‘The Great Hunger’ by Patrick Kavanagh *** (Reading Ireland Month)

Patrick Kavanagh is undoubtedly one of the most prominent figures in Irish literature, both as a novelist and as a poet. He was born in 1904 and died in 1967, having lived through wars and terrible times, which is something that has been instilled into his writing as well.

Having never read anything by Kavanagh before, I decided to commence my literary journey through his work with a poem of his, “The Great Hunger”. It was written in 1942 and it revolves around the life of a man named Maguire. As it is quite a lengthy poem, it consists of 14 parts and in terms of form it resembles more a prose-poem, since rhyming lines are scarce to non-existent.

Almost in its entirety, the poem describes the everyday life of an Irish man in those times, who, as a peasant/farmer, is  mostly preoccupied with agricultural activities. However, the poem has a very bleak and melancholic aura surrounding it, which is enhanced more and more as the poem progresses. Maguire lives with his mother, who seems to be a very bossy and authoritarian figure. Sometimes Maguire feels trapped in this kind of life that he leads, having to farm his land and do what his mother says, while news of his acquaintances’ success reach his ears.

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The futility of such a meaningless life is underlined constantly in the poem. As the years go by and Maguire grows older, he begins to realise that it may be too late now to actually make a change and create the life that he always dreamt of. Even when his mother is out of the picture, he doesn’t seem willing to progress and get rid of all those things that plague him and make him miserable. And that specific attribute of his character made me think whether it truly was his mother’s oppression which held him back and prevented him from moving forward and doing something useful and fulfilling in his life.

Kavanagh manages very skillfully to refute the idea of the “noble peasant” that had been created in Irish literature and ideology at that time, since his peasant character is far from noble and successful. Instead, he spends his life with activities that don’t offer him any kind of satisfaction and he is lost in his mourning of the things he never had the opportunity to have.

The depiction of the female characters in this poem is also noteworthy, I believe. The most prominent woman figure is certainly Maguire’s mother, who seems to be in control of everything around her. Another female figure is his sister, who is a spinster and also sad about her life. Therefore, even though Maguire is the main character of the poem, the rest of the characters also seem to be trapped in their situations and being unable to escape.

I also liked how the poem started and ended with images of soil and clay, since the Irish land itself could almost be considered a separate character of its own, as it is connected with both farming and all the agrarian activities the characters in this poem occupied themselves with, as well as with all the deaths that occured, serving as the final resting place for those tortured souls.

Ultimately, for me, the title of the poem referred to Maguire’s great hunger for life, for better opportunities and experiences. Sadly, this hunger, no matter how great it is, never seems to be saturated. I am certain that there are a lot more themes and nuances in this poem that I’ve missed, so I will probaby re-read it some time in the future. However, as it is really melancholic and leaves you with a sinking stomach by the end of it, I think I will have to be in the right mood for it. I did enjoy it, though, as a first contact with Kavanagh’s writing, and I’ll definitely seek out more of his work soon.

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