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The mystical imagination of Patrick Kavanagh

30 July, 2010

Una Agnew SSL writes an intellectual and spiritual biography of Patrick Kavanagh, a man who, in spite of his general appearance, was a profoundly mystical poet.

Columba Press, 285 pp, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie.

Patrick Kavanagh: A Brief Chronology
Chapter One: Patrick Kavanagh: A Mystical Writer?
Chapter Two: A wakening I
Chapter Three: A wakening II
Chapter Four: Purification I
Chapter Five: Purification II
Chapter Six: Illumination I
Chapter Seven: Illumination II
Conclusion: The Word Becomes Flesh
Selected Bibliography


Few who knew Patrick Kavanagh by sight would be likely to regard him as a mystic or a prophet. People moved away from him in pubs, buses and trains. He frightened young girls with his loud language when they passed him in the street or on country roads. Yet Kavanagh’s work stands as a monument to a nobility and gentleness of soul that surprises even as it inspires. Above all, it challenges us not to be deceived by appearance – that beneath the coat of a beggar there may lurk a hidden mystic.


There is, of course, a poetic movement which sees poetry materialistically. The writers of this school see no transcendent nature in the poet; they are practical chaps, excellent technicians. But somehow or other I have a belief in poetry as a mystical thing, and a dangerous thing.
(Collected Poems, Martin, Brian and O’Keeffe, 1964, p.xiii.)

When Patrick Kavanagh announced his belief in poetry as ‘a mystical thing and a dangerous thing’, no one seemed to pay attention. This unusual declaration, which appeared in the introduction to his first major poetry collection (1964), went largely unnoticed by scholars and critics alike. Indeed, Kavanagh’s strong roots in the Catholic religion and his life-long pre-occupation with eternal questionings, give credence to his claim. But how serious is his assertion that poetry, of its essence, is mystical? And does his work demonstrate this? To test the validity of his statement, it is necessary to bear with me while I examine with some care what mysticism is, and if it can fittingly describe Kavanagh’s work.

What is mysticism?
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) outlines the principal characteristics of the mystic in her classic work, Mysticism. (l) She is helpful in that she is herself a poet as well as a spiritual writer. The mystic, she holds, is firstly a seeker who passionately follows the pursuit of beauty, goodness or truth. The lifelong quest for the Holy Grail is the object of mystical love. St John of the Cross’s quest for his ‘Beloved’ is immortalised in his famous ‘Spiritual Canticle’, a poem of delectable but painful longing:

Where have you hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
You fled like the stag
After wounding me. (2)

Mystical knowledge belongs in a category of its own. The mystic stands in sharp contrast to the empirical scientist who generally regards mystical knowledge as unreliable and unworthy of consideration. The mystic, on the other hand, holds to have seen, or at least glimpsed, a vision of beauty beyond the veil of custom or calculation. This revelation is authentic knowledge, but can be grasped only in images and symbols.

Once the vision of beauty, truth, or goodness has been glimpsed, the mystic is smitten with desire for this cherished goal. In St John’s case, he has been ‘wounded’ at the deepest centre of his soul. He relentlessly seeks a ‘way out’ or a ‘way back’, restlessly yearning to be at home in the heart of Essential Being. (3)

Restless and uneasy with platitudes, the mystic seeks to know things in their essence. This desire for knowledge is part of the quest for perfection. And, for the mystic, knowing goes beyond mere rational knowledge. It is coupled with a desire for union with reality, and often consists in a direct intuition of truth. The mystic frequently knows, without being able to explain why.

The mystic above all seeks to love. The lover, the poet and the mystic experience the joy of ‘seeing into the heart of things’. With the writer St Exupery they affirm that it is with the heart that one sees. To love with one’s whole being, intellect, emotions and volition, is intrinsically mystical. Through love, doors fly open which logic has battered on in vain. (4) Reason can speak, but it is only love that sings.(5) The mystic is well aware that there exists a life beyond reach of the senses.

