Within ‘A Christmas Childhood’ Kavanagh explores themes of memory, coming of age, and imagination. The poem contains the recollections of a speaker who is looking back on the magical world of childhood and mourning its passing. Through figurative language and colourful imagery, he paints a picture of his youth and what it means to be a child.
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Summary of A Christmas Childhood
The first part of ‘A Christmas Childhood’ was written in 1943 and the second part of written three years prior in 1940. The first four stanzas take a reader through a series of memories from a speaker’s childhood. By looking back on his youth from the point of view of adulthood, he’s able to fully understand the wonder of those moments and how that wonder disappears over time as one grows older. Christmas, the poet comes to understand, is a time that brings one back to their youthful happiness and innocence.
In the second part of the poem, which is nine stanzas long, the poet introduces family members and neighbourhoods. He also paints a wider picture of the landscape around his home and how his imagination helped him explore and create wonder everywhere he went.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of A Christmas Childhood
‘A Christmas Childhood’ by Patrick Kavanagh is a thirteen stanza poem that’s divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains are split into two parts. The first part of the poem is four stanzas long and the second is nine stanzas long. The first four stanzas follow a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. There are moments in which the end-rhymes are closer to half-rhymes than full-rhymes though. When Kavanagh changed to the second part of the poem, the section with nine stanzas, the rhyme scheme disappears entirely.
Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For instance, the endings “frost” and “pailing-post” and “wonderful” and “magical” in the first stanza. There are examples within the lines as well. Rhyme is not confined to just the ends of lines. A reader can look to the first line of the poem with the words “side” and “white” as an example.
Poetic Techniques in A Christmas Childhood
Within ‘A Christmas Childhood’ Kavanagh makes use of several poetic techniques. These include alliteration, enjambment, metaphor, and personification. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “My mother milked” in line two of the final stanza and in the third stanza of the second section, “Made the music of milking”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines three and four of the fourth stanza of the first section of the poem.
A metaphor, or a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. In the second stanza of the first section of ‘A Christmas Childhood’ the speaker uses this line: “O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me” after referring to an apple tree in the December light.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For instance, in the first stanza of the second section where the speaker describes the stars as dancing.
Analysis of A Christmas Childhood
One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
The music that came out was magical.
In the first stanza of ‘A Christmas Childhood,’ the speaker begins by recalling some of the magical memories of his youth. He depicts the “potato-pits” and the “paling-post,” two alliterative phrases that bring rhythm and additional rhyme into the poem. He is, as a child in these memories, investigating his world and finding “wonder” in everything. The repetition of “wonderful” promotes that mood in this stanza, and those that follow it.
The light between the ricks of hay and straw
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me
Kavanagh uses a metaphor to describe the “light between the ricks of hay and straw”. Through the eyes of a child, this light “Was a hole in Heaven’s gable,” or the part of a wall that encloses the end of a pitched roof. They could look through these holes and feel as though they were truly seeing heaven. These magical scenes are just small examples of what it is like to move through the world as a child.
In the next two lines, the speaker discusses “An apple tree” and how its fruits told the story of Adam and Eve. They shone in the light of December but by relating them to this Biblical story, the poet is referring to what comes next. The following stanza goes into detail.
To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again
In the third stanza of ‘A Christmas Childhood’ the speaker transitions out of pure memory and into an analysis of why he no longer sees the world as he does. Like Adam and Eve, he gained knowledge that polluted his innocence. The “germ” within the apple entered into his body. But, as this poem proves, there are times that he’s able to “remember something of the gay,” or cheerful, “Garden that was childhood”. The fourth line of this stanza is enjambed, encouraging a reader to move quickly into the fourth, and final stanza, of the first part of ‘A Christmas Childhood”.
The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.
In the last stanza of the first half of the poem, the speaker recalls a few more memories from childhood. He mentions following cattle paths and seeing “common sight[s]” that to him, as a child, was wonderful and inspiring. Looking back, he can recall the experience but as an adult, these moments are much harder to come by.
My father played the melodion
And they danced to his music.
In the second half of ‘A Christmas Childhood,’ the speaker recalls how his father used to play the “melodion / Outside at our gate”. A melodion, or “melodeon” is a small organ. This was a magical sight and one that inspired pleasure in the whole world. The speaker describes how even the “stars” danced to the music. In the “morning east” they appeared. By using personification in these lines the poet is able to emphasize the magical qualities of these memories.
Across the wild bogs his melodion called
I knew some strange thing had happened.
The melodion is mentioned again in the second stanza of this section. Here, he describes how the instrument called out to “Lennnons and Callans”. He is referring to different families who were also drawn by his music. It rang out across the landscape, inspiring everyone into action.
Turning inwards to first-person, the speaker describes how he “pulled on [his] trousers” hurriedly. He knew at that moment in his youth that “some strange thing had happened”. It was a signal for him to go outside the house and explore.
Outside in the cow-house my mother
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
The third stanza of this section brings back some of the religious imagery that appeared in the first section of the poem. But first, the speaker describes how he’d go outside his house and see his mother making the “music of milking”. Everything to this young speaker has a beauty, purpose, and wonder. He sees his mother working and hears music in her actions and their importance. In the next lines, he adds that the lamp in the stable was “a star / And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle”. By referring to Bethlehem in this line he connects the stable to that win which it is said that Christ was born.
A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.
Carrying on, the speaker adds in sounds, rounding out the reader’s experience in the landscape of his youth. He mentions the “water-hen” that “screeched in the bog”. This harsh noise is juxtaposed with the general quiet atmosphere around “Mass”. He remembers going to mass and how his feet made different sounds along the ground. The “bellows wheel” mentioned in the fourth line is in reference to a forge and the “bellows” used to blow air on fire.
My child poet picked out the letters
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Reminding the reader that he’s now an adult, he refers to his “child poet,” or his younger self, and the natural poetic tendencies he had. He expands his description in the next lines, referring to the “Christmas townland” and the “frosty dawn” that was less cold than it was beautiful and magical.
Cassiopeia was over
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.
When he remembers the sky at these moments he can recall seeing “Cassiopeia,” a constellation in the northern sky, up over a hill near his home. This place belonged to a neighbour, but he could look and see “the Three Wise Kings” riding across the horizon. In reality what he was seeing was three whin bushes, also known as gorse. The time of year, and his already imaginative mind, helped him see what he wanted to see.
And old man passing said:
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.
An old man speaks in the next stanza, acknowledging his father’s playing of the melodion. But, the speaker hides while this is happening. He stands in a doorway out of the way and tightened his coat. This action and those in the next stanza allude to a child who is slowly being introduced to what it’s going to mean to grow up.
I nicked six nicks on the door-post
And I was six Christmases of age.
Kavanagh’s speaker addresses his age in the eighth stanza. He was six at the time and with a penknife, he was given he makes nicks in the door to mark this fact. Alongside the big blade, there’s a small one for the future when he’s going to cut tobacco.
My father played the melodion,
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.
In the final stanza of ‘A Christmas Childhood,’ the speaker brings back some of the previous images. He once more notes his father’s organ playing and his mother’s milking of the cows. While they were doing this he “had a prayer like a white rose pinned / On the Virgin Mary’s blouse”. This ends the poem on a spiritual note, addressing the underlying religious image throughout the text.