Authors: Patrick Kavanagh

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Irish poet


Patrick Kavanagh (KAV-uh-nuh) is recognized as an important post-Yeatsian poet, one who is credited by both critics and fellow poets with having freed Anglo-Irish poetry from the inhibiting shadow of William Butler Yeats. Kavanagh chose to reject the tradition generated by the Irish Literary Revival and sought his own poetic identity with its simple, courageous faith in a personal comic vision. As an autodidact with an Irish rural background oriented more toward the nineteenth than the twentieth century, Kavanagh is to a considerable extent unique among modern poets, and his poetic voice is an unusual and original one.{$I[AN]9810001062}{$I[A]Kavanagh, Patrick}{$I[geo]IRELAND;Kavanagh, Patrick}{$I[tim]1904;Kavanagh, Patrick}

Patrick Kavanagh

Kavanagh was born in Inniskeen Parish, County Monaghan, Ireland, on October 21, 1904, the fourth child and first son of James Kavanagh, a shoemaker and farmer, and his wife, Bridget Quinn. He attended the nearby Kednaminsha National School, where he was a disinterested student; he ended his formal schooling at age thirteen but not before schoolbooks had introduced him to poetry. His father apprenticed him into the shoemaking trade, and in 1926 Kavanagh’s parents bought for him a small farm in nearby Shancoduff. His interests in reading and writing continued to grow, however, and they drew him away from cobbling and farming.

Kavanagh began writing verse when he was twelve, recording in rhyme interesting local events. In 1927 Kavanagh bought a copy of The Irish Statesman in which he read a poem by Æ (George William Russell). Æ’s mysticism stirred Kavanagh’s poetic imagination. He sent some poems to Russell, who rejected the initial group but encouraged him to write more. When Kavanagh visited Dublin in 1930, Russell gave him works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and the Irish writers James Stephens and George Moore, as well as copies of Poetry. From the reviews in Poetry Kavanagh learned of the various poetic movements, including Imagism and modernism. He had also read extensively from a neighbor’s library.

His literary activities rapidly accelerated. In 1936 Macmillan published Kavanagh’s Ploughman, and Other Poems as part of its new poetry series. The collection of thirty-one lyrics, principally rural meditations in conventional form, shows traces of the Georgian tradition, mysticism, and Imagism. Two years later he completed The Green Fool, a semiautobiographical novel recounting the highlights of his first thirty years. In 1939 Kavanagh left Inniskeen for Dublin and began his nearly thirty-year battle with the literary establishment. To sustain himself while he continued writing poetry from 1940 to 1955, he undertook a variety of journalistic efforts.

In 1941 he completed his rural epic The Great Hunger. Kavanagh’s single most important work, the poem, arising from his firsthand knowledge of daily existence on Monaghan’s clayey hills, is a counterbalance to the sentimental, romantic exaltation of the Irish peasant. A blend of narration, idea, and image, the poem, in fourteen sections, depicts the “twisted, blind, awful” life of bachelor farmer Patrick Maguire–a terrible and moving image of human frustration.

His second collection, A Soul for Sale, appeared in 1947. A slim volume of eighteen lyrics and an abridged reprinting of The Great Hunger, this collection is broader in its range of themes and forms than Ploughman, and Other Poems. The next year his second novel, Tarry Flynn, a portrait of Irish rural life, was published. Early in 1955, Kavanagh underwent successful surgery for lung cancer. During the remainder of the 1950’s he engaged in a variety of journalistic endeavors and a yearly series of poetry lectures at University College, Dublin.

In May of 1960, he published his fourth volume of poetry, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling, and Other Poems. It was the May choice of the Poetry Book Society. Kavanagh spent the last seven years of his life primarily in Inniskeen but made frequent trips to Dublin and London. He also wrote the preface for his Collected Poems and collected and edited his prose pieces, published in 1967 under the title Collected Prose. Kavanagh was married to Katherine Moloney seven months before he died on November 30, 1967.

Thematically, much of Kavanagh’s writing is of the land, the city, and the poet. From the “hills of Monaghan” Kavanagh made his way to the “bohemian jungle” that was Dublin. As a poet, he tried to bridge the expanse between past and present, country and city. His poetry is, in one sense, an attempt to comprehend his own experiences as he tried to make that transition. As Kavanagh became enmeshed in the literary life of the city, he initially looked back with nostalgia at a lost Eden, the land, and at the same time felt the tension of opposites, as the city beckoned. Kavanagh tried to resolve this tension in his later poems of acceptance, especially in the cluster of poems he produced shortly after his 1955 illness.

He found value in the particular, the unimportant, the ordinary. The plain cross that marks Kavanagh’s grave in Inniskeen bears, in addition to the poet’s name and the dates of his birth and death, these simple lines: “And pray for/ Him/ Who walked/ On the hills/ Loving Life’s/ Miracles.”

BibliographyAgnew, Una. The Mystical Imagination of Patrick Kavanagh. Blackrock, County Dublin, Ireland: Columba Press, 1998. A critical study of selected works by Kavanagh. Includes bibliographical references and indexes.Garratt, Robert F. Modern Irish Poetry: Tradition and Continuity from Yeats to Heaney. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. The chapter devoted to Kavanagh is divided into four parts: his criticism of the Irish Literary Revival and revisionist reading of William Butler Yeats, his early poetic realism, his poetic rebirth in the “Canal Bank” poems, and the development of his influential poetics of the local and familiar, which influenced the next generation.Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988. This collection of prose by Kavanagh’s most famous successor contains a lecture in which Kavanagh’s poetry is seen in two stages: the “real topographical presence” of the early poems, followed by the “luminous spaces” of the late poems. The essay shows the importance of Kavanagh for younger Irish poets in the words of one of the best.Kavanagh, Peter. Sacred Keeper: A Biography of Patrick Kavanagh. The Curragh, Ireland: Goldsmith Press, 1980. This partisan biography by the poet’s devoted brother claims to avoid the lies and legends of “the eccentric, the drunkard, the enfant terrible of Dublin” in favor of the facts, lovingly recorded in a pastiche of letters, poems, photographs, articles, and reminiscences.Nemo, John. Patrick Kavanagh. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Provides a useful overview of Kavanagh’s life and work, along with a chronology and a bibliography. The examination of the poetry is thorough and authoritative.Quinn, Antoinette. Patrick Kavanagh. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991. A critical assessment of Kavanagh’s oeuvre. Includes bibliographical references and indexes.Ryan, John. Remembering How We Stood: Bohemian Dublin at Mid-Century. New York: Taplinger, 1975. A chapter of this colorful, if respectful, memoir captures “Paddy Kavanagh,” the picturesque eccentric and pub crawler, in the local atmosphere of literary Dublin from 1945 to 1955. Entertaining and anecdotal but not thoroughly reliable.Warner, Alan. Clay Is the Word: Patrick Kavanagh, 1904-1967. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1973. The first full-length study and the best introduction to Kavanagh, Warner’s book is engaging in tone, discursive in method, and speculative in its conclusions. Makes use of reminiscences of those who knew the poet as well as literary analyses of the poems. Includes bibliography.
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