King Lear William Shakespeare

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Leaving Certificate: English Notes

Paper 2

King Lear William Shakespeare


The story of King Lear has its origins in pre-Roman Celtic mythology. Shakespeare’s play was first performed in 1606 at the court of King James. It may have ‘borrowed’ from an earlier play King Leir and his Three Daughters, acted as early as 1594 and published in 1605. Geoffrey of Monmouth (History of the English Kings Circa 1140) provides one of the oldest written references to King Leir. He describes him as a pre-Christian warrior king. The second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicals also refers to King Leir. Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen written in 1590 is Shakespeare’s source for Cordelia. He included her death by hanging in imitation of Spencer’s character. Shakespeare retells this old story to convey a strikingly modern message. He took an old story which had a happy ending and gave it an ending which is sad. According to the philosopher Aristotle, horror and pity are two emotions that the audience should feel while watching a tragedy. We not only feel these emotions watching the play, they remain embedded in the heart of the audience long after the play is over.

Man’s inhumanity to man

The universal implications of the tragedy of King Lear have a strong resonance in the 21st century. We today, like Lear struggle to survive in a cruel and unrelenting world; a world stripped to the essence of its being, a world without power, shelter or material comfort, a world very much like ours. Lear ends up in a hovel in the earth, surrounded by the dispossessed, a refugee in a hostile environment. Is it any wonder that today the play is more popular than Hamlet due to the universal implications of this tragedy for the modern world?

King Lear is a philosophical exercise which examines the nature of humanity and probes the dark recesses of the human psyche. The play is extremely pagan, pessimistic and fatalistic. In Act IV Sc III Kent observes ‘It is the stars/Above us, govern our conditions;’ and in Act IV Sc I Gloucester suggests that ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; /They kill us for their sport.’ Is Shakespeare suggesting there is no God? That the comforts of religion are make-believe?
One could almost suggest that the world of King Lear is sadistic in nature. We see the human body torn, battered and annihilated at a whim. The vile acts carried out by Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmond creates chaos and inflicts the most outrageous pain and suffering. The brutality and immorality of these characters is hard to comprehend. Today we often reflect on the same brutality and immorality, feeling a deep sense of revulsion at ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ which most definitely ‘makes countless thousands mourn’! This play forces its audience to acknowledge that human nature is intrinsically flawed and is capable of the most degenerate acts.


In the play King Lear we see a serious indictment of the misuse of authority and the perversion of justice. Lear is a powerful ruler with no heir to succeed him. He makes a fatal decision to divide his kingdom among his three daughters based on the premise of who can most eloquently express their love for him. His arrogant nature is prevalent as he ignores the rites of succession and fails to take adequate steps to protect his kingdom after his abdication. In fact the only steps he takes are rooted in self interest. He wishes ‘To shake all cares and business from our age/Conferring them on younger strengths’. Lear is over eighty and wishes to settle the affairs of state ‘that future strife /May be prevented now’. However having abdicated all his responsibility he wishes to retain ‘The name and addition to a king’. Lear abdicates his responsibility yet wishes to retain the trappings associated with it. He wants the proverbial cake and wants to eat it too! It is hard to imagine how this can bring peace and harmony to the kingdom. He divides his kingdom on the basis of how eloquently his daughters express their love for him. His desire for flattery and need to boost his self-esteem seems inappropriate in a man of eighty and in a king who commands such absolute respect. In Act I Sc I Lear is dismissive, condescending and absolute. He makes a total error of judgement for which he will pay dearly. He is closely followed by Gloucester who appears to be easily deceived by his illegitimate son Edmond.

‘Justice’ is meted out hastily in this play. Cordelia and Kent are banished, followed closely by Edgar, Lear and Gloucester. Right at the heart of King Lear is a misunderstanding about the true nature of things. Lear, Gloucester and Albany become better people as they learn the hard way about the good and evil within themselves and within the world around them. There is an element of poetic justice at the end of the play. Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund die in varying circumstances. However so too do Gloucester, Cordelia and Lear. Where is justice here? There has been an element of redemption for Lear and Gloucester. They were both blind to their children’s real worth. They were easily swayed and corrupted by younger, more cunning, astute usurpers. However Cordilia’s death must be the greatest injustice in the play. The danger of absolute power in monarchy deficient in wisdom and justice is evident in King Lear as is the danger of absolute power in any one person, government or ideology today.

Familial relationships

Lear’s older daughters, Goneril and Regan are jealous of his younger daughter, Cordelia because she is her father’s favourite child. Lear does not try to conceal this fact and is about to bestow on her ‘A third more opulent than your sisters’ I: I. He admits to Kent that he ‘lov’d her most’ I: I and had relied on her to provide comfort for him in old his age. As Cordelia refuses to flatter his ego she is disinherited and banished, ‘begone/ Without our, grace, our love, our benison!’ I: II. Should parental love be contingent to any degree upon performance or achievement?

Lear’s family is now plunged into crisis. Goneril and Regan are two of the strongest female characters Shakespeare created. Both daughters, like their father, enjoy wielding their power. Goneril bullies Albany, a husband she despises. One can deduce that her marriage, like Cordelia’s was at her father’s will. Regan too undermines her husband, interrupting him when he tries to take charge. They are very effective in serving their own interests and in undermining Lear’s authority. Goneril instructs Oswald to be negligent of her father ‘And let his Knights have colder looks among you; / What grows of it no matter’. As the play progresses both children inflict ferocious pain and suffering on their father. Their subversive actions finally lead to their downfall. Their actions have subverted all codes of human behaviour and have destroyed their family and the state, bringing chaos and misrule. However their coolness and calculation are eventually destroyed by passion. It is ironic that it is not their ambition but their love for a man who cares nothing for either of them should be the cause of their ultimate demise. Edmund wonders ‘Which of them shall I take? Both? One? Or neither?’ This shocking demise of Goneril and Regan emphasise their fiendish nature. They are the personification of evil and along with Edmund and Cornwall must die. Goneril and Regan represent a world without morality and love, inconsequence we see a breakdown of law and order, the destruction of filial bonds, disloyalty, treachery and murder.


