Hopkins Lectures 2007






































Patrick Kavanagh and Hopkins: A Strange Combination

Una Agnew, Milltown Institute, Dublin

While Gerard Manley Hopkins was a classical scholar, Oxford Don, well versed in the aesthetics of Ruskin and the philosopy of Duns Scotus, Patrick Kavanagh, on the other hand, a poor farmer, had probably never heard of either. He completed his formal education at 14 years of age;school records indicate that he has not been promoted into Sixth Class. Yet, they both found God compellingly present in the created universe.


To argue any strong resemblance in background, temperament and upbringing of the distinguished Oxford Don, Gerard Manley Hopkins and the socially inept, self-educated farmer-poet Patrick Kavanagh, must surely appear ludicrous. Hopkins was born into a Victorian upper middle-class family in Stratford in 1844, got the best English public-school education available, while Kavanagh, the son of a cobbler was born sixty years later in the townland of Mucker, Inniskeen, Co Monaghan and did not progress beyond fifth standard in the small, rural, two-teacher, at Kednaminsha.

While Hopkins was a classical scholar, well versed in the aesthetics of Ruskin and the philosopy of Duns Scotus, Kavanagh, on the other hand, had probably never heard of either. He completed his formal education at 14 years of age;school records indicate that he has not been promoted into Sixth Class. By now he was needed by his family to engage in the swap-farming method of labour in operation in this locality of small farmers. He probably regretted his early exit from formal education, since he continued to take school-books to the field, where he read and memorised passages of prose and poetry until be believed he had written them himself. When his sister went to secondary school he commandeered her Intermediate Poetry book and taught himself the sonnet form which became a dominant feature of his work. Through dearth of proper reading material, he consumed whatever newspapers and periodicals that were a feature of every Irish household at the time: the monthly Messenger, Ireland's Own and the weekly Dundalk Democrat . It was the Irish Statesman that first introduced him to writers like George Russell, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Considering the field his library, he would hide pages of schoolbooks in the ditches, sit on a bank and let nature do the farming. When we think of Hopkins' artistic upbringing we wonder how two poets, so dissimilar in background could possible be compared?

God in the Created Universe

And yet there is one significant aspect that connects them: they both found God compellingly present in the created universe; not simply in the broad sweep of the vastness of creation, but in the minutiae of individualised created things: Hopkins saw the miracle of creation in ' thrushs' eggs . like low heavens', in the ring of each stone in 'tumbled over rim in roundy wells' in ' all things counter original, spar, strange' . For his part, Kavanagh delights in the virginal beauty of ' tracks of cattle to a drinking place' , ' a green stone lying sideways in a ditch' and as sole appreciator of such commonplace beauty, cconsiders himself ' king, of banks and stones and every blooming thing'.

The intricate design of a bluebell ' baffles Hopkins with its inscape'; he adds ' I know the mystery of Our Lord by it' . Similarly, Kavanagh is captivated by the delicate face of a primrose which reveals 'Christ transfigured without fear' . He finds at the heart of this single flower 'one small page of Truth's manuscript made clear':


I looked at Christ transfigured, without fear
The light was very beautiful and kind
And where the Holy Ghost in flame had signed
I read it through the lenses of a tear. [Primrose]

Kavanagh, in Hopkins' language, seemed baffled by the inscape of the primrose which, for him, was Christ instressed in the primula vulgaris . Kavanagh's theology further to find the signature of the Holy Spirit at the heart of this flame-tinged creation. A transcendent moment!

Kavanagh's perception stretched further to find the Holy Spirit brooding 'over the harrowed fields' , or 'taking the bedlam of his little fields and weaving them into a song'. In the guise of his fictional character Tarry Flynn, a sense of 'the Holy Spirit on the fields' fills him with mystical thoughts. Looking more closely still he notices 'the little flowers and weeds': ' These had God's message in them'

This sense of the Holy Spirit brooding over the fields is so marked that one wonders if he had, by now (1947), read and even memorised ( as Kavanagh was often wont to do) God's Grandeur >where Hopkins depicts the Holy Ghost brooding in warm protective, regenerative mode over a toilworn world.

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, Morning, at the brown brink eastwards, springs
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

There is further similarity where Kavanagh, after much conflict with the abstract God of the current catechism, depicts his personal view of God, ' not the abstract Creator' but as He who 'caresses the daily and nightly earth' and more important still who ' refuses to take failure for an answer' . Kavanagh's God never gives up on his creatures.

