Our first child was born in winter. The prospect brought us joy and confusion. Our domestic arrangements were casual. Now we needed to re-order them. We planned a simple nursery in an upstairs room. We moved out a guest bed and put in a crib. We painted the walls a flat ivory color. A friend helped us make a dressing table from chipboard with a fabric curtain.
The room was small and cold. It faced north. At dawn the window was slow to let in light. The shelves of the dressing table stood opposite the window and were plainly useful. The fabric of the curtaining was something more. It seemed to promise something far beyond its stopgap role. It showed a woodland with trees and distances. It gazed into the interior as if the soul of some unexpected pastoral had slipped into plainspoken cotton. A few more shelves near the window held books and an ornament or two. Another opposite the door supported an oddly shaped porcelain cat, its skin crazed with blue flowers.
A room like this lasts a short time. My daughter slept away most of her first hard winter. I rose in the dark and warmed a bottle while the garden was gripped by frost. If I thought those magical standstill hours would continue indefinitely, I was wrong. The season relented. Snowdrops appeared under my neighbor's tree. Then yellow crocuses. Then it was spring. The first days of her life were over.
I was prepared for the beauty and intensity of a small child. I became used to the shelter and scale of the room. But I was unprepared for the way it all fused into a drama of arrival and encounter: a continuous daily adventure of sights and insights. I was instructed by them almost without knowing it. I came to see how well the earth and its objects used one another. The light of the morning. The child's first cry. The last star. The hum of the milkman's cart. They played off each other as sounds and sources all day. They stayed in my mind and marked themselves in my memory And in the midst of all, the new life which made it visible.
But I learned something else as well: a far less radiant subset of knowledge. I found that even in the midst of this adventure and renewal, which had swept away so many human doubts, I was left with my artistic ones. Radical doubts I did not want to have. There in a room at the center of my life they crept in and out—a sort of underhand questioning. The objects on the shelves glowed by lamplight and clarified at dawn. The shape of a milk bottle defined a curve of space. Moonlight stitched itself into the threads of the curtain. Daylight pushed the walls back. And yet the doubts remained.
They were hard to formulate; they were also constant. For all the instruction of that room—its objects and its new life—I was not sure where or whether they belonged in any poem I might write. I had learned this room. But there were other, older learning processes which seemed in conflict with this new knowledge. All that winter these odd thoughts created a fraction of dissonance. A tiny edge of sorrow came to surround them. What use was an expressive medium if it couldn't shelter an expressive life? What purpose was there in giving voice to an old art if it silenced a new experience?
Under those doubts were other ones. A darker version, in fact. I found that without knowing it I had learned to write poetry, at least in part, by subscribing to a hierarchy of poetic subjects. As though I'd signed on to the repertory choices of a summer theater company by conceding to a seasonal imperative. For instance, I understood from the first that a poem had permanent, historic residents. The moon, the horizon, shifts of weather and the color of a field—all signaling an inner life as well as an outer circumstance—belonged in a poem. They could enter it as easily as that pastoral slipped into cotton. As subject matter, their welcome had been arranged by centuries of poetry; by custom, by tradition.
Not so this room. However radiant it seemed to me, it was just a room. There were hundreds, thousands of them marching out into the Irish night, lighting up their yellow windows in the dusk of the Dublin suburbs. The growth of population, the building of estates suggested a social shift, not a poetic change. In this new life I had acquired a subject. But no ready-made importance had been ascribed to it. I had to do that for myself. And yet how could I take this private experience and make it as familiar a poetic subject as a planet or landscape? I could see I would have to do more than write this subject; I would have to authorize it. And here, to my surprise, I faltered.
It was a split-second faltering. A moment of hesitation. Nothing more. But later that moment troubled me. Brief as it was, it remained emblematic. I would think back to it. I would remember it as a painful contradiction—that I doubted the importance of this room as a poetic subject at the very moment I was most convinced of its imaginative power. How could I believe that what was compelling outside the poem might not be equally so inside it?
