Monday, April 19, 2010

Raglan Road, Interpretations and Poetry Itself

On Raglan Road,"

Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1966)

sung by Van Morrison and The Chieftains on Irish Heartbeat"

On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.

On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion's pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay
O I loved too much and by such by such is happiness thrown away.

I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that's known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May.

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay
-When the angel woos the clay he'd lose his wings at the dawn of day.

Noga:

"O I loved too much and by such by such is happiness thrown away."

This is probably the excuse every thwarted lover tells himself by way of consoling a cracked heart.

The next excuse would be: I was the angel (the poet from the other world), and she, she couldn't see how special I was, because she was just "a creature made of clay -" (human?)

The poet knows he has only himself to blame for stepping right into the snare knowing full well it will end in tears. As we all do who ever loved and lost (tears falling on my keyboard).

I'm not sure it is such a great poem.

Malahat:

Fwiw, I thought "..And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day" was about grief succumbing to the hope of a new beginning.

...he'd lose his wings at the dawn of day...) , I thought it was perhaps an allusion to a poet losing his/her spirituality through worldy passion.

Ironyroad:

I tend to agree with Noga that it's not a great poem, or even such a great poem. I don't know that I'd like it if it wasn't for its second life as a song. It's so curious, however, how the occasionally clunky syntax and odd verbal choices take on a new life with Van Morrison's or Luke Kelly's vocal chords.

basman -- it seems to me that malahat is right. The desire is for grief to be flimsy and transient, rather than something permanent and ponderous. In the last two lines, it does read as if the danger for angels is in the love of the human.

However, I find the second last line a bit confusing, depending on how you read it. There's a big difference between:"That I had wooed, not as I should, a creature made of clay" and"That I had wooed not, as I should, a creature made of clay".

The last line of the poem seems to place the poet in apposition to the angel, and if that's the case then option #2 above makes no sense, because he did woo a creature made of clay. If we than say that #1 must be the case (that is, he wooed a human being and that was a bad mistake) then the syntax is so strained and confusing as to make your head swim. Option #2 just sounds better, but then I don't see how the last line makes sense -- unless the angel wants to lose his wings..

Malahat:

Irony, Could there be another interpretation of"That I had wooed, not as I should, a creature made of clay"

i.e., that he wooed a human being, but not as an angel should (woo a human)?

Me:

Just back and, hey, thanks for your comments Irony, Malahat and Noga:

“On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.”

The point of view here is a little complicated. He’s clearly recollecting meeting her and what went on his mind. And in his recollection he makes the past present, which, I suppose, is the nature of vivid recollection: “And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.” He isn’t certain that it won’t work out—“I *might* one day rue; / I saw the danger...,--but he’s pretty sure trouble lies ahead—“...and *knew* / That her dark hair would weave a snare..” So he’s going to take his chances, danger notwithstanding. He must be thinking about the grief he will likely suffer: he’s thinking about, and saying to himself, in his resolve to let her enchant him to let himself succumb to her, what the grief will be.

(Or is he? Can it be that he is presently grieving over someone else and is prepared to leave that grief go. I don’t think so because on this view of it the day would have to be just dawning when he met her and “on an autumn day doesn’t suggest that dawning. It suggests a day already underway.)

So I’m back to his thinking about, contemplating, his likely grief and in this I sense a tension between Malahat’s nice concise view of that line and Irony’s. The notion of “grief succumbing to the hope of a new beginning” sounds like the interpretation I just mooted and decided against. As I read this stanza, it’s last line is to me less about “grief succumbing” and more a decision to risk the probable grief awaiting him—part of the “danger”--.

And there is some psychological complexity embedded in the line, I think. He wills himself to put aside that danger—“...*let* grief be...” he says to himself. So some rationalization—“And I said let grief be.....”—commingles with his decisiveness. He’s in effect saying, I think, “this is my strategy for how to think about the grief that virtually certainly awaits me, I’ll make a poetic image of it.

Under that image, It will inevitably pass and so to encourage my own resolve to be with this woman, to let go of any rationality that inhibits me—“knew”..”...saw the danger...”, I will my intellect to succumb to my feelings, I let myself be enticed—“...would weave a snare”...”the enchanted way...” And I will pass over the pain of grief by looking past it (as Irony says) as “flimsy and transient” and think about as something already past left behing by “...the dawning of a new day”.

