This unique nature poem was first published in Against Love Poetry in 2001. It takes on the concept that poetry and art more generally has the ability to bring one peace. Even to the extent that, for a time, an entire landscape is transformed into something beautiful. ‘How We Made a New Art on Old Ground’ asks readers to imagine the “old ground” of a battlefield in a new way, as the poet’s art (specifically a nature poem) represents it.
Explore How We Made a New Art on Old Ground
‘How We Made a New Art on Old Ground’ by Eavan Boland is an interesting poem that describes the power of poetry.
The poem begins with the speaker alluding to a dark, violent battle that happened in what is now a beautiful valley. She addresses a specific listener throughout, commonly believed to be an attempt to talk to the reader about poetry.
She notes that the land she’s standing on has two different histories. One that represents its natural elements and another that includes the terror that once occurred there. She believes that through poetry, specifically nature poetry, one can overlay the trauma of the past, if only for a moment, and see the landscape with clear, peaceful eyes.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘How We Made a New Art on Old Ground’ by Eavan Boland is a ten-stanza poem that is divided into quatrains or sets of four lines. The forty-line poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not use a rhyme scheme to unify the lines, nor did she choose to employ a metrical pattern.
The poem is loosely divided into two parts, though. The first describes the setting and addresses “you” while the second is written in the first-person perspective and describes the poet writing a nature poem.
This poem uses several literary devices, including:
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective descriptions. These are meant to trigger the readers’ senses and help them imagine a scene in great detail. For example, “silence to its edge, and you will hear.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. This usually works best when the words are next to one another. A good example is “seem separate” in line four of stanza one.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the poet uses this transition between several stanzas. These include stanzas one and two as well as stanzas four and five.
- Repetition: seen when the poet repeats the same literary element. For instance, “dark and darker” in line one of the sixth stanza and the word “change” in the final stanza.
A famous battle happened in this valley.
You never understood the nature poem.
Till now. Till this moment—if these statements
seem separate, unrelated, follow this
The first two lines of this poem include a surprising juxtaposition. The poet describes a specific valley where a battle occurred and then immediately start the new line, addressing a third person. They tell this person that they “never understood the nature poem.”
They don’t say “a” nature poem but “the nature poem,” thinking of something specific. The image of nature contrasts with that of war. The poet is asking readers to consider both human activities, specifically violence, and the natural world. The reasons behind this become clear as the lines progress.
The speaker adds that this person never understood the nature poem, but all of that is about to change. At this very moment, an epiphany occurs, helping this unknown person reach a conclusion that they couldn’t reach before.
The speaker is well aware that the first two statements don’t make a great deal of sense. They knew they “seem separate.” But they’re going to resolve this. The stanza ends with an enjambed line, forcing readers down into the second stanza.
silence to its edge and you will hear
a fieldfare or thrush written on it.
The poet draws the reader’s attention to the silence of the valley that once played host to a great battle. If you listen closely, the speaker suggests, you can hear the “history of the air.” You can hear the nature in amongst the violence that once existed.
There are birds there, writing history in their movements through the air, creating a record of their lives and resting among the darker history of the battle. This is one history.
The other history is silent: The estuary
Then one king and one dead tradition.
The second history is described in the third stanza when the speaker says that the “other history is silent.” Over there, she adds, by the “estuary,” the conflict at the heart of the war was “decided.” The poet moves back and forth between describing the history of the land as it relates to human beings and their conflicts and the natural history of the landscape.
These things sit side-by-side in the poem. One of the best examples is the poet’s description of the estuary is the immediate transition into discussing “Two kings prepared to give no quarter.” There were two kings, and now, with the issue decided, there is only one and “one dead tradition.” One of them won the battle, and the other lost.
It’s a simple summing up of what happened, and the poet refrains from including names. This generalizes the issue, making it so that it could relate to a number of different places and historical events.
Now the humid dusk, the old wounds
and the wider edge of the river turn
The speaker brings readers back to the present, to the humid dusk, where they are considering the elements of history and nature around them. The speaker says the past has yet to heal; the traumas remain in one form or another.
