22. October, Patrick Kavanagh, Ireland

October 13, 2012 at 10:28 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

Patrick Kavanagh can be grumpy and paraochial, willfully so, and as it happens, immensly rewarding as a poet. To start with the grumpy and parochial, he was once invited to a banquet of a cosmetic company in Dublin, and as the other guests were settling down to their haute cuisine, stood up to declare  ‘there are honest men at this moment, footing turf up the bogs of Monaghan. You can keep your banquet; and as for your product, I know what you can do with it’*. Kavanagh knew whereof he spoke: he grew up a poor labourer in the north of Ireland, bordering the Ulster provinces, a world away from relatively metropolitan Dublin. He tried to make his name with a novel -‘Green Fool’ loosely based on his early experiences and  was feted and patronised (by now long forgotten poets) as a rural poet. He outgrew this reputation, but long held grudges against the Irish literary establishment, against whom some of his less enduring poems rail. The great Anglo-Irish poet Yeats, he simultaneously resisted and admired.

And all that, by the way, is useful to know when reading what is for me the most beautiful of his poems, ‘October’.


O yellow leafiness you create for me

A world that was and now is poised above time,

I do not need to puzzle out Eternity

As I walk this arboreal street on the edge of a town.

The breeze too, even the temperature

And pattern of movement is precisely the same

as broke my heart for youth passing. Now I am sure

Of something.Something will be mine wherever I am.

I want to throw myself on the public street without caring

for anything but the prayering that the earth offers.

It is October over all my life and the light is staring

as it caught me once in a plantation by the fox coverts.

A man is ploughing ground for winter wheat

And my nineteen years weigh heavily on my feet.


‘October’ is a petrarchan sonnet, and an ode that exalts its subject – the eighth month, the timelessness of seasons – and keeps them rooted in, quite literally, earthly material.There are traces of Yeats’s influence here, in the half rhymes, for one thing; and in traeting the theme of time, Kavanagh is stepping directly on to his predecessor’s territory. It could be, even, a kind of homage to Yeats, borrowing his favoured forms but using very different imagery, and picking up a treasured theme of which Kavanagh has a quite different understanding.

A key line is ‘I do not need to puzzle out Eternity’. The ternity of the poem is quite different from that of Yeats, derived from what Bunting memorably called ‘the mystical Christianity that nineteenth century theologians brewed from a mash squeezed ultimately, I think, from Plotinus.’ Kavanagh’s eternity needs no idealist philosohy – it is rooted in lived experience, for example of the October light staring down on the old man as it did the youth. And because this eternity is not an ideal one, it can sit side by side with the humane irony and sadness of the closing lines of the poem.

My favourite line of the poem, however, are those of the turn at the beginning of the sestet:

I want to throw myself on the public street without caring

for anything but the prayering that the earth offers.

There is the essence of an ode, the celebration of the earth – to a Catholic, as Kavanagh was, God’s earth – at the turning point, the yielding point of the year that is October. It brings to mind the startling scene in Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brother’s Karamazov’ where Alyosha, in a fit of mixed conviction, doubt and spiritual yearning, throws himself weeping on to the earth, to say later ‘Someone visited my soul in that hour’.

* The full anecdote (and a some interesting articles on Kavanagh) can be found at www.catholicireland.net

** The poem is from The collected Poems of Patrick Kavanagh, Penguin, 2004

1 Comment

  1. On Year 5: October’s Poems | Anne's Awesome Adventures said,

    […] 2, Thursday:  “October” by Patrick […]

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