Geographical Poetics 2: Patrick Kavanagh, ‘On Raglan Road’ (1946)

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 and 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.

Luke Kelly sings 'On Raglan Road', Al O'Donnell (guitar), 1979,
Luke Kelly sings ‘On Raglan Road’, Al O’Donnell (guitar), 1979,

On Raglan Road is a lovely lyric. The poem is in four stanzas and with autumn in the first stanza, November in the second, and May in the third we are invited to think about the seasons and to expect that that the theme of the poem will achieve its apotheosis, its fruition in the summer of the final stanza. The resolution of the poem in the last stanza might best be described as enlightened resignation. The poet falls for a woman that he idealises as worthy of the gift of his art. Perhaps, it was only in risking the ‘enchantment’ of love, that the ‘true gods’ of the arts could speak through him. Nevertheless, in loving a fallen creature that he had taken to be somewhat more elevated, the angelic poet becomes again the disappointed wooer. This reminds me of the fallen angels of Genesis, the immortal and spiritual sons of god who became mortal men on taking to wife corporeal women:

[T]he sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years (Genesis 6:3-4, King James version).

In many mythologies there are such stories of reckless gods or spirits who deign to love mortal men or women, bringing to crisis both natural and supernatural orders. In some stories, the chaos is resolved by the god accepting human form and limits; in others, the human is elevated. The lack of punctuation in Kavanagh’s final stanza leaves two possible readings. Either he had wooed a mere ‘creature made of clay’ and this lower form was not worthy of his love, or, he had wooed-not, as he should have done, a creature made of clay, but rather some dangerous chimera. The final line, following the parenthetical dash, draws the moral, that when a male angel loves a mere human he loses spiritual caste, his wings. The second stanza ends with a similar lesson; the poet’s admission being rather like Othello’s boastful excuse that he had

lov’d not wisely but too well (Shakespeare, Othello, Act 5, Scene 2, line 44).

The rueful wisdom is Kavanagh’s and thus I think we must see him as the angel, and the woman as the fallen creature who both inspires and debases him.

There is more than a whiff of misogyny here. There is much commentary upon the relationship that, in failing, left Kavanagh reflecting upon the perils of idealistic love. Hilda Moriarty recalled that as a 22-year-old medical student, she did not return in the same coin, the obsessive attentions of the 40-year-old poet. Although she spent time with Kavanagh, she soon married a younger man. In an interview for RTÉ, Moriarty spoke of chiding Kavanagh:

Hilda Moriarty-O’Malley, 1987, Interview with RTÉ

I upbraided him for his […] writing about cabbages and turnips, and potatoes; because he said he was a peasant poet. So, I said you should write something else (Interview of 1987).

Antoinette Quinn writes of Kavanagh’s anger in rejection:

The last verse of On Raglan Road betrays some of the bitterness Kavanagh felt at Hilda’s defection. Here he portrays himself as a superior being who has made the mistake of loving an inferior (Antoinette Quinn, ‘The beauty who inspired Kavanagh’s Raglan Road,’ Irish Independent, 29 June 2004).

Mud is a recurring theme in Kavanagh’s poetry but perhaps rarely as gendered as in this clarty lyric. The poem was first published in the Irish Press in 1946, with the title, Dark-Haired Miriam Ran Away. It is almost the same as the later version in Collected Poems (1966). One significant difference is that when the poet refers to the ‘worth of passion’s pledge’ the next line elaborates upon the precise value of the pledge of passion:

Synthetic sighs and fish-dim eyes, and all death’s loud display (Irish Press, October 1946, 7 d-e).

