The Mystical Imagination of Patrick Kavanagh: A Buttonhole in Heaven
by Una Agnew (Veritas, €16.99)
This is a new and enlarged edition of an important book first issued over a decade ago. For a work of literary criticism this is an unusual thing, but then for many readers what Sr Agnew has to say about the inner mysticism of the poet and the relations of his poetry to what was often a difficult life. His career as a published author was broken backed. A libel action by Oliver Gogarty and the collapse of a clever but disreputable London publisher buried The Green Fool and Tarry Flynn by 1948.
It was hard for even his admirers in later years to learn what he was writing – the only collection dated back to 1947. He did not publish a book again until 1960, and despite what is now said about local regard for him this was from a London firm. This relaunched the poet in what were to be, alas, the last illness ridden years of his life.
I grew up near Baggot Street, and as I recall the shambling, often abusive man was not always held in high regard. That he is now respected as something approaching a saint still surprises some in the neighbourhood. He had, of course, good and supportive friends (Dr McQuaid among them, as well as the Ryan family), but he was a difficult man.
Living in the city perforce for economic reasons he remained rooted, quite literally, in the acres of his rural childhood. A lovely photograph in full colour of Kavanagh on a return visit to his native place created by Elinor Wiltshire graces the cover of this reissue.
From the green fields he draws the full force of his mystical vision. We praised this book when it was first issued and that can now be re-emphasised.
This is one of the essential books on Patrick Kavanagh, going a long way to explaining the sources of his strength as a poet for whom God remained an essential element of his life and poetry.
Sr Agnew sees this as a lifelong pattern of awakening to the world and the spirit, followed by a purification of his thought and inspiration, leading finally to a deep sense of illumination.
It is often said that very few of the innumerable writers of modern Ireland really come to a sense of the spiritual, and of the meaning of religion – they are often too quick to sloganise rather than think. Patrick Kavanagh is one of the very few that rose to the challenge of really trying to penetrate the heart of life’s mystery. This book will guide his readers along the path of his growth as both a man and a poet. And who knows this book may well affect the spiritual lives of those who read it.
But there is one general observation that has to be made. During those bleak years Kavanagh earned what little he did through journalism, writing a column for the Irish Farmer’s Journal, and acting as film critic of the Standard. In both these roles he commented continually on Irish affairs and life, indeed through his encounters with film stars, on the strange shape of the modern world.
Yet this journalism seems to be uncollected, and largely unread by those who admire him and write about him. I suspect this work has much to tell us about the vision of Patrick Kavanagh, and until these writings are integrated into a complete overview of his life and work there will remain much to learn about the man and the poet.
Meanwhile anyone, even those reading Kavanagh at school and college, will be greatly enlightened about Kavanagh by a careful reading of Sr Agnew’s book. She deserves all the plaudits she has received over the years for her insightful criticism of Patrick Kavanagh.