Seamus Heaney 1939-2013

The Forge
by Seamus Heaney

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.


Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney died this morning aged 74 after a short illness.


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This Moment – Eavan Boland

This Moment 1994

  • Rhyme & Form: Free Verse
  • Tone: Female point of view, Tender
  • Imagery: Nature, Cosmos
  • Themes: Life as a Woman, Relationships, Motherhood, Moment in Time
  • Poetic Techniques: Repetition, Alliteration, Assonance, Sibilance1

Boland writes here about a specific ‘Moment’ – a brief history in life. Boland is the onlooker and studies the scene carefully and slowly; this shows in the short sentences that are chosen very carefully. The poem has twelve full-stops and ten individual lines of the poem end with a full-stop, most of the sentences are short – two or three words.

Boland chooses the setting carefully: ‘A neighbourhood’ – this could be any neighbourhood as Boland does not associate herself with the scene by saying ‘My’ or ‘Our’ or ‘Your’ – in this way the poet does not see the scene alone, she invites us to view it with her. We must take into consideration Boland’s home at the time – she is living in the suburbs of Dublin and thus would know the ins and outs of every household in her ‘neighbourhood’.

A neighbourhood.

At dusk.

Boland informs us of the time and place in two very short sentences. The disregard for conventional grammar is important here as it allows the reader to read in a calming manner thus reproducing the actual feeling of the moment in time. Dusk seems to be an important time for Boland (it occurs in Love and The Pomegranate also) – it represents a mode of quietness and symbolically it brings closure to the events of the day. Boland anticipates:

Things are getting ready

to happen
out of sight.

Boland observes that soon the stars will come out, bringing the moths and eventually new growth as the fruit expands:

Stars and moths.

And rinds slanting around fruit.

We move from looking at the night-sky to the fluttering of moths to the slanting rinds around fruit. Boland shows us the things are going to happen ‘out of sight’ and perhaps evoking some suspense in the reader Boland calls a halt to the flow of the poem by telling us that these things will happen ‘but not yet’. We are invited to pause and perhaps dwell on the setting and then the poet presents us with two images:

One tree is black.

One window is yellow as butter.

Boland gives strong, contrasting colours bringing to mind a silhouette painting – the simile ‘yellow as butter’ gives a homely presence to the rest of the poem. Boland now focuses more on the neighbourhood that was introduced in the first stanza and gives us an image of a mother and a child:

A woman leans down to catch a child

who has run into her arms

this moment.

This is the ‘moment’ that Boland has been building up to – note the contrast in language: prior to this scene we were building up to a moment, the language was slow-moving and relaxing and then suddenly there is movement in the child running to the mother but also note that this is the longest line in the poem. This is a loving moment between parent and child and it seems as though creation (the very things mentioned previously) is celebrating the moment:

Stars rise.

Moths flutter.

Apples sweeten in the dark.

The gentle mood of the poem is achieved in part by the ‘s’ sounds and repetition: dusk/sight/Stars/moths/rinds/slanting/leans/arms/rise/Apples/sweeten and then also by how both the lines and maybe more importantly the spaces are presented on the page.

There is something in this moment that has drawn Boland in, the moment is beautifully visualised as an embrace of sweetness, richness and love between a mother and a child. The poem builds quietly to this moment of crescendo before spilling over into a series of affirmations: stars do rise, moths do flutter, apples do sweeten and mothers do love their children.

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The Shadow Doll – Eavan Boland

The Shadow Doll 1990

  • Rhyme & Form: 3-line Stanza
  • Tone: Contemplative, Anxious, Uncertain
  • Imagery: World of Women, Past Traditions, The Locked Case
  • Themes: Marriage, Time and Memory, Entrapment and Silence
  • Poetic Techniques: Alliteration, Repetition

A Shadow Doll was sent to a bride-to-be in Victorian times by a dressmaker – it was a porcelain doll under a dome of glass modelling the dress.
This poem was published in the same year as The Black Lace Fan and there are some similarities between the two, mainly the technique of showing the past and present side by side (also see in The Famine Road). The story of this poem is that Boland is remembering the night before her wedding in the 70s and this prompts her to think about pre-wedding nights in the Victorian age (century previous). Boland describes how the dress was made:

They stitched blooms from ivory tulle

to hem the oyster gleam of the veil.

They made hoops for the crinoline.

The words Boland uses here to describe the dress are not meant for an ordinary wedding dress: ‘blooms’ – ‘oyster gleam’ – ‘crinoline’ suggests something much more elegant and special. Boland moves us into the present from the past as she now looking at the doll:

Now, in summary and neatly sewn –

a porcelain bride in an airless glamour – 

the shadow doll survives its occasion.

