The Generational Divide in Eavan Boland’s The Achill Woman

Eavan Boland is an Irish poet and author born in Dublin, Ireland in 1944 who focuses much of her work on the national identity of Irish people, the role of Irish women throughout its history, as well as Ireland’s rich and, at times tragic, history and culture as a country itself—especially pertaining to the impact that the Irish potato famine, or “The Great Famine” between 1845 and 1852, had on Irish society. Currently, Eavan Boland is a professor at Stanford University. In the poem “The Achill Woman” written by Eavan Boland, the speaker (heavily indicated to be Eavan Boland herself, therefore making the poem rather autobiographical) recounts her experiences on Achill Island off of the coast of Ireland and more specifically her encounter with a woman who lives there. Throughout the course of the poem, the narrator describes the woman’s simple way of life in juxtaposition to her own lifestyle, being an educated college student. Upon this reflection, the slight culture clash between the two Irish generations are highlighted through the different interests they spend their time pursuing during the day as well as their general mindsets towards life.

First, their interests in daily pastimes differ completely in origin and purpose. For instance, the Achill woman spends her time climbing “up the hill carrying water” (1) in her wool clothing, or being productive with the “harmonies of servitude” (30). These daily rituals and chores consist of the basic necessities for her, and by keeping herself occupied she remains content with this daily routine as well; especially considering the fact that she actually lived through the famine that caused many casualties in Ireland during her youth. Overall, the Achill woman is content and more than satisfied with her simplistic lifestyle. Alternatively, the narrator spends her time as a normal college student would, “week-ending at a friend’s cottage” (16) and reading her books by the side of a fire throughout the cold night. Preferring to stay inside with a good book, the narrator initially does not understand and takes for granted the hard work of the Achill woman in this way. This typical young adult, college student schedule also causes a cultural clash between the two women purely because of the fact that they share different lifestyles, interests, and pastimes that are stereotypical for their ages and generations.

Next, both women retain their own sets of values, opinions, and perspectives that stem from their own personal experiences and lifestyles, also causing a slight disconnect between the two of them. For example, when the Achill woman converses with the narrator, “the evening turned cold without warning” (20) as it usually seems after a person reveals tragic or dismal news. If one were to assume the conversation was about detailed accounts and disclosed information about the terrible famine that struck Ireland, then the woman of Achill has endured many hardships throughout her life— tragedies that the narrator will most likely never experience due to her youth. The Achill woman represents a generation that survived harsh times, a stark contrast from that of the youthful narrator. Nevertheless, the lack of catastrophe in the narrator’s life has its benefits. She was “all talk, raw from college” (15) and therefore educated as a young woman with no real negative experiences or traumatic events to speak of in her adult life. Since this conversation can be assumed to be her first time hearing stories about the potato famine and how awful it was for the Irish people during that time, it isn’t surprising that the verses to follow shift, consisting of her more thought-provoking lines as she is left alone reflecting about her own life experiences.

Eavan Boland’s “The Achill Woman” captures the realistic essence of the subtle internal struggle between impoverished older generations that endured hardships such as the Irish potato famine as well as their newer counterpart generations. Towards the end of the story, however, Boland incorporates a structural literary device called enjambment in order to convey to the audience that the narrator’s stream of conscience is beginning to drift off, ultimately ending the poem afterwards. Once the speaker starts to enjamb the poem in this manner, the narrator begins to understand the virtues and hardships of those who came before her as she reflects on her life years later while on the verge of falling asleep. By emphasizing this slight transition, the culture clash of different activities and outlooks on life between the two generations is seen through another, more understanding and empathetic perspective.

Eavan Boland and the Poetry of Human Experience

Upon encountering Eavan Boland’s poetry, readers will discover representations of human experiences that are largely accessible, as such facets of existence are expressed in a sincere manner. In the poem ‘Love,’ for instance, Boland explores the experience of love in her own marriage. Boland often uses a personal experience to reflect on an issue of universal importance, as she does in ‘The War Horse’ and ‘Child of Our Time’. ‘In ‘This Moment’ she manages to give such personal moment’s universal significance and depict such events in an honest way. Thus, her poems appeal to me as they offer valuable insights into life which are both accessible and thought-provoking.

