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Woman In Pursuit: Eavan Boland, Yeats, and Irish Tradition

Irish poet Eavan Boland published her first collection, a pamphlet entitled 23 Poems, fifty years ago. To commemorate the milestone I’d like to offer this brief retrospective of her distinguished career.


In a 1997 interview in American Poet, Eavan Boland remarked of her early work: “Every young poet, to some extent, writes the poem in the air. And a certain kind of formal, well-structured poem was around me in the air when I was young. I laboured to write it…and for part of that time it was certainly someone else’s poem I was learning and labouring to write.” As an Irish-born poet of Seamus Heaney’s generation, educated for most of her childhood in England, Boland would have breathed an “air” dominated by late Auden and the Movement poets (Philip Larkin, Donald Davie, and their cohorts)—while feeling also, like them, the long shadow of Yeats. The evolution of her poetry since has reflected a sometimes fierce, sometimes ambivalent confrontation with tradition: not only English poetic tradition but also Irish cultural tradition, Catholic religious tradition, the fraught “tradition” of Anglo-Irish politics and history, and traditional Western relations between the sexes. As she defines herself relative to each, she attempts to provide a private, imaginative testimony without recourse to polemic.

The poems in Boland’s first major collection, New Territory (1967), are the product of a diligent apprenticeship in formal verse traditions, as well as a careful study of her predecessors. The opening lyric, “The Poets,” praises the masters of her craft for finding “pattern and form” by which to extract meaning from words. Also included in the volume are two sonnets about Shakespeare, a Yeatsian treatment of Irish myth (“The Winning of Etain”), and a poem called “Yeats in Civil War,” which takes an important first step toward defining Boland’s own project. Apostrophizing Yeats, she writes:

Somehow you arranged your escape

Aboard a spirit ship which every day

Hoisted sail out of fire and rape,

And on that ship your mind was stowaway.

If literature is escapism, Boland implies, it is also a kind of historical transcendence—one that offers parallels (and hope) for her own situation, as a poet inhabiting the violent climate that would soon erupt into Northern Ireland’s “Troubles.”

In her collections over the subsequent two decades, Boland plays increasingly original and confident variations on traditional forms, myths, and themes. Again, she is often at her best when subtly reworking Yeats. In the witty and erotic  “Song” (1975), she uses a rough-hewn Yeatsian ballad to overturn Yeats’ typical formula of a doomed male pursuing an unattainable female ideal. Here the woman pursues—and succeeds:

‘Look how the water comes

Boldly to my side;

See the waves attempt

What you have never tried.’

He late that night

Followed the leaping tide.

Boland’s “A Ballad of Beauty and Time” (1982), which pairs a virtually identical form with a more contemporary voice, “converses” with Yeats still more directly. The poem features a weaver of masks—an unmistakable stand-in for the founder of the Abbey Theatre, as well as the “stitching and unstitching” poet of “Adam’s Curse”—who attempts to justify to the female speaker his idealized portrayals of women. The speaker makes no comment; it is left to the reader to judge whether he succeeds.

Fascination with womanhood as a theme defines this period of Boland’s work more generally. Her 1982 collection Night Feed contains no fewer than seven poems with some variant of “Woman” in the title, including several—such as “The Woman Turns Herself Into a Fish”—that abandon formal structures in favor of concise, occasionally Plath-inflected free verse. Though she meditates deeply on women’s concerns, Boland avoids a “feminist poetics” as such. In the interview quoted above, she accurately describes her own stance: “Feminism has real power and authority as an ethic, but none at all as an aesthetic. My poetry begins for me where certainty ends.”

The same is true even of Boland’s overtly “political” poetry, which, from The Journey (1987) through The Lost Land (1998), constitutes a steadily greater share of her output. In “An Irish Childhood in England, 1951,” she recalls a time “when all of England to an Irish child / was nothing more than what you’d lost and how,” and it is from this melancholy perspective that she has probed the two countries’ histories since.

Her collections from the ‘90s, in particular, are shadowed by the bloody sectarian fighting that preceded the Belfast Agreement of 1998. The poems of this phase are uneven (the earnest and symbolism-ridden “Unheroic,” for example, falls flat beside the fierce “Imago”), but show impressive formal variety and rarely become tendentious. After the relaxation of conflict in Northern Ireland, Boland was able in Against Love Poetry (2001) to return to a broader variety of themes, without quite giving up commentary on the country of her birth. Fittingly enough, the final lyric in the collection—as well as in her New Collected Poems—is called “Irish Poetry,” and it ends on a note that might have seemed impossible in the previous decade. Evoking the “savage acres” of the Irish countryside, which have remained permanently unpredictable, Boland nonetheless imagines them “listening…as if to music, as if to peace.”

[Image courtesy of The Poetry Foundation.]


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