And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,
And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
Robert Frost is reputed to have said that ‘a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom’. This statement is definitely true of this beautiful lyric which was written in 1913. He tells us that the poem reflected ‘my position between socialism and individualism’. Indeed, the poem ends with a wonderful epiphany which suggests that he is leaning more towards socialism!
This lovely nature lyric creates a wonderful allegory on the position of the poet and his place in the modern world which, for me, is equally as profound as Heaney’s allegory in ‘Digging’. Frost uses the mower in this poem to represent the artist, the poet, the painter, the creator of beautiful thought-provoking things. The mower has left a tuft of flowers, just as poets leave their life’s work, as a reminder to all who follow that there is beauty in the world. However, very often in Frost’s poetry humans are depicted as isolated figures in the landscape. Not only are they isolated but they represent loneliness, and thereby acquire symbolic status. Loneliness can be seen as a human condition and man’s efforts to communicate effectively are at best difficult as seen in this beautiful lyric. This is why poets and artists are still needed by us to act as our trailblazers and scouts, to go before us, to take the risks, and help us discover the hidden beauty that lies in our meadows and pastures, leaving us many ‘a message from the dawn’.
Frost describes how he sets out to ‘turn the grass’ after the mower has earlier cut the meadow with his scythe in the early morning, ‘in the dew before the sun’. He looks in vain for the mysterious mower who has disappeared and has presumably moved on to another meadow. Then unexpectedly ‘a bewildered butterfly’ stumbles on the scene. The poet has a sudden moment of epiphany when he beholds the sight of flowers that have been left untouched by the scythe:
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
Even though the two men are working separately the poet realises that in this tuft of flowers which have been spared by the mower is a message from the man who has gone before him. Frost realises that the mower too has a deep appreciation of nature’s beauty and has left the tuft of flowers by the brook as a reminder and as a sign of solidarity. This leads him to believe that he is no longer alone, that in some way he is linked to this enigmatic mower:
And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
So, from an ordinary everyday experience Frost has moved to the appreciation for the need for fellowship in his life:
‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
This epiphany strikes Frost like a thunderbolt as he turns the new-mown hay in the meadow but it also strikes the reader and further serves to reinforce for us the simple wonders and powers of nature. ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ highlights for us how joy can return to the poet’s soul through work and companionship with other people, often through little, unremarkable random acts of kindness. It reinforces for me how life can offer many different possibilities for choice and human companionship, and how rich and glorious the whole world of nature is.
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst, into nimble
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
In the title poem of his first ever collection, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney gives a very sensuous and sumptuous description of the goings on at his local flax-hole. This hole or ‘flax-dam’ contained the flax which had been harvested and was now being soaked in a man-made hole in the corner of the flax-field in August. When the process was complete the flax was taken out and became the raw material for the thriving linen industry which had long flourished in Northern Ireland but was now showing some signs of decay in the nineteen fifties. The poem has an added resonance for me because I live in a beautiful part of West Limerick and next door to me is the townland of Ahalin, or Achadh Lín in Irish, which means the ‘field of the flax’. Each time I read this poem I am reminded that at some time maybe in the 1800’s or before just over the road from me was our very own flax-field with its festering flax-dam!
In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Seamus Heaney gives a brilliant description of the local flax-hole. It is a memory poem, one of the many poems written about his childhood and early school days. Heaney, in this first collection of early poems mines a rich vein of childhood memory. It is, however, embellished memory – childhood through a rosy adult lens. The poem is extremely sensual and evokes the senses of sight and sound and smell to perfection. Indeed, the poem invites the reader to read it aloud such are the myriad examples of assonance and alliteration scattered throughout.
The flax-dam or flax hole came into its own each August when the flax crop was ready for harvest. Flax pulling by hand was a backbreaking job, taken on by casual, often transient workers. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field. The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.
The ‘flax-dam’ festered and ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’ in high Summer. We can almost hear the bluebottles as they,
‘Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’.
Each August the flax was immersed in the flax hole and sods of earth were used to keep it submerged.
The flax hole may have only been used by the farmers during the harvest but of course, it lay there unused all year round. The young poet, as naturalist, is obviously drawn to the pool at other times of the year as well, especially when there were great clots of frogspawn evident each Spring. He also visits in May to see the dragonflies and every July and August to spot the butterflies:
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks.
The poet uses onomatopoeia to great effect to aid his description: ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber of frogspawn’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘the slap and plop’, and the brilliant ‘blunt heads farting’. We are also reminded of his age with the use of the word ‘jampotfuls’ and by the childish simile ‘Poised like mud grenades’.
Like all other budding young naturalists, he is lucky to have a great teacher! ‘Miss Walls’ encourages him and provides him with the necessary information, always appropriate to his age of course!
Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Her ecology classes sent him out to the meadows to collect samples for the classroom and for the windowsill at home in his kitchen in Mossbawn. Miss Walls also imparted other vital pieces of information which are seized upon by the young eager naturalist:
You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
There is a sense of childhood foreboding and fear of the flax hole and the mating frogs which is recreated with great accuracy by the poet – he knew, or he had been told by his elders, that ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’. These stories were obviously very effective in keeping inquisitive young boys away from the vicinity of these dangerous flax dams and he feels threatened and frightened by the scene that confronts him at the flax-dam.
The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Indeed, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery which could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same again about the countryside after this encounter with the bullfrogs! As the poem’s title suggests,therefore, his days as a naturalist are drawing to an end!
Kavanagh is very comfortable and skilled in his use of the sonnet in his poetry. He manages to express an authentic and simple vision of life and communicate it successfully using the sonnet form. Indeed, this simple vision has often led to Kavanagh being underestimated and undervalued among his peers. He never aspired to the greatness of Yeats and neither has he the subtlety of Kinsella. But within the poetic limits, he set for himself Kavanagh presents a new, inimitable, and sometimes disturbing way of viewing life. His sonnets are informed by a unique personal vision.
A criticism often levelled at Kavanagh is that often his statements fall into predictable patterns. His sonnets, for example, do not develop – what we get from him is a series of sincere repetitions of a few basic perceptions. In the last of his Dublin sonnets, he is saying, in more or less the same way, what he was saying in the first, and his greatness is that he moves us by repetition. It is this sincerity that prevents his repetition from becoming commonplace. However, this integrity does not hide the fact that there is little or no growth in his poetic ability. There is, instead, a kind of lyrical repetition that constantly commands attention. Kavanagh is stuck in a personal rut of poetic honesty. He seems almost to be writing the same poem always!
On reading his sonnets one notices how, for him, perception has become an obsession, and how he clings to the importance of delineating visual scenes:
A swan goes by head low with many apologies
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
Visual perception has assumed an almost religious fascination which will not permit him to remain at rest with one statement of it. He must tell it to the world all the time and invite others to share in his views:
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.
Within these limits, however, Kavanagh maintains a moving, coherent and intimate vision of life. Indeed, the success of his method is particularly noticeable when he tries to break away from it. As a poet without learning, Kavanagh sometimes tries to overcome or transcend his limitations by placing learned words, ideas or references in his poems. The intended effect is either to heighten the tone and increase the sense of personal tension, or else to bring a visual image more vividly to mind. Sometimes he only partly achieves the desired effect; more often he fails completely. A good example of this occurs in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ where two exaggerated comparisons mar an otherwise perfect poem. The word Niagariously in line 5 is meant to convey an audible image of sound as water rushes through the locks, and is in contrast to the ‘tremendous silence’ of the next line. The image of the Niagara Falls is, however, surely too exaggerated a comparison to make with the quiet splash of water over a lock on the Grand Canal. On a technical level, the word is almost impossible to pronounce and it destroys the gentle rhythm of the opening lines. Similarly, the allusion to ‘these Parnassian islands’ is inserted too boldly into a poem which depends on simplicity for its effect, rather than on weighty, learned references. In each case, there is a certain lack of integration of the image. By way of contrast, however, the reference to Alexander Selkirk in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ is seamlessly integrated with the overall theme of the poem. It expresses an idea repeated by Kavanagh in many of his poems: namely, his separateness, his detachment, the sense that he can participate but never belong.
