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’.

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