Myth and experience: the poetry of Eavan Boland

The distance between the early and later collections of the poet, who is 70 next week, marks the changing landscapes of her life

Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly

Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly


What are we going to do with experience? In some poems the very experience of making the poem itself is conveyed, as though the technical impulse, the urge to find the right words, sound patterns and rhythmical system might be enough to satisfy some need within the poet’s nervous system. It matters then what the poem mysteriously does as the poem becomes close to a musical performance. It matters less what the poem says, or what it is about.

There is a beautiful moment in the ancient Irish narrative Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Gráinne in which the king, now an old man, has wished to marry the young and beautiful Gráinne, who in turn has convinced Diarmaid, one of the king’s handsome warriors, to run away with her. As they are pursued across Ireland Diarmaid, out of loyalty to the king, is unwilling to make love with Gráinne. She taunts him as they cross a stream, telling him the water that has splashed her thigh is braver than he is. And thus they become lovers.

Eavan Boland’s version of the story, called Song, appears in her 1975 collection The War Horse. The first of four six-line stanzas has 27 words, a comma, a semicolon and a full stop. Twenty-four of the words have only one syllable. The other three need more time; they take time; they are almost the key words: “outsleep”; “water”; “afraid”. The beat is iambic trimester, with a variation in the fourth line – “Too fast, too fast” – that matches the meaning, catches the speed, not only the speed of the water but the speed of the voice itself, with the comma denoting a hesitation in the first-person-singular voice that will declare itself in the last line:

Where in blind files
Bats outsleep the frost
Water slips through stones
Too fast, too fast
For ice; afraid he’d slip
By me I asked him first.

The stanza depends on its rhythm, the single-syllable words suggesting fear, flight, urgency. Although the stanza does not rhyme, there are many repeating sounds, the ‘i’ sound in “blind” coming fast in “file” and again in “ice”. And then there are the half-rhymes of “frost”, “fast” and “first” at the end of the second, fourth and sixth lines; there is the waking echo of “outsleep” in “slip”; and the waking echo too of “bats” in the repeated word, “fast”.

The last two stanzas of the poem tell the story of the water hitting Gráinne’s thigh and her taunting Diarmaid, and then his giving in. The third stanza reads:

My skirt in my hand,
Lifting the hem high
I forded the river there.
Drops splashed my thigh.
Ahead of me at last
He turned at my cry.

This story of female transgression is not, in Boland’s version, a translation but an attempt to find a mode in English that will not only match the sense of risk and movement of the text it is based on but also suggest, using words of Anglo-Saxon origin, a premodern time.

The song of the title has a prose origin; it manages with concise skill to tell a story in a poem, a story that has its original form in prose narrative.

What does this have to do with experience? For those of us brought up in Ireland with parents or grandparents who belonged to the revolutionary generation, these ancient stories had a special power.

Indeed, the act of translation itself into a vernacular by figures such as Douglas Hyde and Lady Gregory at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries gave an impetus to the movement for Irish independence more powerful than, say, any set of economic arguments.

Suggesting that these texts belonged to Ireland, and, in Lady Gregory’s phrase, added dignity to the country, stirred up a set of strong emotions in what was a sort of political vacuum after the fall of Parnell in 1890.

Some of the ancient stories remained controversial even then, however, because of their portraits of a female sexuality that could not be easily ignored. This was apparent not only in the story of Gráinne but also in the depiction of Queen Maeve in The Tain, the epic translated by Lady Gregory in 1902. Lady Gregory, more interested in the heroic elements in The Tain, was uneasy about the frank depiction of sexuality in the text and made some cuts.

But when the text was again translated in 1969, by the poet Thomas Kinsella, he was unembarrassed by the sexual content.

Irish mythology

Eavan Boland’s Song, then, followed in a tradition begun with Douglas Hyde’s Love Songs of Connaught (1893) in attempting to find a form and tone for Irish mythology or Irish-language texts that was not itself archaic, which used a diction that was not openly or obviously contemporary, but was part of a living speech or tone of voice that suggested something composed now more than translated from then.

Also, as a poem about a woman who leads rather than follows, as a poem written by a woman, it matched earlier translations of Irish texts in responding to contemporary and pressing concerns; it allowed the present in from the shadows to make the translation or the retelling more part of both an exquisite technical experience of making a poem in this form and a personal experience of making a poem that has contemporary resonance.

Experience, of course, shifts and changes, will not stay in place, will not stay still. The distance between Boland’s volume The War Horse and her volume In a Time of Violence is 19 years, the distance, in a woman’s life, between 31 and 50. Light years. And, in a poet’s life, more than that. All we have to do is think of the distance between the WB Yeats of The Wind Among the Reeds, published when he was 34, and the poet of The Wild Swans at Coole, 20 years later. This is not about growing older but about an enrichment and refinement that come from reading the self, re-creating the self, reimagining the self, finding dictions to match discoveries.

