‘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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The Beauty of Ordinary Things – In the Poetry of Eavan Boland

www.irishtimes.com. Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly
http://www.irishtimes.com. Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly

Eavan Boland talks to Eileen Battersby about her work, marginalised by the Irish poetic tradition which has little space for the realities of women’s lives.

This interview was first published in The Irish Times on the 22nd of September, 1998

When she was 14 and living in New York, Eavan Boland met the poet Padraic Colum, then a very old man at a party her parents were giving.  She asked him had he known Padraic Pearse. “Yes, I did,” he said.  It was the answer she wanted.  Boland’s work and her life has been shaped by the need to establish and question identities and relations.  The role of the poet within his or her country is crucial to her.  So, too, is defining a woman’s place and most problematically, the rights of the woman poet and the tensions between those words.  “There seems to be no difficulty in being perceived as a woman poet.  The trouble appears to lie in being fully accepted as an Irish poet”, she says.

Having left Ireland aged five to live in London during her father’s ambassadorship and then moved on to New York, she found her return home as a teenager left her feeling deprived of the dialect and nuances of belonging.  Aware of being different, she saw of herself that “like a daughter in a legend, I had been somewhere else”.

Diplomat father’s daughter, artist mother’s daughter, she has always been an outsider, Boland’s poetry, was born of  a fierce intellectual determination.  Her first collection, New Territory, was published at 22, her first poem at 17; her apprenticeship was cerebral.  As a university student, she had worked at her craft, engaging in the poet’s business of debate and argument.  She was  part of an emerging poetic movement. Above all, she was an equal.   By her mid 20s, however, she was married and had moved to the suburbs.  This began the process which as always set her outside the ruling body of Irish male poets.

“I’m not a separatist – I’ve never believed women poets can walk away from the body of poetry that exists.  In the powerful debate which exists in and out of the academy, I agree with those who think the real opportunities for women in poetry lie in destabilising the canon, not separating themselves from it.  Besides, I have lived in the ambiguity as a woman poet of deeply honouring the work of male poets while at the same time wishing to contest ‘some of the assumptions around that work”.

Nor is she a post-feminist. “I don’t accept that womanhood is a state we can somehow historically transcend.  It is a human condition, not a historic one and as such is a very rich central part of imagination, not only of social consciousness.”  Though a feminist, she is not a feminist poet: “Poetry begins where the certainties end. I would have to say as someone who has benefited from, and is honoured to consider themselves a feminist, that literature must not be bend out of shape to accommodate an ethical position.  Freedom is single.  Women writers have struggled to be heard in this century and it is very important they are not part of silencing anyone else.”

Boland has often been attacked on ideological grounds. “It’s important not to silence the written text. On the other hand it is also crucial to prevent the literary discourse of a small country from becoming a higher form of exclusion”.

Celebrated in the United States, her work has been, and continues to be, criticised in Ireland for her concentration on the domestic.  The business of poetry, however, is to capture a moment and the freeze-frame of a child’s smile, the private conspiracy of a night feed or the memory of an abandoned bike are a s real as battles or love affairs.  “When I was young, I think, there was a hidden struggle over subject matter going on in Irish poetry which I blundered into.  I was aware that it was easier to have a political murder as the subject of an Irish poem than a baby or a washing machine.”

Boland turned 56 on 24th September 2000 and she is now Professor of English and director of the Stegner Creative Writing Course at Stanford University in California.  Her eight volume of poetry, The Lost Land, was published in 1998, while there have also been two volumes of selected work including Outside History (1990), An Origin Like Water – Collected Poems 1967 – 1987 and an outstanding memoir Object Lessons (1995) which is as much a powerfully argued evocatively-written poetic manifesto as autobiography.

No one is more aware than she – and no one has argued as convincingly and combatively – of the dilemma facing the woman poet, particularly the Irish woman poet.  “We have a powerful tradition here of the male poet.  Irish poetry was male and bardic in ethos.  Historically the woman is the passive object of poetry.  We aren’t supposed to write poems, we are supposed to be in them.”

