Patrick (Joseph Gregory) Kavanagh 1905–1967
Irish poet and novelist.
Kavanagh wrote in the shadow of Yeats and Joyce but nonetheless received critical acclaim. His long poem "The Great Hunger" established his reputation and is perhaps unexcelled in its bitter evocation of peasant life. In 1939 he left his country birthplace, Monaghan, for Dublin. There he wrote criticism, satire, and poetry but his irascible nature kept him apart from the literary establishment which he often ridiculed. His autobiographical novels, The Green Fool and Tarry Flynn, do not match the power of the lyrical beauty and wry humor of his verse.
(See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
I opened Patrick Kavanagh's "The Green Fool" with the fear that once more I was going to be treated to the comically condescending view of the Irish peasant, or to the heroic and poetic. It soon appeared that this distinguished young poet has more in common with men like John Clare and Edward Thomas; for this is the Irish peasant writing with the simplicity, even the craftiness, of his kind about his life in the cabin. How he cobbled, how he plowed, how he hired himself at a hiring fair, saw a bride sold at a wedding, and became one of the boys who cut telegraph wires and stopped trains in "the Troubles"—these are his stories, simple reports of everyday life. Under the simplicity, in those lines of everyday talk between people selling pigs, soling shoes, going to chapel, and so on, there is a truthfulness which never strains after effect. He writes from the soil up, and without going into the pantheistic Celtic raptures of the townee. Here and there a false literary note perhaps, but Mr. Kavanagh has it in himself to be one of the rustic masters. He is good enough as it is to make one tremble for his development.
V. S. Pritchett, "A Young Man Looks at Present-Day Europe—A London Letter," in The Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 1938, p. 11.∗
In Patrick Kavanagh peasant Ireland has a poet. But "peasant Ireland" needs an explanation.Perhaps there are some readers of this critique who can recall an early poem of Yeats's—"Song of the Old Mother."… One feels that the old mother is aware that all she does has been done for generations, and that there is something over and above hardship in her doing of them—felt custom and felt community are in what she does. What she says goes to a traditional lilt in the verse and there is little effectiveness in it. But this awareness of custom and community is fading in the Irish countryside and the poets of today have little support in the pieties that meant so much in the days of W. B. Yeats and Douglas Hyde. The older poets took their matter from a folk; today's poets take theirs from the individual peasant.
Patrick Kavanagh writes under this new dispensation. His verse has no longer a traditional lilt with the overtones of folk-poetry: again and again we catch a rhythm that recalls "The Waste Land." But "A Soul for Sale" is of the Irish countryside, and its figures are recognizable as the farmers and priests, the boys and girls of a parish. He mints phrases that bring the countryside and the people to us…. The poet, remembering the sentimental treatment of Irish country people by certain poets is determined to be hard and disillusioned. But he goes too far in this recoil from sentimentality. It's all very well to demolish Tom...
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Mr. Patrick Kavanagh, who is about the same age as Mr. [Louis] MacNeice and Mr. [W. H.] Auden, is generally thought of by the better judges among his countrymen as the best Irish poet since Yeats. He is unlike Yeats in his origins, a peasant and a man of Roman Catholic formation, unlike him also in being a love poet whose love is directed to outer nature rather than to women, who eschews heroic gestures, and whose love of nature is a little like that of [Gerard Manley] Hopkins, an outpouring of gratitude to the God whom he sees everywhere in nature, not only in nature where it is strikingly beautiful. He is a bachelor, his poems tell us, a poor man, a man who has suffered from illness and who has sometimes wished that his life might be more intense or dramatic, but who is saved from desperation by an incurable grace, his gift of loving and finding happiness in ordinary things….
So unlike the grand self-dramatizings of Yeats, [the] poems by Mr. Kavanagh [in Come Dance with Kitty stobling] have something in them of Wordsworth's "wise passivity"; he sees the main purpose of poetry as to be "passive, observing with a steady eye", or, after sighing a little for the undramatic nature of his poetry and his life, he adjures himself:
So be reposed and praise, praise praise
The way it happened and the way
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The career of Patrick Kavanagh presents extraordinary features completely outside the usual literary framework. His "Collected Poems" … reveals an astonishing talent—according to some enthusiasts, the finest not only in Ireland but in all English-speaking areas—that has kept on renewing itself not so much by a process of orderly growth as by a continual breaching of boundaries. Judging by his recent poetic practice as well as his comment on that practice, it is clear that Kavanagh now stands free of all obligations except the deepest and most demanding claims of the open imagination. The early work of this poet, born in the Irish countryside, reflects a life close to the pieties and rude circumstances of the agricultural laborer. His disillusion with the lot of the Irish countryman came into being only after he had described that lot—in "The Great Hunger" …—with mixed affection and loathing. His subsequent descriptions of Dublin literary life and politics were again filled with the blackest disillusion. Kavanagh's chief object of detestation has come to be the coat-trailing charming Irish semi-clown—a tragicomic caricature designed, according to the poet, for the foreign trade. Behind Kavanagh's intransigence stands a thorough understanding of modern traps laid on all sides for the bafflement of human dignity, as well as an unfaltering sense of some human innocence, marred but indestructible. His satire, cutting close to the bone, spares neither cause, nor institution, nor individual. He names person and place, and he can be as scathing in a sonnet as in a piece of parody or a stretch of doggerel…. To come upon Kavanagh's spontaneity is delightful, and one understands the sober reasons that have kept him from being listed among the more official and solemn post-Yeatsians. Far from officialdom of any kind, Kavanagh survives and flourishes in that invigorating region where, without respectable let or hindrance, the wild rivers run and the wild timber grows. (pp. 194, 196)
Louise Bogan, "Books: 'Collected Poems'," in The New Yorker (© 1965 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 8, April 10, 1965, pp. 194, 196.∗
[Patrick Kavanagh's "Collected Poems" show him to be] the strongest poet to have come of age in Ireland under the inhibiting shadow of Yeats…. A poor peasant, he was reared … in "the stony grey soil of Monaghan," on a 16-acre hill-farm…. [The theme of "The Great Hunger"] is not the Irish potato famine, but famine in man's soul and frustration in his body. The central image is an unmarried peasant tethered to the clay by his mother, respectable and loveless. Kavanagh now says that he dislikes the poem because "Tragedy is underdeveloped Comedy, not fully born," but he wrote it with humor and compassion. He created an Everyman of the Irish countryside, a moral poem where each part fits accurately together, the story beautifully narrated with a rhythm that responds to shifts of mood…. The sharp details of this great work contribute to a terrible and moving image of human frustration.