More and more, the mystic experiences a level of consciousness beyond the ordinary. The awakening of the hidden faculty of the soul opens up a level of awareness which produces exper iences of great joy, alternating with profound desolation. The mystic encounters life with greater intensity and sensitivity than most. As is the case with poet and mystic William Blake (1757-1827), one becomes periodically ‘drunk with… vision’ or, as in the Christian tradition, ‘inebriated’ with Christ. (6)

Single-mindedly the mystic follows the hidden Paradise of Love. Once the glory of transcendent beauty has been glimpsed, he remains dissatisfied with anything less. Those who become ‘drunk with God’ through visions or ecstasy, find it more difficult to return to mundane realities. The mystic gone astray is in danger of seeking compensatory substances such as drugs or alcohol as substitutes for the exquisite ‘Bread of Angels’. At best, the mystical life is one lived in a kind of limbo, always seeking paradise yet attaining little but its merest glimpse.

At certain points along the way, there occur periods of darkness and disillusionment. This experience may seem to overwhelm the subject with deprivation of light and solace. Darkness, however, can be interpreted as a time of gestation or purgation, during which the soul is drawn even closer to its beloved object:

Oh night that was my guide!
Oh darkness dearer than the morning’s pride,
Oh night that joined the lover
To the beloved bride
Transfiguring them each into the other? (7)

This purgation is aptly described by T. S. Eliot, who resonates deeply with the mystical darkness of St John of the Cross. Darkness, for Eliot, is a time of waiting:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God… (8)

Emerging from a period of purification, the mystic is prepared for further awakenings of spirit.

The mystic’s secret knowledge (9) cuts him or her adrift from ordinary people, and imposes a kind of involuntary exile. The pursuit of vision requires complete dedication. One becomes impatient with all that is false in oneself and in one’s world. The mystic is not simply a dreamer, but one who is engaged energetically with life, tirelessly discerning what is true from what is false. Periodically the mystic skirts a mental state akin to madness, a state of psychic openness which brings blessing and torture in its wake. Thus, the mystical state can be dangerous in that it can unhinge the mind, drive it to the edge of sanity or carry it to unbidden heights only to sink it once more into troughs of darkness.

The poet’s claim to be a mystic lies in the fact that he or she ‘has achieved a passionate communion with deeper levels of life than those with which we usually deal’. (10) Such a poet is Walt Whitman, admired greatly by Patrick Kavanagh. Above all, the poet-mystic is a visionary. The mystical soul sees beyond the surface of the ordinary and penetrates the mystery at the heart of all things. This was particularly obvious in the Celtic mystical tradition, where the veil between earth and heaven is thin. Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887-1916) was possessed of a mystical awareness of God’s presence in the created world around him. He saw Christ traced on elements of the natural world:

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies. (11)

In summary, Underhill states that the emergence of the mystic in society is a recurring phenomenon. Life for the mystic becomes a mysterious search, guided and inspired by an innate ‘spiritual spark’ or transcendent faculty. Such powers remain dormant in many, and yet are available to all. Speaking of this’ divine spark’ she sees it emerge from ‘the still point’ or ‘apex of the soul’ and gradually become dominant in the mystic’s life. Possessed of a secret knowledge, the mystic wends a solitary path through life, sometimes elated by vision, oftentimes living in a dark, abandoned contemplation. The ‘inner eye of love’ is a Zen Buddhist expression for this mystical faculty, which gradually leads to enlightenment.(12) Mystical vision is little understood in our modem world. It can evoke admiration, but also irritation and ridicule, when others fail to understand it. (13) In this the poet and mystic have much in common.

The poet and the mystic
Henri Bremond points out that the poet and mystic share a common ground. (14) Both have an instinct for the transcendent and enjoy fleeting glimpses of the mystery that surrounds everyday life. This is made clear in the poetry of Francis Thompson:

O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Experiences of poetry and mysticism belong to the same order of knowledge, a knowledge of the heart. (15) The mystic, Bremond says, is ‘graced with an immediate intuition of God’. Poet and mystic alike rely on intuition, that immediate grasp of the truth, beyond reason or analysis. The essential difference between them is principally one of communication. The poet trades in the magic of words as a vehicle for expression, while the mystic takes refuge in contemplative silence. While both may have a profound experience, one is greater in communication, the other in interior communion. In terms of communication, the mystic is ‘less’ than the poet. One is greater by experience, the other by expression. Though they share the same terrain, their goals differ. The ‘mystical state’ of the poet cannot be said to be identical with the’ state of grace’ experienced by the mystic. Yet they are not mutually exclusive. Both share parallel moments which spill over onto the terrain of the other, making it sometimes impossible to tell them apart.

