Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh’s narrative titled “The Great Hunger” (1942) is prose in the guise of a verse detailing the life of an Irish rural man, specifically that of a peasant named Patrick Maguire, exposing the reality of countryside settlement and the drudgery associated with it. The ideal Irish farmer is absent from this work of art to render the bitter taste of truth rooted in unrewarding toils men like Maguire were recipients of during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Great Hunger | Historical Context
The poem is set in the Donaghmoyne townland situated in the county of Monaghan in Ireland. The events in the poem predate the Irish Potato Famine which began in 1845. They create a ground for the then-upcoming crisis and the poem closely observes the life of an Irish farmer in his everydayness and futility. The bleakness clouding him sets a stage for the future years of deprivation Ireland was going to witness.
The Great Hunger | Structure
The poem is divided into fourteen sections of varying lengths with no definite patterns. It is a free verse composition with vague internal rhymes scattered throughout the poem. The speaker is an observer who adopts a first-person voice time and again to amalgamate his experience with that of the readers. Often the narratorial voice merges with that of a character in his/her expression of inner thoughts. The poem follows the format of a story narration with the employment of the flashback technique that allows the time to flow smoothly and connect the past with the present. Also, capitalisation of certain non-living entities such as emotions and values serves the purpose of establishing them as dominant Ideas.
The Great Hunger | Title
The first thought after reading the title transports a reader to the Great Famine of the 1840s in Ireland which physically, socially, politically and economically affected the country’s population. However, the poem does not delineate its historical aspect. The title reflects the unrewarding lives of Irish farmers who sacrifice and devote their lives to the soil without enjoying the pleasures of life. The hunger is for knowledge, sexual gratification, acknowledgement of their hard work and freedom from scathingly controlling forces such as religion, morality and filial piety.
The Great Hunger | Themes
The church practices a hold over the lives of characters in the poem, especially that of Patrick Maguire’s who attends the Masses regularly and prays for good produce along with other farmers. According to his mother, praying to God answers all his worries. His religion also prohibits viewing a woman sexually because a peasant who is supposed to be a pure and honest soul is devoted to his land. Coupled with the religious dominance is matriarchal dominance through his mother. She is authoritative and commands his son rather than addressing him with love and affection. She never encourages shim to get married and have a family of his own which deprives him of certain pleasures of human life.
Rural life and conventionality go hand in hand. The population residing in these areas are often illiterate and less versed in modernity. Their thrust on religion and morality is unswerving. Men like Patrick are conditioned to devote themselves selflessly to the soil without rejoicing the carnal or intellectual pleasures. Like a soldier on the war ground, a farmer’s relationship with his land is sacred. They believe in hard work and afterlife salvation and their only motto in life turns out to be moving ahead without any resentment toward Mother Nature. Due to such rigid strictures, Patrick is never able to express his sorrow which is not unconventional in any sense but rather more humane.
Patrick and farmers like him are deprived of sexual and intellectual experiences due to overbearing doctrines and conventions. Basic to human needs, carnal gratification spots third place after food and shelter. Why is a farmer not allowed to marry? Why cannot he advance his family line? These are some questions that the poem does raise but fails to answer. The blind obedience the farmers expected towards societal dictates is bewildering. There are actually no rational grounds to support such compliance which Kavanagh exposes critically.
The Great Hunger | Analysis
Clay is the word and clay is the flesh
Where the potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move
Along the side-fall of the hill – Maguire and his men.
If we watch them an hour is there anything we can prove
Of life as it is broken-backed over the Book
Of Death? Here crows gabble over worms and frogs
And the gulls like old newspapers are blown clear of the hedges, luckily.
Is there some light of imagination in these wet clods?
Or why do we stand here shivering?
Which of these men
Loved the light and the queen
Too long virgin? Yesterday was summer. Who was it promised marriage to himself
Before apples were hung from the ceilings for Hallowe’en?
We will wait and watch the tragedy to the last curtain,
Till the last soul passively like a bag of wet clay
Rolls down the side of the hill, diverted by the angles
Where the plough missed or a spade stands, straitening the way.
A dog lying on a torn jacket under a heeled-up cart,
A horse nosing along the posied headland, trailing
A rusty plough. Three heads hanging between wide-apart legs.
October playing a symphony on a slack wire paling.
Maguire watches the drills flattened out
And the flints that lit a candle for him on a June altar
Flameless. The drills slipped by and the days slipped by
And he trembled his head away and ran free from the world’s halter,
And thought himself wiser than any man in the townland
When he laughed over pints of porter
Of how he came free from every net spread
In the gaps of experience. He shook a knowing head
And pretended to his soul
That children are tedious in hurrying fields of April
Where men are spanning across wide furrows.
Lost in the passion that never needs a wife
The pricks that pricked were the pointed pins of harrows.
Children scream so loud that the crows could bring
The seed of an acre away with crow-rude jeers.
Patrick Maguire, he called his dog and he flung a stone in the air
And hallooed the birds away that were the birds of the years.
Turn over the weedy clods and tease out the tangled skeins.
What is he looking for there?
He thinks it is a potato, but we know better
Than his mud-gloved fingers probe in this insensitive hair.
‘Move forward the basket and balance it steady
In this hollow. Pull down the shafts of that cart, Joe,
And straddle the horse,’ Maguire calls.
‘The wind’s over Brannagan’s, now that means rain.
Graip up some withered stalks and see that no potato falls
Over the tail-board going down the ruckety pass –
And that’s a job we’ll have to do in December,
Gravel it and build a kerb on the bog-side. Is that Cassidy’s ass
Out in my clover? Curse o’ God
Where is that dog?.
Never where he’s wanted’ Maguire grunts and spits
Through a clay-wattled moustache and stares about him from the height.
His dream changes like the cloud-swung wind
And he is not so sure now if his mother was right
When she praised the man who made a field his bride.