The life of a suburban wife and mother is not generally regarded as the stuff of great poetic inspiration; however in ‘This Moment’ Boland manages to find themes and images which are largely accessible. The ordinary setting of a housing estate where things were “getting ready / to happen / out of sight” is an essential aspect of the poem’s relevance to the reader. The poem celebrates the love between a mother and her child. A child runs into its mother’s arms and the moment is so full of love, so beautiful, that ”Stars rise / Moths flutter / Apples sweeten in the dark.” It seems as though nature is in harmony with this simple yet universal gesture of love when a child is swept up in its mother’s loving embrace. Boland shares with us the importance of motherhood and the simple yet memorable experiences entailed, in a genuine way.

In the poem ‘Love’, Boland openly writes about her relationship with her husband. The poet makes use of vivid and sensuous images to depict the beauty and strength of their past love. “And we discovered there/love had the feather and muscle of wings.” Boland continues to present themes which are both personal and universal. Her observation of how it can be often difficult to express intense emotion is largely relatable, for a variety of readers, as it deals with a widespread issue which many people face. “Their mouths opened and their voices failed.” She reminds us that love can grow and change over time due to such issues, as she highlights the common fragility that underlies human relationships. The poet seems to dwell on the past throughout this poem which is a universal fixation, yet she recognises the impossibility of returning to the past “You walk away and I cannot follow.” However at the close of the poem, Boland accepts the inevitable change and suffering that all marriages endure. Boland provides the reader with a sincere life lesson, which I found to be highly significant and empathetic.

In ‘The War Horse,’ Boland uses an incident when a stray horse invaded the gardens of her suburban estate. Again, especially admirable is her use of a personal experience to reflect on an issue of wider importance. The destruction done by this “rumour of war” becomes a symbol of the violence in the North, while the image of the neighbours using “the subterfuge of curtains” to hide, represents our uncaring attitude towards external crises. “But we, we are safe/why should we care.” Boland’s blatantly honest manner effectively underscores our selfish indifference. This metaphor is dramatically accurate in relation to many people’s experience with foreign epidemics, as it is common to disregard such issues that do not affect us directly. Boland uses this personal memory to construct an extremely frank and political poem, which conveys a general motif of human experience.

‘Child of our Time’ is similarly a powerful and thought-provoking poem which revolves around the violence of war. This is a poem that really sets us thinking about the violence in our own country and about our responsibility for that violence. Boland examines the irony of the adult population learning from a child. “We who should have known how to instruct/must learn from you dead.” Boland does not sugar coat the situation as she depicts the cruel circumstances in an open manner. This poem is greatly significant in our modern day society, as it’s often that we must learn from the tragedies that have occurred. This poem reflects the shocking event of a recent victim of war, the deceased Syrian child whose body washed up on the shore. This image prompts to reader to share the hope expressed in the poem’s poignant closing line, which calls for the need to change. “Sleep in a world your final sleep has woken.”

Overall, Boland’s poetry is relevant to many readers, as she highlights moments of universal importance. Boland has said that, as a woman poet, she found it difficult to find her own life reflected in the poems she herself read, and that she made a conscious effort to include her own domestic and emotional experiences in the poems she wrote. She succeeds in presenting these ordinary experiences in a sincere and open manner, which is largely accessible to the reader. Her poems explore personal themes such as her own marriage, her experience of motherhood and her interpretation of war and violence, and yet she is able to expand these themes to become those of universal concern.

Ceres and Persephone in ‘The Pomegranate’ and ‘The Bistro Styx’

As time passes, plants grow, people age and eventually the ones who hold most dear will leave your side. In the myth of Ceres and Persephone, the God of Harvest loses her matured daughter to the King of the Underworld. The tale continues on to display the search for the prolonged search for her dear daughter and the emotional turmoil that ensues from this abrupt situation. “The Pomegranate” and “The Bistro Styx” illustrate the complex mother-daughter relationship between a modern day Ceres and Persephone; while both poems depict the struggle of a mother accepting a daughter’s coming of age, Boland shows a mother’s eventual acceptance of this while Dove conveys a mother’s denial and fight against it.

Both works efficiently showcase the similar internal battle the mother, the narrator, and Ceres silently face when realizing her daughter is ready to leave and move on in her life. Both narrators seem to be in denial. In “The Pomegranate”, the speaker “walked out in a summer twilight searching for [her] daughter at bed-time. [She] carried her back past whitebeams and wasps and honey-scented buddleias” (Boland 13-18) creating a sense of tranquility, almost as if her daughter was never taken away by Hades. It is later revealed that she is fully aware of her daughter’s departure as she rebukes the fruit that will eventually take her daughter away and emphases the fact that her daughter “could have come home and been safe and ended the story and all our heart-broken searching but she reached out a hand and plucked a pomegranate” (Boland 30-33). The mother is hopeful in a sense that she believes she could still “warn her [daughter]. There [was] still a chance” (Boland 42). Yet, will ultimately lose her daughter in the end. “The Bistro Styx” also shows a mother in denial. The narrator continuously asks multiple questions and criticizes her daughter in order to make herself believe that her own daughter is not ready to be an adult yet. Their conversation is cold and short, almost distant. Like “The Pomegranate,” despite her mental battle to keep her daughter, she too, will eventually lose her.