I read Kavanaugh saying in the second last line that he did not woo an earthy woman—“a creature made of clay”—as he should have, in earthy way, rather than giving her the “gifts of mind…Word and tint…I gave her poems. For he too is “..a creature made of clay”.
I don’t think we’re forced to decide which of the two is made of clay: they both are.
I read the last line’s “angel” to be the “airy” artist wooing clay, the earthly woman, with the intangibility of art—“Word and tint”, even given the concreteness of “stone” and the aurality of “sound”. The last line though seems to be some general wisdom learned that upends “…grief as a fallen leaf at the dawning of day.”


I tried to argue that that was part rationalization, talking down the grief, to let himself get enchanted, him putting to the side his rational concerns. But now rationality ascends—“…my reason must allow”—and his conclusion is that when ethereality seeks to win over clay, he’ll, the male angel, will quickly be brought back to earth, his wings clipped, lost, at the dawning of day. Now the “dawn of day” isn’t the fresh, “dawning” hope that will trump grief, “a fallen leaf”. That earlier “dawning” was of “the day”, an image, a rationalization, a poetic hope.

Now we have general earth bound conclusion, born with “the dawn of day”, the absence of a definite article reinforcing the generalization of the now dawned conclusion, “dawn” as against “dawning” reinforcing that general conclusion’s implacability.

Noga:

The poem, btw, makes me think of La Belle Dame Sans Merci:

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful - a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery's song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said -'I love thee true'.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

Ironyroad:

malahat... I think, fairly clear -- that the poem is about the love of an older man for a younger woman. I'm now more convinced that the autumn-winter setting signals that.
Van Morisson almost whispers the verse about the ghosts meeting -- it's very effective. Btw I just ordered the "Night in San Francisco" CD.


basman, I think that's a perfectly acceptable reading of the poem, and you almost give it more substance than it can bear. Nevertheless I'm still a bit puzzled by the ending -- I think what I'm saying is, I don't know if Kavanagh fully achieved the note of clever-but-gentle-irony-hiding-grief-at-rejection that he seems to be aiming for. Is this syntactic awkwardness/confusion there as intended or is it simply the random poetic outcome he accepted?

Noga -- yes, it does look as if "On Raglan Road" has strong echoes of Keats -- but in Kavanagh's poem my impression of the ending is that, while love has failed, poetry has survived, whereas in LBDSM (at least, as I read it) everything has been drained from the knight/lover (although the poet/observer remains perhaps unharmed).

Noga:

"...while love has failed, poetry has survived"

He loved her as a poet loves his muse:

"I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.

"with her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May."

It was not love that failed but the kind of love he offered, a poet's love, which was inadequate in some way. He seems to acknowledge this:

".. my reason must allow

That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay -"

And the final line seems to be a sort of a resigned shrug, a lesson learned:

"When the angel woos the clay he'd lose his wings at the dawn of day."

As though he gets it that a poet's love and "clay" are incommensurate. Had he wooed successfully, he would have lost his wings, since a poet can only love as a poet loves, and to love in any different way would mean to lose the gift.

So yes, the need, the urge, the talent, to fly in poetry does prevail over the will to love a woman properly.

A poet once told me that his relationships with women were doomed to failure because every woman he ever loved wanted to be his muse. If I'm correct in my reading then this poet, Kavanagh, says the opposite: it was because this woman refused to be his muse that love failed. And ironically, in rejecting him, she ends up being his muse after all... Or rather, she does not lose her muse status.

Basman:

I don't want to beat a dead horse and Raglan Road my be getting more rigorous attention than it has ever had before, but in liking Irony's suggestion of a May November (in this poem) attempt at love by November (also suggested by "dawning day" as against "August" and "November" ) as adding dimension to the poem, I see the poem differently than does Noga, if I understand correctly her interpretation.

