A Wreath for Tom Moore's Statue

by Patrick Kavanagh

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

Patrick Kavanagh’s “A Wreath for Tom Moore’s Statue” is a four-verse satire in which the poet voices his anger and disillusionment with the cultural hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, and materialism of post-revolutionary Ireland. Identified with the urban middle classes, Dublin corrupts and stifles the creative originality of its contemporary poets while raising upon a pedestal a false image of the heroic past. This means that Irish society has lost its ideals, joyful vitality, and vision and has reverted its gaze toward idolizing a reusable past, molding and manipulating it so that it fits perfectly the rather insular and practical interests of the rising Catholic bourgeoisie.

The title and the first verse of the poem introduce Thomas Moore, a prominent figure of the Irish cultural and national revival, and use his monument as a tool to satirize the current state of affairs in Ireland. To a certain extent, Moore’s monument comes to represent a horde of national poets and heroes whose achievements are gradually narrowed down to and categorized in one single expression and image. Having petrified and, thus, appropriated them for a cause different from, and even opposite to, their original ones, the Catholic middle class has dishonored these public figures of the past, Kavanagh’s lyric persona claims: “The cowardice of Ireland is in his statue,/ No poet’s honoured when they wreathe this stone.”

Moreover, in doing so, the bourgeoisie brings equal dishonor upon itself and its country. Having identified the driving force behind such a desecrating act, “An old shopkeeper,” a “bank-manager,” the first verse specifies their motivation: mediocre “passion” and “shallow, safe sins.” The result is revealed through the middle-class attitude toward Moore’s statue: The heroic ideals of the past find their present-day monetary or material equivalence and substitute, corruption and lack of clear vision of morality are veiled by veneration of a stone idol, and financial security takes over spiritual matters. Eventually, this stifles human vitality; confuses one’s notions of high and low; and, like a “vermin,” reduces the human spirit to a low state of existence, similar to that of “lice.”

The second verse elaborates on this idea by revealing the utilitarian rationale of deception: Dead heroes are very useful because they are helpless; they cannot defend their ideals and their image. Therefore, they are easy to manipulate. Like puppets, they are forced to participate in masquerades of dishonesty: “The corpse can be fitted out to deceive—/ Fake thoughts, fake love, fake ideal.” At this point the poem introduces the persona of the contemporary poet, who, alive and aware of his own worth and honor, refuses to be molded in the shape of the appropriated image of his dead counterpart. Yet it is his vitality of creative originality, and the resultant unpredictability, that sentence the poet to neglect and poverty, social isolation, and “death.” The “rogues” and “lice,” who dominate contemporary society, simply cannot tolerate the danger of poetic irrationality.

In the second part of the third verse and especially in the fourth, the satiric voice in the poem drops its indignation with Ireland’s cultural and spiritual backwardness and introduces, instead, the idea that improvement is possible. It is poetic creativity that is to revitalize the spirit of Ireland by raising it above bourgeois utilitarianism, by constructing a “new city high above lust and logic.” It is poetic imagination alone, the poet claims, that can reverse the process of “annihilation of the flesh-rotted word,” revive the “magic” and laughter of language, and restore Ireland to a former state of heavenly purity and innocence.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633

“A Wreath for Tom Moore’s Statue” is built upon a series of oppressive contrasts, which demonstrate a tendency to develop from immediate and specific to more general images. Thus, it is significant that when the poem was first published in 1944 in The Irish Times, below the original title, “Statue, Symbol, and Poet,” there stood a note saying: “Not concerning Thomas Moore.” To many critics this is an indication that the erection of Thomas Moore’s statue and the subsequent attitudes of the middle class are concrete indications of a more general, ongoing process of cultural backwardness as a result of which the heroic ideals of the past, twisted and corrupted, become subject to public exploitation targeting material gains.

The initial contrast between the dead poet and urban Dublin, represented respectively by the statue and its worshippers, leads through scathing irony to a similarly constructed opposition: the contemporary poet and the Catholic bourgeoisie. In both cases poetic individuality faces “death”: The dead poet’s honor is desecrated through a huckster’s type of worship, while the living poet is physically neglected and forced to become a social outcast. In either case, individuality and human nobility, and especially originality and creative irrationality of thought, are suppressed by utilitarian values and symbols of the modern bourgeois class. It is the wreath that turns Thomas Moore’s statue into one such symbol.

The reader also can feel the undercutting effects of irony in the characterization of contemporary society. Religious imagery associated with the Catholic Church—“god,” “confession,” “passion,” “sin,” “flood”—is employed in ways that undermine its original purity and demonstrate a decline in religious morality among the bourgeoisie. Thus, in the context of the first verse, “god” finds its negation in the statue—a stone idol—via extreme worship; “confession,” bought in a literal sense, is debased to monthly monetary transactions; “passion” loses its purifying effects and turns into “mediocrity”; “sins” enter an oxymoronic relationship with the adjective “safe.”

Continuing this train of thought brings the reader to a more subtle allusion: the “wreath” on Thomas Moore’s statue, contrasted with Christ’s wreath of thorns, brings up the horrifying idea of useless sacrifice. As a result of the total reversal of religious and humanistic values, the low is worshiped while the high is trampled upon and made to crawl; the soil loses its vitality to become “seven-deadened clay.” Similarly, the idea of religious desecration introduced in the first verse finds its continuation in the second in the total desecration of the human body, in the utter objectification and dehumanization of heroism. Thus, the image of the “statue” is replaced by that of a “corpse.” The latter is denied any agency whatsoever as death does not allow it to “contradict the words some liar has said.”

The rhythmic pace of “A Wreath for Tom Moore’s Statue” is regular in the first eight lines of stanzas 1 and 2, with a rhyme scheme of abba cddc. However, it shifts to a series of interlocking rhymes or near rhymes, whose effect is to slow down the pace of reading as they imitate the speaker’s escalating anger, disillusionment, and confusion of emotions. For example, the last six lines of the first stanza’s end rhyme (or nearly rhyme), following the scheme efgefg, while the last six lines of the next stanza produce the rather confusing efegfg. The third stanza returns to the regularity of abba cddc, while the last one follows the interlocking scheme of the first verse: efgefg. A closer look at the specific text of the poem reveals that the rhythmically tense and confusing six lines in stanza 2 correspond exactly to the first mention in the poem of the contemporary “poet,” who refuses to be pliable and insists on preserving his individual, poetic creativity and unpredictability.

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