Another poem of Patrick Kavanagh’s showing his deep attachment to his native patch, an attachment that combines the spiritual, almost mystical, with the concrete and practical (see also, for example, week 86’s ‘Threshing Morning’).
The puzzle in this poem is how to read the last line: ‘I hear and is my heart not badly shaken?’. Does one take it at face value: ‘I hear what you are saying, and yes, it is pretty depressing to think that this meagre patch is all I have to show for a life of devotion to my land and my craft’. Or does one hear a mocking, ‘am I bothered’ note: ‘I hear what you are saying, but why should I need a greater domain than these small hills that for me are as good as any Alps, or more wealth than the bright shillings of March sunlight that they offer me?’. Not surprisingly I favour the latter reading, but of course the two could coexist: many poets must have viewed their material poverty with a slight degree of rue while accepting it as the price of their spiritual plenty.
Shancoduff is a townland in Co. Monaghan, Ireland.
My black hills have never seen the sun rising,
Eternally they look north towards Armagh.
Lot’s wife would not be salt if she had been
Incurious as my black hills that are happy
When dawn whitens Glassdrummond chapel.
My hills hoard the bright shillings of March
While the sun searches in every pocket.
They are my Alps and I have climbed the Matterhorn
With a sheaf of hay for three perishing calves
In the field under the Big Forth of Rocksavage.
The sleety winds fondle the rushy beards of Shancoduff
While the cattle-drovers sheltering in the Featherna Bush
Look up and say: ‘Who owns them hungry hills
That the water-hen and snipe must have forsaken?
A poet? Then by heavens he must be poor.’
I hear and is my heart not badly shaken?
Ah, this is lovely! It sent me back to my book of Patrick Kavanagh’s work – which I have to admit I bought mainly for his In Memory of My Mother…
“bright shillings of March” – pockets of snow and ice? “hungry” [adj] – barren.
I suppose ‘bright shillings of March’ could be referring to pockets of snow and ice but given the mildness of the Irish climate and the relative lowness of the hills (we’re not talking the Cairngorms here) I think it more likely, as I have always taken it myself, to be referring to the way the rays of a low March sun, striking at an angle, can create bright spots in the landscape, especially when there is cloud about.
I’m tempted to think that “my black hills” have hoarded the shillings but other hills have none left, which seems to fit snow and ice. But your suggestion could be right too.