I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
Kavanagh’s poetic preferences are stated clearly in his prose works. In From Monaghan to the Grand Canal, he defines the limits of his themes and subject matter. He states, ‘The things that really matter, are casual insignificant little things.’ Co-existing with this sense of the importance of insignificance is the contrasting idea of the world’s grandeur. Kavanagh is indeed a nature poet, but not in the manner in which we usually apply the term. There are no sweeping descriptions of majestic landscapes; only the unseen beauty encountered on an evening’s stroll. ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is the best presentation of his method. The still, canal waters ‘pour redemption’ on him. He thinks of its beauty in terms of religious images. He feels ‘redeemed’, born again, after his long life of hardship in Monaghan. God ordained that men should work and suffer. But even in his inaction, Kavanagh feels that he can clarify the beauty of the ordinary world (‘the habitual’) and that this, too, is the ‘will of God.’ His duty as a poet is seen by himself as a religious vocation. This spiritual frame of reference continues into line 4 when he says that he will now:
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
He then lists a group of visual images which stress, again, the beauty of unimportant objects. Indeed, the central portion of this sonnet is characterized by its visionary impact. Its simplicity stems from a totally coherent and lucid vision:
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest…..
God and the idea of God dominate this sonnet. In his essay entitled Pietism and Poetry Kavanagh says ‘the odd thing about the best modern poets is their utter simplicity.’ Of Kavanagh himself, it may be said that he is the only great modern poet who never wrote an obscure poem. He recognized that, in many cases, obscurity is merely a failure of the poet’s imagination and of his ability to communicate. Kavanagh saw his simplicity as a gift from God. He obviously thought a great deal about the nature of simplicity. In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he asks for a poetic style that is passive, reposed and serene:
…………………………, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech.
He also asks for a consuming intimacy with the natural world – a twentieth-century version of Wordsworth’s Pantheism:
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.
For Kavanagh, in this sonnet, the rewards of liberty are twofold. First of all, his sense of wonder deepens, and his expression of it becomes more assured. The second reward for the liberated, independent imagination is a kind of poetic faith that is inextricably linked with this deepened sense of wonder. This sense of well-being is described in religious terms and phrases – Kavanagh, after all, is a deeply religious poet: ‘redemption’, ‘God’, ‘the Word’, ‘pray’, ‘soul’. This poem is deceptively simple. Its simplicity is achieved with consummate art, through the poet’s personal involvement in the scene. It is not so much that he observes real things as that he feels the physical presence of these things with a total and alert consciousness:
O unworn world enrapture me….
He does not simply describe the scene, he recreates it, and it is unforgettable. This is very similar to Wordsworth’s notion of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and this exploitation of the power of suggestion in ordinary subjects is the most striking of Kavanagh’s special gifts.
Kavanagh’s poems fall naturally into three divisions: those about the countryside (the Monaghan poems); those about the city (the Dublin poems); and those which, broadly speaking, attempt to express a kind of personal philosophy, or which try to define the nature of personal vision (the sonnets). There have been many previous attempts to define poetry and I suppose each of us must really define it for ourselves. Kavanagh found it impossible to define but fascinating to describe. In ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ he sees it basically as a celebration of human inadequacy and failure. All poets are at times taken up, directly or indirectly, with being different from the rest of society, and Irish poets are especially preoccupied with this problem. A poet is, almost by definition, an individualist: he stands for the private, as distinct from the public values, and for the protection of private feeling ‘against the tyranny of society’. ‘Inniskeen Road’ could be seen as Kavanagh’s defense of poetry, as a compressed statement of poetic belief. The octave stresses public concerns, the second line imitates the plain language of village people and is in some sense satiric. But Kavanagh is never completely at home in satire and in the sestet the tone changes. The mood becomes meditative with the poet’s feeling of regret and detachment. What is stressed here is his separateness, his isolation. The paradox is of course that only by thus withdrawing can he discover himself and his mission as a poet. He has withdrawn from the world in order to be able to understand it and value it truly. His observation, therefore, becomes acute, and his power of selecting significant details remarkable. Though feeling, at first, the weight of his loneliness, the mood changes again in the last line as he suddenly understands himself, and his situation:
……….. I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.
The sonnet entitled ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ is basically different from the other two. It has neither the sense of frustration communicated by ‘Inniskeen Road’ nor the delicate imagery of ‘Canal Bank Walk’. It is a public sonnet, a direct address from the poet to the reader and as such its tone is serious. Its style is very elegant but really more closely akin to prose rather than poetry:
O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water preferably….
In ‘Inniskeen Road’ Kavanagh tries to define his own relationship with Irish society. In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he has rejected society for the intimacies of private experience. Now, in this last sonnet, there is a new sense of communication: there is a wish to renew his links with others and to share with them his experience and this is why he addresses his listener/reader using terms of affection:
Commemorate me thus beautifully…
As usual with Kavanagh, the sonnet creates a visual scene. He has not time to entice his listener with lengthy descriptions but he provokes his interest through simple images; a swan, the light under bridges, a barge. Compared to ‘Canal Bank Walk’ we notice the economy and compression gained from the absence of adjectives. Also, this sonnet shows less dependence on imagery and relies more on factual statements.
Indeed, the formal demands of sonnet writing brought out the best of Kavanagh’s poetic ability and many of his poems are superb personal statements. His imagery often seems plain and unremarkable when compared to that of Yeats or Kinsella, but the images are sharp, descriptive, and precisely used. In the best of his sonnets, he speaks of a certain time and place; he expresses experiences in the context of his own world. It is unlikely that he will ever be the source of the industry that has grown up around Yeats: there is so little to unravel, his greatness seems not in himself but in the world he expresses. And yet it is true to say that, though Yeats is a more universal poet, Kavanagh is, at times, much more Irish, in that he expresses a theme that is less remote from ordinary people’s experience. It is this simple immediacy of Kavanagh’s poetry that is part of his special appeal.
This essay is an edited version of one written by Joseph Ducke for the Inscapes Series (Inscape17: Poetry 2) entitled Patrick Kavanagh, (p.73) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.
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.
This essay is an edited version of one written by Patrick Murray for the Inscapes Series (Inscape16: Poetry 1) entitled ‘Patrick Kavanagh Some Themes’, (p.78) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.
Recently I was browsing through my precious, dog-eared and scribbled-on copy of Soundings and came across the three Austin Clarke poems featured in that anthology. ‘The Lost Heifer’, ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’, and ‘The Planter’s Daughter’ brought back fond memories of English classes long ago! The Clarke poems selected in Augustine Martin’s infamous Interim (!) Anthology don’t give a comprehensive view of his range as a poet but they do display his enthusiasm for Gaelic poetry. The three poems selected by Martin are, however, good examples of the way many Irish poets transposed some of the stylistic devices associated with this type of poetry into English verse. It is also interesting to note that ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ has as its main theme the conflict between pagan and Christian values, here represented by an imagined conversation between St. Patrick and the ‘pagan’ blackbird. This theme occupied Clarke for much of his poetic career.