“Sean O’Riordain wrote a poem in Irish in the 1940’s, in which the opening line read, ‘A woman can be a poem, she can never be a poet’ – I’m not saying that male poets support that position.  But there is a reluctance to welcome the new energies that are being brought into Irish poetry by a whole range of younger woman poets.”

“Challenge” is a word which appears frequently in her conversation, so does “responsibility”.  Few major contemporary Irish writers have been as dismissively treated, none have juxtaposed the intellectual and abstract with the routine as effectively.  For all her intensity, her poetry is not without humour: “for all time / as far as history goes? We were never / on the scene of the crime” (From ‘It’s a Woman’s World’, Night Feed, 1982).

Long recognised as a formidable critical intelligence, Boland is highly articulate, logical, even patrician.  Her opinions are presented with an often rhetorical articulation and precise textual references.  She exudes an awkward rigour.  Interestingly, her spoken voice is very close to her poetic one.  In many ways a traditional lyric poet, her language is exact, deliberate and measured.

Her work is personal without being confessional.  “Who is the poet?” and how is that identity constructed are the questions she seems to be addressing, and what are the issues poetry should explore?  By focusing on the real, the realisation of the loss of a child – “I turned around. / I turned around. / She was gone.  Grown.  No longer ready / to come with me, whenever / a dry Sunday / held out its promises / of small histories.  Endings.”  (From ‘The Necessity for Irony’, The Lost Land, 1998) – she has been marginalised by poets and readers far more prepared to see the heroism in a stolen kiss than to acknowledge the pain which accompanies a mother’s realisation that her child no longer needs her.

Boland’s poetry consistently expresses the relentless passage of time, “A child / shifts in a cot / No matter what happens now / I’ll never fill one again.”  (From ‘Endings’, in the ‘Domestic Interior’ sequence, Night Feed, 1982).  “I think these small moments are immensely important and have their place in poetry.  I think, and I have to be careful here, but it should be said, I know so many men who sneer at the suburban life and yet it is the very life their wives and their daughters have led and are leading.  And not to see through its circumstances to its vision and power and importance seems to me to be both wrong and illogical.”

Moving to Dundrum in the early 70’s, she saw “town and country at each other’s throat”  (From ‘Suburban Woman’, The War Horse, 1975) but she also witnessed a village becoming a city suburb, “a real communal adventure”.  She has no regrets about living there.  “We have the same neighbours.  I love living there.”

In Object Lessons she writes: “It could be a shelter; it was never a cloister.  Everywhere you looked there were reminders – a child’s bicycle thrown sideways on the grass, a single roller skate, a tree in its first April of blossoms – that lives were not lived here in any sort of static pageant but that they thrived, waned, changed, began and ended there.” She remembers a conversation with a neighbour whose children were teenagers while hers were still babies.  “Hers is the life mine will become, while mine is the life she has lost.”

From assertive young Trinity published poet, to suburban housewife and mother, to Stanford professor, Boland has taken part in many debates.  For her, the most important and the one that became the most clouded by bitterness involved the under-representation of women in The Field Day Anthology in 1992.   “I feel it has the making of a worthwhile debate.  It is at the heart of Irish literature now.  No post-colonial project, however distinguished, can sustain itself if it continues the exclusions for which it reproaches the original colony.  I felt this was a post-colonial anthology which was not sufficiently alert to that contradiction.  There were 28 sections; not one was edited by a woman.”

One of only three female poets among 34 male, Boland is well represented, “yet I felt it would have been extremely wrong not to try to challenge these contradictions.  Ireland is a small country.  It is hard to have these arguments without everything becoming personal.  But I don’t despair of these arguments being addressed.”

