The Achievement of Eavan Boland
by Joyce Wilson
lending idealism and pragmatism in her work, the poet Eavan Boland addresses three areas of inquiry: what does it mean to be Irish, to be a woman, and to be a poet in this post-modern age. The daughter of distinguished parents, her father a diplomat and her mother a painter, she has achieved––and continues to achieve––a literary career that exemplifies the balance between demands of the public and the private, showing that the contradictions that occur when the two come into conflict are fruit for artistic development rather than discouragement. In her public life, she was a good student, devoted wife and mother, published poet, and teacher with a promising career. Yet in private, as a student, she fretted over her disobedience to authority, as a wife and mother, was often isolated and discontented, as a poet, was suspicious of her literary heritage and use of form. In addition, as a poet and teacher closely identified with Ireland, where lines from one of her poems were quoted in the inaugural address by President Mary Robinson, she left her native land to take a tenured position in California.
Eavan (pronounced Ea-VAN) Boland was born in Dublin on September 24, 1944. Her father, Frederick Henry Boland, educated in Ireland and the United States, played a formative role in the politics of his country when, as Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, he led negotiations that made Ireland a Republic in 1949. Her mother, the painter Frances J. Kelly (later Judy Boland), was well-known for portraits and still-life works, examples of which can be seen at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. [*See note.] Eavan, the youngest of five daughters, was six when her father became Irish Ambassador to Britain and the family relocated to London. Her poems record the sense of dislocation she felt during this time as a child of Ireland receiving education in an English school. It is interesting to note that she did not publish the poems about this experience until after she was married, living in a suburb of Dublin, and raising a family. One senses that as she nursed one child and looked forward to the birth of the next, her past came sweeping back over her.
The bickering of vowels on the buses,
the clicking thumbs and the big hips of
the navy-skirted ticket collectors with
their crooked seams brought it home to me:
Exile. Ration-book pudding. (“An Irish Childhood in England: 1951,” New Collected Poems, 155)
She captures the texture of the environment, the rough fabric of the clothes as well as the harsh pronunciation of speech. It was the talk that grated the most. Later in the poem, she describes how, when she said the words “I amn’t” in the classroom, the teacher corrected her, saying, “you’re not in Ireland now.” Aware of the pressure to change her former ways and adopt those of the colonial regime, Boland describes how she studied the Magna Carta, the Hanoverians, the popular verses and tunes as aspects of England to be cherished and loved. Yet the English of England was a culture that would never take. “A nation displaced into old dactyls [connects us],” wrote the poet Mary O’Malley about likeness of stresses in the words “I amn’t” and “Ireland” (O’Malley 157). Boland however, while bound to her Irish heritage, would continue to write poetry in English.
Privileged, college-educated, and well-travelled by the time she became a young adult, Boland describes her struggle applying the knowledge she gained to the life she observes and the life she must live. She studied history, but much of her study was informed by the English traditions with no regard the unique events of the Irish colony. She received a bachelor’s degree at Trinity College where her father would later be chancellor, and where her peers must have been aware of her father’s premier standing in Irish politics and his position as Irish Ambassador to Great Britain and then the United Nations, yet once she married and began to have children, she describes the betrayal she feels by the world of learning that seemed to be ignoring her. She published her first volume of poems before she graduated from college yet later decided that the question of truth, or telling the truth as a poet in a society that takes its male poets very seriously, eluded this initial work. Her early poems show attention to strict rhyme and meter, allusions to classical literary works and mythology, and are dedicated to many male poet friends. The following poem, written during the period soon after she graduated from college, shows her attention to the tradition of form and to content, the tale of the epic wanderer:
Several things announced the fact to us:
The captain’s Spanish tears
Falling like doubloons in the headstrong light,
And then of course the fuss––
The crew jostling and interspersing cheers
With wagers. Overnight
As we went down to our cabins, nursing the last
Of the grog, talking as usual of conquest,
Land hove into sight. (“New Territory,” New Collected Poems, 9)
Here she repeats the metrical pattern of a line in iambic pentameter and then iambic trimeter, which amplifies the sense of traveling through waves of water, now high, now low. This alternating structure is also emphasized by the rhyme scheme abcabcddc. The theme of the poem addresses how, through his own wisdom and fortitude, the epic wanderer explores the far reaches of the earth in his search for a solution to the problem of death. The critic Patricia Boyle Haberstroth notes: “The ‘ambitious wit’ of her poet-explorers is over-whelmingly male” (Haberstroth 61). Not long after her first poetry collection appeared, Boland experienced misgivings about this and other early poems, calling them derivative, avoiding real questions about the world and the role of the poet in it, and lacking a suitable voice with which she could continue to speak (Object Lessons 151).