When Kavanagh himself fled from the clay, he went to live in Dublin, where his life has become a legend of comedy, to which at times his poems have seemed like dogged footnotes. For example, "The Paddiad" is a roistering lampoon on the Dublin literary scene, set of course in a pub. But Kavanagh in Dublin is not a match for her native sons in the satirical game. Austin Clarke has a finer cutting edge to his voice, and a more exact knowledge of the thing he wishes to cut. In a spirit of Irish fun, Kavanagh seems for a while to have betrayed his talents.
Then, after an illness …, he enjoyed a period of clarity regained, in which he wrote several poems in an extended sonnet form. With a longer flowing rhythmical line that supersedes its metrical origins, the voice of his own personality speaks. These beautiful poems are the most positive work he has done. Where "The Great Hunger" is a narrative tragedy of love's frustration by man, the later group of sonnets is a lyrical celebration of love fulfilled in man by God. The matter of the sonnets is still the clay of ordinary human affairs, but where in the earlier poem his love of the clay destroys the hero, in the sonnets both clay and mankind are redeemed by love….
Richard Murphy, "New Beauty from Old Clay," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 23, 1965, p. 4.
In an essay on Suffering and Literature in the October 1959 issue of the Dublin magazine, Nonplus, Patrick Kavanagh stated one of his guiding principles. He said: "All we learn from experience is the way from simplicity back to simplicity." Certainly, his earliest poems are simple in form and diction. They deal boldly and lucidly with themes of the Irish countryside and of the solitary individual's quest for religious truth, but are often marred by conventional imagery and easy sentiment. This Kavanagh himself has recognized; he no longer approves of the greater part of the work written before 1955, and even has reservations about The Great Hunger (1942) which is certainly his most important work...
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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…. It is the purpose of this essay to clarify what Kavanagh...
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The title poem 'Ploughman' [of Patrick Kavanagh's first collection, Ploughman and Other Poems (1936),] is representative of the poetry Kavanagh wrote at this period, both in theme and style….
This poem reveals a considerable lyrical skill, and a felicity of phrase, but is slightly self-conscious, and literary. One is aware of the influence of the Georgian pastoral mode in the strongly marked rhyme and rhythm and a deliberate simplicity. The poem does not escape sentimentality and the same weakness is found in several others in the collection. But glimpses of Kavanagh's honesty and intelligence are to be found even in this early volume. He can be ironic as well as wistful about country life....
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Kavanagh limited himself, it is true, to writing about himself only and the ways of life that formed him, although he extended his range somewhat in his journalism. But after Yeats and Joyce, immediately after them, perhaps self-limitation was the best course for an Irish writer, since the history of the human race, the nature of the unseen world, the possibilities of linguistic experiment, and what Kavanagh liked to call contemptuously "the Irish thing" all had been adequately covered. What was left? Daily life. Mud, stones, flowers, food, drink, faces, joy, sickness, hope, despair, spite, resentment, family, love, hate, and the occasional intimation of—something. No symbols anywhere. In "Is" (1958) Kavanagh wrote:...
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By Night Unstarred consists of two posthumous prose fragments by Patrick Kavanagh…. Subtitled "An Autobiographical Novel", it has been edited with an introduction, connecting passages and epilogue by Peter Kavanagh, whose role as his "brother's keeper" has many likenesses to that of Stanislas Joyce….
By Night Unstarred was begun in 1950. It was to follow two earlier autobiographical works, The Green Fool and Tarry Flynn, which had earned him some fame. There was also the notoriety occasioned by his long poem "The Great Hunger", whose evocations of masturbation ("the no-target gun fired") led to the banning of the Irish number of Horizon. For his new book,...
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[Patrick Kavanagh's Lough Derg] was one of the most authentic compositions of comparable length to be offered us since The Waste Land. From the poet of The Great Hunger (1967) much passion was expected and an expressive constancy of feeling is likewise to be found in Lough Derg. At times, the verse (free but with irregular rhyme) goes, perhaps, a little roughshod; but never drops into that prosiness as when we say that 'Homer nods'.
The etiology of the poem is interesting; and we are indebted to the poet's brother Dr Peter Kavanagh for giving it to us. 'Patrick', he tells us, 'was a Catholic with emphasis on the mystical element. He did not dismiss the penitential...
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