The Journey

Boland, Eavan

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: May-22-2001


The epigram of this poem is a quotation from The Aeneid in which Virgil describes the infants seen by Aeneas at the entrance of hell. The babies had been "torn from their mothers' breasts" and died before their time. This 96-line poem (24 quatrains) begins with the observation that there has never been a poem written in praise of an antibiotic. Poets waste their time on "emblems" rather than the "real thing."

At this point Sappho appears and conducts the author down into hell, which is somewhat like "an oppressive suburb of the dawn," and she peers across the river to see hordes of women and children who had died of cholera, typhus, croup, and diphtheria. Sappho tells her that these women should not be defined as ciphers--court ladies or washer women--but rather as women who once "stood boot deep in flowers once in summer / or saw winter come in with a single magpie / in a caul of haws." The dead were once real people with their own life stories; real women, rather than aging statistics. The author will remember "the silences in which are our beginnings." [96 lines]


This strange poem celebrates the real living-and-breathing "things" of the world, the fleshy histories of the women and children whose lives have been cut short by contingency--in this case, by infectious disease. Sappho, of course, is the poet of love, and she speaks of "love's archeology" and intimates that by forming an empathic connection with those who have gone before, the author can be a witness to their lives and dignity.

Primary Source

Outside History. Selected Poems, 1980-1990


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York