Her next book The War Horse registers a change in her work. Published in 1974, a year when the political climate was fraught with tension between factions in Northern Ireland––the Protestant unionists, the Catholic nationalists, the discontented rebel groups––these new poems register awareness of the conflict over the border. The spectre of the violent bloodbath at a public event, such as a parade or funeral, in which many unarmed people died at the hands of combative forces, was repeated as the Republic hammered out its terms of separate identity from Great Britain throughout the twentieth century, and in its most concentrated form from 1959 to the peace accord of 1998, known as The Troubles. The fear that violence in the counties to the north might eventually reach the south is implied in the title poem about a large clumsy horse, once a tinker’s horse, who lurches down a suburban street and into the garden. The damage done by the horse, loosing crocus bulbs and rocks, is minimal, but he “stumbles on like a rumour of war, hugh, threatening” (“The War Horse,” Collected Poems, 40).
…That rose he smashed frays
Ribboned across our hedge, recalling days
Of burned countryside, illicit braid:
A cause ruined before, a world betrayed. (“The War Horse,” New Collected Poems, 40)
One critic emphasizes how the stanzas, in this case rhyming couplets, are like those of the well-made English poems of the nineteen sixties, in which logic is controlled and syntax precise (Brown 171). Yet the recurrent theme is violation, and the juxtaposition of the two––controlled form and unleashed theme––imply that the artist is in the midst of transition. She turned to write about war with her mind on the present, and she found a symbol of the conflict as it stumbled into her own yard, prompting her to focus on domestic life as unexplored terrain. She would find that such a strategy would have an enormous appeal for other women readers and writers, who would become a most receptive audience.
Boland wrote and published prose as well as poetry, often going over the material in her prose that she had written about in her poems. It is interesting to note that around the time The War Horse appeared, Boland published an essay “The Weasel’s Tooth,” in which she made a clean break with Yeats. She raised the notion that Irish poets were confusing the public with the political, in which many were turning to his lines to rally behind an image of unity which was perpetuating violence. She admits that she herself was inspired by such a call until she realized that unity is not a suitable end for poetry:
Once and for all I feel we should rid ourselves of Yeats’s delusion: let us be rid at last of any longing for cultural unity in a country whose most precious contribution may be precisely its insight into the anguish of disunity; let us be rid of any longing for imaginative collective dignity in a land whose final and only dignity is individuality. (Randolph 88)
Determined to remain relevant, public poetry had become exclusively extroverted and male, while political poetry was private and often based on violence. She would have to forge a voice for the private female poet as a political act that would inevitably go against the image of the public poet as a speaker in step with time. She would have to risk speaking against her time (Object Lessons 187).
Again, Boland’s poetry changed. In her next collection In Her Own Image, the formal poems stretched, buckled, and gave way to the less formal, the lines shortened, the meter called less attention to itself, and the rhymes receded as the subject turned to the female body with titles such as “Menses,” “Anorexia,” and “Mastectomy.” While Boland’s free verse no longer exhibited the song-like sense of Yeats and the bards that she had studied at college, it remained carefully controlled, with a strong iambic skeleton beneath and eponymous groupings of repeated vowel sounds. The following stanzas describe the devastation experienced when a male surgeon performs an operation, removing the breast of a female patient. Even though she knows he is acting in her best interest, the speaker raises the ante as she emphasizes the feminist position of the first person singular against the third person plural, of me against them. The stanzas are terse, iambic, with no more than three iambic beats per line:
to their looting,
to the sleight
of their plunder.
