A Formalist Approach to Eavan Boland’s The River
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A Formalist Approach to Eavan Boland’s The River
Over the years many different ways of analyzing poetry have been developed. One such approach is the “New Critical,” or the “Formalist,” which is based on the writings of Coleridge. The formalist approach is useful because it takes the poem’s form, which may be overlooked, and analyzes it to see what its effect is on the meaning of the poem. There are other aspects taken into consideration, like who the speaker is and how the author incorporates “ironic awareness” into the poem. Eavan Boland’s message in “The River” comes across best when looking at the poem with the formalistapproach, taking into consideration the speaker and the speaker’s situation, the organic form, and the use of irony. Some aspects may have more importance than others, but all need to be looked at, beginning with the speaker.
Using the hints within the poem, I see the speaker as possibly being an adult writing or talking to a parent or some unspecified figure about her early childhood. The speaker could be looking back at a time when someone took her to a river, and she is reporting what she saw. There is textual evidence to support all of these claims. The possibility the speaker is looking back at a childhood experience is shown when she writes,
how strange it felt-
not having any
names for the red oak
and the rail
and the slantways plunge
of the osprey. (6-12)
I see the speaker as possibly being a child because the speaker remembers not knowing the actual names of what she saw. A young child wouldn’t know “rail” or the osprey’s dive, probably using a word such as “birdie.” The other choice for the speaker is an adult, who is speaking about a time spent at a river in a foreign land. This is the choice I see as most likely possible because the speaker says it feels strange to not know the names, yet as a child I never felt odd because I didn’t know a type of bird.
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Eavan Boland Formalist Approach River Young Child Childhood Experience Early Childhood Speaker
The reason the speaker doesn’t know the names of these parts of nature is because they aren’t things present in the speaker’s native land. I also see the speaker being an adult because she remembers this happened “in mid-October (3),” which is something a child might not. The audience of the speaker comes out in the first line, when she makes reference to “you.” The “you” in the poem may be the speaker’s husband, or some person close to her because this event seems to be important. The “you” also appears to be foreign to the scene, although the audience’s familiarity with the surroundings is not clear. However, we never are told specifically who the audience is. In regards to the speaker, I believe she can be trusted in what she says because with the years in between the event and her retelling, she has probably gained experience in this time. We know this because she can now name things. There are more means of getting at the poem.
Coleridge writes about the reconciliation of opposites in Chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria, writing that a poet fuses a tone and spirit of unity in imagination, and uses imagination to reveal “itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities (Coleridge 482).” The discordant qualities relevant to “The River” are sameness and difference, the idea and the image, and the sense of novelty and freshness and the old and familiar objects. These reconciliations are a part of the irony in the poem. When I read the poem, I can see the event as something the speaker may have gone through previously in her home land, so some things are the same, while others are different. The sight plays into the idea of the sense of freshness and the familiar. Many of the birds she sees are new to her at the time, yet some things are familiar, like a river and some of the life contained in it.
After looking at the different characteristics of form, I found the poem possesses an organically unified form. Some of these characteristics, like imagery, sound, enjambments, and stanzaic structure are used meaningfully in the poem. There are many images in the poem that form connections. Normally, when people think about nature, they think about how it is something magnificent and beautiful, maybe even something sacred. The images Boland uses, though, portray something quite contrary. Without using violent words, she describes a scene that is potentially violent, with man invading nature, and nature hurting nature. For example, she writes about a tree being worn away by the river.
However, more important than the implied violence is how she writes about the relation of our language and the world around us. Throughout the poem she mentions a loss of words. She shows this problem with language using two opposite ideas. She first has language problems because she doesn’t know the names of what she is seeing, as they are a part of her new, yet familiar experience, which is ironic. She then explains her loss for words because she sees something more than words can express. The speaker and her companion are comforted by a familiar sight, or old experience, and the familiarity makes it so there is no need for words to be expressed between them. While the dog and the hunter contribute to the idea of potential violence, it is their presence that seems to be the most meaningful to the speaker. I infer that idea from the emphasis she places on them.
Boland also uses various forms of sound in addition to the images in order to emphasize certain sections of the poem. She uses forms such as alliteration, assonance, and repetition. The alliteration is most strongly seen in the first and second stanza with the use of “r” and “s,” and in the third with the use of “w” and “s.” The alliteration is used to make connections to the setting and feeling. In the first stanza, the sounds are rough, which seems to bring out the uncertainty of the narrator at the time of her memory. In the third stanza, the sound is smooth and flows easily, in contrast to the potential turbulence it suggests with the hunter. It points to how the narrator and her companion were not saying much in lines 13-14, which read, “What we said was less / than what we saw.” However, words were not necessary because the experience was much more than words could say. They were unified together, so speaking was unnecessary.
