Patrick Kavanagh Kavanagh, Patrick - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Ploughman and Other Poems 1936

The Great Hunger 1942

A Soul for Sale 1947

Recent Poems 1958

Come Dance With Kitty Stobling, and Other Poems 1960

Collected Poems 1964

The Complete Poems of Patrick Kavanagh 1972

Lough Derg 1978

The Green Fool (fictionalized autobiography), 1938

Tarry Flynn: A Novel 1948

Self Portrait (autobigraphical televsion script) 1964

Collected Pruse 1967

Lapped Furrows: Correspondence, 1933–1967, Between Patrick and Peter Kavanagh, With Other Documents 1969

November Haggard: Uncollected Prose and Verse 1971

Love's Tortured Headland: A Sequel to Lapped Furrows 1974

By Night Unstarred: An Autobiographical Novel 1978

Kavanagh's Weekly: A Journal of Literature and Politics (anthology), 1981

Anthony Cronin (essay date 1956)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Innocence and Experience: The Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh,” in Nimbus, Vol. 3, No. 4, Winter, 1956, pp. 20–23.

[In the following essay, Cronin discusses Kavanagh's satirical poems as an outgrowth of the poet's experiences.]

In the world of Patrick Kavanagh's early poems things are seen with the intensity of vision which is a characteristic of many children … but with an emotional intensity which comes from the fact that the poet is an adult looking back through the complexity of adult experience to what it is possible to see again only by shedding the confusions we call experience:

… the newness that was in every stale thing
When we...

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John Jordan (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mr. Kavanagh's Progress,” in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 195, Autumn, 1960, pp. 295–304.

[In the excerpt below, Jordan examines the evidence of maturing consciousness in Kavanagh's poetry and points out its stylistic strengths and weaknesses.]

‘The people didn't want a poet, but a fool,
          yes they could be doing with one of those.’

The Green Fool (1938)

‘The story of the heifer that came back is nearly symbolic of my life. I have failed many times to get my cattle to the fair.’


It would be...

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Patrick Kavanagh (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Patrick Kavanagh on Poetry,” in The Journal of Irish Literature, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 1977, pp. 69–70.

[In the following extract, originally published in X, a literary journal, in 1960, Kavanagh professes his beliefs about the nature of poetry and discounts the role of the critic.]

Part of the Palgravion lie was that poetry was a thing written by young men and girls. Not having access to Ezra Pound who showed that the greatest poetry was written by men over thirty, it took me many years to realize that poetry dealt with the full reality of experience.

Part also of the lie was that poetry was very sad—
Our sweetest songs are...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Alan Warner (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Poet of the Countryside,” in Review of English Literature, Vol. 5, No. 3, July, 1964, pp. 79–86.

[In the essay below, Warner describes how Kavanagh's life as an Irish farmer informed his verse.]

                                                            Who owns them hungry hills
That the water-hen and snipe have forsaken?
A poet? Then by heavens he must be poor.

The poet who owned the hills was Patrick Kavanagh, and he was poor enough. His ‘black hills’ yielded him little in crops or cash, but from the seed sown there he reaped later a harvest of poetry.

Kavanagh's Collected Poems1 span a wide...

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Douglas Sealy (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Writings of Patrick Kavanagh,” in Dublin Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 3–4, Autumn, 1965, pp. 5–23.

[Surveying Kavanagh's short verse, Sealy, in the following excerpt, maintains that Kavanagh suffered a creative drought in his later years.]

Even before he appeared on TV Patrick Kavanagh was probably known by sight to many who had never read a line of his verse. The dishevelled clothes, the old mackintosh, the nondescript hat set back on the high forehead, the heavy horn-rimmed spectacles magnifying the eyes above the beak-like nose and hollow cheeks and the harsh mouth were a familiar sight along Pembroke Road and Baggot Street and in various Dublin pubs....

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M. L. Rosenthal (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Patrick Kavanagh,” in The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 275–83.

[In the excerpt below, Rosenthal highlights those of Kavanagh's poems that deal with the subject of disillusionment.]

The lively-spirited Patrick Kavanagh has in his serious poetry become at once simpler and more ‘private’ than he once was. Without giving us much detail, he communicates a self-weariness and desire for liberation from his own past that seems not unrelated to the closely packed self-searching of Devlin and others. At times the communication comes disguised as boasting that, just when he had thought all was...

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William A. Fahey (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Patrick Kavanagh: A Comment,” in Renascence, Vol. 21, No. 2, Winter, 1969, pp. 81–87.

[In the excerpt below, Fahey points out what he considers to be exemplary passages in both Kavanagh's short verse and long poem The Great Hunger.]

“Irishness is a form of anti-art. A way of posing as a poet without actually being one.” The complaint is Patrick Kavanagh's. And remembering such crocks full of Irishry as James Stephens, the coy skull-cappery of O'Casey, and Lady Augusta, Gregorian chanteuse, one could not but be wary of encountering, on a trip to Ireland,

Paddy of the Celtic Mist,
Paddy Connemara West,
Chestertonian Paddy Frog...

