Shancoduff by Patrick Kavanagh is an exploration of the awareness one possesses of the land one stands on, the sense of attachment and detachment at the same time. Kavanagh’s poems navigate multiple themes of places and dwellings, man’s relationship with nature, and the human connection to the earth. Kavanagh vehemently denied being called an Irish poet but there is a distinctive Irish tendency in his poems, the way he presents concepts of land and alienation in his poems. This poem was written during his initial venture into poetry and a certain poetic clarity can be seen in this poem. “Shancoduff” can be considered a part of pastoral poetry, but instead of focusing on nature at large, the poem is diverting its attention to the parochial rather than universal.
“Shancoduff” is a poem about the poet’s relationship with his hills that never witnessed the sun.
Shancoduff | Summary and Analysis
My black hills have never seen the sun rising,
Eternally they look north towards Armagh.
Lot’s wife would not be salt if she had been
Incurious as my black hills that are happy
When dawn whitens Glassdrummond chapel.
The poem begins with the phrase “my black hills” which sets the tone for the poem, of the themes of attachment to the hills but there is a sense of gloom and darkness. The use of the word “never” attaches an implication of eternity to the darkness that the hills experience. The hills are forever covered in shadows. The contrasting use of words such as “black hills” and “dawn whitens” presents an ambivalent view of the poet toward these hills. The light use of Biblical story puts a layer of depth and humour into the poem. The reference to Armagh, which used to be a prosperous city, depicts the inferiority invested in the hills, perhaps an outward perception of the poet about himself. The repetition of the phrase “my black hills” induces a sense of bleakness and gloom within the poem. However, the emphasis on the word “my” puts a joyful twist on these words, saying that although these hills may never “see the sun”, these are the poet’s, in the end.
My hills hoard the bright shillings of March
While the sun searches in every pocket.
They are my Alps and I have climbed the Matterhorn
With a sheaf of hay for three perishing calves
In the field under the Big Forth of Rocksavage.
The mention of “my hills” again in this verse shows that there is still a sense of pride infused with his ownership of these hills. The hills hold even the littlest of treasures, the “bright shillings” that are snow and droplets and rays that fall on it. The reference and comparison to the Alps go on to show how much importance the poet puts on these hills, that these hills are as significant and valuable to him as the Alps are to the world. Even though there is a mention of calves dying on these hills which shows that these hills are not as good as other hills, it does not lower their beauty and value in the eyes of the poet. Climbing one of the highest peaks of Europe, the Matterhorn, infuses a perception of adventure into the daily life of the poet in these hills. To the poet, these hills, his home, are everything to him. The poet is calling down the big structures to the level of his hills and is attempting to present the notion that one can find exquisite amounts of beauty and joy within the ordinary and even the bleak.
The sleety winds fondle the rushy beards of Shancoduff
While the cattle-drovers sheltering in the Featherna Bush
Look up and say: “Who owns them hungry hills
That the water-hen and snipe must have forsaken?
A poet? Then by heavens he must be poor.”
I hear, and is my heart not badly shaken?
The poet is imbuing pleasant imagery in the poem with this verse, creating a new and fresh landscape. Up until now, the poet was presenting his own thoughts and emotions regarding these hills, but now he includes the comments and words of the neighbours or passers-by. The cattle-drovers explicitly view these hills as worthless and “forsaken” by the flora and fauna, inducing a negative atmosphere into the poem, while still keeping the tone conversational. The casual snide remarks of these people who are hypocritically taking shelter within these very hills they are demeaning provide a bleak view of the hills from the viewpoint of the poet.
The hills are said to be “hungry”, possibly because of the lack of sun. The cattle drovers call this place infertile and uninhabitable. And the further comment that if these hills are owned by a poet then he “must be poor”. The poet imagines hearing these words about his hills and his heart is badly hurt by these words. He ends the poem on a note of inquiry and question. This might represent the inner turmoil that the poet possesses about his hills, now further flamed by the comments of these people, or it might show his perseverance and love for his hills that he feels angry at their words. Both the answers derive their meaning from the vast affection the poet holds for his hills.
Shancoduff | Analysis
The poem possesses an element of self-history and autobiographical aspects of the poet’s life. Kavanagh was born in 1904, in a town in Monaghan, which rests in the Northern half of Ireland. Even though the land is pastoral and small, the landscape is unremarkable, the beauty comes from a sense of familiarity and loving affection of the people who inhabit it.
Kavanagh hated being classed as a peasant poet, but it is not unfair to include him in their ranks. For the first thirty years of his life, he belonged to the world of Tarry Flynn, to the little fields of Monaghan. It was only in certain moods that he cried out against his birthplace as a ‘savage area’ where he lived ‘the usual barbaric life of the Irish country poor’. To the end of his days he had a passionate attachment to ‘the stony grey soil of Monaghan’, and most of his best work is rooted in the world of his youth. (Alan Warner’s study on the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh).
Some regional poems, like “Shancoduff,” question the idea that the countryside is a part of “nature” and instead evoke a sense of place based on a tense interplay between attachment to and estrangement from one’s surroundings. The unremarkableness, isolation, alienation, and poverty of the hills in this poem contain a subliminal hint of detachment, although it can be said that Kavanagh is arguably more in touch with his land and home when he seeks a particular detachment, a subject that permeates a lot of his works.
There is a loss of faith in his land in the poem ‘Shancoduff’. Hills which are looked upon with affection and some pride, are re-evaluated in light of the passing comments of the cattle drovers that these hills seem ‘hungry’ and ‘forsaken’. This shrouds the poet’s perspective with despair and sorrow, all the while containing the concept of ownership. Even though the hills are Kavanagh’s, he cannot separate the feelings of detachment from his land. The hills are a source of both joy and despair for the poet.
In other words, Kavanagh’s sense of space and land elicits a conflicted emotional state of both alienation and attachment. The early poetry creates a landscape’s very dynamics, which may be the first time since the Revival that the environment appears to be alive and temporal. In a residential perspective, in which the narrator is the person in the landscape, Kavanagh does this by an act of revelation. Dwelling and a place to call home are more than just inhabiting the ground; it’s a way for humans to interact with and perceive their surroundings as the only other living thing that is aware of their existence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) was an Irish poet and novelist. His best-known works include the novel Tarry Flynn, and the poems “On Raglan Road” and “The Great Hunger”. He is known for his accounts of Irish life through reference to the everyday and commonplace.