The purpose of these notes is to guide you in your exploration of the poetry of Eavan Boland. The notes are structured as a series of ‘thinking points’ ranging over the main themes and issues evident in her work. They are not exhaustive and neither are they ‘carved in stone’. They should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own understanding of the poet’s work.
You are expected to study six poems by Eavan Boland from your Anthology. The poems we will concentrate on are:
- ‘Child of Our Time’,
- ‘This Moment’,
- ‘Famine Road’,
- ‘Outside History’,
- ‘The War Horse’,
- ‘The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me’
Boland’s view of Irish history and her idea of nation
- Boland deals with the reality of Irish history, the familiar story of oppression, defeat and death (‘The Famine Road’). The sense of national identity that comes across from ‘The Famine Road’ speaks of victimisation, being downtrodden and living out pointless lives; see also the suffering in ‘Outside History’.
- Opposed to that view is the male-created myth, involving heroic struggle, battle, and glorious defeat: see the image of the dying patriot immortalised by art in ‘An Old Steel Engraving’. The woman poet feels excluded from that cultural tradition – ‘One of us who turns away.’
- Boland resists the myths imposed on us by our history (and the way it was taught!!) and she insists on the necessity of confronting the reality, facing the unburied dead of history and laying them to rest (‘Outside History’).
- She shows concern for the unrecorded history, for the significance of lives lived on the margins of history, away from the centre of power, far from the limelight of action. She mourns the forgotten lives in ‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’.
- In her prose writings Boland explores the idea of nation and the difficulties it produces for her as a woman poet. In Object Lessons she says:
So it was with me. For this very reason, early on as a poet, certainly in my twenties, I realised that the Irish nation as an existing construct in Irish poetry was not available to me. I would not have been able to articulate it at that point, but at some preliminary level I already knew that the anguish and power of that woman’s gesture on Achill, with its suggestive hinterland of pain, were not something I could predict or rely on in Irish poetry. There were glimpses here and there; sometimes more than that. But all too often, when I was searching for such an inclusion, what I found was a rhetoric of imagery which alienated me: a fusion of the national and the feminine which seemed to simplify both.
It was not a comfortable realisation. There was nothing clear-cut about my feelings. I had tribal ambivalences and doubts, and even then I had an uneasy sense of the conflict which awaited me. On the one hand, I knew that as a poet I could not easily do without the idea of a nation. Poetry in every time draws on that reserve. On the other, I could not as a woman accept the nation formulated for me by Irish poetry and its traditions. At one point it even looked to me as if the whole thing might be made up of irreconcilable differences. At the very least it seemed to me that I was likely to remain an outsider in my own national literature, cut off from its archive, at a distance from its energy. Unless, that is, I could repossess it. This proposal is about that conflict and that repossession and about the fact that repossession itself is not a static or single act. Indeed, the argument which describes it may itself be no more than a part of it.
Violence in society
- ‘The War Horse’ explores suburban, middle-class attitudes to political violence. It is really a psychological exploration of the theme ‘how we respond to violence’.
- Race memory and the old antagonisms to English colonial rule still exist just beneath the surface (‘The War Horse’).
- The real human consequences of political violence are portrayed in ‘Child of Our Time’. The poet here acts as the conscience of our society.
- Violence is seen as the result of a failure of language, an inability to communicate (‘Child of Our Time’).
The significance of myth
- While in much of her poetry myth is seen as a positive thing, Boland often challenges the image of woman in mythology (also in art in mythology), particularly when it shows woman as marginalised, silenced, subservient to her husband the hero, as in ‘Love’.
- For her our history (indeed all history) is laced with myths. The unreality, the coldness and the distance of myth from real lives is symbolised in the stars of ‘Outside History’.
The experience of being a woman
Boland’s strong feminine perspective lends an extra dimension of insight to all her themes. But she also considers specific issues relating to the portrayal and the treatment of women.
- The sufferings of women are equated with the oppression of the nation (‘The Famine Road’)
- The traditional role of woman is validated in such poems as ‘This Moment’, which show woman as mother. That maternal gesture of catching the child in her arms is the key to the poem. The protectiveness of mothers features also in ‘The Pomegranate’. Also her wisdom is displayed in allowing the daughter freedom to learn for herself.
- Woman as lover features in ‘The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me’ and ‘Love’.
- Suburban woman features in many of the poems: ‘The War Horse’ and ‘This Moment’.
- The puzzling relationship between men and women features in ‘The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me’: the mistimings, the tempests of love, the sensual allure. Love diminishes in time, like the importance of the fan. This makes an interesting alternative view to the blinkered one of idyllic romance.
- Boland challenges the patriarchal tradition of Irish poetry. In Object Lessons she elaborated on her objections to the images of women in literature:
The majority of Irish male poets depended on women as motifs in their poetry. They moved easily, deftly, as if by right among images of women in which I did not believe and of which I could not approve. The women in their poems were often passive, decorative, raised to emblematic status. This was especially true where the woman and the idea of the nation were mixed: where the nation became a woman and the woman took on a national posture. (Note: This is very obvious in the poetry of Yeats where he refers almost obsessively to Maud Gonne).
The trouble was [that] these images did good service as ornaments. In fact, they had a wide acceptance as ornaments by readers of Irish poetry. Women in such poems were frequently referred to approvingly as mythic, emblematic. But to me these passive and simplified women seemed a corruption. For they were not decorations, they were not ornaments. However distorted these images, they had their roots in a suffered truth.
What had happened? How had the women of our past – the women of a long struggle and a terrible survival – undergone such a transformation? How had they suffered Irish history and rooted themselves in the speech and memory of the Achill woman, only to re-emerge in Irish poetry as fictive queens and national sibyls?
