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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Eavan Boland typically confronts in her poems the themes of hearth and history, her sense of herself as a woman in relation to home and family, and her sense of nationality and of the Irish tradition that lies behind much of her work. In “Lace,” however, neither of these issues is engaged directly. The poem is set in “the house,” but that setting is never made problematic and becomes, by the end of the poem, rather a comfort, a curiously vital link with lost baroque creativity. The courtier whom Boland admires is male, his sex necessitated by the patriarchal nature of the poetic tradition from which, at the poem’s outset, Boland feels ostracized. Issues of gender are not at the core of the poem’s concern, however, and the courtier’s maleness is not called into question as it would have been in an earlier Boland volume such as In Her Own Image (1980) or Night Feed (1982).

Instead, “Lace” sets down a basis for creativity and poetic work that is, for Boland, independent of sex, nation, or historical period. The lyric deals with the struggle to see, to attain vision, and to liberate oneself, through poetry, from the confines of everyday life, which runs its course, metaphorically speaking, in dimness and perpetual dusk. Boland wants to make a poem something light, effortless, and beautiful, but wanting is not achieving, and she discovers that, despite appearances, poetry is made not from the seemingly crystalline, other-worldly language of bygone Renaissance men, but from the very dimness and blindness that characterize her life and that certainly characterized theirs. Poetry is not an escape into light and “thriftless phrases,” but a means of confronting that blindness and coming to terms with one’s own apparent inability to make something clever and perfect out of the world. Boland sees value in writing poetry not because it holds any visionary keys to understanding but because of the process of confrontation and self-scrutiny that it embodies.

Basic to Boland’s poetry, even before she engages the problems of nationality and sexual identity, is this principle of self-scrutiny. The poetics that “Lace” offers present an alternative to the deceptive ease of the traditional lyric, as Boland builds a viable poetic music from her apparently blocked creativity and touches, with a very critical self-consciousness, the language that is lace.