Colonies and identities, fictional lands and how we make and unmake them continue to haunt her.  Of The Lost Land she says: “This is the book in which I think place and history and time and the ageing body which is the cypher of these categories –  all of these run together like the colours in a child’s drawing.”

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Illustration by Marianne Goldin

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Poetry of Sylvia Plath

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The legend of Plath as a dark and driven and unstable young woman is a tremendous simplification of her work.  Her work will endure where poetry endures.

The trouble for us who come to study her work in depth at Leaving Cert or A Level is that we already know the ending – a bit like watching a film of The Titanic!  We know that Plath died by suicide in mid-sentence, so to speak,  at the age of thirty one.  Studying this arbitrary selection of her poems here should impress on us her vast and vital legacy.  She is, in my view, a very essential poet.

There is unfortunately a widespread tendency to interpret Plath’s work as autobiographical, to read her poems as if they tell her life story.  While it is quite obvious – and probably inevitable – that a writer’s life will influence what she writes, it is important to understand that poetry is art.  Writing about this issue, Ted Hughes pointed out that the reader must learn, ‘to distinguish between a subjective work that was trying to reach an artistic form using a real event as its basis, and a documentary of some event that did happen.’

Some critics read her later poems exclusively in the light of her suicide.  They argue that she signals her suicide (intentionally or otherwise) in a number of her last poems, through various references to despair, rage, loss, separation, or death.  This is by no means as obvious as these critics claim and after all hindsight has always been the great tormentor of those left bereaved and bereft after a suicide.   Many of these poems are the work of a woman who is coming into her own, recognising her own needs, using her own voice, finding her true self.  Look, for example, at ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’.  This is about facing and releasing the fears that are hidden beneath the surface – not about a woman who is contemplating death.

So therefore, it is important to read the poems as they stand.  Looking for signs of what was to happen afterwards in her life is to predetermine how the poems should be read, not actually attending to the poems themselves.

Note:  To help you prepare for your Leaving Cert you need to become very familiar with at least six of Sylvia Plath’s poems.  I would recommend that you concentrate on her later poems (from 1960 to her death) because of their power and honesty.  The following selection will be dealt with in some depth here:

  • ‘Morning Song’ (19th February, 1961),
  • ‘Finisterre’ (29th September, 1961),
  • ‘Mirror’ (23rd October, 1961),
  • ‘Pheasant’ (7th April, 1962),
  • ‘Elm’ (19th April, 1962),
  • ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, (4th October, 1962),
  • ‘Child’ (28th January, 1963).

The points made here represent one interpretation of her work.  It is important that you develop your own response to each poem; where this differs from the suggestions given here, trust your own judgement!  Become familiar with the poems and with the major themes running through Plath’s poetry.

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BACKGROUND

Plath wrote incessantly during her short life: poetry, short stories, articles, essays, and one semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.  Her writings were first published in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic; later they appeared in book form.

She considered poems written before 1956 as ‘juvenilia’.  Her first published book, The Colossus, includes only poems written after this date.  Her remaining poems were published after her death in three collections: Ariel and Other Poems, Crossing the Water, and Winter Trees.

Her last poems are generally seen as Plath’s outstanding achievement and that is why we concentrate on them here in this review.  Here she truly found her voice, expressing herself in a distinctive, unique style.  She was aware of this herself: while writing them she informed her mother, ‘I am a writer…. I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me.  I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name…. (Letters Home, 16th October 1962).

Her husband, Ted Hughes, describes these poems equally glowingly:

‘Her real self showed itself in her writing … When a real self finds language and manages to speak, it is surely a dazzling event’   (The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1982).

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MAJOR THEMES IN PLATH’S POETRY

Motherhood:  Plath wrote many poems dealing with all aspects of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, at a time when writers, especially poets, rarely touched on such topics.  Her best-known work on the theme, ‘Poem for Three Voices’, evokes powerfully the variety of emotions experienced by women around pregnancy, miscarriage, motherhood, and adoption.  Her poems on this theme are remarkable for their lyricism (their song-like quality), depth of feeling, and tenderness.