The old-young theme adds the implication of sexual impotence, failure or indequacy, things, mind you, I have only heard tell about, which didn't occur to me before. Thus, "fallen leaf", "the danger", "...along the ledge / Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion's pledge", "The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay" and other things--"That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay", "..he'd lose his wings..." -- seem to me to bear that dimension of thematic meaning.

malahat:

basman, "...The old-young theme adds the implication of sexual impotence, failure or indequacy, things, mind you, I have only heard tell about, which didn't occur to me before. Thus, "fallen leaf", "the danger", "...along the ledge / Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion's pledge", "The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay" nd other things--"That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay", "..he'd lose his wings..." -- seem to me to bear that dimension of thematic meaning."

I like that interpretation. It seems to fit very well.

Ironyroad:

Or, as Van Morrison has it "The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I, and I, and I, and I not making hay . .

Basman:

On my view of this poem, and it may be that Noga and I aren’t saying much different, it seems a bit imprecise to say he loved her as his muse, even as, admittedly, he “… gave her poems to say. / With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May.” So, admittedly, she’s—as muse—the source of inspiration for the poet of the poem’s poetry. But that relation to her—the relation of poet to the inspiration of his poetry—is the consequence of the failed earthly, sexual relations between him and her. The poetry is to no avail; it is no substitute for the earthly goods of this world between a young woman and her man. The giving to her of art, of “ ..the gifts of the mind”.

So, similarly, to me, it seems *slightly* off to say, as does Noga that, “It was not love that failed but the kind of love he offered, a poet's love, which was inadequate in some way…” I’d say rather, with a slightly different emphasis that his love for her failed because he wooed her—it seems—the only way he could, with all his art, airily, ethereally, owing to his inability to woo her earthily, as creatures “made of clay”. So it’s not that his way of wooing her “was in adequate in some way”; it’s that his way of wooing, his poet’s love by way of poetry was inadequate in a specific, concrete, sexually inadequate way.

So for me the poem is not about the eternal, yawning gap between a poet’s love, a love of gifts of mind and art, even a virile poet, and earthly love, It’s about *this poet’s* reversion to art as a substitute for his sexual inadequacy. Clay and a poet’s love are not incommensurate for a poet, who can, can love sexually and aesthetically. And a poet, who can, does not lose his poetry by loving sexually. There is I I suggest no such opposition in the poem. The poem’s tension doesn’t include sexual love as a risk to poetry. Rather its tension involves poetry as an inadequate alternative to sexual inadequacy.

Finally, to say this woman refused to be his muse is a more indirect way of saying what the poem centrally says, that she refused to requite his love for her, that she didn’t reject him qua poet, but as an angel, which is to say, in his case, qua a man, a man who couldn’t satisfy her on earth with the goods of earthly love.

As for La Belle Dame Sans Merci, it’s suggestive to see it as analogue this poem or rather to see the latter under the “anxious influence” of the former. But on the view I take of Raglin Road I see Ode to a Grecian Urn as a more instructive “model”, but not completely so.

Finally, isn’t a meta theme of all poetry the making of poetry itself? There could never be a poem, I tend to theorize, about the failure to be able to write poetry. The existence of the poem would be in contradiction with that theme and hence mark a meta-ironic paradox in any such poem.

Ironyroad:

As I've no mind of my own, I'm now inclining to basman's reading of "On Raglan Road." I'd just say three things, somewhat like flat assertions rather than fluid arguments:

1. It's Raglan Road, not Raglin. Named after Lord Raglan, some British historical figure, whom exactly, I've forgotten. A large number of streets in Dublin still have their original names from the nineteenth century (= prior to Irish independence).

2. The poem's tension comes from -- along with some things already mentioned -- the relationship between the popular ballad form and the sometimes quite poised and mannered vocabulary and syntax (esp. third stanza).

3. It's probably true that the complete failure to write poetry is an unlikely option for a poetic subject, but I can think of several cases where the difficulty -- for different reasons -- is almost overpowering, and the poem is the evidence of the "impossible" achieved at the end of the process: examples run the gamut from Caedmon's Hymn (Anglo-Saxon) to Paul Celan.

Noga:

When I read poetry I am so over-awed that I am seized by a sort of compulsion to keep my eyes at a certain level and upwards of it. The possibility that a poem would be written by an old man about sexual impotence would never occur to me. In the way I tend to regard poets, such subject matter would not even enter into my peripheral vision. So I can recognize the "inadequacy" of his professed love and never think of attributing it to such sexual failures that are the stuff of bawdy Greek comedies, not poets... It would have to be about something... more elevated... I automatically assume some shortcoming in the object of love that she cannot reciprocate the generous poetic gifts he offers her. A stereotypical woman's instinct, if I may say, to put that extra onus of responsibility on the woman and seeking to exonerate the man. The residue of thousands of years of patriarchal colonization of the female mind :)

Anyway, I concur with basman and ironyroad that this is a poem about failure to love, or, in the biblical sense, to know a woman. And as such I find it even more disappointing than before.