‘The Lost Heifer’
In my experience as a frazzled English teacher ‘The Lost Heifer’ always provoked puzzled reactions from my students. The title of the poem, taken in conjunction with Clarke’s well-known fondness for Gaelic poetry, gives a clue as to what it may be about. The cow or heifer in Gaelic poetry, especially in the Jacobite era, was often used as a secret code name for Ireland, as, for example, in such poems as ‘An Droimeann Donn Dílis’. However, even when we are aware of this background knowledge, useful as it is, it does not get us very far into the heart of the poem. Clarke himself has told us that the poem had its origins in the Irish Civil War of the 1920’s. It was written at a time when, as Clarke saw it, the noble ideals and aspirations of the patriots of the War of Independence were lost or obscured in the intense bitterness and disillusionment of the war of brothers. The heifer of the poem stood for a vision of Ireland, obscured for the moment by mist and rain, which stood for those grim forces already referred to: forces which made it difficult for those who shared the patriotic vision to find it in those grim times.
In defence of my often bemused Leaving Cert students in the 80’s and 90’s, it would be very difficult to arrive at this interpretation without the help of the poet himself! There are certainly no obvious clues, however cryptic or obscure, to anything like a civil war background, or, indeed, to any other political backdrop whatever. Without the poet’s explanation no student of mine, lacking the information given above, could conceivably sub-title the poem, ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’.
Part of the reason the poem defies logical explanation is that it is a symbolic representation and therefore impossible to render in logical terms. Most attempts to convey the ‘meaning’ of such a poem are doomed to failure. Indeed, no prose analysis could do justice to the impressionistic landscape evoked by Clarke in the poem, or to his tremendous rhythms or delicately suggested sound effects. The notion that the heifer stands for some obscured ideal of Ireland is certainly borne out in the imagery through which the heifer is suggested, rather than presented or realised. There is no direct glimpse of the heifer. He builds up a picture using colour, light and shade and this contributes to the mood. She is brought to mind; she evokes an image of loss and beauty; her presence is inferred by her tracks in the dark grasses, and by her soft voice coming across the meadow. These delightfully delicate symbolic evocations of Ireland and of misty Irish landscapes certainly owe something to the poetry of Yeats:
I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head
And cut and pulled a hazel wand…
It had become a glimmering girl
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air….
As in all symbolist or quasi-symbolist poems, the imagery is mysteriously echoic, capable of more than one interpretation. A good example of this is, the implied metaphor in lines 5 and 6, ‘I thought of the last honey by the water / That no hive can find’. At the symbolic level, one assumes that here we have an image of the heifer (and thus the idealised Ireland) as something remote and inaccessible. But what is the precise meaning of the words? The last honey by the water may be wild honey near a stream or river that will never be found by man, or it may be nectar that no hive of bees can reach.
The poem is a fine illustration of Clarke’s ability to manipulate vowels and consonants to provide wholly pleasing sound-effects. Here he is indebted to features of the Gaelic poetic tradition. He strives here to copy the Gaelic poets’ use of internal rhyme, consonance and assonance with great dexterity:
When the black herds of the rain were grazing….
And the watery hazes of the hazel….
That no hive can find…..
Brightness was drenching through the branches….
Indeed, the poem has a very elaborate and ingenious sound pattern. The poet uses rhyme, line-length and sound correspondence in the shaping of this lyric. (You can explore this further by following the ‘ay’ sound through the poem). And by comparing the first and last lines of the poem I feel that there is a progression, a sense of completeness, and a sense of hope for the future, as the ‘black herds’ in line one, lost and obscured by the mountain mist, become clearer as the mist becomes rain.
‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’
‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ is somewhat easier to comprehend than ‘The Lost Heifer’. Clarke based this poem on another famous poem in the Irish language called ‘Lonn Doire an Chairn’, a standard anthology piece taken from the Irish in a sequence known as the ‘Colloquy of the Old Men’. Anyone familiar with Clarke’s source will realize that his poem is not a direct translation, but a very free adaptation. In the Irish poem, Oisin is the speaker, and his main theme is the joyful, carefree life of the Fianna, symbolised by the glorious singing of the blackbird, this life being contrasted with the devout austerities of St. Patrick, who is encouraged to forgo his asceticism for the beauties of the natural life. Clarke’s poem sets the Christian and pagan ways of life in sharp contrast. His speaker is the blackbird, who tries to persuade Patrick to abandon the rigours of his religious practice and participate in the joys of nature. The argument or dialogue, however, is very one-sided and Patrick’s values are given short shrift. Religion is represented by ‘God’s shadow in the cup’, the ‘mournful matins’, and the handbell ‘without a glad sound’. Against this, we have the lively evocation of happy nature: the bright sun, the singing of the birds, Fionn’s keen response to the sights and sounds of the natural world.
The most interesting thing about the poem is the twist Clarke provides us with at the end which is not in the original. The Irish source has no hint of the blackbird’s threat to Patrick and all he represents. The ‘knowledge’ that is found among the branches is presumably, the kind available to those who give themselves up to the spontaneous enjoyment of, and involvement in, nature. At the end, the blackbird is suggesting that this knowledge will ultimately overcome the Christianity which now threatens to overthrow it, and will send Christians and their faith packing for good. The line ‘will thong the leather of your satchels’ seems to mean ‘will cause you to pack your bags and go’.
Here in this poem Clarke again makes use of the main stylistic devices of Gaelic poetry: alliteration, internal rhyme, assonance and consonance: note for instance in the opening stanza the poet uses,
(a) cross-rhyme – ‘bough-top’ / ‘cup now’;
(b) assonance – ‘brighter’ / ‘nightfall’, and the more unexpected internal echoes like, ‘whistling’ / ‘listen’;
(c) alliteration – ‘Mournful matins’ and so on.
You have my permission to explore the other stanzas yourself!
The last two stanzas juxtapose the free and easy life of Fionn and the Fianna and the restrictive and unattractive austerity of the Christian monks in their prayer cells. The final two lines see a return to the beginning. The blackbird has the last word and this suggests that the blackbird’s view holds sway and very soon the monks and their asceticism and prayers will be sent packing. In the light of recent returns from our Central Statistics Office maybe we can say that the poet is being prophetic here!
‘The Planter’s Daughter’
The most interesting feature of ‘The Planter’s Daughter’, a very slight poem, is the indirectness of Clarke’s method of presentation of his subject. She is not named and her family is referred to in a somewhat derogatory manner – they are Planters. The planter’s daughter, like the lost heifer, is suggested rather than described. Again, Clarke shows his command of delicate sound effects, particularly internal rhyme and half-rhyme:
They say that her beauty
Was music in mouth
And few in the candlelight
Thought her too proud….
It is a simple lyric and her beauty is registered indirectly, culminating in the three powerful metaphors in the final lines:
As a bell that is rung
Or a wonder told shyly
And O she was the Sunday
In every week,
The society depicted in the poem is one reminiscent of images of Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Big House belongs to the planter, a landowner brought in by the British and settled on the good land which had already been confiscated. We have all read in our history books about these Plantations – the most famous or infamous being the Plantation of Ulster. The planter has so much land he can afford to plant trees around his house for decoration, unlike the peasants who farm the barren hillsides. Clarke himself commented: ‘In barren Donegal, trees around a farmstead still denote an owner of planter stock’.
The planter’s daughter evokes differing responses in those who see her passing on her horse on in her carriage. The men admire her elegance and her beauty and the women are jealous and gossip among themselves. This clever, subtle juxtaposition is very well observed by the poet: the men ‘drank deep and were silent’, suggesting a toxic mix of resentment, envy and awe, while ‘The women were speaking / Wherever she went’.
His indirect treatment of the planter’s daughter creates a mystique around her. The locals don’t really know her so they fantasise and use their imaginations to fill in the blanks of her life. She is placed on a pedestal by them and they admire and envy her in equal proportions. The poet manages to balance this admiration for the planter’s daughter with a sense of a latent resentment among the local population.
