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Notes on The Journey by Eavan Boland

Jane Hoogestraat was on the poetry board when the editors were preparing the Spring 1986 issue of the Chicago Review, in which Bolands The Journey would appear. She remembers: When the Chicago Review received Eavan Bolands The Journey, Paul Baker immediately called my attention to the poem. After I too glibly said, No, this had been done before and is too easy, Paul replied, with classic decorum, Read it again. The poem later appeared in the Spring 1986 issue and, a short while later, in Bolands The Journey. Eavan Boland recently wrote to us about how she came to write this poem: The Journey emerged from a complex and painful event. When our daughters were very small, my husband and I went as Fellows to the International Writing Program in Iowa City. It was my first exposure to an intellectual and analytic approach to poetry and I was very taken with the discussions, arguments and emphases on the future and present of the form. Then our smallest daughter, only a year old, got ill with meningitis. She made a full recovery. But the sense of an abyss opening in front of us, which suddenly closed, remained with me for a long time. And with that sense came an increasing impatience on my part for the actions and events which poetry refuses to name and record. I deliberately cast this poem in the elite form of the dream convention: where the poet descends to hell with another poet and comes back wiser. I descent with Sappho and come back no wiser. If anything, the poem records my longing to witness something which we were spared but others were not. After the poem was finished I submitted it to the Chicago Review and was delighted and honored when it was accepted. [DN, 1996] Length/form: One of Boland's longer poems. The lyric verse has more in common with Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite than the epic hexameters of Aeneid VI (the primary source), reflecting the genre-subversion at play throughout. Allusion to classical figure: Sappho plays the role of poet-guide to Boland, whilst scenes of women and children recall the infant souls of Aeneid VI (427). Allusion to classical place: Boland's journey' evokes Aeneas' decent into the underworld and the banks of the Styx. The reference to our beginnings, / in which we have an origin like water melds this setting the image of the river Lethe, from which Aeneas witnesses the rebirthing of souls (703ff). Relationship to classical text (author/language/title of work): Boland returns to the sixth book of the Aeneid repeatedly in her poetry, describing its language as a slow magic, an incantation of images and structures, whilst the frail voices of the dead covey an abiding sense of memory and loss (Boland 1995:79). Close translation of words/phrases/excerpts: The poem is prefaced by a translation of Aeneid VI (426-429), taken from Jackson Knight's translation, first published by Penguin in 1958 (and therefore available to Boland as a student).

Classical/post-classical intertexts:

Aisling: Boland relates Virgil's setting of Aeneid VI to the dream vision' convention and particularly the Irish aisling poems in which the female personification of Ireland appears to the poet, lamenting the fortunes of the country under foreign rule. This emblematic and politically motivated use of female imagery has far reaching influence in Irish literature, leading Boland to despair of the Country's national sibyls (Boland 1989:12). Yeats: Although Yeats also draws heavily on nationalistic imagery for political purposes, Boland has admired his use of elite poetic forms to express private sorrows (Reizbaum 1989:476) and demonstrates his influence via the autobiographical narrative which frames the poem. Sappho: Boland's visitation by the ancient poet recalls Aphrodite's appearance to Sappho in the Hymn to Aphrodite and also subverts the traditional relationship of male poet to female Muse (who is also Ireland in the aisling poems). Rather than acting as 'ally' ( summachos ), as does Aphrodite, Boland's Sappho is cast in a maternal role, equivalent to that of Mother Ireland'. 'misshapen, musical Sappho the scholiast's nightingale' refers to the somewhat pedestrian characterisation given by one scholiast (Boland 1997:188). Further Comment: In this poem the elite connotations of the classical ante-text allow Boland to bring to the fore subjects she considers to have been excluded from poetry and those voices silenced by Irish literary tradition, whilst the pairing of classical and nationalist mythologies destabilises the literary tropes associated with the latter. Boland has been accused of essentialising aspects of femininity by replacing one mythic configuration of the female image with another (e.g. Wills 1991). Nevertheless, this particular dream vision, in denying the poet literary enlightenment, acknowledges the complex role myth plays in constructing a dialogue with the past and finds a fitting icon in the poet Sappho, fragmented by history and mythologized in her many receptions. In "The Journey," Boland rewrites Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid by providing Sappho as a guide to the underworld. This revision of the Greek story opens, however, with a plaint about the topics of poetry: Note that the poet who wastes "his" time writing about the "obvious emblem instead of the real thing" is male. Boland suggests that it is important to write about "real" life rather than rehashing uncomplicated legends; there are "real" topics that have not been covered and histories that have not yet been written. Not surprisingly, Boland proposes that these absent topics and histories are those that pertain to women.