Sprung Rhythm? It is no secret that both Patrick and his brother Peter, admired the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. In her biography of Kavanagh, Antoinette Quinn indicates that Hopins was one of Patrick favourite poets in 1939/ 40. Peter, at this time would recite Hopkins aloud for his students in Westland Row Christian Brothers School: there is every indication that the brothers spoke of Hopkins' unusual style. When Patrick visited Blackrock College in 1940 to give a talk to the senior boys on poetry, he explained to them that he was, at that time, "experimenting with 'sprung-rhythm' of the manner of GMH" . He was referring to his latest unpublished poem 'A Christmas Childhood' which he recited for the boys.

My father played the melodian
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs the melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of here stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

This may not be sprung rhythm in Hopkins' book, but there is some similarity in the fact that Hopkins broke with the Victorian tradition and revolutionised poetic language by bringing it, in Helen Gardher's words, 'back to its resourcefulness in everyday speech' and to 'prose severely condensed' , Kavanagh too, broke away from the Irish Literary Revival pastiche of the early twentieth century, and, in the words of Seamus Heaney, fashioned his own poetic diction, 'barehanded out of a literary nowhere'. He was too clever to imitate slavishly except in a manner that served his own personal vision. So when he wrote:

The bicycles go by in twos and threes
There's a dance in Billy Brennan's barn tonight.


Outside in the cow-house
My mother made the music of milking

He adheres to natural prose rhythms, internal assonances, using only the alliterative features present in common, everyday speech. He was careful not to attempt the intricacies of Hopkin's severely condensed prose and inversion of natural word order (hyperbeton):

Hyphenated Words?

What might have attracted Kavanagh was the possiblity present in Hopkins' use of hyphenated words. He occasionally copied this technique to good effect. A good example of this can to be noted in lines from Threshing Morning :

On an apple-ripe September morning
Through the mist-chill fields I went. [Threshing Morning]

Or even the less effective hyphenation in 'April':

Now is the hour to rake out the ashes
Of the spirit-fires winter-kindled. [April]

He soon discovers, however, that his natural lyricism, when dealing with the new life of Spring was best expressed by following it natural culmination in his characteristic run-on line:

The old cranky spinster is dead
Who fed us cold flesh
And in the green meadows
The maiden of Spring is with child
By the Holy Ghost.

His vision of an God-impregnated earth is akin to Hopkins' celebration in March and April of 1871 of 'a new world of inscape'.

To return to the notion of hyphenation, if Hopkins can memorably celebrate a purple-streaked sunset as a 'dappled-with-damson-west , Kavanagh can equally celebrate in hyphenated ecstasy his ' leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal pouring redemption for me' as he recovered from a lung-cancer operation on the banks of The Grand Canal in 1955. Both poets were gifted with the lyrical capacity to express their vision of creation as if emanating straight from the breath of God; Kavanagh as master of epiphany, Hopkins as celebrant of inscape.

Epiphany in Kavanagh: Inscape/Instress in Hopkins

Epiphany in the words of James Joyce occurs when in the words of Stephen Hero 'the soul of the commonest object ---seems to us radiant'. Kavanagh had an instinct for epiphanies beginning with his early Monaghan poems where found 'a star-lovely art / in a dark sod'. He learns to uncover a translucent beauty in the opaque density of earth. On another occasion he captures a moment of 'moonlight that stays forever in a tree' and 'fantastic light [that] looks through the eyes of bridges'. It is as if inanimate objects project a mystical life of their own. For him 'the whitethorn hedges', the New Moon suspended by its little finger, 'stones in streams in April': all are 'chance moments of poetry and prayer'. These ' narrow slices of divine instruction' as he called them, were ' moments of fullness and passion'. Kavanagh makes it his life-long task to 'snatch our of time the passionate transitory' .

There is something of a parallel experience when Hopkins' notion of 'inscape' where the inner pattern hidden in the external form of a bluebell, an ashtree tree, achieves instress and a radiance born

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves-goes itself; myself it speaks and spells. [As kingfishers catch fire.]

Hopkins is convinced that the trivialness of life is .done away with by the Incarnation. Each one must make his or her daily discovery of that mystery.

Since tho'he is under the world's splendour and wonder
His mystery must be instressed stressed.
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

Kavanagh's moments of blessing occur when he experiences what he calls his 'Flash of Divine Intelligence'. He is acutely aware of God's presence about to break through even in the most trivial situation. ' God must be allowed to surprise us' is his watchword, and his dedication to God ' in the bits and pieces of everyday' makes him along with Hopkins, a contender for the title 'poet of the Incarnation'. For Kavanagh, a chink of light perceived between ' the ricks of hay and straw' is ' a hole in heaven's gable . Even three whin-bushes ( gorse if you prefer) can become transfigured and herald Christ's coming as Magi.