                   What did my fingers do before they held him?

                   What did my heart do, with its love?

However, being a realist, she also reflected the other side of being a mother: the drudgery, the anxieties, and the level to which a mother is bound to her child:

                   I have never seen a thing so clear …

                   It is a terrible thing to be so open: it is as if my heart

                   Put on a face and walked into the world.

Both attitudes are seen in ‘Morning Song’.  The mother’s life is shadowed by the child’s arrival, but is enriched by the joy of love.  ‘Child’ also reflects the simple pleasure she derives from her child; his eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing that she longs to fill with the beauty of the world.  But there is also an underlying threat to the child’s safety, which distresses her.

Identity:  Plath frequently returned to the issue of double identity in her writing.  The subject of her undergraduate thesis in Smith College was: ‘The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Dostoevsky Novels’.  Her interest in what appears on the surface and what is hidden is reflected in ‘Mirror’.  Here, the depths hide something frightening and sinister; something the woman would prefer to avoid but cannot escape.

‘Elm’ also deals with doubleness: the apparent calm of the elm in the opening stanzas, and the hidden terrors that surface as she talks.  A similar preoccupation is at the heart of ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’.  The practical, square box is a simple container: apparently there are no mysteries here.  However, it conceals something sinister, but also fascinating.

Nature:  Plath’s abiding interest in the world around her, her interest in nature, is reflected in many poems.  Her descriptions are remarkable for their concrete, precise detail.

‘Finisterre’ paints a graphic picture of the scene before her eyes, conveying the harshness of the sea, the bleakness of the rocks, the delicacy of the flowers on the cliff, and the effect of the mist.

Her painterly style creates graphic images in ‘Pheasant’: the bird itself, the flowers, the hill and elm in the background, the earlier scene where the snow was marked with the ‘crosshatch’ footprints of various birds.  This poem also reflects her stance against the destruction of nature, a concern that features in many of her poems.

Psychic landscapes/Mindscapes:  While her descriptions of landscapes and seascapes are very striking, the scene is at times simply the backdrop to the mood of the speaker.  In ‘Finisterre’, the place is identified by the title.  The landscape is captured in a series of wonderful images.  Many of these are personified: cliffs are ‘admonitory’, rocks hide their grudges, the sea wages war, and mists are without hope.  The place assumes an atmosphere that is oddly human.

Plath with husband Ted Hughes
Plath with husband Ted Hughes

 PLATH’S TECHNIQUE

 Style:  Plath’s style changed considerably during her career – unlike, say, Hopkins.  However, there are certain features that mark all her work:

  • Her remarkable use of language
  • Unusual and striking imagery

Language:  Plath’s ‘crackling verbal energy’ is apparent in her poems’ biting precision of word and image.  Her writing has been variously praised for its tactile quality, power, incisiveness, control, taut originality, and luminosity.  Joyce Carol Oates observed that, ‘the final memorable poems (‘Elm’, and ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ among others) … read as if they’ve been chiselled with a fine surgical implement out of arctic ice.’  In her Journals, Plath constantly urges herself to develop ‘diamond-edged’, ‘gem-bright’ style.  This she certainly achieved.  Part of her technique was to reuse certain words in many poems, which thus took on an almost symbolic meaning: smiles, hooks, element, dissatisfaction, vowels, shriek, horse, sea.

‘Pheasant’ is a good example of her skilled control of descriptive language.  The form here is less dominant, and the poet’s feelings are reflected in the personal voice that speaks throughout.  The words are simple, the descriptions are vivid, and the poem is crystal clear – a good example of Plath’s descriptive powers at their best.

‘Elm’ shows her powerful response to loss, pain and terror.  The feeling of despair, for example, is conveyed through a number of highly charged nouns and verbs.

