‘Child of Our Time’ by Eavan Boland

There is great irony in the fact that I am putting the finishing touches to this blog post the morning after the dreadful terrorist attack on Paris on Friday 13th November 2015.  The great sense of outrage and helplessness described in this poem after the events of 17th May 1974 transcends time and place.  All Irish thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims of this barbaric premeditated attack on the people of France.

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Child of our Time

For Aengus

Yesterday I knew no lullaby

But you have taught me overnight to order

This song, which takes from your final cry

Its tune, from your unreasoned end its reason;

Its rhythm from the discord of your murder

Its motive from the fact you cannot listen.

 

We who should have known how to instruct

With rhymes for your waking, rhythms for your sleep,

Names for the animals you took to bed,

Tales to distract, legends to protect

Later an idiom for you to keep

And living, learn, must learn from you dead,

 

To make our broken images, rebuild

Themselves around your limbs, your broken

Image, find for your sake whose life our idle

Talk has cost, a new language.  Child

Of our time, our times have robbed your cradle.

Sleep in a world your final sleep has woken.

– Eavan Boland

 

BACKGROUND NOTE

‘The Troubles’ began in Northern Ireland in the Summer of 1969 and during the early Seventies the violence escalated.  It was a time when, as Eavan Boland herself says, ‘the sounds of death from the television were heard almost daily’.  Attitudes in the Irish Republic were at best ambivalent, with many remaining detached and turning a blind eye while others became involved and active.

 On the 17th May, 1974 a coordinated series of four car bombs were detonated during rush hour traffic in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 34 civilians including two infants and a full term unborn child and its mother.  In all, 27 died in Dublin as a result of the three car bombs detonated there and 7 died as a result of the Monaghan bomb. This poem,  ‘Child of our Time’, from the collection The War Horse (1975), is Eavan Boland’s response to this barbaric event.

Eavan Boland herself describes the genesis of the poem:

I wrote it inspired – and I use the words with care – by a photograph I saw two days later on the front of a national newspaper whose most arresting feature was the expression on the face of the fireman who lifted that child, an expression of tenderness as if he were lifting his own child from its cradle to its mother’s breast.

Further on in this article entitled ‘The Weasel’s Tooth’ (Irish Times, 7th June, 1974), she writes of, ‘that greatest of obscenities, the murder of the innocents’ and refers to the poem as, ‘one among many other statements of outrage’.

The infant victims of the bombings include Anne Marie O’Brien (5 months) and her sister Jacqueline (17 months) along with their parents John (24) and Anna (22) – the entire family killed in the Parnell Street explosion.  Baby Doherty, was the full term unborn child of Talbot Street bomb victim, Collette Doherty. Three months later in August, 1974, Baby Martha O’Neill, the stillborn daughter of Edward (39) and Martha O’Neill was delivered.  Edward was killed, and his two sons seriously injured in the Parnell Street bombing.

So, it is obvious that there is heartbreak and unbearable loss at the centre of the poem and to further expand this notion of bereaved families, the poet dedicates this beautiful poem to Aengus, a friend’s child, the victim of a cot death.  So, although the poem is rooted in the conflict in Northern Ireland and the overspill of that conflict south to Dublin and Monaghan, the poem is addressed to all families who suffer loss and it highlights the damage inflicted on children in all wars and all situations and obviously from a casual look at our local and international news stories today, it is as relevant now as it was then in 1974.

COMMENTARY

This is a beautifully constructed formal lament or elegy and because the victim is a child it is couched in the language of a lullaby, suitable for a young child.  The words used eloquently pinpoint this: it is a ‘song’, ‘a lullaby’ which has a ‘rhythm’ and a ‘tune’.  Bedtime is that sacred time which Boland refers to in many of her poems when parent and child are never closer.  Here bedtime is conjured up with ‘rhymes’, and ‘tales’ and ‘legends’.  Despite the focus on musical terms the poet wants to point out the horrible juxtaposition of the child’s ‘final cry’.  The poet’s outrage at this meaningless terrorist act is stated unambiguously at the end of the fifth line with her use of the word ‘murder’ which jolts us into outrage as well.  Death is final and the child cannot ‘listen’ anymore to our feeble justifications for political violence.

The second stanza evokes a stereotypical happy childhood lived in a secure home, safe in the natural ‘rhythms’ of life, waking and sleeping, playing with favoured soft toys.  The child is protected by language, ‘tales to distract, legends to protect’ – indeed much of the poem is couched very cleverly in language terminology.  Indeed it is normally the adults, the parents, who develop and teach the young a language they can use to explain the world that surrounds them.  This natural cycle has been subverted here and it is now the child who instructs us:

And living, learn, must learn from you, dead.