One particular ephiphany which occurs in 'The Great Hunger' has the effect of flooding an entire landscape with transcendence thereby alleviating the predominant dark, disspirited atmosphere of this long poem. Every detail of the scene is carefully set as if under the eye of the camera:

The pull is on the traces, it is March
And a cold black wind is blowing from Dundalk.
From every second hill a neighbour watches
With all the sharpened interest of rivalry.

Kavanagh moves in for a close-up as the scene become radiant with an awareness beyond normal comprehension:

Yet sometime when the sun comes through a gap
These men see God the Father in a tree:
The Holy Spirit is the rising sap,
And Christ will be the green leaves that will come
At Easter from the sealed and guarded tomb.

Kavanagh enrobes a whole Irish landscape and its ordinary people in full Trinitarian regalia. I figure he is the only Irish poet, writing in English who has ever done this.

Love of Weeds

Kavanagh would have approved of Hopkins' celebration of the lushness of weeds in his poem 'Spring':

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring-
When weeds in wheels shoot long and lovely and lush.

'what is all this juice and all this joy', he marvels. Kavanagh's contention that the graveyard in Inniskeen, with its lush growth of docks and nettles was the livliest place in the parish. He is in love with thistles and ragworth derives enormous pleasure from: Dandelions growing on headlands, showing their unloved hearts to everyone':

In 1955 when Kavanagh knew he had to undergo a severe cancer operation in 1955, he counselled himself to gratitude for those trees and weeds known personally to him in the course of his life. In 'Prelude' he writes:

Bring in the particular trees
That caught you in their mysteries
And love again the weeds that grew
Somewhere specially for you.

How they both dealt with what they perceived as failure

It interesting to compare how both poets deal with what they perceived as failure in their lives. Kavanagh perhaps learned from Hopkins that a sturdy conversation with God is how one must proceed.

Thou art indeed just Lord if I contend with Thee

With his knowledgeable agricultural background and an understanding of the virulence of dandelion and daisy seeds, Kavanagh asks if 'a dead clod' can grow anything.

Can a man grow from the dead clod of failure
Some consoling flower
Something humble as a dandelion or a daisy,

Kavanagh writhes under the weight of his despair and asks:

O God can a man find You when he lies with his face downwards
And his nose in the rubble that was his achievement?

Hopkins' situation is even more dire since he sees that he has experienced to date no such achievement; he calls himself time's eunach. Later in life Kavanagh too will use a poignant sexual metaphor to describe how poverty has unmanned him into becoming:

A lonely lecher whom the fates
By a financial trick castrates.

Both poets end their poems of despair with a prayer: Hopkins prays: Mine O thou Lord of life send my roots rain..

While Kavanagh prays:

O God can a man find You when he lies with his face downwards
And his nose in the rubble that was his achievement?
Is the music playing behind the door of despair?
O God give us purpose. (From Failure Up)

'Christ' for Hopkins: 'God' for Kavanagh

While for Hopkins, Christ was his personal hero: ' his kngdom of daylight's dauphin-his dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon' there is no consistent Christocentric thrust to Kavanagh's work, although one has to say that he is a throroughly Incarnational poet, tracing a path for Christ's over Monaghan bog-holes, in old stables, by wafer-iced potholes with whin bushes transfigured on the horizon as Magi. He once admitted, through the mouth of Tarry Flynn that there was a defect in him which these secluded fields developed; he was not in love with his neighbours; their lives meant little to him. Had he loved his neighbours he would have the eyes ears and minds of all these. Christ was the sum of the wisdom of all the men for whom He died, which was the race of man .

It is questionable whether Hopkins fared any better in the practical loving of his neighbour. Yet it is true to say that where Hopkins' preoccupation theologically was with Christ, Kavanagh's obsession was with God-and with images of God that counteracted those of a judgemental God, intent on punishing any human fall from grace. He was painfully aware of an 'anti-life' ethos that prevailed in the Irish Catholicism of his time, along with a harsh legacy of Jansenistic attitudes and customary Augustinian humiliation of the flesh.

Kavanagh's poetry revolutionised oppressive Catholicism by reconstituting God present in the riotous colours of a cut-away bog,

Green, blue, yellow and red
God is down in the bogs and marshes. [The One]

