The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783

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“A Country Walk” is representative of Thomas Kinsella’s middle period in a number of important respects. Together with the title poem of the collection in which it occurs, its tensions, themes, and restless movement anticipate numerous tendencies in his later verse. At the same time, it marks a transition from the predominant, though not exclusive, use of lyric, which characterized the collection that is Downstream’s important predecessor, Another September (1958).

This sense of transition is not merely indicative of the development of Kinsella’s poetic career, it is also vividly present as a pretext and motif in the poem itself. The abrupt antilyrical opening of “A Country Walk” is an overture to a world beyond domesticity, the world at large, in effect, with its minute particulars and large abstractions (“Mated, like a fall of rock, with time”). The seeds of these abstractions are minutiae: The actual physical evidence of the locality is so keenly apprehended in its physical presence that only a metaphysical artifact can consolidate the moment of seeing, as the quotation suggests. Walking is not only a means of traversing a given landscape but also a means of going over the various levels for which that landscape stands.

The world beyond “the piercing company of women” is both a natural world and a historical world. Nature offers a nonhuman dimension—flora and fauna—which, ironically, offer human comfort. Almost as soon as the walker sets foot in the natural environment, each step becomes “a drop of peace returning,” and the simplicity of a drink of water is restorative to a degree that he “inch by inch rejoiced.” The poet is careful not to sentimentalize nature, however. The candor of “rejoiced” is at once modified, “Or so it seemed,” and brambles are considered “melancholy.”

Nevertheless, the world of nature, if not exactly fertile (“The littered fields where summer broke and fled”), is at least provisionally equable, even if the atmosphere is thickened by “a silence full of storms.” Nature is apprehended in a transitional, unsettled moment, which allies it to the poem’s larger thematic interests. The antilyrical tenor of “A Country Walk” inhibits a view of nature as a bountiful opposite to the works of humankind, just as the actual view of the natural terrain is made incomplete by the evidence of the town that keeps getting in the way. Images of humanity, which the landscape provides and suggests are, on the other hand, fraught with the tempests of history.

The recollection of the old Irish sagas (“the tales”) gains significance from Kinsella’s enduring interest in literature in the Irish language, ancient and modern. He is his generation’s most important translator of Irish texts, and one of his major artistic accomplishments is his rendering of one the most celebrated works of pre-Christian Irish literature, Tain-Bo-Cuailgne. The poem modulates from a sense of being present in nature to a vision of Irish history. Many of the most important events of Irish history in the Christian era (the reference to “the day that Christ hung dying” is intended to condense the complex heritage of Irishness) are imaginatively glossed in terms of their recurring blood sacrifice. Beginning with the Norman Conquest of the twelfth century, and proceeding by way of the Cromwellian invasion of the mid-seventeenth century, the poem comes to contemplate not only the events of the Irish War of Independence (the victim commemorated by “A concrete cross”) but its aftermath in civil war: “brother met brother in a modern light.”

This review of what the landscape has seen culminates in a bitterly ironic depiction of “the gombeen jungle,” which is considered contemporary Irish society’s translation of its legacy of historical suffering. “Gombeen” is a belittling term applied to a land-grabber or other economic exploiter who is of the same social origins as those he exploits. The phrase is a richly satirical insight on social Darwinism as practiced in independent Ireland. The names of the merchants are a deliberate echo of William Butler Yeats’s “Easter 1916,” which commemorates in laudatory terms the names of some of the principal participants in the Irish rebellion against British rule that took place on the eponymous date.

Yet despite the ill-concealed animosity to the landscape of contemporary Irish society (“A lamp switched on above the urinal”—there can hardly be many lines of poetry less celebratory than this), the poet persists with his walk. The culminating view of the river, with the “troubled union” of its impermanent, fretful, and recurring surface, may be considered a metaphor for the tide of human affairs. It is also a pretext for poetry, as the closing statements of “A Country Walk” suggest: “Heart and tongue were loosed.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422

The principal gesture in “A Country Walk” is one of comprehensiveness. Stage by stage the poem builds up a complete vision of a world, from the narrowness of stifling domesticity to a perspective on the inspirational evening star, “Hesperusbringing sweet trade”—not that of the commerce abjured in the “open square” sequence but that of poetry, which proposes an adequate rate of exchange between world and consciousness. This act of cultural and existential cartography is carried out with “intensity,” as the poem admits, but is devoid of the schematic or the mechanical.

Such limitations are resisted by a number of means. In the first place, the poem’s intense language must be noted. This language derives its voltage from two sources. One is its unadorned and unqualified honesty: A poem that introduces itself to the reader with the word “sick” is clearly not interested in pulling punches. In addition, the strength of the verbs throughout, together with a willingness to convey a sense of the world’s mundane ugliness, may also be taken as a further example of the completeness of the poet’s hard-hitting commitment to his material. Another source is the language’s visionary appeal, as in the fusion of brutality and courtliness in the Norman warlords, or in the condensed finality of “generations that let welcome fail.” The poem’s language arrests and disturbs the reader in ways that make it an enactment of the landscape’s effect on the poet’s consciousness.

A sense of the programmatic accumulation of detail and effect is also resisted by virtue of the comparatively brief span of attention that the poem’s authorizing consciousness devotes to each of the poem’s details. The details are not arranged in a particular order. When order may be thought to supervene, as in the town, “jungle” is the term used to describe it. Even the historical chronology should not be regarded as in any way exhaustive. Its elements pertain specifically to the poem’s actual locale. The poem itself functions as the elements in the extended river simile: “a shape/ That forms and fructifies and dies.”

This shape is borne out by the use of ellipses, compound sentences, blank verse, and an unstable verse form. The poem’s basic five-line stanza provides the momentum of the walk, but that stanzaic structure is an option of ordering that is honored as much in the breach as in the observance. In formal terms, too, the poem articulates the shapeless but exact nature of the landscape it addresses.