Poets Patrick Kavanagh & Alun Lewis.

Dear Reader,

As I was writing this blog I heard on the radio Irish writer Brian Friel had died aged 86. I studied “Translations” at A’ Level English Lit. I enjoyed all Brian Friel’s work, a very good writer indeed and one who will be missed.

I do not read poetry that often, and I can count on one hand the poets I admire. Mary Oliver, Alun Lewis, Jeremy Hooker, Idris Davies and my favourite poet Patrick Kavanagh.

I enjoy reading Patrick Kavanagh and Alun Lewis’s poetry. Both wrote about their own landscape in a very deep way, adding their human touch to poetry. Giving reality of how they saw it through their landscape. Alun Lewis and Patrick Kavanagh both left their true place, the centre of their universe. Lewis left the village of Cwmamen, at the beginning of the second world war.  However he studied History at  Aberystwyth, and Manchester. Patrick Kavanagh, left the small village of Mucker for London. After 5 months, Kavanagh returned home.

“The noise and excitement had passed the roar, and the surge of commerce, was in my ears, for a long time, like the after effects of flu. I returned to Ireland green, chaste and foolish. When I wondered over the hills, and talked to my own people. I looked into the heart of this life, and saw that it was good”

Extract taken from Patrick Kavanagh’s book ‘The Green Fool’

After the success of ‘The Green Fool’ and despite not liking London. Kavanagh decided to leave Inniskeen, for another busy city on par with London, Dublin. Where my grandmother was born.

Both poets were published before they left their true homeland, both came from a dying industry, Kavanagh agriculture, and Lewis coal mining.

A line From Kavanagh’s poem ‘Innocence’

“I cannot die unless I walk outside these white thorn hedges”

Kavanagh ventured beyond the white thorn Hedges, he had to leave his innocence behind to survive as a writer.

I found it incredible that Lewis a socialist and a pacifist joined the army 1941. Did he join up because he thought he was doing is bit to fight the nationalist Hitler? Alun Lewis taught English in a school a mile from where I live Pengam Boys School. I met one of Alun Lewis pupils, a man was in is late 80’s. He told me Lewis seemed to be far away, always looking into the distant and a gentle thoughtful teacher. He stayed in rooms at Hengoed, two miles from my house and would catch the train from Hengoed to Pengam.

He married Gwenno Ellis, a fellow teacher. Why did he leave a wife, and a good job for the Army? Knowing he could not kill anyone.

“Yet when all is done you’ll keep the emerald

I placed upon your finger in the street

and I will keep the patches that you sewed

on my old battledress tonight my sweet”

Taken from the poem ‘Goodbye’ and from his selection of poetry  ‘Ha Ha! Among The Trumpets’

I chose Alun Lewis poem ‘The Mountain over Aberdare‘ and Patrick Kavanaghs  ‘Shancoduff‘  to compare and contrast.

Alun Lewis poem “The Mountain over Aberdare” was written while he was in Burma. Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “Shancoduff” was written, while he was in Dublin. Distance gave them sharpness, for their mind’s eye to travel back to their place. Both poems are named after places that the poets came from and their community as they saw it. Lewis and Kavanagh, both write about the outskirts of their true area of Cwmamen and Mucker.

First 6 lines of Lewis’s poem

“From this high quarried ledge I  see

the place for which the Quakers once

collected clothes my father’s home.

Our stubborn bankrupt village sprawled

in jaded dusk beneath its nameless hills.

The drab streets strung across the Cwm”

The first six lines show charity emptiness misery. Words bankrupt, drab, nameless hills. Yet he mentions his father is home

First 6 lines of Kavanagh’s

“My black hills have never seen the sun rising

Eternally they look north towards Armagh.

Lots wife would not be salt if she had been

Incurious as my black hills that are happy

when dawn whitens Glassdrummond chapel”

Kavanagh’s personalised the poem my black hills, they look towards Armagh. Lots wife who looked back, and was turned to salt. if only she looked forward, like Kavanagh’s black hills.

Lewis’s shows the down side of his town

“White cheap jack cinema the church

stretched out like a sow beside the stream”

Lewis is Caricaturing his town, the church like a sow .

Unusual Lewis used Church, yet Kavanagh a Catholic used the word chapel. In real Valley life, the chapel was paramount and in Ireland the church ruled everything.


“My hills hoard the bright shillings of March

While the sun searches in every pocket.

They are my Alps and I have climbed the Matterhorn

with a sheaf of hay for three perishing calves

In a field under the Big Forth Rocksavage”.

My initial thought was make hay while the sun shines or is life a struggle. Shillings in March Lent, church hoarding money,  while he is poor, gaining a sheaf of hay for three pigs, was not a good deal and in a field under Rocksavage, Rocksavage was a wealthy estate that Kavanagh farmed and lived under.


“Till all the upland gorse is drenched

and all the creaking mountain gates

drip brittle tears of crystal peace;

and in a curtained parlour women hug

huge grief and anger against God”

Brings religion into his town, and how the women show anger, huge grief of a town that is dying.


“The sleety winds fondle the rushy beards of Shancoduff

while the cattle- drovers sheltering in the Featherna Bush

Look up and say Who owns them hungry hills

that waterhen and snipe must have forsaken?

A poet? Then by heavens he must be poor”

I hear and is my heart not badly shaken?”

There are two questions “The drovers ask who owns them hungry hill, which  birds have forsaken? A poet? and they answer their question “A poet” The poet is Kavanagh. He calls the hills “my hills” twice.

” I hear and his my heart not badly shaken”

Kavanagh owns what he sees in this bleak landscape. Kavanagh gives beauty to his own reality with his words he embraces all.

Threading through Lewis poem, is Christianity

“The colliers squatting on the ashtip

listen to one who holds them still with tales.

While that white frock that floats down the dark ally

Looks like Christ; and in a lane

The clink of coins among the gamblers

Suggest the thirty pieces of silver”

Lewis is saying the town betrayed its self, like Judas betrayed Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Lewis wrote this poem while in the Jungle of Burma. He was a troubled man in many ways. He had a brief love affair in India and he knew his regiment were close to combat. This was difficult for man who knew he could not kill, yet he killed himself with his own pistol. My grandfather, was in Burma at the same time and was in the same regiment as Alun Lewis.

Last verse

“I watch the clouded years

Rune the rough foreheads of these moody hills.

This evening in a lost age”

Was the marks of time telling on this sensitive soul? Was his judgement clouded by loyalty to his country and his wife? Was he born in a lost age? Many questions in the last verse.

Kavanagh was an alcoholic, he had a near death experience with lung cancer. This changed him for ever. Kavanagh married Kevin Barry’s niece Kathleen. As a child The ‘Ballad of Kevin Barry’ was sung to me as lullaby.

Lewis had no value of his own life, never gave himself the chance to live but he left us his beautiful poetry. Both poets, give a sense of place. Both poets were different from other poets. Lewis gave us his sensitivity, towards the hash Valley life and Burma.

Kavanagh does not write about Irish hatred towards the English and he does not write about religion or rebellion. He gives us normality of day-to-day life of the parish he came from. Lewis does the same. Both write well on their people and place.

2 thoughts on “Poets Patrick Kavanagh & Alun Lewis.”

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