Watch him, watch him, that man on a hill whose spirit
Is a wet sack flapping about the knees of time.
He lives that his little fields may stay fertile when his own body
Is spread in the bottom of a ditch under two coulters crossed in Christ’s Name.
He was suspicious in his youth as a rat near strange bread,
When girls laughed; when they screamed he knew that meant
The cry of fillies in season. He could not walk
The easy road to destiny. He dreamt
The innocence of young brambles to hooked treachery.
O the grip, O the grip of irregular fields! No man escapes.
It could not be that back of the hills love was free
And ditches straight.
No monster hand lifted up children and put down apes
‘O God if I had been wiser!’
That was his sigh like the brown breeze in the thistles
He looks, towards his house and haggard. ‘O God if I had been wiser!’
But now a crumpled leaf from the whitethorn bushes
Darts like a frightened robin, and the fence
Shows the green of after-grass through a little window,
And he knows that his own heart is calling his mother a liar
God’s truth is life – even the grotesque shapes of his foulest fire.
The horse lifts its head and cranes
Through the whins and stones
To lip late passion in the crawling clover.
In the gap there’s a bush weighted with boulders like morality,
The fools of life bleed if they climb over.
The wind leans from Brady’s, and the coltsfoot leaves are holed with rust,
Rain fills the cart-tracks and the sole-plate grooves;
A yellow sun reflects in Donaghmoyne
The poignant light in puddles shaped by hooves.
Come with me, Imagination, into this iron house
And we will watch from the doorway the years run back,
And we will know what a peasant’s left hand wrote on the page.
Be easy, October. No cackle hen, horse neigh, tree sough, duck quack.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, Section I
The poem begins with nature’s element “clay” representing soil and land that sets out a base for a farmer’s existence. The routinely lifeless activity of potato gatherers like Patrick Maguire and his men deems mechanical status according to the speaker who invites the readers to watch them and jot down their observations. Their bent backs appear to be broken as they are ageing and thus approaching death. Rural life thus proves nothing but the banal truth of hard work and toil that might or might not yield results. The speaker asks if something fantastical or extraordinary exists in these “wet clods” for our witness in this extreme temperature. Time is passing and men are failing in their promise to themselves to be married by Halloween. Sexual deprivation looms over them like a tragic fate. This contemporary scenario is equivalent to a dramatic performance the speaker intends to watch till the end the last soul dies. Life is a play or as Shakespeare famously said “All the world’s a stage./And all the men and women merely players.”
The October winds are engaging themselves in a musical rendition by moving through the wires. We get an insight into Maguire’s earlier beliefs and content concerning his dedication to farming life. He believes in his superiority and commands over the world’s knowledge but now as time slips by, he is realising the absence of familial life and the missed opportunities. Maguire is working on his field all covered in mud in a systematic fashion. But now he is clouded with second thoughts and ponders over his mother’s support in making his “field a bride” at the age where he should have wedded an actual woman. His life’s purpose is to keep his field young and fertile even when his own body perishes due to the ravages of time. Earlier, the notion of girls for him was synonymous to betrayal. But now even if he desires to have one in his life, the “grip of fields” is so firm that no man can escape. He laments his foolishness to have climbed over the boulder of morality and bled to deprivation. The section closes with Maguire returning to his “iron house” at the end of the day and the speaker calling out to Imagination- his as well as the readers’, to journey along into the house and look at the past and stifling life that peasants like Maguire endure.
“the potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move”
“gulls like old newspapers are blown clear of the hedges”
“the last soul passively like a bag of wet clay”
“He was suspicious in his youth as a rat near strange bread”
“That was his sigh like the brown breeze in the thistles”
“His dream changes like the cloud-swung wind”
“a crumpled leaf from the whitethorn bushes/ Darts like a frightened robin”
“a bush weighted with boulders like morality”
“life as it is broken-backed over the Book/ Of Death”
“We will wait and watch the tragedy”
“pints of porter”
“pricks that pricked were the pointed pins of harrows”
“To lip late passion in the crawling clover”
“the flints that lit a candle for him on a June altar/Flameless.”
“Watch him, watch him”
“that man on a hill whose spirit / Is a wet sack flapping about the knees of time”
Maguiire was faithful to death:
He stayed with his mother till she died
At the age of ninety-one.
She stayed too long,
Wife and mother in one.
When she died
The knuckle-bones were cutting the skin of her son’s backside
And he was sixty-five.
O he loved his mother
Above all others.
O he loved his ploughs
And he loved his cows
And his happiest dream
Was to clean his arse
With perennial grass
On the bank of some summer stream;
To smoke his pipe
In a sheltered gripe
In the middle of July.
His face in a mist
And two stones in his fist
And an impotent worm on his thigh.
But his passion became a plague
For he grew feeble bringing the vague
Women of his mind to lust nearness,
Once a week at least flesh must make an appearance.
So Maguire got tired
Of the no-target gun fired
And returned to his headland of carrots and cabbage
To the fields once again
Where eunuchs can be men
And life is more lousy than savage.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, Section II
Maguire’s mother lives a long life and dies at the age of ninety-one while he is sixty-five. Her presence as that of a mother and a wife according to the speaker sheds light on the oedipal complex Maguire might be suffering from. However, the love he has for his mother is not special and is immediately undercut by his love for his farm and domestic animals. This section catalogues his insignificant wishes such as smoking his pipe. But contrasting to this petty desire is a desire for sexual gratification which fuels his lust for women. However, the euphemism “no-target gun fired” suggests the non-achievement of that gratification which compels him to return to his farm world where “eunuchs can be men” to hint at the lack of any difference between men like Maguire and other castrated males since both of them could not indulge in sexual activities. Life is poor and monotonous instead of wild.
