Patrick Kavanagh 1904–-1967
Irish poet, novelist, and critic. See also Patrick Kavanagh Literary Criticism.
Kavanagh is known for repudiating the verse of the Irish Literary Revival, a nationalistic period that began in the nineteenth century and culminated after the First World War when Ireland gained its independence from Great Britain, and for creating his own brand of poetry in which rural images prominently figure. Unlike many poets of the era, who glorified Irish culture and mythology in their verse, Kavanagh, who knew firsthand the hardscrabble life of the Irish farmer, harshly criticized such poets for their unrealistic portrayal of the rural lifestyle. Drawing on his decades-long experience on the land, Kavanagh created verse that was at once realistic and spiritual in its treatment of pastoral themes. His long narrative poem The Great Hunger is widely considered an important work of modern Irish verse.
The son of a shoemaker and farmer, Kavanagh was born October 21, 1904, and grew up farming in Inniskeen, in County Monaghan, in the north of Ireland. Though he began to write poems during his teenage years, Kavanagh did not publish until he was in his mid-twenties, and then only in nonliterary magazines. After reading a copy of the literary journal Irish Statesman in 1929, he submitted verse to the periodical. Although editor George Russell (who wrote verse under the pseudonym A. E.) rejected Kavanagh's first submissions, he encouraged the farmer-poet. Russell gave Kavanagh books, among them works by Feodor Dostoyevsky, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Robert Browning, that helped him further his education and introduced Kavanagh to other writers and poets in Dublin. By 1936 Kavanagh had published his first collection of verse, Ploughman and Other Poems. He followed it with the autobiographical novel The Green Fool, which brought him some renown. During the late 1930s, Kavanagh moved to Dublin where he hoped to find a more hospitable environment for an artist; he soon became disillusioned with the literary society made up of would-be poets who affected an air of sophistication. In order to earn a living, Kavanagh wrote articles, columns, and book and film reviews for newspapers. In them he criticized many writers whose works he considered to be mediocre or dishonest in their portrayal of Irish culture. Some of his criticism took the form of verse satires. During the 1940s he published several volumes of verse and the novel Tarry Flynn, becoming well-known for both his verse and prose writings, as well as his colorful personality. At this time, he also dismissed some of his own work as immature, including the 1942 long narrative poem of social criticism The Great Hunger. After undergoing surgery for lung cancer in 1955, Kavanagh gained a new, positive outlook on life and experienced a creative burst that resulted in verse through which he expressed a hitherto-unknown inner peace, spirituality, and celebration of simple pleasures. As his health waned again, beginning in 1960, Kavanagh wrote little. He died November 30, 1967.
Of his body of work, some twenty short poems and the lengthy The Great Hunger are considered to be his finest. These short verse, which were written throughout the course of his career, include the early “Ploughman,” “Ascetic,” “Shancoduff,” and “Inniskeen Road, July Evening.” Among them also figure the Canal Bank poems, so named for the Grand Canal in Dublin: “The Hospital,” “October,” and “Canal Bank Walk.” In many of his early poems, Kavanagh celebrated the beauty of rural Ireland in a style similar in tone and technique—if not historical allusion—to verse of the Irish Revival poets. After experiencing the literary life of Dublin and revising his poetic credo to target social realism in portraying the countryside and rural Irish, Kavanagh penned satires directed at the Irish Revival poets and their imitators. In a further development, his Canal Bank poems, written after the removal of a cancerous lung, express a return to the simplicity and rural themes of his youth yet using less-structured forms. With the long narrative poem The Great Hunger, written in three days, Kavanagh introduced the anti-heroic Patrick Maguire. Maguire represents the Irish bachelor farmer whose life is one of sterility and despair amidst the fertility of his potato fields. After the tragic famines of the mid-nineteenth century, many Irish farmers often postponed marriage and children in order to improve the financial resources of the small farm. The 756 lines of the poem vary in style. While some stanzas contain long free-flowing lines, others were written in rhyming couplets or free verse. Assonance, alliteration, colloquialisms, and half-rhymes also figure prominently. Kavanagh dealt with many themes in this work: the poverty and hard physical and mental labor of farming, the stifling nature of Catholicism in rural parishes, and the emasculating effect of forced bachelorhood due to small farms being unable to support extended families.
Many critics rank Kavanagh among the best poets in Ireland since William Butler Yeats, citing The Great Hunger as his most remarkable work. During his lifetime, Kavanagh earned the reputation of a “peasant poet,” an epithet he disliked because it did not acknowledge the originality and quality of his verse, but rather the dubious honor of being a self-taught poet from rural Ireland. After his death, critical recognition of Kavanagh's verse came slowly as his forceful personality was removed from the equation. Criticism centered on The Great Hunger and on the two dozen of his most successful short poems. Vis-à-vis The Great Hunger, scholars have studied Kavanagh's attitudes toward the Irish farmer, his use of versification techniques and imagery, the religious content, sexuality, and comic vision. Several commentators remarked on the progress of Kavanagh's verse during the course of his life: early pastoral works led to the socially realistic The Great Hunger, led to scathing satires of contemporary poets, and returned to verse expressing spirituality and appreciation of nature (both external and human). Fertile ground for scholars, Kavanagh's selected works have engendered studies on the effect of the poet's relationship to the land, his voluntary exile to Dublin, spirituality, and contributions to pastoral poetry.