But I had. And I did. Later, I would wonder how it had happened. I would always come to the same question: What part of the process of becoming a poet had led me to that moment of hesitation? What flaw in my development caused that fissure between feeling and expression?
The answer, I knew, had to be more than autobiographical. It needed to be formal as well. I would have to begin there. I was a lyric poet. I thought of myself as one. The description was inexact and I knew there was no precise history for the term. Yet when I thought about it, trusting my identity to that imprecise term, I remembered an incident which made it clearer.
One summer morning, I flew to Manchester to record poems for the BBC. It was a short flight out of Dublin. The program itself was not long. And then I was left with one of those cumbersome units of time: too short to do anything substantive with, too long to spend all of it at the airport waiting for a flight back to Dublin. I went to an art museum. I spent an unsatisfactory hour or so, looking from Pre-Raphaelite paintings to my watch, and back again. Then I went to the museum bookshop, bought one or two catalogues and a pamphlet. And went to the airport early, after all.
Airports are not easy places to inhabit. There is only so much steel, so many rotating wheels and passing luggage carts you can ponder. A coffee; a sandwich wrapped in plastic and seemingly composed of it; another coffee. And then you are ready for something more.
So I reached down and took out the pamphlet from my bag. I hardly knew why I'd chosen it. I must have thought it fitted the bill. Its subject was musical boxes at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and it was a bright publication. Glossy, distracting, garrulous. Here were the cylinder musical boxes of the wealthy, fashioned out of pearwood and cast steel with glass lids. Here was a description of a thirteenth-century water clock; a marvel of falcons and chimes and hydraulically operated musicians. And here, wonder of wonders, was the eighteenth-century music box of the Sultan of Mysore.
Then I found something else. In black and white, modestly photographed and with a brief note, was the serinette. Even in monochrome, it was an elaborate affair. A beechwood box, veneered with satinwood, standing on ormolu feet and inlaid with a blonde scroll of songbirds and branches. "Small domestic barrel organs known as serinettes," said the note, "were made in France during the eighteenth century for the express purpose of teaching caged birds to sing."
For a moment I pictured myself in an eighteenth-century drawing room. I imagined the whirl of plaster roses and ceiling cherubs. I could see the fireplace, intricately chiselled out of marble. Everything inlaid, decorated, improved upon. The gatelegs of the dining table would be the only reminder of the broad-leaved trees and the forest which were once the natural element of this caged bird in the corner, who now had to put up with a dome of stale air and brass bars. That and the lid of the satinwood box. Only this, opened now and again—with artificial woodland notes pouring into the room—provided a heartbreaking reminder of freedom.
I will not be oblique about the connection. The small grotesque image of that box lets me argue that the lyric impulse has something in common with the serinette: that it reaches out to a perceptive area which has fallen silent. For the sake of this argument, let me call perception the bird and time the cage. But not just any kind of time or any kind of perception. It must have a real sense of healed possibility, enclosed and entrapped. Time, after all, is a linear configuration. It proceeds from birth to death; or appears to. It encloses us in the inevitability and claustrophobias of mortality. No wonder, then, that a particular perceptive area may fall mute within it. The bird does not sing because it cannot fly.
Was it possible that this is what had happened? That I had entered that small room not just as a new mother, but also as a lyric poet? That the lyric form had signaled to a silence, promising all the time to teach it to speak or sing? And yet had failed to do so. I was reluctant to think so. That same form had brought me into my own life. It had been a steadfast companion. But if its failure was not the cause of my hesitation, what was?
Where does it start, the wish to be a poet?
For me it began in teenage years. I went to boarding school in Dublin. The building was perched over the Irish Sea. I could see Howth on a sunny day. At night the moon blinded the dormitory windows with water light.
The surroundings were gracious. But the view of a young woman's future—widespread at that time in Ireland—was not. There was a rigid conservatism about it. Not so much in its emphasis on marriage as in its angers about conformity. There was a fixed circle of suggestions. An unspoken insistence on prescribing limits to the body and mind.
