Eavan Boland 1944–
(Full name Eavan Aisling Boland) Irish poet and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Boland's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 40 and 67.
After struggling to find a place in the mainstream Irish literary canon, Boland has become a significant Irish poet. In a country with a strong patriarchal tradition, Boland has risen above classification as a minor "women's writer" to become an internationally studied poet. In her work she retains Irish mythology and lyricism while introducing feminist themes, uncommon in Irish literature.
Boland was born in Dublin in 1944 to Irish diplomat Frederick H. Boland and painter Frances Kelly. She spent most of her childhood in London and New York while her father served Ireland beginning in 1950 as Irish Ambassador to the Court of St. James and then in 1956 as the President of the United Nations General Assembly. Boland found her time in London especially difficult due to the prevalent prejudice against the Irish. She would later write in both poetry and prose about the feeling of exile she felt during this period. When Boland returned to Dublin as a teenager, she continued to feel alienated from her culture because she did not speak Gaelic and was not raised in her own country. In 1959 Boland attended boarding school at the Holy Child Convent in Killiny, County Dublin. This time was very important to her development as an artist because she reconnected with her country and found the solitude at the school conducive to writing poetry. She published a pamphlet of poems called 23 Poems in 1962 and began studies at Trinity College the same year; she received degrees in English and Latin in 1966. After graduation, she became a lecturer in the English Department at Trinity. Boland quickly became disenchanted with academic life, however, and left the university to pursue a career as a literary journalist and to write poetry. In 1967, she published a collection of poetry entitled New Territory. In 1969, Boland married novelist Kevin Casey and moved to Dundrum, a suburb of Dublin. Much of her subsequent work centers on her life as a wife and mother. Largely ignored but quietly building a reputation, Boland first stirred controversy with In Her Own Image (1980). The work brought Boland into debates over feminism and the role of the woman poet in Ireland. Since then Boland has been an ardent voice for the equity of opportunity for female poets in the male-dominated literary climate of Ireland. More than just a vehicle for a cause, however, Boland's poetry has brought her international recognition as a literary figure.
As Boland began writing poetry, she realized that her only models came from the patriarchal male-centered poetry of Irish literary tradition. Women were portrayed as decorative icons of Irish unity. Instead of abandoning national myths, however, Boland attempted to subvert traditional myths in her poetry and present an alternative look at women. Her style and themes developed slowly throughout her career. Her early poems were traditionally lyric and heavily influenced by William Butler Yeats. These early volumes were traditional in their focus and subject matter, but they touched upon issues that would later consume Boland's writing, including her examination of the role of women in Irish literature and society. Boland's style and themes underwent a drastic change with In Her Own Image, which addresses the difficult subjects of child abuse, wife abuse, anorexia, mastectomy, and victimization. The poems analyze female identity and challenge male-centered thinking by centralizing the experiences of the female body in short-lined stanzas which she refers to as "the anti-lyric." In Night Feed (1982), Boland again tackled the issue of female identity by looking at the domestic lives of women often overlooked in poetry and in Ireland's national myths. She used as her models the still-lives and domestic interiors of painters Jean-Baptiste Chardin and Jan Van Eyck. By turning to painting for her inspiration, Boland created a visual feel in the poems of this volume. The poems in The Journey (1983) expand the themes in Night Feed and continue to use the lives of women to redefine what it means to be Irish. The volume contains several poems which subvert the romanticized images of women found in Irish mythology. In this volume Boland also raises questions about the corruption and exclusion of art and the dangers of its use for ornamentation.
Reviewers considered Boland a straightforward lyric poet with the publication of her first few volumes. Denis Donoghue stated, "When she published her first book of poems, New Territory, in 1967, it was hard to distinguish her voice from the common tone of English poetry at large: worldly, cryptic, Larkinesque." Many pointed out how much Boland's early poetry owed to Yeats, some criticizing Boland for imitation. Although Yeats was a strong influence on her poetry, critics noted her subversion of his themes. Most critics viewed Boland's In Her Own Image as a departure from the style and themes of New Territory and The War Horse (1980). Often reviews of this and subsequent works focused on Boland as a feminist, rather than as a poet. Many reviewers dismissed In Her Own Image as being too focused on feminine issues and some even found the themes offensive. The volume caused a stir and reviewers began characterizing Boland as a "women's writer." With Outside History (1990), Boland received critical acclaim in the United States which eventually brought her mainstream attention and praise in her own country. Critics disagree about whether Boland is more successful in her domestic or more politically oriented work. William Logan stated, "Poems of quiet desperation in the kitchen do not form an original aesthetic…. When Ms. Boland stops being the bard of fabric … she is truest to her own culture and most deeply coiled in its falseness." Other reviewers, however, found Boland's use of domestic scenes and topics a brave move for the poet, and preferred these poems to her more politically charged work. In recent years, reviewers have praised Boland for her unique presentation of women and political issues and her fusing of individual lives to public myths in her work. R. T. Smith asserted, "Reminding us that art is perhaps the most fruitful venue for the collaboration of public and private interests, [Boland] provides us with not only a map, but a compass as well, and perhaps a thirst for the journey."