Eavan Boland’s exploration of personal and universal issues are expressed in language that is evocative and yet unsentimental. Boland often uses a personal experience to reflect on an issue of universal importance. Her compassion for all victims of violence and oppression and her anger at those who visit suffering and misery on innocent people are palpable throughout her work. Boland’s poems exhibit her descriptive prowess and her poetry has a very appealing visual quality. Her use of sound effects to evoke particular moods is also very effective. Boland employs everyday conversational language to explore issues in a way that is accessible to all.
In poems such as ‘Love’ and ‘The Pomegranate’, Boland explores personal issues that have a universal significance; themes like love, relationships, growing up and motherhood. In poems such as ‘The War horse’, ‘Child of our Time’ and ‘The Famine Road’ explore the human response to violence and suffering.
Boland’s evocative style is clearly manifested in ‘The War horse’. This poem is an indictment to our blasé response to violence happening elsewhere in the world. Boland wrote this poem in response to the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland. However, this poem resonates with readers of 2017 with regards to the Syrian crisis. She makes an analogy between the destructive violence perpetuated in her garden by a roving horse with the devastating violence that was occurring in Northern Ireland at that time.
Boland makes adept use of a simile to describe the ruination of her garden: ‘he stamps death like a mint on the innocent coinage of the earth’. The verb ‘stamps’ is effective here in this context as it connotes the aggression and destruction that was occurring in Northern Ireland. I really like the image of visual and aural imagery that brings the scene to life: ‘the clip, clop casual iron of his shoes…… his breath hissing, his snuffing head’.
She evocatively conveys society’s indifferent response to such violence through the deft use of a simile: ‘Of distant interest like a maimed limb’. This simile demonstrates society’s disaffected attitude to the violence as it does not directly concern them. She describes with relief how the horse moves on: ‘He is gone. No great harm is done’.
The speaker’s tone is one of reassurance indicative of society’s attitude of acceptance and relief that this violence is happening elsewhere and therefore not their problem. Boland makes effective use of repetition and a rhetorical question to underscore our selfish indifference and our insular uncaring attitude towards the violence in our own country: ‘But we, we are safe. Why should we care if a rose, a hedge, a crocus are uprooted like corpses, remote, crushed and mutilated? Boland makes effective use of evocative imagery in that the destruction caused by the horse becomes emblematic for the destructive violence in Northern Ireland. She describes how ‘for a second only my blood is stilled with atavism’, a cold reminder of how violence and suffering are reoccurring phenomena. This idea finds expression in ‘The Famine Road’.
Boland’s evocative yet unsentimental style is again manifested in ‘Child of our Time’. Boland wrote this poem in response to the murder of a young boy called Aengus. She conveys the devastating reality of war- innocent civilians are the main causalities, including children. She opens the poem in an evocative and heartfelt manner: ‘Yesterday, I knew no lullaby but you have taught me overnight to order this song, which takes from your final cry, its tune; from your unreasoned end, its reason’. The sing-song effect serves only to underscore the tragedy of this child.
Boland astutely employs images associated with childhood as opposed to macabre imagery of war in order to accentuate the poem’s poignancy: ‘We who should have known how to instruct with rhymes for your waking, rhythms for your sleep’. Boland espouses a didactic tone wherein she pleads that society will learn from this horrific tragedy and end the unrelenting attacks and violence that characterised this era of history: ‘And we living, learn, must learn from you dead, And rebuild our broken images around your limbs, your broken image and find for your sake whose idle talk has cost a new language.’
In her poem entitled ‘Love’ we are presented with an honest evocation of her relationship with her husband. It appears almost as if Boland confides in the reader in this poem wherein she gives an account of how the experience of a sick child brought her and her husband closer together. Boland presents us with an honest trajectory of how a relationship can change over time.
The poem beings evocatively describing the ebullient passion of young love: ‘And we discovered there that love had the feather and muscle of wings and had come to live with us’. Her clever personification of love adroitly conveys the all-consuming passionate intensity of the young couple in the earlier part of their marriage.
However, she states in a very matter-of-factly manner that ‘We love each other still across the day to day and ordinary distances we speak plainly. We hear each other clearly’. However, Boland wants to recapture the romantic ebullience and intensity that characterised the earlier part of their marriage: ‘I want to return to you on the Iowa bridge as you were with snow on your shoulders of your coat’. She describes beautifully how idealised her husband was then: ‘I see you as a hero in a text- the image blazing and the edges gilded’. We see how Boland’s husband is imbued with an almost mythic stature.