For the religious mystic, a glimpse of the glory of God demands a rigorous ascesis of bringing one’s life into conformity with the graces gratuitously received. The poet-mystic, on the other hand, assumes the discipline of bringing experience to birth in poetry, and is often consumed with a prophetic mission to restore for mankind the integrity of the universe. A margin of incommunicability, nevertheless, generally lingers in the experience of both.

The mystic who is also an artist will attempt to describe in images and symbols what is seen and heard. ‘Painting, poetry and music,’ argues Blake, are ‘the three powers in man of conversing with Paradise.’ (16) The poet longs to capture the elusive beauty of Eden. Martin Heidegger sees the poet as the one who senses the banishment of ‘the gods’ from the earth. Poets, he believes, detect ‘the trace of the fugitive gods’ and ‘stay on (their) tracks’. Their mission is seen to be that of leading fellow mortals back to the path of ‘the holy’. The artist acts, then, as prophet for the people, seeking to grasp their dreams and echo their aspirations. Yeats, echoing Blake, clearly envisions a spiritual role for the artist when he exhorts his fellow Irish poets to ‘learn their trade’:

Poet and sculptor do the work
Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did,
Bring the soul of man to God …(17)

Poet and mystic together experience intermittent states of light and darkness, sunshine and shadow, agony and ecstasy: all of which, from Blake’s standpoint, are’ eternal’ .(18) The poet and mystic are close to one another in their mutual quest for beauty, which ‘tends of itself to unite us to God’ .(19) Poetry and mysticism, then, have similar sources and can, in certain cases, be synonymous. Although they may express themselves differently, they reflect and illumine one another.

The mystical path
Strangely, it is the mystic who teaches us to better understand the poet. (20) Mystical development can help us comprehend the development of the poet’s mystical imagination. It provides us with a ‘rough sketch’ of the poetic mind. Among all those writing about mysticism, Underhill best outlines the process. (21) Mystical development involves three main stages: Awakening, Purification, and Illumination. This schema originated with the Neo-Platonists and is valid for all metaphysical systems.

Awakening constitutes the first opening of the eyes of the mystical sense. This can occur gradually from childhood, as in the case of the French mystic Madame Guyon, or suddenly on the roadside, as in the case of St Paul. An experience of acute pain or pleasure can be instrumental in the awakening process. Nature mystics are possessed of a high degree of perceptive vision. Like Blake and the Celtic mystics, they can’ see a world in a grain of sand/ And heaven in a wild flower’. The mystic has a sense of awakening from sleep to a world that is new.

Purification can accompany or follow upon awakening. Each new level of insight and self-understanding causes the mystic to shed superficial ways of being. Illness and suffering can be instrumental in the purification process, as was the case with Julian of Norwich and St Ignatius of Loyola. Poverty and destitution, loneliness and rejection can frequently be sources of purification. Inner cleansing takes place through letting go of the ego. This is often called the via negativa or the negative experience of God. These dark passages of the mystic’s formation are ascetical in nature. Self-denial, penance and exile were frequently chosen by Celtic monks of the early Irish church who embraced the search for God. The interior suffering of Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot was the refining fire of their souls. Hurt, ridicule and disparagement were instrumental in the soul-formation of mystical poets and artists, not least among them Patrick Kavanagh, for whom poverty and rejection were part of a life-long purification.

Illumination occurs when mystical consciousness, no longer clouded by custom, becomes lucid and awake. Wordsworth best evokes this stage in his ‘Tintem Abbey’, when he experiences the quieting of bodily sense and awakening of spiritual vision: ‘we are laid asleep in body and become a living soul’. The soul, alive and fully awake at last, is illumined, so that ‘we see into the life of things’. This mystical seeing occurs in a specifically religious context for Hopkins when he becomes dazzled by a transformed vision of the world. ‘God’s Grandeur’, he sees, is an energy that’ charges’ the universe with splendour:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God
It will flame out, like shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. (22)

Here illumination takes on a sacramental character which is of interest when we come to consider the poet Patrick Kavanagh. The radiance of God’s presence is the fruit of an expanded consciousness. This radiance is all-pervasive; it becomes ‘resplendent in the meanest things’. (23)

