E Eavan Boland

Quarantine by Eavan Boland

The following is an analysis of Eavan Boland’s poem ‘Quarantine’.  This is a non-traditional love poem about a husband and wife who are forced to move north during the Irish Potato Famine in 1847.  The poem was published in Boland’s New Collected Poems in 2008. Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1944, but she spent most of her childhood in both London and New York, due to her father’s career as a diplomat. The family returned to Ireland when Boland was fourteen, and she went on to attend Trinity College in Dublin.  Much of Boland’s poetry is based around Irish history, and this poem is no exception.  She is currently the director of Stanford University’s creative writing program.

Quarantine by Eavan Boland


Summary of Quarantine

In short, Quarantine is a poem about a man and his wife who are forced to leave their home because his wife has become ill with famine fever.  The couple leaves on a wintry night, walking in the frigid temperatures.  The next morning, the husband and wife are found dead, of cold and hunger.  From the way the couple was positioned, it was obvious that the man had succumbed first, dying with his wife’s feet in his hands.  He had perished trying to provide heat to his sick and suffering wife.  This poem is not only a documentation of the horrors of the Irish Potato Famine, but it is also a love poem, showcasing that love is not always proven by what are considered to be traditional romantic gestures.


Breakdown Analysis

Eavan Boland’s ‘Quarantine’ consists of five stanzas, each containing four lines.  Instead of using any sort of rhyme scheme, Boland instead writes the poem using free verse.  The first half of the poem reads almost as a police report would: it is written matter-of-factly and details the whereabouts and last hours of the couple’s life. It is written in the past tense—this is not currently what is happening to the characters in the poem; the events have already occurred, giving a sense of finality to the reader. The second half of the poem becomes more personal, with the speaker, possibly Boland, inserting her opinion on what the death of the couple actually signifies.  To the speaker, the story of the husband giving the last of his body warmth to his wife by holding her feet to his chest is the ultimate romantic gesture.

Boland uses repetition of the word worst in the first stanza of Quarantine.  The first stanza is used to set up the scenario for the reader: In the worst hour of the worst season/Of the worst year of a whole people.  By using repetition, Boland is emphasizing the harsh conditions in which the couple sets out.  Not only is it the worst season of the year, but it is also the worst year in Ireland’s history.  The couple sets out walking north, away from their home, which hints to the reader as to why the poem is titled Quarantine.

In the second stanza, the reader learns why the couple is leaving their home: they are seeking isolation from others because the wife is sick with famine fever.  She almost immediately falls behind as they are walking, and her husband lifts her and carries her until night falls. The last sentence of the stanza reads, “Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.”  Where they have arrived, though, is a mystery to the reader.  In this sentence, Boland also uses hyperbole: stars are usually considered to be hot, burning things in the sky.  By describing them as freezing, Boland is conveying to the reader just how dangerously cold it is outside as the couple is traveling.

The reader discovers in the third stanza of Quarantine that the couple died during the night.  The next morning, they were found by someone, dead “Of cold.  Of hunger.  Of the toxins of a whole history.”  The speaker is quick to inform the reader that it was not just the cold and hunger that killed them—it was the indifference and heartlessness of the British government overseeing Ireland that also led to their deaths.  Boland again uses repetition when revealing the final gift the man gave to his wife.  She writes But her feet were held against his breastbone./The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.  The man knew the situation was grave and futile for them both, yet he still attempted to save his wife’s life by trying to keep her warm.  Boland uses last twice, which emphasizes the husband’s unsuccessful attempt. The poet also uses interesting diction with her choice of the word flesh. Quite often, this word is used in a sensuous manner, but here, the man’s flesh is being used as a weapon to ward off his wife’s death.

In the fourth stanza, Boland seems to be speaking directly to her readers, pleading with them to never allow such a love poem to exist again.  She writes:

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.

There is no place here for the inexact

praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.

Yes, Quarantine is a poem about the love a man has for his wife, but the love found within the confines of the poem is atypical: instead of extolling the ideals of passion and love, this poem is forced to tell the story of the sacrifices one man makes in the name of love.  She ends the stanza with “There is only time for this merciless inventory,” which gives an almost scientific feel to the poem.

In the final stanza, the “inventory” is taken: the couple died in the winter of 1847.  They suffered from famine, and they froze to death trying to leave their home.  But what is also included in this inventory is the depth of love between a man and a woman, which is sometimes never seen until under the direst of circumstances.  The final two lines of Quarantine read “And what there is between a man and woman.  And in which darkness it can best be proved.”  While it is very easy to write about the romantic, sensual side of love, it is harder to write about the darker sacrifices that are sometimes necessary.  This is not a poem to be read to one’s lover to commemorate a special occasion; however, this still showcases the love a man and woman can share, and how that love defies everything else.


Historical Context

Boland, an Irishwoman, often writes about Ireland and the history of its people, and this poem is a testament to that fact.  In 1845, a great and horrible period in Irish history took place.  Also called the Potato Famine, many people died of hunger and illness after a disease nearly killed all of the potatoes.  Since the vegetables are a cheap and hearty crop, they were the main staple of the majority of the people in Ireland.  When the potatoes died, people were forced to emigrate from their lands, and it is thought that over a million people perished in the famine, and a million more left Ireland. The famine finally came to an end in 1852, with many blaming the British Crown, who did nothing to help the situation.  This terrible tragedy was one of the major reasons the Irish sought out independence from British rule.

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Jamie Jenson
Jamie joined the Poem Analysis team back in November, 2010. He has a passion for poetry and enjoys analysing and providing interpretations for poetry from the past and present.
  • Avatar Bob Simmons says:

    The Irish farmers’ dependence on potatoes was not by choice. The British government allowed only certain farm crops to be grown in its colonies –those that would not compete with English agriculture. They let the Irish grow potatoes and little else. When the potato blight struck, they starved, more than a million within a year. Study your history, Jamie. It’s vital to understand history in order to understand poetry.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Hi Bob, While I cannot question your historical knowledge and knowing and understanding the context of a poem can indeed inform an analysis of a poem; I wouldn’t say being a history buff was a pre-requisite for being able to understand poetry. Poetry is as much about structure, form, the sounds that words make as it is about context.

    • Avatar Layla Gonzalez says:

      There are different ways to understand poetry, have you heard of literary criticism? It’s important to know that different interpretations can exist.
      Try, for instance, utilizing the reader-response theory while trying to apply meaning to a poem.
      (A quick search on Google for “reader-response theory” will do you wonders, I’m sure.)


      • Emma Baldwin Emma Baldwin says:

        Thanks for you comment, Layla! We find that to be the case as well.

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