‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’ is similar in its subject matter and themes to another one of Boland’s best-known poems, ‘Famine Roads’. This poem was written in 1994 and taps into themes of truth, memory, and history. Boland’s speaker describes the nature of maps through the knowledge that they are and are not able to convey to someone who reads them. It is easy to admire a map as a skilled piece of art but it is also important to realize the context that’s missing from its lines.
Explore That the Science of Cartography is Limited
The poet sets the poem up as a statement about the limits of map-making. She proves her hypothesis, that map-making is limited, by referencing the untold (at least on maps) history of the famine roads. One can stand and look at a road and learn its history but nothing of that history is conveyed through the line on a map. It lacks crucial information that is necessary to understanding its existence as a useless road to nowhere.
You can read the full poem here.
‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’ by Eavan Boland is a twenty-eight line poem that does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is a technique known as free verse. It is used by writers when they do not want to be confined to the limits of rhyme and meter. But, it does not mean that there aren’t examples of both, as well as several other literary devices, in ‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’.
Boland makes use of several literary devices in ‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, imagery, and alliteration. The first of these, enjambment, 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. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza and lines two and three of the second stanza.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “fact,” “forest,” and “fragments” in lines one and two as well as “crop” and “Committees” in lines thirteen and fourteen.
–and not simply by the fact that this shading of
is what I wish to prove.
Before beginning ‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’ it is important to take note of the title. It is a crucial piece of information that a reader needs in order to underhand the rest of the poem. It is a statement or belief about life that the speaker holds, that the “science of cartography is limited”. That is, the science of map-making can only do so much or provide one with so much information. She is suggesting that there is something that it cannot touch on. That “something” is outlined in the following stanzas.
She begins in the first stanza with a dash. This unusual entry point into the poem picks up right wirer the title left off. It states that “the science of cartography is limited” for more reasons than “the fact that this shading of / forest cannot show the garments of balsam”. There are more reasons than the lack of map details that limit the science. She is seeking out a way to “prove” that her hypothesis, the title, is true.
When you and I were first in love we drove
Look down you said: this was once a famine road.
‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’ changes directions in the next lines and brings in a memory. The intended listener, someone that the speaker was or is in love with. She reminds this person of a time they “drove / to the borders of Connacht” and when into the woods.
The listener told her that “this was once a famine road”. Through context and the history of Boland’s other poems, it is easy enough to figure out what she’s referring to. Connacht is in wester Ireland and a famine road was a road that the Irish were forced to build (to nowhere) in order to receive food as payment. These pointless roads led to thousands of deaths.
The introduction of the famine road should hint to the reader that this might have a part to play in the speaker’s understanding of what maps can and cannot do.
I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
the starving Irish such roads to build.
The next lines of ‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’ provides the reader with a history of that specific place. The listener told her at that moment this road was built by starving Irish in 1847 when the crop had failed twice. The natural imagery, which appears quite lovely, in lines one through three of the stanza, is juxtaposed against the suffering that these people went through.
Where they died, there the road ended
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
The road only ends, the listener told her, where the people “died”. Continuing on, the speaker brings the reader back to the present day. Now, she says, she no longer looks at maps for pleasure. They convey nothing to her of the true history of that place and many other places like it. The poet uses a technique called accumulation in the next lines as she gathers together a list of map features. They are skillfully made but they are limited.
but to tell myself again that
will not be there
In the final lines of ‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’, she tells herself again that the “famine roads” are not marked on the map. The “line” that marks these death roads does not say all that it truly represents. Ireland’s true history “will not be there” on the map.