analysis of eavan bolands that the science of cartography is limited

Analysis of Eavan Boland’s That the Science of Cartography is Limited

INTRODUCTION

Eavan Boland’s poem That the Science of Cartography is Limited is a poem of criticism. It criticizes cartography itself, or map-making for maps are emotionless and do not reflect the traces of history with which countries and roads were built, particularly the famine roads of mid-19th century Ireland. In fact, Boland finds it ironical that the map of Ireland does not show these famine roads at all. The poem actually alludes to the Irish Famine of 1847 when potato blight ravaged thousands of acres of potatoes, the staple food of Ireland, on which 1/3 of the country’s population was dependent prior to the blight in 1840. However, in her poem Boland condemns not the potato blight but the decision of the British economic council during the time of the Irish famine to make the already weak and starving peasants work for their food by building roads. However, as previously stated, these famine roads for which many have toiled, suffered and died are deliberately and unjustly not indicated on any map at all, as reflected by Boland’s indignation in her poem. This essay seeks to carefully analyze Boland’s poem, explain her argument, and describe her own sentiments about the 1847 Irish famine and of the limitations of maps, which are the very sentiments she wishes to address.

LINEAR ANALYSIS

Boland’s That the Science of Cartography is Limited has a rather unique title which seems to sound like a legalistic phrase similar to the opening of a court case:

That the Science of Cartography Is Limited

This may reflect the severity of Boland’s criticism against the otherwise heartlessness of cartography. Personally, I believe the title itself allows continuity in reading, thought and emotion. The title itself is an accusation whose scope is delimited by the next three lines:

—and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses,

 These lines emphasize “the fragrance of balsam” (Boland), which is symbolic of healing (Fairchild) and alludes to the healing power of the forest, and “the gloom of cypresses” (Boland), which represents death and mourning (Boddy-Evans), or the death of the peasants who built the famine roads through the forest. The last stanza is concluded by the supposed ending of the first sentence which is the title itself. So it reads that “That the Science of Cartography…”

is what I wish to prove.

In the three lines that follow, one can clearly see the author who seems to be travelling by car with her lover at the borders of where a forest lies:

When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.

The forest here may symbolize a certain unknown realm which hides many secrets but whose discovery will certainly lead to greater wisdom and awareness. In the next line one can see that the author’s lover is pointing at a trail in the forest that was once considered a famine road:

Look down you said: this was once a famine road.
At this exact moment the author seems to be called upon to reflect on and reconnect with the Irish famine of 1847 and her mere act of looking down seems to be a sort of humbling experience of reflecting on his own roots. Thus begins the author’s psychological travel into the past.

In the third and fourth stanzas and the line that follows it, the author speaks of purely historical information pertaining to the 1847 Irish famine. In the third stanza, the author seems to keep looking down or reflecting and imagines a “rough-cast stone [that] had disappeared” (Boland), which may be the same rough-cast stone used by the starving peasants of 1847 to build roads in order to eat. This rough-cast stone may symbolize the roughness of the hard life that the peasants had during that time.

I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in

The fourth stanza emphatically starts with the year 1847, the second year of the Irish famine, perhaps in order to emphasize the year in which the suffering of the peasants doubled or the time when the author believes the real suffering began. It is true that the famine started before 1847 but it was in this very year that ironically the government added to their suffering. The second line of the fifth stanza, which states “Relief Committees gave” (Boland), seems to stand out as the greatest irony in the poem. By itself and without any reference to any other line, the second line speaks of mercy, concern and sympathy but when one keeps reading up to the third line, one can see the irony – that such “Relief Companies,” two words whose initial letters are capitalized to amplify the irony, never did anything good to the peasants except to worsen their suffering. The use of the word “gave” may also contribute to the sarcasm of the poem in such a way as to make the audience think that something is being generously and lovingly offered to the peasants by these “Relief Companies” when in fact what they offer is nothing but “roads to build” to somehow sarcastically “ease” their suffering through a quicker death.

1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.

Such quick death “given” by the “Relief Committees” is seen in the line that follows the fourth stanza and precedes the fifth:

Where they died, there the road ended

Truly the “Relief Committees” were a true source of relief to the peasants at that time for through the death it gave them, they were instantly “relieved” of the burden of famine. This is perhaps the most sarcastic stanza in the poem and it speaks of nothing but pure criticism of the political system of Britain during the time of the Irish famine.

The fifth stanza is the longest in the poem and it speaks of the author’s indirect criticism of the map of Ireland by first praising it and, in the succeeding paragraph, emphasizing its lacks.

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of
the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that

According to the author herself, a map may indeed be “masterful” as it may convert “the spherical as flat” (Boland) or “a curve into a plane” (Boland). Maps, as what Boland believes, seem to be the best representations of the geography of the spherical earth. However the last line of the fifth stanza, “but to tell myself again that” (Boland), leads the reader to think that the author has to forcefully commit to memory the very much less obvious yet very important fact presented by the sixth and last stanza:

the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

And the words of the sixth stanza are indeed the point of the author’s criticism. The famine lines “…[say] woodland  and [cry] hunger” (Boland) and “[give] out among sweet pine and cypress” (Boland), the first of which is symbolic of immortality and longevity (Karlsen) and the second of which is symbolic of death and mourning (Boddy-Evans). The sixth stanza is actually a paradoxical connotation of the famine lines, as represented by the woodland and the hunger, and by the immortal pine and the deathly cypress. It is clear then that the famine lines are both good and bad at the same time. However, the last line of the sixth stanza “and finds no horizon” (Boland) clearly adds a third negative character to the famine lines making the bad points in the paradox outweigh the good. Lastly, such a long sentence that starts with the subject “The line” ends in its predicate:

will not be there.

The last line of Boland’s That the Science of Cartography is Limited, together with its subject “The line,” clearly answers the question on the limitation of maps in truly reflecting true history.

CONCLUSION

Boland’s That the Science of Cartography is Limited is an interesting poem because it tells not only of history but of the prejudice that maps afford it. Structurally one of its more interesting points is that it the final line of each stanza leads to the next and is actually a part of the stanza that follows. Plus, the individual lines between stanzas somehow feature the main points the author wants to instill in the reader, and certain words and phrases are used to further strengthen the point: the phrase “Relief Committees,” with the initial capital letters, and certain words such as “cypress,” “balsam,” “famine,” “died,” “hunger,” and “starving.” Moreover, the author, who is an Irish poet who wants to reconnect with her roots, believes that cartography is actually an unfeeling and unemotional field of science for it does not, or cannot, reflect true historical accounts. Also, it seems to intentionally exclude anything controversial, such as famine roads. In short, maps somehow teach us to ignore the plight and suffering of others and that one still has to “tell [himself] again [and again] that” (Boland) maps are unemotional and heartless tools and most of all, incomplete and biased. Personally, I believe this and this somehow makes me think that not everything around me was brought to existence in easy ways and in fact there could have been a sacrifice involved in every single thing I can see around me.

Works Cited

Boddy-Evans, Marion. “Art Symbols Dictionary: Death.” Painting. 2010. About.com. 4 Apr 2010. <http://painting.about.com/cs/inspiration/a/symbolsdeath.htm>

Boland, Eavan. “That the Science of Cartography is Limited.” Eavan Boland. 2010. PoemHunter.com. 3 Apr 2010. <http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/eavan-boland/that-the-science-of-cartography-is-limited/>

Fairchild, Charlene E. “Preparing the Oil of Anointing: A Recipe for Holy Oil.” Sermon and Lectionary Resources. 2006. Spirit Networks. 4 Apr 2010. <http://www.rockies.net/~spirit/sermons/sr-anointing-oil.php>

Karlsen, Kathleen, MA. “Pine Tree Symbolism.” The Symbolism of Trees. 2 Apr 2010. Living Arts Enterprises LLC. 3 Apr 2010. <http://www.livingartsoriginals.com/infoforests.htm>

ANSWERS TO THE QUESTIONS (IN CASE YOU NEED A SEPARATE SHEET FOR THE ANSWERS):

1. How does the title affect your reading of and response to the poem?

Boland’s That the Science of Cartography is Limited has a rather unique title which seems to sound like a legalistic phrase similar to the opening of a court case. Personally, I believe the title itself allows continuity in reading, thought and emotion. The title itself is an accusation.

2. What is the poem about?

The poem criticizes cartography itself, or map-making for maps are emotionless and do not reflect the traces of history with which countries and roads were built, particularly the famine roads of mid-19th century Ireland. The poem actually alludes to the Irish Famine of 1847 when potato blight ravaged thousands of acres of potatoes, the staple food of Ireland, on which 1/3 of the country’s population was dependent prior to the blight in 1840.

3. What makes the poem interesting?

Boland’s That the Science of Cartography is Limited is an interesting poem because it tells not only of history but of the prejudice that maps afford it. Structurally one of its more interesting points is that it the final line of each stanza leads to the next and is actually a part of the stanza that follows. Plus, the individual lines between stanzas somehow feature the main points the author wants to instill in the reader.

4. Who is the speaker? What role does the speaker have?

The author is an Irish poet who wants to reconnect with her roots. She seems like an ambassador of goodwill or a mere historian.

5. What effect does the poem have on you ? Do you think the poet intended such an affect?

Personally, I believe the poem somehow makes me think that not everything around me was brought to existence in easy ways and in fact there could have been a sacrifice involved in every single thing I can see around me.

6. What is distinctive about the poet’s use of language? Which words especially contribute to the poem’s affect?

Structurally one of its more interesting points is that it the final line of each stanza leads to the next and is actually a part of the stanza that follows. Plus, the individual lines between stanzas somehow feature the main points the author wants to instill in the reader, and certain words and phrases are used to further strengthen the point: the phrase “Relief Committees,” with the initial capital letters, and certain words such as “cypress,” “balsam,” “famine,” “died,” “hunger,” and “starving.”

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