I am a brute site.
Theirs is the true booty. (“Mastectomy,” New Collected Poems, 77-78)
Here, Boland takes an unpoetic topic about the physical realities experienced by women and makes the situation plainly understood. By reducing the music carried by formal meter and rhyme, she leaves the setting stark, the tone confrontational.
Then the collection Night Feed dispensed with caution about the domestic life as a viable subject for poetry. Poem after poem addresses the importance of taking what has been considered sentimental in the traditional world of poetry and sharpening the focus on incidental moments as monuments. Note the use of verbs in the beginning stanzas:
My window pearls wet.
The bare rowan tree
I can see
from where I stand
a woman hunkering––
her busy hand
worrying a child’s face,
working a nappy liner
over his sticky loud
round of a mouth.
Her hand’s a cloud
across his face
making light and rain,
smiles and a frown,
a smile again. (“The Muse Mother,” New Collected Poems, 102-103)
The verbs pearls, berries, hunkering, worrying, working, and making describe the relationship between mother and child as a daily activity, part of ordinary and energetic living. While the look of this poem is still long and narrow on the page, an arrangement of iambic dimeter and trimeter, the enjambment forgives the line breaks and allows a familiar lyrical rhythm to take hold. Two lines read together could form iambic tetrameter. The echo of vowels carries the reader as the mother carries the child. The scene is a familiar one in which a young mother is involved in the care of an infant, an occupation that involves her entire waking day. Soon the speaker proclaims the need to commemorate the familiar scene with a new vocabulary:
if I could only decline her––
out of context,
stray figure of speech––from this rainy street
again to her roots,
she might teach me
a new language:
to be a sibyl
able to sing the past
in pure syllables
limning hymns sung
to belly wheat or a woman––
able to speak at last
my mother tongue. (“The Muse Mother” New Collected Poems, 102-103)
This effort to map out a new language that will present themes particular to women must unite stories of the body with mythical stories of hardship and family, must celebrate the quiet moments of domesticity as an important part of nation building. The poems must draw in audiences formerly ignored: the women who lived outside history.
One such woman who inspired these poems was Boland’s grandmother, who died at the age of thirty-one in childbirth. Her death occurred shortly after Eavan’s mother was born, a fact that was kept a secret in the family for years, but once it was aired, became a wrenching cause for Boland, for celebrating the woman’s short life. No longer would such a life be considered an irrelevant topic for art. The poems “Fever” and “Lava Cameo” give the harrowing details of a life barely won and lost too early in verses that are at once a tribute to the maternal and the ethical.
After the births of her own daughters in 1975 and 1978, Boland faced the nature of a woman’s life, often perceived as trivial, and worked to make it universal, to take the private and make it public. Her goal focused on finding a way women can appropriate a language for communicating the strengths of their private lives to a public audience. Boland developed an identity as a feminist, but not one who rejected attitudes, imagery, and language of the patriarchal tradition permanently, but who found a way to work within the tradition, challenging and revising conventional images and ideas (Haberstroth 59). As she explored the nature of woman and form, and form and poetry, her highly structured poems gave way to looser shapes and depended on repeated sounds in subtle patterns of audible unity. The myths of Persephone, Daphne, The Rose of Ireland, the shepherdess were revisited, not as mythical idols to be worshipped, but as subjects in vibrant narratives that reconnected with the realities of ordinary women. The long poem “The Journey” describes a woman’s search through the underworld for her children who have died after the way as Dante searched the underworld on his journey. In another poem, a young college student encounters a woman with a bucket full of water for her lodgings, a commonplace occurrence that will leave an indelible impression festering in her mind, raising questions about wisdom and education, provincial lore and universal history, and the place of women as participant and visionary.
