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  3. Eavan Boland: The Journey

Eavan Boland: The Journey

Poem Title

Original Publication

NCP Page no

The Journey

The Journey, Manchester: Carcanet, 1987


Length / Form One of Boland's longer poems. The lyric verse has more in common with Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite than the epic hexameters of Aeneid VI (the primary source), reflecting the genre-subversion at play throughout.

Allusion to Classical figure Sappho plays the role of poet-guide to Boland, whilst scenes of women and children recall the infant souls of Aeneid VI (427).

Allusion to Classical place Boland's ‘journey' evokes Aeneas' decent into the underworld and the banks of the Styx. The reference to “our beginnings, / in which we have an origin like water” melds this setting the image of the river Lethe, from which Aeneas witnesses the rebirthing of souls (703ff).

Relationship to Classical text Boland returns to the sixth book of the Aeneid repeatedly in her poetry, describing its language as “a slow magic, an incantation of images and structures”, whilst the frail voices of the dead covey an abiding sense of memory and loss (Boland 1995:79).

Close translation of words/phrases/excerpts The poem is prefaced by a translation of Aeneid VI (426-429), taken from Jackson Knight's translation, first published by Penguin in 1958 (and therefore available to Boland as a student).

Classical/post-Classical intertexts Aisling: Boland relates Virgil's setting of Aeneid VI to the ‘dream vision' convention and particularly the Irish aisling poems in which the female personification of Ireland appears to the poet, lamenting the fortunes of the country under foreign rule. This emblematic and politically motivated use of female imagery has far reaching influence in Irish literature, leading Boland to despair of the Country's “national sibyls” (Boland 1989:12). Yeats: Although Yeats also draws heavily on nationalistic imagery for political purposes, Boland has admired his use of elite poetic forms to express private sorrows (Reizbaum 1989:476) and demonstrates his influence via the autobiographical narrative which frames the poem. Sappho: Boland's visitation by the ancient poet recalls Aphrodite's appearance to Sappho in the Hymn to Aphrodite and also subverts the traditional relationship of male poet to female Muse (who is also Ireland in the aisling poems). Rather than acting as 'ally' (summachos), as does Aphrodite, Boland's Sappho is cast in a maternal role, equivalent to that of ‘Mother Ireland'. 'misshapen, musical – Sappho – the scholiast's nightingale' refers to the somewhat pedestrian characterisation given by one scholiast (Boland 1997:188).

Comment In this poem the elite connotations of the classical ante-text allow Boland to bring to the fore subjects she considers to have been excluded from poetry and those voices silenced by Irish literary tradition, whilst the pairing of classical and nationalist mythologies destabilises the literary tropes associated with the latter. Boland has been accused of essentialising aspects of femininity by replacing one mythic configuration of the female image with another (e.g. Wills 1991). Nevertheless, this particular dream vision, in denying the poet literary enlightenment, acknowledges the complex role myth plays in constructing a dialogue with the past and finds a fitting icon in the poet Sappho, fragmented by history and mythologized in her many receptions.