The more I thought about it, the more uneasy I became. The wrath and grief of Irish history seemed to me, as it did to many, one of our true possessions. Women were part of that wrath, had endured that grief. It seemed to me a species of human insult that at the end of all, in certain Irish poems, they should become elements of style rather than aspects of truth.
Poetry in the suburbs
- A good deal of her poetry is set in the suburbs, a setting not associated traditionally with poetic inspiration.
- The fragile nature of the beauty and order created in the suburbs is brought out in ‘The War Horse’.
- The toy-house neatness of suburbia is no match for the wild, elemental attractions of nature in ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’.
- In the later poems we encounter a romantic evocation of a suburban twilight (‘This Moment’). Nature has colonised the suburbs (‘Stars rise / Moths flutter’, ‘one window is yellow as butter’).
- But the real bleakness of the suburban street is not hidden: ‘The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured’ – ‘The Pomegranate’.
Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1944. The daughter of a diplomat and a painter, Boland spent her girlhood in London and New York, returning to Ireland to attend secondary school in Killiney and later university at Trinity College in Dublin. Though still a student when she published her first collection, 23 Poems (1962), Boland’s early work is informed by her experiences as a young wife and mother, and her growing awareness of the troubled role of women in Irish history and culture. Over the course of her long career, Eavan Boland has emerged as one of the foremost female voices in Irish literature. Throughout her many collections of poetry, in her prose memoir Object Lessons (1995), and in her work as a noted anthologist and teacher, Boland has honed an appreciation for the ordinary in life. The poet and critic Ruth Padel described Boland’s “commitment to lyric grace and feminism” even as her subjects tend to “the fabric of domestic life, myth, love, history, and Irish rural landscape.” Keenly aware of the problematic associations and troubled place that women hold in Irish culture and history, Boland has always written out of an urge to make an honest account of female experience. In an interview with readers on the website A Smartish Pace, Boland herself described the “difficult situation” of her early years as a poet: “I began to write in an Ireland where the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other. Ireland was a country with a compelling past, and the word ‘woman’ invoked all kinds of images of communality which were thought to be contrary to the life of anarchic individualism invoked by the word ‘poet’…I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote. And the life I lived was a woman’s life. And I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation.”
Boland’s poetry is known for subverting traditional constructions of womanhood, as well as offering fresh perspectives on Irish history and mythology. Her fifth book, In Her Own Image (1980), brought Boland international recognition and acclaim. Exploring topics such as domestic violence, anorexia, infanticide and cancer, the book also announced Boland’s on-going concern with inaccurate and muffled portrayals of women in Irish literature and society. Her next books, including Night Feed (1982) and her first volume of selected poems Outside History (1990), continue to explore questions of female identity. Though Boland has been described as a feminist, her approach is not an overtly political one. Perhaps this is because she is not content, as a poet, to uphold one view of things to the exclusion of all others: hers is a voice, in the words of Melanie Rehak in the New York Times Book Review, “that is by now famous for its unwavering feminism as well as its devotion to both the joys of domesticity and her native Ireland.” In a Time of Violence (1994), winner of a Lannan award and shortlisted for the prestigious T.S. Eliot prize, contains poems that gesture towards private and political realities at once. In poems such as “That the Science of Cartography is Limited” and “Anna Liffey,” Boland constructs a world that is influenced by history, the present-day and mythology and yet remains intensely personal. It is a recipe that Boland has perfected in her work since.
Against Love Poetry (2001), published as Code in the UK,displays the scope of Boland’s knowledge and her awareness of tradition. “So much of European love poetry,” she told Alice Quinn of the New Yorker online, “is court poetry, coming out of the glamorous traditions of the court…There’s little about the ordinariness of love.” Seeking a poetry that would express the beauty of the plain things that make up most people’s existences, she found that she would have to create it for herself. It is “dailiness,” as Boland called it, that reviewers often find, and praise, in Boland’s poetry. By focusing on “dailiness,” Boland is also attempting to delineate the contours of a new vision of history. Reviewing Code for the Times Literary Supplement, Clare Wills noted that “Boland is a master at reading history in the configurations of landscape, at seeing space as the registration of time. If only we know how to look, there are means of deciphering the hidden, fragmentary messages from the past, of recovering lives from history’s enigmatic scramblings.” Domestic Violence (2007) weaves different and competing kinds of history—the national, the personal, the domestic—together in poems that also meditate on the legacy of Irish poetry itself. Reviewing the collection for Poetry Review, Jay Parini noted: “The literal site of these poems is often Ireland itself, with its heroic gestures, high rhetoric, and (sometimes pretentious) symbol-making held in abeyance, even fended off. Boland brilliantly attacks, and nullifies, this tradition.” Parini added that “Boland is, in her quiet way, as melodramatic as any of her forbears. This is always what I have liked about her, the clash of intention and manifestation.”
Boland’s second volume of collected work, New Collected Poems, was published in 2008 to glowing reviews. Salvaging numerous poems from her first books, as well as a previously-unpublished verse play, the book demonstrates Boland’s restless and incessant attempt to escape from, or at the very least complicate, the Irish lyric tradition she inherited. Anne Fogarty, in the Irish Book Review declared New Collected Poems “acts as a timely reminder of the significance and innovatory force of Boland’s achievement as a poet and of the degree to which so many of her texts…have lastingly altered the contours of Irish writing. Modern Irish poetry would be unthinkable without her presence. New Collected Poems valuably updates the record of Eavan Boland’s artistic output. More vitally, it underscores the vibrancy of her ongoing project as a poet who is doubtless one of the foremost writers in contemporary Ireland.”