Review from The Furrow, November 2019

The Mystical Imagination of Patrick Kavanagh. A Buttonhole in Heaven? Una Agnew Dublin: Veritas ISBN 978-1-84730-882-5.

This book is proof that tough love can be tender. What is meant here is that Una Agnew shows in this re-issue of a book that first appeared in 1998 that rigorous research and critical rigour do not prevent an evident love for the work of the subject of this study, Patrick Kavanagh, from shimmering through every line. The author has the good fortune of seeing her original conclusions bolstered and her questions achieve even greater relevance by the passage of time. Consequently, this second edition requires no significant changes to its first incarnation. To lovers of Kavanagh, Agnew’s work will remain the gold-standard against which other studies will be measured. Why this reviewer – admittedly more an historian than a literary academic – believes this to be so is bolstered by the personal experience of discovering Kavanagh at the age of fourteen. To a gently-raised middle-class boy, Kavanagh’s television interviews – or was there just one? – in the early days of the then Telefis Éireann – were profoundly shocking. Not only was there the apparent rudeness and iconoclastic frankness, but there was also the accent! Antitheses of all that one had been raised to hold proper and acceptable. But yet, there was something subtly attractive and subversive that prompted the toffeenosed viewer to find, take up and read the Collected Poems that had just appeared. With the reading of those poems began a liberating love-affair that has lasted to this day. Some years later deepest mourning followed the announcement that the Department of Education, in its wisdom, was to include the poet in the Leaving Certificate syllabus. It was like a secret love betrayed.

This edition contains a gracious and restrained foreword (p. ix ff.) by the poet Mary O’Donnell, the title, ‘Kavanagh, Our Own Poet’ revealing O’Donnell’s own geographical origins but also in a canny use of ‘our’, hinting at a God-constituency that is parochial in the best rooted sense and with, or because of that, uncircumscribed by institutional provincialisms or imperialistic hegemonies. The author herself gets a ‘second go’ in an elegant introduction {p. 19 ff.). In this she reveals her own rootedness in the landscape and language of Co. Monaghan, an almost connatural grasp of what made Kavanagh what he was, made his poetry what it is. Allied with this, as is evident throughout the body of the book, is a thorough familiarity with the Irish literary corpus as with the mystical tradition, particularly in its Christian manifestation.

At no stage does the author make any secret of the fact that this book started life as a doctoral dissertation. The academically finnicky may seize on this – and did so in the past, if one remembers some reviews of the first edition – and question the use of Evelyn Underhill’s four stages of mystical development, Awakening, Purification, Illumination and Transformation. But this book does not reek of dissertation. With great dexterity it balances biography, chronology, even topography while maintaining and acute ear for Kavanagh’s development as a person and, inseparable from this, as a poet.

It is probably a commonplace that most lovers of Kavanagh, in particular those of a religious disposition, tend to prefer his later poems, that is those from the so-called ‘Canal Poems’ and later. One of the services Angew provides is to devote equal attention to all of Kavanagh’s output, treating with the same sympathy and love even the poems he himself later disowned. All that went before helped to make what came later. It is, perhaps, not an exaggeration to say that Kavanagh’s hour has now really come. The Catholic Ireland that bred him, formed and even deformed him, is but a defamed memory for many of a certain vintage and an enigma for the young. But the subversive liberation of Kavanagh ‘s vision, his eloquent railing against all forms of slavery remains an articulation of a prophetic ideal and invitation to the spiritual wanderer. In the words of the author, ‘Ultimately it is Kavanagh’s relentless fascination with God and his celebration of the miracle of creation that command ongoing study of his work. As a significant contributor to Irish literature, [he] deserves to be studied at all levels of education.’ (p.27). Even one supposes, alas, for the Leaving Certificate.

The book is enhanced by the inclusion of illustrations, all photographs of significant persons or places. The selected bibliography contains few additions to that of the original edition, itself perhaps an indication of the thoroughness of the work accomplished the first time round, but invaluable for any future scholar.

Glenstal Abbey, Co. Limerick HENRY O’SHEA, OSB

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