So, rummage around in the old familiar places, your bookshelves or even the attic for your own copy of Soundings and take a trip down memory lane…….
About the Poet….
Austin Clarke (1896 – 1974)
Austin Clarke was born in 1896 in Dublin and educated at Belvedere College and University College Dublin. He succeeded Thomas McDonagh, who had been executed for his part in the 1916 Rising, as a lecturer in the English Department there in 1917 and continued to work in this position until 1921. He spent the next 12 years in England working as a critic and book reviewer, until his final return to Ireland in the nineteen thirties. Clarke was one of the leading Irish poets of the generation after W. B. Yeats. he also wrote novels, plays and memoirs. His main contribution to Irish poetry was the rigour with which he used technical means borrowed from classical Irish language poetry when writing in English.
Effectively, this meant writing English verse based not so much on metre as on complex patterns of assonance, consonance, and half rhyme. Describing his technique to Robert Frost, Clarke said: “I load myself down with chains and try to wriggle free.” His later verse is inclined to be increasingly satirical. He is regarded by many as one of Ireland’s greatest poet since Yeats.
My father worked with a horse plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.
An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.
I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow around the farm.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
– fromDeath of a Naturalist, 1966
Commentary: This poem appears in Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966. In this collection, Heaney is keen to introduce himself and tell us where he comes from. The collection includes poems such as ‘Digging’, ‘Churning Day’, ‘Early Purges’, ‘The Diviner’ and ‘Follower’. All of these poems reflect his farming background and they depict a world view and country crafts and skills that are now redundant and no longer to be readily seen in the Irish countryside. We are introduced to men who dig in gardens, men who cut turf, who sell their cattle at the local fair, and who rid the farmyard of unwanted kittens. Heaney tells us that he intends to follow in their footsteps – to dig ‘down and down for the good turf’, to plough his lonely furrow as a poet.
The theme of this poem is the relationship between father and son. In poetry, fathers are constant ghostly shadows offering nostalgic, intimate images of a safe and tender childhood. Heaney explores this theme here in ‘Follower’ and in many other poems like ‘Digging’ and ‘The Harvest Bow’. In ‘The Harvest Bow’, Seamus Heaney’s father, Patrick, emerges as a strong ‘tongue tied’ man, a man of action and of few words. He has fashioned the harvest bow for his son as a ‘throwaway love-knot of straw’. The poem is a tender exploration of the Father/Son relationship and it is clear that an unspoken understanding has grown between them, lovingly expressed by the harvest bow which Heaney fingers and reads ‘like braille ….. gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’. Heaney then translates what he has read and puts it into words which he fashions and plaits and weaves into a tender ‘love-knot’ of a poem. In ‘Digging’ he explores other aspects of this same theme. He looks down from his window and paints a rather unflattering picture of his father, ‘his straining rump among the flowerbeds’ reminds him of a scene twenty years earlier as his father was digging out potatoes on the home farm. Here, in ‘Follower’ he juxtaposes his father’s patience with him as a child with his own grown up impatience and annoyance,
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
The poem is titled ‘Follower’ and Heaney invites us to explore the various meanings of the word as it is used today – he follows in his father’s footsteps, we follow Man United, she is a follower of Christ, a disciple. The poem ends with a denouement when the roles are suddenly reversed and now the father is seen ‘stumbling behind me’. The great irony here, of course, is that Heaney was not a follower – he was a trailblazer, a man outstanding in his own field, so to speak! Mark Patrick Hederman OSB, former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, uses a lovely analogy to describe poets and other artists in his book, The Haunted Inkwell– he says that artists are like the dove that Noah released from the Ark after 40 days to check if the waters were receding. Eventually, the third dove brought back an olive branch – we need trailblazers and scouts like that to go before us, to take the risks, and help us explore our unchartered waters. Heaney is a poet, like Kavanagh and Hartnett, who has remained attached to his home place and the values and the traditions of his parents, ‘All I know is a door into the dark’. We can be grateful that our poets are pioneers, working at the frontier of language. They are translators, translating for us events that we cannot grasp.
These early poems in Death of a Naturalist are all metaphors, endeavouring to crystallise the meaning of art and the role of the artist in our world – the poet is described as gardener, turf-cutter, as diviner, as smithy, as ploughman. He celebrates this local craftsmanship – the diviner, the digger, the blacksmith and the breadmaker and he hankers back to his childhood and the community of that childhood for several reasons. Indeed, part of the excitement of reading his poetry is the way in which he leads you from the parish of Anahorish in County Derry outwards in space and time, making connections with kindred spirits, both living and dead, so that he verifies for us Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the local is universal. For example in ‘The Forge’, he appears at first glance to be looking back with fond nostalgia at the work of the local village blacksmith, Barney Devlin. However, the real subject of the poem is the mystery of the creative process – writing poetry is like ‘a door into the dark’. The work of the forge serves, therefore, as an extended metaphor for the creative work and craftsmanship of poetry.
In ‘Follower’, like ‘Digging’, he continues to use this extended metaphor as he focuses on his father as farmer and ploughman. His father is ‘an expert’. He recalls precious scenes and memories from his childhood with great accuracy. He mentions the plough and all its individual parts, ‘the shafts’, ‘the wing’, ‘the bright steel-pointed sock’, the horse’s ‘headrig’. The opening lines cleverly introduce the simile of his father’s shoulders ‘globed like a full sail’ and he then follows this with the exquisite metaphor of his father as ancient mariner using angles and eyesight ‘mapping the furrow exactly’ while the young Heaney struggles and stumbles ‘in his hob-nailed wake’. His childhood is spent in his father’s shadow and he decides that ‘I wanted to grow up and plough’. Similar to ‘Digging’, the very first poem in Death of a Naturalist, he wants to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and dig except he realises that ‘I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. Instead, he decides that he will follow in their footsteps but instead of a spade he will dig with his pen:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
‘Follower’ ends with a jolt. The poet is suddenly back in the present, the childhood reverie over. He juxtaposes the past with the present: his youthful self,
.. was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
This memory is sharply contrasted with the awkward reality that time has passed and now it is his ageing father who is the ‘nuisance’,
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me and will not go away.
During the last three verses, the poet returns to the present time and he says that nowadays his father is the one who is stumbling behind him because of his age. The word ‘Behind’ used by Seamus Heaney in the last verse, forces us to accept the total reversal of roles which have taken place. The poet is no longer the follower and now his once stoical and patient father struggles to keep up as his impatient twenty-seven-year-old son sets sail on his own adventure. He has finally moved out of his father’s shadow and now must plough his own unique and lonely furrow.
The poem is one of many which pays homage to the poet’s humble beginnings in Bellaghy, Mossbawn, and Anahorish. It is interesting to note that many of the later poems in this collection, Death of a Naturalist, describe his developing relationship with Marie Devlin, his future wife (the collection is dedicated to her). Surefooted, he begins his odyssey away from Mossbawn and on to Belfast, Glanmore, Oxford and Harvard, and into our hearts forever.
These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods –
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.
Robert Frost was very much influenced by the Romantic and Victorian poets who had gone before him. As with the Romantic poets, Frost sees the natural scene, accurately observed, as the primary poetic subject. Nature is not described for its own sake but as a thought provoking stimulus for the poet, leading him to more insight or revelation.
Romantic nature poems, such as ‘Spring Pools’, were usually meditative poems. The landscape was sometimes personified or imbued with human life as it is in this beautiful lyric. The Romantics subscribed to Wordsworth’s belief that poets should ‘choose incidents and situations from common life’ and write about them in ‘language really spoken by men’ who belong to ‘humble and rustic life’. Frost puts many of these principles to good use in this poem.
