The Early Poetry of Thomas Kinsella
(with particular focus on ‘Another September’ and ‘Mirror in February’)
In the years after Yeats there was a general change in the direction of Anglo-Irish poetry. In his desire to establish an Irish poetic tradition, Yeats had confined himself, for the most part, to subjects of Irish interest, and poets who directly succeeded him were very influenced by his poetry and the underlying philosophy of cultural nationalism which he espoused. Thus, an older poet like Austin Clarke is very obviously an imitator of Yeats both in his subject choice and in his treatment of it. Indeed, Clarke’s subject matter is principally confined to three main areas and may be summarised as follows: his judgements on the old heroic Ireland of the past (‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’), his response to the general contemporary issue of Ireland itself (‘The Lost Heifer’), and his perceptive, lyrical treatment of the theme of love (‘The Planter’s Daughter’).
In the 1950’s, however, a new generation of Irish poets began to emerge. Born in 1928, Thomas Kinsella belongs to this generation of writers; unlike Clarke, his main concern as a poet was not to limit himself to Irish topics but to explore a wider range of ideas and themes. In 1892 Yeats had called for the creation of a national literature which would be distinct from all other literatures written in the English language. Consequently, poets who succeeded Yeats found a constant need to express themselves as being fundamentally Irish, and the nature of their relationship with Ireland was one of their dominant concerns. By 1950, however, Anglo-Irish poetry had found a permanent place for itself in modern English literature. The new generation of writers were therefore not restricted to the old stances. They did not feel it necessary to constantly assert allegiance to subjects of Irish interest, nor were they emotionally involved with dead leaders and causes as Yeats and Clarke had been. Indeed, their most vivid memories were not of Wolfe Tone or the Fenian, John O’Leary, but of the contemporary holocaust in Europe, and the futile hero-worship of the modern world. With Thomas Kinsella, therefore, we have one of the first to move into this different area of awareness and exploration.
Kinsella’s considerable talent as a poet has been well documented in many recent studies (e.g. Andrew Fitzsimons, The Sea of Disappointment: Thomas Kinsella’s Pursuit of the Real. UCD Press, 2008). His early work shows his skill at exploring states of feeling, especially feelings that are painful or acute. His early poems also contain some moment of illumination, or epiphany, as he increases his awareness of some thought, idea, or reality he has previously overlooked. This emphasis on reflection gives his poems many of the qualities of meditations: they are often, as he called them himself, ‘detailed explorations of private miseries’. In these poems he usually begins with some simple situation which he advances towards complexity and which he attempts to incorporate into a coherent personal philosophy.
In both ‘Another September’ and ‘Mirror in February’ the speaker is presented as a solitary, humble figure who is confronted with an overwhelming significance in some simple aspect of life. Though many of Kinsella’s poems deal explicitly with members of his own family he is essentially a poet of abstract ideas and concepts. Also, throughout his early works nature always figures prominently. He is conscious of the passing of time and of the seasons, the birth, death and decay of all life, even his own.
In ‘Mirror in February’ he connects his realisation of the decay inherent in modern man with his personal understanding of nature, while in ‘Another September’ he expresses his work as a poet in simple rural terms, ‘this … consciousness that plants its grammar in her yielding weather’. Both these poems reveal certain similarities; each shares a common effort to find meaning and direction, and both are portraits of a defeated personality. In ‘Another September’ the speaker is plunged into the bizarre, disorientated and isolated world of his wife’s past. He is concerned with her immediate rural background, with the ways and customs of the people who still live there, with the culture they have formed from which he is excluded. But beyond these reflections lie considerations about truth and justice, especially in the idea of a spectral woman who haunts him throughout the poem. In ‘Mirror in February’ the poet’s self-portrait is made up of naturalistic and personal details through which he contemplates his muted, tragic story. He experiences a sudden crisis of identity; there is a sense of loss in the feeling that his hold on youth is frail and tenuous. In the end there is a gallant expression of hope as a faint optimism hesitantly breaks through. Both poems succeed through a close attention to detail and through the use of natural images to expose the unpleasant and pitiful details of the poet’s life.
