It is a poem born out of loneliness and solitude. Kavanagh wrote it after spending another festive season alone in his bachelor flat in Dublin and the poem is infused with nostalgia for rural, farm-family life, recalled through the lens of Christmas.
The memories come dressed in christian imagery, from the story of genesis to the virgin birth.
The first section of the poem sets the scene. The adult Kavanagh recalls the “gay Garden that was childhood’s”: the frosted potato-pits, the music coming from the paling-post, the heavenly light between ricks of hay and straw, the “December-glinting fruit” on an apple tree. In that Garden of Eden, the most commonplace event — even “the tracks of cattle to a drinking-place [or] a green stone lying sideways in a ditch” — was invested with a sense of wonder and love, the “beauty that the world did not touch”.
“How wonderful!” says the poet now, longing to return to this creative consciousness that as adult, he can only rarely access now.
In the second part of the poem, he moves more deeply into the memories of one particular Christmas year when he was “six Christmases of age”, feeling again the fresh and raw wonder of childhood. In the here-and-now moment of adulthood, the act of looking back and capturing the images, provides consolation and reconnects him — and us — to the inspiration of Christmas, and of childhood, enabling us, far away in time and place, to enjoy the melodeon, the music of cows milking and to experience for ourselves the open, childlike, creative awareness, as prayer and blessing: “a white rose pinned on the Virgin’s Mary’s blouse”.
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.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw–
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch
Or any common sight the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.
Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.
Outside the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon. The Three Wise Kings.
An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk’–
The melodeon. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade.
There was a little one for cutting tobacco,
And I was six Christmases of age.
My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
~ Patrick Kavanagh’s “A Christmas Childhood” was first published in The Irish Press on 24th December 1943.
For more poems, by WB Yeats, Adrienne Rich, Thomas Hardy, TS Eliot and others, you can purchase Poetry For Chistmas at your local Amazon store HERE. http://authl.it/w6