”We have tested and tasted too much, lover-/Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.’. The opening phrase of one of my favourite Patrick Kavanagh poems. He may have been an auld crank if stories of him ring true, but man could he nail the human condition, and moreover the Irish condition.
Advent sees Kavanagh at a critical juncture in his life. He is questioning how far he has come, and what direction he may go from here. He is longing for a return to innocence, like that of a child, as he rebukes himself for overindulging and succumbing to gluttony. Perhaps he was confronted with his own mortality, or perhaps he was fed up of the rejection letters that followed him around ‘the big schmoke’. Either way, there is a sense he has spent too much time indulging his intellect and not enough on his soul.
He longs for Advent to cleanse himself of this and start again, placing himself in a darkened room, where he lives off; ” the dry black bread and the sugarless tea/Of penance will charm back the luxury/Of a child’s soul,”. He believes that by going back to basics he will redeem himself and again find the wonder he had as a child. Current times dictate that we could all do with following suit.
A Return to Innocence.
Myself and my fiancée have been blessed with many nieces and nephews whose innocence and wonder restores one with every encounter. Two boys and a girl on her side, two girls and a boy on mine, nice dovetail or what?
From my first encounter with each them I have always been transfixed at their effervescence and unbound joy. They are well able to entertain themselves, not something many of us in the adult world can readily say is it? I have always found it fascinating watching them stare at something with a determined glare, as they try make sense of something that to the cynical adult seems banal. Oh how I wish there could be a narrator of their thoughts in those moments, as they smile merrily to themselves. Just what is so entertaining about the shadow their hand made?
I would equate it to my envy of people about to embark on a novel or tv show I loved: ‘Oh to be able to see it again with new eyes.’ Covid-19 may doing just that; giving us new eyes.
I can speculate of course. Perhaps it is the wonderful experience of discovering the world around you, that you never knew was there? I can remember such instances myself. The simple way I interpreted the world around me. I regularly got the complete wrong end of the stick, much to everyone’s amusement.
I distinctly remember one such instance where myself and my cousins observed a murder of crows gathering on the telephone wire across from the house. They all lined up neatly, like a well-versed military parade in full swing. The jet black silhouettes set against the dull, grey and emboldened sky set our imaginations a-wander. Why have all these crows gathered here? Oh of course, it must be a funeral! I like to think we stumbled into that logic due to our country’s rich heritage in the ritual of the funeral. Either that or we had an inherent sense of morbidity, which would of course undermine my previous comments on childhood wonder. No definitely not that!
Covid Returning us to Innocence
When the worsening news of this coronavirus began to pour out of our screens from afar and into our homes, we didn’t realise it, but we were involuntarily being returned to innocence. Suddenly, we were at a crossroads. Overindulge our intellects like Kavanagh warned against, by watching every possible corona-related feature, or indulge our souls, our psyche.
We saw some wonderful innovations, way back in March, which feels like a million years ago now. People began learning that language or instrument they always promised themselves they would. It was an ideal time to begin a diary (or even a blog;)). The internet became littered with wonderful, creative content that reminded us all just what an exceptional species we really are. The sense of community began to overtake the sense of dread that was streaming from our screens. If we were going down, we were going down with aplomb.
I firmly believe that we can mine some real positives from the depth of our own dark night of the soul. We simply must continue in this vein.
Are the old ways beginning anew?
With the news getting less doomsday-esque, day by day we are starting to sense some normality, whatever that is. Whilst news of any deaths is still so unsettling, the dwindling numbers are a source of encouragement. We have now entered phase one of our journey towards some semblance of normality.
Yet, I am disturbed to hear a sudden shrill voice demanding we hurdle faster towards this goal. We should open faster; open now and to hell with it, enough is enough. Unfortunately these aren’t the voices of our healthcare experts. These are the voices of radio presenters, columnists, and of those akin to you and I. The task of marrying care for our peoples’ health with that of peoples’ mental health and their fiscal health, given to our politicians, is not one I envy.
I was so encouraged at the outset of this that people were being prioritised above the economy. Whilst I know the two are interlinked, this prioritising was uplifting to say the least. However, of late I have noticed a return to our cynical ways; namely our blind self-interest. Once again people are resentful of those ‘milking the system’ even when they’ve a wage themselves. We simply must open schools at all costs; we’re done with this homeschooling lark.
I am reminded of the last line of another fantastic Kavanagh poem Epic, which is ironically only eight lines long. In this poem he questions what he feels is Ireland’s achilles heel; blind self-interest. He equates Hitler’s coming to power in Munich to two families fighting over barren land in Monaghan. The last line delivers a hammer blow by simply saying; ‘God’s make their own importance.’ Is the return to wonder being overridden by this old foe?
On the topic of opening schools; teachers are not designed to be behind a screen, no more than our wonderful students are. I simply cannot wait to be back where I belong; the classroom. However, I believe we must accede to experts here. Stringent protocols must be in place before this dream of mine is a reality.
I am unnerved by the fact that those clambering for schools to reopen, much like our GAA fields, are far from experts. This is not a lesson to teach our exceptional young people; that things should happen because I want them to, regardless of the consequences. We must ensure they know that it is only through true inter-dependency, that things should occur. The inter-dependency called for at the moment is that we respect the experts telling us how to proceed. That is the leadership our youth need.
Let’s stay on course.
Kavanagh’s longing to return to innocence was a path that we were unknowingly embarking upon, to turn back now would be a regretful move. Like most obstacles in life, it is how we respond that defines us. So far, we have responded beautifully, with a real return to wonder and beginning anew. It is always a reckoning when one is confronted by one’s own mortality. Yet it is also a time to truly appreciate the things that matter in life; our stunning creativity, our boundless hope and, of course, love and family.
To veer from that path now would be foolhardy for me, to say the least. The thought of a second wave and heading back into full lock-down is not something I can comprehend at the moment. It is a real fear, however. Let’s not go there, let us keep our new eyes of wonder intact. As Kavanagh succinctly puts it in the closing lines of Advent: ”We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages/Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-/And Christ comes with a January flower.”
They said that by staying apart, we would come together, yet it is by demanding that we be allowed come together again, that we may truly fall apart for good.
by Patrick Kavanagh
We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.
And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.
O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.