Essays

Patrick Kavanagh – Mystic or Realist?

New-ageism in all its forms continues to fog life and literature in the new millennium. The current fashion is to burn incense before the shrine of Celtic mysticism and the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh is currently being pressed into service to give credibility to these ideas. Arguments to prove that Kavanagh was a mystical poet are exemplified in a recent book by Una Agnew entitled `The Mystical Imagination of Patrick Kavanagh’.

In it she argues that poetically transposed, Kavanagh accepted poverty as a key to exploring other kingdoms. His possessions might be simple and his companions few, she says, but he was `king of banks and stones and every blooming thing’. Again and again, `he squirms within the “agonising pincer-jaws of Heaven”, yet wallows in this sanctifying dilemma’. The truth is that Kavanagh tiraded all his life against the `rags of hunger’. When reviewing his life in a TV broadcast in 1962, he stated that he saw little virtue in poverty. On the contrary, he strongly subscribed to a life of sufficient comfort and freedom from anxiety. Poverty, he believed, caused obsession with material things and not freedom from their grasp. The poor thatched cabin romanticised in the Irish Literary movement was to Kavanagh’s mind `a lie’. He decried the effects of poverty, rightly concluding that `the real poverty was the lack of enlightenment to get out and get under the moon.’ He blamed poverty for depriving him of marriage. When he made an audit of his life in the 50’s, his one regret was that he had not `reproduced himself’:

a lonely lecher whom the fates
By a financial trick castrates. (Auditors In)

In her effort to fit him into the straightjacket of mysticism, Agnew downplays Kavanagh’s satiric verse. In The Great Hunger, she says, Kavanagh`expresses his despair, disillusionment and felt absence of God through theless worthy medium of angry, satirical verse’. This is stated as though satire wasn’t verse, as though some of the most powerful poetry ever written wasn’t satire. Bitterness crept in only when poetry and prayer deserted him, she says….. in its throes he resorted to writing satire and doggerel, she says.
But Kavanagh wrote satire all his life, and not only as a result of crises. For example, he satirises the self-congratulatory provincial Dublin mentality in The Defeated:

Outside this pig-sty life deteriorates,
civilisation dwindles. We are the last preserve
Of Eden in a world of savage states.

He is equally scathing of `Dublin’s pretentious poet-tasters’ and `bumptious intellectuals’ denigrating them together in `The Paddiad’ as an undifferentiated mob:

All the Paddies having fun
Since Yeats handed in his gun.
Every man completely blind
To the truth about his mind.

Likewise in Adventures In The Bohemian Jungle he parodies the fakery establishment Art:

Countryman
You know them all.
Have I to go through all this to find
The world of Art?
Guide:
For success, yes.
They will not accept
The man not broken and remade
To the formula.
The real is too unpredictable.
Have another drink…

Another method Agnew employs to shape Kavanagh in the mystical mould is to transpose his intense sexual longing into transcendental longing. For her `holy love’ is what he expresses in Miss Universe:

God-Woman than of earthly origin.
O the sensual throb
Of the explosive body, the tumultuous thighs!
Adown a summer lane comes Miss Universe
She whom no lecher’s art can rob
Though she is not virgin who is wise.

To see this poem as a sexual metaphor, she claims, is `to miss the mystical propensities of the poet….to fail to see the entranced visionary beneath the raucous rantings of a frustrated bachelor’. The idea that Kavanagh somehow preferred the life of the ascetic to flash and blood sensuality or material comforts is nonsense. All through his writing are evidence of his desire for the better things in life:

…but I am tired
Of loving through the medium of a sonnet
I want by Man, not God to be inspired
This year O maiden of the dream-vague face
You’ll come to me, a thing of Time and Space.
(In the Same Mood)

Kavanagh was savagely critical of the Church’s repression of sexuality. In a scathing article entitled `Sex and Christianity’ Kavanagh recalls an occasion in the early 1930’s when a young priest `fresh from Maynooth’ descended on the deck-dancing scene with orders to disperse:`…In this exciting country, the melodeons were playing and life itself was dancing, when up the road on his bicycle came a little black priest who could not have been long out of college. This little man got up on the fence and ordered us to disperse, which we did. I was ashamed of these young boys and girls, who knew so little about their own religion not to realise that this little man was acting from impulses that were pernicious’. The removal of the decks set the scene for the clergy to become strict supervisors of the dance hall area. Originally convinced that dancing was a `dangerous occasion of sin’, they were now ready to control it, along with its revenue for parish funds, so that, as Kavanagh acerbically observes:

In the gap there’s a bush weighted with boulders like morality,
The fools of life bleed if they climb over.’ (The Great Hunger)

Agnew’s main thesis that Patrick Kavanagh is a mystic is ludicrous. She tells us that Kavanagh had experiences similar to that of St John of the Cross whose vision of God is glimpsed as through a tiny slit: `You have revealed Yourself to me as through the fissures in a rock’. Or like Catherine of Sienna who images God as `light filtering through a narrow street’.
She informs us that as a way of life, he practised what spiritual writers call `the sacrament of the present moment’, finding God everywhere but especially `in the bits and pieces of everyday’, adopting a Celtic spirituality while rejecting the institutionalised church.
Loving `even unto folly’, was a motto Kavanagh shared with no less a mystic than St Therese of Liseaux, she says, and it is quite possible, she further maintains, that Kavanagh identified with this saint, since during his stay in hospital he spent much of his time with lung patients, where St Therese, Patroness of lung disease, was frequently invoked!

Finally she says that Kavanagh’s visionary sense is the mystical experience and it is this that best explains the poetic process. Poet and mystic alike come under the transforming power of inspiration or `holy intoxication’; both are smitten by a flash or of invisible power touching the spiritual substance of the self.
What Agnew does is, she starts off with a schema based on the definition of a mystic and then bends over backwards to fit Kavanagh into it. To force Kavanagh into the same mould as St John of the Cross or St Therese of Liseaux is to ignore the savage material longing of escape from poverty that
runs as a seam through The Great Hunger, the opposite of mystical longing. To ignore the fact that The Great Hunger is in fact a reference to sexual hunger – throughout there are references to lonely masturbation into dead ashes – is to compound the blindness. Furthermore, again and again, she equates imagination and aesthetic elation with mysticism.

It was inevitable that some of Kavanagh’s poetry and especially his early poetry would have strong elements of reverence before the wonders of design in nature, i.e. natural mysticism. This was only to be expected from someone who didn’t even finish his primary education and for whom Darwin’s Origin of Species was beyond his horizons. But this natural mysticism was only a strand: he had no mystical attitude towards society. The satires that were an integral part of his work throughout his writing life point to a poet that was a realist not a mystic.
As Kavanagh got older he was an atheist and realist for ninety per cent of the time and capable of the most virulent attacks on the Catholic Church as for example when he writes in One Wet Summer:

`As it is I praise the rain
for washing out the bank holiday with its moral risks
It is not a nice attitude but it is conditioned by circumstances
And by a childhood perverted by Christians moralists.’

The volume of output of satiric verse throughout his career from The Great Hunger to The Paddiad, from Adventures In A Bohemian Jungle to Bardic Dust, to Christmas Mummers and countless others, testifies to his savage realism and mocks claims by Una Agnew and others to represent Patrick Kavanagh as a mystic.

Prizewinner in the New Writer 2000 competition.