‘Child of Our Time’ by Eavan Boland was published in the poet’s 1975 collection The War Horse. This poem was written after a series of car bombs were detonated in Dublin and Monaghan, in May of 1974. In the midst of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, thirty-four civilians died as a result of these attacks. This included three children: two infants, and one unborn child. The three children who died were Anne Marie O’Brien, Jacqueline O’Brien, and Baby Doherty, the unborn child of mother Collette Doherty.
An additional point of interest and context is that the poem was originally dedicated to a child who died of sudden infant death syndrome, also known as “crib death”.
In the first lines of the poem the speaker addresses a child who has recently died and tells them that it is because of their death that he’s been able to compose this “song”. She speaks on the loss of this child’s life, and how the “discord of the murder” allowed her to find “rhythm”.
He goes on, describing how rhymes and songs should be reserved for a real lullaby, legends and idioms, not elegies for a child’s death. The poem concludes with the speaker telling the child that now, she and all those left living, need to make a change in their community. She knows that it is through their “idle / Talk” that this child lost their life.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Child of Our Time’ is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets follow three different rhyme schemes, with different rhyming endings. The first rhymes: ABACBC, the second: ABCABC, and the third: ABCACB.
The poet also makes use of a number of poetic techniques. These include anaphora, alliteration, and repetition. The first, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For example, the fourth, fifth, and sixth lines of the first stanza all being with “Its”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “overnight” and “order” in the second line of the first stanza as well as “living”, “learn” and “learn” in the sixth line of the second stanza.
Analysis of Child of Our Time
Yesterday I knew no lullaby
But you have taught me overnight to order
Its rhythm from the discord of your murder,
Its motive from the fact you cannot listen.
In the first stanza of ‘Child of Our Time,’ the speaker begins by telling a specific listener, a murdered child, that this “song” (poem) came into being because this child “taught” her. It occurred quickly, “overnight”. While the speaker describes the song as a “lullaby”, it doesn’t stem from a source of happiness or peace. She took the “tune” of the song from the child’s “final cry”.
In a series of contrasting, question and answer statements, the speaker informs the child, and the reader, that she took the “reason” for her song from the “unreasoned” end of the child’s life. Then, she took the “rhythm” from the “discord” of the child’s murder. Then last, the “motive” for the poem came from the “fact [the child] cannot listen”. These poignant, direct phrases speak on the horrors of murder, especially of children, as well as the heartbreak of youth deaths in general.
We who should have known how to instruct
And living, learn, must learn from you, dead.
In the next stanza of ‘Child of Our Time’ the speaker describes all the different ways that stories, poems, and songs should be involved in a child’s life. She did not expect that he’d be composing a “song” about a child’s death. Songs, or “rhymes” should be made to wake a child gently, or send them to sleep peacefully.
Children and parents should spend time making up “Names for the animals” the child takes to bed, not mourning their death. The speaker also mentions “legends to protect”. This is a reference to traditional imagery and storylines that should inspire, as well as allow the child to believe in heroes, quests, and triumphs. Last, she speaks on an idiom or an expression that can have both a figurative and literal meaning. (For example, in English, “break a leg” or “get out of hand”).
The last line brings the poem back around to where it began–with the child’s death. She tells the young listener that now, the living have to learn “from you, dead”. It is those who remain, the parents and all other survivors, who have to take on the lessons the child’s death taught.
To make our broken images rebuild
Themselves around your limbs, your broken
Of our time, our times have robbed your cradle.
Sleep in a world your final sleep has woken.
In the last six lines of ‘Child of Our Time’, the speaker explains what the living need to do in order to prove they’ve learned from the child’s death. They have to “make [their] broken images rebuild / Themselves” around the child’s limbs. The speaker knows that it is up to those left behind to take up a new cause. They must create a “new language” and learn how to change the world for the better. This is a huge task, especially when one considers the context in which ‘Child of Our Time’ was written.
It is clear though, through the speaker’s powerful words, that she means what she says. She knows that he, as well as all others who have a stake in what happens in Northern Ireland, are at fault. Their “idle / Talk has cost” the child its life.
In the fourth and fifth lines, the speaker utilizes the title of the poem. She calls the child “Of our time”, then immediately repeats the phrase to speak derogatorily about “our times”. She wants her community to find peace. As well as create a new world in which a child is able to rest peacefully in their own “cradle”.