There is no happy ending in this play. The critic Mark Van Doran suggests that ‘No happy ending was thinkable for a hero who had learned so much so late.’ Lear comments that he is ‘a man / More sinned against than sinning.’III: II. But as the play continues we see Lear assume responsibility for the outcome of his actions. The play concludes that the responsibility for human action does not lie in nature, God or the supernatural, but in man himself. As Kenneth Muir says ‘King Lear is a look at the worst; but it shows several characters refusing to compromise with evil and emerging from the struggle ennobled and purified and it also it also demonstrates the self-destructive effects of the ruthless pursuit of power.’ This clearly has a resonance in our 21st century.

KING LEAR: Characters
What major themes concern the character of Edmund?

How do you feel about Edmund?

What adjectives come to mind when we come to describe him?
Malignant, malevolent, murderer, manipulative, monstrous, Machiavellian, (cunning, unscrupulous, using clever trickery, amoral methods, and expediency to achieve a desired goal, especially in politics), diabolical, savage, brutal, destructive, ambitious, ruthless, selfish, egocentric, insensitive, courageous, humorous, engagingly intelligent……
For some Edmund is their favourite character, most definably one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations. He is credited for his strong characters and for the fact that he avoids caricatures and we find our sympathies always divided. Edmund is charming, clever, and clear headed. His energy, humour and self-command at once engage our interest. He wins the trust of his father and brother, the respect of Cornwall and the love of both Goneril and Regan! Coleridge remarks on his ‘courage, intellect and strength of character’ He also remarked that Shakespeare also provided various circumstances that that allow us to admire Edmund. In the opening scene of the play we see how heartlessly and hurtfully his father, Gloucester, has treated him, introducing him with smutty jokes. We do not need to see his face to imagine how often this must have happened and how Edmund’s feelings must have been hurt by it! We know that he was sent away from home for ‘nine years’ and brought up in a strange house and was soon to be ‘away..…again’.
Like G&R, his appearance in the opening scene is deceptive. He seems polite, charming and eager to please. He is deferential to Kent, saying that he will work hard to earn his favour: ‘Sir I shall study deserving.’ This, however, belies his true nature, evident in his opening soliloquy in Act1:2. His words reveal a lively, witty cynic who despises conventional moral standards, along with laws and customs. It soon becomes apparent that Edmund is an adventurer, acting in pursuance of a purpose. He is, as A.C. Bradley suggests, ‘determined to make his way, first to his brother’s lands, then, as the prospect widens, to the crown;’, using all who come in his path as ‘hindrances or helps’ to his end. His bitter resentment of his brother Edgar’s primogeniture is evident as he dedicates himself to ‘Nature’, his ‘goddess’, telling us that he will have nothing to do with the law, with morality or with religious principles. We see that he is as calculating as Goneril & Regan. They use cynical flattery and lies to gain Lear’s approval and half his Kingdom. Edmund uses fraud and guile to deprive ‘legitimate Edgar’ of his lawful inheritance stating that he ‘must have [his] land’. He is filled with rancour and anger. These unscrupulous characters reveal a moral kinship that will unite plot and sub-plot, developing in intensity as the play progresses.
It must be stated that Edmond’s illegitimacy furnishes no excuse for his villainy but it does influence our feelings toward him at this early stage. He evokes our sympathy as he questions ‘Why bastard? Wherefore base?’ It is no fault of his yet it separates him from others. He has no recognised place within the social order of the Kingdom and adopts the attitude of a ‘professional criminal’ according to Bradley. He seems to say to society ‘You tell me I do not belong to you! Very well: I can make my way into your treasure –house if I can. And if I have to take a life in doing so, that is your affair.’ He is an amoral character whose only priority is self advancement. As the play progresses we see him emerge as one of Shakespeare’s most monstrous creations, a murderous and manipulative villain who is governed solely by egoism and self-love.
Edmund is certainly gifted with an exceptional intelligence and energy and is a talented manipulator. It is easy for him to deceive both Gloucester and Edgar. He gloats about having, ‘a credulous father and a brother noble…/on whose foolish honesty /[his]practices ride easy’. He easily convinces his father of Edgar’s treachery and his own innocence. Having attained Edgar’s lands he proceeds to aim for his father’s position as Earl of Gloucester.
Edmund is not seen again until Act 3, Scene3, when we see his true despicable nature. Here again the sub plot mirrors the main: Lear on his knees ridiculed by his two daughters; Gloucester’s confidential trust in his son abused heartlessly. He informs us that ‘this courtesy, forbid [Gloucester], shall the duke instantly know’. (3:3) This scene marks the end of our admiration for Edmund and the beginning of our admiration for Gloucester. Edmund is motivated by pure self interest, the natural moral order overturned here as it is in the scenes with Goneril and Regan. Edmund betrays his father with cynical opportunism gaining personal advancement. His consummate hypocrisy is evident as he pretends that he is troubled by a conflict that is his loyalty to his father and his duty to his country: ‘How malicious is my fortune’, he feigns, ‘that [he] must repent being just!’ As T. S Eliot might suggest, he is adept at putting on a ‘face to meet the faces that [he] meet[s]’: The Great Pretender!!! His Machiavellian nature is evident as he asserts to Cornwall that he will ‘persevere in the course of loyalty, though the conflict be sore between that and [his] blood.’ What occurs next is savage depravity; a profound and shocking example of man’s inhumanity to man which is both revolting and shocking. We are appalled and dismayed at the extremity of human cruelty! A total disintegration of the entire moral fabric of society is apparent as we witness the inversion of the natural order. The presence of two female characters at this juncture, the scene of the most violent physical horrors, as Gloucester’s blinding, reflects a world convulsed by evil, a world full of gratuitous violence. ‘Hang him instantly’, demands Regan! ‘Pluck out his eyes’, commands Goneril! A.C Bradley comments that the play King Lear ‘is a tragedy in which evil is shown in its greatest abundance; and the evil characters are peculiarly repellent from their hard savagery, and because so little good is mingled with their evil.’
Plot and sub-plot now entwine in a fascinating love triangle! Edmund casually decides to use the sisters to progress his own ambition. He shrewdly plays them against each other to gain more power. His malignant malevolence effervesces in his cold marmoreal treatment of the two women willing to murder and die for him! ‘Which of them shall I take? Both? One? Or neither?’ he ponders in a detached heartless manner. He is mercenary. It would be easy for him to take the widowed Regan but is fully aware that this would ‘exasperate[s]’ her sister. He knows he cannot have Goneril while Albany lives, but realises he needs him to secure victory against the invading French forces. He leaves Albany’s ultimate demise to Goneril and seals both Lear and Cordellia’s death warrant.
So what do we make of Edmund’s final moments? Does his final gesture redeem him somewhat? Is he filled with remorse as he begs for forgiveness and confesses that he has ordered the deaths of both Lear and Cordelia? ‘Some good I mean to do/ Despite mine own nature.’ These words ring hollow from the mouth of such a manipulator of human emotions. The deaths of Regan and Goneril only touch him in so far as they seem to advance his own self-worth. Edmund is an egocentical ‘bastard’. Edgar’s description of their father’s death ‘hath moved [him]’ suggesting ‘that it shall perchance do good’. We hold our breath awaiting his epiphanic gesture where he will save the saintly Cordellia and the much abused and maligned Lear but no! He tells his brother to ‘speak ..on’. He plays on the melodrama of the moment and as he arrives at death’s door still a brilliant manipulator of human response. His brother describes him as a ruthless ‘toad spotted traitor’ and Edmund knows that ‘the wheel has come full circle; I am here.’ His disingenuous behaviour marks his lack of genuine sincerity and marks the man: malevolent, monstrous, Machiavellian, misanthrope.
King Lear: Characters

