‘Epic’ by Patrick Kavanagh is a fourteen-line sonnet that does not follow a pattern of rhyme. This disassociates the text from either the Shakespearean or Petrarchan forms. The lines are contained within one block of text, and appear to be similar in length. There is also no set pattern of a meter. This is another feature that sets the poem apart from those of a more traditional backing.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he has lived through many interesting times. One of those he is able to relate below. It is just as important, he adds later, as WWII and The Trojan War.
The facts of the dispute are simple. Two different clans claimed to own a small piece of land. This set them shouting at one another and threatening violence. While small when considered against the World Wars, the fight is just as important for the town, if not more so, than the horror the coming years will bring.
You can read the full poem here.
Within the text of ‘Epic’ Kavanagh makes connections between the shouting of the Duffy and McCabe clans to the Trojan war. This becomes clear in the last lines when the speaker describes hearing Homer speak. He was the noted poet of The Iliad,’ a true epic poem that details the Trojan War and those who participated in it. Homer supposedly told this speaker that the dispute detailed in the first part of the poem could be just as important for the world as an argument between city-states.
Another important feature of this piece to consider while reading is the title, and how it connects to the various allusions in the text. The argument that is sustained between the two clans in ‘Epic’ is small when one considers the larger scheme of things. Especially the fact that World War II was on the horizon when Kavanagh wrote this, and World War I was not far in the past.
The poet chose to title the poem ‘Epic’ to play on the traditional epic form. There is nothing (at first) about this short sonnet, content or form-wise, that relates it to a truly epic poem. This comparison is similar to the one he draws between the Trojan War and the local dispute between clans. It can be read as an ironic statement, but also as a hint that things could escalate and become important for a larger segment of the population, (or at least a local one).
Analysis of Epic
In the first four lines of ‘Epic’ Kavanagh begins by playing with the idea of an epic poem. His speaker states that he has,
lived in important places, times
When great events were decided;
This could easily be the beginning of ending of a poem like The Iliad or The Odyssey. But, the events described in ‘Epic’ are not traditionally grand. They are much more local and limited and scope. The land that Kavanagh’s speaker refers to in the second and third lines is a part of Ireland. It is not entirely clear in the text which area he might be speaking about, but it is argued over.
At this point in the speaker’s life, and in the lives of those who plan to fight for the land, it is considered “no-man’s land.” No one has a solid claim to it, but many want it. There is another contrast here. To an outsider, the land does not seem like much. The speaker calls it a “rood,” a space of about a quarter of an acre. It doesn’t appear to be prosperous land either, it is “rock.”
Nevertheless, there are “pitchfork-armed claims” all around the area. Many are seeking the rights to it. This says something immediately about the value that the Irish, or at least these two clans, place on land. Depending on how one approaches the text, Kavanagh’s description of the fight might seem more humorous and satirical than serious.
I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul!’
‘Here is the march along these iron stones’
In the next four lines of ‘Epic’ the speaker, who is very clearly witnessing the conflict on the land, describes “the Duffys shouting.” This is a reference to one clan in this part of Ireland. They shout across to the other side, “‘Damn your soul!’” This is a very serious comment, but its intensity fits right in with the already elevated environment that Kavanagh has created.
One of the people on the other side, to whom the comment was directed, is “old McCabe”. He is standing with his shirt off, and is ready to fight with any who step forward. He rouses those around him by calling the “iron stones” around them the place to “march”. The two sides will do what they have to.
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
In the next three lines, which start the second half of the sonnet, the speaker tells the reader that this conflict was the same year as the Munich Agreement. What Kavanagh’s speaker refers to as “the Munich Bother”. This is the agreement that was thought to settle the world into peace for the rest of time. That did not happen, as the next year World War II broke out.
The speaker asks the reader to consider which was more important, the beginning of WWII or the disagreement between the two sides. By making this comparison he is inviting the reader to consider the range of important historical events and that something within one’s community can seem vastly more important than a fight many miles away.
In the eleventh line the speaker references “Ballyrush and Gortin.” These are small towns in Kavanagh’s own home, Monaghan. His speaker states that he was “inclined to lose” his “faith in” these two places. This is perhaps an expression of worry over the state of peace in his own home, never mind that which was about to shatter throughout the rest of the world.
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
In the final lines the speaker makes his last connection. He was “inclined” to lose his faith until he was spoken to by “Homer’s ghost”. As stated above, Homer is the poet and storytelling to whom The Iliad and The Odyssey are credited. These are true epics, containing thousands of lines of details.
On the surface, the dispute between the Greeks and the Trojans and the McCabes and the Duffys have nothing in common. But, as if bolstering the speaker’s own faith in his home, Homer says that made his stories from simple beginnings too. “A local row” began The Iliad.
In the last line of ‘Epic’ the speaker summarizes this way of thinking by adding that “Gods make their own importance.” This is a very lofty, and beautiful way of saying that importance is where one is. It is determined by the place.