There is a variety of assonance in the first three stanzas. In the first stanza, the “aw” sound is used frequently in words like “brought,” “October,” “swamp,” and “saw.” These low frequency sounds accompany the first impression of what the speaker sees, which is the river that has worn away the trees. In the second stanza, the “a” sound is used, for example, in “strange,” “names,” “rail,” “slantways.” This assonance has a lighter tone to it, which I see as emphasizing the speaker’s enthusiasm at being witness to these new things. However, the tone seems to be a little darker in the third stanza, with the use of “uh” in words like “what,” “was,” “duck,” “us,” and “hunter.” We tend to associate horror and disgust with “uh” sounds, which means the speaker and her companion were bothered by seeing the hunter. So far what they had been witness to was all nature, but now something outside was invading. The darker nature contrasts somewhat with the smoothness in this stanza that I mentioned earlier, but it could be taken that they have reached a familiarity in the horror of the hunter. In the previous stanza, the speaker deals with not knowing the names, but in this stanza, she and her companion both recognize the duck boat and the hunter. It is possible this aspect is something they have encountered in their old home on a river. Animals and trees change from place to place, but hunters are everywhere. The two of them are also connected to the hunter due to his humanness. Besides the hunter being like them, he also embodies the inclination towards violence found in humans, of which the speaker is aware.
The final sound quality used is repetition, which stands out in the third stanza’s first three lines, which are “What we said was less / than what we saw. / What we saw was (13-15).” All three lines include “what” and “we,” which leads me to believe that the author wanted us to focus on these lines and see their importance. I see the narrator as emphasizing the point that the words exchanged between herself and her subject were not as important as what they were witnessing. These lines grab your attention and make you think of how being speechless is something we all experience. She is also referring to the fact that their experience was more than words could say. She can’t convey the feelings as she would like. It is also a possibility it simply came from the lack of the knowledge of the language in the new land.
There seems to be a certain pattern of stresses in the poem. A large majority of words have stress placed on them due to the fact that quite a few short words are used, many of which are monosyllabic. Many important short words are “brought,” “strange,” “felt,” “gun,” and ones in lines 13-15. Their monosyllabic nature makes them pop out at you. They are simple words conveying complex feelings. I see the use of simple words as Boland emphasizing that although the poem is not long in relation to the amount of words used, each word has importance to it, and none of them are wasteful or taking up space. There is one caesura used in line seven, which reads, “how strange it felt―”. The caesura is used in order to put extra emphasis on “felt.” The speaker is mentioning the strangeness of not knowing a lot in a foreign land, and how there is a feeling of uncertainty about the surroundings. It also indicates these feelings are going to be more prevalent in the upcoming lines.
The enjambment of lines is something common in this poem, in which only seven of the twenty-four lines have punctuation. The enjambments lead to the break up of sentences in many lines. I see these enjambments as placing meaning and importance on certain words or phrases in the poem. One example is line six, which is only “I remember.” This stands out and indicates to us that what the speaker is about to relate to us is from a memory. The enjambments also draw attention to the various objects in nature that are mentioned, along with some other descriptive words, like “plunge,” “less,” and “wild.” The enjambment in line three of stanza three indicates that the speaker is going to relate something that has taken away words. It is important because I believe the loss for words this time is from familiarity, not unfamiliarity, which I mentioned earlier. Another enjambment is the final line, which reads, “excludes light.” As this is the last line, it stands out, and we know there must be importance to it. I see this importance as being that it connects back to the beginning of the poem. At the time, the speaker was uncertain of her surroundings, eventually finding familiarity in the hunter and his dog. In the final line, the uncertainty comes back because the dark river leaves the speaker and the reader uncertain because we don’t know what is going on under the surface. I also see the enjambment and the actual form of the poem as showing that just like the river, the cycle of life is not something smooth. They both have a flow to them, but it isn’t a consistent or constant flow. The life in and around the river is unpredictable, just as is life in and around us, even if we think we understand it. Not a lot is certain in life, meaning unexpected changes could come along at any time. The poem illustrates and embodies this in its form.
