Patrick Kavanagh 1904–-1967
Irish poet, novelist, and critic. See also Patrick Kavanagh Literary Criticism.
Kavanagh is known for repudiating the verse of the Irish Literary Revival, a nationalistic period that began in the nineteenth century and culminated after the First World War when Ireland gained its independence from Great Britain, and for creating his own brand of poetry in which rural images prominently figure. Unlike many poets of the era, who glorified Irish culture and mythology in their verse, Kavanagh, who knew firsthand the hardscrabble life of the Irish farmer, harshly criticized such poets for their unrealistic portrayal of the rural lifestyle. Drawing on his decades-long experience on the land, Kavanagh created verse that was at once realistic and spiritual in its treatment of pastoral themes. His long narrative poem The Great Hunger is widely considered an important work of modern Irish verse.
The son of a shoemaker and farmer, Kavanagh was born October 21, 1904, and grew up farming in Inniskeen, in County Monaghan, in the north of Ireland. Though he began to write poems during his teenage years, Kavanagh did not publish until he was in his mid-twenties, and then only in nonliterary magazines. After reading a copy of the literary journal Irish Statesman in 1929, he submitted verse to the periodical. Although editor George Russell (who wrote verse under the pseudonym A. E.) rejected Kavanagh's first submissions, he encouraged the farmer-poet. Russell gave Kavanagh books, among them works by Feodor Dostoyevsky, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Robert Browning, that helped him further his education and introduced Kavanagh to other writers and poets in Dublin. By 1936 Kavanagh had published his first collection of verse, Ploughman and Other Poems. He followed it with the autobiographical novel The Green Fool, which brought him some renown. During the late 1930s, Kavanagh moved to Dublin where he hoped to find a more hospitable environment for an artist; he soon became disillusioned with the literary society made up of would-be poets who affected an air of sophistication. In order to earn a living, Kavanagh wrote articles, columns, and book and film reviews for newspapers. In them he criticized many writers whose works he considered to be mediocre or dishonest in their portrayal of Irish culture. Some of his criticism took the form of verse satires. During the 1940s he published several volumes of verse and the novel Tarry Flynn, becoming well-known for both his verse and prose writings, as well as his colorful personality. At this time, he also dismissed some of his own work as immature, including the 1942 long narrative poem of social criticism The Great Hunger. After undergoing surgery for lung cancer in 1955, Kavanagh gained a new, positive outlook on life and experienced a creative burst that resulted in verse through which he expressed a hitherto-unknown inner peace, spirituality, and celebration of simple pleasures. As his health waned again, beginning in 1960, Kavanagh wrote little. He died November 30, 1967.
Of his body of work, some twenty short poems and the lengthy The Great Hunger are considered to be his finest. These short verse, which were written throughout the course of his career, include the early “Ploughman,” “Ascetic,” “Shancoduff,” and “Inniskeen Road, July Evening.” Among them also figure the Canal Bank poems, so named for the Grand Canal in Dublin: “The Hospital,” “October,” and “Canal Bank Walk.” In many of his early poems, Kavanagh celebrated the beauty of rural Ireland in a style similar in tone and technique—if not historical allusion—to verse of the Irish Revival poets. After experiencing the literary life of Dublin and revising his poetic credo to target social realism in portraying the countryside and rural Irish, Kavanagh penned satires directed at the Irish Revival poets and their imitators. In a further development, his Canal Bank poems, written after the removal of a cancerous lung, express a return to the simplicity and rural themes of his youth yet using less-structured forms. With the long narrative poem The Great Hunger, written in three days, Kavanagh introduced the anti-heroic Patrick Maguire. Maguire represents the Irish bachelor farmer whose life is one of sterility and despair amidst the fertility of his potato fields. After the tragic famines of the mid-nineteenth century, many Irish farmers often postponed marriage and children in order to improve the financial resources of the small farm. The 756 lines of the poem vary in style. While some stanzas contain long free-flowing lines, others were written in rhyming couplets or free verse. Assonance, alliteration, colloquialisms, and half-rhymes also figure prominently. Kavanagh dealt with many themes in this work: the poverty and hard physical and mental labor of farming, the stifling nature of Catholicism in rural parishes, and the emasculating effect of forced bachelorhood due to small farms being unable to support extended families.