A similar view of sacramentality is described by Eliade when he speaks about primitive man’s capacity to converse with the sacredness of the cosmos. ‘Tilling … the clay put(s) primitive man into a universe steeped in the sacred’. (24) The mountain or the tree are not simply items on the horizon but sacred places linking earth and heaven. Primitive man was unconsciously a symbolic thinker. He preserved a sense of the sacred amid daily life. Modern technology has, for the most part, robbed humankind of a sense of the sacredness of matter. Thus the cosmos has become de-sanctified. In the words of Heidegger, ‘the gods have fled’ … and ‘the divine radiance has become extinguished in the world’s history’ .(25) The poet and mystic can recover, in moments of illumination, a sense of the cosmos as hierophanic. Poetry can reconstitute the earth as sacred. This radiant vision, or sacramental presence of God, is experienced as illumination in the Christian mystical tradition.

Ecstasy is a degree of illumination where the mystic is seized by an awareness so total, so absorbing that he experiences himself outside time and space. In this state, one remains momentarily freed from the constraints of time and space. Experience of this kind usually leads to further purification. In some cases, there is a total dying to self in what St John calls the ‘Dark Night’ of the soul. Some mystics reach a state of surrender so complete that there ensues’ a mystical marriage’; an intense union with God.

Transformation is the natural outcome of mystical life. A person becomes changed inwardly because of the intensity of this personal inner journey. There is a gradual ‘rebirthing’, some times dramatic, sometimes barely perceptible in the personality. What is most obvious is that the person achieves inner peace; is at one within the self, radiating a deep, imperturbable inner joy. The equanimity that ensues is not the end, but the beginning of new levels of enlightenment.

This brief examination of mysticism, along with the distinctions between the poet and the mystic, help clarify “what is meant by the mystical dimension of poetry. Underhill’s description of mystical states and stages is particularly helpful. She especially, among all those writing on mysticism, presents the clearest pattern of mystical development: A wakening, Purification, Illumination and Transformation. (26) Bremond has drawn useful parallels between mysticism and poetry, showing that sublime mystical states shed light On what happens in the poetic process. (27) Together these experts present us with a useful set of guidelines to apply to Patrick Kavanagh’s work as a poet and writer.

In view of Kavanagh’s claim for poetry as mystical and John Jordan’s assessment of him as ‘an instinctive theologian’, it is necessary to attempt to evaluate these statements and settle the question once for all (28) Is there a mystical dimension to Kavanagh’s work? The mystic regularly undergoes scrutiny from both theology and psychology, to test every ‘spirit’ against self-delusion.(29) Poetic states must likewise surrender to investigation. Mystical science sheds light on the workings of the mystical imagination. It is reasonable to suggest that a poet such as Kavanagh be tested, with advantage to poetry and mysticism alike.


The questions now to be asked are: Does the poet Patrick Kavanagh fulfil any or all of the characteristics typical of the mystic? Was he gifted with a level of consciousness above the ordinary? Was he a seeker of Beauty and of God? Was he gifted with intuitive knowledge and did this knowledge stretch beyond the confines of rational knowledge and common sense? Did he, in the course of his life, achieve illumination or, in Underhill’s words, ‘sacramental expansion’? (30)  Did he succeed in piercing the veil and disclosing the eternal? Did he follow the traditional mystical path of Awakening, Purification, Illumination and Transformation?

Mystical awareness
The Green Fool portrays Kavanagh as a young man, emerging self-consciously as a dreamer and seer. He seems to be possessed of certain visionary tendencies at least. He is often perplexed by what he sees; for example ‘the strange beautiful light’ on ‘the Drumgonnelly Hills’:

‘Do you see anything very beautiful and strange on those hills?’ I asked my brother as we cycled together to a football match in Dundalk. ‘This free-wheel is missing,’ and he gave it a vigorous crack with the heel of his shoe. ‘Is it on Drumgonnelly Hills?’
‘Do you mean the general beauty of the landscape?’ ‘Something beyond that, beyond that,’ I said.
‘Them hills are fine no doubt.’
‘And is that all you see?’
‘This free-wheel is missing again,’ he said. ‘I’ll have to get down and put a drop of oil on it.’
We got moving again. ‘What were we talking about?’
‘Beauty’, I said. (31)