The stanzaic structure may be even more important. It helps indicate the feeling and place emphasis on all of the lines. It is important to notice the way the lines are all short and offset. Offsetting the lines causes a few things to happen. The lines illustrate the uneven flow associated with a river. It also points out the feelings of uncertainty. If the speaker was sure about everything and these things were all smooth and comforting, then the lines may have been set together. All of these formalist techniques that Boland uses are important to the poem because they place emphasis on what we are to focus on and think about in order to understand the poem.
Ironic awareness is an important aspect in the formalist criticism. I found that this particular work by Boland contains ironic awareness. The speaker is taking the world of nature that she is unfamiliar with and reconciling it with what she does know. Even within the beauty of nature there are unsettling actions that are a natural part of it. She points out how sometimes it is these unsettling things that bring us some form of comfort. She really brings that idea across by including the hunter, making it seem as though his invasion brings the familiarity to the two observers. Another aspect of Boland’s “ironic awareness” is that the river is said to be drowning the rice and keeping out the light, and that appears to be somewhat negative. However, the reality, of which the speaker is likely aware, is the river is actually giving life to the rice, and the darker the water, the better the chance for the fish to avoid being caught by the osprey. Irony also plays into fish being able to hide because they provide life to the birds. The speaker is reconciling the attitude of the “destructive” river with that of the “life giving” river. She clearly shows both ideas at work. I also see it ironic that in the beginning there weren’t many words because the speaker and her companion were unfamiliar with what they saw. Later on they are still speechless, yet this time it is because they are familiar with what they see. She is showing the effect that the world around us can have on language.
After analyzing “The River” with the formalist approach, I think it is evident that this particular approach applies well. Every poetic quality Boland uses, including repetition, line enjambment, and ironic awareness, is vital and significant for getting the meaning of the poem across. Part of this meaning deals with the strong relation between language and our world. At times we can’t express what we don’t know, and we also have problems expressing those things we do know. References to the potential violence in nature appear, which gives a feeling of familiarity to the speaker. Whenever we move to a new land to live, there are unfamiliar qualities, though all the while there will be things, no matter how unpleasant, that will give the comfort of familiarity. That idea is most apparent in the recognition of the hunter. The speaker connects to the hunter through his humanity and his portrayal of a human’s inclination towards violence. Different ways of get this meaning from the poem exist, and the formalist approach, based on the writings of Coleridge, is one possible choice.
Boland, Eavan. “The River.” Outside History: Selected Poems 1980-1990. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990. 27.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period. 7th ed. Vol 2A. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W.Norton & Co., 2000. 468–486.
You brought me
to the mouth of a river
when the swamp maples
were saw-toothed and blemished.
how strange it felt—
not having any
names for the red oak
and the rail
and the slantways plunge
of the osprey.
What we said was less
than what we saw.
What we saw was
a duck boat, slowly
passing us, a hunter and
his spaniel and
his gun poised,
and, in the distance,
tips of the wild
rice drowning in
that blue which raids and
Formalism is clearly a twentieth century critical phenomenon in its emphasis on close readings of literary texts, dissociated from extrinsic references to authors or to their society. There had been a formalist tendency before in the history of literary criticism, but it did not, as in twentieth century formalism, approach exclusivity in its emphasis on the structure of the work itself. Aristotle’s analysis in De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) of the complex tragic plot as having a tripartite division of reversal, recognition, and catastrophe is one of the most valuable formalist analyses of the structure of tragedy ever made.
That Aristotle’s approach to poetics was not intrinsic but extrinsic, however, was made clear by his twentieth century followers, the Chicago Neo-Aristotelians Ronald S. Crane and Elder Olson. They were the harshest critics of what they regarded as the limited critical perspective of modern formalists, pointing out that an Aristotelian analysis was characteristically in terms of four causes. These were the formal cause (the form that the work imitates), the material cause (the materials out of which the work is made), the efficient cause (the maker), and the final cause (the effect on the reader or audience). Crane charged in Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern (1952) that the New Criticism is concerned with only one of these causes, language, in order to distinguish poetic from scientific and everyday uses of language, but was unable to distinguish among the various kinds of poetry. It is true that formalism is largely concerned with literature as a verbal art. This single-mindedness has been its strength in explication as well as its weakness as a critical theory.
Two key concepts in the literary theory of the English Romantic period may have been influential on twentieth century formalism. Although the New Critics were professedly anti-Romantic, following Eliot’s call for impersonality in modern poetry, their stress on the...
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