Many critics rank Kavanagh among the best poets in Ireland since William Butler Yeats, citing The Great Hunger as his most remarkable work. During his lifetime, Kavanagh earned the reputation of a “peasant poet,” an epithet he disliked because it did not acknowledge the originality and quality of his verse, but rather the dubious honor of being a self-taught poet from rural Ireland. After his death, critical recognition of Kavanagh's verse came slowly as his forceful personality was removed from the equation. Criticism centered on The Great Hunger and on the two dozen of his most successful short poems. Vis-à-vis The Great Hunger, scholars have studied Kavanagh's attitudes toward the Irish farmer, his use of versification techniques and imagery, the religious content, sexuality, and comic vision. Several commentators remarked on the progress of Kavanagh's verse during the course of his life: early pastoral works led to the socially realistic The Great Hunger, led to scathing satires of contemporary poets, and returned to verse expressing spirituality and appreciation of nature (both external and human). Fertile ground for scholars, Kavanagh's selected works have engendered studies on the effect of the poet's relationship to the land, his voluntary exile to Dublin, spirituality, and contributions to pastoral poetry.
Ploughman and Other Poems 1936
The Great Hunger 1942
A Soul for Sale 1947
Recent Poems 1958
Come Dance With Kitty Stobling, and Other Poems 1960
Collected Poems 1964
The Complete Poems of Patrick Kavanagh 1972
Lough Derg 1978
The Green Fool (fictionalized autobiography), 1938
Tarry Flynn: A Novel 1948
Self Portrait (autobigraphical televsion script) 1964
Collected Pruse 1967
Lapped Furrows: Correspondence, 1933–1967, Between Patrick and Peter Kavanagh, With Other Documents 1969
November Haggard: Uncollected Prose and Verse 1971
Love's Tortured Headland: A Sequel to Lapped Furrows 1974
By Night Unstarred: An Autobiographical Novel 1978
Kavanagh's Weekly: A Journal of Literature and Politics (anthology), 1981
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SOURCE: “Innocence and Experience: The Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh,” in Nimbus, Vol. 3, No. 4, Winter, 1956, pp. 20–23.
[In the following essay, Cronin discusses Kavanagh's satirical poems as an outgrowth of the poet's experiences.]
In the world of Patrick Kavanagh's early poems things are seen with the intensity of vision which is a characteristic of many children … but with an emotional intensity which comes from the fact that the poet is an adult looking back through the complexity of adult experience to what it is possible to see again only by shedding the confusions we call experience:
… the newness that was in every stale thing When we looked at it as children: the spirit- shocking Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking Of an old fool … … the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.
These poems demonstrate that any object or place lit by the imagination can be shocking, mysterious and familiar all at once, and that any chink of light is a highway for the imagination, but their counterpoint is that every intensity depends on its limitations, that the capacity for experience is too easily destroyed by the germ of knowledge:
We have tested and tasted too much, lover— Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
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SOURCE: “Mr. Kavanagh's Progress,” in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 195, Autumn, 1960, pp. 295–304.
[In the excerpt below, Jordan examines the evidence of maturing consciousness in Kavanagh's poetry and points out its stylistic strengths and weaknesses.]
‘The people didn't want a poet, but a fool, yes they could be doing with one of those.’
The Green Fool (1938)
‘The story of the heifer that came back is nearly symbolic of my life. I have failed many times to get my cattle to the fair.’
It would be foolish for the present writer to pretend that he is not personally acquainted with Mr Patrick Kavanagh. It would be even more foolish to write about him as if his slight acquaintance gave any right to attempt an authoritative interpretation of a small but very difficult body of work, on the grounds of extraneous assumptions as to character or personality.1 What follows, it is hoped, is based on nothing other than the evidence of texts, and as far as is humanly possible, the estimate offered will be uninfluenced by that folk-lore which is Dublin's special contribution to the misunderstanding of genius, whether or not the genius be comprehensive (as with Yeats) or fragmentary and erratic (as with Kavanagh).
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SOURCE: “Patrick Kavanagh on Poetry,” in The Journal of Irish Literature, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 1977, pp. 69–70.
[In the following extract, originally published in X, a literary journal, in 1960, Kavanagh professes his beliefs about the nature of poetry and discounts the role of the critic.]
