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Memories of Eavan Boland

Richard Bourke writes: My memories of Eavan Boland are mostly rooted in the 1980s. For almost a decade I saw her regularly, up to every fortnight, in her Dublin home. It was a relatively brief portion of her seventy-five years, yet a formative period for me. And on reflection it must have been a key moment in Boland’s development. After I sent her an appreciative note about her fourth collection – In Her Own Image (1980) – she invited me to visit her just outside Dundrum, about a mile from my family home near Sandyford. It was a thrilling prospect for me, then just a teenager: an encounter with a dedicated writer. The experience, moreover, didn’t disappoint. Boland was open, serious and articulate. She had an acuteness and authority but remained generous and accommodating. Kevin Casey, her husband, was genial and witty. Boland was a Yeatsian, she informed me at that first meeting, and was less attracted by the work of TS Eliot. I preferred Eliot, though I stood corrected. From that date forward, as the decade progressed, we often sat in the kitchen or sitting room of her suburban house discussing her work or, more expansively, the literary past.

Often as her daughters played nearby in the neighbourhood, her compact three-bedroom house squatting under Dublin hills seemed to me a literary salon for two. Arriving there in the 1970s from the bustle of the town, she had shifted from the centre to the outskirts, leaving behind what she later called the “last European city”, which she also dubbed the ultimate “literary smallholding”. But she brought something of the enchantment of that smallholding with her, now encapsulated in a remoter and more compressed environment.

Francis Stuart, who lived in the vicinity, a stone’s throw from the Central Mental Hospital, which in those days was still called the Dundrum Asylum, once said to me that her move into the suburbs had been a mistake. What he meant was that the writer was unsuited to a domestic life. His model was Emily Brontë, and his idea was that the artist should be agitated and afflicted, removed from all the comforts of bourgeois existence. Boland certainly cherished middle class stability, but her creative ambition was driven by obsession. She once remarked that having committed everything to that cause she now had “nothing to lose”.

It was obvious that she pursued her vocation with devotion and sacrifice. She offered a model of constant determination. Being in her company opened a window on intellectual life, albeit viewed through a narrow lens. The culture she esteemed was exclusively literary, in the twentieth century sense of the term. Other pursuits were promptly relegated to the margins. Philosophy and history were overlooked or downgraded, as they were in the wider artistic milieu. Literature was looked on as a secular religion. Boland could be forbidding and aloof, but at that time she spoke loquaciously about her concerns: her anxiety to legitimise new subjects for the lyric, her relationship to exile and the national literature, the role of history in continuing to occlude forgotten pasts, her role as a woman writer.

After In Her Own Image came Night Feed (1982), and then The Journey (1986). They appeared against the backdrop of upheavals in politics and major shifts in Irish social life. It was a decade of recession and unemployment, leading inexorably to new waves of emigration. Massive borrowing to fund current expenditure had steadily escalated, bringing the country to the brink of bankruptcy. While Thatcher ruled Britain and Reagan the United States, corruption in high office in Ireland appeared systemic and ineradicable. During this period, birth control was subject to family planning restrictions, and there was a constitutional prohibition on divorce. Church attendance soared; homophobia was endemic. Briefly, with the 1981 hunger strikes, the Northern crisis threatened to engulf the South, poisoning the atmosphere even as it receded. A grim foreboding checked every expectation of improvement.

The situation was less ominous in the south Dublin suburbs. Boland had resigned from her post as a lecturer in Trinity College Dublin to devote herself to poetry and later to raise a family. By the time I came to know her, she radiated unstinting commitment to her craft. She also possessed considerable learning about its history. This fund of knowledge was matched by an inclusive taste. She could speak with equal eloquence about the Elizabethan lyric and Wallace Stevens; about Milton’s Lycidas and Samson Agonistes; about Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. She often returned to Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy, though the Augustans rarely – possibly never – figured. Wordsworth’s Prelude was a pinnacle, so too were the odes of Keats. Conversation ranged from “tragic vision” to the “poetic self” and the “ethics of aesthetics”.

Inevitably, contemporary poetry held a fascination for Boland, mainly British and American. William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman and John Ashbery were touchstones. Adrienne Rich won her abiding admiration, though she rejected her separatism. Sylvia Plath, by comparison, she described as “flawed”. She treasured Geoffrey Hill and Philip Larkin, but not Ted Hughes. She was also keenly focused on the Irish scene – on Patrick Kavanagh and the early Thomas Kinsella, on Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney. She credited the artistry of Heaney above all, almost grudgingly impressed by the scale of his achievement. She pored over Station Island when it appeared in 1984 even as she noted the author’s aptitude as a literary politician. Her range of reference was therefore largely Anglophone, though I vividly recall her being impressed by John Banville’s appreciation of Paul Celan.

The approach to literature was different back then. The essays of TS Eliot were compulsory reading. People earnestly debated the “dissociation of sensibility”’ and discussed the nature of the “objective correlative”. Quasi-Nietzschean themes were picked up from the prose works of WB Yeats. AC Bradley was still widely read. Recognised authorities ranged from IA Richards to FR Leavis, from Cleanth Brooks to Kenneth Burke, from RP Blackmur to Northrop Frye. Technical discussion abounded, encompassing the appeal of iambic tetrameter and the demands of terza rima. Generic distinctions were equally foregrounded: epic, pastoral, elegy, lyric. The traditions of central European criticism were barely known. Georg Lukács was almost unheard of; Erich Heller was exotic. On the other hand, Irving Howe, MH Abrams and Lionel Trilling were distinguished figures. The Yale critics had yet to make their mark in Dublin: you read Harold Bloom but only the very early work.

Boland was never a hoarder of books: she endlessly lent them, and sometimes unloaded them. I borrowed Balzac’s Lost Illusions, Walter Jackson Bate’s biographies, studies by FO Matthiessen … At this distance I couldn’t manage to compile a full list. Soon I had my separate interests: in Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. I also collected the works of Sigmund Freud. However Boland was always focused specifically on literature. She once mentioned her father’s interest in Bergson but could hardly take it seriously. She accepted the accomplishments of Conor Cruise O’Brien but shared very few of his interests.

Over time I moved on to other things and only saw Eavan Boland intermittently – latterly, infrequently. My degree at University College Dublin opened new horizons. After graduate work at Oxford and Cambridge, I returned to lecture in Dublin for three years in 1990 and encountered Boland occasionally, often in the margins of events, for instance during the controversy surrounding the Field Day Anthology, when she was vocal in her protest against the lack of female writers. Then life took over, I was forced to emigrate from Ireland, and our contact trailed off. I last spoke to her after I attended a lecture she delivered in London in 2017. She had lost nothing of her signature dedication beneath what was now a cautious exterior. Thirty years had intervened since the era of my routine visits. I look back upon that spot of time as a personal rite of passage and Boland as an epitome of vision and fortitude.

5/5/2020

Image: writinguniversity.org