Boland’s Correlation of Syntax and Existential Significance in “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”

Eavan Boland uses anastrophe throughout her non-traditional elegy “That the Science of Cartography is Limited” in order to grammatically display the paradigm of history versus past. Like in much of her other poems, Boland focuses on the domestic sphere of the past in contrast to what is recorded and deemed historically worthy. Boland begins by furtively including the title of the piece, in the tradition of early modernists such as William Carlos Williams, as the object of the first sentence. The first sentence’s subject is the speaker who would “wish to prove” (4) what the title states. This technique is indicative of the poem’s theme. The speaker means to say through inversion that the past is the subject of history, in that the anonymous people who built the famine roads have been relegated by the maps of recorded time. And instead of the two being a dichotomy, in “That the Science of Cartography is Limited” Boland elevates the causal, private past to a state of mythical proportions because, even though it is deemed more significant, history is ultimately dependent upon the past.

Boland relies upon hyperbaton whenever discussing the metaphor that is extended throughout the poem. The line “Look down you said: this was once a famine road” (8) is given more rhetorical gravity instead of having the speaker simply state you said look down. This is because the famine road that the speaker encounters is the vehicle, while the past is the tenor. Since these kinds of roads are unrecorded, the metaphor’s continuation would be the written lines on the implied map in the poem that are representative of recorded history. The speaker’s attention to the vivid abstractions in the forest where the famine road is located is such that the metaphor blossoms into a conceit. Not only does the speaker want to prove that science is limited, but she also desires to delineate what cannot be exactly recorded, specifically “the gloom of cypresses” (3). The trees would not hold such sad weight if it wasn’t for the realization that this was the spot where starving, toiling humans collapsed and died: “Where they died, there the road ended…” (16).

“That the Science of Cartography is Limited” is a complex poem in its many interweaving metaphorical aspects, which are made even more complicated by syntax inversion. Boland uses geometry in order to account for the phenomenon of not being able to comprehend something that was once tangible, let alone the contextually intangible. The speaker alludes to the fact that maps cannot represent the reality of the Earth as a spherical planet geographically. When the speaker pulls out a map she sarcastically states that “it is never so / I can say here is / the masterful, the apt rendering of / the spherical as flat” (18-21). The association is that not only humans are unable to fully understand the implications of what is recorded, whether it is a map or history, but that the entirety of the picture is even more incomprehensible. If the map represents history, then that means that the planet Earth is the past. Thus, each line on the map is the record of a famous person in history, and hence the famine roads are not represented because they are deemed insignificant.

The geometric aspect of the conceit can be extrapolated in order to fit in with the speaker’s sorrow at the forsaken deaths of her Irish ancestors. In using inverted syntax, the speaker also suggests that history is convex, or the outer, visible side of the sphere that is human experience. This would mean that the past is the concave portion that is not visible in retrospect. It is buried underneath the facts. However, the only fact that the speaker reveals in the entire poem is the one that her lover informs her of: “in / 1847, when the crop had failed twice, / Relief Committees gave / the starving Irish such roads to build” (12-15). The famine roads end abruptly because they were intended to be short. The poem implies that the British colonial overlords wanted the starving Irish to be wiped from existence, so why then would their roads be featured on any map? The Anglicization process of Ireland had been well under way by the mid-19th century. This was at a time when ideas of those such as Thomas Malthus were still prevalent in British society, and the Empire’s reaction to the catastrophe in its own backyard, the potato famine, signifies the developing Social Darwinist mindset of British authorities. The Irish culture and people in and of themselves were deemed insignificant and unworthy of history. Since the British were successful in allowing a large portion of the Irish population to starve to death or emigrate, much of Irish history itself was oppressed. The cliché that history is written by the victors is true in this case, consequently Boland develops a multi-faceted metaphor interlaced with inverted syntax in order to mythologize the lives of the average Irish famine victims.

The conceit is present in almost every line of the poem, tracing back in retrospect to the first where “the fact that this shading of / forest” (1-2) is not able to convey the scent of balsam is relative to how cartography cannot express the pain and emotion of human life and work. This is in spite of the fact that the result of the work, the famine road, is tangible, yet the futility that went into the construction must be inferred in its intangibility. The past has been covered by “ivy and scutch grass / rough-cast stone had / disappeared into” (9-11) in another syntactical twist. And yet the speaker never states anything illogically in the poem, rather, each time the road is mentioned a clause is interposed between the subject and object. Whether the break is parenthetical or hyperbaton, each of the five sentences in the poem carry the weight of the theme through Boland’s nuanced grammatical technique. In the end, those humans who died building the famine roads are nothing but a part of the earth in the forest, which is why to the speaker they would be “the line which says woodland and cries hunger / and gives out among sweet pine and cypress” (25-26). Boland’s point is that it is necessary to reverse the significance of history over the past in order to try to understand what really matters in existence. Although it is difficult to do so without the speaker’s imaginative creativity and syntactical nuance, since the line “will not be there” (28). Even still there is the potential for existential meaning in unwritten roads.


About Sean William Lynch
Sean William Lynch is a poet from New Jersey who was born in 1992. Lynch's first book of poems "the city of your mind" was published in 2013 by Whirlwind Press. Frank Sherlock, the poet laureate of Philadelphia, called Lynch's debut poetry book "visionary." CA Conrad claimed that the book was "marvelous!" S.W. Lynch's writing has been featured in numerous publications online and in print, including Milkfist, Poetry Quarterly, and Tincture Journal.

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