Part of the Palgravion lie was that poetry was a thing written by young men and girls. Not having access to Ezra Pound who showed that the greatest poetry was written by men over thirty, it took me many years to realize that poetry dealt with the full reality of experience.
Part also of the lie was that poetry was very sad— Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
This is not true. Our sweetest songs are those that derive from that day abandon which is the keynote of the authentic Parnassian voice. The abandon is not the riotous braggadoccio which is often associated with the poet. The true abandon and gaiety of heart spring from the sense of authority, confidence and courage of the man who is on the sacred mountain.
It is essential to consider nothing but genius; for anything less is no good. The aim of a good deal of literary and academic criticism is to raise up the mediocre, to get people to believe that the tenth-rate is in some way respectable. It takes courage not to praise the tenth-rate, for as soon as it is known by society...
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SOURCE: “A Poet of the Countryside,” in Review of English Literature, Vol. 5, No. 3, July, 1964, pp. 79–86.
[In the essay below, Warner describes how Kavanagh's life as an Irish farmer informed his verse.]
Who owns them hungry hills That the water-hen and snipe have forsaken? A poet? Then by heavens he must be poor.
The poet who owned the hills was Patrick Kavanagh, and he was poor enough. His ‘black hills’ yielded him little in crops or cash, but from the seed sown there he reaped later a harvest of poetry.
Kavanagh's Collected Poems1 span a wide range of poetic achievement and development. He begins in something of a Georgian pastoral style. His ‘Ploughman’ reveals a lyrical gift and a felicity of phrase:
I turn the lea-green down Gaily now, And paint the meadow brown With my plough.
I dream with silvery gull And brazen crow. A thing that is beautiful I may know. …
‘A. E.’ printed this poem (there are two more verses) in the Irish Statesman. But Kavanagh was already aware that this was not quite the whole truth about country life in Co. Monaghan. ‘I could not help smiling when I thought of the origin of my ploughman ecstasy. A kicking mare in a rusty old plough tilling a rood of land for turnips.’2...
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SOURCE: “The Writings of Patrick Kavanagh,” in Dublin Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 3–4, Autumn, 1965, pp. 5–23.
[Surveying Kavanagh's short verse, Sealy, in the following excerpt, maintains that Kavanagh suffered a creative drought in his later years.]
Even before he appeared on TV Patrick Kavanagh was probably known by sight to many who had never read a line of his verse. The dishevelled clothes, the old mackintosh, the nondescript hat set back on the high forehead, the heavy horn-rimmed spectacles magnifying the eyes above the beak-like nose and hollow cheeks and the harsh mouth were a familiar sight along Pembroke Road and Baggot Street and in various Dublin pubs. He was, in Thomas Kinsella's words, ‘an outcast, Corvine figure embittered by disillusion, hugging the cold comfort of his honesty and craft.’ Whether in Dublin, in his native Monaghan, or on the savage streets of London, his figure was probably equally familiar and striking. And he would not have wished it otherwise, for he holds that a poet is a recognizable animal, whereas few can tell a poem from a hole in the ground. This is especially true of Kavanagh's later verse. It is much easier to recognize the poet, to recognize Kavanagh, than it is to recognize a poem. Throughout Kavanagh's career the poetry and the personality have been moving closer together until at last the personality quite o'ercrows the poetry, as if the poem were...
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SOURCE: “Patrick Kavanagh,” in The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 275–83.
[In the excerpt below, Rosenthal highlights those of Kavanagh's poems that deal with the subject of disillusionment.]
The lively-spirited Patrick Kavanagh has in his serious poetry become at once simpler and more ‘private’ than he once was. Without giving us much detail, he communicates a self-weariness and desire for liberation from his own past that seems not unrelated to the closely packed self-searching of Devlin and others. At times the communication comes disguised as boasting that, just when he had thought all was lost, he has come through after all—has learned joy, been loved by women despite his poverty and bohemian character. The poetry then takes on a confidential rather than a confessional tone. He has, at the same time, fallen more and more into the habit of writing satirical verse that on good days approaches that of Austin Clarke—as it sometimes does in ‘The Paddiad,’ an attack on the superficiality and smugness, the mobquality, of much Irish criticism. On the many bad days it is facile and self-indulgent. In general, the newer poems are often thinner than his past work although the speaking voice remains interesting and stands in suggestive contrast to the other dominant voices of Irish poetry today.