I had no words for it. Definitions were not available. It was an atmosphere, nothing more; and hard to articulate. And yet I'm sure my first reading of poetry took place in its shadow: I may not have been able to name those restrictions. But I felt them: I even recognized them as a kind of repression. I also realized, in some unspeaking way, that I could not yet rescue my body. I was years away from that. But I could rescue my mind. I set out to do so.
And so I established a pattern of what I will call here reading as intimidation. I read poems then as I never did again: as a method of self-protection. I read them to persuade myself of something the climate seemed about to deny me. There was nothing wrong with the poems. Some of them, I could see, had reach, beauty, relevance. But I chose them for the wrong reasons. With the result they had the wrong effect: I had no idea that by taking poems out of context, using them as armor against invidious assumptions, I might intimidate myself out of a sense of my own reality.
I see myself again at fourteen years of age. I am staring at the pages of an anthology. The book is worn. The pages are thin and missal-fine. They slip and rustle as I turn them. There is even an old-fashioned silky ribbon to mark the pages. The sleeves of my school cardigan are pushed up. My index finger has inkwell stains on it. Out beyond the window the Irish Sea is turning to a metallic color at dusk. The landmass is disappearing. The visible signs of a country are turning to shadows. It doesn't matter. They hardly existed for me even when visible. It will be years before I allow those shapes beyond the page to enter and inform the poem on it.
And here I am struggling with a single poem. The poet is English. He is long dead, much admired—an icon of the English canon. All prescriptions for a profound disconnect. I am Irish, at the painful end of puberty, unable to read my own body or know my own nation. And here is John Dryden, able to decipher everything, or so it seems. The poem is "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day."
FROM harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
"Arise, ye more than dead!"
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music's power obey.
As I read, I fail to understand why a man whose life is touched by a civil war would write this slide of rhymes and sounds. Nevertheless, I apply myself to the poem, to its abstract and seemingly cold celebration of music. To its cosmology, which I can't understand, and its religion, which was, at the very moment of its composition, wreaking havoc on my own country.
Ironically, this will all change. Later in life I will come to admire the poem deeply. I will relish Dryden's use of Pythagorean theory to dazzle Platonic thought. Written by this eldest of fourteen children, at fifty-six years of age, who has seen his country broken by war, what I once mistook for coldness I will come to see as a heart-wrenching yearning for order. But I don't see that. I am fourteen years of age, determined to master what small worlds of meaning I can. And so I am reading the poem to gain its power and protection. By doing so, I am missing its point.
And so here it is. An act of reading that becomes a method of intimidation. An act self-selected because I am already intimidated. These are not easy matters to explain. They are fragmentary, lost in a mercurial past and a still more mercurial thought process.
Nevertheless, I can find my way back to some of it, even now: The fact is, I am turning in circles in those years. I am trying to break free by disputing a prediction. In my reading, I go instinctively to big subjects that take me away from small concerns. In a culture which warns that the treasures and complications of the mind might be beyond the reach of a young woman, I instinctively look for texts that seem to promise their availability. And I select difficult poems because I feel clever and safe reading them.
This is not, I know, an orthodox account of a poet's early reading. It is more usual to provide a narrative of grace: of encountering language and form for the first time. Which did happen; but later. Nevertheless, this earlier, darker version, I am convinced, is less uncommon than it looks. "Reading is a very complex art," wrote Virginia Woolf. Of one thing I am sure: There must have been other young women who read for their own protection. Who were agents of their own intimidation. Who chose poems, as I did, not because they brought them nearer to the life of feeling but because they removed them safely from it. Who felt that the power and distance of language would protect them from the limitations made ready for them.
None of it lasted. Soon enough I set aside this way of reading and took up the poems of Yeats. But I have remembered my first choices here; and my reasons for them. Later I would trace these strange, small aberrations stubbornly to their source. I would try to align them with ideas and forms. I would go back to the same question: Where did the lyric form come in? Had it helped or hindered? After all, as I remembered it, I had stood in that room alone with my child, at a moment of intense personal history. Surely the history of the lyric should have coincided with it.
