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Studies: poetry, landscape and God

The Spring 2018 issue of the Irish quarterly review Studies gives top billing to articles on poetry. The lead article, by Una Agnew SSL, concerns “lines of convergence and divergence” in the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney. This is followed by an article on each of two English Jesuit poets, Robert Southwell and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

In her piece on Kavanagh and Heaney, Una Agnew notes in particular the themes of landscape and memory. Both poets were raised in the Irish countryside, and both of them drew a great deal on this milieu in their poetry. There was, of course, a substantial difference between them with respect to their education and the role that formal learning played in their work, but the worlds from which they were drawn were not too different. For Heaney the different mythic traditions of the world provided a kind of symbolic idiom with which to make sense of – or give sense to – thoughts of childhood, home and exile. Kavanagh, however, though well-read, lacked Heaney’s academic background. Still, his “native genius overflowed in a lyrical giftedness that is unsurpassed”.

Heaney recognised this significant divergence between their two lives, but he also noted a striking affinity. It was Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’ that Heaney credits with giving him “the permission I needed to dwell without cultural anxiety among the usual landmarks” of his life. In Agnew’s words:

Kavanagh was using his own idiom, his own accent, his own vocabulary and thereby inventing a cultural otherness, different from Britain, giving writers such as Heaney and his literary colleagues their own identity as Irish poets of the future.

Agnew attends also to the religious question in her two poets. She describes how Kavanagh turned away from the “abstract, legalistic, anti-life God” of the Catholic Catechism, yet was unflinching in his embrace of a grace-filled world. Heaney, though evidently a great deal more ‘God-shy’, was also moulded in certain ways by the Catholicism he inherited. In response to a question about how Catholicism had shaped his life, he responded: “Totally”. He continued then to describe what he had received from his religious upbringing: an “inner expansiveness of consciousness, a sense of grace and God-filled space and a universe drenched in radiance”.

As Agnew notes, “Kavanagh would have delighted in such mystical eloquence”.

Gary Bouchard’s treatment of Robert Southwell’s poem ‘A vale of tears’ is a suitable companion piece for Agnew’s article. It concerns Southwell’s use of landscape imagery – proto-Romantic, you could say – as a figurative representation of a kind of spiritual desolation, which leads in turn to an exhortation to penitence.

The forces of nature, for all their grandeur, also play a part for Hopkins in representing a theology of suffering and salvation, as Patrick Samway SJ illustrates from the shipwreck poems, ‘The wreck of the Deutschland’ and ‘The loss of the Eurydice’. Samway sees these poems as impressive instances of Hopkins’s brilliant exegetical ability.

The current issue of Studies also features pieces on the dissenting republican attitudes of some Irish Jesuits in the Civil War years (by Olivia Frehill) and on the curious devotion which Daniel O’Connell had to English martyr St Thomas à Becket (by Caoimhín de Bhailís). There is also an eloquent call, by Fr William Swan, for Christian unity in Ireland, drawing inspiration from three great Irish Christian promoters of unity among the baptised, namely St Patrick, St Columbanus, and St Brigid.

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