Stony Grey Soil
by Patrick Kavanagh
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
The laugh from my love you thieved;
You took the gay child of my passion
And gave me your clod-conceived.
You clogged the feet of my boyhood
And I believed that my stumble
Had the poise and stride of Apollo
And his voice my thick tongued mumble.
You told me the plough was immortal!
O green-life conquering plough!
The mandril stained, your coulter blunted
In the smooth lea-field of my brow.
You sang on steaming dunghills
A song of cowards’ brood,
You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch,
You fed me on swinish food
You flung a ditch on my vision
Of beauty, love and truth.
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
You burgled my bank of youth!
Lost the long hours of pleasure
All the women that love young men.
O can I stilll stroke the monster’s back
Or write with unpoisoned pen.
His name in these lonely verses
Or mention the dark fields where
The first gay flight of my lyric
Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.
Mullahinsa, Drummeril, Black Shanco-
Wherever I turn I see
In the stony grey soil of Monaghan
Dead loves that were born for me.
Kavanagh spent the first half of his life farming ‘the stony grey soil’ of his native Monaghan. In Ireland in the 1930’s and ‘40’s this usually meant a life of dull, hard work. He recalls the hardship, misery and austerity in this poem and also, of course, in his major opus, ‘The Great Hunger’. In ‘Stony Grey Soil’ Kavanagh regrets having wasted his youth in a barbarous, bleak place. The very title, ‘Stony Grey Soil’ suggests a hard, harsh, dull, unimaginative world – not an ideal environment for a poet.
In this poem, Kavanagh sees himself as a victim who was deprived, deceived, lied to, cheated and robbed by his homeplace and the way of life it imposed on him. The poem is an outpouring of anger and accusations against Monaghan for what it did to the poet. The soil of Monaghan is personified in the poem in very unflattering terms. Because he is personifying Monaghan, he has to use metaphor extensively. The soil is represented as a thief, a cheat, a depriver, a liar, a burglar; it is seen as one who ‘flung a ditch’ on his vision; as one who weighed down his feet to prevent his flight into the world of poetic imagination.
In harsh metaphor after harsh metaphor, he pours out a sustained and strident angry tirade against the place where he feels his youth was wasted and his potential inhibited and stunted. Monaghan and the farming way of life is a thief, ‘the laugh from my love you thieved’. It is a cheat, it dealt falsely with him, ‘you took the gay child of my passion and gave me your clod conceived’. It gave him poison for perfume, ‘you perfumed my clothes with weasel-itch’. It is a liar, ‘you told me the plough was immortal’. The soil and the rural way of life are seen as a robber, ‘you burgled my bank of youth’. It tried to blind his vision and limit his potential, ‘you flung a ditch on my vision of beauty love and truth’.
To summarise, Kavanagh is bitterly attacking and blaming Monaghan and the drudgery of farm life. It stole the fun and humour of his youth and gave him instead the ‘clod-conceived’, which suggests perhaps, practical, pragmatic ideas about crops and cattle. His ambition and self-belief were ruined. He was aware of his own potential; he believed that he had ‘the stride of Apollo’ but Monaghan dragged him down and ‘clogged the feet of my boyhood’.
Monaghan flung a ditch on his vision. It limited and confined him, instead of providing inspiration it fed him ‘on swinish food’. This is a particularly harsh metaphor, suggesting that the whole atmosphere of farming life was totally without any aesthetic dimension. The people among whom he lived his life are represented as ‘cowards’ brood’. This seems to suggest that they were slave-minded and without the courage to break out of their dull, drab routine. Hardly fit company for a poet!
We have seen how Kavanagh’s bitterness is shown in the harsh metaphors which he uses to describe his victimisation. The tone of the poem – in particular the first five stanzas – is extremely bitter. Perhaps it could best be described as accusatory. Notice the recurring accusations in the repeated ‘you’: ‘you thieved’, ‘you took’, ‘you clogged’, ‘you told’, ‘you fed’, ‘you perfumed’, ‘you flung’, ‘you burgled’. We all know that if you want to start an argument the best word to use to begin it is ‘you’!
However, the poet is unable to sustain this tirade to the bitter end and in the final three stanzas he relents and his great love for his native place surfaces at last. The accusatory ‘you’ occurs no more and now he is sadly reflective, almost nostalgic (which suggests that the poem is written from a distance in both time and place). He mentions the hallowed place names of his native place with reverence, almost as if in a religious litany: ‘Mullahinsha, Drummeril, Black Shanco’. He is, after all, mourning what might have been. At a very human level he is regretting the romances that never formed part of his young manhood. Wherever he looks in Monaghan he sees ‘dead loves’ that were born for him. These represent not only the romantic loves that never happened in that barren place but also all his unfulfilled potential as a poet.