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.

 

Precariousness in Irish Poetry: Poverty and the Past

Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland, two of Ireland’s foremost contemporary poets, reflect on the precariousness of the Irish lower and middle classes through two of the three mainstays of their nation’s literature: Irish history (or past in Boland’s view), and rural life (the third being mythology, which is not represented in the traditional sense). However, their treatments of these classic themes are not synonymous with what Irish writers in the revivalist period aimed to accomplish, which was to glorify Ireland and her people in order to create a national literature. Conversely, Heaney and Boland’s poems are meant to expose the fragility of the Irish way of life and the injustices that its people have suffered, whether it be through ecological precariousness, civil unrest, or British imperial oppression. Yet Heaney and Boland starkly contrast in what they focus on in their poetry, and this departure in poetic meaning is seen particularly in the relation between Ireland’s past and how it affects the contemporary Irish individual. Although in spite of the differences, there is much continuity in subject matter between the two poets, such as the similarities in dealing with precariousness, ecology, and manual labor in Heaney’s “Digging” and “The Forge”, as well as in Boland’s “Quarantine” and “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”.

Whether dealing with Irish history, familial past, or rural themes, both poets thematically converge on the acknowledgment of scarcity throughout the Irish lifestyle and landscape. The bleakness of the land, especially in the west of the island, has made it necessary for laborers to remain resilient in spite of what little yield the soil may give. Boland treats these themes in the context of the most drastic example of fragility in the history of Ireland: the Great Famine of 1845-1847. While Heaney focuses on the recent (although still precarious) gains in affluence for the lower classes by displaying the resilience that the Irish have shown in working the land in spite of a lack of fertility, which results in the character qualities seen in “Digging” in particular. The determination and the dignity of hard-work in manual labor emanates from “Digging” especially, as Heaney observes in awe at how his father and grandfather could handle a spade, and disproves that such agrarian work does not require some sort of skill. Heaney stops short of glorifying pastoral life by recognizing the hardships of subsistence farming, while at the same time still showing pride in his family’s agrarian accomplishments. “My grandfather cut more turf in a day \ Than any other man on Toner’s bog.”

Meanwhile, Boland’s poems portray little accomplishment in the pursuit of manual labor. In “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”, the futility of hard work that Boland describes through the existence of an unused famine road, (which is inexistent on the map) displays a negativity that borders on nihilism. Boland associates the Irish landscape with melancholy and pessimism, instead of the resiliency that Heaney portrays, which can be seen in the first stanza of the aforementioned poem, “the gloom of cypresses \ is what I wish to prove.” Not only does Boland wish to prove the sadness surrounding dying without a name (which the cypress trees symbolize), but that the Irish past is filled with the forgotten suffering and poverty that has not been given the justice of even being acknowledged on a map. This means that the story of Ireland is not fully told, which is why Boland differentiates between the words past and history, in that Irish history is a mythologized version of the past that fails to even make note of the vulnerable existence and suffering of the common people. Hence, Boland is dealing with the individual’s view of the past and the relation between that and a distorted societal perception of history. This mode of thinking is unusual in that it is retrograde, unlike in Heaney’s “Digging”, where instead of the present having an effect on the view of the past, the past causes a development, which is acknowledged and appreciated in the present.

Heaney capitalizes on overcoming poverty in “Digging”, as his family gradually ascends from the lower to the middle class through two generations. Heaney experiences the fulfillment of his father and grandfather’s determination and hard work in their manual labor through comfortably making a living with writing. This is in stark contrast to the precariousness of the agrarian working life which Boland portrays, resulting in the full collapse that was experienced by the nameless laborers in “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”. “Digging” begins with Heaney watching his father enjoy retirement by digging in the garden, which is a hard-earned comfort, and ends with Heaney recognizing that being able to write for a living instead of farming is due to the efforts and ascendency of his ancestors. In this recognition, the poet associates his pen with the spade of his forefathers, exclaiming that he will dig with his tool into the past in order to spread the story of Irish resilience and determination in hard work. Heaney also realizes that his father and grandfather’s economic rise was not completely smooth or guaranteed, because the threat of the bleak Irish ecology always looms upon the agrarian laborer, which Heaney simply shows by mentioning the “smell of potato mould”, a reference to the blight which caused so much death and misery portrayed in Boland’s poems.