And the lyric has a considerable history. It has proved itself to be endlessly adaptable to new environments and changing circumstances. It seems fair to ask, Why didn't it adapt to mine, at once and unquestioningly?
The answer is complex; the question itself may be off-kilter. We are looking at a form which has fitted itself, on different occasions, to the lyre, to the lute, to the harp. To the small kingdom and the lost tribe. Anyone could find it, if they searched, on the Pyramid texts in Egypt. Under the battlements in Picardy. On the back roads of Ireland in a defeated language. It doesn't always occur in the same shape, and rarely in the same words. But it is recognizably the same creature we glimpse. As if we could deduce a mythical animal by its footprint in the snow of high places.
The Irish, like other European nations, have marched and wept and kept their faith and their counsel to the sound and stress of lyrics. William Yeats even floated the idea that the Irish sensibility was better suited to the lyric than the English one. In "A General Introduction for My Work" he wrote about his own early decision to write short poems: he spoke of the Irish preference for "a swift current."
That's not to say the lyric hasn't had its detractors. "Nothing is capable of being well set to music that is not nonsense," wrote the critic Joseph Addison. And today, when the lyric is no longer set to music, his skepticism is still around. Critics have needed little encouragement—especially if, like Addison, they suffer from a surfeit of reason—to take a reductive view of it. To regard it as a pretty and prettified segment of poetic expression. A fossil of times and occasions when the poem was the expressive equivalent of the sweetmeat.
And yet, as a form, its roots go far deeper than fashion or folly. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics awarded it the most compelling history of all: "At that remote point in time when syllables ceased to be nonsense and became syntactically and connotatively meaningful the first lyric was composed."
There could hardly be a more profound destiny for a form than this: to be a document of the line between language and its negation; to be a venerable witness. It gives the lyric the dignity of having been one of the first theaters of meaning. When a formation is so powerful, so deep in time and history, it is not likely to be erased later. The first lyrics articulated, among other things, the human need for self-expression under the stress of a struggle for existence. We have no exact record of that need. Whatever record there might be is inscribed, not in a book or a chronicle, but in that part of our psyches which corresponds to the listening memory of the caged linnet.
And so, in the end, I stopped suspecting the lyric. It had not failed me. It was not the form which was responsible for my silence. In fact the opposite. In hunting down reasons for that moment of hesitation, I came to believe something quite different. Gradually, I became sure that a rogue history of ideas—the very same which shaped my early reading—had stood between me and the poem I wanted to write. But what was it?
Every poet has an anti-history. A place where some turn was taken that seemed to put the future in doubt. I had my anti-history. I found it early and kept it late. For me it was that insistence on elevated subject matter described, among others, by Edmund Burke: ''Vast Objects occasion vast Sensations," he wrote, "and vast Sensations give the Mind a higher Idea of her own Powers." It was, in other words, the arc of the sublime—its argument and emphasis—woven in and through all kinds of poems and histories of poems. I resisted it; and I had reasons for doing so.
To start with, I was Irish. I was a woman. Once I left school and began to write, I was a poet whose life was lived among the objects of an ordinary existence. It was a safer life than most; and similar to many of the lives lived around me. I wrote my poems upstairs in a room that looked out to a garden. My notebook stayed on a table during the day while I saw to small children. At night with the closing in of the dark, I could go back to writing.
But when I took up a pen, or faced the blank page of my notebook, I understood certain things: I was free to live my life. Compared with many other women, in far more limiting circumstances, I was fortunate. And yet one question kept coming back: I was free to live my life. But was I free to imagine it? Did the poems I had read, or the poetic tradition I had inherited, encourage me to do that? Did the history of these ideas of the sublime suggest I could live in an eye-level relation to the objects I saw every day around me? Or did something whisper when I took up my pen—What are you writing? Is it important enough? I felt a need to critique my doubts. The critique of my doubts inevitably ended in criticism of the sublime. But what did that mean?
