Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘In Memory of My Mother’ is a reflection on the happy memories Kavanagh has of his mother after her passing. He does not want to accept that she has died, instead of throwing himself into a stream of memory.
Kavanagh splits the poem into five stanzas of quatrains. He often uses enjambment, causing the lines to flow on to one another. This steady flow within the poem reflects the happiness of the memories he is exploring, with the melodic movements of the poem emulating his fond remembering. You can read the full poem here.
The Title – ‘In Memory of My Mother’
The title of the poem instantly gives the reader an insight into who the speaker of the poem is discussing. Moreover, considering he has written this poem ‘in memory’, the poet also suggests that she has now passed away. The title accurately reflects the content which will follow, giving the reader insight.
In Memory of My Mother Analysis
I do not think of you lying in the wet clay
On your way to the station, or happily
‘In Memory of My Mother’ begins by focusing on Patrick Kavanagh‘s inability to admit that his mother has died. The instant negative, ‘I do not’ reflects his hesitancy, with his preferred mechanism of coping being to throw himself into past memories. The centralization of the pronoun ‘I’ also shows that the poem is one that is intensely personal. Indeed, within ‘In Memory of My Mother’, Kavanagh is exploring his own memories of his mother, sharing them with the reader.
The personal element, began by the personal pronoun, is extended by the identification of a geographical location, ‘Monaghan’. This is the location within Ireland that Kavanagh was born, and where his mother was buried. This geographical identification is typical of the poet, being proud of his Irish heritage.
The use of the semi-colon, following the actuality of the mother’s ‘lying in wet clay’ allows the sentence to continue, although it could be broken into two sentences. The semicolon is a representation of Kavanagh continuing the life of his mother through his memories, not allowing her to be locked away behind a full stop. The first stanza is enjambed to the second, with this moment of extension being the part that allows for the smooth rhythm to be evoked within this first stanza.
Going to second Mass on a summer Sunday –
Among your earthiest words the angels stray.
This stanza focuses on the nature of his mother, suggesting her faith and also care for rural life. Kavanagh focuses on the fact that she would attend mass twice on a ‘Sunday’. The devotion to her faith, and the focus on the holy ‘Sunday’ suggesting the dedication to her religion.
Kavanagh’s father was a farmer and the insistence of his mother about checking on ‘the cattle’ compounds the image of rural life. Her first concern is for her family’s farm, and therefore their wellbeing. She is presented as a conscious and caring woman, both devout in religion and to her family.
The direct tone in which Kavanagh addresses his mother, ‘you’, ‘you say’, shows that he has not let go of his mother. Still, he talks to her directly, as if she was right before him. This is a tragic note within the poem that continues throughout.
The rhyme of ‘say’ and ‘stray’ elevates the final image of this stanza, with the ‘Angels’ floating around his mother. This could be a reference to her death, with his unwillingness to admit her passing slowing cracking. Yet, it is more likely a way of emphasizing the good-willed nature of his mother, especially when considered against the religious context implied earlier within this stanza.
And I think of you walking along a headland
And I see us meeting at the end of a town
The use of ‘and’ feeds back into the idea of continuation suggested within the first stanza. The beginning of the stanza, seemingly mid-sentence, furthers the continuation of Kavanagh’s memory, focusing on more happy moments to immortalize his mother in poetry.
He focuses on the month of ‘June’, and the luscious ‘green’ of the summer month. In doing this, he creates a warm atmosphere to set the ‘walking’ of his mother, the pathetic fallacy implied by the summer month flooding the poem with light.
The double use of ‘so full… so rich’ again attempts to emphasize the excellence of his mother. Kavanagh wants to present the love he holds for his mother to the audience, drawing together lines of praise to characterize her.
The harsh hyphen on the third line of this stanza is a representation of the shock Kavanagh feels at her death. It is short, sharp, and sudden, both breaking the rhythm of ‘In Memory of My Mother’ and forcing the reader to pause. This can be understood as a moment of Kavanagh’s composure cracking, a minute pause before he continues to describe happy moments with his mother. A tiny pause of sorrow within the poem.
The connective ‘us’ binds the mother and son together within this stanza. They are seen as ‘meeting’ together, the shared action being remembered fondly. Yet, there is an element of separation within this image. Indeed, this is only a memory, and Kavanagh is separated from the ‘meeting’, only ‘see[ing]’ it as an onlooker.
On a fair day by accident, after
Free in the oriental streets of thought.
The atmosphere evoked in stanza three is further explored within the opening line of this stanza. The ‘fair day’ further setting the warm scene to which the mother and son will walk.
The drawing together of the two is again reflected through the use of the pronoun. The two people are no longer separated into ‘you’ and ‘I’, but a collective ‘we’. With all verbs conjugated to reflect this change in pronoun.
The polysyndeton of ‘shops and stalls and markets’ creates the sense that they are strolling carelessly. There is no intended direction, they are simply adding locations on as they walk. The relaxed nature of their communal walk furthers the sense of rural idyl in ‘In Memory of My Mother’.
O you are not lying in the wet clay,
And you smile up at us – eternally.
The exclamative ‘O’ and repeated ‘lying in wet clay’ mark a moment of bitter realization. He can not go on focusing on memories and ignoring her death. In this line, the melancholy of the poem reaches a climax. He finds it hard to cope with her loss, but within this line, he takes the first step towards acceptance.
The final hyphen is a momentary intake of breath within ‘In Memory of My Mother’. Kavanagh has accepted his mother’s passing and takes a moment for himself before finishing the poem on a religious reflection.
Although gone, Kavanagh knows that his mother will live on ‘eternally’, looking down on him, ‘smil[ing]’. The final line is sorrowful and joyous simultaneously. Kavanagh ends the poem on a note of beautiful acceptance of the love they had, and the love that has now passed. Kavanagh immortalizes his mother through this dedicated poem, binding her into a literary tradition that will continue to survive in the minds of his readers.