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SOURCE: “Patrick Kavanagh: A Comment,” in Renascence, Vol. 21, No. 2, Winter, 1969, pp. 81–87.
[In the excerpt below, Fahey points out what he considers to be exemplary passages in both Kavanagh's short verse and long poem The Great Hunger.]
“Irishness is a form of anti-art. A way of posing as a poet without actually being one.” The complaint is Patrick Kavanagh's. And remembering such crocks full of Irishry as James Stephens, the coy skull-cappery of O'Casey, and Lady Augusta, Gregorian chanteuse, one could not but be wary of encountering, on a trip to Ireland,
Paddy of the Celtic Mist, Paddy Connemara West, Chestertonian Paddy Frog Croaking nightly in the bog. All the Paddies having fun Since Yeats handed in his gun.
The cautionary attitude proved unnecessary on my trip to Ireland this summer. Though he has not perhaps given up his post as Patron of Irish Letters, “the devil mediocrity” reigns more securely in the fetor of New York's smog-filled air than in Dublin, where frequent showers dampen poseur and poetaster. Dubin's literary atmosphere is still characterized by the astringent tone of Kavanagh's talk on Telefis Eireann a year or so ago; he is still hitting out a variety of targets—“the bohemian jungle which lies on the perimeter of commerce”; its “phallic tower …, The Theatre”; the Catholic Cultural League; the Joyce industry;...
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SOURCE: “The Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh,” in English, Vol. 18, No. 102, Autumn, 1969, pp. 98–103.
[In the following essay, Warner describes Kavanagh's contributions to Irish pastoral poetry.]
In 1942 Kavanagh published a remarkable poem, The Great Hunger. On the strength of this poem alone he is entitled to serious consideration as a significant and original twentieth-century poet. For a long time it was little known and not easy to come by. It is now available in his Collected Poems, in a separate edition published in paperback by MacGibbon & Kee, and is included in the Penguin Book of Longer Contemporary Poems (1966).
There is no pastoral sentimentality about this poem. Indeed it is strongly anti-pastoral and it depicts the restricted and frustrated life of ‘the peasant ploughman who is half a vegetable’. The central figure in the poem is Patrick Maguire, whose ‘great hunger’ for life and love is frustrated by a narrow prudence. At the age of sixty-five he remains unmarried, tied to his old mother and his little fields, ‘a man who made a field his bride’. The poem opens with a sombre picture of the monotonous toil of the potato-gatherers:
Clay is the word and clay is the flesh Where the potato-gatherers like mechanized scarecrows move Along the side-fall of the hill—Maguire and his men. If we watch them...
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SOURCE: “Patrick Kavanagh,” in Ariel, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1970, pp. 7–28.
[In the extract below, Kennelly clarifies Kavanagh's use of the term “comic vision” and traces the development of comedy in his verse.]
There are certain poets of whom it can be said that they have a unique personal vision—Blake and Yeats for example—and one knows immediately what is meant. They have a new, inimitable, disturbing way of looking at life and, at their best, they communicate this vision successfully. In twentieth-century Ireland, one poet (apart from Yeats) possesses such a vision—Patrick Kavanagh—who, for some unaccountable reason, is one of the most misunderstood and undervalued poets of our time. It is with Blake and Yeats that Kavanagh must be compared, for he is a visionary poet and towards the end of his life he claimed that he had achieved a truly comic vision.
There is only one muse, the Comic Muse. In Tragedy there is always something of a lie. Great poetry is always comic in the profound sense. Comedy is abundance of life. All true poets are gay, fantastically humorous.1
Comedy, then, meant for Kavanagh something very definite and profound, but sometimes what is perfectly clear to a poet is confused to a critic because the poet lives poetry and his discoveries are inevitable and organic....
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SOURCE: “Kavanagh's Calculations and Miscalculations,” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1976, pp. 65–82.
[In the excerpt below, Casey assesses Kavanagh's place as a poet, novelist, and critic.]