Unlike many American poets in the twentieth century, Frost upheld formal poetic values during turbulent and changing times, when formal practices were widely abandoned. He emphasised the importance of rhyme and metrical variety, observed traditional forms and developed his technical skills. He could claim without fear of contradiction that ‘I am one of the notable craftsmen of my time’. His poetry was written so that the rhyming ‘will not seem the tiniest bit strained’. He used terza rima, end-of-line rhymes, and full and half rhyme.
This short lyric poem opens as Spring begins to take hold of the landscape. The forest pools formed by the last of the melting snows and rain still mirror the cloudy sky. The poet informs us that these pools will not last long because the roots of the mighty trees in the Vermont forest will very soon greedily soak up these pools in order to encourage leaf growth. This is a rather unusual and disturbing perspective on Nature – the poet sees an ominous, dark side to Nature. The trees soak up the Spring pools and within a short period of time, they are covered in leaves that blot out the flowers on the forest floor and the pools of water which gave them sustenance. This is symbiosis in reverse and reflects Frost’s unusual perspective on Nature.
Frost demonstrates to us here that he was a keen observer of the natural world. Plants, geographical features and the seasons have their place in his poetry: the physical world of spring pools, winter snows, the sky, brooks, Vermont mountains are all part of the rich landscape he describes for us.
However, we must realise that the natural world is rarely described for its own sake or as a background against which the action of the poem takes place. Instead, nature leads the poet to an insight or revelation. Often a comparison emerges between the natural scene and the psyche, what Frost called ‘inner and outer weather’. His descriptions of nature are not sentimental. He describes a world that is bleak, empty and cold.
The imagination enables the poet to see the world in this new way. In brief, intense moments he may enter a higher, visionary state. This allows him to regenerate his imaginative and creative capability and provides him with fresh insights and new inspiration for his poetry. This state cannot be sustained for long, however, and he must return to the real world.
The poet is being very philosophical here and looks at Nature in an unusual way. Yet he is very balanced in his thinking and this balance is reflected in the structure of the poem. Stanza One describes the coming of Spring in all its glory. We see his efforts at balance in his use of repetition in the lines,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
In Stanza Two, Spring gives way to Summer and again Frost shares with us his understanding of the delicate and finely balanced relationships within nature. He writes of nature with a keen eye and respects her beauty and her peculiar ways. The poet observes that the ‘trees have it in their pent-up buds / To darken nature and be summer woods’. He goes on to personify nature adding that the trees should ‘think twice before they use their powers / to blot out and drink up and sweep away’ the spring pools. It is a very direct poem, a poem with purpose.
The main theme of this poem is mutability and the transience of time. These are important, weighty concepts in poetry in general but especially here. This poem, ‘Spring Pools’, sees time as being destructive. For him, yesterday’s flowers wither, Winter snows melt, spring pools are drained by trees, trees lose their leaves in Autumn. The unpalatable epiphany for the poet is that Time destroys beauty.
Therefore, we see the imagery in some of Frost’s poems is deceptively simple. There are images from the natural and the human worlds. Some are everyday and ordinary, some are grotesque and macabre. In this poem the imagery carries the meaning. Frost uses precise details to re-create the colour, texture and sounds of the world within the poem. This makes his poetry richly sensuous. Yet, using the same technique, he can paint a cold, bleak scene that is chillingly realistic. So, beware: simple poems can be symbolic of ideas that are more profound!
Nevertheless, in his beloved Vermont countryside, Frost himself tends to work ‘alone’, he walks alone, and plays alone, being ‘too far from town to learn baseball’. His main concern, it would appear, is not with community but with the individual identity – of pools, of fences, of apples, and of himself. Through his poems, we imagine a man who values self-sufficiency and individualism. He chooses the road ‘less travelled’. He can be seen turning, not outward towards community but inward towards his inner self in such poems as ‘After Apple-Picking’ where he reflects that ‘I am over-tired / Of the great harvest I myself desired’. His inward quest is also balanced by his outward journey towards familiar things in nature, giving his verse a reflective and meditative quality, whether he speaks of himself or of nature.
Check out my overview of Robert Frost’s poetry here
Formative Influences on the young Michael Hartnett
Bridget Halpin, formerly Bridget Roche, was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale in 1885 to parents John Roche and Marie Moloney. According to parish records in Abbeyfeale, she married Michael Halpin from Camas, near Newcastle West, in Abbeyfeale Church on February 28th,1911 in what was, by all accounts, ‘a made match’ between both families and she then came to live in Camas where the Halpins owned a small farm of ten acres three roods and 13 perches. Later on that year on April 2nd, 1911, the Census returns for Camas in the parish of Monagea, record Michael Halpin, aged 36, living with his new wife Bridget Halpin, then aged 26. Michael’s mother Johanna, aged 74, and her daughter, Michael’s sister, Johanna, aged 23, also lived in the house.
Michael Halpin, Bridget’s husband, was born on 2nd June 1876 in Camas. He was one of thirteen children born to Denis Halpin and Johanna Browne between 1866 and 1890. Denis Halpin, Michael’s father, was born c. 1834 in Cleanglass, in the parish of Killeedy, and he married Johanna Browne on the 18th February 1865 in the Catholic Church in Tournafulla. He was 31 years of age and Johanna Browne was 25. Living conditions were very harsh and infant mortality was very high and as many as seven of their thirteen children died in their infancy or childhood due, no doubt, to the severity and austerity of the times. Six of their thirteen children survived: Margaret, Kate, Michael, Denis, Cornelius, Johanna.
This woman, Bridget Halpin, would later wield great influence over her young grandson Michael Hartnett. Indeed, if we are to believe the poet, she was the one who first affirmed his poetic gift when one day he told her that a nest of young wrens had alighted on his head – her reply to him was, ‘Aha, You’re going to be a poet!’. Hartnett claimed that he spent much of his early childhood in Bridget Halpin’s cottage in the rural townland of Camas four miles from his home in nearby Newcastle West. He went on to immortalise this woman in many of his poems but especially in his beautiful poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”. This quiet townland of Camas is seen as central to his development as a poet and central to some of the decisions and seismic changes which he made in his poetic direction in the 1970’s. Maybe in time, this early association with Camas will be given its rightful importance and the little rural townland will vie with Maiden Street or Inchicore as one of Hartnett’s important formative places. This essay, therefore, is an effort to throw some light on this woman and gently probe her background and genealogy and it also seeks to untangle some of the myths, many self-generated, which have grown up around Michael Hartnett himself.
In April 1911 when the Census was compiled, there were four inhabitants of the thatched cottage in Camas: Michael Halpin, his new wife Bridget (née Roche), his mother Johanna and his sister Johanna who was soon to emigrate to the United States in late May 1911. By June of that year, Michael and Bridget Halpin were setting out on their married life together and they also had the care of Michael’s mother, Johanna. Over the coming years, they had six children together, Josie, Mary, Peg, Denis, Bridget (later to be Michael Hartnett’s mother) and Ita. Unfortunately, Michael Halpin died in September 1920 at the age of 44 approx. having succumbed to pneumonia. His daughter Ita was born seven months later on 23rd March 1921. Bridget Halpin was now left with the care of her six young children and their ailing grandmother, Johanna. Johanna Halpin (née Browne) died in Camus on 18th June 1921 aged 80 years of age.