Given that Kavanagh thought his own troth had been plighted with fidelity, then, we must read the ‘synthetic sighs’ as the hallmark of the faithless woman. The apparent evocation of the fish market, or at least of fish recalls a family of insults directed at women, the fishy smell attributed to their genitals and the coarse manner of the independent women (scolding fishwives) who sold fish, being equally unsettling to many men. The smell was long associated with dirt, as in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure where it is the wisdom of the clown:

Truly, fortune’s displeasure is but sluttish, if it
smell so strongly as thou speakest of: I will
henceforth eat no fish of fortune’s buttering.
(Act 3, Scene 6, line 1811)

But the same play also discloses the association of fishy matters with women when Pompey speaks with a brothel keeper of one man who was in trouble with the law for fathering and abandoning a child:

Pompey. Yonder man is carried to prison.
Mistress Overdone. Well; what has he done?
Pompey. A woman.
Mistress Overdone. But what’s his offence?
Pompey. Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.
Mistress Overdone. What, is there a maid with child by him?
Pompey. No, but there’s a woman with maid by him.
(Act 1, Scene 2, lines 177-183)

One final historical example of insulting women as fish may be hooked out of Winter’s Tale, where frigidity is figured as an unsmelly, unsexed fish:

Here’s another ballad of a fish, that appeared upon
the coast on Wednesday the four-score of April,
forty thousand fathom above water, and sung this
ballad against the hard hearts of maids: it was
thought she was a woman and was turned into a cold
fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that
loved her: the ballad is very pitiful and as true.
(Act 1, Scene 4, lines 2160-66)

This trope continues into the present and is evident in the misogyny of gay and camp slang. One recent academic article reported on the insults hurled by gay men when for one night a week their bar gave a particular welcome to lesbians. One patron complained:

 I cannot believe I am going out onto the dance floor with this school of fish.
(Corey W. Johnson and Diane M. Samdahl, ‘“The Night They Took Over”: Misogyny in a Country-Western Gay Bar,’ Leisure Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Journal 27:5 (2005) 331-348.)

Kavanagh dropped the line about fish-dim eyes from the version published as part of his Collected Poems (1964).

And this brings me, finally, to the geographic poetics of the poem for there is not only a transition across seasons, there is also a mapping of events across space, specifically across the space of Dublin. When the poet first encounters his muse, she and her are on Raglan Road. Now, this was, and is, a very elegant part of Dublin with fine houses and in the 1940s some of the wealthier folk of the city. The street itself lends a certain quality to the encounter and, despite misgivings about the perils of being taken under the spell of such a beautiful, young spirit, the poet resolves to continue ‘walk[ing] along the enchanted way.’ In the next stanza, they are metaphorically walking along a ‘deep ravine’ showing him at least the worthlessness of love’s promise. However, they are physically walking along Grafton Street. Now, this was not a residential, but a commercial street, and along with the bustle of shoppers, and the women selling flowers, it had long had a reputation as a street for female sex-workers. In Dear, Dirty Dublin (University of California Press, 1982),  Joseph O’Brien claims of the late-nineteenth century that:

[C]ontemporary accounts of 1,500 well-known prostitutes choking Grafton Street or of young ladies being afraid to walk across town at night do not seem unduly exaggerated (page 190).

Reputations linger and such a place might suggest a very different context of female sexuality than had the decorum of Raglan Road. In which case, the line, with its reference to ‘tarts’, that Kavanagh substituted for the one with the reference to fish, has less innocent echoes than first might appear:

The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay.

With its implicit comparison of idealised woman/Raglan Road, on one hand, with actual fallen women/Grafton Street, on the other, the lyric enjoys a dialectic between angel and fallen woman that is heard also in the geography of the poem. This relationship is part of the general shape of gendered space in the city. In the early twentieth century, the downtown areas of the cities of Europe and North America were associated with mammon not nature, and work rather than family. Respectable women were increasingly expected to be home-makers and thus they would have no place in the public spaces of downtown, unless they were ‘public’ women, that is sex-workers. The poorest women, of course, had no chance of appearing ‘respectable’ in this way. In contrast, respectable women could act like the poor innocent of The Rocky Road to Dublin who ‘took a stroll, all among the quality […]   in a neat locality.’ Neat localities were outside the city centre, and Raglan Road was one of the neatest of them.

On Raglan Road, refers, then, to a geography of Dublin that has clear resonance with the gender politics within the poem itself. The madonna of Raglan Road screens the whore of Grafton Street, as Kavanagh evokes the idealised woman to whom he was drawn and that would be worthy of his art. With this, he confronts the real woman who draws away from him ‘so hurriedly’ and who shows him what the promises of love are really worth. This spatializing of the contradictory ideals of womanhood makes On Raglan Road a particularly interesting poem for geographers.