For all of Yeats's eerie mythologies and Clarke's assonantal soundings and Colum's wandering drovers, the Kavanagh of the Canal Bank resurrection provides the surest voice of continuation, and “Continuation,” he insists, “is everything.”1 Yeats has lingered on as a vestige of the Victorian myth2 and Clarke lies deeply shrouded in the Celtic mist and Colum hovers always on the verge of Parnassian heights. But it is the arrogant and persistent Northern brogue of Patrick Kavanagh, the dung-heeled ploughman, that shouts from the bogland and echoes off Slieve Gullion's airy side:
I turn the lea-green down Gaily now, And paint the meadow brown With my plough.(3)
Kavanagh, the self-conscious country rhymer, becomes for us the last of Cathbad's noble line, and his experiences, geographically circumscribed as they were, give full-blooded expression to the tortured soul of twentieth-century Irish poetry in earthy lyrics that are unequalled for imagery and power.
But the fuller appreciation of Kavanagh will have to resist impulses for canonization and come to terms with the contradictions that followed the poet down his days;...
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SOURCE: “The Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh: A Reappraisal,” in Mosaic, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1979, pp. 139–52.
[In the following essay, Foster discusses how and why Kavanagh played the “literary fool.”]
It is little more than ten years since the death of Patrick Kavanagh. That his stature is uncertain is not surprising since, as we know, a poet's reputation frequently dips soon after his death. But in Kavanagh's case, circumstantial evidence for a judgement is more than usually inconclusive. A handful of memorable poems are regularly conscripted into English school and college anthologies, but non was drafted for The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse (1950), edited by Kenneth Allott, or British Poetry Since 1945 (1970), edited by Edward Lucie-Smith. In The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), Larkin represents Kavanagh only by the first canto of The Great Hunger, but might seem to accord him greater status—the entire work being implied by the part—than those poets whose sole entry is a complete poem. Readers and teachers, if not critics, must, however, have continued to pay him attention since before his death, for his Collected Poems, published in 1964, has been in print on both sides of the Atlantic since 1973.1
“I have never been much considered by the English critics,” Kavanagh began his “Author's Note” to...
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SOURCE: “Virgin Queen or Hungry Fiend? The Failure of Imagination in Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger,” in Mosaic, Vol.12, No. 3, 1979, pp. 153–62.
[In the following essay, Thornton delves into Kavanagh's attitude toward “peasants” and their work, religion in the lives of Irish farmers, and the feminine imagery evident in the work.]
For the most important poem by the poet long described as the best in Ireland since Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger has received surprisingly little critical attention, and much of that mere encomium rather than analysis.1 While I have a more modest view of the poem than the critic who calls it “one of the most striking and memorable long poems of this century,”2 or the pseudo-libeler who said it was “probably the best poem written in Ireland since Goldsmith gave us “The Deserted Village,”3 I do have sufficient respect for The Great Hunger to believe that it repays scrutiny. My first estimate of the poem was admittedly lower, mainly because of a vacillation, even contradictoriness, of tone I felt in it, especially toward the peasants and their milieu. And there are passages that still seem uneven or awkward, but I now feel that Kavanagh is in control of the poem's tone, and that what appeared to be vacillation is better understood as an intentional, even necessary, ambiguity toward...
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SOURCE: “Patrick Kavanagh and the Killing of the Irish Revival,” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1981, pp. 170–83.
[In the essay below, Garratt examines how Kavanagh's poems represent a departure from the ideals and techniques of the Irish Revival in poetry, whose chief exemplar was W. B. Yeats.]
When W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, George Russell (A E) and George Moore shaped the literary movement now known as the Irish Renaissance or the Irish Revival, they were responding both to a cultural and artistic void in Irish literature and to their own needs as aspiring writers. Much of the early momentum of the Revival was generated by the rediscovery of Celtic materials which not only provided a context and a tradition connecting modern Irish writing with its ancient literary past, but also offered, as the young Yeats said often in his letters to Katherine Tynan, the opportunity for the Irish poet to be innovative. In a letter dated 13 August 1887 he writes, “but remember, by being Irish as you can, you will be more original and true to yourself and in the long run more interesting, even to English readers.”1 Again in May, 1888, “I think you will be right to make your ballad Irish. You will be so much more original.”2 Yeats, A E and others felt that by being deliberately Irish one could create in poetry a freshness and uniqueness that would distinguish it from the...