 Imagery:  Certain images recur in Plath’s poetry, taking on a symbolic meaning that gains added force through repeated use.

  • The moon symbolises barrenness, coldness, and the negation of life. in ‘Elm’ it is merciless, cruel, and barren, associated with pain and suffering.
  • The mirror often symbolises the hidden alter ego (the ‘other self’), as in ‘Mirror’.
  • The horse is a symbol of vitality. In ‘Elm’, love gallops off like a horse.
  • The sea is often associated with undefined menace or hidden threat, as is so graphically evident in ‘Finisterre’.

She uses many other images, however, that are not symbolic, images that add to the vividness and immediacy of what she is describing.  One of the most distinctive features of her work is her use of metaphors, many of which are visual.

Examples abound:

  • Mists are ‘souls’, which ‘bruise the rocks out of existence’ (‘Finisterre’).
  • The pheasant is ‘brown as a leaf’, a ‘little cornucopia’ (‘Pheasant’).
  • The bee box is ‘square as a chair’, a ‘midget’s coffin’ (‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’).
  • Bees are like ‘African hands, / Minute and shrunk for export’ (‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’).
  • The baby’s mouth opens ‘clean as a cat’s’ (‘Morning Song’).
  • Her crying is ‘a handful of notes’, which rise ‘like balloons’ (‘Morning Song’).

Plath attached great importance to colours, often identifying them with specific attributes.  The repeated use of colour to suggest certain qualities links her poems to one another, giving added force to her meaning.

  • Red signifies vitality, life force: the pheasant’s vitality is envisaged largely through its vivid colouring.
  • Green too signifies the positive, creativity, life force: the pheasant is red and green.
  • Black is associated with death, anger, depression, aggression, and destruction: the black headland that opens ‘Finisterre’ underlines the sinister mood.
  • Surprisingly, white too is sinister: the white faces of the dead, the white mists in ‘Finisterre’.

 

In Summary then…

Sylvia Plath was a lyric poet in the Romantic tradition.  She wrote poems that drew on her own experience of life and explored a range of emotions from love and joy to terror and despair.  Like the Romantics, she looked inwards rather than outwards; her experience is gauged by what she has lived through.

‘Elm’ is perhaps the most striking example of this.  It is one of a number of poems she wrote around the same time, expressing agonising emotions.  Some of these emotions were quite ‘acceptable’, provided they were not shown too openly: the grief and loneliness expressed in ‘Elm’, for example.  However, less acceptable was the intensity with which she voiced these; it was considered ‘over the top’, too revealing.

The writer and critic Joyce Carol Oates sees in these poems the seeds of Plath’s eventual suicide.

Her poems have that heart-breaking quality about them that has made Sylvia Plath our acknowledged Queen of Sorrows, the spokeswoman for our most private, most helpless nightmares, her poetry is as deathly as it is impeccable; it enchants us almost as powerfully as it must have enchanted her.

Not everyone agrees with this estimate, however.  Janice Markey sees Plath’s writings as life-affirming:

‘The enduring success and greatness of Plath’s work lies in its universal appeal and in an innovative, effective presentation.  Plath was the first writer in modern times to write about women with a new aggressive confidence and clarity, and the first to integrate this confidence and clarity in a sane, honest and compassionate vision’.

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 Plath (7)

SYLVIA PLATH – AN AMAZING POET

One of the problems when reading poetry is how much do we need to know about the poet’s life and background.  The poet Thom Gunn argues that the making of poems is not like turning out clay pots; poems are rooted in and tell directly or indirectly of a life.  People who have never read a Sylvia Plath poem know that she killed herself at thirty one and therefore, her death has come to overshadow and dominate the life.  In Plath’s case, probably more so than the other poets on our course, her life is so emotionally complicated and complex that a fuller understanding and appreciation of the poems are possible when they are read against the life.  That life was in Sylvia Plath’s own words, ‘magically run by two electric currents’ and these she named ‘joyous positive and despairing negative’; her poetry reflects those charged polar opposites.