It certainly did not mean poring over Longinus or Edmund Burke. If anything, I read them in a glancing way. Some sentences and fragments escaped me; some stayed with me. "For, as if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight" wrote Longinus. And yet it was not those words which defined the hollowness of the sublime for me. Nor John Dennis, nor the Earl of Shaftesbury, nor Addison.
If it was not those writers and writing I resisted, what was it? The answer was imprecise at one level, but painfully clear to me on another. It was an ethos more than an argument. A slow bending of space. A curving of the scale and size of the poet. It was a painting here, an essay there, a collection of symbols and a growing assent to them. It was a series of brushstrokes, putting the human traveler as small as could be on the ridge of the hill and making the waterfall into an image as big as a dinosaur. It was a series of propositions that seemed to gather force, like an opposing headwind, throughout the nineteenth century. It was not just Kant's "supersensible state" and Hegel's "sublated" means. It was a magic show willingly put on by painters, poets, musicians which made man small and the world large.
The magic show was deceptive; the magicians were hidden. When you looked more closely, a sort of sleight of hand was happening. In reality, the sublime was not an idea that cut the poet down to size. In fact the opposite. It was an idea made by the poet. And so, throughout the show, the poet was behind the curtain, defining the very grandeur he appeared to be awed by, and in the process becoming a steward of it. And so a new kind of poet emerged: A master of secrets, a controller of meaning. And, of course, a stakeholder in perpetuating that grandeur.
And so I arrived at my answer. It was not the lyric form that failed me. It was something else: a current of ideas and insistences on which the lyric poem was buoyant, in which it had never capsized. And yet that stream of ideas—I have called it the sublime here—had been powerful enough to intimidate me as a teenager. It stood beside me as a ghost of meaning, warning and promising about the significance of inherited knowledge and the fearful diminishment of my own reading and writing if I did not seek its sanction. And it was powerful enough to make me hesitate for that fraction of time when I entered the room in which my first child slept.
The attempt to track back from that small hesitation brought me some questions and a few answers. I have tried to include them here. Writing about these remembered states is elusive. They are so quickly over, so poorly defined that they become like an old photograph. We look at it closely. We're nearly sure that was the tree we saw from the window. We almost believe that was the neighbor who came in to borrow the shears. But the moment is gone.
And yet it all connects up. Recalling my forced connection with poetry at the age of fourteen made me remember a skepticism about the sublime which came later. Locating myself, even at a young age, in a place where great knowledge made a personal world seem small might look like a common human circumstance. And a world away from the glorious antechamber of the sublime—so argued about, so adhered to from Burke to Poe. But there was a link. I was sure of it.
Coming forward from that time to the most personal moment of a personal world—the existence of a new child—I see again a slim and unproveable connection. Nothing was more important to me than this new life. Yet it had a human scale. It was a small event, however momentous to me. I knew those events registered in the ideology of the sublime as simply ones to be warned against. Unfortunately the girl I was, reading Dryden in a school library, was willing to be warned. The woman I became, entering my child's room, might hesitate for a moment, remembering that warning. But not for long.
When I was young I thought of aesthetics as an abstract code. I learned later it was a human one. I learned it belongs everywhere, and to no one person. Which means it can be a common possession. Standing in a room in the winter half-light before the wonder of a new child is aesthetics. Hesitating at the meaning of subject matter as fit for poetry is aesthetics. Searching back to the prompts and resistances involved in becoming a poet—the reading, the writing—is also aesthetics. I came to believe there is no meaning to an art form with its grand designs unless it allows the humane to shape the invented, the way gravity is said to bend starlight.
About the Author
Eavan Boland was born in Dublin. She is the author of more than a dozen volumes of poetry and nonfiction, including Domestic Violence, Against Love Poetry, and Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990. She is also a professor and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University.
W. W. Norton & Company