The sound patterns and structure of the poem illustrate the chaos and confusion that reigns within the poet after such an atrocity and tries to mirror the immediate aftermath of a car bomb explosion in a busy rush hour street.  The poet manages this by creating opposing tensions within the poem: waking/sleeping, adults/child, the ‘living’/’dead’, ‘song’/‘cry’, ‘tune’/’discord’.  The poet struggles to impose some sort of order on the chaotic aftermath and so there are three stanzas with six lines in each.  Each stanza seems to represent a phase, a stage in the process of coming to terms with the awful events which have occurred:

Stanza 1: This death is meaningless

Stanza 2: We are responsible

Stanza 3: There is an urgent lesson to be learnt

The poem can, and should, be read as a comment on the failure of communication.  The only way forward from this conflict and violence is described as a ‘new language’.  Our ‘idle talk’ about Nationalism and Unionism, North and South has given us this ‘broken image’ of a dead baby being carried from the carnage of a street bomb by a fireman and used the following morning in the newspapers to encapsulate the tragedy.  The dead child becomes, for the poet, an emblem of hope as her eternal sleep is juxtaposed with the world waking up to the absurdity of indiscriminate violence.  The poet ends with an exquisite metaphor of ‘robbing the cradle’, an image that sharply contrasts violence and the innocence of childhood.  ‘Our times’ have done this, we are all responsible. Our ‘tales’ and ‘legends’ and our interpretations of history have created quarrels and division and the hopeful plea from the poet is that the child’s needless death will encourage us to ‘wake up’ and think differently.

As I said at the beginning this poem is an elegy and traditionally the functions of an elegy were to lament, to praise and to console.  The tone of the poem oscillates between tenderness and outrage throughout.  There is also another important dimension to this poem which is also in-keeping with an elegy and that is its political dimension.  In hindsight, this powerful poem has become, like Longley’s “Ceasefire”, a clarion call for change.  The poet’s anger is not directed at the bombers but at society in general who have allowed this situation to develop and fester and get out of control.

This is why we need poets like Boland to act as our trailblazers and as Mark Hederman has so eloquently put it, ‘to express what they perceive in a prophetic and irresistible rhythm, shape and form.’  Our poets and artists are forever busy, whether in their studios or their nurseries, ‘writing the icon of our future face, preparing the skins that can carry the new wine, digging the trenches into which the waters can flow…’  Boland wrote these game changing verses in her suburban home where she was busy raising her young family.  However, it still took some time for her voice to be heard, for the critical mass to tip things in favour of peace; it took an Enniskillen, a Shankill and an Omagh atrocity for the penny to drop that we in Ireland needed ‘a new language’, a new way of communicating with one another that does not include violence and murder of innocent children and pregnant women.  From her suburban vantage point, this woman has done the state and our republic some service.

Works Cited:

Hederman, Mark P., (2001), The Haunted Inkwell: Art and our Future, The Columba Press, Dublin.

 

The scene in Talbot Street shortly after the explosion.
The scene in Talbot Street shortly after the explosion.
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Major Themes in Eavan Boland’s Poetry

 

www.irishtimes.com - illustrator Dearbhla O'Kelly
http://www.irishtimes.com – illustrator Dearbhla Kelly

The purpose of these notes is to guide you in your exploration of the  poetry of Eavan Boland.  The notes are structured as a series of ‘thinking points’ ranging over the main themes and issues evident in her work.  They are not exhaustive and neither are they ‘carved in stone’.  They should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own understanding of the poet’s work.

 You are expected to study six poems by Eavan Boland from your Anthology.  The poems we will concentrate on are: 

  • ‘Child of Our Time’,
  • ‘This Moment’,   
  • ‘Famine Road’,
  • ‘Outside History’,
  • ‘The War Horse’,
  • ‘The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me’

Boland’s view of Irish history and her idea of nation

  • Boland deals with the reality of Irish history, the familiar story of oppression, defeat and death (‘The Famine Road’). The sense of national identity that comes across from ‘The Famine Road’ speaks of victimisation, being downtrodden and living out pointless lives; see also the suffering in ‘Outside History’.
  • Opposed to that view is the male-created myth, involving heroic struggle, battle, and glorious defeat: see the image of the dying patriot immortalised by art in ‘An Old Steel Engraving’. The woman poet feels excluded from that cultural tradition –  ‘One of us who turns away.’
  • Boland resists the myths imposed on us by our history (and the way it was taught!!) and she insists on the necessity of confronting the reality, facing the unburied dead of history and laying them to rest (‘Outside History’).
  • She shows concern for the unrecorded history, for the significance of lives lived on the margins of history, away from the centre of power, far from the limelight of action. She mourns the forgotten lives in ‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’.
  • In her prose writings Boland explores the idea of nation and the difficulties it produces for her as a woman poet. In Object Lessons she says:

So it was with me.  For this very reason, early on as a poet, certainly in my twenties, I realised that the Irish nation as an existing construct in Irish poetry was not available to me.  I would not have been able to articulate it at that point, but at some preliminary level I already knew that the anguish and power of that woman’s gesture on Achill, with its suggestive hinterland of pain, were not something I could predict or rely on in Irish poetry.  There were glimpses here and there; sometimes more than that.  But all too often, when I was searching for such an inclusion, what I found was a rhetoric of imagery which alienated me: a fusion of the national and the feminine which seemed to simplify both.