Boland uses the term ‘airless glamour’ to emphasise that the doll has no life (no air) – it is lifeless suggesting Boland’s feelings on what marriage (and the entrapment that goes with motherhood) can do to someone. The image of the doll in her ‘airless glamour’ also represents all the forbidden, unspoken things in the female experience, all the things that were kept ‘under wraps’, all the things that fill Boland’s poetry. But the doll survives – even though the dress and the tradition of the shadow doll belong to the past, there is a reason for the doll surviving into the present but Boland does not make this clear – perhaps it is that even though she must suffer for a short time, she will endure beyond it?
Under glass, under wraps, it stays

even now, after all, discreet about

visits, fevers, quickenings and lusts

Boland informs us that the shadow doll, while kept in her glass box was privy to a world of social interaction, illnesses and impulses. It was often kept by the married woman and stored in a place where it could witness the world around it. Boland feels that this doll was keeping quiet about many things, note the use of the word ‘discreet’ and the plurals following. She goes on to put herself into the shoes of the bride-to-be:

and just how, when she looked at

the shell-tone spray of seed pearls,

the bisque features, she could see herself

inside it all, holding less than real

stephanotis, rose petals, never feeling

satin rise and fall with the vows

We get the sense that the Victorian bride feels imprisoned in this dress (remember it is Boland who is imagining herself as the bride in the past) – Boland feels that the woman has become the shadow doll ‘never feeling the satin rise and fall’ as she speaks her vows – it is the ultimate image of entrapment or imprisonment as she cannot do anything to help her own situation. Boland switches us back to more recent past – the night before her own wedding in stanza six. The poem has moved from imagining what the Victorian bride felt to real feelings, that of the poet herself. Boland dwells on the doll, the Victorian lady and her vows, and Boland’s own vows:

I kept repeating on the night before –

astray among the cards and wedding gifts –

the coffee pots and the clocks and

Boland has moved into her own present as she repeats the vows that she will publicly announce in the morning. This is a typical scene as we see the bride in a room containing the wedding presents and cards – she contemplates the life that she will lead after tomorrow. Even though she is ‘astray’ the final stanza is quite decisive:

the battered tan case full of cotton

lace and tissue-paper, pressing down, then

pressing down again. And then, locks.

What ever is contained inside the case is irrelevant; the important image to take from the end of the poem is the gesture of locking. Boland presses down on the case, and presses down again as the movement is captured – even the phrasing of the final line is intentional here as the final verb locks the sentence into place, and also locks the case.

Eavan Boland was not sent a shadow doll, therefore she did not feel the trappings of marriage as she may have if she saw herself in the image of a shadow doll – symbolism is key here. She locks her case and symbolically locks away any notions of a married woman being trapped in her home as the housewife and mother – Boland emerges in control of her future; the ‘astray’ woman in the penultimate stanza is no longer wandering. Boland challenges society’s discriminatory standards that the true feelings and expressions of women must remain ‘under wraps’ like the porcelain doll; women are expected to conform to the norms of a male dominated world.

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The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me – Eavan Boland

The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me 1990

  • Rhyme & Form: End-Rhyme in the final stanza
  • Tone: Factual, Remembering
  • Imagery: Paris
  • Themes: Relationship between genders, Suffering, Time and Memory
  • Poetic Techniques: Alliteration, Repetition

The title of this poem is important – it refers to an object or a gift but also to a relationship between mother and daughter. There are many underlying features here, especially when considering the fan – it can suggest a woman, elegance, beauty, the past but it can also symbolise something romantic and quite erotic. Boland may also be contemplating the relationship between man and woman and in particular how society places women ‘Outside History’. Does the man, by giving the woman an object purely for women, try to control the woman and make her his subordinate? Is he turning her into an object of sexual desire?

The story behind the poem goes like this: her father gave the fan to Boland’s mother during a heatwave in Paris in the 1930s. Her mother passed down the black lace fan to her daughter as a symbol of love but would Boland completely accept the fan if she suspected that it was given to her mother for any of the reasons mentioned above? Nevertheless, throughout the poem we can see that Boland views the fan as a reminder of the passing of time and the complex relationship between genders.

It was the first gift he ever gave her

We can see from line 1 that this gift was an important and special gift as it was the first one her father ever gave her mother – an expression of love, but also practical in the heat. It would have been very easy for her father to find a newspaper to act as a fan and perhaps, that was what he was looking for but on the way his eye may have caught the sight of this graceful object of desire. Obviously since Boland was not yet born, she was not a spectator to this story and what she recalls here in The Black Lace Fan is a story that was passed on. Boland uses poetic licence to reinvent the story:

buying it for five francs in the Galleries

in pre-war Paris. It was stifling.

A starless drought made the nights stormy.