Goneril and Regan

In which major themes are these two characters entangled?

In the opening scenes we meet Goneril & Regan and see their false and extravagant natures. Goneril tells us that she has ‘A love [for her father] that makes breath pure & speech unable’ 1:1, and unlike Cordelia, she is indulgent of Lear’s fickle behaviour. Regan too asserts her love for her father, so much so that she is ‘an enemy to all other joys’ 1:1. Both sisters, however, behave very differently in private. Here we see their hypocrisy & duplicity. They are suspicious of Lear’s ‘poor judgement in banishing Cordelia.’ and within a shot space of time we see Lear’s eldest daughter behave in a deceitful manner. She is a vicious ‘fiend’ who mistreats her father as soon as he makes her joint Queen of England. G & R present a picture in the opening scenes which belie their opening professions of unconditional love. As T. S Eliot might suggest, they ‘put on a face to meet the faces that [they] meet.’! They are both cunning & shrewd and aim to protect themselves from Lear’s ‘unruly waywardness’ and together join forces to plot against their father! Goneril’s cynical and cruel pragmatism is evident here as she weighs up her father’s flaws and tells her sister that they must ‘do something, i’ the heat.’

G&R represent a moral order that has been turned upside down. As daughters they show ultimate scorn for their father. G refers to him as an ‘idle old man/That still would manage those authorities/That he had given away.’ 1:3. She unfairly blames him for tormenting her, outrageously suggesting, ‘that by day and night he does me wrong’1:3 She is hostile, cold and dismissive, toward Lear, confronting him about his knights and instructing Oswald to be neglective of him believing that Lear must be taught a lesson. A.C. Bradley suggests that Goneril ‘is the most hideous human being (if she is one) that Shakespeare ever drew.’ By transferring his power he has lost his privilege and status and without his power he has become a non-entity.

Both sisters unite in their in their filial and regal annihilation of Lear, Goneril the most malevolent and vindictive of the two. She is a ‘marble-hearted fiend’ 1:4 with no redeeming qualities. Her lack of humanity reflects her marmoreal nature. Regan mirrors her sister’s behaviour. The only reason that she is not as monstrous as her sister is that she lacks her energy, courage and strength. We see her cruel and malicious behaviour when she places Kent in the stocks. Both are contradictory of their husbands and dismissive of their father.
There are many poignant scenes in the play but one of the most heart-wrenching must be their heartless treatment of their father at this central moment in the play. Lear, father and King, kneels and begs his daughters for help. His cries fall on deaf ears and cold hearts. Both sisters unite against Lear, showing no remorse. As Lear confronts his two daughter’s true nature he is driven to madness.

We see a further disintegration in the moral order as Gloucester’s

eyes are gouged out in front of us. The mere physical horror of such

a spectacle is revolting and shocking. Although Cornwall is the one

to blind him it is his wife, Regan who urges him on, suggesting that

he take ‘the other [eye] too.’ Her sadistic nature is further evident as

she taunts Gloucester about Edmund’s betrayal and then murders

her servant who tries to intervene in this grotesque scene, stabbing

him in the back in a cowardly manner.

Goneril and Regan, two of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters, display a total lack of any feminine characteristics. They show no kindness, pity, concern, tenderness or gentleness and instead outdo the male characters in cruelty and primitive savagery. Their depraved actions have subverted all codes of human behaviour reflecting a world where the natural order has been completely subverted. Goneril despises Albany’s cowardly ‘milky gentleness’,1:4, she is unfaithful, possessive of Edmund and jealous of Regan whom she calls a ‘fiend’ in a ‘woman’s shape.’4:2 and is a danger to all who cross her path. Regan too is jealous of Goneril and is willing to fight her over Edmund. She is devious and spiteful when she finds her sister’s letter. Goneril’s venomous meanness outstrips that of her sister as she plots to have Albany murdered and as Granville –Barker remarks, poisons Regan ‘as she might a rat’. Both sisters are consumed by spiteful jealousy. It is ironic that it is not their ambition but possibly their only feminine quality, their love for a man who cares nothing for either of them, that should lead to their ultimate demise!