Bridget Halpin’s plight was now stark and the harshness of her existence is often alluded to in her grandson’s poems which feature her. The cottage which was little more than a three roomed thatched mud cabin built of stone and yellow mud collapsed around 1926. The whole family were taken in, in an extraordinary gesture of neighbourliness, by Con Kiely until a new cottage was built a short distance away by a Roger Creedon for the princely sum of £70. The family moved into their new home in 1931 and this is the structure that still stands today. According to Michael Hartnett himself this cottage, and especially the mud cabin which preceded it, was renowned as a ‘Rambling House’, a cottage steeped in history, music, song, dance, cardplaying and storytelling. Hartnett would have us believe that it was from the loft in this cottage that he began to pick up his first words of Irish from his grandmother and her cronies as they gathered to play cards or tell tall tales.
Bridget Halpin’s youngest daughter, Ita Halpin, later married John Joe Dore, who lived on a neighbouring farm. He was a well-known sportsman, hurling historian and founder member of Killeedy GAA Club. They had one son, Joe Dore, who today is a well known Traffic Warden in Newcastle West and Abbeyfeale. Today, he is the owner of what was formerly Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas, having inherited it from his uncle, Denis Halpin. John Joe Dore died in 2000 aged 85. Bridget Halpin, immortalised by her grandson, Michael Hartnett, in his poem ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ is buried with her daughter Ita Halpin (Dore) in the grounds of the old abbey in Castlemahon Cemetery. Her grave is as yet unmarked.
Ita Halpin’s sister, Bridget Mary, who was born on 1st May 1918 later married Denis Harnett (born 20th July 1914) from North Quay, Newcastle West on the 28th of June 1941 in Newcastle West and they had six children. Michael Hartnett was the eldest and he had one sister, Mary, and four brothers, William, Denis, Gerard, and John. (Two siblings, Patricia and Edmond, also died as infants). Times were difficult for the Harnett family; they did, however, receive some good fortune when they moved into a house, in the newly built local authority development, Assumpta Park, in the 1950s. Joe Dore, Michael’s first cousin, recalls that during the war years (1941-1945 in Michael’s case) Michael was often brought to Camas in a donkey and cart to be looked after by his grandmother and his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin), who was now working ‘the small farm’. Joe Dore recalls that ‘his other brothers came to stay as well, especially Bill, but Michael, being the eldest, was the favourite of his grandmother’ – no doubt because he was her daughter Bridget’s first-born and also that he had been called Michael after her late husband. Joe Dore remembers that ‘Michael was a big boy when I knew him as he was twelve years older than me, as I was the last of the grandchildren to be reared by my grandmother and Uncle Denis also’.
This essay seeks to clarify some of Michael Hartnett’s claims concerning his grandmother, Bridget Halpin. Interestingly, most of these erroneous claims stem quite remarkably from the poet himself! His Wikipedia page tells us that,
… his grandmother, was one of the last native speakers to live in Co. Limerick, though she was originally from North Kerry. He claims that, although she spoke to him mainly in English, he would listen to her conversing with her friends in Irish, and as such, he was quite unaware of the imbalances between English and Irish, since he experienced the free interchange of both languages.
Writing in the Irish Times in August 1975 Hartnett wrote:
My first contact with Gaelic – as a living language – was in 1945 when I went to stay with my grandmother. She was a “native” speaker and had been born in North Kerry in the early 1880s. She rarely used Gaelic for conversation purposes but a good fifty percent of her vocabulary was Gaelic – more especially those words for plants, birds, farm implements, etc. …….. I learnt some two thousand words and phrases from her. It was not until her death in 1967 that I realised I had known a woman who embodied a thousand years of Gaelic history (Hartnett, ‘Why Write in Irish?’, p.133).
We have already noted that Bridget Roche (neé Halpin) was born in Cahirlane, Abbeyfeale, County Limerick. While this area is steeped in Irish culture and music it was not particularly noted for its native Irish speakers in the late 1800’s. In the 1901 Census returns for Camas Upper and Camas Lower respondents were asked a question concerning their knowledge of the Irish language. In Camas Upper and Lower 36 people out of a total of 175 counted in the census stated that they were proficient in ‘Irish and English’, including Johanna Halpin, Bridget Halpin’s future mother-in-law. This works out at 20% of respondents. In the 1911 Census returns, the year Bridget Roche married Michael Halpin, respondents were asked the same question and 29 adults responded. In the 1911 Census, there is no division of the townland and the total number enumerated in the Census is lower at 141. The percentage of respondents who said they had proficiency in Irish and English remains at 20%, however. Interestingly, and this may, of course, suggest a certain carelessness in compiling the statistics of the census on behalf of the local enumerator, there is nothing in the returns for the Halpin family to suggest that they are proficient in Irish, although both Johanna and Bridget are marked present.
His often repeated claims about Bridget Halpin’s prowess in the Irish language are, therefore, exaggerated. She obviously had many phrases and sayings in Irish but it is very doubtful if she had the capacity to carry out a conversation in Irish. Therefore, the myth that Michael Hartnett picked up a new language by osmosis or by listening to Bridget, ‘the native Irish speaker’ or her cronies while he lay in the loft during acrimonious card games is largely that, a myth. The reality is that his love of the language was also developed by his study of and admiration for the poets of the Maigue and the Bardic past. It was also helped by his study of Irish in school, in Irish College in Ballingeary and by his association with many poets and dramatists writing in Irish and also by his relationships in the early nineteen-sixties, particularly his relationship and collaboration with Caithlín Maude and his later collaboration in the 1980’s with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, translating her first volume, Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, into English.
Hartnett’s public comments and writings also cause some confusion concerning Bridget Halpin’s age. In the acclaimed documentary directed by Pat Collins in 1999, shortly before Hartnett’s untimely demise, entitled ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, Hartnett states that Bridget Halpin was born in 1870, when in fact we know from Census returns that she was born in 1885. He also states that she was 93 when she died in 1967 when in fact she was a mere 80 years of age when she died in 1965!
It is clear, therefore, that many of these claims regarding his grandmother are greatly exaggerated. For example, he has stated on numerous occasions that he was effectively reared by his grandmother from a young age on her small farm in Camas. However, from school attendance records we learn that Michael Hartnett attended the Courteney Boys National School in Newcastle West on a regular basis from September 1949 when he entered First Class (having attended the Convent School, now Scoil Iosaef, for Junior and Senior Infants) until June 1955 when he completed Sixth Class. His attendance during those years was exemplary, rarely missing a day, this, despite his claims in the documentary, ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, that he was ‘a sickly child, and still am’. He then transferred to St. Ita’s Boys Secondary School, then housed in the Carnegie Library in the town to pursue Secondary Education. His sojourns to Camas would, therefore, only have been at weekends and during school holidays as it was at least a four-mile walk. However, it is not contested that the small farm in Camas and Bridget Halpin, his grandmother, played a very important role in providing sustenance and much-needed nourishment for the young Harnett family in Maiden Street during the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Michael Hartnett’s first cousin, Joe Dore, has clear recollection that ‘the poet’ was a frequent visitor to Camas, ‘except when there was hay to be saved’. John Cussen, local historian and friend of the poet says that,
‘Michael Hartnett and I were in the same class in the Courteney School for several years until 1954 when I went to Boarding School (in Glenstal). We were good friends. He was certainly always living in town at that time. I do not recall him ever talking about his grandmother or his sojourns in Camas with her. We were too busy swopping comics which was all the rage at the time!’
Patrick Kavanagh says in his poem, ‘Come Dance with Kitty Stobling’, ‘Once upon a time / I had a myth that was a lie but it served’. Hartnett, too, had his myths and why not? In the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ he states:
I have told ye no big lies and most of the truth –
not hidden the hardships of the days of our youth
when we wore lumber jackets and had voucher boots
and were raggy and snot-nosed and needy.
