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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942

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The Green Fool is an autobiographical work written soon after the publication of Patrick Kavanagh’s first volume of poetry, Ploughman and Other Poems (1936). Following the critical success of that volume, Kavanagh traveled from the isolated farm where he had lived for more than thirty years to London in the hope of finding a place in the literary world; since a self-taught farmer-poet was a curious figure, a publisher’s editor suggested that he write his autobiography. Having already tried to survive for a short time by writing journalism, Kavanagh seems to have remembered the vow he had made earlier in Dublin: “In future if I was to be exploited, I should do the exploiting myself.” That phrase and the title indicate his ironic attitude toward the narrative he undertook to write. Some critics have suggested that sections of the book are really fiction; at least one chapter has been included in an anthology of Irish short stories. The additional fact that the book was suppressed by its publishers when a libel action was launched by a Dublin doctor alerts the reader to the unusual genre of the book, which shifts between fact and fiction, between the recording of Kavanagh’s actual experiences and the creation of an autonomous world.

Certainly, this narrative has an uneven focus on the self of the writer. It begins with eleven short chapters which evoke the context of his childhood and school years. This picture of country ways is presented with openness and without judgments, and the child’s presence is seemingly integrated with this folk world. Five chapters tell of his years between the ages of twelve and seventeen as a farmer’s helper, during which he learned the hard manual skills of working the land and the crude economic relationships of country people. The next seven chapters present glimpses of him in early manhood, when he became an apprentice cobbler and a part-time farmer for his father. More independent, he took part in republican political activity during the Civil War, but he discovered that he was a shy loner. Chapters 24 to 28 trace the decade of his twenties, when he discovered and nurtured his poetic talent and became more independent as a farmer. The concluding four chapters, which deal with his life in his early thirties, focus largely on his attempt to leave the farm and on his restless efforts to discover a place in the literary worlds of Dublin and London.

Throughout the narrative, the approach to the external circumstances of personal history is casual. There are few dates, his age is rarely provided, the chronology is haphazard, and many chapters are strictly asides to the personal story. The narrative is as much a record of peasant life, the communal experience of his neighbors, as it is an investigation of the circumstances which have shaped his identity. In fact, the approach is not primarily analytical or psychological. It owes more to the oral tradition of conversation and storytelling which was a vital part of his community. The narrative is punctuated by Kavanagh’s comments on his confident belief in his talent as a poet, on his visionary perceptions, and on the difficulty of being a talented outsider. Above all, the book is notable for his sympathetic and loving record of country ways and for his self-effacement.

Kavanagh’s “resistance to vanity” has led him to write a book which is only indirectly autobiographical for much of its length. It does not appear to be a “portrait of the artist as a young man,” but, in retrospect, it is clear that his sensibility as a poet has been shaped by the overwhelming impersonality of the land that he was forced to work and by the traditions and beliefs of the people. Because of its apparent avoidance of the genre of literary biography, the book becomes an implicit justification of the “unliterary” and inspired role of plowman/poet. The essential experiences of life are revealed not through the willful efforts of the artist but through the inspiration that ebbs and flows over the surfaces of communal life.

The lack of structuring principles of thematic unity, chronology, or consistent tone and the casual, spontaneous style of the narrative may contribute to a view of the book as essentially chaotic and formless. Nevertheless, the mixture of voices and the inconsistency of narrative focus add a certain kind of coherence to the book; the restless searching for a role for the poet in a world which is essentially alien to his private vision reflects Kavanagh’s difficulty in revealing his “clay-heavy mind” and the “poetic paganism of blackbirds” to an audience which he believed was attuned to “Death’s dark chapel” of literature. Just as Kavanagh rebelled against the social conformity which his community enforced, he rebels, as D. H. Lawrence did, against the confines of an external, an imitated form, in writing. His book is unified by his own fluid and self-mocking personality. The title suggests circumstances which aided and impeded the emergence of Kavanagh’s talent as a peasant poet outside the mainstream of English and Irish literature.

The title evokes the ambivalent and satirical tone which Kavanagh adopts toward his own self and experience. The judgment implied in the title—that he is an incompetent and naive Irishman—is undermined by the irony of the acceptance of his “Irishness” as a category of entertainer to an English audience, a court jester, perhaps; both of these roles are revealed to be superficial by the explicit acceptance in the text of the role of Fyodor Dostoevski’s “idiot,” a blessed state of eccentric mysticism and innocence in nature.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 49

Heaney, Seamus. “The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh,” in The Massachusetts Review. XXVIII (Autumn, 1987), pp. 371-380.

Kavanagh, Peter. Sacred Keeper: A Biography of Patrick Kavanagh, 1984.

Kavanagh, Peter, ed. Patrick Kavanagh: Man and Poet, 1986.

Nemo, John. Patrick Kavanagh, 1979.

Warner, Alan. Clay Is the Word: A Study of Patrick Kavanagh, 1973.


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