Within ‘The Famine Road’ Boland uses historical details to speak on the horrors of the Irish Potato Famine and present the shocking perspective of English Imperialism. The mood is dark and pessimistic throughout, whether the lines are about the famine or the woman visiting the doctor. A reader should come away with a new perspective on these historical events a better understanding of how imperialism operated.
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Summary of The Famine Road
The poem begins with the poet relaying the words of one colonel to another. The first gives his imperialistic opinion of the Irish. He thinks of them as less than fully human and in need of suffering in order to occupy themselves. The Famine, in his mind, is not something they really need to worry about, aside from making sure they don’t rebel. There is a response, asking if it would be possible for a road project to be started. This project is what the title, ‘The Famine Road,’ refers to. The English created employment for these poor by starving people building roads that went nowhere and had no end.
Inside this narrative of pain, suffering and death there is a second story. It is told in brief tercets from the perspective of a doctor and then his patient, an infertile woman. Through the juxtaposition of these two separate narratives connections are made. The woman is given the last three lines of ‘The Famine Road’ and compares her own infertile, “Barren” body to the purposeless, destination-less nature of the Famine roads.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of The Famine Road
‘The Famine Road’ by Eavan Boland is an eight stanza poem that is divided into stanzas of different lengths. The first and seventh stanzas have seven lines, the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth all have three and the third and fifth have six. The lines do not follow a single pattern of rhyme but there are patterns in amongst the individual stanzas. For example, the first stanza rhymes AACDEFF and the second: AAC.
In comparison, the third does not contain any full end rhymes at all. While there is not a specific pattern of rhyme, there are examples of half-rhyme within the text. Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is 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, in the third snazzy that does not have any perfect end rhymes, there are half-rhymes. The endings “stick” and “suck” are half-rhymes, as are “could” and “food”. There are also examples within the lines themselves, such as “bones” and “roads” in stanza one and “there and “share” in stanza five.
Poetic Techniques in The Famine Road
Boland makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Famine Road’. These include alliteration, enjambment, caesura, and repetition The latter, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. For example, there is a simple repetition of words and imagery in line one of the sixth stanza: “You never will, never you know”. A reader can also find body-related imagery throughout the text. Words like “blooded,” “bones,” “body,” and “barren” can be found throughout.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “wretches work” in stanza seven and “well woman” in stanza six.
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. There are examples throughout the poem, such as in the transitions between line two and three of the first stanza and two and three of the fifth.
It is in part due to the poet’s repetitive use of caesura in ‘The Famine Road’ that there are so many clear and effective uses of enjambment. Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. For example, the second line of the third stanza: “were iron years away; after all could” and the third line of the first stanza: “need toil, their characters no less.” Trevelyan’s”.
Analysis of The Famine Road
In the first lines of ‘The Famine Road,’ the poet begins by relaying lines of dialogue. The speaker in these lines of text is Charles Trevelyan who was directing his speech, in the form of a letter, to Colonel Jones. He describes the Irish during the period of the Famine as in need of “toil,” as if the pain and suffering were good for them and should be ignored. It works with their “characters” he adds. He dismisses their needs.
In reaction to these words the speaker of the text, who can perhaps be read as Boland herself, says that his “seal blooded the deal table”. His presence there and his opinion on what was good or bad for the Irish is only negative. This first mention of blood alludes to the losses which are later elaborated on in the poem.
After these phrases, the poet describes how the “Relief Committee deliberated” and asked if it might be “safe” to “give” the Irish “roads”. They would come in the form of work, to occupy people, but they would “of course” be going “nowhere”. This is in reference to the project during the Famine to create jobs for those who need relief. They were as the poem implies, roads that went nowhere.
The second stanza of ‘The Famine Road’ is much shorter, at only three lines. These lines are in italics, informing the reader that something has shifted. There is a second poem folded within the first. Here, the poet creates a scene in which a doctor is talking to a female patient. The tone is direct and clear. Due to the lack of capitalization in these lines, a reader should assume that they are being introduced to the middle of the scene. There are no details to tell the reader at this point what “a case like yours” is referring to.
‘The Famine Road’ zooms back out again to the famine roads. The men worked “sick” and “directionless”. They were lost, desperate, and employed to create pointless roads that led nowhere. The English perception of the Irish makes its way into these lines as they contemplate cannibalism and base, human actions. The introduction of cannibalism is striking. Especially as it is juxtaposed with housewives who would normally be going to the “corner butcher” to buy meat.
As one might expect, the next stanza of ‘The Famine Road’, another short one, is again at the doctor’s office. There, the doctor continues to talk. He tells the woman that there are any number of things that might have “caused it”. He is without sympathy or anything close to a bedside manner. The doctor is also dismissive in these lines, telling her that whatever she has, or whatever happened to her, is one of an endless array of daily mysterious he sees.
It eventually becomes clear that this woman is infertile, something the doctor has experience with. He doesn’t know why but suggests it could’ve really been anything that caused it.
The Famine is the main subject in stanza five once more. Here, the poet places a “Dusk” scene. Rather than focusing on those making the decisions, the poet has decided to turn to the workers. They are thinking about how “tomorrow” they’re going to have to work “without him”. This “him” is an unknown male worker who has fallen ill. They see him today, know he’s sick and “walk clear,” avoiding him. They’re afraid of getting sick themselves and of the inevitable death, he represents.
The third line of ‘The Famine Road’ tells the reader that the man has typhoid and begins another phrase that expresses the lack of empathy among his coworker and neighbours. They’ve all seen enough of death to know it is better to stay away. They may not want him to die, but they also don’t want anything to do with him. The speaker makes this clearer through the use of a metaphor. Just as they ignore this man, so too do snowflakes ignore their own “flakes where they settle / and melt”. No one is going to “pray by his death rattle”.
The doctor’s diagnosis and atrocious, dismissive advice for the woman starts to conclude in the sixth stanza of ‘The Famine Road’. He has nothing else he wants to say to her, and rather she leaves as soon as possible. He tells her she’ll never have children or know why she can’t have them. This experience won’t ever be within her grasp. But, he adds, she should “take it well,” aka, get over it and move on.
It’ll be best for her, or so he says, if she just goes home and grows plants in her garden and keeps, cleans/maintains, her house. It is necessary to compare the doctor’s attitude in these lines to the way that the English considered the Irish.
In the last long stanza of ‘The Famine Road,’ Jones’ words come into the narrative. He reports to Colonel Trevelyan, telling him that things are improving. There hasn’t been as much “sedition” or “idleness” as they expected. The imperialist attitude is blazingly obvious in these lines and is meant at once to surprise the reader and remind them of the past.
Jones describes the suffering of the Irish. How they work all day until they’re “worn” and then spend the evenings aching and “fester[ing]” because of their work. Because of these periods of work and the choice the English made to commission these road projects they’ve been able to keep the Irish under control and take the “corn / to the ships in peace”. The insensitive nature of these lines goes without saying. There is one final shocking image in this line as Jones describes seeing “bones” from his carriage window. The separation between the Irish and their English imperial rulers couldn’t be clearer.
The last three lines of ‘The Famine Road’ are told from the woman’s perspective. She’s gone through that harsh visit to the doctor and it is through her words that a reader can fully connect the story of her infertility to that of the Irish Potato Famine. She asks a rhetorical question in these lines while also comparing her “Barren” body to that of a “famine road”. Working these roads, which have no end or destination in mind, is comparable to never knowing the “load / of his child in you”. Her body, she feels is nothing if not a famine road.