Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1154
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 perception, which a child possesses. It is a visionary talent for knowing a “land of dreams.” As a child, Kavanagh’s talent for appreciating the beauty of flowers in the landscape was emblematic of a more general joy in the beauty of God’s creation. He experienced this joy, this “revelation,” throughout his early life, but he quickly learned that to speak of it only earned for him ridicule. He became a fool in the eyes of his neighbors, many of whom treated him with “cruelty and derision.” Kavanagh accepts their judgment and associates himself with Dostoevski’s “idiot,” however, and he claims that “being made a fool of is good for the soul; . . . it makes a man into something unusual, a saint or poet or an imbecile.” In this rough and poverty-stricken countryside, Kavanagh welcomes the personal and natural frustrations as the lot of the fool.
The challenge of finding a way to accept his alienated status as a poet and to live by the logic of his talent is the constant preoccupation of the book. Kavanagh was an exceptional child, a “dreamer” who had no formal opportunities for education or for nurturing his talent beyond the age of twelve. His father regarded him as impractical, but since Kavanagh was the oldest of a large family it was expected that he would contribute to their support by becoming an efficient farmer. Only accidental meetings with a handful of people who were interested in books and ideas reassured him that his “feelings that are beyond the reach of reason,” associated by him with songs and poems of his childhood, had value. His lonely and private apprenticeship to poetry was conducted in such obscurity that he writes of hiding poems for occasional reading in the trees and hedgerows around his farm. The first challenge to come to terms with the guilt that he feels for disappointing his parents, who are thrifty and materially ambitious people, shaped his later alienation from the business of making money and intensified his belief in his talent: “Though the coin of joy isn’t legal tender in the mundane shops of the world, it is in the lands of Imagination.” It appears that the pattern was set early in his life: Mystical vision alone has value and little else matters, if only he can find food for survival.
Accepting his role as fool and poet became easier later, when he began to write poetry and still later when some of his poems were published. At first, they were published in a provincial religious paper, but soon his work was accepted by Ireland’s premier literary review, The Irish Statesman. The editor was , a friend of William Butler Yeats, who was a Theosophist, a poet and painter of visions. He encouraged Kavanagh to believe in his talent as a poet and in poetry as a medium through which one can gain access to immortal truth. In spite of his self-confidence, however, Kavanagh failed to find a place in the literary world. Dublin was as inhospitable as the stony, windswept farm, and London proved to be as unfriendly. His experiences in the city seem to justify the aesthetic theory he had already evolved: Adversity and neglect are inescapable in the role of the fool. Nevertheless, just as a sentimental romantic notion of nature is false—“nature in a green dress is a breaker of hearts: she promises romance, but seldom fulfils”—so it is in the human world. Kavanagh’s sensibility as plowman/poet is not, finally, that of naive inspiration but of struggle: “An artist, whether poet or farmer, must find glory and exultation in struggling with the crude ungainly crust of earth and spirit.” The vocation is more properly lived out in the narrow and bleak confines of the farm than in the more glamorous surroundings of cosmopolitan cultural life. In the concluding chapters of the book, Kavanagh truly accepts the theme of his major work, The Great Hunger (1942): impoverishment, frustration, and the winning of a joyous phrase out of the most unpromising material of life.