When re-telling a story it is almost impossible to recount it word for word but the phrase, ‘It was stifling.’ may well have been verbatim simply for due to the sentence being so short: imagine a scenario where you are in a foreign country experiencing a heatwave – the less words you speak, the less energy is used up – it is almost as if the heat is preventing elaboration. Boland goes on to re-tell a story that took place fifty years prior to composing the poem. In the second stanza Boland imagines parts of the story but also gives us the facts:

They stayed in the city for the summer.

They met in cafes. She was always early.

He was late. That evening he was later.

They wrapped the fan. He looked at his watch.

We are given the facts in the first four lines of this stanza but Boland imagines her father waiting impatiently for the fan to be wrapped, knowing that ‘He was late.’ We are given some insight into their characters in this stanza also:

She was always early.

He was late.

Boland employs some good techniques in stanza three as she describes her mother waiting:

She looked down the Boulevard des Cappucines.

She ordered more coffee. She stood up.

The streets were emptying. The heat was killing.

She thought the distance smelled of rain and lightning.

Tension and suspense are built up here – the sentences are kept to a minimum and we are constantly wondering, much like Boland’s mother, what is keeping him so long? Unfortunately we are kept in the dark, Boland does not continue the story but it is safe to assume that her father got there at some stage. Instead Boland focuses on the fan itself:

These are wild roses, appliquéd on silk by hand,

darkly picked, stitched boldly, quickly.

The rest is tortoiseshell and has the reticent,

clear patience of its element. It is

Note that Boland uses the word ‘These’ implying that the fan is now before her, it not imagined as the Paris scene was:

a worn-out, underwater bullion and it keeps,

Even now, an inference of its violation.

The lace is overcast as if the weather

it opened for and offset had entered it.

Boland dwells on the fan that her mother gave her and gives us a detailed description of it. She contemplates how the fan was made (she had no way of knowing how it was made) and the line length is now much longer than before, mirroring her mind at work. Boland describes the floral design – note the use of verbs and adverbs1. There is a contrast in the fabric and the hard tortoiseshell, which is associated with concealment but Boland also mentions that the shell may have been violated (hinting at how the tortoise would have to have been removed from its home – colonisation?) Boland now dwells on how the fan’s origins, which would have to have involved some sort of destruction – the shell had to have been broken and carved, Boland calls it ‘worn-out’ and it is almost as if the it is aware of its former glory and knows that it has been abused or violated. This is a direct contrast to the romantic natures of the fan alluded to earlier. In Object Lessons Boland says that she sees the fan, a traditional erotic object, not as a sign of triumph and acquisition, but as a sign of suffering. Boland does not see the fan as an emblem of power, control or possession but as the passing of time. In her own words, ‘ordinary objects seemed to warn me that the body might share the world but could not own it.’

Once again Boland is not giving in to her sentimental side – the emotions associated with fan are in the past. In fact Boland calls this poem a ‘back-to-front love poem’. Line 24 is critical here as Boland states that the only way of reconstructing the past is through improvisation. Boland gives us a scene filled with drama in stanza six – a man rushing to meet his love in Paris, bringing with him his first gift:

The past is an empty café terrace.

An airless dusk before thunder. A man running.

And no way now to know what happened then – 
none at all – unless, of course, you improvise:

Boland was not part of this exchange, there is ‘no way now to know’ so she must imagine or invent the scene. In line 23, ‘now’ and ‘then’ are key (re-read emphasising these words) – Boland knows that the past is the past and there is no way to change it or to re-live it if you were not part of the moment, therefore she must recreate the scene, the feelings, the emotions. Boland mentioned that the fan is ‘worn-out’ and ‘faded’ and this could symbolise how her parent’s relationship has grown old but Boland concludes the poem with a fresh outlook:

The blackbird on this first sultry morning,

in summer, finding buds, worms, fruit,

feels the heat. Suddenly she puts out her wing –

the whole, full flirtatious span of it.

Boland connects her scene in Ireland with the snippet from Paris in the 30s as when her mother gave her the fan it was a symbol of love and continuity, Boland wants this same continuity between the fan, her parents, Ireland and Paris. Boland was unable to fully experience the emotions that her mother felt when she first received the gift but the poet does catch a glimpse of something similar in the blackbird’s wing. Boland is concentrating on the passing of time here – the fan is old, altered by time and growing old as the lovers grew old. But the poet is able to see the fan in a different light by examining the blackbird’s wing, which to Boland is an equivalent to the black lace fan. The bird’s fan is full, unlike the broken shell and is natural and in its element, once again in contrast to the shell. The ‘full, flirtatious span of it.’ is a description of the bird’s wing but it could also be describing the very moment when her mother first opened the fan – ‘Suddenly’ implies surprise, which may also have been felt by her mother.