The material of each poem is different but the method is the same. A theme is projected through the narrator, who alternates between apprehension of his immediate surroundings and memories or ideas that impinge upon his mind. His recurring theme is the gulf between appearance and reality. In ‘Mirror in February’ he regrets the loss of his youth: but the loss he is even more painfully aware of involves what he appears to be and what he actually is, ‘For they are not made whole that reach the age of Christ’. The poem moves towards the acceptance of his condition even though his relationship with the world is one of steady and unavoidable decay. Similarly, ‘Another September’ attempts to find some meaning in chaos. This poem is also a projection of a state of feeling: the chaos is trivial in a wider sense, but is endowed with significance within the context of the poem. The theme has possibly a wider application than ‘Mirror in February’, which deals with the poet’s immediate awareness of time. In ‘Another September’, on the other hand, the initial meditation on his wife’s past gives rise to a meditation on women in general, and then to a consideration of the serious moral concepts that are usually represented as women, ‘Down the lampless darkness they came, moving like women: Justice, Truth, such figures’. No firm conclusions are made in this poem: it is not ‘rounded off’ with a simple assertion as ‘Mirror in February’ is. Indeed, the poem ends not with conclusions but with images, the meaning of which are not completely understood by the poet. The theme of ‘Mirror in February’ is clear enough. In ‘Another September’, however, the poet is presented with half-formed, shadowy ideas which trouble his consciousness and on which no firm judgements can be pronounced.
‘Another September’ describes an incident of particular importance in Kinsella’s life. He has returned with his wife to the country house in which she grew up, and the opening stanza gives the poem a particular rural setting: ‘Dreams fled away, this country bedroom…’. The time is early morning, just after dawn on a damp autumn day, and the poet wakes up in unfamiliar surroundings. He first becomes conscious of the coldness (‘raw with the touch of dawn’), then of the silence (‘Nearer the river sleeps St. John’s’). Nature, too, is still sleeping: the garden draws, ‘long pitch black breaths’, and the orchard exhales ‘rough sweetness’. The poem is set in autumn, a time of ‘minor peace’; for the hard-working country people when the chores of summer are over and the fruits of their labour can be enjoyed. The harvest is strongly suggested in this opening stanza, and the images provide a sense of simple rural abundance. The trees are ripe with pears and apples, the rough soil is ‘windfall-sweetened’, the people are momentarily free from labour and secure from all intruders, ‘Locked fast inside a dream with iron gates’. Being a Dubliner, it is as though Kinsella is experiencing these things for the first time. This country scene is completely new to him, and he tends to see it in poetic terms.
The presence of autumn is strongly suggested in the images of the first stanza: in the second, it is personified as a domestic animal which, ‘rubs her kind hide against the bedroom wall’. This sort of imagery is very common in modern poetry. T.S. Eliot, in particular, specialised in far-fetched, arresting images, which have much of the impact of extended metaphysical conceits. There is indeed a strong comparison between Kinsella’s description of autumn in this poem and Eliot’s description of the fog in the second section of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-pane’. In Kinsella’s poem the image is meant to suggest friendliness and familiarity. Country people live close to nature; they measure time not by the clock but by the seasons. As such, autumn represents another aspect of their lives and is ‘long used to handling’ by them. For Kinsella on the other hand – a city dweller for whom the seasons have no real significance – autumn is seen, prosaically, as ‘weather’.
The main topic of the poem is introduced here. The farm-house and the surrounding countryside are familiar features of his wife’s past; the life they represent belongs to his wife, not to him. In the first stanza the farm is quiet and peaceful, safe from all intruders. Here, however, Kinsella begins to realise that he himself is an intruder; he feels isolated and estranged in these new surroundings. He is only ‘half-tolerated’ by the autumn morning, personified here as a friendly domestic animal which only ‘half-tolerates’ the caresses of a stranger. The comparisons suggested here are difficult but comprehensible: it is as though a large domestic animal has entered the room sensing that an old forgotten friend has returned after many years’ absence. Immediately, it is confronted by a stranger who tries to win favour by a vain display of friendship. However, the poet’s overtures of friendship are ignored: it is not for his sake but for his wife’s, ‘this unspeaking daughter’ that the morning dawns so beautifully. This use of personification in the poem is meant to suggest a sense of drama. Indeed, what is difficult in the second stanza is not so much what the poet has to express, but the manner in which he expresses it. He could just as easily have said that he felt out of place in the small rural community where his wife grew up, but this unremarkable statement would lack the strong sense of urgency that Kinsella wishes to suggest. Also, by introducing characters in the second stanza Kinsella not only makes us see his personal situation in terms of drama – almost like a short scene from a play – but he also prepares for the important characterisations at the end of the poem. He continues for the moment with simple poetic description:
Wakeful moth-wings blunder near a chair,
Toss their light shell at the glass, and go
To inhabit the living starlight.