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Alan Warner (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh,” in English, Vol. 18, No. 102, Autumn, 1969, pp. 98–103.

[In the following essay, Warner describes Kavanagh's contributions to Irish pastoral poetry.]

In 1942 Kavanagh published a remarkable poem, The Great Hunger. On the strength of this poem alone he is entitled to serious consideration as a significant and original twentieth-century poet. For a long time it was little known and not easy to come by. It is now available in his Collected Poems, in a separate edition published in paperback by MacGibbon & Kee, and is included in the Penguin Book of Longer Contemporary Poems (1966).


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Brendan Kennelly (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Patrick Kavanagh,” in Ariel, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1970, pp. 7–28.

[In the extract below, Kennelly clarifies Kavanagh's use of the term “comic vision” and traces the development of comedy in his verse.]


There are certain poets of whom it can be said that they have a unique personal vision—Blake and Yeats for example—and one knows immediately what is meant. They have a new, inimitable, disturbing way of looking at life and, at their best, they communicate this vision successfully. In twentieth-century Ireland, one poet (apart from Yeats) possesses such a vision—Patrick Kavanagh—who, for some unaccountable reason, is one of...

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Daniel J. Casey (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Kavanagh's Calculations and Miscalculations,” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1976, pp. 65–82.

[In the excerpt below, Casey assesses Kavanagh's place as a poet, novelist, and critic.]

For all of Yeats's eerie mythologies and Clarke's assonantal soundings and Colum's wandering drovers, the Kavanagh of the Canal Bank resurrection provides the surest voice of continuation, and “Continuation,” he insists, “is everything.”1 Yeats has lingered on as a vestige of the Victorian myth2 and Clarke lies deeply shrouded in the Celtic mist and Colum hovers always on the verge of Parnassian heights. But it is the arrogant and...

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John Wilson Foster (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh: A Reappraisal,” in Mosaic, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1979, pp. 139–52.

[In the following essay, Foster discusses how and why Kavanagh played the “literary fool.”]

It is little more than ten years since the death of Patrick Kavanagh. That his stature is uncertain is not surprising since, as we know, a poet's reputation frequently dips soon after his death. But in Kavanagh's case, circumstantial evidence for a judgement is more than usually inconclusive. A handful of memorable poems are regularly conscripted into English school and college anthologies, but non was drafted for The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse (1950),...

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Weldon Thornton (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Virgin Queen or Hungry Fiend? The Failure of Imagination in Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger,” in Mosaic, Vol.12, No. 3, 1979, pp. 153–62.

[In the following essay, Thornton delves into Kavanagh's attitude toward “peasants” and their work, religion in the lives of Irish farmers, and the feminine imagery evident in the work.]

For the most important poem by the poet long described as the best in Ireland since Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger has received surprisingly little critical attention, and much of that mere encomium rather than analysis.1 While I have a more modest view of the poem than the critic who...

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Robert F. Garratt (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Patrick Kavanagh and the Killing of the Irish Revival,” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1981, pp. 170–83.

[In the essay below, Garratt examines how Kavanagh's poems represent a departure from the ideals and techniques of the Irish Revival in poetry, whose chief exemplar was W. B. Yeats.]

When W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, George Russell (A E) and George Moore shaped the literary movement now known as the Irish Renaissance or the Irish Revival, they were responding both to a cultural and artistic void in Irish literature and to their own needs as aspiring writers. Much of the early momentum of the Revival was generated by the rediscovery of...

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Eamon Grennan (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Pastoral Design in the Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh,” in Renascence, Vol. 34, No. 1, Autumn, 1981, pp. 3–16.

[In the following essay, Grennan demonstrates that many of Kavanagh's poems can be understood as lying within the poet's idiosyncratic version of the Christian pastoral and points out many associations.]

Only they who fly home to God have flown at all

Patrick Kavanagh often described his work and his life in the image of a journey: “All we learn from experience is the way from simplicity back to simplicity.”1 It is a traditional image, at root that of an Eden lost and a journey through the infernal places of the world...

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Theo Veldhuis (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Bound to the Soil: Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger,” in Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo American Letters, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1982, pp. 279–89.

[In the following essay, Veldhuis analyzes the themes and techniques Kavanagh employed in The Great Hunger.]

Fled are those times when, in harmonious strains,
The rustic poet praised his native plains.

In 1939 Patrick Kavanagh, aged 35, gave up farming in his native village Inniskeen, County Monaghan, to start a literary career in Dublin. He made his move from the country to the capital at a turning-point in Irish literature. In the early decades of the century the Literary...

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Lene Klejs (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Seed like Stars: Kavanagh's Nature,” in Eire-Ireland, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 98–108.

[In the extract below, Klejs considers Kavanagh's opposing views of nature—both external and human—as seen in The Great Hunger and shorter poems.]