We can ascribe various motivations for these claims by the poet but the most credible is that he wanted to portray his grandmother as the quintessential ‘nineteenth-century woman’ who never came to terms with the political, social and cultural changes which were brewing in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. He saw her as a symbol for all that was lost in the traumatic early years of the Twentieth Century in Ireland. In Hartnett’s view one of the many precious things which was lost, ignored, and abandoned was the Irish language itself and so his poem, “Death of an Irishwoman”, which he described as ‘an apology’ to his grandmother, can also be read as a post-colonial lament. Therefore, it would have been more convenient if she had been born in 1870 rather than 1885. Hartnett always considered Bridget Halpin to be a woman ‘out of her time’. She never came to terms with the New Ireland of the 1920’s, 1930’s, and though her life spanned two centuries she was, in his eyes, still living in the past, ‘Television, radio, electricity were beyond her ken entirely’ (Walsh 13). To her, ‘the world was flat / and pagan’, and in the end,
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
He has placed Bridget Halpin on a pedestal for his own good reasons. He saw in her a remnant of a generation in crisis, still struggling with the precepts of Christianity and still familiar with the ancient beliefs and piseogs of the countryside. This is a totally different place when compared to, for example, Kavanagh’s Inniskeen or Heaney’s Mossbawn. There is an underlying paganism here which is absent from Kavanagh’s work, whose poetry, in general, is suffused with orthodox 1950’s Catholic belief, dogma and theology. For Hartnett, his grandmother represents a generation who lived a life dominated by myth, half-truth, some learning, limited knowledge of the laws of physics, and therefore, as he points out in ‘Mrs Halpin and the Thunder’,
Her fear was not the simple fear of one
who does not know the source of thunder:
these were the ancient Irish gods
she had deserted for the sake of Christ.
However, Hartnett’s powers of observation and intuition were honed in Camas on Bridget Halpin’s small farm during his frequent visits. His poem, “A Small Farm”, has great significance for the poet and it is the first poem in his Collected Poems, edited by Peter Fallon and published by The Gallery Press in 2001. He tells us that he learnt much on that small farm during those lean years in the forties and early fifties,
All the perversions of the soul
I learnt on a small farm,
how to do the neighbours harm
by magic, how to hate.
The struggle to make a success and eke out a living was a constant struggle and burden. The begrudgery of neighbours, the ‘bitterness over boggy land’, the ‘casual stealing of crops’ went side by side with ‘venomous cardgames’, ‘a little music’ and ‘a little peace in decrepit stables’ (“A Small Farm”). The similarities with Kavanagh’s, “The Great Hunger”, are everywhere but interestingly Hartnett does not name this place, it is an Everyplace. The poem is simply titled, “A Small Farm” so there is no Inniskeen, Drummeril, or Black Shanco here but the harshness and brutality of existence, ‘the cracked calendars / of their lives’ (ibid) in the fifties in Ireland is given a universality even more disturbing than the picture we receive from Kavanagh. Yet, it is here that he first becomes aware of his calling as a poet and often to avoid the normal household squabbles of his grandmother and her son he ‘abandons’ them and begins to notice the birds and the weeds and the grasses,
I was abandoned to their tragedies
and began to count the birds,
to deduce secrets in the kitchen cold,
and to avoid among my nameless weeds
the civil war of that household.
Later in, “For My Grandmother, Bridget Halpin”, he again alludes to the wildness, the paganism, the piseógs that surrounded him during his childhood in Camas. His grandmother’s worldview is almost feral. She looks to the landscape and the birds for information about the weather or impending events,
A bird’s hover,
seabird, blackbird, or bird of prey,
was rain, or death, or lost cattle.
This poorly educated woman reads the landscape and the skies as one would read a book,
The day’s warning, like red plovers
so etched and small the clouded sky,
was book to you, and true bible.
We know that Michael was in Morocco when Bridget Halpin died in 1965 in St. Ita’s Hospital in Newcastle West where she was being cared for. In this poem there is also a reference to his Uncle Denis (Dinny Halpin) who helped rear him and who was eventually to inherit the small farm from his mother, Bridget when she died,
You died in utter loneliness,
your acres left to the childless.
Hartnett is taking a great risk here, that of alienating those closest to him with his disparaging comments on his relations. We know that this trait of outspokenness was to become a feature of his art; his poetry was often scathing and rebellious. However, in this regard, surely the biggest risk he takes is in the first lines of “Death of an Irishwoman”, when he describes his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, as ‘ignorant’ and ‘pagan’. This is nearly as risky and risqué as Heaney’s bold and brave comparing of his wife to a skunk in the poem of that name! Only a favourite, a truly loved one could get away with such braggadocio! The poem’s ending, however, with its exquisite cascade of metaphors surely makes amends for his earlier gaffe.
Therefore, the townland of Camas and Bridget Halpin’s small farm holds a very special place and influence on Michael Hartnett’s psyche. His first published work appeared in the Limerick Weekly Echo on the 18th of June 1955 while he was still in Sixth Class in the Courteney Boys School. He was thirteen. Entitled “Camas Road”, it describes in particular detail an evening rural vista of the townland of Camas, a place which would feature on numerous other occasions in his poetry, becoming central to his development as a poet. It is similar to Heaney’s “Sunlight” poems representing an idyllic childhood upbringing. Its two eight-line stanzas of alternating rhyme and regular metre contain a litany of natural images, at times idiosyncratically rendered; the ‘timid hare sits in the ditch’, ‘the soft lush hay that grows in fields’. It is a peculiar mix of a poem, seemingly authentic words and images from the poet’s experience placed together with those gleaned from the literary prop-box crafted by Manley Hopkins or Wordsworth, testament, no doubt, to the young poet’s voracious appetite for reading and possibly due to the influence of his teacher, Frank Finucane. It is doubly imitative, drawing upon the romantic tradition of nature poetry, as well as the more local genre, poems written by local poets, people, ‘like Ahern and Barry before me’ – poems written exclusively for local consumption. Thirteen-year-old Hartnett depicts an idyllic setting,
A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge,
A cottage thatched with golden straw,
The harshness of later poems is not evident and the poem serves as a record of his childhood in Camas surrounded by nature and its abundant riches. However, at poem’s end there is a growing awareness that this idyllic phase of his life is coming to an end and he declares rather poignantly,
The sun goes down on Camas Road.
The townland of Camas is also central to an episode which the poet recounts for us in his seminal poem, “A Farewell to English”. This encounter hovers somewhere between reality and dream, aisling (the Irish word for a vision) or epiphany. The incident takes place at Doody’s Cross as the poet walks out one summer’s Sunday evening from Newcastle West to the cottage in Camas. He is on his way to meet up with his uncle, Dinny Halpin. He sits down ‘on a gentle bench of grass’ to rest his weary feet after his exertions when he sees approaching him three spectral figures from the Bardic Gaelic past – Andrias Mac Craith, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, and Daíbhí Ó Bruadair. These ‘old men’ walked on ‘the summer road’ with
Sugán belts and long black coats
with big ashplants and half-sacks
of rags and bacon on their backs.
They pose as a rather pathetic group, ‘hungry, snot-nosed, half-drunk’ and they give him a withering glance before they take their separate ways to Croom, Meentogues and Cahirmoyle, the locations of their patronage, ‘a thousand years of history / in their pockets’. Here Hartnett is situating himself as their direct descendent and the inheritor of their craft and the enormity of this epiphany occurs at Doody’s Cross in Camas: the enormity of the task that lies ahead also terrifies and haunts Hartnett.
As another part of the myth that he had created, Hartnett always laid great emphasis on the fact that he had been born in Croom. He was immensely proud of this fact. In an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll for Poetry Ireland he stated:
I am the only ‘recognised’ living poet who was born in Croom, County Limerick, which was the seat of one of the last courts of poetry in Munster: Sean Ó Tuama and Andrias MacCraith. When I was quite young, I became very conscious of these poets and, so, read them very closely indeed (Dennis O’Driscoll Interview for Poetry Ireland, p, 143).
