There is a major religious element to Kavanagh’s poetry. Kavanagh is clearly deeply influenced by his early Catholic upbringing and all that this entails. He finds inspiration in the liturgical seasons such as Advent. His poems contain references to Genesis in the Old Testament and to the sacrament of Baptism. Examples of this orthodox Catholic theology is clearly evident in such poems as ‘Advent’ and ‘Canal Bank Walk’, ‘A Christmas Childhood’ and many more.
In the poem ‘Advent’, Kavanagh feels that he has been corrupted by the whole process of living. He has ‘tested and tasted too much’. By ‘testing’ and ‘tasting’, of course, he means that he has indulged in pleasure for the mind and pleasure for the body. Kavanagh feels too that he has lost the wonder of things, ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder’.
In order to purify himself, Kavanagh is going to use traditional religious methods: ’the dry black bread and the sugarless tea of penance’. He wants to win back lost innocence, to ‘charm back the luxury of a child’s soul’. He is going to make a new spiritual beginning; he is going to leave the apple of sin back on the tree and start again in innocence: ‘We’ll return to Doom the knowledge we stole but could not use’.
In this poem, Kavanagh feels that the world has grown sour and stale. He wants to reawaken the newness that was once in the world for him before he lost wonder and innocence. This newness and spiritual renewal is to be achieved through penance and self-denial.
Once he has been purified and spiritually regenerated, the ordinary world around him will be new. It will be new because he will have been spiritually renewed. He will now find newness and wonder in the ordinary ‘banal’ things – in something as common as the sound of a churning, in the very ordinary almost clichéd sight of the village boys ‘lurching’ at the street corner or in the sight of decent men ‘barrowing dung in gardens under trees’.
Now Kavanagh will be rich – spiritually rich: ‘Won’t we be rich, my love and I’. And he vows that he will not destroy his new-found wonder and innocence by analysis, by questioning, by intellectualising. He will not ask for ‘reason’s payment’. He will not ask the ‘why’ of things. He will be content to wonder. As he says in another poem, ‘to look on is enough in the business of love’.
Kavanagh has now discarded his old self – the self that ‘tested’ and ‘tasted’, the self that was obsessed with the worthless pursuit of pleasure and knowledge: ‘We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour’. There is going to be a new beginning: ‘And Christ comes with the January flower’.
The poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is equally religious. The year is 1955 and Kavanagh has recently emerged from hospital having undergone a sort of religious experience or spiritual renewal. The natural world around him is wonderful. The canal banks are ‘leafy with love’ and the canal water has taken on a religious significance. It is now Baptismal; water, baptising the poet’s new-born soul.
From now on Kavanagh is going to do the will of God and God’s will is that he steep himself in the ordinary world, ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal’. God’s will is that he go back to that state of oneness with nature which he had in the innocence of childhood. He must ‘grow with nature’ again. For Kavanagh the very breeze takes on a personal dimension: it is adding a third party to the couple kissing on an old seat; it is making up a threesome.
In this poem, Kavanagh’s view is deeply religious. A bird preparing to build a nest is no longer just a bird building a nest. It has taken on a religious dimension. The bird is, in a spiritual sense, preparing a place for the Word to be made flesh. In Kavanagh’s new-found spiritual view of the world, all new life is a manifestation of God. It is God Himself visible in physical terms. The bird is ‘gathering materials for the nest for the Word’.
Kavanagh now wants to live in total oneness with God’s creation, with nature. He will live life at the level of the senses. There will be no more intellectualising. He wants to be trapped forever in the world of sight and sound: ‘enrapture me in a web of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech’. He seems to feel that he has lived too long and too much in the world of questioning, testing and analysis. He has neglected the world of sensual contact with nature; ‘feed the gaping need of my senses’.
Finally, in this poem, Kavanagh wants to return to the innocence and simplicity of childhood where he could pray without inhibition: ‘Give me ad lib to pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech’. He wants his new-born soul to be dressed in green and blue things. This is the green of the earth and the blue of the sky, the totality of nature, of God’s creation. There will be no searching for answers. He will settle for ‘arguments that cannot be proven’.
Kavanagh then, in the poems ‘Advent’ and ‘Canal Bank Walk’, is deeply religious. He is religious in two ways; he is spiritually renewed personally and nature itself takes on a very religious significance. 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!