Notes on The Making of an Irish Goddess by Eavan Boland


Comment: Allusion to classical figure: Boland's Irish goddess is imagined through the image of Ceres. The daughter she seeks is therefore a direct parallel to Proserpina/Persephone (the Greek name is used in The Pomegranate' (In a Time of Violence, 1994). Allusion to classical place: The poem imagines Ceres' journey to rescue her daughter from the underworld. Length/form: Essentially lyric. The form is free and the rhythms naturalistic. Relationship to classical text (author/language/title of work): The Pomegranate', which also draws on the Ceres/Persephone myth, features in the anthology After Ovid, where it is prefaced by a quote from Metamorphoses V (Hofmann & Lasdun (eds) 1994:140). However, in this poem Boland does not indicate a specific source. Close translation of words/phrases/excerpts: There are no direct references to the Ovidian rendering, but the poet's body, 'neither young now nor fertile draws a contrast with Ceres' fertilitas terrae, and the 'failed harvests, / the fields rotting to the horizon recall the goddess' blighting of the land (474ff). Classical/post-classical intertexts: Aisling: As in The Journey' Boland uses a classical myth of underworld descent as a parallel to the Irish aisling poems in which a female personification of Ireland appears to the poet, lamenting the country's demise at the hands of colonists (cf. Auge 2004:125-126). However, she does so only to reject the emblematic use of female imagery. Rich: Boland's rejection of mythic authority, both foreign and native, is reminiscent of Adrienne Rich's Diving Into the Wreck', in which the poet seeks 'the thing itself and not the myth (Rich, 1973). Elsewhere she cites Rich's influential article When We Dead Awaken', which encourages a revisionary approach to myth as cultural authority (Rich 1972; Boland 1997:.23). Kavanagh: Patrick Kavanagh's propensity to identify the divine, classical or Christian, in the mundane and the rural can be felt in the way that Boland makes the Dublin landscape and her own domestic sphere the central focus of the poem, rather than the myth (cf. Kavanagh's Epic' and Stony Grey Soil': Collected Poems, 2005). Classical/Christian intertexts: The later poem Unheroic' reveals the mythic and religious intertexts which Boland draws on in her metaphorical allusions to scarring (The Lost Land, 1998. See also Boland 1989). Here, the hotel manager's unhealing scar, either 'from war or illness, in his thigh or deep in his side, draws together the significance of Odysseus scar (Odyssey XIX, l.319ff), the rankling wound of Philoctetes, and the anti-heroic emblem of Christ crucified. Conversely, in this early poem, where myth is characterised as 'the wound we leave / in the time we have, Boland rejects the unblemished sterility of the classical paradigm.

Further Comment: Binding the twelve poems of the Outside History' sequence is a persistent questioning of the role that myth, memory and history play, both to distance and to negotiate an understanding of the past. In this context the classical material deepens the sense of cultural and historical alienation from nationalist literary modes, fracturing and dissipating the authority of mythologizing. In "The Making of an Irish Goddess," Boland explores the way myths structure perceptions; here, even landscapes do not provide access to any sort of essential truth. We have already seen the way she revises the myth of Daphne. This poem describes Ceres (aka Demeter), the ancient goddess of earth and fertility, who in this version "went to hell/with no sense of time" to rescue her daughter, Persephone. Looking back at Ireland, Ceres saw only a homogeneous landscape, simple and unchanging: Myths tell comfortable tales--of lands without change, with the rivers and the wheat "always at one level." Singleness, sameness, and usualness are comfortable fictions that conceal the complex truth of everyday experience. But later in the poem the narrator insists that the "real" Ireland has a very different story than that inscribed in myth, one that requires an accurate inscription of that agony: The poem rewrites its earlier phrases depicting nature, exchanging the uniformity and stasis of "wheat at one height" for "fields" in the process of "rotting." But it also rewrites the myth into the history of real people: it is not Ceres, goddess of the earth, who goes down to hell but the children and mothers of Ireland who go through the hell of the famine. The poem describes mythmaking that would efface this history as a wound: Myth is the wound we leave in the time we have-The narrator locates herself precisely in time ("this/March evening") and space ("at the foothills of the Dublin mountains"); these specific details add to a feeling of realness and suggest her refusal to be mythologized into a homogeneous image of woman. She rewrites Ceres' vision of the unchanging landscape to describe her own vision: "the lights have changed all day." But like Ceres, she occupies a central position in her own story: she insistently repeats the possessive pronoun "my" to claim her moment in history, and she describes her hand as "sickleshaped," suggesting an affinity with the goddess who governed the harvest. (The narrator may see her children as a different kind of harvest.) In describing the way she distinguishes her "own daughter from/all the other children in the distance," she suggests the parallel project of distinguishing her own story (or any individual history) from that of general history, which can be grasped only at a "distance." That is, specific lives--although they may be ordinary and domestic--must be seen up close. They are a means by which we can get at the truth of history and set aside the myth, which is like a "wound" that turns into a "scar." Boland's concern is that the myths about Ireland as a whole will efface the stories of individual Irish people.