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That the Science of Cartography Is Limited

"The famine roads belonged to the second year of the Irish famine," says the Irish poet Eavan Boland, discussing her haunting poem 'That the Science of Cartography Is Limited' which abominates the British policy of putting starving Irish peasants to work building roads. "In 1847, the Relief Committees, coming to Ireland from the economic councils of Lord Trevelyan and the British government, decided the Irish should work for their food. In the simple and most understated testament of heartlessness, they required strength of those who had none. Where those roads end in those woods is where those building them died."

Charles Edward Trevelyan, the Assistant Secretary to Her Majesty's Treasury, was the senior civil servant responsible for administering 'famine relief' on behalf of the colonial authorities. As a syllabus on the Irish Famine produced for the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust and Genocide Education records:

He firmly believed in the economic principles of laissez-faire, or noninterference by the government. Trevelyan opposed expenditure and raising taxes, advocating self-sufficiency. He was convinced of Malthus' theory that any attempt to raise the standard of living of the poorest section of the population above subsistence level would only result in increased population which would make matters worse.

In October 1846, Trevelyan wrote that the overpopulation of Ireland "being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought of as it is likely to be effectual." Two years later after perhaps a million people had died, he wrote, "The matter is awfully serious, but we are in the hands of Providence, without a possibility of averting the catastrophe if it is to happen. We can only wait the result." Later that year Trevelyan declared: "The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people."

In 1848 Trevelyan was knighted for his services in Ireland; he was afterwards posted to India, where he was appointed as colonial Finance Minister. He was made a baronet in 1874.

In her article in the Literary Review, Eavan Boland remarks:

The deliberate awkwardness of the proposition ­ that the science of cartography is limited­ is built into the title and the title is the first line.  Why do that?  Because I wanted to start this poem, charged as it was for me, with a deliberate mouthful of reason and argument.  I wanted to send it towards the reader the way an educator might send an account of empire to a class: announcing acceptable ideas with an illusory logic.

Boland, born in Dublin in 1944, comes from the Irish establishment, her father the first Irish ambassador to Britain and the UN, her mother a well-known artist.  Her privileged background did not, however, insulate her from anti-Irish prejudice during her childhood in England, and has not softened her anguish at her history.

Boland's full opening statement-­ which incorporates the title- reads: 'That the Science of Cartography is Limited [...] is what I wish to prove.'  The phrasing is legalistic, like the opening of a court case:

That the Science of Cartography Is Limited

- and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses,
is what I wish to prove.

The immediate digression after the dash does what Boland in her commentary says a map cannot do ("The poem begins where maps fail"), giving us a sensuous evocation of place.  The two descriptive phrases, with their biblical resonance 'the fragrance of balsam, / the gloom of cypresses' establish a beautiful imagined world, the low humming sounds in 'balsam' and 'gloom', and the whispering s's in 'fragrance', 'balsam' and 'cypresses' the opposite of the dry language of argumentation.  Both balsam and cypresses also carry a symbolic weight, of healing and death respectively.

The use of these two different linguistic registers enacts the way facts, as defined by the historical victors, can efface a different kind of knowing, that of experience and feeling. 

In the second stanza:

When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there

That opening 'When' acts like 'Once upon a time', taking us into the realm of story, and the half-rhyme of 'love' and 'drove' within the beautifully even iambic pentameter reinforces this.  This feeling of oral narrative is created also in the very simple verb 'entered' without preface or explanation.  The lovers enter a kind of selva oscura,­ Dante's dark forest,­ in which the Italian poet found himself at the beginning of his Inferno, an allegorical setting, the wood both literal and of the mind, the heart.

The stanza break makes the next line: 'Look down you said' happen suddenly, its concise delivery again like an old tale.

The historical facts begin with 'this was once a famine road', though this is not dry scholarship - the word 'once' continues telling a tale, one told counter to the received 'truth'.  The narrator is being guided, as Dante was, her own history reinforced for her by her lover.  The poem depicts a moment of re-connection with the famine, the caesura acting out the mind in process of realisation:­ the looking down is both literal and an inward scrutiny of her own history.

Look down you said: this was once a famine road.

I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in

She sees ivy, grass, while the 'rough-cast stone' is immediately swallowed by 'disappeared' ­ positioned at the start of a line,­ and seems to recede into the undergrowth.