Boland is asking us to examine the relationship between men and women but to also dwell on time and memory – we are to imagine an emotion or a scene that we were absent from and try to connect ourselves to the tale. It is then possible to find a moment, an image or an object that allows us to experience the feelings of those that were actually present to the story.


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Outside History – Eavan Boland

Outside History 1990

  • Rhyme & Form: 3-line Stanza, Free Verse
  • Tone: Ponderous, Decisive, Regretful
  • Imagery: World of Women, Irish History
  • Themes: Entrapment and Silence
  • Poetic Techniques: Repetition

The phrase ‘outside history’ is often associated with Eavan Boland believed that women were kept outside the history books and that in fact they were the reason for much of the success of the Irish. Boland responds to those women who never had a voice, who were kept quiet. Boland’s work shows how women have been marginalised throughout history, and in particular this poem highlights the discrimination of Irish women.

There are outsiders, always.

Boland begins with an obvious truth and sees the stars as an example to back up her statement:

These stars -

these iron inklings of an Irish January.

whose light appeared

thousands of years before

our pain did: they are, they have always been

outside history.

Boland calls attention to the universe here and we are made to dwell on the idea that this planet on which we live pales in comparison to the rest of Creation. The stars are natural history, untouched by human hands. Boland mentions that these stars appeared thousands of years before our pain – is this pain in general on a global scale or more local as in the Irish? Boland may be saying that our (the Irish) suffering in the past is really not all that important on the grand scheme of things.

It is important to note Boland’s collective voice: yes, she is stating that women are outside history and being a woman herself she is outside history but the ‘our’ stated here paints Boland with the same brush and she becomes a part of history, not an outsider. Rather it is the stars that are ‘outside’ – they do not get involved as:

They keep their distance. Under them remains

a place where you found

you were human, and

a landscape in which you know you are mortal.

Boland has distanced herself from the rest of us as she states the ‘you’ – is she referring to everyone under the stars or just the Irish (remember she began the poem with an ‘Irish January’). This person she is addressing has found that he/she was human and in a certain landscape knows that he/she is mortal – perhaps dwelling on the past events of Ireland ignites a kinship within the addressee with the suffering and pain of the Irish in the past?

And a time to choose between them.

I have chosen

Boland now makes a choice – is she choosing between the stars and the human story or is she choosing between the place where ‘you’ found ‘you’ were human and the ‘landscape in which you know you are mortal’? Nevertheless there is a decision to be made and Boland does so and marks a turning point from pondering what to do to taking the reins, Boland tells us what she plans to do:

out of myth into history I move to be

part of that ordeal

whose darkness is

only now reaching me from those fields,

those rivers, those roads clotted as

firmaments with the dead.

Boland is moving from a world where women are victimised, discriminated or made the object into a world where the woman is the subject, the history-maker. Boland strikes a relationship with these women who were outside history, she becomes part of the ‘ordeal’, the painful past and is able to persevere and find a voice that offers homage to the silent women of Ireland’s past.

Darkness has spread through Boland’s poem – the stars are no longer visible in the night-sky and this reminds Boland again of the pain and suffering of the Irish, during times when her ancestors felt that there was no light at the end of the tunnel, just eternal darkness. Boland may be feeling the same asphyxiation she experienced during The Shadow Doll – she has made her choice but now is she fearing that she has made the wrong one? Boland takes us on a trip of the countryside as we go past fields, rivers and roads – but these roads are clotted with the dead and this is reminiscent of the Irish famine. Boland takes the language associated with the stars in the first stanza and makes a new image that is of greater interest – it is no longer natural history but human history.

How slowly they die

as we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear.

And we are too late. We are always too late.

Boland includes us all in the final stanza as she uses the ‘we’ collective term. She may have felt that she was outside history in the past but by making her choice in stanza four and five she is now a part of history. Even though Boland feels that many Irish women were outside history and that she may also have been an outsider in the past, Boland makes a choice to enter into history.

Outside History focuses on Irish History, the need to know and remember it and in the final lines there is a tone of regret and helplessness. The ‘ordeal’ that Boland alludes to is the Great Famine and as in The Famine Road, she recounts the trauma of the Irish men and women dying on the roads. All we can do is to kneel beside and whisper in their ears a word of comfort. Boland repeats the final line to highlight what is hinted at in the title: that as women have been outside history, it is too late to do anything about them – all we can do is act now for the future. Boland may be hinting also that she has missed her chance to help those who actually belong to history and the fact that she has not commemorated them in poetry before now means that she feels deep regret. Those who are outside history should never be forgotten.

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The Yearbook Awards

It’s that time of the year again…the grass seems greener, the suns shines brighter – school is coming to an end for many people and it’s difficult to determine who’s happier – the students or the teachers! Here are some hints and tips from the Yearbook Awards – Click the picture for more…

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