It was not a comfortable realisation.  There was nothing clear-cut about my feelings.  I had tribal ambivalences and doubts, and even then I had an uneasy sense of the conflict which awaited me.  On the one hand, I knew that as a poet I could not easily do without the idea of a nation.  Poetry in every time draws on that reserve.  On the other, I could not as a woman accept the nation formulated for me by Irish poetry and its traditions.  At one point it even looked to me as if the whole thing might be made up of irreconcilable differences.  At the very least it seemed to me that I was likely to remain an outsider in my own national literature, cut off from its archive, at a distance from its energy.  Unless, that is, I could repossess it.  This proposal is about that conflict and that repossession and about the fact that repossession itself is not a static or single act.  Indeed, the argument which describes it may itself be no more than a part of it.

Violence in society

  • ‘The War Horse’ explores suburban, middle-class attitudes to political violence. It is really a psychological exploration of the theme ‘how we respond to violence’.
  • Race memory and the old antagonisms to English colonial rule still exist just beneath the surface (‘The War Horse’).
  • The real human consequences of political violence are portrayed in ‘Child of Our Time’. The poet here acts as the conscience of our society.
  • Violence is seen as the result of a failure of language, an inability to communicate (‘Child of Our Time’).

The significance of myth

  • While in much of her poetry myth is seen as a positive thing, Boland often challenges the image of woman in mythology (also in art in mythology), particularly when it shows woman as marginalised, silenced, subservient to her husband the hero, as in ‘Love’.
  • For her our history (indeed all history) is laced with myths. The unreality, the coldness and the distance of myth from real lives is symbolised in the stars of ‘Outside History’.

The experience of being a woman

Boland’s strong feminine perspective lends an extra dimension of insight to all her themes.  But she also considers specific issues relating to the portrayal and the treatment of women.

  • The sufferings of women are equated with the oppression of the nation (‘The Famine Road’)
  • The traditional role of woman is validated in such poems as ‘This Moment’, which show woman as mother.  That maternal gesture of catching the child in her arms is the key to the poem.  The protectiveness of mothers features also in ‘The Pomegranate’.  Also her wisdom is displayed in allowing the daughter freedom to learn for herself.
  • Woman as lover features in ‘The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me’ and ‘Love’.
  • Suburban woman features in many of the poems: ‘The War Horse’ and ‘This Moment’.
  • The puzzling relationship between men and women features in ‘The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me’: the mistimings, the tempests of love, the sensual allure. Love diminishes in time, like the importance of the fan.  This makes an interesting alternative view to the blinkered one of idyllic romance.
  • Boland challenges the patriarchal tradition of Irish poetry. In Object Lessons she elaborated on her objections to the images of women in literature:

The majority of Irish male poets depended on women as motifs in their poetry.  They moved easily, deftly, as if by right among images of women in which I did not believe and of which I could not approve.  The women in their poems were often passive, decorative, raised to emblematic status.  This was especially true where the woman and the idea of the nation were mixed: where the nation became a woman and the woman took on a national posture.  (Note: This is very obvious in the poetry of Yeats where he refers almost obsessively to Maud Gonne).

The trouble was [that] these images did good service as ornaments.  In fact, they had a wide acceptance as ornaments by readers of Irish poetry.  Women in such poems were frequently referred to approvingly as mythic, emblematic.  But to me these passive and simplified women seemed a corruption.  For they were not decorations, they were not ornaments.  However distorted these images, they had their roots in a suffered truth.

What had happened?  How had the women of our past – the women of a long struggle and a terrible survival – undergone such a transformation?  How had they suffered Irish history and rooted themselves in the speech and memory of the Achill woman, only to re-emerge in Irish poetry as fictive queens and national sibyls?

The more I thought about it, the more uneasy I became.  The wrath and grief of Irish history seemed to me, as it did to many, one of our true possessions.  Women were part of that wrath, had endured that grief.  It seemed to me a species of human insult that at the end of all, in certain Irish poems, they should become elements of style rather than aspects of truth.

Poetry in the suburbs

  • A good deal of her poetry is set in the suburbs, a setting not associated traditionally with poetic inspiration.
  • The fragile nature of the beauty and order created in the suburbs is brought out in ‘The War Horse’.
  • The toy-house neatness of suburbia is no match for the wild, elemental attractions of nature in ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’.
  • In the later poems we encounter a romantic evocation of a suburban twilight (‘This Moment’). Nature has colonised the suburbs (‘Stars rise / Moths flutter’, ‘one window is yellow as butter’).
  • But the real bleakness of the suburban street is not hidden: ‘The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured’ – ‘The Pomegranate’.

 

Portrait of Eavan Boland as a child by her mother, the painter Frances Kelly
Portrait of Eavan Boland as a child by her mother, the painter Frances Kelly