Boland’s poem Love, from the volume In a Time of Violence, both uses and creates myth; it allows, as the poem’s second line suggests, myths to collide. The poet herself is a sort of Orpheus in the poem, charming a loved one with her lines. She invokes Aeneas in the underworld, and Icarus’s dangerous flight over the world above, and also Ceres and Persephone, as she remembers a child who recovered from illness. But, to match this, or set against it, she finds a plain-spoken tone that belongs to now; she heightens this tone and makes it taut, but it remains the voice of a woman speaking. History is now and it is in the words she writes. The opening of the poem is in Iowa: “Dark falls on this mid-western town”. The bridge over the river is seen in dusk, and the dusk “slides and deepens” to a remembered mythology – “the water / the hero crossed on his way to hell”. But she wants this myth to collide with the facts of things – “a kitchen and an Amish table” in “our old apartment”. And then she invokes the eponymous word – love – and then love becomes mythologised, a thing “with the feather and muscle of wings”.

And then there is a stanza about the child spared, and once more a mythology is evoked, as the hero “hailed by his comrades in hell” is brought into service, given his due in the poem, only to be tossed aside, as the poem wants to swim out to calmer waters.

There have been two six-line stanzas and one seven-line stanza. The metrical system is uneven but led by a spondaic sound that lends itself to statement more than song.

And now Eavan Boland is prepared to make a statement, clear, eschewing myth, or maybe proposing an anti-myth, as the Greek root for the word “myth” suggests the closing of the eyes or the mouth. To be mute. These next five lines will speak with clear-eyed truth. The first line can be read as having not two iambic beats but four clear rings:

I am your wife.
It was years ago.
Our child is healed. We love each other still.
Across our day-to-day and ordinary distances
we speak plainly. We hear each other clearly.

These are six sentences. The first four of them admit no word with a Latin root, as though plain speaking requires an earlier tone. There are no flourishes. The plain tone, because of the references to myth in the previous four stanzas, brings with it a sense of casting off one tone to create another one, a tone more urgent, more exact, a tone caught in a strange grip between clarity and cry, between simple statement and a tense undertone filled with the sheer need to make this statement finally.

Calm eloquence

What to do now? The poem has four stanzas left. As the tone has become more urgent, the number of lines in each stanza will shorten. Three stanzas of four lines, and one last stanza of two lines. The first of these stanzas is perhaps the most beautiful in all of Boland’s work in its calm eloquence, its discovery of the resonant power of the image, the simple power of the thing. The statement emerges as though from an urgent impulse to state, to say, the poetry surviving in the space between sudden flashing diction and something chiselled from experience, written to be remembered, a sort of monument:

And yet I want to return to you
on the bridge of the Iowa river as you were,
with snow on the shoulders of your coat
and a car passing with its headlights on

It would be easy to stop the poem here, to let the minor key of the snow on the shoulders of the coat and the car passing with its headlights on create a set of plain single notes for the poem to end on. But just as the poem has earned the right to speak in this tone, it has earned the right to move the music of the poem into a higher register, to use two exalted words that the poem, even with its delving into what Philip Larkin called the “myth-kitty”, would have earlier resisted. These two words, which belong to mythology and to religion, are “epic” and “ascension”:

‘I see you as a hero in a text –
the images blazing and the edges gilded –
and I long to cry out the epic question
my dear companion:
Will we ever live so intensely again?
Will love come to us again and be
so formidable at rest it offered us ascension
even to look at him?’

In these two stanzas, instead of allowing two tones to collide, she has found a match for them. She creates an iambic pentameter line – “I see you as a hero in a text” – to set a tone, filled now with a comfort and ease as the voice stretches itself from the simple business of asking a fundamental question – “Will love come to us again” – but insisting also on the right to let the voice soar and the question become more transcendental as the sights rise too, rise to the possible experience of “ascension”, the rising up out of the earth towards the sky, or out of the self towards something that two selves might become.

Once more it might have been easy to end here, with the daring question, and the sense that even having to ask such a thing implies a knowledge that the answer will never be clear. But there are two more lines. These come as a way of invoking the image in mythology of Orpheus walking ahead in a place of shadows with Eurydice behind, Eurydice being the one who sings. But she cannot be heard now in this place where words are shadows. The poem is resigned now to the way things are. The lines follow both the terms of a myth and the tone of a voice as though finally there were no distinction between the two:

But the words are shadows and you cannot hear me.

You walk away and I cannot follow. A version of this article first appeared in the Poetry Review. Eavan Boland’s new collection, A Woman Without a Country, has just been published by Carcanet Press

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