In this short passage, the awakening of an early mystical consciousness can be discerned. Mystical imagination is juxtaposed with the rather bald realism of ‘This free-wheel is missing’ or the even more vision-damping analysis: Do you mean the general beauty of the landscape?’ Patrick Kavanagh is gradually becoming aware of the lonely world of the poet, whose experience is not understood, not even by his brother. No earth-bound eye can reach this place which, in biblical terms, No eye has seen nor ear has heard’ (1 Cor 2:9). The ‘strange light’ mentioned in his early autobiography is converted later into religious coinage as ‘the Holy Spirit on the hills’ .(32)

At home in Inniskeen it dawns slowly on Kavanagh that the world he inhabits is different. At moments of heightened awareness he receives meanings and messages that come from the ‘hills of the imagination’ far beyond the flat fields of common sense’. (33) He finds within himself the ‘half-god’ who can ‘see the immortal in things mortal’; a kind of mythological god-man brooding over the ancient territory of Farney and the Fews. During his High Court proceedings of February 1954, when he sued The Leader for allegedly libellous remarks and defamation of character, he stated unambiguously that his reference to going J over the fields to the City of Kings’ was mystical by implication. Emphatically he proclaimed:JI am speaking mystically of God, of the City without Walls’ and not of any ‘mortal city’. (34)

His early period of development he called an ‘angelhood’ or ‘the angel while…’ when with typical Kavanagh originality, he experienced God as ‘unstirred mud in a shallow pool’. His vision was clear and open to possibilities. He guarded this gift jealously, refusing to expose ‘moments innocent with revelation’ to the vulgarity of ‘the market-place’. The market-place was ignorant of his ‘transfigured hills’ his ‘Edenic landscape’. To speak of them was to risk losing them forever. Kavanagh’s Eden is where, like Blake he sings his ‘Songs of Innocence’ in a mood of rapt ‘starriness’.

The penalty for sharing his treasure was severe. His spirit was shocked by those who neither saw nor understood what he saw. He was both angered and hurt at being misunderstood, feelings which contributed to a life of on-going purification:… I told of that beatific wonder to clods and disillusioned lovers. I asked if they didn’t see something beyond the hills of Glassdrummond. They laughed and said I was mad. (35)

His Eden, or ‘garden of the golden apples’, becomes occasionally sullied by twisted thinking of people who distrust what he considered to be ‘innocent and lovely’. Sadly, these people ‘twist awry’ the original blessedness of life, and perceive only guilt and sinfulness in ‘the dark places of soul’:

We are a dark people,
Our eyes are ever turned Inward
Watching the liar who twists The hill-paths awry.
O false fondler with what Was made lovely
In a garden!
(Dark Ireland)

Even though he moved away from his’ childhood country’, he retains his ‘Eden-flowering mind’ which, though prone to disenchantment by falsehood and hypocrisy, is still allowed blossom. Kavanagh is one of Bremond’s ‘elite’ among the poets and mystics who’ penetrate the lost paradise’. (36) He recaptures once more his sense of ‘fields that are part of no earthly estate’. At such times his world, as in’ A Christmas Childhood’, becomes ‘wonderful’, ‘magical’ and capable of being distilled into a symbol of mystical prayer: white, wordless, iridescent, transcendent… ‘a white rose pinned/ on the Virgin Mary’s blouse’.

His ‘garden of the golden apples’, (37) a strip of garden ‘between a railway and a road’ is transformed into a paradise where miracles are commonplace and time eternal. Here mystical knowledge is bestowed on the poet by the strange light of the new moon. The structure of the lines yields happily to ‘the expanded voltage’ of the experience. Kavanagh is rapt as he remembers:

And when the sun went down into Drumcatton
And the New Moon by its little finger swung
From the telegraph wires, we knew how God had happened
And what the blackbird in the whitethorn sang.
(The Long Garden)

He feels he had, at this moment, an insight into God and God’s earthly revelation. This world was neither worn nor pedestrian but magical and mystical. Nothing is soiled or sordid or out of tune with the harmony experienced. Here paganism and Christianity intermingle, united in primeval innocence. In Kavanagh’s imaginative landscape, Slieve Gullion is a ‘sacred mountain’ and ‘place of mystery’, exuding pagan splendour, yet blending harmoniously with the simple radiance of the newly built Catholic church in its foothills. This is ‘Glassdrummond chapel’, a place of brightness, contrasting favourably with the dark north-facing beauty of Shancoduff.

