Irish Poetry about Motherhood
I decided to post this poem by Eavan Boland because she is my favorite contemporary Irish poet (sorry Seamus Heaney) and it is about one of the greatest hardships for a mother: allowing your children to grow up. Realizing poetry is a personal interpretation, I’ll just offer a basic summary and let you garner what you will from it. But I must say, since Ms. Schilling taught it to us in high school, and I went on to teach it a thousand times over, I have never looked at a pomegranate the same again.
To understand the poem, a little Greek mythology background is in order. The poem begins with a reference to Ceres and Persephone. Ceres is the goddess of the harvest and is responsible for all that grows. Her daughter (who would be the equivalent of a young girl just entering her “growing years”) is out picking flowers when Hades, the god of the Underworld, sees her, wants her, and takes her.
Frantic over the disappearance of her daughter, Ceres begs Zeus to help her as only he could. He agrees to rescue her, so long as she has not eaten anything in the Underworld (think Adam and Eve). Unfortunately, by the time Ceres gets to Persephone she had taken a single bite out of a pomegranate (Chinese apple). Distraught over the loss of her daughter, Ceres refused to allow the crops to grow and, as a result, mankind faced near starvation. To make things right, Zeus steps in and agrees to “split custody”, with Persephone allowed to return to her mother for 6 months out of the year (spring and summer) and the remaining 6 months she stays with Hades (fall and winter). The beauty of the story comes from the lesson that a mother will abandon all else for the sake of her child—and nothing is more powerful than a mother’s love.
Back to the poem…the speaker is remembering when she was a young, naïve girl like Persephone, but now she is Ceres with a Persephone of her own. She wants her daughter to go out and pick flowers and experience life, but she knows Hades and all the other scary experiences of life are waiting for her. She wants to let her grow up (the greatest gift), but she also wants to warn her about life; but if she does, it will change her ability to experience life for herself.
When I first read this poem, I used it as ammunition against my mother to extend curfew. Now, as a mother, I look at it completely differently…and even though I cannot avoid the fact that she’s growing up, I am still pretty certain I will cry when she first gets on the school bus.
by Eavan Boland
The only legend I have ever loved
isthe story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
As a child in exile in
a city of fogs and strange consonants,
I read it first and at first I
was an exiled child in the crackling dusk of
the stars blighted.
Later, I walked out in a summer twilight
searching for my daughter at bed-time.
When she came running
I was ready to make any bargain to keep her.
I carried her back past
white beams and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.
But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
on every tree on that road.
Was inescapable for each one we passed.
And for me.
It is winter
and the stars are hidden.
I climb the stairs and stand where I can see
my child asleep beside her teen magazines,
her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.
How did I forget it?
She could have come home and been safe
and ended the story and all
our heart-broken searching but she reached
out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.
She put out her hand and pulled down
the French sound for apple and the noise of stone
and the proof
that even in the place of death,
at the heart of legend,
in the midstof rocks full of unshed tears
ready to be diamonds by the timet
he story was told, a child can be hungry.
I could warn her. There is still a chance.
The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured.
The suburb has cars and cable television.
The veiled stars are above ground.
It is another world. But what else
can a mother give her daughter but such
beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
The legend will be hers as well as mine.
She will enter it. As I have.
She will wake up. She will hold
the papery flushed skin in her hand.
And to her lips. I will say nothing.
2 years ago