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SOURCE: “Pastoral Design in the Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh,” in Renascence, Vol. 34, No. 1, Autumn, 1981, pp. 3–16.
[In the following essay, Grennan demonstrates that many of Kavanagh's poems can be understood as lying within the poet's idiosyncratic version of the Christian pastoral and points out many associations.]
Only they who fly home to God have flown at all
Patrick Kavanagh often described his work and his life in the image of a journey: “All we learn from experience is the way from simplicity back to simplicity.”1 It is a traditional image, at root that of an Eden lost and a journey through the infernal places of the world to a recovered innocence, a paradise regained which is like and unlike the original, its innocence more aware, radical, profound, its simplicity “the ultimate sophistication.”2 Although, therefore, he bemoaned the lack of a sustaining myth (“A myth is necessary, for a myth is a sort of self-contained world in which one can live,” Pruse, 268), his own poetic identity is a product, casual as well as deliberate, of the most accessible of Western myths, that of the pastoral. The early poems represent an experience of pastoral innocence; the later reflect upon this and repossess it in a new mode. To look at Kavanagh's poetry through the pastoral lens permits the design of that work to emerge in a rich, consistent light....
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SOURCE: “Bound to the Soil: Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger,” in Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo American Letters, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1982, pp. 279–89.
[In the following essay, Veldhuis analyzes the themes and techniques Kavanagh employed in The Great Hunger.]
Fled are those times when, in harmonious strains, The rustic poet praised his native plains.
In 1939 Patrick Kavanagh, aged 35, gave up farming in his native village Inniskeen, County Monaghan, to start a literary career in Dublin. He made his move from the country to the capital at a turning-point in Irish literature. In the early decades of the century the Literary Renaissance, headed by Yeats and Synge, had given a strong impetus to the cause of Irish independence, but by the 1930s a civil war and years of political unrest had impaired the vision of Ireland as a proud peasant-nation nurtured by a heroic past and moving towards a glorious future. Nevertheless, although for many young writers nationalism had lost its imaginative impact, received literary conventions were still largely dominated by the models and images of the Celtic Twilight.1 In Self Portrait, an autobiographical sketch written for Telefis Eireann in 1962, Kavanagh describes the Dublin literary scene of those days:
When I came to Dublin the Irish Literary affair was still booming. It was...
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SOURCE: “Seed like Stars: Kavanagh's Nature,” in Eire-Ireland, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 98–108.
[In the extract below, Klejs considers Kavanagh's opposing views of nature—both external and human—as seen in The Great Hunger and shorter poems.]
In Patrick Kavanagh's poetry two opposing views of nature—both external nature and human nature—are discernible. On one hand, Kavanagh introduces a view of nature where matter is fundamentally dissociated from the divine. As Kavanagh often depicts this in its final stage, nature appears as a dead and oppressive force which represents only hard labor. Those who work intimately with dead nature tend to adopt its characteristics: they are either incapable of living ordinary human lives, or their attempts at living like human beings are frustrated. The Great Hunger and “Stony Grey Soil” constitute good examples of this view. On the other hand, the very opposite view of nature is equally traceable. In these poems, nature is unconditionally positive. Though still distinctly material, it is far from dead. In fact, nature's very life and fertility continuously tempts the central figure in the poems. In addition, nature often seems to have a pantheistic significance which, I hope to suggest, also is Christian. In this connection, nature becomes the means whereby man may reach beyond matter. “To the Man After the Harrow” and...
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SOURCE: “Apocalypse of Clay: Religion in Patrick Kavanagh's Poetry,” in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 74, No. 293, Spring, 1985, pp. 47–65.
[In the following essay, Murphy explores the role of the poet as mystic in Kavanagh's verse, examining and comparing four main religious themes.]
In every poet there is something of Christ writing the sins of the people in the dust.’
Patrick Kavanagh: ‘The Irish Tradition’
The importance of religion in Kavanagh's poetry has to be explained initially in terms of his conception of the poet as mystic. In his Introduction to Collected Poems he complains of the failure of some contemporary poets to define a religious purpose for their work: ‘There is a poetic movement which sees poetry materialistically. The writers of this school see no transcendent nature in the poet; they are practical chaps, excellent technicians. But somehow or other I have a belief in poetry as a mystical thing, and a dangerous thing.’1 This mystical function derives partly, he says, from an intrinsic capacity in language to enter into realms of meaning beyond the limits of rational, logical description: ‘The question of technique is not simply a matter of grammar or syntax or anything as easy as that. It has to do with the mystical. Real technique is a...
