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If you read only one poem this Advent, make it this one

Patrick Kavanagh in 1963, ‘pondering the stony grey soil of Monaghan at his native Inniskeen’

Patrick Kavanagh captured the true spirit of the season, says Michael Duggan

We have tested and tasted too much, lover – Through a clink too wide there comes in no wonder.

These are the brilliant, audacious first lines of Patrick Kavanagh’s great poem, Advent. The brilliance comes with the skewering of hedonism’s fatal flaw in a near-rhyming, slightly freewheeling couplet that still gets unerringly to the point. The audacity is to be found in the literary resonances: the farmer’s son from out-of-the-way County Monaghan tapping Shakespeare and Donne on the shoulder, saying “I’ll take over from here” with the courtly pillow talk.

Patrick Kavanagh was born in Inniskeen in 1904. His lament about the “stony grey soil of Monaghan”, and how it “burgled the bank” of his youth, is imprinted on many Irish minds, thanks to its presence in secondary school poetry anthologies. Those who wish to understand the agonies inflicted on part of the Irish peasantry by poverty and sexual frustration are advised to read his famous long poem, The Great Hunger.

To witness the loneliness of the country poet, or the fury of country rivalries, one should go to Kavanagh’s sonnets Inniskeen Road: July Evening and Epic. To appreciate his extraordinary capacity for detecting the eternal in the habitual, seek out what is perhaps his greatest sonnet, Canal Bank Walk, in which the poet spies “a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word / Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat”; and bares a soul in need of “a new dress woven / From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven”.

And then there is Advent. Composed of three stanzas, two of seven lines and one of 14 lines, it can be read as a pair of “rough-hewn sonnets”, to quote the British poet Carol Rumens; or, perhaps, as 28 lines counted up to mirror the four weeks of the Advent season.

Whatever the secrets of its form, it is, unquestionably, an intensely Catholic poem. In an “Advent-darkened room” (somewhere, we may surmise, in Dublin, where the poet lived for most of his adult life), Kavanagh anticipates how “the dry black bread and sugarless tea / Of penance will charm back the luxury / Of a child’s soul”. He and his lover are a new Adam and Eve, who will try to “return to Doom / The knowledge we stole but could not use”.

Wonder descends as the poet returns to childhood and life under “a black slanting Ulster hill”. There is a passage where Kavanagh seems to take up Brueghel’s brush – in words, at least – with village boys lurching in the streets, the “whispered argument of a churning”, and decent men who “barrow dung in gardens under trees, / Wherever life pours ordinary plenty”.

Shakespeare, Donne, Brueghel: Advent brings them all gently and unself-consciously to earth in Inniskeen. It is if they had been orbiting high above all the time, awaiting the genius farmer who would see them, know who they were, and understand what they had to do with places like Inniskeen and impoverished, endarkened rural Ireland.

Yet Advent is not a poem whose interest and merit relies on paying attention to literary echoes. In a talk at Notre Dame University last year, the Irish writer John Waters observed that Kavanagh’s poems are “all theology, they’re all prayers. He was never a craw-thumping Catholic, he was never a daily communicant, but he always called himself a Catholic poet. Why? Because he saw Christ in everything.” Kavanagh himself once wrote that “Christ Lord / Hears in the voices of the meanly poor / Homeric utterances, poetry sweeping through.”

This is not the only time Kavanagh alludes to Homer, but, as Waters suggests, the figure who really cannot be ignored or escaped in this poetry is Christ. Early in Advent, Bethlehem half-materialises in Monaghan when the poet and his lover are brought to the “yard gate to watch the whins / And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins”.

In A Christmas Childhood, a kind of companion poem to Advent, the intrusion of the Nativity story is even more pronounced. When the poet’s mother went milking in the cow house, “The light of her stable-lamp was a star / And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle”. Three bushes on “Cassidy’s hanging hill” became the Three Wise Kings.

Advent pivots on the phrase “O after Christmas”. Now the poet has the confidence to imagine in full the renewal wrought by self-denial, by waiting, by noticing “the heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges”, and by the eventual coming of the Saviour. In the final lines, he foresees the moment when:

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.

If you read only one poem this Advent season, make it Patrick Kavanagh’s.

Michael Duggan is a freelance writer