In Patrick Kavanagh's poetry two opposing views of nature—both external nature and human nature—are discernible. On one hand, Kavanagh introduces a view of nature where matter is fundamentally dissociated from the divine. As Kavanagh often depicts this in its final stage, nature appears as a dead and oppressive force which represents only hard labor. Those who work intimately with dead nature tend to...

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Daniel J. Murphy (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Apocalypse of Clay: Religion in Patrick Kavanagh's Poetry,” in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 74, No. 293, Spring, 1985, pp. 47–65.

[In the following essay, Murphy explores the role of the poet as mystic in Kavanagh's verse, examining and comparing four main religious themes.]

In every poet there is something of Christ writing
                                                            the sins of the people in the dust.’

Patrick Kavanagh: ‘The Irish Tradition’

The importance of religion in Kavanagh's poetry has to be explained initially in terms of his conception of the poet as mystic. In his Introduction...

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Patrick J. Duffy (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Appréciation: Patrick Kavanagh's Landscape,” in Eire-Ireland, Vol. 21, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 105–18.

[In the esay below, Duffy describes the Monaghan County countryside and its inhabitants and examines how Kavanagh communicated his perceptions of them in his art.]

As a geographer, I'm interested in place and places—not always exotic places like southeast Asia or Latin America, but often ordinary little places that are important to the ordinary people who live in them. Such places are important because of the experiences of the people living in them—the communal experience of living and loving and being born and fighting with each other and working...

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Seamus Heaney (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh,” in Massachusetts Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 371–80.

[In the essay below, poet Heaney relates his personal experience with Kavanagh's poetry and its importance to his life through several decades.]

In 1939, the year that Patrick Kavanagh arrived in Dublin, an aunt of mine planted a chestnut in a jamjar. When it began to sprout she broke the jar and made a hole and transplanted the thing under a hedge in front of the house. Over the years, the seedling shot up into a young tree that rose taller and taller above the boxwood hedge. And over the years I came to identify my own life with the life...

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Antoinette Quinn (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Return in Departure: Towards The Great Hunger, in Patrick Kavanagh: A Critical Study, Syracuse University Press, 1991, pp. 87–122.

[In the following excerpt, Quinn considers the effects of Kavanagh's voluntary exile from his hometown of Inniskeen on his early poetry and prose.]


Inniskeen is a mere sixty miles or so from Dublin; for the twenty-seven-year-old poet [Kavanagh] it was even within walking distance. However, the literary importance of Kavanagh's exile, the imaginative mileage he got out of it, is utterly disproportionate to the facts of geographical distance. His migration from...

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Una Agnew (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Religious Themes in the Work of Patrick Kavanagh: Hints of a Celtic Tradition,” in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 82, No. 327, Autumn, 1993, pp. 257–64.

[In the extract below, Agnew highlights the Christian and non-Christian religious content evident in some of Kavanagh's poems.]


Patrick Kavanagh was aware that the remnants of an ancient culture lurked in the landscape of south-east Ulster. ‘The ghost of a culture’ he says wistfully, ‘haunted the snub-nosed hills’. The drumlins of south Monaghan were his Alps; they provided him with prehistoric vision. From their summits...

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Shawn Holliday (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sex and Comedy in Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger,” in Notes on Modern Irish Literature, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 34–40.

[In the following excerpt, Holliday discusses the comic elements in The Great Hungerand the main character's symbolic castration.]

In his short autobiographical book Self Portrait, Patrick Kavanagh claims that the “main feature” of a poet is his “humourosity” (27). Critics acknowledge that his long poem “The Great Hunger” is the great pastoral poem of the twentieth century for its harsh, realistic portrayal of an Irish rural life that has already largely vanished. Also, this poem is...

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Eamonn Wall (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘It is midnight in Dublin and Europe is at war’: Patrick Kavanagh's Poems of ‘The Emergency,’” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 4, 1995, pp. 233–41.

[In the following essay, Wall examines the effects of Kavanagh's tenure in Dublin during World War I on his verse, particularly The Great Hunger and Lough Derg.]

In 1939, as war was breaking out in Europe and as De Valera was instituting Southern Ireland's policy of neutrality, the poet Patrick Kavanagh left rural Monaghan to settle in Dublin: he hoped to earn a living for himself from his writings and literary journalism and, by his presence in the capital, become a central...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Holliday, Shawn. “Patrick Kavanagh.” In Modern Irish Writers: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook, edited by Alexander G. Gonzalez, pp. 138–43. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

A brief bio-critical entry concludes with a bibliography of works by and about Kavanagh.


Freyer, Grattan. “Patrick Kavanagh.” Eire-Ireland 3, No. 4 (Winter 1968): 17–23.

Surveys Kavanagh's career.

Kavanagh, Peter. Sacred Keeper: A Biography of Patrick Kavanagh. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1984, 403 pp.

Kavanagh’s younger...

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