Charles VI of France, called the Beloved, as well as the Mad, married Isabella of Bavaria in 1385. He suffered from bouts of insanity throughout his life, howling like a wolf through his palace, refusing to bathe, and, in later years, believing that he was made from glass.
“The Glass King” ends the journey of this book. It is not only about the relationship between wife and husband, it is also about the relationship between the female poet and the male poetic tradition, as the poet makes clear when she breaks into the story of Charles VI and Isabella in her own person, to “elect” her “prince, demented// in a crystal past” as “emblem// and ancestor of our lyric.”
This male lyric tradition is royal in his authority, and fragile in his powers. In conceiving poetry as a beautiful crystal, he is “out of reach// of human love.” The queen-wife-lover knows she needs his hand to turn stone into lace, the way the medieval stonesmiths did. This modern stoneworker is, however,
an ordinary honest woman out of place
in all this, wanting nothing more than the man
she married, all her sorrows in her stolid face.
The imaginative force of the poem converts Isabella to the poet and, in the conclusion, back to Isabella again, from “she” to “I” to “she” again. The ethical punch (what “we” should do) comes in the middle of the poem:
If we could see ourselves, not as we do—
in mirrors, self-deceptions, self-regardings—
but as we ought to be and as we have been:
poets, lute-stringers, makyres and abettors
of our necessary art, soothsayers of the ailment
and disease of our times, sweet singers,
truth tellers, intercessors for self-knowledge—
what would we think of these fin-de-siècle
half-hearted penitents we have become
at the sick-bed of the century: hand-wringing
elegists with an ill-concealed greed
for the inheritance?
She nails the insincerity by showing we want both spiritual absolution and material inheritance, to be both penitent and heir. She wants to want, instead, sweetness, truth and self-knowledge. Noticeably missing is beauty, that crystal.
Without knowing anything much about Boland’s life and other writings, I have been reading her first five books of poetry (out of a collected nine) as ambition reconstructed. In the earliest books, remarkable, though somewhat literary, accomplishments, she saw herself as an unproblematic heir of an unproblematic poetic inheritance. Irish myth, song, grievances and hopes were riches she would add to, without examining too closely their currency.
Under the public shock of the women’s movement, and the private shock of motherhood, she was compelled to examine the treasure trove. The compulsion felt like a spiritual crisis. It demanded a radical change, a conversion. She responded in various ways. Denunciation of male domination and privilege was one way. Deconstructing the feminine was another. From the female body, Boland moved to analyze the constricted institution of motherhood. She was, I think, deeply ambiguous towards motherhood, seeing in it a form of service to patriarchy but also a bond to other women past and present. Many poems attempted to re-envision the Muse as a mother (instead of a beloved), from whom the poet originates and with whom the poet identifies. This re-envisioning effort was accompanied by “tirades” against the former Muse, mimic, epic or lyric, depicted as a compromised or exploited woman.
Boland directed her attacks not only within, but also without, against the male artists and their myths. She wrote many ekphrastic poems that illustrated the advantages the male painter had over his female subjects, advantages denied to a female artist. She also rewrote the myths, substituting domestic subjects for epic ones. Her most notable achievement here reconceived the suburb as a kind of classical underworld. At no point did she fall into the trap of dreaming of a private language accessible only to women. She was too conscious of her debt to the tradition. She rewrote Homer but not Yeats, as far as I could tell.
She changed her verse together with her subjects and stance. The lines became shorter, decided by the phrase instead of the foot. Rejecting the roundness and sweetness of traditional rhetoric, the shorter lines analyzed its subject under a microscope. Every linebreak slotted the line under the lens. End rhymes became irregular, mirroring, perhaps, the incidental felicities in a day’s routine. Boland kept, however, the regularity of her stanza length. It saved her verse from slackness, and gave her a structure that she did not have to re-invent for each new poem. I believe she came up against the limitation of the short lines in trying to write more complexly about more complex topics. A number of the best poems in the later books returned to a longer line, with a regular, if not uniform, number of stresses.
Consistent throughout the changes in subject and style is Boland’s moral seriousness. Sometimes that can lapse into diatribe or sentimentality. Often I wish she would lighten up. But when she is great, she can be very grand. The permanent poems are “The Laws of Love,” “Monotony,” “On Renoir’s The Grape Pickers,” “Fever,” and “The Wild Spray.” One also changes the tradition by adding to it. Strong new poems, as Eliot reminds us, force us see the tradition in a different light. Boland is a poet of enormous resources, and I am eager to read the last four books of her collection. The immigration theme, a topic that also occupies me, has just entered her work in a significant way.