The poet focuses on the changes that have overcome the city of Dublin, as well as major images of the city that come to light when she considers the past. The poet uses the word “elver” several times, challenging readers to see the connection between migrating young eels and the images of Dublin she presents in ‘Cityscape.’
‘Cityscape’ by Eavan Boland is an image-rich poem that describes Dublin in the past and alludes to its present state.
The poet describes, in the first lines, the word “elver” and how she uses it to apply to the silver water and the cirrus clouds around Dublin. The word itself feels out of place until it’s reused at the poem’s end to describe an eel.
The poet focuses on one specific area of the city, around the historic Blackrock Baths, and depicts them while they were still in operation more than 50 years ago. She describes how she found out later, as an adult, that once an eel made its way into the water. She embellishes this story, personifying the city and the eel and suggesting that it was “yearning” for the estuary.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of the past, changes, and youth. She takes a nostalgic tone, reflecting on the past and how she felt (and perhaps still feels) about Dublin. She describes the Blackrock Bath before its decline and demolition and a story she recalls about the area.
Structure and Form
‘Cityscape’ by Eavan Boland is a nine-stanza poem that is divided into quatrains or sets of four lines. These lines are written in free verse. The poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
The lines use different end sounds and are of different lengths. For example, in the first stanza, the lines end with “it,” “day,” “city,” and “elver.” But, the poet did use examples of assonance and consonance, as described below, to help give structure and the feeling of rhythm to her text.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Assonance: seen through the repetition of the same vowel sound in multiple words. For example, the long “a” sound in “way,” “waited,” and “day” in line two of the first stanza. The words “silvery” and “city” in line three of the same stanza also end with the same long “e” sound.”
- Repetition: the use of the same literary device multiple times. For example, “I can I can I can” in line one of stanza four. The poet also repeats her use of a dash at the end of line one six more times.
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective descriptions that should inspire the reader’s senses. For example, “a fine crazing healing in the tiles — / the sky deepening above a city.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Blackrock baths” in stanza three.
I have a word for it —
the way the surface waited all day
to be a silvery pause between sky and city —
which is elver.
The speaker begins the poem by describing the water around Dublin. She is specifically interested in the “surface” of the water and the way it reflects the sky. It was still all day. She’s describing the bay on the east coast of the city. The city itself sits at the mouth of the River Liffey, so water is ever-present.
The word “elver,” which feels out of place but simultaneously evokes the kind of mysterious atmosphere the poet is looking for, appears a few times in the text. The word itself is defined as a young eel, specifically an eel in the middle of a migration. This makes more sense later in the poem when the poet describes an eel making its way into the Blackrock Baths.
And another one for how
which is elver too.
The poet continues describing the setting in the second stanza. The word “elver” she says also applies to how the “bay shelved cirrus clouds” piled up at the edge of the Irish Sea. Cirrus clouds are wispy, hair-like clouds that the poet could be comparing, obliquely, to the shape and movements of an eel moving through the water.
The stanza starts with the phrase, “And another one for how.” This relates back to the first stanza and the poet’s use of the word “elver.”
The old Blackrock baths
visible as they never were when
In this stanza, the poet alludes to Blackrock Baths, a swimming area on Dublin’s Southside. They were first constructed in the 1830s, revamped in 1887, and then closed in the mid-1980s because the city no longer wanted to pay to renovate them. The poet refers to how the baths have “been neglected now for fifty years,” and there are many “find cracks in the tiles.”
In the past, when they were in use, these small cracks or imperfections in the construction (also indicators of age and a lack of care) were never visible. The poet uses an example of enjambment between the last line of stanza three and the first line of stand four, forcing the reader to continue with her description of Dublin.
I can I can I can
curving down into salt and urine
She looks into the past in this part of the city, some 50+ years ago, and imagines “Harry Vernon” on the highest diving board shouting “I can I can I can” as he prepares to jump off.
She describes the water as “salt and urine,” a less-than endearing depiction of a public swimming area but one that was likely very accurate. Here, readers get the joy of childhood mixed with the reality of the water and city. It was a time before the cracks in the title made themselves known.
Now, as an adult looking back on the past, things seem different. This is emphasized in the next stanza when the poet’s speaker discusses learning about an eel getting into the baths many years later.
his cry fading out
had been seen
Now, as she considers the past of the Blackrock Baths and the city in general, the poet describes how the boy’s cries (which were once so clear and lively) have faded out through time.
The fact that this story is only being told years later suggests that the speaker still feels interested in the area and connected to it. It’s unclear how she feels about this revelation that a “glass eel / had been seen,” but the lines do not suggest she’s horrified or scarred by the idea that she, and other children, could’ve been swimming alongside an eel/eels.
Interestingly, eels have historically symbolized overcoming strife, duality (beginning and end or life and death), and nature. This makes some degree of sense when readers consider the contrasting parts of Dublin the poet features in this poem.
entering the seawater baths at twilight —
the word begins
The fact that an eel was able to move from the ocean into the swimming area shouldn’t be surprising. But, at the same time, it also indicates the weak boundaries between the wild ocean and the supposedly tame Blackrock Baths. It works as a symbol of the wild intruding on civilization.
The eel made it into the seawater baths at “twilight.” This juxtaposes the image of “dusk” in the final stanza.
Stanzas Eight and Nine
a delicate migration —
a fine crazing healing in the tiles —
a translucent visitor
yearning for the estuary.
In the final stanzas, the poet describes, through personification, Dublin as a city that is “unsettled.” It’s between “sluice gates and the Irish Sea.” A sluice gate is a valve that seals in one direction and controls water levels in rivers. The gate symbolizes the separation between the city and its very nearby sea. It protects the status quo as it is, but the city always feels on the edge or unsettled.
The poet references “a translucent visitor / yearning for the estuary.” Here, she’s likely thinking about the single “eel” she heard had entered the Blackrock Baths when they were still in operation. The eel is personified using the word “yearning” to depict the eel’s desire to get out of the ocean and into the estuary, or where the ocean and river meet. There are estuaries all along Dublin’s coast, including just north of where the historic Blackrock Baths sit today.
Boland may have considered the eel seeking a place of safety, where the best of both worlds, the freedom of the ocean and the safety of the river/city, meet.
The speaker is unknown, but the poem was likely inspired by Boland’s own experiences. She was probably looking back on her own youth in Dublin and knowledge of the Blackrock Baths and considering them from her new perspective as an adult.
The tone is nostalgic. Despite some less-than-ideal images, the speaker looks back on the past with a feeling of nostalgia for what was. She compares the baths in the past to what they’re like today, clearly suggesting that one is better than the other.
The poet penned this particular poem to explore memories of Dublin from her youth and the feelings that the city evokes in her even as an adult. She uses the image of an eel and movement in the water, repetitively as well as open-ended descriptions of what it was like to live there.
The main theme of this poem is change. But, the poet is also considering the past, childhood, degradation over time, and nature. Readers can interpret a great deal in these nine stanzas and are likely to come to different conclusions about what exactly the message of this poem is.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Eavan Boland poems. For example:
- ‘Child of Our Time’ – 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.
- ‘Outside History’ – takes the reader through the life and death of a star and how human experience, particularly that of Irish women erased from history, relates.
- ‘Love’ – was published in Eavan Boland’s 1994 collection In a Time of Violence. It speaks on themes of love, regret, and memory.