Boland depicts a world in ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’ in which the natural world speaks its own language, guides travelers, and is imbued with deeper magic and superstition. The text speaks on themes of the natural world, escape, language, and city vs. nature.
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Summary of White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by stating that she “drove” away from her suburban world and into a more natural one. She left behind small talk and simple everyday life. The area she entered into was one that was unified by a different way of speaking. She focuses most specifically on a hawthorn tree as the main feature of the land.
This sights remind her of superstitions surrounding the tree and lead her to consider the larger position of the tree as a landmark, in amongst the rest of the natural world, helping to guide travellers.
You can read the full poem White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland here.
Structure of White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland
‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’ by Eavan Boland is a seven stanza poem that’s separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, there are examples of half-rhyme in 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, “seasons” and “gardens” in the first stanza. Or, lines one and three of the fourth stanza with “known” and “hawthorn”.
Another rhyming technique present in ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’ is internal rhyme. It is not constrained to the end of the lines but can appear anywhere. For instance, “West” and “left” in the first stanza, or “downhill” and “fill” in stanza three.
There are also examples of full rhyme, also sometimes known as complete rhyme. This is the sort of end rhyme that is most commonly associated with poetry. It can be seen at the ends of lines one and three of the fifth stanza with “forfeit” and “it”.
Poetic Techniques in White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland
Boland also makes use of a variety of poetic techniques in ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’. 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, “season” and “seasons” in the second line of the first stanza, or the return again and again to similar natural imagery, water, light, etc.
Another kind of repetition can be seen through the technique of alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “season,” “seasons” and “suburban” in the first stanza and “skies,” “splashes,” “shyness” and “superstitious” in the second stanza.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half. Sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. There are a number of examples in ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’. These include lines three and four of the fifth stanza: “a child might die, perhaps, or an unexplained fever / speckle heifers. So I left it”.
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. A perfect example can be seen in the transition between the first and second lines of the first stanza.
Analysis of White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland
I drove West
Lawnmowers. Small talk.
In the first stanza of ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland,’ the speaker begins by establishing a pattern of movement. She describes how in the past, she “drove West” and left behind a suburban world. This was done in a liminal space, between two seasons. A number of the lines in this poem are short and choppy. They break up one’s natural pattern of reading, often surprisingly so. For instance the two-word phrase “Small talk” at the end of the first stanza.
The fact that these words are isolated into their own sentence fragment places extra emphasis on them. The same can be said for “Lawnmowers”. These are examples of the things the speaker wanted to leave behind when she drove away. They were the defining images of the past.
Under low skies, past splashes of coltsfoot,
and the superstitious aura of hawthorn.
In the next four lines, she goes on to contrast the simple suburban would with the “low skies” and “splashes” of the plant “coltsfoot”. The speaker changed while she drove and took on something of the “Atlantic light” she encountered. In the fourth line of this stanza, she mentions the “hawthorn” tree she came upon as she drove into the west of Ireland. There was something otherworldly and magical about it.
All I wanted then was to fill my arms with
that ivory, downhill rush. But I knew,
The poet goes on, describing how when she got to the edge of the country and was surrounded by nature rather than the suburbs, she wanted to be consumed by it. All he wanted was “to fill [her] arms with / sharp flowers”. If she could’ve been, she would’ve liked to be part of the landscape, specifically the “ivory” of the tree’s flowers.
I had always known,
Not to bring it indoors for the sake of
The last line of the third stanza is enjambed, leading the reader into the fourth stanza and the speaker’s recollections of tradition. She knows that the “custom / was not to touch hawthorn”. This seems to be something she respects. She knows that bringing it inside, or taking it away from its place outdoors, would be wrong.
fever speckle heifers. So I left it
With further use of enjambment, Boland leads the reader into the fifth stanza. Here, she explains that bringing the flowers indoors might bring on bad luck. This relates back to the use of the word “superstitious” at the beginning of the poem. If one violated these rules then something terrible could happen. She doesn’t know what that thing might be, but it could be anything. After considering this factor, she decided to leave “it” where it was.
stirring on those hills
to redefine land. And free to seem to be–
The sixth stanza is quite lyrical. She speaks on the movement of the hill. Boland uses a simile to compare it to water. Both have a “fluency” and an ability to “redefine land”. This is something the speaker herself would like to embody. Her escape at least temporarily from the suburbs seems to have been in an effort to draw closer to these elements. To become part of the natural world and feel free to be what she is.
the only language spoken in those parts.
The speaker clearly feels a deep connection to this land. She knows it’s one that applies not only to her but “for travellers astray / in the unmarked lights of a May dusk”. The natural world, its fluid movements, and the “fluency” with which humanity may come to understand it is the “only language spoken in those parts”.