Basman:

Noga I disagree, respectcfully, with everything in your post about how to read poetry, its need to have elevated themes, the inadequacy of woman's rejection of a love of poet's words sans sex, and your being now-agreeing with my view of this poem-even *more disappointed* with it.

After all, as Whitman's heir said:

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats
floating across the tops of cities
contemplating jazz...

...who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight
in policecars for committing no crime but their
own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication,
who howled on their knees in the subway and were
dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly
motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim,
the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose
gardens and the grass of public parks and
cemeteries scattering their semen freely to
whomever come who may..

Your seizure by "a sort of compulsion to keep my eyes at a certain level and upwards of it "is your own business to be sure, but my lord what you are missing!

By might lights you have an altogether romantic--in its not so great sense--notion of poetry and poets.

Noga:

I'm sorry I cannot rid myself of a certain the irreverent imp with regard to this poem, especially after reading basman's interpretation. Though I realize this might resonate in a different way to members of the opposing genders. The soulfulness, longing and sadness of the ballad form are suited to unrequited love but seem a bit facetious or ironic in the context of mere sexual impotence. It was when I thought he was lamenting the incongruity between her desire for a simple loving and his offering of a celestial kind of union that I had the most sympathy for him. That unease between an ordinary human being and a poet who has, in my romantic imagination, some hidden window through which to glimpse primal meanings, generated, for me, the most interest in the relationship described. But once persuaded that it was more about sexual fulfillment or lack thereof, with all due respect to this human need, my interest waned.

2 comments:

  1. I just discovered this poem and song, and I'd like to contribute a couple musings of my own, without tying them to what's been said before or even trying to totally align my various thoughts with one another. I like to view these things multiple ways, and discover all that a poem *might* be said to contain, even if they are inconsistent with one another or were no part of the artists original, conscious, intentions.

    (1) The poet is grieving the loss of his artistic powers more than losing the woman he pursued. She's off making tarts, probably still. When he sees her walking away most hurriedly, the grief he feels is for the loss of his wings.

    (2) He makes up a pretty story to rationalize said loss to himself. In it we find a bit of self-elevation or pretentiousness, and a very one-sided point of view.
    One begins to feel a bit turned off to the writer, but....

    (3) The fact that its not the world's greatest poem is in fact the reason for writing it in the first place, which gives a kind of twist and a big surprise when and if you first think that thought. The poem makes its own apology for itself, which then immediately elevates it my opinion, a sort of "aha!" that made me reevaluate the whole intent and come up with the thought expressed in (1).

    (4) However, I don't think the grief he feels about loss of his wings is the grief he mentions in the first stanza -- there he is expecting or at least allowing for the grief of a broken heart. So the grief at the end is a surprise both to us and to the artist himself. Now this is getting interesting -- the poem allows us to discover by surprise that same thing that surprised the poet. Well done! The poem goes up another notch.

    (5) The sweetness of the angel metaphor is right on. It calls to mind many other stories such as in the movies "The Bishop's Wife" in which Cary Grant almost shares the same fate as our friend the poet here. In "It's a Wonderful Life" the opposite is described - how an angel gets its wings in the first place. That every child knows these basic facts about angels and their wings makes the poet's forgetting of these rules early in the poem all the more human and frail. We begin to mourn and sympathize with him. He's pathetic, but we feel for him now. And along with that sympathy, comes sympathy for the poem itself -- frail, human, flawed, but now we love it like we love other frail, human, flawed things.

    Thanks for reading.
    I haven't put all these down

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    1. To clarify a bit, I think the danger the poet sees in the first stanza, is not the danger that gets him in the end. Thus the poem describes a real tragedy, and not a simple broken heart. The pretentiousness of his description of their affair can also be read as highlighting his fatal flaw, while ostensibly merely being a recounting of how it went.

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