“In the morning they were both found dead. \ Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.” Boland reverses the meanings of history and myth in her ode to two lovers, a simple but profound poem called “Quarantine”. That the couple the poem focuses on were not specific people proven to exist means that history as a subject based upon facts is irrelevant to the lives of common people who have not had the chance for their stories to be told. Not only did the toxins of history, or the British policy failures and economic fragility that led to the Great Famine, cause an untold amount of death to the Irish people, but the toxins also wiped away the names and stories of these people. Thus, the lives (or the actual past) of the suffering masses reverted to myths, or otherwise became something that can only be speculated upon in hindsight. The distortions of history and myth that Boland reveals in “Quarantine” is essentially a role reversal, in that Irish history is an incomplete story that does little justice to the actual past in which the story of two nameless lovers is raised to a legendary, mythical status. This is seen in the climax of the poem, where Boland describes a final act of love between the ordinary man and woman that transcends words, “But her feet were held against his breastbone. \ The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.” Leading Boland to proclaim “Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.” The love between a dying man and woman in “Quarantine” is a departure from the nihilistic leanings of “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”, because Boland portrays the lovers’ demise as a dignified death, an applied Irish characteristic akin to the dignity Heaney gives his characters in both “Digging” and “The Forge”.

Heaney’s poems are dealing with the metaphorical death of an agrarian lifestyle, as opposed to the actual deaths of people, which is the focus of Boland’s poems. “The Forge” is a portrayal of a decaying lifestyle manifested by the rusting of “old axles and iron hoops”. The withering away of the traditional Irish rural life causes the disuse of the blacksmith’s forge to the point of mythologizing the anvil by associating it with being “horned as a unicorn”. Unlike Boland’s use of myth in which all security has collapsed however, Heaney’s blacksmith is still working the bellows, even though his economic position is extremely precarious in a modern industrial world run by machinery. Nostalgia for the traditional Irish way of life is clear when the blacksmith looks out the door, into the past and “recalls a clatter \ Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows; \ Then grunts and goes in”. Heaney delineates the blacksmith in “The Forge” in such a way as to have the reader sympathize with the character and his dismay of widespread modernization. Thus Heaney is able to represent two sides of the same coin when it comes to dignity and labor in modern Ireland, the benefits of which as seen in “Digging”, and the negative effects on the blacksmith, who is determined in “The Forge” to pursue a profession which is seemingly anachronistic in the modern world.

The precariousness of Irish life displayed in “The Forge” is a story of economic failure, where a man who makes horseshoes is no longer needed in a land now filled with cars. This is in contrast to the economic ascendency from poverty to comfort experienced by Heaney’s family in “Digging”, which still shows the vulnerability in the Irish rural life in its fading importance, and by referencing the fearful past potato blight. Precariousness as a theme leans towards a full collapse of ecology in Boland’s poems, beginning with poverty and ending with death in both “That the Science of Cartography is Limited” and “Quarantine”. Both Heaney and Boland deal with the mythologizing of Irish history or past, and their poems resonate with the theme of precariousness in showing the fragility of the Irish land and people. However, the poets differ in the degrees and contexts in which they portray the precarious Irish lifestyle, as Heaney references the past in order to emphasize the changing contemporary Irish way of life, and Boland focuses on the perception of the past in an attempt to create justice for those who have suffered due to poverty and famine.

The Great Famine killed over a million people, and caused a massive diaspora of the Irish people. The British government's response came only after the potato crop failed for two years. The British officials decided to only give relief to those who would work on building roads to nowhere, even though many were too weak from famine.

The Great Famine killed over a million people, and caused a massive diaspora of the Irish people. The British government’s response came only after the potato crop failed for two years. British officials decided to only give relief to those whom would work on building roads to nowhere, even though many were too weak from the famine.