In ‘Outside History’ Boland takes the reader through the life and death of a star and how human experience, particularly that of Irish women erased from history, relates. The poem speaks on themes of mortality, history, women’s rights, and the universe.
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In the first lines of ‘Outside History,’ the speaker begins by discussing stars and the way their light, or dark, reaches the earth. She moves to discuss human mortality and history. The stars are outside the human understanding, in a place beyond our history. At the same time, she makes oblique references to the place of women in the historical record and how their accomplishments and lives have been erased.
Partway through the text, she makes the choice to step outside of this pattern and try to forge a path in which she, or women in general, are not consumed by primarily male documentation of the past and present. At the same time, as the poem concludes, she speaks on physical death and darkness that is only now reaching her from the past. In the last lines, she discusses how impossible it is for a human being to step into the past and comfort those who have been overcome by this physical death.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Outside History’ by Eavan Boland is a single stanza, twenty-one line poem. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but there are instances in which the poet makes use of half-rhyme within the text. These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “ordeal” and “field” in lines twelve and fifteen.
There are also a variety of poetic techniques in ‘Outside History’. These include alliteration, enjambment, repetition and caesura. The first, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. One kind of repetition is alliteration, it occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “iron inklings” and “Irish” in the second line. Or, “reaching,” “rivers” and “roads” in lines sixteen and seventeen.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half. Sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. There are a number of examples of this technique within ‘Outside History’. For example, those found in line five, with the phrase “our pain did; they are, they have always been” and in line twenty-one “And we are too late. We are always too late”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. The transitions between lines three and four, as well as thirteen and fourteen, are successful examples.
Analysis of Outside History
These are outsiders, always. These stars—
these iron inklings of an Irish January,
our pain did; they are, they have always been
In the first lines of ‘Outside History,’ the speaker begins by utilizing the word “outsiders,” relating the text immediately back to the little. She reminds the reader that “always” no matter where or when “outsiders” exist. The specific outsiders the poet is considering are “These stars”. The use of a dash at the end of this line implies that the speaker is there, motioning up at the stars she’s speaking about. They are the “iron inklings of an Irish January”. With this addition of setting, the reader is able to interpret, in more detail, the experiences of the speaker.
In the next lines, she delves into the history of these outsiders. They are beyond human knowledge, their light “happened / thousands of years before / our pain did”. They are outside our understanding and our “history”.
While it is possible to take this poem at face value, there is a deeper concept at play here. Boland was interested in discussing through this text the place of women within history, and more specifically, Irish history. Women are commonly situated “outside” popular history this is something she is seeking to change.
They keep their distance. Under them remains
And a time to choose between them.
The seventh line personifies the stars, imbuing them with the ability to “keep their distance,” as if of their own accord. This implies that they could move closer if they wanted to. In the next lines, the speaker moves away from the stars to address a specific listener. Boland utilizes the second-person perspective, implicating the reader in the text, and describes how “you found” out about your own humanity underneath the stars. It was there, in that “place” and in that “landscape in which you know you are mortal”.
It is also quite possible that the “you” in these lines is much broader. Boland could be addressing everyone who lives beneath the stars, all of humankind, or perhaps just those in Ireland.
This new understanding of mortality makes a great deal of sense coming directly after a discussion of the life and death of stars. They appear in the heavens, as though they are immortal. But, with the knowledge that they too die, and are dead as we observe them, one’s own opinion about their life shifts. Or, at least that’s what the poet is implying. The star’s surprising mortality reminds “you” of your own.
I have chosen:
firmaments with the dead.
The speaker expresses her own opinion and choice in the next lines. She declares that she’s chosen to be “part of that ordeal”. The ordeal being that of blazing life and sudden death. She wants to depart from the “darkness” that is “only now reaching [her]. The speaker would like to be outside the “myth in history” and into the actual known history of the world.
It’s not entirely clear what Boland is referencing the next lines, whatever it is, is a scene of death and loss. Darkness comes out of some historical place and is “only now” touching her. It brings with it images of roads filled with dead, as the heavens are filled with stars. These lines might reference the Irish potato famine and its enduring impact.
How slowly they die
And we are too late. We are always too late.
In the last lines of the poem, the speaker refers at once to the stars and to the past dead. Their deaths are still reaching those living on earth today. They die “slowly” and although we might want to comfort them and “kneel beside them” it’s impossible. It’s “always too late”.