I’m delighted for Michael Harding (Life, April 2nd) that the song Raglan Road has always served him well with women. And I enjoyed a special thrill at his revelation that he once sang it to an appreciative group of “undergraduate feminists”. It is a very popular ballad. But all I can suggest is that his female audiences, general and particular, mustn’t have been listening to the words.
I half-love Raglan Road myself. Or to be more exact, I love half of it: the first half, with its poetic descent into love and winter, circa 1944. The lyric leads us gently from “Raglan Road on an autumn day” to “Grafton Street, in November”, via several evocative images in which the inspired author trips lightly along the ledge between poetry and popular song.
I dare claim a special affinity with certain lines. As a twentysomething, I lived near Raglan Road for a time, haunted by women with dark hair. And Grafton Street was even more familiar. I remember sitting wistfully in Bewley’s once, a little lost in my first summer out of Monaghan, and realising I shared with Patrick Kavanagh an understanding granted to few other mortals of the lyric “the Queen of Hearts still making tarts/and I not making hay”.
But after that elegiac opening, wherein the poet doesn’t put a foot wrong, he trips heavily off the ledge in verse three and, struggling to find his feet, puts a size-12 boot through the lyricism. No matter how many times I hear this verse, it still makes me cringe as, first, he speaks of imparting to his beloved secrets “known to the artists who have known . . .” Sure, repetition can be good sometimes. But not here. There is just no excuse for those two “knowns”, especially from a poet claiming familiarity with Mount Olympus.
And worse follows immediately, with the appalling construction – describing another of the poet’s supposed gifts: “word and tint, I did not stint”. Ugh. I’m not sure what “tint” even means there. But choosing it, and then having to find a rhyme for it from the unlovely alternatives, is a crime against poetry. At the very least, the culprit should have had his Mount Olympus visitor visa temporarily revoked.
Those objections are merely aesthetic, however. The real reason why Raglan Road should fail as a song of seduction, having been hinted from the start, are fully unveiled in verse four. For here we learn that the song’s true love object is the artist himself, portrayed as a fallen angel who, spurned by a “creature made of clay”, now realises he has suffered a greater loss than she could ever be: his wings.
Only a poet could get away with this, surely. But if I were an earth-bound female, not even a poet would be safe trying that verse on me. Assuming my clayey feet were too brittle to kick the angel out the door, he would have his feathers plucked there and then, without waiting for moulting season.
It’s well known the real-life earthling described in the song was one Hilda Moriarty, who entertained the poet’s attentions for a while before rejecting him in favour of a future government minister, Donogh O’Malley. Famously beautiful, she was also highly intelligent and by all accounts might have been a writer herself had not her father, a Kerry doctor, insisted on a medical career.
Twice her age, Kavanagh confessed to having it “bad” for the student and once even followed her home to Dingle for Christmas. That must have made for a tense situation. As Kavanagh’s biographer Antoinette Quinn put it: “A down-at-heel, middle-aged, out-of-work journalist from a small farm in Monaghan was not the kind of match Dr Paddy Moriarty envisaged for the beautiful, clever daughter he adored and spoiled with smart clothes and expensive jewellery”.
But her old man needn’t have worried. She chose a marriage more in keeping with her station. And the heartbreak this caused Kavanagh resulted – Raglan Road aside – in a series of laments, not all poetic. Probably the most pithy (and petty) was when he met her after her engagement and noted that the long tresses in which he and others had been ensnared were now tied up. Their work, he implied, was done.
It is, of course, unfair to judge a writer by his real-life reaction to romantic disappointment. And in fact, Kavanagh’s infatuation with Hilda also produced one of his best and happiest poems, Bluebells for Love . But it’s a testament both to the power of music and to the impotence of mere words that Raglan Road remains so popular, even with women, while Bluebells for Love is still almost completely unknown.
On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.
On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion's pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay -
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.
I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that's known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May
On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay -
When the angel woos the clay he'd lose his wings at the dawn of day.