At this point his attention is suddenly directed back to his wife who seems remote and unfamiliar in these strange surroundings. Almost at once his image of her fades, ‘wanes’, and is replaced by other threatening images, ‘bearing daggers and balances’.
The ending to the poem presents some difficulty of interpretation but its meaning is usually explained as follows: Kinsella’s visit to the house where his wife grew up makes him conscious of those aspects of her life that had previously been ignored. The poem represents, as it were, a moment of insight into her past which he had never before considered. Following this epiphany he realises how women’s achievements in general, and their contribution to history, have also frequently been ignored. Throughout the poem his wife is presented in quiet, placid descriptions: ‘a fragrant child’, ‘unspeaking daughter’, ‘stranded hair stirs on the still linen’. The final feminine images, however, suggest vigour and movement, representing that part of womanhood which is characterised by energy and endurance. Down through history, ‘down the lampless darkness’, the deeds of women have been unknown and unrecognised. Kinsella therefore sees the images as threatening him with retribution, ‘bearing daggers and balances’, and seeking recognition for their personal deeds and achievements.
The situation described at the start of ‘Mirror in February’ is somewhat similar to that of ‘Another September’. Indeed, both poems are composed of certain personal details and are in some sense autobiographical. Again Kinsella relies on simple rural description in an effort to create a sense of atmosphere. It is a damp spring morning; outside the upturned soil is ready for the seed; the trees are dark and still leafless. The poet is going about the familiar morning chore of dressing and shaving, his mind occupied ‘by some compulsive fantasy’, when suddenly he notices his reflection in the mirror. In the cold light of morning he is brought back to reality and he considers his advancing years. His features reveal the relentless progress of time: his eyes are dark and exhausted; his mouth is dry and down-turned.
This moment of revelation, this epiphany, is extended into the second stanza. The poem is set in springtime, the start of another year. It is time to look to the future, to take stock, a time to ‘learn’. In the second line of this stanza the cyclical nature of life is represented in an interesting paradox, ‘this untiring, crumbling place of growth’. Life and death, he realises, are part of the great system of creation. Things mature and die in an endless process of death and destruction. Within the context of the poem, however, this realisation is the cause of some concern for the poet. The slow, relentless progress of time has not brought him to perfection as it has in the case of Christ. Instead he has achieved little, apart from a comfortable mediocrity. The phrase ‘and little more’ is deliberately ambiguous. The obvious meaning is that he is a ‘little more’ than the age of Christ, and the poem describes a moment of painful revelation for a person who suddenly realises that the best years of his life have slipped away and middle-age is approaching. Another possible meaning to the phrase is suggested by Maurice Harmon. What this critic suggests is not so much the idea of time passing, but of time lost: the poet laments that he has merely ‘looked’ his last on youth, almost like an observer, and done ‘little more’ to accomplish anything of importance. This interpretation certainly fits in with the general tone of the second and third stanzas where the idea of worthwhile achievement is suggested in the extreme comparison with Christ’s life. In contrast to Christ’s supreme achievements the poet has accomplished little, and he strays into the middle years of his life with little hope of attaining anything of note. At this point he generalises about life: ‘they are not made whole / That reach the age of Christ’. In the second stanza life is visualised in terms of sacrifice, and the idea implied is that it only becomes meaningful when seen in goal-directed terms.
In the third stanza this idea is repeated and is made more explicit in the striking references to nature. Looking through the window the poet sees that the fruit trees have been severely pruned. He uses this simple observation from nature as the occasion for an important comment on life. The trees in the garden have withstood these brutal attacks upon them so that they may bear more and better fruit. The basic idea expressed here is that nothing worthwhile is accomplished without sacrifice, and that suffering contributes in a mysterious way to the perfection of a person’s character. Just as Christ attained his destiny through suffering, and just as trees are pruned to make them more productive, so men too must suffer ‘mutilations’ if they wish their lives to be meaningful and enriched. Unlike Christ, however, man does not submit to suffering willingly: he avoids hardships at each opportunity and cowers, ‘quails’, under every blow of fortune.
One aspect of the kind of suffering Kinsella imagines is described in this poem. In his moment of anguish he tries to make light of the serious thoughts that weigh upon his mind. He folds his towel with as much grace as he can manage. He is no longer young, and unlike the trees he is not ‘renewable’, but he takes comfort in the fact that everybody shares in the same fate. Life is continuous and irreversible: in the last line, therefore, he attempts to face up to his predicament with courage and conviction.