Her sense of disaffection with her marriage is adumbrated in the following line: ‘And I long to cry out my dear companion the epic question, will we ever live so intensely again? She wonders with some despair ‘Will love come to us again and be so formidable at rest that it offered us ascension even to look at him?’ Boland honestly and evocatively confronts the difficulties inherent in relationships by not resorting to a fairy-tale ending: ‘But the words are shadows and you cannot hear me, you walk away and I cannot follow’.
Another poem wherein Boland’s exploration of the personal that is imbued with universal significance is entitled ‘The Pomegranate’. This poem is an evocative description of growing up and the different roles that a woman encounters in her life- the role of daughter and then mother. Boland descriptively informs us that: ‘The only legend that I have ever loved is the story of a daughter lost in hell’. This myth strongly resonates with Boland in that she ‘enter it anywhere’ in terms of an Irish migrant living in London ‘lost in hell’ or as an overly-anxious protective mother ‘But I was Ceres then and I knew winter was in store for every leaf’.
By astutely recalling the myth of Ceres and Persephone, Boland is able to delineate the fraught balance between caring and protecting for one’s teenage daughter whilst also providing her with the freedom to grow up, develop as an individual and make her own mistakes. Boland, like Ceres wants to protect her daughter who has stayed out later than allowed with her friends: ‘But she could come home and been safe and ended the story and all our heart-broken searching’. Boland evocatively describes how she like Ceres was willing to do anything to protect her daughter: ‘When she came running I was ready to make any bargain to keep her’.
Boland knows that she could try to protect her daughter from the drama and trauma associated with adolescence and growing up. However, she feels that if she were to go overboard in terms of protecting her daughter, she will ultimately stifle her daughter’s happiness: ‘If I defer the grief I will diminish the grief. The legend will be hers as well as mine.’ Boland makes the difficult decision: ‘I will say nothing’. The Ceres-Persephone legend allows Boland to universalise a very personal problem, the decision to take a step back from their son/daughter and allow them to make their own decisions and mistakes.
In the poem ‘The Famine Road’ Boland takes a collective experience from Irish history, the Irish famine and makes an interesting analogy with an infertile woman. This poem is an interesting comment on how women are perceived in Irish society especially of the time when Boland wrote this poem. The Irish famine is something that is deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche as our country’s topography is disfigured by famine walls and famine roads that serve no purpose. Boland makes apt use of a simile to illustrate the attitude of disdain that the Irish were held by the British: ‘Idle as trout in light, Colonel Jones, these Irish, their bones need toil, their characters no less’.
The famine victims are made build roads and walls that serve no purpose other than entitle them to some measly nourishment in the form of ‘soup’. The famine victims were made to work for the sake of working. She chillingly portrays the famine victims: ‘Sick, directionless, they work. Fork and stick were iron years away. After all could they not blood their knuckles on April hailstones for water and food?’ The harsh cacophonous ‘k’ sound here serves to underscore the injustice facing these people.
The desperation of the famine victims is macabrely illustrated with the reference to cannibalism: ‘Cunning as housewives, each eyed as if at a corner butcher’s the other’s buttock’. Boland singles out one of the famine victim and he is dehumanised and reduced to the sums of his parts (blood), to the status of ‘a typhoid pariah’:
‘He has become a typhoid pariah. His blood is tainted though he shares it with some there’.
Boland’s use of putrescent imagery starkly conveys the wretched predicament of these poor desperate people: ‘The wretches work till they are quite worn then fester by their work’.
In a shocking way that blatantly draws our attention to how history repeats itself, the British like those living in the republic of Ireland in ‘The War horse’ are indifferent to the suffering of the famine victims: ‘It has gone better than expected, Lord Trevelyan. Sedition, idleness cured’.
Karl Marx speaking of Hegel once said that ‘history repeats itself, the first time in a tragedy, the second time, as a farce’. This idea finds expression in the doctor’s dismissive response to the woman who has just been informed that she is unable to have children: ‘but take it well, woman, grow your garden, keep house, goodbye’. The doctor, like the characters of Colonel Jones and Lord Trevelyan are callously indifferent to the plight of suffering of others. The woman despairingly likens her body to the emblem of futility as she asks herself: ‘what is your body now if not a famine road?’
In her poem ‘The War Horse’ Boland pleads with us to learn from the past, that violence will only lead to more violence. I found this idea thought-provoking and very germane to what is happening in the world today with the Syrian crisis.
In conclusion, Eavan Boland’s exploration of personal and universal issues are expressed in language that is evocative yet unsentimental. I thoroughly enjoyed the poetry of Eavan Boland. She addresses many issues that are relevant and important to the modern reader in a thought-provoking manner. Memorable images, conversational language and effective use of sound add to the appeal of her verse.