Little wonder that he envisioned his life as being on a different plane from others, his rhyme in ‘Come Dance with Kitty Stobling’, , cavorting on mile-high stilts’. Bewildered, ‘the unnerved crowds’ looked up ‘with terror in their rational faces’. The poet in this instance may appear contemptuous towards the non-poetic. Is he arrogant, a victim of spiritual pride? Or is he rather like Yeat’s ‘Malachi Stilt-Jack’, metaphorically stalking ‘the terrible novelty of the night’ ‘like a barnacle goose/ Far up in the stretches of night’. Kitty Stobling and Malachi Stilt-Jack are both outrageous characters, which present a comic view of the awkward, vulnerable position of the poet vis-a.-vis society. The essential loneliness and exile of the poet is made abundantly clear.

Ironically, Kavanagh longed for the ordinary sense of belonging to mundane activities of town and country:

And sometimes I am sorry when the grass
Is growing over the stones in quiet hollows
And the cocksfoot leans across the rutted cart-pass
That I am not the voice of country fellows
Who now are standing by some headland talking
Of turnips and potatoes or young corn… (Peace)

He wished to live on the plane of farming, football, horse-racing and everyday commonalities, but he could not survive without the vision that transported him ‘on mile-high stilts’ above ‘the timorous paces’ and the tediousness of the crowd who lacked imagination. Often he portrays the arrogance and impatience of one who sees a different vision and hears’ a different drummer’. Occasionally he begs compassion for his own eccentricity and vulnerability from those whom he loved and trusted and asks a prayer for one ‘who walked apart on the hills’. Too well he knew the price of ‘loving life’s miracles of stone and grass…’ That price was loneliness and isolation.

Mystical seeing
Kavanagh sees beyond the surface of everyday life. He senses, like William Blake and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning (1806-1861), a radiance in life around him. His earth too is ‘crammed with heaven’. Herein lies, perhaps, the greatest proof of his mystical imagination. In his early work he is almost intoxicated by vision. He celebrates this early clear-sightedness in words that point to veritable glimpses of heaven. He is the darling of whatever God he worships:

The gods of poetry are generous: they give every young poet a year’s salary which he hasn’t worked for; they let him take one peep into every tabernacle; they give him transcendent power. While he is learning the craft of verse and getting ready his tools, they present him with wonderful lines which he thinks are his own. In those days I had vision. I saw upon the little hills and in the eyes of small flowers beauty too delicately rare for carnal words. (38)

From the common experience of ploughing and harrowing in spring he sees into the mystery of quickening life. At this early stage of his career, he also analogously envisions the first seeds of his poetry. He foresees the mystical fruitfulness of clay when he leaves ‘the check rein slack’ and surrenders to ‘the harrow(‘s) play’. Already he has become wise to the role of ‘the worm’s opinion’ and the ‘pointed harrow-pins’ of life. His vision has become capable of penetrating the potency of ‘seed’ scattered’ on the dark eternity of April’s clay’:

This seed is potent as the seed
Of knowledge in the Hebrew Book.
So drive your horses in the creed
Of God the Father as a stook.
(To the Man After the Harrow) ..

Mystical vision reaches farther than the human eye, and acquires a dark knowledge, a wisdom learned only in the mystical ‘cloud of unknowing’. (39) For Kavanagh, a spiritual journey as well as a poetic one has been initiated. He is entering ‘the mist where Genesis begins’. The symbols of sower and seed propel him deeply into Biblical territory: ‘unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains only a single grain’ (In 12:24). Does he foresee the harrowing of his own soul as a prerequisite for a harvest of poetry? Symbolically and mystically he is being transformed by the land that bore him, by the landscape that enshrines his spirit. He is being made into’ a carbon copy’ of his
surrounding hills:

O Monaghan hills when is writ your story
A carbon copy will unfold my being.
(Monaghan Hills)

Ploughing for Kavanagh becomes real contemplation as well as a symbol of his poetic art. His instrument, the swing-plough, though crude and clumsy by modem standards, provides an ideal opportunity for the two activities he so often pursues in tandem: ‘poetry and prayer’. As a young poet, he has unabashed confidence in his ability to do both:

I find a star-lovely art
In a dark sod.
Joy that is timeless! O heart
That knows God!

