(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Kavanagh’s narrative overflows with lovingly remembered details of country life, of landscape and climate, of farming procedures, of the habits and personalities of horses and cows, and of the behavior and beliefs of the farmers and cobblers who surrounded him in his early years. The people of Mucker are poor and live a tradition-bound routine centered on the land and the supernatural. The soil is of poor quality, and planting and harvesting are hard labor because the farmers are subject to the whims of the elements. Even though the period is early in the twentieth century, farm machinery, electricity, or automobiles are unknown here. From the physical and economic points of view, life is grim; survival is the goal of effort, and comfort and pleasure are rare. The social life of the people is centered mainly on weddings, which Kavanagh does not describe as joyous occasions but as grim reminders of time passing and of the disappointment of those who do not marry. In fact, it appears that deaths and wakes offer a more spontaneous release into conviviality. The religious faith of the people offers some consolation, however, and Kavanagh writes with some sympathy of going to Mass on Sunday and of going on pilgrimages to holy places. Nevertheless, the supernatural is not confined to institutional Catholicism, and Kavanagh frequently refers to conversations about ghostly presences and fairies; he stresses the importance of believing in the spiritual world beyond the clay and the stone of his landscape.

Until his thirtieth year, he never traveled more than a few miles from his home. His world is narrow and intensely felt, for in this little community each smallest deviation from the expected norm of behavior is scrutinized and intensified in importance. As he mentions in the first chapter, “though little fields and scraping poverty do not lead to grand flaring passions, there was plenty of fire and an amount of vicious neighbourly hatred to keep me awake.” This has always been home, and even when he travels to Dublin and London he returns to it, but he senses that he is an outsider to the community, seeing the fire and the hatred and yet coaching himself to try to achieve a sublime calm. In spite of his declared love for his father, his neighbor Michael, who “helped me to make my soul,” and George the teller of fairy-tales, Kavanagh is more at peace with the landscape itself. At first, he shares the curiosity and the wonder of his neighbors at the extraordinary, “the quaint and the bizarre,” but soon he realizes that his special talent for observation and for writing sets him apart and that he is himself the eccentric subject of their curiosity.

The opening chapter, “Angelhood,” announces the basic premise of Kavanagh’s romantic outlook: There is an essential innocence, a purity of...

(The entire section is 1154 words.)