The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

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.

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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 existence is “run back,” somewhat like twelve scenes in a play. Kavanagh projects the “drama” of Maguire’s personal, familial, and communal activities, as well as his hopes, illusions, and fears, against a backdrop of a seasonal cycle compounded of the growing season of the Irish potato from early spring seeding to October harvest and the varied seasonal toils of Maguire and his potato gatherers.

The narrative segments in the separate sections freely range back and forth over the years of Maguire’s life and over his fourteen-hour day. Some of these vignettes depict the daily course of Maguire’s activities; others re-create earlier moments of his life. Kavanagh augments these vignettes with broader sketches of key moments (usually of psychological importance) from Maguire’s life. As the seasons pass and one potato crop follows the next, Kavanagh reveals Maguire’s increasing awareness of time’s passage—his time. Throughout, Maguire’s aspirations for a fulfilling life clash with the reality of his thwarted existence.

The climax of Maguire’s drama, such as it is, comes at the end of section 13. At this point it is clear that this is a tragedy without a resolution: “No crash,/ No drama./ That was how his life happened.” In the poem’s final section, now that the “years run back” have completed their course, the narrator steps out of the iron house (the one into which he had invited the reader in section 1): “We may come out into the October, Imagination.” The drama has ended: “Applause, applause,/ The Curtain falls.” All that remains is a brief epilogue. The poem has come full circle from the opening “Clay is the word and clay is the flesh”—with all the promise in this variant expression of Christian Revelation—to the utter despair of the conclusion, “the apocalypse of clay/ In every corner of this land.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

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 incremental effect. In section 1, Maguire, on the hillside gathering potatoes, reflects associatively upon the moment. Then a shift occurs in Maguire’s mental meanderings:

His dream changes again like the cloud-swung windAnd he is not so sure now if his mother was rightWhen she praised the man who made a field his bride.

The shift is from Maguire’s present casual preoccupations to a more reflective contemplation of his past and the factors that have brought him to his present plight. The passage, with the striking simile “like the cloud-swung wind,” also implies that Maguire may be more the recipient than the agent in his relations with his fields. The second dream image in section 1 depicts Maguire’s youthful suspicious response to the flirtatious laughter of young girls: “He dreamt/ The innocence of young brambles to hooked treachery.”

In section 4, the dream motif exposes Maguire’s limited and limiting concept of morality and his inclination to be cautious with girls. In the short sixth section, the dream motif reveals broken idealism and, in particular, Maguire’s tendency to dream of life (health, wealth, and love) rather than to live it: “Three frozen idols of a speechless muse.” Kavanagh concludes this interrelated string of dream images in the final section of the poem, where he ironically speculates on the possibility of Maguire realizing the dream in death: “And the serious look of the fields will have changed to the leer of a hobo/ Swaggering celestially home to his three wishes granted./ Will that be? will that be?”

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Themes