With considerable assurance of his visionary powers, he sets about learning his poetic art, with only the most rudimentary education at his disposal. He asserts unambiguously in an early poem, ‘Plough Horses’ (1938), that he owes his clarity of vision to the unsealing of his eyes by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, he surprises his reader by asserting that the visionary form he contemplates has been shaped at the hand of Phidias, the celebrated fifth-century BC Greek sculptor. This knowledge, undoubtedly gleaned from schoolbook sources, serves to strengthen Kavanagh’s natural mystical ability. (40) He masters the classical allusion with remarkable ease. Meanwhile, his ‘third eye’, or ‘inner eye’, (41) sees beyond the animal shape. In Eliade’s terms, he had easy access to the sacred dimension of the cosmos, (42) the prerogative of primitive man:

The cosmos being a hierophany and human existence sacred, work possessed a liturgical value which still survives, albeit obscurely, among rural populations of contemporary Europe. What is especially important to emphasise is the possibility given to primitive man to immerse himself in the sacred by his own work as a homo Jaber and as creator and  manipulator of tools.(43)

As a simple ploughman, and not a very skillful one by all accounts, Kavanagh’s poetic genius sees two ordinary farmyard ‘nags’ transformed under his gaze. He has experienced something of the power of the Holy Spirit in this early epiphany:

Seeing with eyes the Spirit unsealed Plough-horses in a quiet field.
(Plough Horses)

Not only does Kavanagh see beneath the surface of life but he shows himself to be Celtic in mind-set, by attributing life to the fields and trees themselves. He not only finds ‘the immortal in things mortal’ but knows that the fields in turn have witnessed ‘the immortal’ within him. They speak to his spirit in a wordless conversation – a mystical communion:

There was I, me face black, sitting on the sate-board, me legs crossed, letting the fields look at me. Ah, the fields looked at me more than I at them, at this moment they are still staring
at me. (44)

In an even more compelling way, his hawthorn ditches ‘smile at (him) with violets’, and the bluebells ‘under the big trees’ think of him with lovers’ delight. The items in Kavanagh’s landscape are as alive as those of the ninth century Celtic monk:

A wall of woodland overlooks me.
A blackbird sings me a song (no lie!)
Above my book, with its lines laid out,
The birds in their music sing to me. (45)

By the time he writes ‘Primrose’ (1939), he has stablished himself as a poet with visionary powers. This ‘one small primrose’, bearing the signature of the Holy Spirit at its centre, speaks eloquently to him of the transfigured Christ. Vision has become interiorised for the poet and reaches towards a Being who is God:

I look at Christ transfigured without fear
The light was very beautiful and kind,
And where the Holy Ghost in flame had signed
I read it through the lenses of a tear.

Kavanagh as a poet is by now advancing on the road of mystical knowledge.

1. Evelyn Underhill, (Mrs Steward Moore), Mysticism, New York: E.P. Dutton and Co, Inc, Dutton Paperback ed., 1961, pp. 70-94.


2. St John of the Cross, ‘The Spiritual Canticle’ in The Collected Works of St John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1973, p. 712. All further references to the writings of St John are taken from this edition unless otherwise stated.

3. Underhill, pp. 1-2.

4. Underhill, p. 48

5. Joseph de Maistre quoted by Henri Bremond, Prayer and Poetry, London: Burns Oates and Washbourne Ltd,1927, introductory quotations, n.p.

6. From the prayer Anima Christi, ‘Blood of Christ, inebriate me’. See Underhill (1911), p. 235.

7. Roy Campbell trans., ‘Upon a Gloomy Night’, Collected Poems, III London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1960, p. 47.

8. ‘East Coker,’ Four Quartets, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1943, pp. 27-8.

9. William Johnston, The Inner Eye of Love, London: William Collins and Sons Ltd, 1978, p. 16.

10. Underhill, Practical Mysticism, New York: E.P. Dutton and Co, Inc, 1915, p. 9.

11. Brendan Kennelly ed., Joseph Mary Plunkett, ‘I See His Blood Upon the Rose’, The Penguin Book of Irish Verse, London: Penguin Books, 1970. p. 301.