“some summer stream”
Poor Paddy Maguire, a fourteen-hour day
He worked for years. It was he that lit the fire
And boiled the kettle and gave the cows their hay.
His mother tall hard as a Protestant spire
Came down the stairs barefoot at the kettle-call
And talked to her son sharply: ‘Did you let
The hens out, you?’ She had a venomous drawl
And a wizened face like moth-eaten leatherette.
Two black cats peeped between the banisters
And gloated over the bacon-fizzling pan.
Outside the window showed tin canisters.
The snipe of Dawn fell like a whirring stone
And Patrick on a headland stood alone.
The pull is on the traces, it is March
And a cold black wind is blowing from Dundalk.
The twisting sod rolls over on her back
The virgin screams before the irresistible sock.
No worry on Maguire’s mind this day
Except that he forgot to bring his matches.
‘Hop back there Polly, hoy back, woa, wae,
From every second hill a neighbour watches
With all the sharpened interest of rivalry.
Yet sometimes when the sun comes through a gap
These men know 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.
Primroses and the unearthly start of ferns
Among the blackthorn shadows in the ditch,
A dead sparrow and an old waistcoat. Maguire learns
As the horses turn slowly round the which is which
Of love and fear and things half born to mind
He stands between the plough-handles and he sees
At the end of a long furrow his name signed
Among the poets, prostitutes. With all miseries
He is one. Here with the unfortunate
Who for half-moments of paradise
Pay out good days and wait and wait
For sunlight-woven cloaks. O to be wise
As Respectability that knows the price of all things
And marks God’s truth in pounds and pence and farthings.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, Section III
Maguire works for fourteen hours a day all his life which depicts the long working hours the profession demands. Sadly, his chores do not end on the field as his house to expects him to work continuously resembling the Protestant work ethic. His authoritative mother talks to him sharply in the second person instead of a more personal address. The loneliness engulfing Maguire puts him in a pitiful light. The cold weather delays the agricultural produce but peasants believe in God who will bless them and their field through rising saplings. Maguire is a man of hope who aspires to achieve intellectual greatness and fame like the poets and also carnal satisfaction. He is well aware of his position in society and nothing in the world can match the worth of respectability which cannot be monetised.
“His mother tall hard as a Protestant spire”
“a wizened face like moth-eaten leatherette”
“The snipe of Dawn fell like a whirring stone”
April, and no one able to calculate
How far it is to harvest. They put down
The seeds blindly with sensuous groping fingers
And sensual dreams sleep dreams subtly underground.
Tomorrow is Wednesday – who cares?
‘Remember Eileen Farrelly? I was thinking
A man might do a damned sight worse …’ That voice is blown
Through a hole in a garden wall –
And who was Eileen now cannot be known.
The cattle are out on grass
The corn is coming up evenly.
The farm folk are hurrying to catch Mass:
Christ will meet them at the end of the world, the slow and the speedier.
But the fields say: only Time can bless.
Maguire knelt beside a pillar where he could spit
Without being seen. He turned an old prayer round:
‘Jesus, Mary, Joseph pray for us
Now and at the Hour.’ Heaven dazzled death.
‘Wonder should I cross-plough that turnip-ground.’
The tension broke. The congregation lifted it head
As one man and coughed in unison.
Five hundred hearts were hungry for life-
Who lives in Christ shall never die the death.
And the candle-lit Altar and the flowers
And the pregnant Tabernacle lifted a moment to Prophecy
Out of the clayey hours
Maguire sprinkled his face with holy water
As the congregation stood up for the Last Gospel.
He rubbed the dust off his knees with his palm, and then
Coughed the prayer phlegm up from his throat and sighed: Amen.
Once one day in June when he was walking
Among his cattle in the Yellow Meadow
He met a girl carrying a basket
And he was then a young and heated fellow.
Too earnest, too earnest! He rushed beyond the thing
To the unreal. And he saw Sin
Written in letters larger than John Bunyan dreamt of.
For the strangled impulse there is no redemption.
And that girl was gone and he was counting
The dangers in the fields where love ranted
He was helpless. He saw his cattle
And stroked their flanks in lieu of wife to handle.
He would have changed the circle if he could,
The circle that was the grass track where he ran.
Twenty times a day he ran round the field
And still there was no winning-post where the runner is cheered home.
Desperately he broke the tune,
But however he tried always the same melody lept up from the background,
The dragging step of a ploughman going home through the guttery
Headlands under an April-watery moon.
Religion, the fields and the fear of the Lord
And Ignorance giving him the coward’s blow,
He dared not rise to pluck the fantasies
From the fruited Tree of Life. He bowed his head
And saw a wet weed twined about his toe.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, Section IV
The farming activity of laying down the seeds finds a strange sexual oneness through the use of “groping fingers” that embeds the seeds of gratification in the soil. Anticipations surrounding the harvest occupy the farmers who participate in religious prayers in a hope of good produce. The late harvest leads to hunger but the faith in Christ sustains them. The scene shifts to a day in June when Maguire encounters a girl and runs away from her out of helplessness. As a young religious fellow, he views the girl as a sin he should not commit by giving in to his carnal desires. The girl is replaced by the cattle who he strokes gently as if caressing his wife. The futile and unrewarding deeds come to the fore when the speaker bluntly satirizes the absence of a “winning-post” despite Maguire running “twenty times a day” around the field. The farmer listens to the same melody day after day comprising of ploughing materials, religious doctrines, his farm and the fear of God. These forces prevent him to fantasize and manifest his suppressed desires. The section closes with his coming back to reality as he observes a weed stuck in his toe like a chain holding him back to fly into the world of dreams.
“Written in letters larger than John Bunyan dreamt of.” The line alludes to the great 17TH century English writer John Bunyan.
Evening at the cross-roads –
Heavy heads nodding out words as wise
As the ruminations of cows after milking.
