from an article by Paul Hurley in The Irish Times

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