The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Great Hunger is a fine example of the long poem in the twentieth century. Its 756 lines, primarily in free verse, are divided into fourteen sections, varying in length from twenty-two to 125 lines. The poem, with its oblique title reference to the Great Famine of the 1840’s in Ireland, examines the life of Patrick Maguire, an unmarried peasant farmer tied to his small acreage. Maguire starves intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually as he struggles against the tyranny of the soil.

In section 1, Patrick Kavanagh sets a dramatic frame for the whole poem as the narrator invites the reader to watch Maguire and his fellow potato gatherers on the hillside for an hour. That hour figuratively spans Maguire’s life through the course of the other thirteen sections. In this section, Maguire is fully introduced, and the bleak Donaghmoyne setting is vividly fixed. The time is October, and Maguire and his men are gathering the potato crop—“like mechanised scarecrows.” While detailing the men at work, the narrative voice unfolds the complexities of Maguire’s present plight. “Too long virgin,” Maguire regrets his unfulfilled promise to himself to marry, sighing, “O God if I had been wiser!” As the section closes, the narrator is ready for the curtain to go up: “Come with me, Imagination, into this iron house/ And we will watchthe years run back.”

In the next twelve sections, the sixty-five years of Maguire’s...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The intense, realistic depiction of peasant life in The Great Hunger arises directly from Kavanagh’s first-hand knowledge of daily existence on his native Monaghan clay hills. To craft his striking and convincing portrait of Maguire’s personal hunger, a blend of memory and imagination, Kavanagh employs the techniques now common to modern cinematography. The poem is a carefully crafted editing of close-ups, long shots, and flashbacks; it employs direct and indirect characterization, dialogue, interior monologue; naturalistic narrative vignettes, dramatic sketches, and reflective passages. The fourteen sections are a cinematographic tour de force in poetry.

Kavanagh’s re-creation of the natural speech pattern of the Irish peasants is remarkable—and typical of Kavanagh’s sharp detailing of particulars throughout the poem. The total effect of the speech passages is more than that of realistic re-creation and more than the ancillary unity they provide. Almost all the talk is of the land—its grip is figuratively at the very throats of these potato gatherers. Their talk reinforces that theme.

A series of key images, or motifs—dream, gap (in the sense of a “way to freedom”), circle, a stone and a handful of gravel—serve structural and thematic functions. Kavanagh’s variations on the dream motif illustrate those functions. The poet uses the dream image twice in the first section and returns to it in later sections, with...

(The entire section is 483 words.)