Good morning fifth year students. I am here today, as I have been asked to speak to you about the poetry of Eavan Boland. Eavan Boland is one of Irelands most distinguished and highly regarded poets. Born in Dublin, in 1944, she spent several years of her childhood in England where her father was a diplomat She later returned to Dublin where she attended Trinity College and began to write poetry and published her first book of poetry ‘New Territory’ at the age of twenty two. Her life changed however when she married and moved to the suburb of Dundrum to bring up her child.
She found herself occupying two very different roles, the role of a mother and wife, and the role as a poet. She turned away from the romantic and traditional poetry she wrote during college and began to explore this ‘ordinary world’. As she continued to write, she won more and more attention establishing Boland as a woman writing about a woman’s experience, something that was extremely rare in Irish poetry. Major themes which dominate many of her poems are history and it’s victims, love and marriage.
These themes as well as aspects of her poetry such as symbolism, use of mythology and effective imagery make her poetry unique and enjoyable to read. A major influence on Boland’s poetry is history, and in several of her poems, this is a major theme. We see her work paying tribute to the history’s victims, to those who have struggled and or lost their lives over the centuries. And very often Bolands sympathy lies in particular with the victims who lie ‘outside history’, whose death and sufferings are forgotten about and unrecorded in history. ‘The Famine Road’ is a prime example of this.
This is a poem about the powerlessness and exclusion of the Irish victims who suffered during the great hunger in the 1840’s. She highlights the mistreatment of the Irish during the famine at the hands of their British Rulers. We hear the cruel voices of Trevelyan and Colonel Jones discussing what should be done with the suffering Irish. There is no sympathy shown towards the victims, as the English order to ‘give them no coins at all’. They are described as being ‘idle as trout’ as if they are morally weak and need hard work to develop their characters; ‘their bones need toil, their characters no less’.
The victims are put to useless work of building roads, ‘going nowhere of course? ’ These men are not wealthy or important but ordinary men, victims of times in history whose suffering goes unremembered. This is a powerful poem, inspired by history and her compassion is expressed as she offers her poem as a memorial to their ordeal, so it will not go unremembered. In ‘Child of our time’, we see Boland’s sympathy towards a child who needlessly died due to a terrorist attack in Dublin. In this poem, Boland effectively focuses on a single casualty of Ireland’s history and asks what sort of reason lies behind these terrible acts.
The writing of the poem was prompted ‘from the fact you [the child] cannot listen’ and takes ‘it’s rhythm from the discord of your murder’. Throughout the poem she is constantly reminding the reader that the child’s death was ‘unreasoned’ and that collectively we carry the blame; ‘out times have robbed your cradle’. By writing this poem, not only is she showing compassion towards the victim of the attack but is reminding society that new sets of values and communication must be made, we need to rebuild ‘our broken images’, instead of the ‘idle talk’ of useless politics which has led to the childs death.
Another poem in which history and violence is a big theme is ‘The War Horse’. Boland effectively uses a horse which strays into her housing estate, as an embodiment for the conflict in Northern Ireland. She effectively uses the horse as a symbol of destruction, of the fact that war and violence are an ever present part of the world. The damage that the horse does to her garden represents the horror of Northen Ireland. She likens the damaged plants and flowers to the victims of the war, to the young soldiers who have lost their lives and been mutilated. ‘Only a crocus, its bulbous head/Blown from growth, one of the screamless dead’.
And yet societies in the south who are safe from this violence choose to ignore this, and ‘use the subterfuge of curtains’ to hide the war which is going on. It is a highly effective poem, which successfully reminds us that violence was part of this country not to long ago. The frayed rose in the garden reminds her of a time when the countryside was devastated by conflict. And it also resembles a ‘braid’ that was worn by some involved in Irelands fight for independence, and it recalls how people once devoted their lives for a cause and sacrificed for those who believed in something.
She shows the views of people today who choose to ignore and dismiss the sufferings of others: ‘why should we care? ’. This poem conveys Boland’s sympathy for the victims of the soldiers who ought to be remembered by criticizing those who hide from war and violence in the history of our country. Boland uses the theme of war and violence in history very powerfully, and gives her poems great depth, making them unique and interesting. Boland’s use of domestic and suburban settings makes a very interesting aspect to her poetry.
We see this is ‘This Moment’. The poem’s suburban setting is important in the context of Boland’s way of writing. Suburbs have seldom been regarded as offering much in the way of inspiration to a writer and are generally regarded as a place lacking both energy and excitement of a city or the beauty of the countryside. In poems like ‘This Moment’ and ‘The War Horse’, Boland attempts to rediscover the suburbs as a place of inspiration. And these poems demonstrate that even the most normal and basic housing estate can inspire great writing.
In ‘this moment’, the most simple gesture of a mother lifting up her child in a street in the suburbs is turned into a mysterious almost magical story of motherhood and love and a child’s need for the feeling of security in its mother’s arms. This could be any neighbourhood, anywhere, which creates a universality of her theme. It is a story that can relate to all mothers. In ‘the war horse’ Boland is inspired by the suburbs in a different way. Having moved there herself she is critical in what she sees, and that lifestyle there is one of ‘subterfuge’, using the anonymity of the suburbs to avoid having to face the realities of life.