From the ragged road surface a boy picks up
A piece of gravel and stares at it-and then
Tosses it across the elm tree on to the railway.
He means nothing.
Not a damn thing
Somebody is coming over the metal railway bridge
And his hobnailed boots on the arches sound like a gong
Calling men awake. But the bridge is too narrow –
The men lift their heads a moment. That was only John,
So they dream on.
Night in the elms, night in the grass.
O we are too tired to go home yet. Two cyclists pass
Talking loudly of Kitty and Molly?
Horses or women? wisdom or folly?
A door closes on an evicted dog
Where prayers begin in Barney Meegan’s kitchen :
Rosie curses the cat between her devotions;
The daughter prays that she may have three wishes –
Health and wealth and love –
From the fairy who is faith or hope or compounds of.
At the cross-roads the crowd had thinned out:
Last words were uttered. There is no to-morrow;
No future but only time stretched for the mowing of the hay
Or putting an axle in the turf-barrow.
Patrick Maguire went home and made cocoa
And broke a chunk off the loaf of wheaten bread;
His mother called down to him to look again
And make sure that the hen-house was locked. His sister grunted in bed
The sound of a sow taking up a new position.
Pat opened his trousers wide over the ashes
And dreamt himself to lewd sleepiness.
The clock ticked on. Time passes.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, Section V
It is night and a group of men is conversing amongst each other appearing to be full of wisdom but the speaker’s sarcasm renders their discussion an image of cows ruminating after milking. John, a fellow farmer disturbs sleeping men with his loud sounds of a walk. They travel back to their dream world. A humorous dig at the farmers for always being preoccupied with horses gives the poem a moment of laughter as the speaker wonders if the two passing cyclists are talking about women or horses when they address the concerned entities as “Kitty” and “Molly.” Patrick Maguire returns back to his house tired and sleepy. Like every day, the clock ticks and the time moves on without any changes in his life.
“Heavy heads nodding out words as wise/ As the ruminations of cows after milking.”
“his hobnailed boots on the arches sound like a gong”
“Night in the elms, night in the grass”
Health and wealth and love he too dreamed of in May
As he sat on the railway slope and watched the children of the place
Picking up a primrose here and a daisy there –
They were picking up life’s truth singly.
But he dreamt of the Absolute envased bouquet –
AIl or nothing. And it was nothing. For God is not all
In one place, complete
Till Hope comes in and takes it on his shoulder –
O Christ, that is what you have done for us:
In a crumb of bread the whole mystery is.
He read the symbol too sharply and turned
From the five simple doors of sense
To the door whose combination lock has puzzled
Philosopher and priest and common dunce.
Men build their heavens as they build their circles
Of friends. God is in the bits and pieces of Everyday –
A kiss here and a laugh again, and sometimes tears,
A pearl necklace round the neck of poverty.
He sat on the railway slope and watched the evening,
Too beautifully perfect to use,
And his three wishes were three stones too sharp to sit on,
Too hard to carve. Three frozen idols of a speechless muse.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, Section VI
Maguire wishes to have all the pleasures and truths of the world like a bouquet of flowers instead of achieving them one by one like a single primrose or a daisy the kids he watches from a distance pick up. But God does not exist in just one place. He is everywhere and thus Maguire can only hope to achieve them one day. Hope is personified as a man i.e. Christ who became an embodiment of everything a human should be. The three wishes- “Health, Wealth and Love” thus become three sharp stones which are not only difficult to sit on but also “hard to carve.” While some can consider them to be simple wishes, they cannot be earned without true determination and luck.
‘Now go to Mass and pray and confess your sins
And you’ll have all the luck,’ his mother said.
He listened to the lie that is a woman’s screen
Around a conscience when soft thighs are spread.
And all the while she was setting up the lie
She trusted in Nature that never deceives.
But her son took it as literal truth.
Religion’s walls expand to the push of nature. Morality yields
To sense – but not in little tillage fields.
Life went on like that. One summer morning
Again through a hay-field on her way to the shop –
The grass was wet and over-leaned the path –
And Agnes held her skirts sensationally up
And not because the grass was wet either.
A man was watching her, Patrick Maguire.
She was in love with passion and its weakness
And the wet grass could never cool the fire
That radiated from her unwanted womb in that metaphysical land
Where flesh was thought more spiritual than music
Among the stars – out of reach of the peasant’s hand.
Ah, but the priest was one of the people too –
A farmers son – and surely he knew
The needs of a brother and sister.
Religion could not be a counter-irritant like a blister,
But the certain standard, measured and known
By which man might re-make his soul though all walls were down
And all earth’s pedestalled gods thrown.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, Section VII
This section begins with a two-fold dominance over Maguire- his mother’s as well as his religion. Women for him are the experts of lies that men like him believe as a “literal truth.” Religion and morality operate differently for rural folks as they are deeply rooted in conventionality and thus often fail to question their shortcomings. Time passes and one summer morning another woman named Agnes meets Patrick Maguire’s eyes. They exchange a moment of passionate and amorous glances. But like any other girl, she was “out of reach” because rural conventions dictate it. Nonetheless, religion too is not devoid of failings and hence the priest who is also a farmer’s son does realise and acknowledge human needs for physical intimacy. Religion is a standard against which a human can modify his/her soul when he/she falls into the web of sin.
“Religion could not be a counter-irritant like a blister”
Sitting on a wooden gate,
Sitting on a wooden gate,
Sitting on a wooden gate
He didn’t care a damn.
Said whatever came into his head,
Said whatever came into his head,
Said whatever came into his head
And inconsequently sang.
While his world withered away,
He had a cigarette to smoke and a pound to spend
On drink the next Saturday.
His cattle were fat
And his horses all that
Midsummer grass could make them.
