Eavan Boland has frequently identified the central concerns of her work as the process of discovering the interrelationships of her gender, her national identity, and her art. Boland has noted that the woman poet in Ireland faces particular challenges in these respects. First, Ireland has been slow to embrace feminism, a fact that sometimes has led readers and reviewers to dismiss as insignificant any subjects (such as home and family relationships) that they consider characteristically “female.” Moreover, the Irish woman who writes poetry has few models from her own country. Only since about 1970 have women been much represented in the rich list of Irish poets.
Understanding one’s origins is an essential element of claiming one’s identity. For the Irish, that process has required reexamining and reclaiming their history, in many cases rejecting the interpretation of Irish affairs promoted by England, whose colonial rule of Ireland spanned more than three centuries until it ended in 1949.
Concern for that history has formed a recurrent theme in much contemporary Irish poetry. As a diplomat’s daughter, Boland was more than usually cut off from Irish culture. She was schooled in London from 1950 to 1956; for the next three years she was educated in New York City. The effect was a distance between her and her country and its past. Boland’s poems have frequently been her means of overcoming that distance. “The Achill Woman,” a poem from her collection Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990 (1990), relates an event from Boland’s university days which illustrates this process. The poem describes her conversation with an elderly country woman who brings her water. When their conversation ends, the speaker goes indoors to study the court poets of the Silver Age—poets such as Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Walter Raleigh—oblivious, Boland says, to the ironies the situation suggests.
In an essay for American Poetry Review (March/April 1990), Boland talks further about this conversation. The woman had told her about how local people struggled to survive in the terrible years of the 1840’s famine, sometimes moving closer to the coast in order to eat seaweed. It was Boland’s first intense encounter with her country’s past, and in the essay she proposes the old woman and her own youthful self as emblems of what the poet, particularly the Irish woman poet, must integrate if her work is to be meaningful.
The poems of In a Time of Violence continue to examine the problems of that integration as well as Boland’s desire to move beyond poetry that merely records experience to poetry that is experience itself. Boland describes that goal in the collection’s first poem, “The Singers,” which seems to stand as an epigraph to the book’s three parts. In the poem she talks of “women who were singers in the West,” who endured the dangers of the coast, the ocean, and its storms. Boland wonders whether there must not have come some moment of revelation for them, a realization that “rain and ocean and their own/ sense of home were . . . one and the same.” Such a revelation, she thinks, would have let the singers know that their voice and their vision were identical, the goal Boland has claimed for her own songs.
The first section of the book is titled “Writing in a Time of Violence,” and its seven poems are described as “a sequence.” The epigraph to this section is Plato’s famous condemnation of poets as those who indulge people’s “irrational” natures, but the poems here suggest that times of violence themselves lead people to the inability to discriminate that Plato ascribed to poetry. The first poem, “That the Science of Cartography is Limited,” describes a “famine road,” a road that was make-work assigned to the starving Irish by relief committees in 1847. “Where they died, there the road ended,” Boland says. Although the map can represent the road that ends meaninglessly in a forest, it can never communicate either the sweetness of the trees or the agony of those who died among them.
Painting is often a powerful metaphor for Boland, whose mother was an artist. “The Death of Reason” imagines the burning of an eighteenth century portrait of a woman (“anonymous beauty-bait for the painter”). As the picture burns—the woman’s silk dress, her face and mouth—so Ireland is burning “from Antrim to the Boyne,” ignited by the death of reason, which motivates violence from both the Peep-O-Day Boys (a secret agrarian society of Ulster Protestants) and the English colonial rulers in Augustan London. Boland’s poem joins two ironies. First, reason dies in the midst of the age that is named for it, and second, its death is represented by the “death” of the picture of a woman who for the painter and his public was anonymous but who comes in the poem to represent Ireland itself, ablaze with violence.
“March 1 1847. By the First Post” explores...
(The entire section is 2029 words.)