The poem’s title, ‘Ascetic’, is basically the practice of going without, usually this means leading a Spartan lifestyle and avoiding fancy foods etc. It is a practice commonly associated with religions and in particular groups like Buddhist monks. The poem then seems to be about the life of an ascetic. It does raise some interesting points and contains small amounts of ambiguity which makes it an interesting and captivating read. Personally, I think the poem is about an ascetic drawing near to the end of their life. I think it touches on the kind of lifestyle that they lead but drip-filters in subtle hints that the narrator’s time is up. Although I must admit I might be quite wide of the mark! Maybe I am reading too much into it and it simply is a poem that describes the experiences of living this unique lifestyle.
‘Ascetic’ is written in free verse, meaning that it doesn’t fit into any traditional poetry form (like a sonnet for instance) it is separated into three stanzas all of which contain four lines. The meter is uneven and most of the lines differ in length and the number of syllables they contain. Throughout the poem, there is a consistent (-A-A) rhyming pattern. The poem’s tone upon first reading seems very morose. It appears to be laden with negativity. Although the middle stanza offers hope it ends on a negative note. However, when read contextually understanding that the poem is about people that choose to lead a poor existence it takes on a slightly different meaning.
Analysis of Ascetic
That in the end
In the slums of Mind.
The poem, which can be read in full here, starts off talking about “the end” this could be used as a cliché, similar to the phrase “at the end of the day” or it could be referencing the end of the person’s life. This ambiguity is never really cleared up as the poem progresses but straight away it highlights the cleverness of Kavanagh as a poet and his ability to drop little clues that give the mind something to explore without making every detail explicit.
Note the fact that in the second line the narrator says that they “may” find, rather than they “will” find. This once again adds an element of uncertainty to ‘Ascetic’ and helps create the tone that the poet was trying to achieve. The third line of the stanza is interesting. The idea of finding something that isn’t sold for a penny evokes a particular kind of emotion. If you are told that something is worth a penny then you might think it was practically worthless. Perhaps that is the insinuation here? Perhaps the narrator is desperate to find something that doesn’t appear to be worthless, but what is it that they are hoping to find that has worth?
Well, the final line of the stanza suggests that he is probably talking about a thought. It is almost as if the narrator is calling into question his own psyche. The narrator’s description of their own mind is pretty damning. Referring to it as slum-like paints a dark picture. The use of rhyme is interesting here. Quite often rhyme gives a poem an upbeat feel. Obviously with the content of this poem it is far from an upbeat piece! Perhaps the rhyme is inserted to give a flow to the piece to lessen the effect of the dark content, so as to not make it too dark and miserable? Of course, that is just conjecture on my part!
That I may break
In the other lands.
The first line of this stanza sounds familiar as it is almost an amalgamation of the first two lines of the first stanza. Of course, it is a different sentence, and this one talks of breaking, but it is an enjambment line and continues onto the second line where it is revealed that the breaking is done with the hands of the narrator. It is interesting that the narrator should chose to emphasise the fact that hands were used to do the breaking. Is this because it gives it a more personal feel, perhaps?
The third line gives the whole stanza a new slant, the inclusion of the bread being the thing that is broken hints at a religious significance. Given the poem’s title that’s not a huge surprise. Is this the breaking of the bread that we associate with the Holy Communion? It is referred to as the bread of wisdom, is the insinuation here that people that worship God are of higher intelligence? It’s unclear, although important to note that the Christian religion is massively followed in Ireland, the homeland of Patrick Kavanagh.
Although it says this bread grows in other lands, this is interesting as bread doesn’t actually grow! But also calls into question what “bread of wisdom” is a metaphor for. It isn’t entirely clear but this could be here just to incite a reader’s sense of curiosity. Of course, the other lands could be a reference to the heavens. In the final stanza, it seems there is a reference to this, and being as there is a line in the first stanza that suggests reaching the “end” this would not be a big surprise either.
For this, for this
The unending stair.
It isn’t really clear why there is a repetition in the first line. Perhaps it is to emphasize the point the proceeds it? The final part of this poem talks about wearing rags and this is definitely a practice that you would associate with an ascetic. However, they are referred to as the rags of hunger, meaning that they almost represent two facets of this kind of lifestyle. This does create an interesting mental picture, or at least it did for me of a man who was very skinny wearing rags, the sort of image you’d associate with starving children in poor African countries. Perhaps this is what the narrator was trying to put across here. When the narrator talks of the “unending stair” this is also fascinating. Could this be a reference to a stairway to heaven? Is that why it is unending?
The concept of heaven is closely associated with the notion of eternity. Climbing the stairs seems like an arduous task and it almost seems unfair that a person that commits to their religion to this extent has to still “climb” that’s assuming of course those are stairs being referenced here. It could be that this is a metaphor for the fact that life is considered to be quite a struggle. In fact in Eastern cultures the mortal world is almost considered like a hell, living on the earth is a constant punishment that we have to endure until we can break the cycle and finally reach enlightenment.
About Patrick Kavanagh
Patrick Kavanagh was an Irish poet who was born in Inniskeen, County Monaghan, in 1904. He passed away in 1967 aged 63. Dying just a few days after seeing his novel performed as a stage production at the Abbey Theatre Company in Dundalk Town Hall. He is known to have been an influence on Laureate Seamus Heaney and still has many fans today including noted actor Russell Crowe. Amongst his more famous pieces are the novel Tarry Flynn and the poems “On Raglan Road” and “The Great Hunger”. His material regularly references life as an Irishman living in Ireland. Kavanagh’s first published piece came in 1928 and appeared in the Dundalk Democrat and the Irish Independent. His first collection, Ploughman and Other Poems, was published in 1936. The poems in it depict Irish country life in a realistic fashion.