by Eavan Boland
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 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 woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.
From Code (2001), reproduced by kind permission of Eavan Boland and Carcanet Press.
About the poem
Between 1845 and 1852 more than a million Irish people died from starvation and disease. The catastrophic Famine of the 1840s devastated Ireland, an event, in Mary Robinson’s words, ‘which more than any other shaped us as a people. It defined our will to survive. It defined our sense of human vulnerability’. Eavan Boland’s poem was prompted by an anecdote in Mo Scéal Féin by An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire and, in twenty lines, Boland catches the sweep of history and what she terms ‘a seasoned love story’.
The language is spare and sparse. In stanza one, the words are strong and simple, the effect is cinematic: we watch a couple walking a road. Weighed down by hunger and sickness, the man carries his wife on his back until they eventually arrive at an unnamed place. He knows where they are going; presumably they are returning to a place they called home and soon after getting there they are both dead. ‘Quarantine’ commemorates how love can grow stronger in terrible circumstances and from the sweep of earth and sky, of road and freezing stars, the poem moves towards a close-up of the dead husband and wife, his final gesture, her feet held against his breastbone: ‘The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.’
The tone is clear and urgent. The poem invites us to consider the power of love against all odds. It is a poem that explores the political and the personal and though ‘the toxins of a whole history’ serve as the backdrop to the narrative, the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, are at the heart of the poem. That the man and woman are unnamed allow the poem to become a poem about one person’s extraordinary love for another in terrible circumstances.
Boland says she wrote the poem ‘as a reproach to the sentimental love poem’ and she believes that ‘one of the things that acquisition and the pursuit of wealth induces is amnesia’ and that ‘those who seek them will not only forget, but want to forget, the levels of strength and survival and near-to-the-edge dispossession that we once had as a people’.
Eavan Boland was once asked about surviving in literary history and she replied that she ‘would rather be in the unidentified chapter... because it’s more likely to be the human one’. She refers to ‘a terrible chapter in Thoreau’s book on Cape Cod. In it he finds an Irish shipwreck on the beach. And he finds them putting into coffins from one of the famine ships from Galway Brid and her sister, and her sister’s children...’ ‘Quarantine’, a poem that looks to that human chapter, honours the unidentified and remembers them.
Eavan Boland, the youngest of five children, was born in Dublin on 24 September 1944. Her father was a diplomat, her mother, Frances Kelly, an artist. The family moved to London when Boland was six and she went to school there until 1956. She remembers being reprimanded for saying ‘I amn’t’: ‘You are not in Ireland now!’
During her father’s next posting, from 1956 until 1960, the family lived in New York. Boland returned to Dublin and to boarding school at the Convent of the Holy Child in Killiney when she was fifteen. At Trinity College she studied Latin and English and graduated with a first-class honours degree in 1966. She lectured in Trinity 1967-1968 and then resigned to devote her time to writing. She wrote poems as a child and had published poems in the Irish Times while still an undergraduate. She published her first collection, New Territory, in 1967, when she was twenty-two. During the 1970s she gave writing workshops throughout Ireland and in 1980 she co-founded Arlen House, an Irish feminist press.
For Boland, what she calls ‘the placelessness of her childhood’ and ‘her emphatic sense of living in a suburb in her own home’ were important influences on her work. In 1969, in her mid-twenties, she married the novelist Kevin Casey. They moved to a house in the Dublin suburbs in the early 1970s and have two daughters. A grandchild was born in 2014. She has written of motherhood and suburban life and according to Declan Kiberd ‘She is one of the very few Irish poets to describe with any fidelity the lives now lived by half a million people in the suburbs of Dublin.’
Since 1996, Boland spends the academic year at Stanford College, Palo Alto, California, where she is a Professor of Humanities and Director of the Creative Writing Programme, but she calls Dundrum home. Speaking in 1988, Boland said of herself: ‘I see myself as an Irish poet, I think it’s important that Irish poets have a discourse with the idea of Irishness, and I think it’s probably very important that an Irish woman poet doesn’t shirk that discourse because there have been gaps, vacancies or silences in literature’.
Her several collections include The War Horse , Night Feed  Outside History , A Time of Violence , The Lost Land [, Code , Domestic Violence  and A Woman Without A Country . In 2005 a New Collected Poems was published. Her prose works include Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time  and A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet .