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Exploring the sea in the work of Eavan Boland and WB Yeats



Irish literature has often been shaped by its relation to the national through land and the consciousness of land.  New perspectives provided by Atlantic studies, however, now allow for new narratives unrelated to land to be put into conversation with older narratives. 

This lecture examines work by two twentieth-century poets, one early and one late, that offer insight on this. Shaped by family history rooted in Irish maritime culture, W.B. Yeats and Eavan Boland address the non-national imaginatively through their use of the Irish Sea. As young poets, the imaginative lives of both were both profoundly shaped by the lives of nineteenth-century Irish seafarers. In “Pardon, Old Fathers,” which opens his 1914 volume Responsibilities, Yeats discusses the imaginative influence of his maternal grandfather, William Pollexfen. In Autobiographies, he reports the only eulogy that had ever turned his head was one in which his father claimed “by marriage with a Pollexfen, we have given a tongue to the sea cliffs.”

Eavan Boland’s maternal grandfather, James Kelly, also a sea captain, played a similar role in the shaping of her poetic imagination. He appears in her earliest poems to her most recent, including “Sea Change,” a 2014 poem that addresses her maritime inheritance: “What did he leave me, my grandfather?” Both “Pardon, Old Fathers” and “Sea Change” contrast the lives of people caught up in a struggle for land and nation with those of sea-based people. But it is difficult to grasp from within a national paradigm just how much the traffic of people, goods and ideas across the Irish Sea, and indeed the Atlantic world, helped shape the imaginations of two young poets who later transformed Irish poetry.  This lecture will explore the connections between these archipelagic maritime identities and the imaginative worlds they shaped in the work of both poets.

Series edited by: John Brannigan
General Editor: P.J. Mathews  
Scholarcast original theme music by: Padhraic Egan, Michael Hussey and Sharon Hussey. 
Recording, audio editing, photography and development by: John Matthews & Vincent Hoban at UCD IT Services, Media Services.

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