The young women ran wild
And dreamed of a child
Joy dreams though the fathers might forsake them
But no one would take them;
No man could ever see
That their skirts had loosed buttons,
O the men were as blind as could be.
And Patrick Maguire
From his. purgatory fire
Called the gods of the Christian to prove
That this twisted skein
Was the necessary pain
And not the rope that was strangling true love.
But sitting on a wooden gate
Sometime in July
When he was thirty-four or five
He gloried in the lie:
He made it read the way it should,
He made life read the evil good
While he cursed the ascetic brotherhood
Without knowing why.
Sitting on a wooden gate
All, all alone
He sang and laughed
Like a man quite daft,
Or like a man on a channel raft
He fantasied forth his groan.
Sitting on a wooden gate,
Sitting on a wooden gate,
Sitting on a wooden gate
He rode in day-dream cars.
He locked his body with his knees
When the gate swung too much in the breeze.
But while he caught high ecstasies
Life slipped between the bars.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, Section VIII
Patrick is approaching middle age and one day while sitting on a wooden gate, he just blabbers whatever comes to his mind. Life for others is moving- cattle are getting fat, horses are in perfect condition, and young women are wildly desiring to become mothers which in this context refers to premarital intercourse that would impregnate them. No man would ever take a woman whose “skirts had loosed buttons” owing to the virginal requirements of a woman in the contemporary era. Maguire calls to the Gods to prove his suffering which is necessary. However, it is a lie and he plays along with it to live in denial. Still, he manages to curse ascetic life for reasons beyond his comprehension. He is all alone with only thoughts to keep him company and while driving his “day-dream cars” life slips by in a flash.
“Sitting on a wooden gate/ Sitting on a wooden gate/ Sitting on a wooden gate”
“Said whatever came into his head/ Said whatever came into his head/ Said whatever came into his head”
“While his world withered away”
He gave himself another year,
Something was bound to happen before then –
The circle would break down
And he would carve the new one to his own will.
A new rhythm is a new life
And in it marriage is hung and money.
He would be a new man walking through unbroken meadows
Of dawn in the year of One.
The poor peasant talking to himself in a stable door
An ignorant peasant deep in dung.
What can the passers-by think otherwise?
Where is his silver bowl of knowledge hung?
Why should men be asked to believe in a soul
That is only the mark of a hoof in guttery gaps?
A man is what is written on the label.
And the passing world stares but no one stops
To look closer. So back to the growing crops
And the ridges he never loved.
Nobody will ever know how much tortured poetry the pulled weeds on the ridge wrote
Before they withered in the July sun,
Nobody will ever read the wild, sprawling, scrawling mad woman’s signature,
The hysteria and the boredom of the enclosed nun of his thought.
Like the afterbirth of a cow stretched on a branch in the wind
Life dried in the veins of these women and men:
‘The grey and grief and unloved,
The bones in the backs of their hands,
And the chapel pressing its low ceiling over them.
Sometimes they did laugh and see the sunlight,
A narrow slice of divine instruction.
Going along the river at the bend of Sunday
The trout played in the pools encouragement
To jump in love though death bait the hook.
And there would be girls sitting on the grass banks of lanes.
Stretch-legged and lingering staring –
A man might take one of them if he had the courage.
But ‘No’ was in every sentence of their story
Except when the public-house came in and shouted its piece.
The yellow buttercups and the bluebells among the whin bushes
On rocks in the middle of ploughing
Was a bright spoke in the wheel
Of the peasant’s mill.
The goldfinches on the railway paling were worth looking at –
A man might imagine then
Himself in Brazil and these birds the birds of paradise
And the Amazon and the romance traced on the school map lived again.
Talk in evening corners and under trees
Was like an old book found in a king’s tomb.
The children gathered round like students and listened
And some of the saga defied the draught in the open tomb
And was not blown.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, Section IX
New energy fills these lines as a change is waiting for Patrick Maguire. Marriage and money are predicted in his future cards. These are thoughts that Maguire blurts out to himself while covered in dung that acts as a reminder of his belongingness. The world never allows farmers like him to dream and thus the scene shifts back to his farm. A man’s identity is what he holds as a label. Religious domination overpowers the aspirations of both men and women. If they attempt to embrace love, death awaited them according to the prevalent teachings. For the peasants, everything carries a refusal.
“deep in dung”
Their intellectual life consisted in reading
Reynolds News or the Sunday Dispatch,
With sometimes an old almanac brought down from the ceiling
Or a school reader brown with the droppings of thatch.
The sporting results or the headlines of war
Was a humbug profound as the highbrow’s Arcana.
Pat tried to be wise to the abstraction of all that
But its secret dribbled down his waistcoat like a drink from a strainer.
He wagered a bob each way on the Derby,
He got a straight tip from a man in a shop –
A double from the Guineas it was and thought himself
A master mathematician when one of them came up
And he could explain how much he’d have drawn
On the double if the second leg had followed the first.
He was betting on form and breeding, he claimed,
And the man that did that could never be burst.
After that they went on to the war, and the generals
On both sides were shown to be stupid as hell.
If he’d taken that road, they remarked of a Marshal,
He’d have … O they know their geography well
This was their university. Maguire was an undergraduate
Who dreamed from his lowly position of rising
To a professorship like Larry McKenna or Duffy
Or the pig-gelder Nallon whose knowledge was amazing.
‘A treble, full multiple odds … That’s flat porter …
Another one … No, you’re wrong about that thing I was telling you. .
Did you part with your filly, Jack? I heard that you sold her.…’
The students were all savants by the time of pub-close.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, Section X
The farmers gain intellect primarily through reading newspapers. News on war is looked at as a “humbug” with airs of mystery. Patrick ventures into the absorption of such kind of information but it just slips down right away. On his way to Derby, he is tipped by a man and this leads to a conversation on various relevant topics especially the war and different leaders. His dream of climbing up the social ladder of education and professional recognition by being appointed as a professor starkly contrasts with his earlier representation. Since all young university students in an inebriated state can become great scholars, why cannot Maguire?
