'Quarantine' by Eavan Boland
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In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking-they were both walking-north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.
Submitted by Raine
Editor 1 Interpretation
Quarantine by Eavan Boland: A Powerful Exploration of Love and Loss
Quarantine by Eavan Boland is a haunting and beautifully crafted poem that explores themes of love, loss, and isolation. The poem tells the story of a couple who are buried together during the Great Famine in Ireland. The poem is set in the context of history, but it is also a deeply personal and emotional exploration of the human experience. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will analyze the poem in detail, exploring its themes, symbolism, and use of language to reveal the powerful message that Boland is conveying.
Historical Context and Setting
The poem opens with a description of the couple's grave, located in a remote area of the Irish countryside. The opening lines immediately set the tone for the poem, creating a sense of isolation and desolation:
In the worst hour of the worst season of the worst year of a whole people
Boland is referring to the year 1847, which was a devastating time in Ireland's history, known as the Great Famine. During this time, a potato blight destroyed the country's main food source, leading to widespread famine and death. The poem's setting is a reflection of this history, depicting a couple who have died together and are buried in a remote place, away from the rest of society.
Love and Loss
One of the central themes of the poem is love and loss. The poem describes a couple who are buried together, holding each other in death. The lines:
As if they had clasped hands In prayer and, in one leap, plucked Their two lives back...
convey a powerful image of the couple's love for each other, and their determination to be together even in death. This image is reinforced later in the poem when Boland describes how the couple's bodies have fused together:
Her fingers numbly Iterations of his own
The couple's love for each other is so strong that even in death, they are inseparable.
However, the poem also explores the idea of loss, both personal and societal. The couple's story is set against the backdrop of the Great Famine, a time of widespread death and suffering. Boland uses the couple's story to highlight the personal stories of loss that were happening all around them. The lines:
And everywhere the stench Of death
convey the overwhelming sense of loss and despair that must have permeated the country during this time.
Symbolism and Imagery
One of the most striking aspects of the poem is the use of symbolism and imagery. Boland uses these techniques to create a powerful and evocative image of the couple's story. For example, the line:
Her hair, the colour of wheat, takes on the light
creates a vivid image of the woman's hair, which seems to glow in the sunlight. This image is both beautiful and poignant, as it highlights the couple's humanity, even in death.
Another powerful image is the description of the couple's fused bodies. This image is both visceral and unsettling, conveying the idea of two people who are so entwined that they have become one.
Boland also uses symbolism to explore the idea of isolation and separation. The couple's grave is located in a remote area, away from the rest of society. This creates a sense of isolation and separation, which is reinforced by the image of the couple holding each other in death. The couple's love for each other is so strong that it has isolated them from the rest of the world, even in death.
Language and Tone
Boland's use of language is one of the things that makes Quarantine such a powerful and moving poem. The language is spare and simple, reflecting the bleakness of the couple's story. However, there are also moments of beauty and tenderness, such as the description of the woman's hair.
The tone of the poem is also striking. Boland's use of language creates a sense of distance and detachment, which is appropriate given the historical context of the poem. However, there are also moments of emotional intensity, such as the line:
Her breath in his, they were so still...
This line conveys a sense of intimacy and tenderness that is both beautiful and heartbreaking.
Quarantine is a powerful and beautifully crafted poem that explores themes of love, loss, and isolation. Boland's use of language, symbolism, and imagery creates a vivid and evocative image of the couple's story, while also exploring the personal and societal stories of loss that were happening all around them. The poem is a testament to the enduring power of love, even in the face of death and despair. It is a deeply moving and emotional work of art that speaks to the human experience in a profound and powerful way.
Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation
Quarantine: A Poem of Love and Loss
Eavan Boland’s Quarantine is a powerful and moving poem that explores the themes of love, loss, and isolation. Written in 1995, the poem is set during the Great Famine in Ireland, a period of widespread starvation and disease that claimed the lives of millions of people. Boland uses this historical context to create a haunting and poignant portrait of a couple who are forced to quarantine themselves in order to avoid the deadly contagion that is sweeping through their community.
The poem begins with a description of the couple’s decision to isolate themselves:
“In the worst hour of the worst season of the worst year of a whole people a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.”
The opening lines immediately establish the bleak and desperate circumstances that the couple finds themselves in. The use of repetition (“worst hour,” “worst season,” “worst year”) emphasizes the severity of the situation and creates a sense of hopelessness. The fact that the man and his wife are leaving the workhouse, a place where the destitute and starving sought refuge, further underscores the direness of their situation.
As the poem progresses, Boland paints a vivid picture of the couple’s isolation. They are forced to live in a small, cramped space, cut off from the outside world:
“Into the empty desolation, into the unknown solitude, into the widowhood of the imagination.”
The use of the word “desolation” emphasizes the barrenness and emptiness of their surroundings, while “unknown solitude” highlights the couple’s isolation from the rest of society. The phrase “widowhood of the imagination” is particularly striking, as it suggests that the couple’s isolation has caused them to lose touch with reality and retreat into their own minds.
Despite the bleakness of their situation, the couple finds solace in each other’s company. Boland describes their love in tender and intimate terms:
“And still they come, as if they were the only two left in the world, as if they were stitching up the hours into themselves.”
The use of the phrase “stitching up the hours” is particularly poignant, as it suggests that the couple is trying to hold onto time and make the most of their limited moments together. The fact that they feel like they are the only two people left in the world emphasizes the intensity of their love and the depth of their isolation.
As the poem draws to a close, Boland shifts her focus to the wider world outside the couple’s quarantine. She describes the devastation wrought by the famine and the toll it has taken on the people of Ireland:
“Here is a thrown-open, peeling wall, a man and woman faltering down the road, carrying the last of what they have, the last of what they have to give.”
The use of the phrase “thrown-open, peeling wall” suggests that the very fabric of society is breaking down, while the image of the man and woman “faltering down the road” emphasizes the physical toll that the famine has taken on the people of Ireland. The fact that they are carrying “the last of what they have” underscores the desperation of their situation.
In the final lines of the poem, Boland returns to the couple’s isolation and their love for each other:
“And then the child’s cry drowned everything for a moment, and its own small cry was the only sound left in a world of wreckage and distance.”
The use of the child’s cry as a symbol of hope and renewal is particularly powerful, as it suggests that even in the midst of devastation and despair, life continues. The fact that the child’s cry is the only sound left in a world of “wreckage and distance” emphasizes the couple’s isolation and the depth of their love for each other.
In conclusion, Quarantine is a powerful and moving poem that explores the themes of love, loss, and isolation. Boland uses the historical context of the Great Famine in Ireland to create a haunting and poignant portrait of a couple who are forced to quarantine themselves in order to avoid the deadly contagion that is sweeping through their community. Despite the bleakness of their situation, the couple finds solace in each other’s company, and their love for each other serves as a symbol of hope and renewal in a world of devastation and despair.
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