The play King Lear is a tragedy in which evil is shown in its greatest abundance and Goneril and Regan are the personification of this evil. They are repellent in their hard savagery. As A.C. Bradley suggests they are capable of ‘atrocious wickedness’, are ‘ formidable and loathsome’, have no conscience and have an insatiable need for power. And as Kenneth Muir suggests ‘they demonstrate the self-destructive effects of the ruthless pursuit of power.’

What major themes would you associate with Edgar?

How do you feel about him?

What do you think about him?

Find some adjectives to describe Edgar.

Heroic, persistent, determined, noble, brave, loyal, gullible, naïve, resourceful, virtuous, empathetic, altruistic, (selfless), healer, compassionate, wise, avenger, strategist, saviour, stoic, forgiving, armed avenger finally restoring equilibrium to the nation.
Edgar has very little stature at the beginning of the play, unlike his brother Edmund who has three soliloquies in his first scene and immediately engages our interest with his humour, energy and self-command. Our first impression of Edgar is perhaps of a passive, credulous dupe, an easy target for the Machiavellian Edmund to manipulate. We really only get to know him in his first disguise as Poor Tom and his character grows in stature as he progresses through many disguises. The figure of Poor Tom, a half-naked beggar and madman, would have been very relatable to a 16th Century audience. He is a typical vagabond of the Jacobean period

Act 1:2 line 138 -175 Edgar makes his first appearance. Edmund comments on his nobility, good nature and loyalty. An easy target for the devious Edmund to manipulate.

Read soliloquy line 176-182

Act 2:1 line 21-34 Edgar is now banished and Edmund has all his lands.

Act 2: 2 line 185-192 Soliloquy

Act 3: 4 line37 Edgar enters Lear’s hovel dressed as Poor Tom

Act 3: 6 line 46 Edgar’s empathy for Lear ‘My tears begin to take his part so much they mar my counterfeiting

Act 3:6 line 95 Soliloquy. Edgar feels empathy for Lear, feeling his own miseries as lesser.

Act 3: 7 Gloucester’s eyes gouged out

Act 4: 1 line 25 -82 Edgar is heartbroken seeing his father suffering. ‘I am worse than e’er I was. …..And worse I may be yet; the worst is not so long as we can say “this is the worst.”’ Leads him to cliff to jump.

Act 4 :6 line 1 -42 leads Gloucester to cliff stating that ‘Why [he does] trifle thus with his despair is done to cure it.‘ Edgar unlike Edmund uses deception for good rather than evil.

As Poor To he hides his identity and avoid capture, thus allowing him to protect Gloucester. Edmund deceives Gloucester to enrich himself and usurp his father. Edgar deceives his father to cure him of despair.

New Disguise
Act 4: 2 line 71 Gloucester has ‘jumped off cliff’ Edgar ‘rescues him’. Edgar acts as healer to his despairing father. Gloucester says that ‘henceforth [he’ll] bear affliction till it do cry out “Enough, enough” and die.’ He encourages his father to ‘Bear free and patient’ thoughts.’

Lear enters, Edgar comments ‘Thou side piercing sight!’

Lear and Gloucester meet for the first time since both endured horrendous suffering at the hands of their children. Edgar would not believe the sight of these two broken men unless he had seen it with his own eyes! ‘And [his] heart breaks at it.’ Line 139

His wisdom is evident here as he listens to Lear in his madness seeing that there is ‘matter and impertinency mixed, reason in madness.’ Line170

Edgar acknowledged as ‘Sir’ by gentleman sent by Cordelia to save Lear. Line 203

Act 4: 6 line 214 Edgar tells Gloucester that he is ‘a most poor man, made tame to fortunes blows who by the art of known and feeling sorrows [is]pregnant to good pity.’

Act 4:6 line 222 Edgar now becomes an avenger, saving his father from Oswald’s attack, killing him in the process. Does not feel any glory in this deed, rather he is ‘only sorry he had no other deathsman.’

Act 5.1 line38 enters in ‘peasants clothing’ and speaks to Albany, giving him Oswald’s letter. Edgar the strategist and saviour. Has a plan for trumpet to sound if Albany has the victory.

Act5:2 line 1-10 Edgar then leaves Gloucester only to return seconds later as a different character saving Gloucester as Lear has lost the battle and is addressed by his father as ‘sir.’

Act 5: 3 line 119 enter Edgar as armed avenger. Still not recognised by Edmund or others.

Accuses him of being a traitor even though Edmund has won the battle. Fights and slays him, revealing his true identity. (line167)
According to A.C Bradley Edgar ‘excites the least enthusiasm but, but he is the one whose development is the most marked.’ He learns from his foolish mistakes and becomes ‘the most capable person in the story, without using any of his nobility and purity of mind.’ While he is ‘the lowest and most dejected thing of fortune’ he keeps his head erect. Edgar believes in divine justice and this is the source of his optimism in the face of adversity. Edmund’s death is an example of this as Edgar sees that ‘the God’s are just and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us.’ Act 5:Sc 3. This notion of justice is central to the play as characters are eventually punished for their sins and power is returned to the forces of good.

Eavan Boland

Boland began writing poetry in the 1960’s while she was studying in Trinity College. She tells us in her book Object Lessons that ‘pubs were crowded. The cafes were full of apprentice writers like myself, some of them talking about literature, a very few talking intensely about poetry.’ However, her life and subject matter changed dramatically when she married, had her first child and moved to the suburbs. She found herself in two very different worlds, that of poet and wife/mother. She did not want there to be any contradiction between the way she made ‘an assonance fit a line and the way I lifted up a child at night.’ Boland was soon to realise that she was breaking new ground and that the world she inhabited was ‘almost invisible’ a world ‘that everyone knew and no one referred to. A world of suburbs and housing estates. Of children and women. Of fires lighted for the first winter chill; of food put on table. The so-called ordinary world…. was never mentioned.’ She felt the word ‘woman and the word poet were almost magnetically opposed.’ This situation was to offer her poetic inspiration discovering the link between the private and the public, drawing them into close proximity and exploring relationship between them. This duality in her poetry is a very appealing factor.

‘The Famine Road’ and ‘The War Horse’ are excellent examples of dual narrative. The former highlighting the parallel world of colonial repression and the humiliating oppression of women throughout history, the later examining the ordinary events of a suburb, a microcosm for our own ‘ruined’ history. ‘The Famine Road’ is a dramatic poem with different voices and an immediacy which grips us. The analogy created between the victims of famine and the infertile woman is very powerful. Boland draws our attention to two stories; one public, the other private; one historical, the other personal; one male, the other female. The callous treatment of the Irish is palpable in this poem. The opening simile startles: ‘Idle as trout in light…these Irish’! [personal reflection here]. We feel like we are witness to the graphic depictions of the misery and cruelty of the victims of this famine. The utter futility of the situation is evident in stanza one as Colonel Jones gives the ‘sick, directionless’ workers roads to build, ‘roads to force from nowhere, going nowhere....’! One of the most striking images for me is the comparison made between the ‘cunning housewives’ and the starving famine victims eying ‘the other’s buttock[s]’as if ‘at they were at a corner butchers’. Each individual, unique victim, compared to a snowflake by Boland, ‘settle[s] and melt[s]’ as he/she falls by the wayside, one of nameless dead, ‘bones’ left by the roadside. (personal reflection + ref to q i.e. startling/ striking imagery). This heartless cruelty echoes in the voice of the Doctor as he speaks to his female patient in an equally patronising manner: ‘You never will, never you know/ but take it well woman, grow/ your garden, keep house, good-bye.’ Both groups are aligned here, both at the mercy of their oppressors, the former, Irish Ascendancy’s vindictive treatment, the latter medical system’s impersonal treatment. ‘Barren what is your body now if not a famine road?’ History mirrors the contemporary, cruelty and inhumanity is the thematic link.
The public and private are also evident in The War Horse, a poem set in a quiet Dublin suburb. A horse ambles from a ‘tinker camp on the Enniskerry Road’ into her garden and her neighbours. Nothing unusual here but the word ‘death’ in the second couplet introduces a feeling of menace. He leaves a trail of destruction and Boland relates this to the machinery of war imploding in Northern Ireland. A torn ‘leaf’ is compared to a ‘maimed limb’, a ‘ruined rose’ to an ‘expendable… volunteer….one of the screamless dead.’ (personal reflection). The flowers are uprooted, compared in a chilling simile to ‘corpse, remote, crushed and mutilated.’ And Boland asks ‘why should we care?’ about what happens to the crocus of our neighbour’s garden, ‘its bulbous head blown from growth.’ What is to us, in the apparent security of the 26 Counties, that remote corpses are ‘crushed, mutilated?’ only for ‘a second’ is Boland filled with atavism, a form of primitive nationalism. This poem reflects on the intrusion of violence into everyday life, and leaves bare our complacent attitude, as we all ‘breath relief’, or change the channel, feeling safe or indifferent.
There is no room for indifference in the elegy Child of our Time. Boland focuses on the death of a child. A child symbolizes innocence, continuity, love. It requires protection and when we fail the, consequences are tragic. Our complacency, ‘our idle talk’ has ‘robbed your cradle.’ Both private and public sorrow is evident in this poem also as Boland dedicates this poem to ‘Aengus’, the child of her friend who died as a result of SIDS. The poem records the horrors of the Dublin/ Monaghan bombs and was particularly inspired by the photograph of a fireman carrying the lifeless body of a dead child from the debris. This poem combines both deaths and responds to the sudden and unexpected deaths of all young children.
Stanza two begins with the collective pronoun ‘we’, indicating our sense of failure and ends on a discordant note with the monosyllabic ‘dead’. This is a stark and solemn reminder of the act of violence which gave rise to the poem. We have the obligation to learn a new language, to wake up and to ‘rebuild ‘broken images’. The poem ends with the rhythm of a lullaby that up until yesterday she did not know. A deep sense of pathos is created here as she addresses the child. There are no politics in this poem, no sectarian issues, and no particular place names allowing this one act of senseless violence to represent every act of violence in which innocent people are killed. (personal reflection)
In direct contrast to the outrage expressed in ‘Child of our Time’, her short lyric poem ‘This Moment’ is celebratory. She paints a child-like picture of an everyday event, creating a moment of mysterious beauty in the ordinary that we often overlook.

One tree is black.

One window is yellow as butter.’

The homely and domestic simile of a home at dusk is familiar to all. Then we arrive at the central moment of the poem, a moment so ordinary its uniqueness could be missed. In freeze-framing this moment, Boland has honoured the ordinary, the mundane. The moment no longer belongs to Boland alone, it is our ‘this moment’, whatever that may be. The suburbs have proven to be a more than adequate site for artistic inspiration. (Quote Boland, Object Lessons and make personal reflection)