“But its secret dribbled down his waistcoat like a drink from a strainer.”
A year passed and another hurried after it
And Patrick Maguire was still six months behind life –
His mother six months ahead of it;
His sister straddle-legged across it: –
One leg in hell and the other in heaven
And between the purgatory of middle-aged virginity –
She prayed for release to heaven or hell.
His mother’s voice grew thinner like a rust-worn knife
But it cut venomously as it thinned,
It cut him up the middle till he became more woman than man,
And it cut through to his mind before the end.
Another field whitened in the April air
And the harrows rattled over the seed.
He gathered the loose stones off the ridges carefully
And grumbled to his men to hurry. He looked like a man who could give advice
To foolish young fellows. He was forty-seven,
And there was depth in his jaw and his voice was the voice of a great cattle-dealer,
A man with whom the fair-green gods break even.
‘I think I ploughed that lea the proper depth,
She ought to give a crop if any land gives …
Drive slower with the foal-mare, Joe.’
Joe, a young man of imagined wives,
Smiles to himself and answered like a slave:
‘You needn’t fear or fret.
I’m taking her as easy, as easy as …
Easy there Fanny, easy, pet.’
They loaded the day-scoured implements on the cart
As the shadows of poplars crookened the furrows.
It was the evening, evening. Patrick was forgetting to be lonely
As he used to be in Aprils long ago.
It was the menopause, the misery-pause.
The schoolgirls passed his house laughing every morning
And sometimes they spoke to him familiarly –
He had an idea. Schoolgirls of thirteen
Would see no political intrigue in an old man’s friendship.
The heifer waiting to be nosed by the old bull.
That notion passed too – there was the danger of talk
And jails are narrower than the five-sod ridge
And colder than the black hills facing Armagh in February.
He sinned over the warm ashes again and his crime
The law’s long arm could not serve with time.
His face set like an old judge’s pose:
Respectability and righteousness,
Stand for no nonsense.
The priest from the altar called Patrick Maguire’s name
To hold the collecting-box in the chapel door
During all the Sundays of May.
His neighbours envied him his holy rise,
But he walked down from the church with affected indifference
And took the measure of heaven angle-wise.
He still could laugh and sing,
But not the wild laugh or the abandoned harmony now
That called the world to new silliness from the top of a wooden gate
When thirty-five could take the sparrow’s bow.
Let us be kind, let us be kind and sympathetic:
Maybe life is not for joking or for finding happiness in –
This tiny light in Oriental Darkness
Looking out chance windows of poetry or prayer.
And the grief and defeat of men like these peasants
Is God’s way – maybe – and we must not want too much
The twisted thread is stronger than the wind-swept fleece.
And in the end who shall rest in truth’s high peace?
Or whose is the world now, even now?
O let us kneel where the blind ploughman kneels
And learn to live without despairing
In a mud-walled space –
Illiterate unknown and unknowing.
Let us kneel where he kneels
And feel what he feels.
One day he saw a daisy and he thought it
Reminded him of his childhood –
He stopped his cart to look at it.
Was there a fairy hiding behind it?
He helped a poor woman whose cow
Had died on her;
He dragged home a drunken man on a winter’s night
And one rare moment he heard the young people playing on the railway stile
And he wished them happiness and whatever they most desired from life.
He saw the sunlight and begrudged no man
His share of what the miserly soil and soul
Gives in a season to a ploughman.
And he cried for his own loss one late night on the pillow
And yet thanked the God who had arranged these things.
Was he then a saint?
A Matt Talbot of Monaghan?
His sister Mary Anne spat poison at the children
Who sometimes came to the door selling raffle tickets
For holy funds.
‘Get out, you little tramps!’ she would scream
As she shook to the hens an armful of crumbs,
But Patrick often put his hand deep down
In his trouser-pocket and fingered out a penny
Or maybe a tobacco-stained caramel.
‘You’re soft,’ said the sister; ‘with other people’s money
It’s not a bit funny.’
The cards are shuffled and the deck
Laid flat for cutting – Tom Malone
Cut for trump. I think we’ll make
This game, the last, a tanner one.
Hearts. Right. I see you’re breaking
Your two-year-old. Play quick, Maguire,
The clock there says it’s half-past ten –
Kate, throw another sod on that fire.
One of the card-players laughs and spits
Into the flame across a shoulder.
Outside, a noise like a rat
Among the hen-roosts.
The cock crows over
The frosted townland of the night.
Eleven o’clock and still the game
Goes on and the players seem to be
Drunk in an Orient opium den.
Midnight, one o’clock, two.
Somebody’s leg has fallen asleep.
What about home? Maguire, are you
Using your double-tree this week?
Why? do you want it? Play the ace.
There’s it, and that’s the last card for me.
A wonderful night, we had. Duffy’s place
Is very convenient. Is that a ghost or a tree?
And so they go home with dragging feet
And their voices rumble like laden carts.
And they are happy as the dead or sleeping …
I should have led that ace of hearts.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, Section XI
The anticipated year of new beginnings also passes and life is still where it was for Patrick, his mother and his sister. The sister wishes to be released from the suffering of “middle-aged virginity.” Though the mother’s voice grows thinner as she ages, the bitterness in her words equivalent to the consumption of poison does not compromise. Patrick, despite being the only male in the house couldn’t establish his masculine authority as the patriarchal society might expect from him. He grows effeminate day by day. He is forty-seven, still working on the fields and instructing his men but still appealing to the eye.
