‘Canal Bank Walk’ by Patrick Kavanagh is a fourteen-line sonnet that is contained within one block of text. The poem does not stick to one sonnet form. There are elements of both Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets in the text, as well as choices that do not belong in either category.
The lines conform to a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. This is the traditional pattern of a Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnet. Typically, Shakespearean sonnets also utilize a very structured metrical pattern, known as iambic pentameter. This is not present in ‘Canal Bank Walk.’ In fact, there does not seem to be a real pattern at all. In the first eight lines, or octave, of the text, the lines vary from 10 up to 15 syllables per line. The last six lines, or sextet, do have a pattern of sorts. The syllable numbers follow the scheme of 15, 14, 13, 13, 14, and 15.
Another attribute of Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets is the presence of a turn, or volta, in the text. Shakespearean sonnets place that turns before the final rhyming couplet, and Petrarchan between the opening octet and closing sestet. In the case of ‘Canal Bank Walk’ the turn comes at the beginning of the octave. Here, the speaker switches permanently into the first-person and addresses their own needs.
Summary of Canal Bank Walk
The poem begins with the speaker stating that there is a place near the banks of a river, on a bridge, where lovers meet. This place is filled with love, and often plays host to kissing couples, as is seen in line six. It is to this place that the speaker goes when they want to feel close to God. They are able to commune with nature and, in part, fulfill their senses and hungry spirituality.
Eventually, the speaker asks God, and the wider world of nature, to accept them. They want to be able to live unselfconsciously and to wear a “new dress” that is made of “questions unanswered.” This person is seeking a new way of being in the world that is not defined by city life or purely secular thought.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Canal Bank Walk
Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker begins by describing a place that is clearly important to them. Through lyrical, highly descriptive language, they speak about the “banks” and “green waters” of the canal. This place is “Leafy-with-love.” To the speaker, and perhaps to the community at large, the area is one that radiates romance, peace, and happiness.
This is particularly the case for the speaker though. They see it as a place of “redemption.” It is there that they are able to interpret and accept the “will of God.” God’s power is part of this average (yet beautiful) area of the city. In amongst the mundane surroundings of the world, the speaker is able to transcend to a higher level. They “wallow” or bask in the emotions of the place.
There, they connect with them-self, God, and with “nature again as before” they “grew.” This is an interesting phrase and could refer to the speaker’s own moral and spiritual development as an individual. They seem to see their youth or the time before they were born into the world as purer and more true than their life now.
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
In the next four lines, the speaker goes on to refer to an intimate scene happening somewhere around them. These lines give credence to the general mood present on the bridge, that it is a place of love and happiness. The following lines are also a little vague, but continue to create a mental, physical, and emotional picture of the place.
The speaker describes the bridge as playing host to “the couple.” They are sitting “on an old seat,” that has assuredly been used by similar couples innumerable times. They are kissing there, while the breeze blows around them. It adds a “third / party to the couple.”
This extra addition is the presence of the natural world. It includes,
[…] a bird gathering material for the nest for the Word.
A reader can muse over what Kavanagh meant by “the Word.” It is unclear exactly what he is referring to, although the reference to God in the first set of four lines might lead one to believe that it is the “word of God” he is connecting the moment too. What is clear, is that Kavanagh, or at least the speaker he is utilizing for this particular piece, sees God and nature as one and the same.
A wanderer can spend time in a natural place, or even a semi-natural one such as a bridge in the middle of a city, and feel closer to God. The bird builds its nest to the “beat” of God’s word as well as in reverence to God.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.
In the final six lines, Kavanagh makes use of a traditional sonnet turn, or volta. It is signaled through the switch into the first person. These lines focus on the speaker and the emotions they are seeking from the place. They speak on the world as being “unworn,” as if it has a lot of potential left, and much more to give. The speaker also turns to address the world itself, or more likely, God. They ask that they be “enrapture[d]” and caught up,
[…] in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
The speaker is seeking ways to subsume them-self within the natural world, within God’s creation. There, they would be part of eternity, with the company of “beech” trees to feed their needy “senses.” In the third and fourth lines, Kavanagh uses the phrase, “give me ad lib / To pray unselfconsciously.” They want God and God’s natural world to allow them (if God so chooses) to pray without thinking too hard about what they’re doing or what they’re saying. The speaker wants to break down all boundaries between them-self and nature. They want to increase their spiritual openness to the world.
In the last two lines, the speaker refers to their need to increase the range and depth of their soul. This person is seeking out “a new dress woven” from the ephemeral, colourful parts of the world. The “dress” is representative of a new way of being in the world. It is a new skin to put on and a new lens through which to interrupt events and landscapes.