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Analysis of the Poem "How We Made a New Art on Old Ground" by Eavan Boland

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Irish poet Eavan Boland

Irish poet Eavan Boland

A Summary of "How We Made A New Art On Old Ground"

"How We Made a New Art On Old Ground" focuses on history, place and the influence of language on both. What to make of past events, specifically past violence, and how to move on with creative use of words (nature poetry) in order to bring a sense of peace.

This is very much Irish poet Eavan Boland's territory. She works at the borderlines between potentially oppressive culture and individual freedoms, or as she herself put it: 'the whole field of how expression and experience influence each other in art.'

In the poem the speaker seeks to separate 'place' from 'the torment of the place' by suggesting that a nature poem might well achieve this, albeit temporarily.

What makes the poem special is its rare calm tone of reasoned argument. The speaker is standing near an old battlefield and gradually guides the reader into what some critics have called 'the inner secret' of the landscape.

  • It is this meditative air that allows the reader to follow the speaker right into the heart of the poem, where feeling meets reason, where creative language erases history momentarily, and where a seed of renewal might be sown in the peaceful present.

Eavan Boland, lecturer, essayist and writer, says that poetry is a way 'to fathom silences, follow the outsider's trail.'

In this poem she carefully juxtaposes history and natural history, teasing out a peaceful silence with new words that nullify the pain of the past. It was first published in 2001 in the book Against Love Poetry.

How We Made a New Art On Old Ground


Stanza by Stanza Analysis of "How We Made a New Art On Old Ground"

"How We Made a New Art On Old Ground" deals with history, the here and now and creativity. It's an attempt to synthesise all three, exploring the idea that art (a nature poem) of the present can take away the pain of the violent past.

Boland is a poet of place and history, the environment in which her poems are set relate strongly to the evolving domestic and Irish landscapes. In this poem, the setting is a valley where a battle once took place.

Stanza 1

Those two opening lines are a pair but they're an odd couple. The first sets the scene firmly in the present; the second is aimed towards a third person...could be someone standing with the speaker, could be an alter ego, could be the reader, or anyone.

The juxtaposition of battle and nature in these first two lines sets the reader up - the former relates to human activity, the latter to the natural world, a separate entity. Both compete for attention throughout the poem.

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In the third line there is a dawning - the nature poem is about to be understood it seems - by who? You. This is the moment of epiphany, the nature poem will be understood despite the first and second lines being unrelated.

Enjambment takes the reader on straight into the second stanza.

Stanza 2

Silence, the edge of. You are listening to history - the history of air which is natural because it is filled with ferns and birds (a fieldfare or a thrush? the former is migratory, the latter not so). The birds are writing on the air; they are pens, they are instruments and therefore metaphors for an ephemeral record.

Stanza 3

The other history is that of the human. You can't hear this. Time has silenced it. The estuary - natural - is over there, the battle over whatever issue happened here. Note how the poet reinforces the speaker's place in time and space.

Historically two kings met in do or die battle. One of them won, the other lost. It's a logical summing up, if rather abrupt.

Stanza 4

This poem swings between the past and present, the speaker now describing the day - it's humid dusk - and how events of the past with all the pain involved still wait for healing, for a different truth. Is this a healing that language will perform, or simply another layer of generational cover?

The speaker describes the willow and the river and the fading light...and again the speaker mentions you...the reader, the visitor, the speaker's intimate friend and follower.

Stanza 5 - 6

Enjambment again builds up the scene and the feeling. The nature poem isn't supposed to be the definitive answer, the be all and end all. But it does allow us to observe and witness decay, as in rusted metal; it does bring a certain redemptive stillness, being an art of peace.

Stanza 7

This stanza is the turning point of the poem for the speaker now is a first person I...the speaker is now writing the nature poem (in unison with the birds) using words like distance and valley which she hopes will undo all the pain of the past battle.

Stanzas 8 - 10

The speaker embeds herself and the reader deeper into the silence the words inspire. Describing ilex trees (holly trees) near the ford (a shallow river crossing) and specifically mentioning Yellow Island (must be in the Yellow River, a tributary of the River Boyne near where the Battle of the Boyne took place in 1690).

The light is going - described as sweet corrosion - and the poem becomes a part of the fabric of the place, changing everything, erasing for a short time the memory of the awful battle that, though never forgotten in historical record, is now freed from the landscape, temporarily healed.

Literary Devices Used in "How We Made a New Art On Old Ground"

"How We Made a New Art On Old Ground" is a free verse poem, 40 lines made up of 10 quatrains. So there is no rhyme scheme.


When two or more consonants are in the same line close together to produce sound texture and unusual echoes:

seem separate...see the silk...sycamores, a summer's...Silence spreads beside...what we...


When two or more vowels in close words have similar sounds producing a contrast to the above and bringing phonetic challenge for the reader. For example:

battle happened in this valley...upward of the willow...


A pause or break in a line caused by punctuation:

about to change them all: what we see is how


When a line runs on into the next with no punctuation, keeping the meaning and building momentum. For example:

When you see the silk of the willow

and the wider edge of the river turn

The form is unusual, highly structured yes, but with the alternate lines of each stanza pushed away from the left margin, as if a conscious contrast is sought, the white spaces giving extra time for the reader to pause between the first and second and between the third and fourth lines.

Enjambment - when one line runs on into the next without punctuation counteracts this lengthy pause, the reader encouraged to go with the flow between the second and third lines.

The metre (meter in American English) has an iambic pentameter bias but not all the lines are pure iambic by any means. Let's take a closer look at the first stanza:

A fa / mous bat / tle happ / ened in / this valley.

You nev / er und / erstood / the nat / ure poem.

Till now. / Till these / moments - / if these / statements

seem sep / arate, / unre / lated, fo / llow this

So, each line is a pentameter - with five feet - but each has a varied metric.

The first line is mostly iambic with that extra unstressed syllable at the end. The second likewise but it has that quiet pyrrhic (no stressed syllables) in the middle.

The third line has unusual syntax and is meant to break up any already established rhythm. And the fourth line is also a mish mash with those three syllable words undermining the iambic beat, disturbing the familiar, reflecting the unrelatedness.


100 essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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