The midlife crisis is termed as “menopause” and the “misery-pause” for Maguire where the former is ascribed to a woman’s shutting down of her menstrual cycles. Maguire’s passivity and female-oriented approach to life- afraid of God and society, attracts such anatomical terminology. His desperation drives him to eye young school girls of thirteen addressed as “heifer” but he sensibly passes down the notion after discerning the crime of paedophilia for he would be jailed. While he does not grow in his sexual expedition, his holy rise garners envy from his neighbours. The speaker adopts a soft tone and pleads the divinity to allow us a feeling of gratefulness and satisfaction like the ploughman. Maguire helps many people in his life selflessly like a saint. He even pays money to children selling raffle tickets despite economic troubles which his sister opposes. Further, Maguire is playing cards with other men as means of a pastime which turns out to be a wonderful night for him.
“His mother’s voice grew thinner like a rust-worn knife”
“And their voices rumble like laden carts”
“Let us be kind, let us be kind”
The fields were bleached white,
The wooden tubs full of water
Were white in the winds
That blew through Brannagan’s Gap on their way from Siberia;
The cows on the grassless heights .
Followed the hay that had wings –
The February fodder that hung itself on the black branches
Of the hill-top hedge.
A man stood beside a potato-pit
And clapped his arms
And pranced on the crisp roots
And shouted to warm himself.
Then he buck-leaped about the potatoes
And scooped them into a basket.
He looked like a bucking suck-calf
Whose spine was being tickled.
Sometimes he stared across the bogs
And sometimes he straightened his back and vaguely whistled
A tune that weakened his spirit
And saddened his terrier dog’s.
A neighbour passed with a spade on his shoulder
And Patrick Maguire bent like a bridge
Whistled-good morning under his oxter
And the man the other side of the hedge
Champed his spade on the road at his toes
And talked an old sentimentality
While the wind blew under his clothes.
The mother sickened and stayed in bed all day,
Her head hardly dented the pillow, so light and thin it had worn,
But she still enquired after the household affairs.
She held the strings of her children’s Punch and Judy, and when a mouth opened
It was her truth that the dolls would have spoken
If they hadn’t been made of wood and tin –
‘Did you open the barn door, Pat, to let the young calves in?’
The priest called to see her every Saturday
And she told him her troubles and fears:
‘If Mary Anne was settled I’d die in peace –
I’m getting on in years.’
‘You were a good woman,’ said the priest,
‘And your children will miss you when you’re gone.
The likes of you this parish never knew,
I’m sure they’ll not forget the work you’ve done.’
She reached five bony crooks under the tick –
‘Five pounds for Masses – won’t you say them quick.’
She died one morning in the beginning of May
And a shower of sparrow-notes was the litany for her dying.
The holy water was sprinkled on the bed-clothes
And her children stood around the bed and cried because it was too late for crying.
A mother dead! The tired sentiment:
‘Mother, Mother’ was a shallow pool
Where sorrow hardly could wash its feet …
Mary Anne came away from the deathbed and boiled the calves their gruel.
‘O what was I doing when the procession passed?
Where was I looking? Young women and men
And I might have joined them.
Who bent the coin of my destiny
That it stuck in the slot?
I remember a night we walked
Through the moon of Donaghmoyne,
Four of us seeking adventure,
It was midsummer forty years ago.
Now I know
The moment that gave the turn to my life.
O Christ! I am locked in a stable with pigs and cows for ever.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, Section XII
The chilly winters cover the fields in a white blanket. A man, possibly another farmer is collecting potatoes in his basket, unable to stand firm in the cold winds. The extreme weather conditions do not provide any respite to these hardworking peasants from their job. Patrick exchanges pleasantries with a neighbour while working his lot outside the house. His mother is bedridden and nearing death. But she still portrays a great interest in household affairs. She is concerned for her daughter Mary Anne and not her son after her death. This exhibits the radical inversion of gender constraints practised in Maguire’s family. The mother soon dies and the church offers prayers. The children express their remorse which is highly contested given the authoritative stance the mother held in their lives. The section closes with Mary Anne lamenting her fate even after her mother’s death.
“Were white in the winds”
“He looked like a bucking suck-calf”
“Patrick Maguire bent like a bridge”
The world looks on
And talks of the peasant:
The peasant has no worries;
In his little lyrical fields He ploughs and sows;
He eats fresh food,
He loves fresh women, He is his own master
As it was in the Beginning
The simpleness of peasant life.
The birds that sing for him are eternal choirs ,
Everywhere he walks there are flowers.
His heart is pure, His mind is clear,
He can talk to God as Moses and Isaiah talked
The peasant who is only one remove from the beasts he drives. ‘
“The travellers stop their cars to gape over the green bank into his fields: –
There is the source from which all cultures rise,
And all religions,
There is the pool in which the poet dips
And the musician.
Without the peasant base civilisation must die,
Unless the clay is in the mouth the singer’s singing is useless.
The travellers touch the roots of the grass and feel renewed
When they grasp the steering wheels again.
The peasant is the unspoiled child of Prophecy,
The peasant is all virtues – let us salute him without irony
The peasant ploughman who is half a vegetable –
Who can react to sun and rain and sometimes even
Regret that the Maker of Light had not touched him more intensely.
Brought him up from the sub-soil to an existence
Of conscious joy. He was not born blind.
He is not always blind: sometimes the cataract yields
To sudden stone-falling or the desire to breed.
The girls pass along the roads
And he can remember what man is,
But there is nothing he can do.
Is there nothing he can do?
Is there no escape?
No escape, no escape.
The cows and horses breed,
And the potato-seed
Gives a bud and a root and rots
In the good mother’s way with her sons;
The fledged bird is thrown
From the nest – on its own.
But the peasant in his little acres is tied
To a mother’s womb by the wind-toughened navel-cord
Like a goat tethered to the stump of a tree –
He circles around and around wondering why it should be.
No crash, No drama.
That was how his life happened.
