Máire Holmes – Soul Searching: Kavanagh’s sense of God

Maire HolmsMáire Holmes is author of JOY Selected Poems; Kenny’s Bookshop, Galway, and DÚRÚN (1988). Coiscéim, Dublin. She holds MA in writing from N.U.I.Galway, and Education Award in Psychology, Counselling and Therapy. She is Editor in Chief of The Galway Review. Máire Holmes is a bilingual poet, playwright, writer, songwriter.

Soul Searching: Kavanagh’s sense of God

This talk SOUL SEARCHING is dedicated to the late Deirdre Manifold; a close friend of Patrick Kavanaghs.

By Máire Holmes

In the author’s note of Collected Poems; Kavanagh says –“But somehow or other I have a belief in poetry as a mystical thing and a dangerous thing.”
In 2013, aided by digital technology the word mystic is so misused it is in danger of losing meaning. This was not so during Kavanaghs life time. Having heard many stories about Kavanagh as a character, this week I asked a man known as “an file” – who drank with Kavanagh in Mc Daids – if there was a vast difference between the public man and the private person. I quote his reply; “His public profile was ALL theatre; the private man is expressed in his art”-
Today, dealing only with the private man; I will meet Patrick Kavanagh in the field beyond and go to a colourful cut- away bog of soul searching and mystical things. I‘d like to thank Margaretta D’Arcy for the title of this talk and Ger Considine for inviting me to speak.
A poets mind produces well made verbal objects, saying something significant about a reality common to all of us. Reading Kavanaghs poetry for this talk was like an archaeological dig, where hidden layers of earth prompt mystery to reveal itself – ; unturned soil takes in fresh air and now breathing words express, as was; a soul searchers own truth.
“And you perhaps, take up religion bitterly
Which you laughed at in your youth,
Well not actually laughed
But it wasn’t your kind of truth.”


What is soul searching?
Soul searchers seek the deepest experiences of the human spirit.
A person might be very familiar with a tree or a bird or a wild flower in the field. One day; and the sun does not have to shine, or branches move- the tree, bird or flower is perceived in a unique way. Neither sensational nor alarming, the person has an expansive exquisite awareness.
“Bring in the particular trees that caught you in their mysteries
And love again the weeds that grew somewhere specially for you.”
Sometimes the silent experience embraces an immaterial ray; illuminating the core of existence; ephemeral or eternal. The tree, bird or flower has not changed, yet self is understood, and placed in relation to an unseen source; that has significantly magnified perception or intuition.
Rhyming is also unified. It establishes poetic form and is highly appealing to both poet and reader. From over four thousand religions in the world it can be traced back for centuries in poetry and religious traditions.
Frequently found in song, and in Medieval Latin verse; it appeals to the senses. In the English language or in the Irish language it occurs very naturally; where playfulness explores the unity of word, giving meaning; or for more fun, no meaning to the sound produced! To use Kavanaghs own words it can enrapture or encapture in a web.

“Upon a bank I sat, a child made seer.”
The third eye; which some traditions call the spiritual eye; is occasionally open to a Seer: it eliminates both eyes as we know them and a single eye opens. This eye is actually seen by the Seer as he or she; sees clearly that which can be grasped mentally. Whereas, mystical experience beyond the mind; cannot capture or recapture, what is not contained in memory, imagination or intellect. In such incidents, mystical imagination suffices.
The following poem PRIMROSE has a line in it that could only be seen through this one eye.
“I read it through the lenses of a tear.”
The tear is not seen through spectacles, or both eyes, but within the lens of the tear itself, viewed by that one eye.
And when he says “my sight grew dim” it’s because he was back into both eyes! I’ll just let Kavanagh explain……

Upon a bank I sat, a child made seer
Of one small primrose flowering in my mind.
Better than wealth it is, said I, to find
One small page of Truth’s manuscript made clear.
I looked at Christ transfigured without fear-
The light was very beautiful and kind,
And where the Holy Ghost in flame had signed
I read it through the lenses of a tear.
And then my sight grew dim, I could not see
The primrose that had lighted me to Heaven,
And there was but the shadow of a tree
Ghostly among the stars. The years that pass
Like tired soldiers nevermore have given
Moments to see wonders in the grass.”


Urban or rural; the poets soul searching seeks to go into the deepest, sometimes dark places. This darkness hints at melancholy, yet aching, painful bleak melancholy often leads to slight light transforming the inner landscape.

“The birds sang in the wet trees
And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now
And I was dead and someone else was listening to them
But I was glad I had recorded for him
The melancholy.”

