‘Stony Grey Soil’ by Patrick Kavanagh is an eight stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these stanzas follows a specific rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABCB DEFE, altering end sounds as the poet saw fit. There are a few additional connections between the lines, such as instances of half or slant rhyme.
For example, the first and third lines of the fifth stanza have a similar consonant sound. This same can be said, except this time in regards to assonance (or vowel sound) for lines one and four of the sixth stanza. There are many other moments of assonance and consonance in the text. Some of these will be noted in the body of the analysis.
In regards to meter, the lines do not follow one particular pattern, but are of a similar length. They contain somewhere between six and ten syllables per line, giving them a fairly uniform appearance on the page. By not creating a single structure, such as iambic pentamer, for the lines to conform to, Kavanagh has more freedom to explore the structure of the lines. There is also a greater focus on the images and content, rather than how those images are coming together formally.
Summary of Stony Grey Soil
The poem begins with the speaker giving a few details about his home. These details quickly expand and it becomes clear that the poet did not enjoy his youth. In fact, he believes that he didn’t really have one. From a young age the happiness of boyhood was crushed. His dreams were squashed and hopeful ideas were snuffed out. They were replaced by the immortality of farming and the necessity of farming equipment.
In the last couple of stanzas, the speaker explains how all this negativity in his childhood made him the person he is while writing the poem. His verses are influenced by the poisoned pen of “stony grey” Monaghan. While the county took a lot from him, it gave him the “Dead loves” that populate his verse.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Stony Grey Soil
O stony grey soil of Monaghan
And gave me your clod-conceived.
In the first stanza of ‘Stony Grey Soil’ the speaker makes use of the title. He describes County Monaghan, in Ireland, as having this kind of soil. A reader can assume, from just this first line that the speaker is also the poet, Patrick Kavanagh. He grew up in Monaghan and the county is featured in a number of his poems.
The area is not painted in a joyous light in ‘Stony Grey Soil.’ He states that the Monaghan took his childhood from him and the “laugh from [his] love.” By describing the land as a “thief,” Kavanagh is personifying it and giving it greater power. A reader is also able to interpret his emotions towards the land much more easily when the adjectives relate to the human experience. He concludes the stanza by saying that Monaghan gave him “clod” or a lump of earth.
You clogged the feet of my boyhood
And his voice my thick tongued mumble.
Kavanagh makes use of consonance and repetition by using the word “clogged” in the first line of the second stanza. This relates directly to “clod” in the first. Again, the speaker is describing how the land took his childhood from him. This time though it is described as grabbing at his feet.
This went directly against the boy’s childish dream that he was like the god Apollo. The land had a way of destroying his dreams and bringing him back to reality whenever he got too lofty in his thoughts. In the last line of the second stanza, the speaker recalls how he tried to relate to Apollo in his youth. He had the god’s stride and the god had his “mumble.” This is a short line the tells the reader a lot about the boy’s, and the man’s, confidence, or lack thereof.
You told me the plough was immortal!
In the smooth lea-field of my brow.
As if in anger, the speaker exclaims that Monaghan told him the “plough was immortal.” The land taught him that farming and hard work were the most important things. This is supported by the next two lines where he mentions the “mandril” and “coulter”. These are pieces of farming equipment. These beliefs made themselves percent in the boy’s grassy brow, they disrupted his peaceful field of thought and ploughed it into farmland.
You sang on steaming dunghills
You fed me on swinish food
He continues on in anger, describing the land negatively. If Monaghan were to sing it would sing in “steaming dunghills” and a song “of cowards’ brood”. From the time he spent outdoors working, his clothes became “perfumed” with “weasel itch.” The contrasts that Kavanagh presents in these lines are compelling and oxymoronic (in which two unlike things are connected). The references to perfume and songs also speak to the childhood the speaker would’ve liked to have had.
You flung a ditch on my vision
You burgled my bank of youth!
In stanza five of ‘Stony Grey Soil’ Monaghan also destroyed the boy’s vision “Of beauty, love and truth.” Again, he is mourning for the lost purity of childhood. He never had the youth he thinks he should’ve. This is made even clearer in line four where he says that the land “burgled [his] bank of youth”. This metaphor compares the limited days of childhood to money. The land stole these days from him and there’s no way to get them back.
Lost the long hours of pleasure
Or write with unpoisoned pen.
The money/time he lost as a child is “pleasure”. This is what he should’ve had, along with “all the women that love young men.”
It is at this point that the poem starts to move into the present. While Monaghan took a lot from him, it also changed him irreparably. He thinks now that they can’t “write with unpoisoned pen.” His thinking, and what he cares about, is now always tinged with the land and how he grew up. He can’t approach his own poetry from any other perspective than that which County Monaghan gave him.
His name in these lonely verses
Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.
“His name” in stanza seven of ‘Stony Grey Soil’ is a reference to the land. It always appears in “these lonely verses”. This is a true statement, as Kavanagh’s home played a large part in the work he penned. It influenced him and it was because of the “dark fields” of his home that his style was developed. He sees himself as writing something that is caught between “gay flight” and “a peasant’s prayer.” It has elements of the boyhood happiness he wanted and the life he actually led.
Mullahinsa, Drummeril, Black Shanco-
Dead loves that were born for me.
‘Stony Grey Soil’ concludes on a slightly more optimistic note. To an extent, that the poet has come to terms with how he grew up. He is able to accept it as the basis for his writing. He adds that “Dead loves,” or the topics of his poems, were “born” for him from the land. Despite all it took, it did end up giving him something back.