Andrias Mac Craith (c. 1709 – c. 1794), in particular, was an important influence on Hartnett. MacCraith had, for a time, very close associations with the town of Croom in County Limerick (although, it is believed, he had been born in Fanstown near Kilmallock). As already mentioned, Hartnett had long dined out on the fortuitous coincidence that he too had strong associations with Croom having been born there. However, he neglects to inform us that most of the babies born in Limerick in 1941 were also born in St. Nessan’s Maternity Hospital in Croom! He would have been in Croom for less than a week before he returned to Lower Maiden Street to the accommodation which his family rented from the eponymous Legsa Murphy who also owned a bakery near Forde’s Corner in Upper Maiden Street. However, in the mid to late 1700’s Andrias MacCraith, who was also known as An Mangaire Sugach or The Merry Pedlar (he was not a pedlar, but a roving schoolmaster), and his fellow poet and innkeeper, Sean Ó Tuama an Ghrinn (Sean O’Tuama The Merrymaker), had transformed Croom into a centre for poetry and the seat of one of the last ‘courts’ of Gaelic poetry. The town became somewhat notorious and became known widely as Cromadh an tSughachais, roughly translated as Croom of the Jubilations – (today it would obviously be known as Croom of the Craic)! Hartnett would have loved this vibrant, anarchic milieu and this is why Mac Craith had such an influence over him. Hartnett saw himself as a natural descendent of these poets and the motivation behind his ‘rebel act’ in 1974 was largely an effort to revive the interest in Irish, and poetry in Irish, which had earlier been generated by these poets who were known collectively as the Maigue Poets, in honour of the River Maigue which runs through Croom. His lovely poem, “A Visit to Croom, 1745” is his effort to recreate the tragic changes that were imminent, he tells us he had walked fourteen miles ‘in straw-roped overcoat’,
…… to hear a Gaelic court
Talk broken English of an English king.
As with almost everything that surrounds Hartnett, therefore, our task is to try to discern fact from fiction, myth from reality. We know that Hartnett was a frequent visitor to Camas until he was twelve or thirteen and that his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, considered him to be her favourite grandson. We also know that there were fragile remnants of a dying language and culture and customs still evident in the area. His later momentous disavowal of his earlier work in English and his abandonment of his standing as an emerging poet in 1974 is not hugely surprising when we consider the influences brought to bear on him during those extremely important formative years in Camas. Surely those beautiful, descriptive, soothing Irish adjectives repeated as a mantra in “A Farewell to English”, ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’, which are used to describe the raven haired buxom barmaid in Moore’s Bar or Windle’s Bar in Carrickerry, could also be used to describe his grandmother, Bridget Halpin herself? The encounter depicted in the second section of the poem, “A Farewell to English”, and referred to earlier, can also be read as an example of Hartnett realising what he suggests artists do in his beautiful poem, “Struts”. He is,
……. climbing upwards into time
And climbing backwards into tradition.
So, Bridget Halpin’s small farm in Camas may have been small and full of rushes and wild iris’s but it helped produce one of Ireland’s leading poets of any century. The influences absorbed in this rural setting, his powers of observation, his knowledge of wildlife and flowers, his ecocentric bias, are impressive and all-pervasive in his poetry. Without prejudice, it also has to be said that he demonstrates a deeper knowledge of all local flora and fauna than could be reasonably expected of a ‘townie’! In his own words, he has told us ‘no big lies’ and, though questionable, there was, we believe, ‘method in his madness’. When we examine closely his impressive body of work we notice that apart from Camas very few other rural places are mentioned or named in his poetry. He later left and went to Dublin, London, Madrid, Morocco but when he had work to finish he came back to rural West Limerick and to another beautiful neighbouring townland, Glendarragh, to embark on the work for which he will, if there is any justice, be best remembered.
‘A Necklace of Wrens’ (Film). Harvest Films. 1999
Hartnett, Michael. Why Write in Irish? in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.133
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 2001.
Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala. Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta. Translated by Michael Hartnett, Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1986.
O’Driscoll, Dennis. Michael Hartnett Interview in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001 – 2002, p.143
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Cork: Mercier Press, 2012.
Sources: My gratitude is extended to Joe Dore and John Cussen for their invaluable assistance in compiling this piece of research.
 Michael Hartnett’s family name was Harnett, but for some reason, he was registered in error as Hartnett on his birth certificate. In later life, he declined to change this as it was closer to the Irish Ó hAirtnéide.
Commentary: This poem appears in Hartnett’s collection, Selected and New Poems, published by The Gallery Press in 1994. However, it first appeared in a commemorative booklet published by the Courteney Boys School in 1992. Mike O’Donoghue, then Principal of the Courteney Boys School, Hartnett’s old alma mater, had asked the poet for a poetic contribution and he was rewarded with this beautiful poem which arrived by post on 7th April 1992.
Michael Hartnett wrote a number of beautiful poems about significant friends and relations who had died. These poems were the equivalent of the more traditional Mass Cards given to the family of the bereaved in Ireland. These poems were often handed to members of the bereaved family in the days and weeks following the funeral by the poet himself, often handwritten on loose pages from Hartnett’s own notebooks.
This poem ranks highly with those already written for his little three-year-old sister, Patricia, who died on May 10th in 1952 when Michael was ten (‘How goes the night, boy?…’) and his lament ‘For Edward Hartnett’, written for his infant brother Edmond P. Harnett, who was born on 12th October, 1942 and died on 29th November, 1942.We also remember his beautiful poem, ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, composed for his grandmother Bridget Halpin and also the poignant ‘Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith’.
Sheila Hackett was a life-long friend of Hartnett’s. She later married Ned O’Dwyer who was a painter and decorator by trade like Michael’s father, Denis Harnett. This is why in his letter accompanying the poem Hartnett suggests to Mike O’Donoghue that maybe the title of the poem should be changed to ‘In Memoriam Sheila O’Dwyer’. Thankfully and very wisely Mike O’Donoghue didn’t change a comma in the original. (See copy of letter below). Ned O’Dwyer served for many years in Newcastle West as a Labour Party County Councillor. Indeed, Michael Hartnett, who had inherited the Labour gene from his father Denis Harnett, acted as Ned’s Election Agent for a number of Local Government election campaigns held in the late seventies and early eighties.
However, he has fond memories of the young Sheila Hackett and prefers to remember her as she was then, the local girl, some years his senior, with whom he swopped comics with in the ‘fifties, and as he also says in his letter to Mike O’Donoghue ‘she helped me once or twice with my sums’. The poem opens with recollections of ‘our nineteen-forties streets’. These were austere times with a war raging in Europe and much poverty and deprivation experienced by the people of Newcastle West. Social change was very slow and living conditions were very difficult for many in the town. Elsewhere he has recalled these times through rose-tinted glasses but not here. Indeed, the ‘camaraderie of the poor’ is reinforced by the constant repetition of ‘we’ in the poem.
The poem uses extended mathematical imagery and phrases learnt in school: phrases like ‘complicated sum’, ‘simple’ numbers, the word ‘scale’ which may refer to music or measurement, ‘long division, ‘stable number’ and the number ‘one’. The poem ends with the death of Sheila Hackett; she is ‘cancelled out’ as from a ledger, and the poet is forced to confront her death and his own mortality: one of his fast friends from childhood has died and now the ‘long subtraction starts’.
Sources: I would like to acknowledge the great help received from Peig and Mike O’Donoghue in compiling this blog post.
Work in Progress! Comments, Corrections, Clarifications Welcome.