The phrase 'their ordeal' doesn't spell out whose ordeal it is,­ but it's clear both lovers know, their intimacy demonstrated in this shared knowledge.  It is not only a private intimacy but an intimate connection between them and the dead, the unspoken bond of a shared history.  Their love is being sealed, as it were, not by individualistic declarations, but by standing together in solemn remembrance.

The voice giving the facts speaks plainly, clearly:

in the second winter of their ordeal, in

1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.

The two 'ins' bookending the line: 'in the second winter of their ordeal, in' act as a kind of announcement of the facts to come. On the page the physical symmetry is a kind of restrained, classical portico­ with that first 'in' given uncapitalised, deliberately unrhetorical.  Though this is low-key, 'winter' is emotive ­ as opposed to the neutral word 'year', as is 'ordeal'.  This is empathic history, acutely aware of the victims' suffering. 

In the three-line section beginning '1847', the plain speech eschews music, as though adornment would be inappropriate here.  The line-break erects the date glaringly at the start of a line,  to commemorate, as if on a tombstone, the dead.  The word 'gave', and the impersonal  'Relief Committees' which do the giving are used ironically- ­ the apparent philanthropy followed by 'the starving Irish'.

The poem divides at the line:  'Where they died, there the road ended'.  The line itself has two halves, the second mirroring the first: 'Where' echoed by 'there'; 'died' balanced by 'ended'.  The quietness of this line, standing isolated in the text, obliterates any notion of English benevolence. 

The second part of the poem leans on the first.  From the moment of epiphany, we move to its effect, which has stayed with the poet into the present:

Where they died, there the road ended

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane

The picking up of 'ended' with 'ends still', insisting on the past's continuing reverberations, is given added force by the tumbling forward of the lines' rhythm, the urgent 'and when I take down / the map of this island'.  The grief is live, as with any trauma.  The odd truncation of lines in this second part of the poem-­ 'it is never so / I can say here is', for example-­ fractures the structure, replicating the incomplete roads.

The finely wrought phrases 'apt rendering of / the spherical as flat' and 'persuades a curve / into a plane' evoke civilization, harmonious intellectual development, but this gentle rationality ('persuades') is fatally undermined by the barbarism of what took place.  The narrator has been robbed of any appreciation of the 'masterful' cleverness it took to map Ireland, and can 'never' simply admire it,­ given the glaring omission of the famine roads on the maps.  The smooth face of civilization inevitably reminds her ('tell myself again') of the lies she must go on enduring.

This is why words denoting saying and telling recur. It's a poem about competing narratives; the narrator is telling herself- being told-­ a truth against the dominant one.  Hence the storytelling elements: stories being powerful weapons against 'fact', the certainties of imperialism. The momentum expresses her rage.

The stanza break at the end dams up the cumulative flow, leading to the terrible pathos of:

the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

The final line falls away into nothingness, into death.  The tense is future, yet the fact is always already known, endlessly erased, the erasure setting off grief in a purgatorial cycle.

The crescendo works by means of repeated 'ands', and by reprising the lost but never forgotten sensuousness of the start ('sweet pine and cypress'), which reminds us of the young love which from the outset could not be innocent ­ but most powerfully by the opposition of 'says' and 'cries', the neutral against the emotive, fact against feeling: 'the line which says woodland and cries hunger'.  The impersonal geographical term 'woodland' contrasts with the human word 'hunger'.  And all the time in these final lines the repeated 'i' sounds ­ 'line', 'cries', 'pine', 'cypress', 'finds', 'horizon' ring in our ears, seem to cry out.

Boland's logical proof of cartography's limitations is 'proven' via personal revelation, asserting with righteous anger the continuing agony of being silenced, of injustice going unrecognised.

Eavan Boland's commentary on the poem begins:

On the wall in front of my desk was a map.  It was a map of the world. Or more properly, a map of empire. Look what I own it said. See what you have lost. I was certainly aware, long before I wrote this poem, that the act of mapmaking is an act of power and that I­ as a poet, as a woman and as a witness to the strange Irish silences which met that mixture of identities ­was more and more inclined to contest those acts of power.  The official version - ­ and a map is rarely anything else - ­ might not be suspect as it discovered territories and marked out destinations. But the fact that these roads, so powerful in their meaning and so powerless at their origin, never showed up on any map of Ireland seemed to me then, as it does now, both emblematic and ironic.
 

Eavan Boland

That the Science of Cartography Is Limited

- and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses,
is what I wish to prove.

When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.

Look down you said: this was once a famine road.

I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in

1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.

Where they died, there the road ended

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that

the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.


from Eavan Boland, In a Time of Violence, Carcanet, 1994