I’ve been preparing for my literary tour of Ireland in May and have enjoyed learning more about Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967). Kavanagh was born a countryman, in Inniskeen, County Monaghan, but he left the farm and moved to Dublin. In his later years, when he had a serious alcohol problem, he liked to walk by the Grand Canal, or just sit watching the water.
Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin
Erected to the Memory of Mrs Dermot O’Brien
O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water, preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagarously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose
Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
A swan goes by head low with many apologies,
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges –
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.
Kavanagh has now been thus commemorated by a statue in the spot where he liked to sit (on a seat erected to the memory of Mrs Dermot O’Brien). The statue was unveiled by Mary Robinson in June, 1991. On the South Bank of the canal there is also a wood and granite seat that was erected in honour of Kavanagh soon after his death. There are often readings of his poems at both places on St Patrick’s Day.
Kavanagh wrote several poems with this Grand Canal setting, all written after he had undergone a major operation and lost one lung, so his thoughts must have turned to death more than usual. The Canal Bank poems are a reminder to be less hurried. In his essay Man and Poet Kavanagh wrote: ‘We are in too great a hurry. We want a person or thing to yield their pleasures and their secrets to us quickly for we have other commitments. But it is the days when we are idle, when nothing appears to be happening, which provide us, when no one is looking, with all that is memorable’.
This is a sonnet about how one would like to be remembered after death (the words “commemorate me” are repeated three times in the poem, an indication of their importance). The sub-title is important. We are not told who Mrs Dermot O’Brien is, yet the seat remembers her and she was obviously someone who also loved the view of the canal. Kavanagh knows that he has fame as a poet and so will be honoured in some way when he has gone, but he does not want “a hero-courageous Tomb”. He’d prefer a simple seat, where people can sit and enjoy the same view that has given him pleasure. It is unusual for a poet to write about an urban, man-made environment in this way, but Kavanagh finds beauty in the barges, in the fantastic light “through the eyes of bridges”. Finding wonder in the ordinary is a common theme in Kavanagh’s poetry. The first lines use tranquil words – green, water, still, summer. He then connects the little Dublin canal lock with Niagara Falls, making a new word ‘niagarously’ to do so. He wants to show that this patch of water can be a stupendous experience, just as seeing Niagara is. He mentions “Parnassian islands”, connecting the canal with Mt Parnassus, a site associated with Apollo and the home of the Muses: thus he connects the Canal with the home of poetic inspiration. The poet then starts to look outwards, seeing the swans, the barge, and he transforms ordinary commerce into something mysterious and strange. He draws the reader in to see what he is seeing. The last line, by the use of the word ‘just’ emphasises the ordinary scene that he has just rendered extraordinary.
The tone of the poem is friendly – he addresses the reader as ‘Brother’, suggesting a feeling of kinship, though he could also be addressing Nature, indicating his sense of being at one with nature.
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