12. William Johnston, p. 39.

13. Underhill (1911), p. 94.

14. Bremond, pp. 187-200.

15. Bremond, p. 187.

16. Underhill, p. 74. Blake’s words are also quoted by W.B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions, London: Macmillan and Co Ltd, 1961, p.117.

17. W.B. Yeats, ‘Under Ben Bulben,’ Collected Poems, ed. Augustine Martin, London: Arrow Books Ltd. An Arena Book, 1990 p. 342.

18. William Blake, ‘Jerusalem,’ in Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, Bloomsbury, The Nonesuch Press, 1927, iii, pp. 649-702.

19. Quoted by Bremond, p. 199.

20. Bremond, p. 84 and p. 90.

21. Harvey D. Egan, What are they saying about Mysticism? New York: Paulist Press, 1982, pp. 42-50.

22. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose, H. Gardner ed., Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1953, p. 27.

23. Underhill, pp. 169-70. See also S. Foster Damon, William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols, Gloucester, Mass., Peter Smith, 1958, p. 2. Here the five states of mystical development are successfully applied to the poetry of William Blake.

24. Mircea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible, tr. Stephen Corrin, New York: Harper and Row, 1962, p. 142-4.

25. Martin Heidegger, ‘What are Poets For?’ in Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: Harper and Row Publishers Inc., 1971, p. 91. 26. Harvey Egan, What are they saying about Mysticism? New York: Paulist Press, 1982, p. 42.

27. Bremond, p. 187.

28. John Jordan, ‘Mr Kavanagh’s Progress,’ Studies, 49 (Fall, 1960), p. 297. 29. The science of spiritual guidance practised in religious traditions east and west, had as its aim the discernment of true and false spirits. 30. Egan, p. 43.

31. Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool, London: Penguin Book, 1975, p.201. All quotations are from this edition.

32. Patrick Kavanagh, Tarry Flynn, London: Penguin Books, 1978, p. 29. All quotations are from this edition.

33. The Green Fool, p. 194.

34. Collected Pruse, London: Martin, Brian and O’Keeffe, 1964, p. 198.

35. The Green Fool, p. 123.

36. Bremond, p. 88.

37. The edition of this poem entitled ‘The Long Garden’ published in Collected Poems by Brian and O’Keeffe in 1972 is preferable, to the edition as it appears in the long poem ‘Why Sorrow?’ as edited by Peter Kavanagh in The Complete Poems, New York: The Peter Kavanagh Hand Press, 1972.

38. The Green Fool, pp. 200-201.

39. William Johnston, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling, New York: Image Books, 1973.

40. Sixth Reading Book, Dublin: Alex Thorn and Co, Ltd, 1889, Notes, p. 421, often referred to as the ‘Sixth Book’.

41. Kavanagh refers to his ‘third eye’ in a poem entitled ‘Remembered Country’, p. 49. The notion of ‘the third eye’ is Indian in origin and denotes enlightenment. It is represented in Indian culture by the round spot painted on the forehead, the eye of true vision, contrasted with the illusory world of the flesh. See Johnston, pp. 143-151.

42. Kavanagh may have borrowed the reference to the Greek sculptor from ‘Under Ben Bulben’ by W.B.Yeats. It is more likely that he learned of Phidias from the ‘Sixth Book’, one of the Royal Readers, Dublin: Alex Thom and Co, Ltd, 1889, which he read after he had left primary school. The first lesson in this reader is a piece by Addison entitled ‘Education compared to Sculpture’, pp. 1-2. Aristotle’s doctrine of substantial forms is referred to. He tells us that ‘a statue lies hid (sic) in a block of marble’,… ‘The figure is in stone, the sculptor only finds it.’ Phidias (432 BC) and Praxiteles (324 BC) are named as master-sculptors gifted with ‘nice touches and finishings’. Explanatory notes in these readers provided comprehensive information.

43. Mircea Eliade, p. 144.

44. Collected Pruse, p. 33.

45. The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, ed. Thomas Kinsella, Oxford: OUP, 1986, No. 19, p. 30.

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