Verse Three – the mystery of the secret sign
The opening lines of the third verse describe Kavanagh giving the girl “gifts of the mind” which suggests that he is sharing his knowledge and experience with her.
This would be understandable as he was much older and experienced than she was, and as he was quite poor he had little else to offer.
He then talks of giving her “the secret sign that’s known to artists”.
People have racked their brains about this and failed to come up with plausible explanation.
The reason they failed is that there is no plausible explanation.
Kavanagh! You’re starting to sound pretentious
When a poet creates a great piece of work there’s a tendency for us to imagine every part of it must be great. This is often not the case and it’s likely to be the case here.
The truth is that Kavanagh is getting a little pretentious. There is no “secret sign” known only to artists and the whole concept is just an example of how Kavanagh could give himself airs and graces to which he was not entitled.
The final two lines rescue the verse, however, as he recounts how he gave her poems to say. The poems are personal to her, containing her name and describing her hair.
Even so, all is not well, for the poems are “like clouds over fields of May” creating a sense of foreboding for the outcome of the relationship.
Verse Four – where old ghosts meet
Kavanagh doesn’t telling us how the relationship ends but we know it’s over from the wonderfully evocative opening lines of the fourth verse.
“On a quiet street where old ghosts meet
I see her walking now,
Away from me so hurriedly
My reason must allow”
The mention of old ghosts as he sees her in his mind’s eye suggests some time has past and Kavanagh has had time to reflect on what had happened.
Unfortunately, in my opinion at least, those reflections have him flirting with pretentiousness again as he creates a rather grandiose image of himself as a writer.
A creature made of clay
His reason is now restored and he can see that he had been wrong to woo a “creature made of clay” – that is to say, woman, a mortal person made of flesh and blood.
One might wonder what other kind of creature a man might woo but the final line makes it clear what Kavanagh is getting at.
“When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.
Kavanagh was distracted by earthly pleasures
Kavanagh isn’t seeing himself literally as an angel but he uses the word to refer to himself as a writer, an artist who has known the “secret signs” given out by the “true gods” of artistic pursuit as referred to in verse three.
In wooing the creature made of clay the angel loses his wings.
In other words, pursuing the girl meant Kavanagh had been distracted by earthly pleasures and desires instead of his writing. He had lost his wings and therefore his ability to fly to highest levels of artistic achievement.
This echoes the line in the second verse where he talks about not making hay – not making any progress or doing any work.
A flawed masterpiece but still irresistible
I mentioned earlier that Raglan Road is a flawed masterpiece.
The flaws are Kavanagh’s tendency to sink into pretentiousness and take himself and his art too seriously, becoming a little too other worldly.
This is ironic really because what makes the song so great is that it is based on and totally accepts our universal human frailty – the frailty that makes us to rush headlong towards disaster when love beckons, no matter how much reason is telling us to run the opposite way.
Do you agree with this interpretation? Have you any other light to shed on it? Please comment below.