The seven poems that we have chosen here were written in the space of two years – the last one, ‘Child’ two weeks before she died.  Her poems describe the natural world and the domestic world but, whether she is writing about a pheasant, an elm tree, bees, or her child, she is primarily writing about herself.

Her poetry is always very urgent and intense.  That poetry has sometimes been described as hysterical and self-dramatising but such descriptions ignore the clear-sighted understanding she has of a situation.  She very often courageously writes of troubled emotions, the darker side of life, her own experiences.  Ted Hughes once told Eavan Boland that Sylvia Plath’s face changed in absolutely every single moment of expression.  She did experience extremes and, if her work is more pessimistic than optimistic, more shaded than light, she herself defended it as follows:

Don’t talk to me about the world needing cheerful stuff!  What the person out of Belsen – physical or psychological – wants is nobody saying that the birdies still go tweet-tweet, but the full knowledge that somebody else has been there and knows the worst, just what it is like.  It is much more help for me, for example, to know that people are divorced and go through hell, than to hear about happy marriages  (Letter to her mother, 21st October, 1962).

‘Morning Song’, ‘Finisterre’, ‘Mirror’, ‘Pheasant’, ‘Elm’, and ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, in Seamus Heaney’s words, reveal, ‘the terrible stresses of her own psychological and domestic reality’.  If she writes about a dramatic landscape, as she does in ‘Finisterre’, we see that landscape as Plath sees it.  She brings to it, just as every viewer would, her own preconceptions and concerns.  Anne Stevenson, in her book Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, writes that Plath’s, ‘raw-edged response to personal sorrows and joys, her apprehensions of the world’s horrors and injustices, as well as its beauty, were excessive to an unusual degree.’

Asked once about the importance of poetry, Plath said:

‘I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people.  As it is, they go surprisingly far – among strangers, around the world, even.  Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime.’

She wanted her poetry to mirror the life lived, its ordinariness and its extraordinariness, so much so that Plath once famously said that she wanted to get a toothbrush into a poem and that she was interested in writing about, ‘The real world.  Real situations, behind which the great gods play the drama of blood, lust and death’.

Her mother, Aurelia Plath, said that Sylvia Plath, ‘made use of everything and often transmitted gold into lead …… These emotions in another person would dissipate with time, but with Sylvia they were written at the moment of intensity to become ineradicable as an epitaph engraved in a tombstone’.  But on the page the thoughts and feelings are shaped and crafted.  Eavan Boland speaks of Plath’s, ‘great elan, her handling of the line, her very unusual take on language and image – all of those things have become coded into the poetry that we now have.  Robert Lowell speaks of Plath’s, ‘perfect control, like the control of a skier who avoids every death-trap until reaching the final drop’ and Michael Schmidt says of her poetry that it ‘is hard to imagine a poetry more forcefully stamped with a personality and voice’.

Therefore, it is clear that the legend of Plath as a dark and driven and unstable young woman is a tremendous simplification of her work.  Her work will endure where poetry endures.

Plath (6)

SAMPLE ANSWER:  Nature imagery in the poetry of Sylvia Plath.

Sylvia Plath was a very ambitious writer.  In 1958, before the publication of her first volume of poetry, she wrote in her journal: ‘I think I have written lines which qualify me to be The Poetess of America ….. I am eager, chafing, sure of my gift.’  Plath dedicated much of her short life to writing and developed several features that became characteristic of her style.  One of the most interesting and accomplished features is her depiction of nature in her work.

Plath shows a very keen eye for detail in her fine and striking portrayals of nature.  It is easy to picture the ‘Black admonitory cliffs’ in ‘Finisterre’ and she can also recreate the beauty of nature’s creatures as we see in ‘Pheasant’ where she marvels at ‘the wonder of it, in that pallor / Through crosshatch of sparrows and starling’.  She manages to capture the beauty and richness and ‘rareness’ of the pheasant in one remarkably apt image: ‘It’s a little cornucopia’.  Imagery, of course, adds a new dimension to Plath’s descriptions of nature.  She uses imagery in a way that sends echoes of suggestion, of splendour, of menace through a poem and invites interpretations from the reader.