The domestic setting of this poem means that the subject of the poem touches base with almost everybody. Her use of the word ‘we’ brings together society as one Like many poets, love and marriage are frequent themes in the poetry of Boland. What differentiates Bolands poetry from others, is that she does not give an overly romantic view on love, but more of a realistic and balanced view, which shows both the joys and the difficulties that occur, making her poetry more accessible the theme much more powerful and realistic. This is evident in her poem ‘Love’ where she compares two different stages during marriage.
We firstly hear of the stage where her marriage is at its most intense, when she and her family were living in Iowa. The love between them was so strong it almost takes up a physical presence in their home as if it ‘had come to live with us’. It was so ‘formidable’ that it filled them with ecstasy: ‘it offered us an ascension’. However this poem, rather than telling a story of the happy days of ecstacy in marriage, it conveys that the intense emotions once felt by a couple begin to fade over time. That married lives become more ‘day to day and ordinary’ and that over the years, the excitement first felt in marriage is lost: ‘we speak plainly.
We hear each other clearly’. It is not a negative view on love that Boland is portraying, but it is a realistic view. Her use of wonderful imagery such the image she creates on love, that it ‘had the feather and muscles of wings’ to help the reader understand the feelings she is trying to convey. This is a very effective and honest poem on love and marriage, conveying both the enjoyment and intimacy and the disappointments which occur as the intensity diminishes. ‘The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me’ is another of Boland’s poems in which love an marriage is a strong theme.
Boland gives us an honest account of the marriage between her parents. Once again she uses symbols to help the reader grasp a clearer picture of what she is trying to convey. In this poem she uses the symbol of the black lace fan to show both the joys and happiness of their marriage as well as the most turbulent periods when they were beset by emotional storms. We see the fan representing their love with balance and realism. The ‘reticent,/clear patience’ of the fans transparent tortoise shell material represents the quiet and peaceful times of in their relationship.
The ‘overcast’ black lace gives the impression of a storm, and may represent the more turbulent times in their marriage. And the ‘wild roses’ stitched ‘boldly’ could symbolize the physical passion in their marriage. Overall the impression that Boland leaves on love and marriage is very real and honest. Through her effective use of symbolism she conveys the positive and negative sides of married life. In ‘The Shadow Doll’, however, Boland presents an altogether darker view on marriage. Marriage is presented as a sinister force that imprisons women, sealing them in its ‘airless glamour’.
In this poem we once again see the effective use of symbolism as her grandmothers shadow doll represents the life of a married woman, showing it to rob a woman of their freedom and independence. The shadow doll represents the consequences of marriage, that women once married are kept ‘under glass, under wraps’ as if they should not be seen and heard. The imagery helps to personify the doll, making it more real and human like. They describe the making of the doll’s dress in such detail that you would think it was a real dress. They ‘stitched blooms for the ivory tulle to hem the oyster gleam of the veil’ and they ‘made hoops for the crinoline.
Unlike the ‘Black Lace Fan’ and ‘Love’, we get a much more depressing view on marriage, one where love has no mention in it at all. Another aspect of Boland’s poetry which is very interesting is her use of myths and classical references. Myths often imaginatively describe the difficulties that we must encounter, making her themes universal so that the reader can identify and understand the poem better. The poem ‘The Pomegranate’ is a good example of her use of mythology. Using the parallels in the myth of Ceres and Persephone and her own relationship with her child, a deeper significance is given to this ordinary experience.
She relates to both Ceres and Persephone at different times in her life. She relates to Persephone during a lonely phase as a child living in London, ‘ a city of fogs and strange consonants’. She refers to herself as being ‘exiled’ in an ‘underworld’, just like Persephone when she is taken away from her mother by the god of the underworld. Later in the poem it is Ceres who Boland empathizes with, and the heart break and torment a mother must go through when she realizes that her daughter will eventually grow up and have to live her life without her mothers protection.
The myth in the poem is used as a framework to illuminate her own personal experience and in doing so gives her experience a universality, making it relative to all mothers. Another poem in which the use of myths Is featured is ‘Love’. Here Boland uses the myth of Odysseus, who journeys to the underworld. This myth is used to explore Bolands desperate longing for a time that has past, when her marriage was at it’s most intense. She cleverly and effectively parallels the events when Odysseus sees his comrades in the underworld and how ‘their voice failed’ because to speak of their life, which they ‘had shared and lost’.
It was a time of such intense feeling when they were living, that they cannot express what they are longing to say about their past. This is parallel to what Boland is thinking about her husband and by using the myth she can express what she has to say. Overall, I think that the poetry of Eavan Boland is wonderfully unique and enjoyable to read. Through her powerful themes and her clever use of symbolism and settings to enrich and add depth to her poetry, I believe she is a very talented poet and deserves all the recognition she has received. I hope you all enjoy studying her poetry. Thank you.