Boland's agenda to widen the franchise of poetry in Ireland by making it deal with domestic realities is also evident in her masterpiece ‘The Pomegranate’. She creates a powerful narrative using blank verse, (unrhymed iambic pentameter) with no stanza divisions. The poem expresses tender feelings together with an acute fear of loss, reminding me a lot of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’. Here however Boland highlights the value of myth to life, underlying the universal truth at the heart of all myth. Boland loves this legend, which tells of a mother’s love for her daughter. She says that it is ‘psychologically so accurate of teenagers as anyone who has ever had teenage children will know’ it is a ‘tale of a violated world’, a modern dilemma, as there becomes a point when a mother can no longer protect her child,’ when the daughter must go her own way into womanhood.’ Rita Dove, Mother Love. The poem introduces us to the facts of the legend which lead her to a personal response. ‘Love and blackmail’ prepares us for the tension to follow. She identifies with both female figures in the myth – first with the child, Persephone, exiled in ‘a city of fogs and strange consonants,’ but secondly, with the mother. The antithesis between ‘This Moment’ where we enjoyed the wonderful, picture perfect moment of ‘a child who has run into her [mother’s arms] this moment’, to the trauma of a mother going ‘searching for [her] daughter at dusk makes for a heart wrenching moment. Boland’s epiphany is stark and she realised that she ‘was Ceres then and [she] knew/ that winter was in store for every leaf /on every tree on that road.’ Here we begin to see the inescapable reality that the daughter, in growing up, must have her own identity and will have to face the difficulties and complexities of adulthood.
The poem shifts to a new frame. Her daughter is 17 and ‘it is winter’. Her daughter certainly has her own identity, teenage magazines and can of Coke, lie next to her daughter and suddenly she once again remembers the myth: ‘the Pomegranate! How did I forget it?’ Boland’s moment of epiphany! Just like Ceres, she too will have her ‘heartbroken searching’, but is also ours, Ceres’, Boland’s and every mother’s. Eating the uncut fruit, the French sound for apple, is symbolic of entering adulthood and Boland cannot shield her daughter because she realizes that ‘If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.’ The antithesis intensifies the realization that freedom involves choices and decisions. The repetition of ‘she’ recognises the distance between mother and daughter as ‘She will hold the papery flushed skin in her hand’ and make her own journey. A richly evocative poem, personal to Boland but resonant with any parent of teenagers! (personal reflection)
The public and the private, the personal and the political all feature in Boland’s work. She has found a place for the female voice and a female’s perception in Irish poetry. She is a sensitive and fearless poet who has most definitely changed the franchise of Irish poetry.
Mary Carroll
If you want to include ‘Love’ I would look at the resonance between myth and life today.
‘Love’ reflects the fragility and uncertainty of childhood and invites us into the complexity of married love. It is a narrative poem written in free verse. The allusion to the Aeneas myth recognises a moment in literature where there is intensity of feeling along with an inability to express it. We often have emotions and experiences which can never be articulated and emotions which can never be shared. The poem is a meditation on love and how it is affected by change.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Lucina Schynning in Silence of the Nicht

  • Desolation and isolation permeates this poem. This, however, is not a negative quality. ENC is not troubled by solitude.

  • Poem is a celebration of escape and a retreat from the hectic world.

  • Nature is celebrated and is therapeutic

  • Horrors of history evident in stanza 3, referred to in a harrowing metaphor as ‘waves of darkness’

  • The sorrow of history is evident as she refers to Cromwell and the destruction and chaos caused in our country in the 17 th century

  • Historical reference:

The title of the poem refers to ‘The Birth of the Antichrist’, a poem written by Scottish poet William Dunbar, (the poems opening lines are a direct translation from this poem). Cromwell was our Antichrist as he persecuted the Irish Catholics. The poem looks at our journey out of the darkness of Cromwellian times, seeing at last the ‘sky growing through the hole in the roof.’

  • Feminine perspective:

Woman in this poem is not passive. She is independent, acting on their own.

Not stereotypical in any way.

Death and Engines

  • Lyric poem which addresses us directly giving us an insight into speaker’s state of mind, perception and feelings. There is no sentimentality in this poem.

  • Stanza 2 presents a desolate and broken image of runway and plane. As a passenger seeing this burn out engine you would be unnerved as you attempt to land as you are faced with the possibility of could happen and what remains after it does!

  • Stark contrast of white (snow) and black (darkness) highlight this.

  • A sense of helplessness and despair of the ‘lonely pilot’ is palpable

  • The poem reflects on the inescapability of death and of what remains of us when we are gone.

  • Two personal experiences influence this poem. In an interview, she tells us that she ‘needed a poem to express [her] fear of death.’ She saw the plane in Orly airport as she was returning home from Rome when her father was dangerously ill. A few months later she saw a car lying in the side of the road in Dublin and realised it belonged to her friends. She tells us that she spent an anxious half an hour before discovering them safe in hospital. (Stanza 4) In Stanza 3 the verb ‘cornered’ shows us that the poet has awoken to the certainty of death. ‘Time and life’ cross marking our deathday. There is no sentimentality in this poem just an acknowledgement that death is an intrinsic part of life.

  • Death of loved ones is very painful. What I love about this poem is enmeshed in the final traumatic stanza of someone crashing down a blind alley. ‘You will be scattered like wreckage, the pieces everyone a different shape will spin and lodge in the hearts of all who love you.’ Each jigsaw piece that makes up who we are will be part of someone’s remembering! A wonderful way to think of the end. Lyric poem


  • It is a dramatic narrative, strange, surreal, memorable

  • A poem that is incident rich yet told quietly

  • It is a quiet, introspective, enigmatic poem

  • Fairy tale context to poem. It reminds me of ‘Little Red Ridinghood’

  • Poem

  • is inconclusive, very much part of impressionistic influences.

  • Is she the seducer?

  • Is he the predator?

  • She leaves the door open he just ‘fell in love with the butcher’s daughter’

  • She passed by in ‘white trousers’ but the we hear she was ‘dangling a knife on a ring on her belt’

  • Again, we meet a woman in an interesting, unusual controlling or vulnerable situation.

  • A fantastic impressionistic painting by ENC

Firemen’s Lift

  • Poetic recreation of her mother’s spiritual ascent to a place beyond the clouds

  • Check out painting: ‘ The Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven’, Correggio

  • Focus in on humanity of Our Lady

  • Distinct physical force required to aid ascension.

  • Poem celebrates the female body

  • While visiting the nursing home Ni C is reminded of visit to Cathedral with her mother

  • Young nurses lifting and moving her mother remind her of the Angels in painting

  • This is a love poem to her mother and to community spirit

  • Cloud is a common image in her poetry and here it represents: boundary, threshold, doorway, border, crossing.

To Niall Woods and Xenya Ostrovskaia……

  • The poem looks at the nature of story itself

  • In this poem love is seen as a reward for noble efforts.

  • All the stories have someone journeying from home and overcoming ordeals.

  • She casts her son in heroic mode

  • She is suggesting that love comes to all who adventure and persevere.

  • Poem celebrates the romantic notion that love is forever, as each story ends with a marriage and a promise to live happily ever after.