The grass changed from lavender to black.
The trees turned to cold outlines.
You could taste frost
but nothing now can change the way I went
indoors, chilled by the wind
and made a fire
and took down my book
and opened it and failed to comprehend
the harmonies of servitude,
the grace music gives to flattery
and language borrows from ambition––
and how I fell asleep
the planets clouding over in the skies,
the slow decline of the spring moon,
the songs crying out their ironies. (“The Achill Woman,” New Collected Poems, 176-177)
The landscape changes as day becomes night and the narrator laments the limitations of her knowledge about the importance that this meeting would have. She is young and unaware of the ethical edge of “harmonies of servitude” and too enamored perhaps of the grace of facile language in music prompted by ambition. The narrator is on the cusp of waking to all the riches around her––riches of color, of music, of human connection––that the poem makes plain. The Achill woman is a spectre from the past who cuts through the facilities of the speaker’s education. Boland remarked in an interview in American Poetry Review that this woman was the first woman to talk to her about the potato famine (qtd. in Haberstroth 80). She fixes herself in as witness in the memory of the speaker, acts as a touchstone to reveal false music in colloquial literature and song, and brings attention to ironies in traditional narratives and song lyrics that have long been accepted without question. This poem is the first of a sequence of poems called “Outside History” and marks Boland’s unification of the personal narrative with the narrative of history.
As her career develops, Boland organizes her work into sequences of poems that accrue meaning in their arrangement above and beyond that which is given in the poems as solitary units. “Outside History” defines the place of women in the history of Ireland and the world, from the isolated yet active Achill woman to the remaking of the beautiful but passive Irish Goddess and the washed out old Hag. The structure of the sequence––twelve poems after the numbers on a clock and the changing seasons of the year––cuts across the order that is imposed on the life and shows how much has spiraled out of control. Boland sees the need to focus on women who, by being immersed in their personal lives, believe they are too late to take an active part in the events around them. Others are the many living abroad whose voices can no longer contribute to the lore of their land at home, yet she insists that these too should be given a voice. She turns to the women who have resigned their fates to silence because history had neglected to include them, insisting that they now must be remembered, not on a pedestal or removed as the stars are but on the ground, in the realistic details of their becoming, distant yet constant as stars are.
There are outsiders, always. These stars––
these iron inklings of an Irish January,
whose light happened
thousands of years before
our pain did: they are, they have always been
outside history. (“Outside History,” New Collected Poems, 188)
By emphasizing the unacknowledged influence of the stars as unsung lives of women in Irish history, Boland confronts the literary culture with a serious charge. The tradition of Irish poetry was stuck in a particular manifestation of an old form, the view of woman as muse. Boland made the decision that she must confront the need to alter the relationship between subject and object. In her poetry, the woman as subject would have to give up its role as passive muse and take on the role of active poet who would redefine the way the muse was depicted (Object Lessons 184). No longer would the songs that celebrated traditions be accepted solely through their ability to charm. These resisted change too much. Just as the woman of Achill might be cherished and pitied for her close connection to the past, the way a woman lived one hundred years ago and the way she remembered what had happened, she must also be comemmorated for her strengths. Boland believed that a new vision of these strengths must be brought into the public consciousness through the poet.
The sequence “In a Time of Violence” consists of seven poems that not only examine the effects of violence on a culture but also address the effect of the telling of the tale and the way events are related and preserved through poem, song, or narrative. Familiar topics of history, famine, civil war, paralysis, violence are rendered in scenes that begin on familiar ground and then suggest a new twist in perspective. One senses with these poems that Boland is taking material that has hardened and is looking for a way to soften it, make it flexible, and open up truths that have been everpresent, overlooked, and nearly lost. In one poem, the narrator goes out to view the darkening evening and sees two mythical figures, in her imagination, a shepherdess and a mermaid, who ask to be written out of the poem in which they cannot live but must remain static in their respective images of youth and beauty. Make us human, they ask, give us words to help us grow old and die. (“Time and Violence,” New Collected Poems, 238-239). It is unsettling to think that such a subject in a poem might request release from its immortal status, grow old, and die, like an ordinary mortal. By transferring the mythological to the human realm, Boland opens up the arena to recognition of human frailty, desire, and the need for a body of literature to keep its sights on what is possible. The myth provides the vision, the narrative the means. One comes away thinking that if a people can revise the telling of a myth and agree on it, they can revise the history of their lives.
