In the the second stanza of Stony Grey Soil, Patrick Kavanagh describes how the soil “clogged the feet of my boyhood” holding him back. The next lines suggest that at the time, Kavanagh wasn’t aware of his failings brought about by his background. In his ignorance, he thought his “stumble” and “thick tongued mumble” were a match for the poise and voice of Apollo.
There may be a reference here to Kavanagh’s beginnings as a poet. A few of his poems had been published in local newspapers, much to the astonishment of his friends and fellow labourers. It may have given him a false sense of his abilities. Any such illusion was shattered when he went to pursue a career as a writer and found that his work didn’t impress the Dublin literary set – certainly not at first.
In the third stanza, the “green life conquering plough” refers of course to the way the plough turns over the grass to expose the soil for planting, but “green life” also symbolises creativity and self-fulfilment, both of which are destroyed.
A lea field is a meadow that hasn’t been ploughed. The plough blunts on the lea-field of Kavanagh’s brow, suggesting that although his background held him back, it couldn’t stop him forever and he broke away.
Dead loves that were born for me
In the fourth stanza, the “song of cowards’ brood” perhaps refers to the way the impoverished background made Kavanagh and those around him doubt themselves, sapping their courage so they became enslaved in their poverty and lacking the nerve to break away.
Kavanagh did manage to leave but the remaining stanzas make it clear that he feels he was robbed of many of the joys and accomplishments of youth. The “monster” in stanza seven is Monaghan itself and Kavanagh wonders whether he can write about it without bitterness. The final lines suggest not because wherever he turns to in Monaghan he sees “dead loves that were born for me”.
The dead loves refer to opportunities for all that is positive in life – love, laughter, enlightenment, achievement. All these were lost because of the crushing poverty endured in the rural life of working the stony grey soil.
Stony Grey Soil is remarkable for its honesty, both in the way Kavanagh lays bare his background and the problems it caused him, and also for the unsentimental way he describes the reality of rural life, in contrast to the romanticised approach of many other writers.