Boland depicts Ceres as a gentle, accepting mother, patiently waiting and preparing for her daughter to leave her in “The Pomegranate.” The mother relates to the myth of Ceres and Persephone in various instances and states that “the best thing about the legend is [that she] can enter it anywhere” (Boland 6-7) and has. She too was “a child in exile in a city of fogs and strange consonants” (Boland 8-9) and knows what it will be like for her daughter. She, herself, has been a young girl reaching the prime of her life as well, although this time is different. The speaker will now experience a mother’s pain when her child walks down a separate path rather than the child’s joy of entering into the world as an adult. Instead of fighting against it, she accepts it. The mother is aware that her daughter’s time will come and prepares for it patiently as she “stand[s] where [she] can see [her] child asleep beside her teen magazines, her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit” (Boland 26-28). The mother knows that “the legend [of Ceres and Persephone] will be her [daughter’s] as well as her [own]. [Her daughter] will enter it. As [did she]” (Boland 50-51) and accepts it peacefully knowing that one day her daughter “will hold the papery flushed skin in her hand. And to her lips. [But she] will say nothing” (Boland 52-54).

In “The Bistro Styx,” Dove shows Ceres as a seemingly harsh, judgmental mother who is feverishly attempting to reunite with her distant daughter. The poem begins to show a mother waiting for her daughter to dine with her in a French Bistro. Unlike “The Pomegranate,” the daughter has already left her mother, rather than almost reaching adulthood, and has started her own life in Paris. The mother is cold and unkind. She continuously slams her daughter’s new lifestyle in her own mind, never voicing her true intentions. The narrator may have kissed her daughter and continued onto small talk, asking questions such as “How’s business” (Dove 15) and commenting about how she would “like to come by the [daughter’s] studio” (Dove 41-42) but the mother is battling a war on the inside. She “hazarded a motherly smile” (Dove 15-16) only to act as if everything was normal and fine although the tension is evident between the two. In her mind she cried out rude comments such as asking her daughter if she “was content to conduct [her own] life as a cliche and an anachronism, the brooding artist’s demimonde” (Dove 17-19)? Also, depicting scenes in which the narrator imagines and feels that her daughter is eating her alive due to the heavy emotional strain she is going through because of her daughter’s decision to leave. Comparing her own heart to a “chateaubriand, smug and absolute in its fragrant crust, one touch with [her daughter’s] fork sent pink juices streaming” (Dove 29-33). Throughout this meeting, her own daughter is attempting to prove to her mother that she is doing fine on her own and she no longer needs her. Dressing in “all gray, from a kittenish cashmere skirt and cowl down to the graphite signature of her shoes” (Dove 7-9) to create a look of maturity. The daughter continuously talks about her “gallery cum souvenir shop” (Dove 21) and how the “tourists love [them]. The Parisians are amused, though not without a certain admiration” (Dove 26-28) to assure her mother that her new life is thriving. Even apologizing that she was late, although she wasn’t, to make herself look like a busy woman. Unlike the daughter in Boland’s poem, she is aware that she is of age to leave her mother and made a conscious decision to do so. In the end of the battle of words, her mother asks if her daughter is truly happy, whispering it as though she was afraid of her daughter’s answer. The daughter responds as if she didn’t hear her, replying that “[her mother] really should try the fruit here” (Dove 68-70). The final sentence was a finishing blow for her mother as she calls for the check and immediately realizes that she has lost her. It is only then that she accepts that her daughter has truly moved on, although it still has a bitter tone for a resolve.

The two poems, “The Pomegranate” and “The Bistro Styx” conveys the internal conflict a mother must face when her daughter is old enough to lead her own life. While both works use the myth of Ceres and Persephone, “The Pomegranate” shows the mother to be accepting and preparing for her daughter to leave while the latter, “The Bistro Styx,” displays a mother that is currently fighting against the will of her grown daughter, hoping that she will return to her. In the end, both poems conclude that the mothers, or narrators, have, or will eventually, lose their daughter. Nothing could be done to stop the ancient cycle of Ceres and Persephone.