Like everything else in Ireland, poetry is contentious. There is always an occasion of outrage. Two or three years ago the choice of poems in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing made women poets feel yet again neglected, suppressed. Eavan Boland was their most vigorous speaker. With notable success she made the dispute a public issue and set radio and TV programs astir. But she is not only a campaigner. Within the past few years and after a precocious start she has emerged as one of the best poets in Ireland. When she published her first book of poems, New Territory, in 1967, it was hard to distinguish her voice from the common tone of English poetry at large: wordly, cryptic, Larkinesque. It was the book of a young poet, premature in its certitude. She needed the reading and writing of several years to achieve the true voice of her feeling.
This is the achievement of The War Horse (1975), In Her Own Image (1980), and Night Feed (1982). With The Journey (1987) and Outside History (1990) she took possession of her style. It was now clear that she could say with ease and grace whatever she wanted to say. Her new book, In a Time of Violence, does not mark a change of direction or a formal development: it is work of consolidation, culminating in “Anna Liffey,” a poem that brings together the preoccupations of several years. I should note, incidentally, that the time of violence referred to in the title is not in any direct sense the period since 1968 in Northern Ireland.
Eavan Boland was born in Dublin in 1944, daughter of the artist Frances Kelly and the diplomat Frederick H. Boland. In 1951 she moved with her family to London, where her father served as Irish Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Several of her poems refer to the six years in London—“a city of fogs and strange consonants”—as an unhappy time. Later and more contentedly she spent a few years in New York where her father served as President of the UN General Assembly. She took a degree in English and Latin at Trinity College in Dublin, and started writing poetry. She lives in Dundrum, a middle-class suburb on the south side of Dublin. Many of her poems find themes in her domestic life as the wife of the novelist Kevin Casey and the mother of two daughters.
When Boland started writing poems, she soon decided that the major obstacle in her path was “the Irish poem.” Not only was Irish poetry “predominantly male,” which meant predominantly Yeats, but it presented images of women as “passive, decorative, raised to emblematic status.” As in many other cultures, the spirit of the nation was regularly invoked as a woman—Dark Rosaleen, Cathleen ni Houlihan, Banba, Fodhla, the Sean Bhean Bhocht—beautiful in sorrow, triumphant at last in vision and prophecy. Boland resented that ideological formation and set about undermining it:
I thought it …