Patrick Kavanagh, like Yeats, is constantly ‘stitching and unstitching’ old themes in his poems. These themes can be listed as follows, without giving them any particular order or ranking:
- Loneliness and isolation;
- Regret at the thought of lost innocence since the passing of childhood;
- Meditations on the vocation of the poet and how this vocation has been frustrated;
- The relationship between the poet and nature;
- Meditations on the poet’s poor, deprived background, and on the impoverishment of the spirit induced by the life of the Irish countryside of his youth.
It helps if we distinguish between two distinct phases of Kavanagh’s poetic career. Put simply his career can be divided between what we will call ‘the Monaghan poems’ and ‘the Dublin poems’. The poems dealing with life in the grim, forbidding farmlands of Monaghan (‘Stony Grey Soil’ and ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’) are remarkable for their attitude of disillusionment and discontent. Life in the Irish countryside and its effects on sensitive souls are portrayed with savage realism:
You sang on steaming dunghills
A song of coward’s brood
You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch
You fed me on swinish food.
The tone of this poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’, is predominantly one of disgust and rebellion. The poet’s mind has been embittered and stunted by the drudgery of life on a small farm. His high ambitions and ideals have been frustrated. He might have pictured himself as a graceful young man, talented and destined to succeed, but the reality has been much different:
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.
There is a kind of savage comedy in the self-mocking contrast between Apollo, the god of light, beauty, poetry and music, and the rustic, awkward, ugly and ill-spoken young poet scraping a miserable living from a poor farm. It is, however, important to notice that this poem is not uniformly disillusioned in tone. Life may have been poor, nasty and brutish, but it has to be remembered that in those dark fields of Monaghan, Kavanagh had his first poetic inspiration:
The first gay flight of my lyric
Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.
Another poem which deals with the less attractive aspects of the poet’s early life is ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’. Again we have the theme of the lonely, suffering, misunderstood poet living in a place where the inhabitants cannot be expected to understand or sympathise with him. He is an isolated figure on the Inniskeen road as the carefree groups of young people pass him on their way to a dance. They share the ‘half-talk code of mysteries’, and the ‘wind and elbow language of delight’. He is pointedly excluded. He must pay this price for being a poet; he must be prepared to be an outcast from the company of those who cannot share his interests and who are overawed by the power of the poet in their midst. This poem features one of Kavanagh’s characteristic mannerisms: his tendency to use literary allusion (Selkirk on his island the ‘monarch of all I survey’) to illustrate a point. The pun on ‘blooming’ in the line ‘Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’ is in doubtful taste: Kavanagh is (too) often liable to lapses of this kind.
There is a world of difference between the two poems just discussed and two later poems dealing with the Grand Canal and its surroundings. Kavanagh’s attitude to the environment changed dramatically following his operation for lung cancer. He said: ‘As a poet, I was born in or about 1955, the place of my birth being the banks of the Grand Canal’. The Canal Bank poems show us that he has left behind him the inhibitions and restrictions featured in the earlier poems, and achieved a new freedom of imagination and a new, more positive outlook on life and nature. The rural nature of Monaghan reminded him of his loneliness; the urban nature of the canal bank offers redemption and hope. He sits on the canal bank enjoying the sunshine ‘pouring redemption’ for him. There is a powerful sense of enjoyment, of gratitude and of wonder at the new beauty he is able to feel all around him. Remember, he has only recently been discharged from hospital after successful treatment for lung cancer. He now feels as if he has been reborn. He is almost delirious with joy at the sight of the simple, yet beautiful, natural objects which pass before his eyes. Even the most commonplace things take on a new meaning for him; he is now content to ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal’. Nature is now capable of healing his wounds, of giving him the kind of happiness he has always longed for:
O unworn world enrapture me, enrapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech
This poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, is full of a deeply religious awareness of nature, associated with ‘the will of God’, ‘redemption’, ‘eternal voices’, ‘the Word’.
The same joyful mood is present in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin’. Here again, the tone is optimistic. Nature and its sights and sounds fill the poet with the deep contentment he finds in ‘the tremendous silence of mid-July’. It is this close communion with nature that leads him to ask for commemoration near water. Whereas in his Monaghan poems, the ordinary things of nature, the fields, the soil, the ditches, the hedges, the hills, tended to provoke unpleasant reactions, in his later work he finds novelty, excitement and new inspiration in the most ordinary and banal sights and sounds: the noise of the canal lock gate, the greenness of the trees, the barge, the swan. This child-like wonder at the sight of common objects is a distinctive feature of his later work. The discontent, the disillusionment, the loneliness, of his early poems have given way to a new poetry of acceptance, of happy enjoyment of life and nature.
‘Advent’ is a good example of Kavanagh’s treatment of a religious theme. It is obvious that the poet is very much influenced by traditional Catholic teaching and practice and this may pose problems for some modern readers who may be unfamiliar with these beliefs. It is really a sequence of two sonnets, which do not, however, follow the usual rules observed by writers of sonnets. (It is interesting to note that the poem has twenty-eight lines and that there are twenty-eight days in Advent). This poem, in fact, has much in common with the Grand Canal poems. Here Kavanagh longs to return to the wonder of childhood, to be able to experience again ‘the newness that was in every stale thing / when we looked at it as children’. In those far off days of infancy, he could experience wonder at the sight of a hill, a bog-hole or a cart-track. However, as he has aged and matured, this childhood sense of wonder has been eroded and destroyed. The poet, like other adults, has allowed contact with the world and with the pleasure of the senses (‘We tested and tasted too much, lover’) to dissipate what he calls ‘the luxury of a child’s soul’. The problem posed in the poem is how can he recapture this childhood happiness again. There is, I sense, another more selfish reason for this quest during Advent: this new-found wonder will also help him as a poet. Now, everything he sees will be suitable subject matter for his poems. Kavanagh finds the answer in penance, for which Advent (and Lent) were traditional seasons. ‘The dry black bread and the sugarless tea’ of penance will help to charm back the childhood attitudes to experience. Now, he will find happiness in looking at the simple, even banal, things of life. By undergoing penance during the Advent season, the poet sees himself returning sin where it came from and now he will no longer need to go searching ‘for the difference that sets an old phrase burning’. He will now see everything in a new light, even the talking of an old fool, previously tedious, will now seem delightful. The sight of men barrowing dung in gardens will be a joyful sign of God’s plenty. Advent penance and the renewal of religious feeling and fervour will lead to a new found peace of mind. Metaphorically he is born again! Now, he will no longer seek reasons or explanations for mysteries, or for griefs experienced. He will not try to over-analyse the reasons for his new mood now that he has cast off sin.
This newly-acquired delight and celebration of simple, banal things are what connects ‘Advent’ with the Canal Bank poems.