(The entire section is 6837 words.)
SOURCE: “Appréciation: Patrick Kavanagh's Landscape,” in Eire-Ireland, Vol. 21, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 105–18.
[In the esay below, Duffy describes the Monaghan County countryside and its inhabitants and examines how Kavanagh communicated his perceptions of them in his art.]
As a geographer, I'm interested in place and places—not always exotic places like southeast Asia or Latin America, but often ordinary little places that are important to the ordinary people who live in them. Such places are important because of the experiences of the people living in them—the communal experience of living and loving and being born and fighting with each other and working and dying over generations in the same place. Most of us are nostalgic in a time and a place sense: As we move through life, and often through places—we always hark back to our past and invariably to our first place—our home country, always sunlit days and places. Another poet, T. S. Eliot said
We shall not cease from exploration, And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
Coming to know our own home area by leaving it might be the subtitle to this discussion of Kavanagh's reflections on County Monaghan.
Place and places are important because the combination of landscape, community, and roots give each place a...
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SOURCE: “The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh,” in Massachusetts Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 371–80.
[In the essay below, poet Heaney relates his personal experience with Kavanagh's poetry and its importance to his life through several decades.]
In 1939, the year that Patrick Kavanagh arrived in Dublin, an aunt of mine planted a chestnut in a jamjar. When it began to sprout she broke the jar and made a hole and transplanted the thing under a hedge in front of the house. Over the years, the seedling shot up into a young tree that rose taller and taller above the boxwood hedge. And over the years I came to identify my own life with the life of the chestnut tree.
This was because everybody remembered and constantly repeated the fact that it had been planted the year I was born; also because I was something of a favourite with my green-fingered aunt, so her affection came to be symbolized in the tree; and also perhaps because the chestnut was the one significant thing that grew visibly bigger by the year. The rest of the trees and hedges round the house were all mature and so appeared like the given features of the world, or like the grown-ups of the family; the chestnut tree, on the other hand, was young and was watched in much the same way as the other children and myself were watched and commented upon, fondly, frankly and unrelentingly.
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SOURCE: “Return in Departure: Towards The Great Hunger, in Patrick Kavanagh: A Critical Study, Syracuse University Press, 1991, pp. 87–122.
[In the following excerpt, Quinn considers the effects of Kavanagh's voluntary exile from his hometown of Inniskeen on his early poetry and prose.]
FOUL IS FAIR: LYRICS 1939–1942
Inniskeen is a mere sixty miles or so from Dublin; for the twenty-seven-year-old poet [Kavanagh] it was even within walking distance. However, the literary importance of Kavanagh's exile, the imaginative mileage he got out of it, is utterly disproportionate to the facts of geographical distance. His migration from Inniskeen was pivotal in his writings for almost a decade, approached from different angles in different poems and, in addition, providing the fictional climax of his novel, Tarry Flynn. When the older poet looked back over his literary career in his last great creative phase he summarised it as a circuitous progress from Monaghan to Dublin's Grand Canal, and in his Self-Portrait, published three years before his death, he was still pondering the repercussions of deracination. Metaphorical projection of his life as a journey, pilgrimage, exodus or hegira, was the most enduring of Kavanagh's personal myths. The ‘pain of roots dragging up’ proved the most traumatic emotional experience of his life for the farmer-poet whose love...
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SOURCE: “Religious Themes in the Work of Patrick Kavanagh: Hints of a Celtic Tradition,” in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 82, No. 327, Autumn, 1993, pp. 257–64.
[In the extract below, Agnew highlights the Christian and non-Christian religious content evident in some of Kavanagh's poems.]
