This poem is more positive than it first appears. Nevertheless, it is pointed and painful. But then, how can the sense of failure not be?
There’s no indication of what specific failure is in sight. But that is immaterial, not least because it universalises the poem. Failure brings such weight – a ‘dead clod’. Kavanagh evokes something that is truly overwhelming. As such, it is far more devastating than the kind of failure that Thomas Edison spoke of when he said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This is more essential – it is personal.
Which is why he is effectively bent double in shame and the desire to be concealed from others. This is Ozymandias, long before his trunkless legs of stone are marooned in the desert, nose down in the rubble. But he longs for restitution in his shame. For acceptance and welcome.
But here’s the incongruously wonderful thing about this poem – the sense that we can only find hope in hopelessness, security in the insecurity of self-denial.
Which is I juxtaposed the poem with an image of Antony Gormley’s astonishing installation on Crosby beach – 100 cast-iron statues of his own body. They are haunting in their isolation and imperviousness to the tides. Which is what shame does.