The King of Ireland and the Enchanters Daughter

  • The King of Ireland's Son sets out to find the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands and meets the Enchanter's daughter, Fedelma. His adventures lead him to the Land of the Mist, the Town of the Red Castle, and the worlds of Gilly of the Goatskin, the Hags of the Long Teeth, Princess Flame-of-Wine, and the Giant Crom Duv. This is a true Irish wonder tale: a coming of age story of the youngest son of the King of Ireland who sets off on an impossible quest. The stories weave together, stories within stories, in a fantastic tapestry of humour, poetry, action and adventure. Perfect for reading aloud at bedtime, generations of children have loved Padraic Colum's unmatched storytelling.

  • The poem looks at the nature of story itself as there are truths in folk tales and fairy tales.

  • Morpheus, in ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’, says: ‘Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are shadow truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot’

Impressionistic poet

  • Impressionism is a 19th-century art movement that originated with a group of Paris-based artists. Their independent exhibitions brought them to prominence during the 1870s and 1880s, in spite of harsh opposition from the conventional art community in France. The name of the style derives from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satirical review published in the Parisian newspaper Le Charivari.

  • Impressionist painting characteristics include relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time), ordinary subject matter, inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and unusual visual angles. The development of Impressionism in the visual arts was soon followed by analogous styles in other media that became known as impressionist music and impressionist literature.

  • The term Impressionism has also been used to describe works of literature in which a few select details suffice to convey the sensory impressions of an incident or scene. Impressionist literature is closely related to Symbolism, with its major exemplars being Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. Authors such as Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and Joseph Conrad have written works that are Impressionistic in the way that they describe, rather than interpret, the impressions, sensations and emotions that constitute a character's mental life.

Eilean Ni Chuilleanain’s demanding subject matter and formidable style can prove challenging.

Eilean Ni Chuilleanain’s themes are diverse, she addresses the topics of history, religion and nature. However through her intricate use of language and engaging poetic devices her poetry and message can be understood. She offers an insight into her personal life in poems such as ‘Death and Engines,’ ‘Fireman’s Lift,’ and ‘The Bend in the Road,’ this aids our engagement with her work as we are offered a glimpse into a slice of her life.

‘Death and Engines,’ is a grim cold and harsh narrative. It explores a universal theme, the inevitability of death. Ni Chuilleanain’s approach to this striking and at times disturbing topic is both engaging and interesting. In her explanatory notes on the poem she indicates that two events inspired the writing of this poem, her father’s illness and the discovery of her friend’s car that had been obviously involved in a car crash. She also shares with her readers the fact that she suffers from a fear of flying, this information helps her readers to understand the poem on a more meaningful level. Ni Chuilleanain is unequivocally a poet who wishes to include her readers on her poetic journey. She uses dramatic sensuous imagery to depict the scene. This is inviting and engaging to the reader. ‘The back half of a plane black on the snow, nobody near it, Tubular, burnt out and frozen.’ As the plane makes it’s second attempt to land at Paris airport, Ni Chuilleanain notices this plane inspiring her to think ‘how light your death is.’ Later in the poem she describes ‘a man with a bloody face sitting up in bed conversing cheerfully through cut lips.’ This is a striking, compelling image. This man has been involved in an accident however this time he has been fortunate, he has survived. He is surrounded by ‘images of relief,’ like ‘hospital pyjamas’ however Ni Chuilleanain warns, ‘these will fail you sometime.’ This simple, accessible language is a harsh, chilling universally appealing warning. At some point we will all be forced to confront death.

Death also provides the subject matter for ‘Fireman’s Lift,’ the poem is a touching mother and daughter poem recounting a visit Ni Chuilleanain enjoyed with her mother to Parma cathedral where they marvelled at Correggio’s infamous fresco. The tone is intimate and personal, ‘I was standing beside you looking up,’ through the use of personal pronouns, Ni Chuilleanain invites her readers to come on the journey with her and her mother to Italy. Through the use of compelling, mesmeric imagery, she carefully conjures her fascination at the magnificent work of art ‘Where the church splits wide open to admit celestial choirs.’ Ni Chuilleanain admits that this is a cheering up poem, the message is comforting and consoling for anyone who has suffered loss. The word ‘cradle,’ captures the gentleness, compassion and protective nature of the angels and the nurses who cared for her mother at the time of her death. The poem ends on am image of love and loss, something we all can relate to but also conjures a sense of comfort and consolation. Heaven can sometimes be an obscure place, we do not really know where it is. The identification of heaven as a place in the clouds is reassuring. The Virgin Mary is on the brink of entering heaven, so too is Ni Chuilleanain’s mother. ‘She came to the edge of the cloud.’

Like ‘Fireman’s Lift,’ ‘The Bend in the Road,’ is also a memory poem dealing with the issue of death. The setting and the moment the poem describes is universally relatable, proving that Ni Chuilleanain is an inclusive poet. The use of personal pronouns offer a personal, intimate and revealing tone. Her child is sick during a car journey, they stop the car near a tree shaped like ‘a cat’s tail,’ it ‘waited too.’ Here Ni Chuilleanain’s style is humorous but also precise. Movingly and poignantly the poet is inspired to think about the loved ones who have become ill and have died since the first time the family stopped at this ‘bend in the road,’ she alludes to ‘the one cumulus cloud in a perfect sky.’ Her memories are strikingly compared to this cloud, as like a cloud’s shape our memories change over time. ‘This is the place of their presence: in the tree, in the air.’