Much of her imagery is of a visual kind, in itself emphasising the importance of ‘seeing’ and ‘reflecting’ in her work.  One of her common images from nature, very like Heaney, is water.  In ‘Finisterre’, for example, Plath recreates the sights and sounds of land’s end in a dramatic evocation of the sea as it explodes, ‘Whitened by the faces of the drowned’.  The sea ‘cannons’ to the dead, suggesting that for Plath, it represents a destructive force that humans can only hope to oppose in their unheard prayers to ‘Our Lady of the Shipwrecked’.  The scene at the sea cliffs is a grim one.  Nature is unforgiving; it is a receptacle of death, ‘Leftover soldiers from old, messy wars’, and it holds potential for more evil where ‘rocks hide their grudges under the water’.  Certainly, it is not a benevolent force, not a nostalgic, romantic or sentimental place.  Plath’s vivid and perhaps unexpected images have created a disturbing ‘Bay of the Dead’.

However, a further development occurs in Plath’s imagery when she begins to use it, not merely to create a vivid picture of external reality, but as a device to suggest the inner reality of her own mind.  In this way, Plath uses imagery as an expression of landscape but also as a reflection of her own inner mindscape.  (Hopkins does this also in his Terrible Sonnets).  In other words, Plath succeeds in fusing external events with her own inner feelings.  In the poem ‘Elm’ the poet creates a dark, disturbing and surreal world where love is ‘a shadow’, sunset an ‘atrocity’, where winds are violent, the moon ‘merciless’, and the tree/woman is ‘terrified by this dark thing / That sleeps in me’.  The poem concludes with death that seems, rather than being final, to be ongoing.  The external landscape of the tree may indeed express the inner turmoil and disturbances of Plath’s mind, that has become ‘inhabited by a cry’ that ‘Nightly … flaps out / Looking with its hooks, for something to love’.  The poet is ‘terrified by this dark thing’ that ‘petrifies the will’.

Imagery, therefore, captures various states of emotional distress.  Often this unexpected power of her images originates in objects that at first appear commonplace, such as the elm tree or, in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, the bees.  Nonetheless, the echoes that emanate from such commonplace objects are unexpected and startling.  The bees in the bee box, for example, are variously described ‘a Roman mob’, ‘maniacs’, who speak ‘unintelligible syllables’.  However, the poet has to ‘live with’ them overnight.  Such imagery certainly animates the bees in the poem, but it could also evoke the inner turmoil and chaos within the poet’s mind.  Her inner voices are like the bees: she can’t control them, can’t understand them, they remain ‘dark, dark’.  She also sees them as ‘Black on black, angrily clambering’ and their shriek ‘appals’ her.  In the poem she decides, hesitantly, to ‘set them free’ from her mind, which up to now has remained a ‘coffin’, a locked up box with ‘no exit’.  The poet, dressed in her ‘moon suit and funeral veil’ both wishes for and fears their release.  But the conclusion is more hopeful than that in ‘Elm’, for tomorrow she will ‘set them free’.

(As an interesting exercise, you might examine the poem ‘Mirror’ with some of these ideas in mind.  Stanza two of that poem should reward you with some thoughtful insights!  Another worthwhile study would be Plath’s use of colour and what it might symbolise in her poetry.)

It is clear, therefore, that Plath’s striking metaphors and startling similes are usually central to a poem’s development.  Her images can evoke vivid descriptions of the external world, the poet’s feelings for that world, and at times she has the ability to fuse these feelings to the emotional insecurities of her inner world.

A must read - if you can find the time!
A must read – if you can find the time!