“Canal Bank Walk” by Patrick Kavanagh

The Grand Canal in Dublin. Image by Kaihsu Tai via Wikimedia Commons.
The Grand Canal in Dublin, where Kavanagh was inspired to write “Canal Bank Walk.” Image by Kaihsu Tai.

Today is the feast day of St. Columba, which has me thinking a lot about Ireland and about poets, Columba being the patron saint of both.

As much as there is to love in the poetry of the Americas, Great Britain, and elsewhere, Irish poetry seems to strike a chord with me that no other country’s poetry comes near. A good number of these soul-stirring, stunningly beautiful Irish poems has come from an author I discovered early this year, Patrick Kavanagh.

My first introduction to Kavanagh’s work came thanks to this lecture by Christian Wiman, titled “When You Consider the Radiance: Poetry for Preachers and Prophets.” In the lecture, Wiman reads two Kavanagh poems, “Innocence” (at the 17:38 mark) and “Canal Bank Walk” (at 21:20). And while “Innocence” is beautiful and moving in its own right, it was “Canal Bank Walk” that has stuck with me ever since.

To put it simply, this is a poem that reminds me of why I love poetry. It’s also a perfect example, I think, of what G. K. Chesterton meant when he said that “at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet” (Manalive, chapter 2). Written while Kavanagh was recovering from lung cancer, the poem brims with thankfulness for and wonder at the grace of God, as expressed in the natural world. To this poem’s speaker—having realized how precious and fragile life is–every leaf on every tree and every drop of water in the canal becomes a token of God’s love for him and of his grace toward him. It’s one of those poems that makes you (like Chesterton) amazed just at the fact that you’re alive.

You can read it here and here, and also in Kavanagh’s Collected Poems.

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