The Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967) was an Irish poet who rejected with contumely Eamon de Valera’s vision of a perpetually rural Ireland inhabited by a simple, religious, wise, self-sufficient and contented peasantry. Kavanagh had the inestimable advantage of knowing what he was talking about, having been brought up and worked in the countryside of County Monaghan. This was more than enough to destroy any inclination to the utopian rural longings that come so easily to the minds of urban intellectuals, and in his longest poem, said to be his masterpiece, The Great Hunger, Kavanagh describes compassionately but without sentimentality the life of Paddy Maguire, an unmarried peasant who toils all his life on a few stony acres. It is an emotionally stunted, permanently frustrated, aesthetically ugly, life that he leads, with no compensations whatever. The poem, published in 1942, made Kavanagh briefly the object of police attention.

Maguire’s mother is the main figure in his life. She survives until the age of ninety-one, by which time Maguire is well past the marrying age. Kavanagh describes her death:

The mother sickened and stayed in bed all day,
Her head hardly dented the pillow, so light and thin it had worn,
But still she enquired after the household affairs…

She dies with thoughts of calves and chickens on her mind, and when Maguire himself dies, Kavanagh speaks of:

…the apocalypse of clay
In every corner of this land.

A few years later, across the water in Wales, the poet and clergyman, R S Thomas, wrote of the death of a hill farmer:

You remember Davies? He died, you know,
With his face to the wall, as the manner is
Of the poor peasant in his stone croft
On the Welsh hills.

Davies dies…

Lonely as an ewe that is sick to lamb
In the hard weather of mid-March

In 1955, Kavanagh underwent an operation for lung cancer, surviving it by 12 years. His close brush with death gave him an appreciation of the joys of the quotidian, even the ugly quotidian, as being the meaning of life. In The Hospital (1956) he writes:

A year ago I fell in love with a functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, was basins – an art lover’s woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing is by love debarred,
The common and the banal her heat can know.

Thenceforth Kavanagh has what might be called a mystical immersion in the everyday. After his operation, convalescing, he sat by the Grand Canal in Dublin, between the Baggot and Leeson Street Bridges (an area I know well):

And everything seemed over bar the shouting
When out of the holy mouth came angelic grace
And the will that had fought had found new merit
And all sorts of beautiful things appeared in that place.

I suppose the wise man lives as if he is on day-release from death, seeing ‘all sorts of beautiful things’ wherever he might be. But man is made for wisdom as dormice are for coal-mining. Kavanagh was an alcoholic who quarrelled with almost everyone, and my best resolutions are those that are soonest broken.

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