They are waiting for a “different truth” or another kind of language that can help. Later in the poem, the poet describes this different truth as a “nature poem,” one that does not entirely remove the past but it acts as an “overlay.”
The poet asks the reader, or whoever they are specifically talking to, to imagine a willow tree on a river and the fading light. This line is also enjambed, making it necessary to move into the following stanza to find out what the speaker is trying to say.
and grow dark and then darker, then
this rust on the gate beside the trees, on
When one sets themselves in the right mindset, the speaker says, they will know what the nature poem is for. It is “not the action nor its end.” It is not the conflict it’s trying to resolve, that which it describes, nor is it a resolution to any issues the world might face. While there is a great deal that this type of poetry doesn’t do, it “is” many other things.
It allows readers, like the “you” to whom the speaker is directing her words, to observe the word in a different way. It allows you to see the rusted metal on a gate and feel at peace with the world. Again, readers are forced into the sixth stanza to finish a thought.
the cattle grid underneath our feet,
its own modest way, an art of peace:
The poet says the nature poem is also like the simple things one sees in a rustic landscape, like the “cattle grid” and a “steering wheel shaft.” The nature poem is what comes after the trauma and the battle. It is an overlay that allows “you” to imagine a dark scene differently. It brings with it peace and the joy of art.
The end of this stanza marks an interesting transition seen through the poet’s use of first-person pronouns in stanza seven.
I try the word distance and it fills with
blood, oaths, armour are unwritten.
The poet’s next lines are different than those which have come before. She uses first-person pronouns to describe her attempts to write a nature poem that might quote on right” the “blood, oaths, armour” of that specific valley. She uses words like “distance” and “valley” in the hopes that she can create a scene that takes readers out of the past and into a more peaceful present.
Stanzas Eight and Nine
Silence spreads slowly from these words
to those ilex trees half in, half out
is what the poem says:
evening coming—cattle, cattle-shadows—
The next two stanzas depict how the poet’s words flow into the landscape, becoming part of it and bringing to the forefront the “trees,” “ford,” river banks, and twilight. The words bring silence, cutting off the sorrow of another time and focusing the reader on the specific sights one can see today.
The poem describes the light fading or corroding, and the night begins. Eventually, one sees what the poem says. There isn’t a battlefield. Instead, there is only evening coming, cows, and cattle shadows. The poem erases the memory of the terrible battle and the weight of history.
and whin bushes and a change of weather
for this moment free of one another.
The final lines are some of the most beautiful in the entire ten-stanza poem. The poet writes that for a moment when one reads and allows themselves to be absorbed by a nature poem, the “place and the torment of the place are / for this moment free of one another.”
The human-caused trauma of battle is relieved from the beauty of the natural place for a time, bringing a type of peace to the reader and, the speaker implies, peace to the place itself.
The tone is appreciative and descriptive. The speaker spends the lines trying to describe the impact a nature poem can have on transforming a place filled with dark history into one of peace in silence.
The message is that poetry and art, more generally, have the ability to transport one into a different way of seeing the world. The poet believes that a poem can remake one’s perception of a place. But, this perception doesn’t last forever. It is only a temporary overlay.
The purpose is to highlight the impact that poetry has on healing and bringing peace. The poet focuses on how a nature poem, like the one she wrote here, can help one focus on something that isn’t so traumatic or sorrowful. It can help one move from violence.
The speaker’s identity is unknown, but many readers have imagined Eavan Boland as the speaker. She may be guiding the reader, the “you” to whom the poem is addressed, to see the world in a different way and allow her poetry to bring peace.
Readers who enjoyed this unique poem should also consider reading some other Eavan Boland poems. For instance:
- ‘Anorexic‘ – conveys a woman’s mindset as she tries to destroy her own body.
- ‘Quarantine‘ – is an interesting l love poem about a husband and wife in 1847 in Ireland.
- ‘Cityscape‘ – an allusion-filled poem that describes Dublin and the Blackrock Baths