No mad hooves galloping in the sky,
But the weak, washy way of true tragedy –
A sick horse nosing around the meadow for a clean place to die.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, XIII
The simplicity of peasant life marks this section. The ideal Irish farmer is picturised by the speaker as a man who has a pure heart and a clear mind without any worries. The land is the source of life- everything that is needed to sustain life- food and shelter primarily, come from the land and the farmers’ toiling. The speaker praises the peasant for his enduring capacity to all seasons and extreme weather conditions. In a satirical spirit, the speaker also mocks the blindness of the peasant when he desires to breed and associates this shortcoming with his cataract. The peasant cannot do anything about his destiny but the speaker interrogates it. If the animals he looks after can breed then why cannot he? Even the seeds give birth to buds and leaves. But the peasant is tied to his field like a mother’s umbilical cord. His life revolves around a fixed circumference waiting for the day of his death.
“He can talk to God as Moses and Isaiah talked”
“weak, washy way”
“Like a goat tethered to the stump of a tree”
“But the peasant in his little acres is tied /To a mother’s womb by the wind-toughened navel-cord”
We may come out in the October reality, Imagination,
The sleety wind no longer slants to the black hill where Maguire
And his men are now collecting the scattered harness and baskets.
The dog sitting on a wisp of dry stalks
Watches them through the shadows.
‘Back in, back in.’ One talks to the horse as to a brother.
Maguire himself is patting a potato-pit against the weather –
An old man fondling a new-piled grave:
‘Joe, I hope you didn’t forget to hide the spade .
For there’s rogues in the townland.
Hide it flat in a furrow.
I think we ought to be finished by to-morrow.
Their voices through the darkness sound like voices from a cave,
A dull thudding far away, futile, feeble, far away,
First cousins to the ghosts of the townland.
A light stands in a window. Mary Anne
Has the table set and the tea-pot waiting in the ashes.
She goes to the door and listens and then she calls
From the top of the haggard-wall :
‘What’s keeping you
And the cows to be milked and all the other work there’s to do?’
‘All right, all right
We’ll not stay here all night ‘
The curtain falls.
From the homing carts and the trees
And the bawling cows at the gates.
From the screeching water-hens
And the mill-race heavy with the Lammas floods curving over the weir
A train at the station blowing off steam
And the hysterical laughter of the defeated everywhere.
Night, and the futile cards are shuffled again.
Maguire spreads his legs over the impotent cinders that wake no manhood now
And he hardly looks to see which card is trump.
His sister tightens her legs and her lips and frizzles up
Like the wick of an oil-less lamp.
The curtain falls –
Maguire is not afraid of death, the Church will light him a candle
To see his way through the vaults and he’ll understand the
Quality of the clay that dribbles over his coffin.
He’ll know the names of the roots that climb down to tickle his feet.
And he will feel no different than when he walked through Donaghmoyne.
If he stretches out a hand – a wet clod,
If he opens his nostrils – a dungy smell;
If he opens his eyes once in a million years –
Through a crack in the crust of the earth he may see a face nodding in
Or a woman’s legs.
Shut them again for that sight is sin.
He will hardly remember that life happened to him –
Something was brighter a moment. Somebody sang in the distance
A procession passed down a mesmerized street.
He remembers names like Easter and Christmas
By colour his fields were.
Maybe he will be born again, a bird of an angel’s conceit
To sing the gospel of life
To a music as flighty tangent
As a tune on an oboe.
And the serious look of his fields will have changed to the leer of a hobo.
Swaggering celestially home to his three wishes granted.
Will that be? will that be?
Or is the earth right that laughs haw-haw
And does not believe
In an unearthly law.
The earth that says:
Patrick Maguire, the old peasant, can neither be damned nor glorified:
The graveyard in which he will lie will be just a deep-drilled potato-field
Where the seed gets no chance to come through
To the fun of the sun.
The tongue in his mouth is the root of a yew.
Silence, silence. The story is done.
He stands in the doorway of his house
A ragged sculpture of the wind,
October creaks the rotted mattress,
The bedposts fall. No hope. No lust.
The hungry fiend
Screams the apocalypse of clay
In every corner of this land.
The Great Hunger | Analysis, XIV
The poem shifts to the present i.e. the month of October as the speaker addresses Imagination as a partner. The entire flashback occupies the hour’s gaze the speaker intended in the beginning. Patrick returns to his house where Mary Anne is waiting for him for dinner. She calls out to him, adopting the role of his mother now- dominating and authoritative. The speaker intervenes to let the readers know about the approaching end of the poem which for us has been a play throughout. Everything is returning like the carts and the cows and the train at the station. Maguire who is now aged is sitting in his house with zero zeal for life and spreading his legs “that wake no manhood now” suggesting the gone days of his sexual capacity and availability.
The falling of the curtain ascribes to both the ending of their life story as a narration by the speaker as well as their death. Maguire in his death will still be able to decode the type of clay that “dribbles over his coffin” and also will be aware of the roots that would touch him when he’ll be laid underground. As a devoted peasant deeply rooted in the rural lifestyle, he will still be a farmer even in his death. However, his death still will forbid him to look at a woman sexually. The speaker anticipates the afterlife for Patrick who he desires to swagger celestially with his three wishes granted. But it is up to the earth to decide. It might prevent him to achieve happiness after death and rather provide Patrick with a mundane afterlife. The section closes with Patrick standing near his door contemplating the lost opportunities of his life, blaming clay i.e. the land and the rural profession he is engaged in for all his misery. The poem ends by establishing the fact that his fate plagues every other farmer in Ireland and the country as a whole is witnessing the “apocalypse of clay” referring to the agricultural crisis of the 19th century.
“Their voices through the darkness sound like voices from a cave”
“His sister tightens her legs and her lips and frizzles up/ Like the wick of an oil-less lamp”