Boland revisits her childhood in England again in another sequence, The Lost Land. She begins again with the familiar facts, that she was a child of Ireland in the nation of England, learning a second language. Through this experience, she reclaims an ancient dialect, through which she discovers that it is possible to connect with the past, the past of myths and old narratives, and know that “what had never been could still be found.” But one must be prepared to accept the suffering that will reveal itself and the sadness that lingers there. She concludes with the following meditation:
This is what language is:
a habitable grief. A turn of speech
for the everyday and ordinary abrasion
of losses such as this
just enough to be a scar.
And heals just enough to be a nation. (“A Habitable Grief,” New Collected Poems, 255)
Where her early work employed the traditional forms of classical poetry in the patriarchal tradition, and the poems of her middle period ceased using fixed rhyme and meter to express the freedom of a newly found voice, this free verse poem expresses confidence in a series of aphorisms. In these short declarative lines, Boland unites the emotive power of language with the image of the scarred body––not necessarily a woman’s in this case–– and the wounded nation. Through language and communication, a nation can rejuvenate itself and create the space to grieve and to live. This is one of several poems that address the theme of grief and grieving, and one reads them with the impression that a circle is being closed, with all aspects of the subject exhausted and released.
But Boland is not finished and shows recognizable signs of being in the midst of new writing projects. For example, what about peace? In the year 1998, it seemed that Ireland would achieve a lasting peace. In the final poem of her New Collected Poems, Boland describes Ireland as a country that has no Orpheus to deliver its beasts from the gates of hell. Yet she imagines the sound she heard a poet make one night at a public gathering, a private sound imitating a bird in flight, that caused the rivers to quiet and the people of the savage acres to listen, “As if to music, as if to peace” (“Irish Poetry,” New Collected Poems, 307). She emphasizes the point that the poets of this new century might not legislate, but they can envision. While governments falter in delivering a lasting accord, women are diverted by the demands of domestic life, and dissatisfied citizens refuse to change their commitment to solutions of violence, the poets can supply new images, taking details from the old narratives and myths, comparing unlike things, unsettling familiar music.
Boland, Eavan. New Collected Poems. W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.
____________. Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time. Essays. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.
____________. Domestic Violence. Poems. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.
Boland, Frances Kelly. Still Life with Flowers before a Window. Painting.
*[NOTE on Frances Kelly Boland: The critic S. B. Kennedy describes her “strong feeling for light, air and space, often rendered in pale colours and with a predominance of greys, against which she would set bright reds, violets and other colours which thrill with their radiance” (Irish Art and Modernism 58).] Examples of her painting Still Life with Flowers before a Window can be seen online at www.whytes.org.
“Eavan Boland.” Biographical statement. The Poetry Foundation and The Academy of American Poets
Brown, Terrence. “From Heart Mysteries There: The War Horse.” Eavan Boland: A Critical Companion. Jody Allen Randolph, Ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.:, 2007. 168-172.
Haberstroth, Patricia Boyle. Women Creating Women: Contemporary Irish Women Poets. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996.
O’Malley, Mary. “Poetry, Womanhood, and ‘I amn’t’.” Eavan Boland: A Critical Companion. Jody Allen Randolph, Ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.:, 2007. 156-160.
Randolph, Jody Allen, Ed. Eavan Boland: A Critical Companion. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007.
Rogers, Diane, “She Was Radical and She Was Right.” Stanford Magazine. May/June 2002.