Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

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Despite Ní Dhomhnaill’s statement that death is her master, it is clear that death in this case is a metaphor for the condition of women writers in Ireland. She claims that women have been largely excluded from the Irish literary cannon, so, on one level, the master she serves is Irish literary patriarchy. The females in Irish poetry were, in the words of Irish poet Eavan Boland, “fictive queens and national sibyls.” Rather than be allowed to write a literature of their own or to take on roles of substance, women were reduced to playing stereotypical roles such as earth mother, goddess, and hag. In the masculine poetry tradition, Ní Dhomhnaill says that “it has been a long and tedious struggle for us women writing in Irish to get even a precarious toehold in visibility.” Accordingly, the poem’s narrator wanders about the symbolic Irish countryside without a sense of direction or belonging; it is ironic that she is uncomfortable in a land most often described in feminine language. The theme of the writer in isolation or exile within her own country is common among Irish women poets. By exploring this theme in her poetry, Ní Dhomhnaill is reclaiming a past that was lost in traditional Irish patriarchy, and the poem itself is her poetic search for the voice she cannot seem to find in the final stanza.

While symbolizing the cultural and creative forces repressing her voice, the dark master also represents Ní Dhomhnaill’s personal muse or poetic inspiration. Commonly, muses are given feminine personas; however, she believes hers is male and sees herself following in a long history of women writers with masculine muses. She describes her muse as “all or nothing action: killing yourself, walking out of a relationship, black or white, right or wrong[and] he’s allied with society against you, against your deeper levels of femininity, because he’s male.” Instead of struggling against the muse, she surrenders to its control and is led to realizations that she could not have uncovered consciously. Ní Dhomhnaill considers writing poetry a reflective act, so, as with a journey, the poet cannot know what is ahead until the experience has passed and can be reflected upon. In this reflection, the poet matures and must continue to “break through into deeper levels” to discover new creative directions.

With this interpretation of “My Dark Master,” the narrator’s reaction to the vastness of her master’s possessions is not a response to the limited creative space male writers have left her but to the seemingly limitless scope of her muse’s artistic vision. He possesses an overwhelming store of subject matter, the “jewels and gems” of life about which she can write. Her anxiety, then, arises from the daunting task of doing justice to what he has shown her. Since for Ní Dhomhnaill writing relies so heavily on the subconscious and meditation, she is unsure of what the final product will eventually turn out to be or whether she will maintain any control over what she writes.