They laughed at one I loved —
The triangular hill that hung
Under the Big Forth. They said
That I was bounded by the whitethorn hedges
Of the little farm and did not know the world.
But I knew that love’s doorway to life
Is the same doorway everywhere.
Ashamed of what I loved
I flung her from me and called her a ditch
Although she was smiling at me with violets.
But now I am back in her briary arms
The dew of an Indian Summer morning lies
On bleached potato-stalks—
What age am I?
I do not know what age I am,
I am no mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.
If you ever hoof it to the village of Inniskeen in County Monaghan, Ireland, you’ll find Patrick Kavanagh’s grave among the pale wooden crosses in the village cemetery. According to pilgrims who’ve made the trek, some of the locals will still reminisce about the native son (Kavanagh died in Dublin in 1967). As one resident told a recent visitor: “I knew Paddy. His mother couldn’t read and his father was a cobbler. Paddy was not a good farmer… he paid no heed to his fields.”
Not surprisingly. His mind was on — or perhaps already in — the city. Like many poets of the day, from Yeats to Wilde to Goldsmith, Kavanagh migrated to Dublin, walking the fifty-mile journey for the first time in 1931, at the age of twenty-seven. He would be internationally known within the decade, largely due to his poems about common life “On Raglan Road” and “The Great Hunger”.
It’s clear he scorned the grubby, provincial life of his boyhood, with its emotional and material deprivation, its spiritual nullity. In his poem “Stony Grey Soil”, he levels a series of accusations against the stubborn soil of Monaghan: “the laugh from my love you thieved”, “you fed me on swinish food”, “you flung a ditch on my vision”. (There’s that “ditch” accusation he’s looking to rescind in “Innocence”.)
I’ll let Christian Wiman explain the rest of the poem and its relation to spiritual innocence, in his recent lecture “When You Consider the Radiance: Poetry for Preachers and Prophets”. It’s where I first heard of the poem, and I recommend watching the whole thing. Wiman’s reading of “Innocence” is set to start below.