His was a God whose Spirit hovered over the landscape, caressing the daily and nightly earth; a God present in ' a well-bred convent girl's eyes' as truly as Hopkins saw God ' in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his'. Kavanagh's God lurked not only in girls' eyes but also ' among the women in a coffee shop'. [ God in Woman ] In his customary guise of 'holy fool', Kavanagh freed himself to speak his mind about God, chipping away at outmoded piousities and opting for an expansive God who broke out of the confines imposed by definitions: 'God is not all in one place, complete and labelled like a case in a railway store'. [ The Great Hunger], but ubiquitously present 'in the bits and pieces of every day.' in a kiss' 'in a laugh and sometimes tears' . His God defied orthodoxy by being ' amusing, experimental and irresponsible about frivolous things' . Humour saved Kavanagh from despair. His Christ was at the street-corner or was one who wandered the unconscious streets of Dublin but could nonetheless dazzle with radiance by appearing luminously clad in 'a January flower'. Kavanagh was an instinctive Catholic. While they were both poets of the Incarnation they differed in their emphasis. Yet together I believe that they were was gentle towards 'the immortal material' of the human condition. In 'Having Confessed', Kavanagh warns against over self analysis; we must not touch the immortal material - time has its own work to do. Like Hopkins, he instinctively knew that:

this jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond. [That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.]


Hopkins and Kavanagh both celebrated the many ways in which the most trivial things revealed God. Kavanagh's poetry is readily accessible; Hopkins' is less so. While Hopkins was a keen observer of how each thing is selved uniquely, Kavanagh observed his own awkward uniqueness, unashamedly that 'God only makes geniuses' though people often do not like what God had created. Kavanagh was himself, although deliberately masquerading under the adopted disguise of vulgarity and roughness. Jesuit life allowed Hopkins greater gentility and intellectual freedom. Despite arguments that maintain that Jesuit life curtailed his genius, Brian Arkins affirms that Hopkins did not become a great poet till he joined the Jesuits.

Kavanagh, on the other hand, pursued his vocation as a poet, in poverty and without domestic support. Despair was unavoidable for both poets. Neither was appreciated before his death; Hopkins even less than Kavanagh. Though the latter lived long enough to bring home something of his harvest in his Canal Bank poems and had the support of a devoted brother, life dealt Kavanagh a raw deal. Hopkins died prematurely; he undoubtedly had more to offer the literary world had he survived typhoid fever as Kavanagh survived lung cancer.

They both had to contend with despair, where humour saved Kavanagh, Hopkins was of a more melancholic disposition. It is interesting to note how each poet ended his prayer from the depths of despair. Kavanagh asks, not for comfort; ' Send my roots rain' as Hopkins did, but for purpose instead! ' O God give us purpose' . Kavanagh asked for the courage to keep going in the face of unrealised goals and lack of recognition. And he did, until his death finally in 1967.


1. A comment made by his brother Peter in a lecture given at Trinity College, July 2004.

2. Gardner, Gerard Manley Hopkins, ( Middlesex, England, Penguin Books, 1953). From a letter written to E.H. Coleridge, January 22, 1886, p.160. All quotation from this edition. Poems here quoted are: 'Spring', 'Pied Beauty' and 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire'.

3. Patrick Kavanagh, The Complete Poems, ed. Peter Kavanagh (New York and Newbridge, Co Kildare, 1984). All q uotations from this edition. Poems quoted here are: 'A Christmas Childhood' and 'Inniskeen Road: July Evening'.

4. See Tarry Flynn, Penguin Paperback Edition, p.29 also 'A View of God and the Devil', Complete Poems, p. 208.

5. Tarry Flynn, p.30

6. 'Miss Universe', Complete Poems , p. 291.

7. Antoinette Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography, p.125.

8. From an interview with Rev Enda Watters CSSp. Who was a senior pupil in the College at that time.

9. Brian Arkins. 'Hopkins: Poet of the Incarnation', Milltown Studies 50, Winter 2002, 73-93.

10. Gardner, pp. xiv-xv.

11. Seamus Heaney, 'From Monaghan to the Grand Canal' in: Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978, (London: Faber and Faber, 1980) 115-130 at 116.

12. Gardner, p.122.

13. From Wreck of the Deutchland , Stanza 5

14. From 'Canal Bank Walk', p.294.

15. Stephen Hero , London: Grafton Books, p.190.

16. See Richard Ellman, James Joyce, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, p.83

17. Gardner, Gerard Manley Hopkins, From a letter written to E.H. Coleridge, January 22, 1886, p.160.

18. Tarry Flynn, p. 99

19. See the poem 'Advent', Complete Poems , p. 124.

20. Arkins, Milltown Studies, 2002, p.76

Links to Hopkins Literary Festival 2007

Faather Hopkins SJ on Retreat || Elizabeth Bishop and Hopkins Poetry || Aubrey de Vere and Gerard Manley Hopkins || Patrick Kavanagh and Gerard Manley Hopkins | | Communion of Saints in Hopkins Poetry || Saint Patricks Breastplate || Place of Church in Hopkins Juvenile Poems || Cardinal Newman and GM Hopkins || Hopkins Misdirected Faith || Father Hopkins SJ the Priest ||