The Irish author's awkwardly beautiful Christmas poem plays with shape and rhyme in unexpected ways
At first you could almost imagine that the speaker in this week's poem, Advent by Patrick Kavanagh, is Adam, addressing Eve some while after the Fall. Calling the addressee "lover", after all, implies a close and carnal relationship. But the "too much" that the speaker and lover have "tested and tasted" is more inclusive than sexuality. The intellect is implicated in the word tested, although the tongue-tickling alliteration might seem to privilege sensation. In a poem whose deepest concern is with poetic integrity, the Muse herself may be identified with the "lover".
The "chink too wide" reinforces the idea that "wonder" is lost, both through bodily indulgence and excessive self-consciousness. The advent fast takes place in darkness – "the Advent-darkened room" – and external light would interfere with the sense-deprivation necessary to the act of penance. The paradoxical "luxury" that the penance will "charm back" resembles the birth in poverty of the infant Jesus – the restoration of "a child's soul".
Underlying the emotional charge of the poem is Kavanagh's sense of his native village in Inniskeen as an eden he sacrificed for the corrupt metropolis, Dublin. His outcry is not, I think, against knowledge, but city-slick, poetically useless knowingness. If such knowledge belongs originally to "Doom", as the speaker says, it must be perceived as truly terrible, and perhaps represent the worst that could happen to this poet: the loss of local roots leading to the decay of imagination.
Although the poem is nostalgic, its metaphysics reach wider than nostalgia. The Wordsworthian myth that a child arrives with inborn "intimations of immortality", later lost in the process of maturation, permeates Advent. Two vivid examples of childhood epiphany are contrasted in the second stanza. The word "wonder" reappears, heightened by the intensifier "spirit-shocking". That black Ulster hill is iconic for Kavanagh, and brings biblical associations in other poems. For example, in A Christmas Childhood, he looks up at "Cassidy's hanging hill" and imagines three whin bushes, or gorse, as the three wise kings riding across the horizon. Here, the "spirit-shocking" hill seems almost the metaphorical expression of the "prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking …" The half-rhyme (spirit-shocking/talking) unifies the miraculous with the banal.
Kavanagh's adult mind is arguing with itself, wanting to believe in the resonant words, but acknowledging the speaker as "an old fool". Christ-like, the poet both redeems and judges. His "Advent" is not simply the joyous arrival of the redemptive child: it also foreshadows the second coming.
The restored sense of place is what will urge "you and me" to go outside, not to look upwards, but to see the ordinary things with fresh eyes. The impetus is similar to that of the speaker in Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen". In fact, Kavanagh's "old fool". with his words of "prophetic astonishment", seems not unrelated to the elder who says of the cattle: "Now they are all on their knees." But there are no kneeling oxen in Kavanagh's rural vision, simply "the whins/ And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins". Notice these are "old stables", not the singular stable of the nativity narrative. "Time begins" in an ordinary stable, provided the spectator looks on the scene with rejuvenated consciousness.
The inclusive rush of that line signals an exultant mood in the last stanza. The future tense is assertive: Christmas will compel a new start. It will bring childhood unforgettably alive again, and allow ancient processes to recommence. In those first four lines, Kavanagh's rhymes are thick and muddy, tactile and insistent. Poetry itself is set alight by "an old phrase burning" through the ordinary human domestic voices heard "in the whispered argument of a churning…" Again, Kavanagh presents his ideal world of farm and village realistically. Those "lurching", unruly local boys are no less valued than the busy women churning butter and the "decent men" who "barrow dung" – a terrific use of an unexpected verb – to nourish their gardens. "The difference" between false and real is grounded in honest, and above all, unselfconscious physical activity.
Language "pours ordinary plenty" in that last stanza, though it's not always so ordinary. "Dreeping", in "dreeping hedges", might be a coined word, fusing together the words "dripping" and "deep"; it also contains the Scots "dree", to endure, adding further density and rootedness to the hedges. "Clay", in "clay-minted wages", is an echo of the despairing opening words of Kavanagh's The Great Hunger: "Clay is the word and clay is the flesh." So "the clay-minted wages/ Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour" connect with failures of imagination and linguistic energy.
The shape of the poem is interesting: two stanzas of seven lines, and one of 14, joining up two sets of seven. This structure suggests the four weeks of the advent period, and the poem could be read as two rough-hewn sonnets. The rhyming is irregular, and some lines have no end rhyme. Kavanagh is more engaged with the weight and sound of words than with cadenced finesse. Although he uses "clay-minted" as a negative phrase, it might be an apt description of this awkwardly beautiful poem. The final couplet's epiphany, extending the birth-miracle into the new year, discovers Christ in an early flower, itself a product of the winter-darkened clay.
We have tested and tasted too much, lover –
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child's soul, we'll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.
And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.
O after Christmas we'll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning –
We'll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we'll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won't we be rich, my love and I, and please
God we shall not ask for reason's payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God's breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour –
And Christ comes with a January flower.
• Advent by Patrick Kavanagh is included in Collected Poems, edited by Antoinette Quinn (Allen Lane, 2004). It is reprinted by permission of the trustees of the estate of the late Katherine B Kavanagh, through Jonathan Williams Literary Agency.