His bleakness when it presented, were in moments of disconnection, poverty, isolation, loneliness from the very root from which thought, imagination, inspiration formed. Yet even that brief disassociation, produced written evidence of yearning that constantly drives his being to the edge of ability, soul searching and response. His brother Peter said “he wrote because he had to- poetry for him was a cure-all for any soul sickness.”

“One side of the potato pits was white with frost
How wonderful that was! How wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling post
The music that came out was magical.”
Wonder is constant in Kavanagh’s work. His astonishment is evident. – The presence which permeates is a presence felt, opening the silent eye of the heart: A mystical thing!

“And you who have not prayed
The blackbird’s evening prayer
Will kneel all night, dismayed
Upon a frozen stairs.”

The origin of the symbolism of a stair, or a ladder, dates back to the dream of Jacob.
A ladder became the axis mundi- the centre of the world, where steps could be taken to awareness. Ascending the staircase is always a quest. In John of the Crosses ascent, there are seven steps to Nada. (Pause) In Yoga, which means union; invisible steps by breathing, lead to similar enlightenment. Christian Ascetics have rigorous steps towards spiritual wisdom.

“For this, for this,
Do I wear
The rags of hunger and climb
The unending stair.”

Reaching the top of the stairs is a symbol of silent transcendence.
The journey from senses to unseen spirit can be taken in steps yet the art of union with the unseen remains ineffably enigmatic.
The spark of a soul can also happen spontaneously in the twinkling of one eye; or by breath; or ardent love; many such incidents are written; recorded, told or not told.
“Feed the gaping need of my senses; give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.”

The power of any language does not adequately explain human thought, if perception is beyond empirical knowledge; this influences’ the continuous soul searching; seeking the centre of soul presence.
The earth Kavanagh dug became more seductively attractive and enigmatic, the spirit of the land was nourished by mystery; deepening his written and unwritten word. Soul searchers seek deeper and deeper; paradoxically you climb up the ladder while you are going down.
“Here we go round the mystic wheel.”

Kavanagh’s work is sprinkled with the dust of humanity and the tears of a soul searcher. Dr/ Sister Una Agnew say “Kavanagh’s sense of God is often captured in strangeness, otherworldly yet thoroughly situated. The atmosphere he evokes is filled with a strangeness that awakens awe, mystery, wonder…”

Tranquility walk with me
And no care
O, the quiet ecstasy
Like a prayer.
I find a star- lovely art
In a dark sod
Joy that is timeless!
O heart that knows God!
O heart!
Everything flows in the human heart, whether destructive, creative, or survivalist. The heart knows. The heart loves. Quote Kavanagh: “I’ll lead you through the world of art, where beats a universal heart.”
While ascents are well covered in literature; equally, descent into the abyss can also result in the turning of a heart; such can occur during the most painful moments in life where steps to despair reach a point of tidal alienation. A person or poets axis mundi does not have to be known; nor does it have to comply with that of another. Kavanagh says in the author’s note of collected poems “A poet merely states his position ….”

From a documentary aired on R.T.E in 1993 produced by Julian Vignoles; I quote the following words for Deirdre Manifold; from the poem Deirdre:

“A golden ample stream.
You were born to love –
And love’s healing.”

From Bohemian Jungle we read; “And thus he came to get a peep into the temple of the muses. He was full of love.”

Metaphorically; at the capstone of temple, vertex of stairs, zenith of ladder; even in the depths of despair; or a rhyming heartbeat; summit of a mountain, or silence; invisible paths by breathing; and occasional insights through one eye – over the alps of the senses and beyond the field beyond; across bog, light and mystery; the soul searchers seek… the deepest experiences of the human spirit.
I end this brief talk with some of Patrick Kavanaghs own colourful words;
“Where no one important ever looked
The raving flowers looked up in the face
Of the One and the Endless, the Mind that has baulked
The profoundest of mortals. A primrose, a violet,
A violet wild Iris- but mostly anaonomyous performers
Yet an important occasion as the Muse at her toilet
Prepared to inform the local farmers,
That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God
Was breathing His love by a cut-away bog.”


Máire Holmes June/July 2013
With thanks to Patrick Kavanagh Western Association and supportive audience.

Aside | This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Máire Holmes – Soul Searching: Kavanagh’s sense of God

  1. Thank you, Máire, for reproducing this here: I couldn’t get to the Kavanagh discussions that took place recently but this piece shines a light on something I need to explore. It’s like the next link in a chain for me. I may read it a few times! Thank you.

Comments are closed.