INTRODUCTION: AWARENESS OF ANCIENT ROOTS
Patrick Kavanagh was aware that the remnants of an ancient culture lurked in the landscape of south-east Ulster. ‘The ghost of a culture’ he says wistfully, ‘haunted the snub-nosed hills’. The drumlins of south Monaghan were his Alps; they provided him with prehistoric vision. From their summits he saw ‘gaps of ancient Ireland sweeping in again with all its unbaptised beauty’. ‘From the tops of the little hills there spread a view right back to the days of St. Patrick and the druids. Slieve Gullion to the north fifteen miles distant, to the west the bewitched hills and forths of Dunamoyne’. (The Green Fool). This was a country rich in a medley of legends: of Fionn and Cuchulainn as well as of Patrick, Brigid and Daeg, the maker of bells. ‘Unbaptised beauty’ hinted of an original world of Eden—the unspoilt wonderland that lurked in stones and hedges: ‘The smell from ditches that were not Christian’. (“Why Sorrow?”)1
Religion, pagan as well as Christian, fascinated Kavanagh. He...
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SOURCE: “Sex and Comedy in Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger,” in Notes on Modern Irish Literature, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 34–40.
[In the following excerpt, Holliday discusses the comic elements in The Great Hungerand the main character's symbolic castration.]
In his short autobiographical book Self Portrait, Patrick Kavanagh claims that the “main feature” of a poet is his “humourosity” (27). Critics acknowledge that his long poem “The Great Hunger” is the great pastoral poem of the twentieth century for its harsh, realistic portrayal of an Irish rural life that has already largely vanished. Also, this poem is Kavanagh's “only major work with modernist affinities,” for the narrator's stance toward his main character “tends uncharacteristically toward nihilism” (Cantalupo 195). Simply put, Patrick Macguire is Kavanagh's version of the modern Irish antihero. The narrator of “The Great Hunger” must present the main character with empathy and compassion, for when Macguire speaks, he reveals his own weakness of mind and passivity of spirit. For Kavanagh, the “literal idea of the peasant is all that mass of mankind which lives below a certain level of consciousness” (Self Portrait 23). Like Plato's uneducated society in the cave allegory of The Republic, these peasants “live in the dark cave of the unconscious and scream when...
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SOURCE: “‘It is midnight in Dublin and Europe is at war’: Patrick Kavanagh's Poems of ‘The Emergency,’” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 4, 1995, pp. 233–41.
[In the following essay, Wall examines the effects of Kavanagh's tenure in Dublin during World War I on his verse, particularly The Great Hunger and Lough Derg.]
In 1939, as war was breaking out in Europe and as De Valera was instituting Southern Ireland's policy of neutrality, the poet Patrick Kavanagh left rural Monaghan to settle in Dublin: he hoped to earn a living for himself from his writings and literary journalism and, by his presence in the capital, become a central figure in Ireland's literary life. He later described the move as a mistake:
The Hitler War [has] started. I [have] no job, no real friends. I live by writing articles for the papers, mainly on the pleasures of country life which, fifty miles away, calls me to return. There is a new prosperity owing to the war but I a mad messiah without a mission or a true impulse [who struggles] on in Dublin instead of walking out.
Kavanagh had already published two books by this point, Ploughman and Other Poems (1936) and a fictional memoir The Green Fool (1938). Antoinette Quinn has argued that the “international acclaim [accorded...
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Holliday, Shawn. “Patrick Kavanagh.” In Modern Irish Writers: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook, edited by Alexander G. Gonzalez, pp. 138–43. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.
A brief bio-critical entry concludes with a bibliography of works by and about Kavanagh.
Freyer, Grattan. “Patrick Kavanagh.” Eire-Ireland 3, No. 4 (Winter 1968): 17–23.
Surveys Kavanagh's career.
Kavanagh, Peter. Sacred Keeper: A Biography of Patrick Kavanagh. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1984, 403 pp.
Kavanagh’s younger brother Peter, as his brother’s champion, writes a biography as the protector and elucidator of Kavanagh’s life and art.
Nemo, John. Patrick Kavanagh. Boston: Twayne, 1979, 161 pp.
In this critical biography, Nemo highlights Kavanagh's poetic career. A final chapter treats the reception of Kavanagh's major works and evaluates his contribution to modern Irish poetry.
Warner, Alan. Clay is the Word: Patrick Kavanagh, 1904–1967. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1973, 140 pp.
A first and important introduction to Kavanagh the man and his works. It reproduces writings that were published in difficult-to-find periodical sources.
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