Some imagery recurs in Ni Chuilleanain’s poetry, making it instantly recognisable and familiar. ‘Translation,’ in my opinion is her best poem. It a poignant yet powerful narrative depicting loneliness, hardship and cruelty suffered by the Magdalenes. At the end of the poem the poet creates a compelling yet familiar image, the Magdaelene’s voice imagines her and her fellow inmates rising in a great cloud of steam from the grave. This cloud like the one alluded to in ‘The Bend in the Road,’ serves as a powerful symbol, however in this context, the cloud is a shameful reminder of the whole Magdalene affair and of the nation’s need to tell and retell their story. We must never allow anything like this to ever happen again. The subject matter for this poem is incredibly interesting and Ni Chuilleaneain approaches the topic with sensitivity but also portrays a brutal honesty. It must be admired. Stanza one vividly sets the scene where the remains of one hundred and fifty women are being exhumed. ‘The soil frayed and sifted evens the score,’ the tone and language here illustrate resentment but also is suggestive of the women who were treated with such inhumane cruelty getting their own back. Their lives were obliterated, their identities stolen from them and the imagery used of a glance being ‘bleached out,’ conjures an image a statue of the virgin Mary that looks down on the Magdalene’s at work from where it hands high above them on the laundry wall. Yet the image’s paint has been whitened and bleached by the ‘White light,’ pouring in through the windows and the steam and chemicals rising from the sins. It’s ‘glance,’ offers no ‘relief’ or religious consolation to these women who were cruelly and inhumanely treated. Finally Ni Chuilleaneain feels that this women are receiving some kind of justice, ‘Until every pocket in her skull blared with the note – Allow us to hear it sharp as an infant’s cry.’ The Magadalene is empowered to speak in this poem, to tell of the torture, pain and humiliation she suffered. ‘Washed clean of idiom the baked crust of words that make my temporary name A parasite that grew in me.’ Ni Chuilleaneain bravely commands us to listen and compares the Magdalene’s voice to a sharp infant’s cry, horribly we assume that this was a familiar sound from inside the laundry.

‘Street’ while dealing with a very different topic to ‘Translation,’ is a short dramatic narrative, that too explores female empowerment but also female vulnerability. The ‘butcher’s daughter,’ strides confidently home from work, with a knife ‘dangling,’ from a ‘ring on her belt,’ one could perhaps say this women is strong , powerful and untouchable. However Ni Chuilleneain masterfully creates an ominous atmosphere of threat and danger surrounding this women. ‘One day he followed her down the slanting lane at the back of the shambles.’ I felt like I was at the cinema. I genuinely wanted to know how this unconventional love story unfolded. Did the mysterious man follow the butcher’s daughter upstairs? What happened next? Eilean Ni Chuilleanain’s intriguing creation of tension, suspense and mystery coupled with memorable, compelling imagery painted a cinematic picture of intense and uncomfortable fascination.

Eilean Ni Chuilleanain mastry of language vividly and graphically offers us a unique insight into her dominant themes of love, family and the treatment and depiction of females. We are introduced to Eilean Ni Chuilleanain through her poetry. By reading it we feel as if we know her. She cleverly uses her compelling love for her family and her passion for history to carefully construct a tapestry of rich, inviting poetry which is a pleasure to read.

In another essay you may wish to refer to Lucina Schynning in Silence of the Nicht:

The speaker is ‘reading’ her ‘book in a ruin by a sour candle without roast meat or music,’ this sensuous imagery indicates a quiet contentment with a simplistic, medieval lifestyle. The book however takes on a sinister significance and becomes diseased as a ‘Plague of beetles,’ seemingly crawl out of the ‘spines of books’. Despite a turbulent past suggested by the repetition of ‘Plague,’ ‘Cromwell’s,’ presence in Ireland and the reference to the eerie, threatening ‘shadowing pale faces’, the narrator is content to wash in ‘cold’ orange water which has ‘dipped between cresses’. Here Ni Chuilleanain sensuously depicts Ireland’s turbulent historical past. Yet she masterfully merges this theme with her unadorned love for nature. She believes in the ultimate power of nature to comfort, console and heal. The ‘sheepdogs embrace’, her is a loving and welcoming image. The ‘chirp of the stream running’, is a fitting soundtrack for which the poem to end on. It is a resounding example of triumph over adversity.

You don’t want to say directly what you can say indirectly’

When working on any poetry question always-

  1. Rephrase the question, and then decide on your position.

2. Plan -- decide on poems to suit answer and relevant quotations

Each paragraph must develop the question asked. Your conclusion should relate to the position you have taken, focusing on the question asked.
Frost’s poems are “little voyages of discovery”. Discuss with relation to the poems of Frost on your course.

Par 1. World of Frost’s poems.

  1. Nature, trees soil, crops, plants, insects, seasons.

  2. Local, familiar landscape.

  3. Frost is a man of nature, in communion with his environment. He invites his listener into his world—fields, orchards, saw mills, woods.

  4. Delicate and finally balanced relationship with nature.

  5. Notice his simplicity in bringing alive these places.

Par 2. Notice the interdependence within nature, e.g. Tuft of Flowers.

Here man appears as a destructive force with ‘a blade so keen’ that ‘leveled’ the scene. The butterfly lost its source of nutrition but soon discovers another tuft of flowers ‘beside a reedy brook’. The scythe ironically discovered this. This poem suggests the continuity of life and the capacity for survival and regeneration. The end of the poem shows that a link has been established between the poet and the butterflies. They speak to him, communicating with him on a spiritual level, allowing him to reach out in space and time to touch the thoughts of the absent labourer.

Par 3. In this section look at the darkness, despair and isolation expressed in nature. Design portrays a macabre picture of a ‘fat and white’ spider and the ‘white heal all’, carrying a ‘moth/ Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth’. This shows the exactness with which Frost can depict nature’s creatures. From this deadly, pale procession, the poet reflects that the driving force behind the scene of such cruelty is ‘the design of darkness’.

Par 4. This paragraph should focus on Frost’s own journeys of discovery. Frost had an innate sense of isolation, a powerful feeling of loneliness and despair. This can be seen in his poem associated with the city, Acquainted With The Night. There is a distinct lack of community in his work. Even though the poem is set in the city and is populated with people in their apartments and the night watchman on duty, there is no communication, no communion between people. It is a place where people drop their ‘eyes’, unwilling to engage, abandoning themselves to insular and isolated lives, where the interrupted cry came ‘not to call me back or say goodbye’ but only to heighten and intensify the sense of aloneness. This is clearly exemplified as he out walks ‘the furthest city lights’. It is not hard to empathize with Frost, as many of us have faced the harsh realities of life, the pain and despair, the loss and isolation. Is it true that all of us at one time or another have been acquainted with the night?

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