Although he frequently and vehemently denied it, Patrick Kavanagh was a distinctively Irish poet. He had already formed his own voice by the time he discovered—or was discovered by—the Celtic Revival and became a leading figure in the second generation. Kavanagh was not a Celtic mythologizer such as William Butler Yeats, a conscious dialectician such as J. M. Synge, a folklorist such as Lady Gregory, an etymologist such as James Joyce, or a Gaelic revivalist such as Douglas Hyde. He felt and wrote with less historical or political consciousness than his progenitors. His gifts and temperament made him an outsider in Inniskeen, his lack of formal education and social grooming excluded him from Dublin’s middle-class literary coteries, and his moral sensibility excluded him from Bohemia.
Yet in retrospect, Kavanagh emerges as the dominant Irish literary personality between 1940 and 1960. Although he admired each of the Revival’s pioneers for particular qualities, he regarded the Irish Literary Revival in the main as an English-inspired hoax. The romanticized peasant, for example, he considered the product of Protestant condescension, and he felt that too many writers of little talent had misunderstood the nature of Yeats’s and Joyce’s genius and achievements, so that the quality of Irishness replaced sincerity.
Against a pastiche of literary fashions that misrepresented the peasant, attempted the revival of the Irish language, and promoted nationalism in letters and in politics, Kavanagh posited his own belief in himself, in his powers of observation, and his intimate knowledge of the actual lives of country people. Kavanagh’s subsequent popular success in Ireland and his influence on the third generation are attributable to several distinct characteristics: his parochialism, which he defined as “confidence in the social and artistic validity of his own parish”; his directness, the apparent offhandedness of his work, and his freedom from literary posing; his deep Catholicism, which went beyond sentimentality and dogma; his imaginative sympathy for the ordinary experiences of country people; his comedy; his repose; his contemplative appreciation of the world as revelation; and his sincerity, his approval of feelings arising only from a depth of spirit. Although he has often been admired for one or more of these virtues, and although his manner often masked these qualities, they must be taken as a whole in accounting for his character as a poet. He disdained the epithet Irish poet, yet shares with each of the pioneers of the Revival one or more signally Irish characteristics.
Kavanagh’s creative development followed three stages: first, the works of intimacy with and disengagement from the “stony grey soil” of parochial Monaghan; second, the works that show his involvements with Dublin or national cultural issues; and third, his “rebirth” in the post-1955 reconciliation of public and private selves, when rural parish and national capital find mutual repose.
Kavanagh’s two most successful fictional works, The Green Fool and Tarry Flynn, provide a rich lode of documentation of their author’s country background and the growth of his sensibility. Some of his finest lyrics come from this period, along with his magnum opus, The Great Hunger. All these works are set in the same few townlands, and the theme is the revelation of grace in ordinary things and tasks. Through these poems, and from The Green Fool to Tarry Flynn, the poet’s confidence in his own visionary gifts progressively deepens, even though the expression is often uncertain. In a handful of lyrics, however, such as “Ploughman,” “Inniskeen Road: July Evening,” “A Christmas Childhood,” “Spraying the Potatoes,” “Shancoduff,” and “Epic,” Kavanagh’s technique realizes his intentions. In each of these, the chance appearances belie the deft design, and the natural voice of the countryman is heard for the first time since Carleton in Irish literature.
“Shancoduff” (In The Complete Poems of Patrick Kavanagh) is one of Kavanagh’s most successful expressions of his parochial voice and is a representative early poem. The small farmer’s pride in his bare holding is seemingly disquieted by a casual comment from passing strangers: “By heavens he must be poor.” Until this uninvited, materialistic contrast with other places intrudes, this little world, although uncomfortable, has been endurable. Now it may not be so.
Before the cattle drovers assess the farm, the readers have seen it through the eyes of its owner, and they do not need to be told that he is a poet. With him they have first observed these hills’ exemplary, incomparable introspection (lines 1-7). Even as his readers are being invited to contemplate the hills’...
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