Project Logo Faces of JanusOU logo Classical Receptions in Drama and Poetry in English
from c.1970 to the Present


Poetry Database
(Pilot Version1)

Return to Project Homepage


Poetry Homepage


Case Study Two - an Introduction

Eavan Boland
About the Poet


Series / Collections / Collected Works
Critical Works
Olga Broumas
About the Poet
Series / Collections / Collected Works
Critical Works



© Copyright Notice

Case Study Two - an introduction

Classical receptions in the work of two late-twentieth century female poets: Eavan Boland and Olga Broumas
Rosemary Wilkinson (2008)

In the initial process of selecting poems for analysis for this second case study I began by reading widely within the corpus of a number of poets, in order to ascertain the wider significance and unique quality of the classical referents in relation to the poets' broader themes and strategies. Poets I considered at this stage included Margaret Atwood, Louise Glück, Rita Dove, and Fleur Adcock, as well as Eavan Boland and Olga Broumas. In order to engage more fully with this question I made the decision to focus on poets who expressed a continuing interest in classical sources, demonstrating this through a variety of responses. Finally, I felt that it was important, at this stage in the project, to focus on poets whose treatment of the classical material was clearly integrated into their poetics and the wider aims of their writing.

Both Boland and Broumas met the criteria outlined above, and whilst both have achieved acclaim in literary spheres, their work is perhaps generally less well known and therefore extends the range and register of poets currently featured on the database. Their main output spans from the 1970s through to the twenty-first t century and therefore offered an opportunity to observe whether and how their response to classical material changes over time. Moreover, Boland's Irish nationality compliments the existing profiles for Northern Irish poets, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, whilst Broumas' Greek-American background broadens the Anglophone profile of the research.

Initially I was drawn to the evident commonalties linking the work of these two poets in relation to their classical and mythological allusions. In the early work of both poets, reference to myth is oftenused to critique and challenge in such a way that the authority of the myth/classical source (or common perceptions of it) is itself called into question. This is particularly evident in relation to issues of gender and sexuality. In their expression of identity both as poets and as women, Boland and Broumas tend to represent classical mythology from the context of their own personal, domestic and social spheres.

In Boland's poetry the classical material is then often used to critique the emblematic use of female imagery in nationalist literature or to readdress the relationship between the reality of women's experience and its mythologised representation. Often myth is represented as a bridging medium, allowing her to consider her relationship to past generations of women and so to retrospectively construct a poetic voice both Irish and female. Broumas similarly aims to recover a lost language of the feminine, drawing on 'what tiny fragments/ survive, mangled into our language' [1] to unearth 'the archaeology of an excised past' (‘Artemis', Beginning with O, 1977). She also rewrites myths or re-characterises the female figures they represent. She challenges heterosexual and patriarchal values and in doing so reclaims myth from conservative monopoly, rather than devaluing the myth itself.

Broumas and Boland's classical receptions also invite comparison by demonstrating a deep personal attachment to ancient myth and literature. Boland has discussed at length the contributory role of Latin, which she studied at school and university, in shaping her understanding of the power and limitations of language (Particularly in Object Lessons, 1995, ch.4). The repeated references to her academic encounters with the language serve to underline the fact that this means of transmission is inseparable from her understanding of the texts and associated myths. [2] For Broumas classical mythology and literature have strong cultural associations, stemming from her Greek nationality and education, and she has spoken of myth as a means of 'going back to my earliest intimations of power and godliness' (Quoted in Koolish 1984:11). Consequently, myth also constitutes one of the key means by which she subversively (re)constructs notions of authority and identity. In contrast with the revisionary folk tales which feature in Beginning With O (1977), the classical material also alludes to an ancient precedent which supports Broumas' depiction of female language and power.

The openness with which Broumas and Boland have developed and discussed their relationship to the classical texts, their repeated focus on gender and the fact that they share certain influences (for example, Adrienne Rich), initially led me to believe that their work invited a comparative analysis. However, further into the research it became apparent that my decision to focus on these two poets was more instinctively motivated by the individuality of approach which each demonstrated through their reference to classical texts. In the following paragraphs I will therefore briefly outline my impressions about the role of classical receptions in the work of each poet, going on to consider the implication of my findings for future research.

Eavan Boland

Through her unusual pairing of Classical and Irish mythologies Eavan Boland expresses a personal sense of cultural and literary alienation experienced as a female Irish poet, struggling to gain access to a male-dominated, heavily politicised literary environment. Although Yeats, the poet whom she has most admired, often adopted classical themes in his poetry, his politically motivated use of mythology (usually Irish) comes to represent for Boland 'the myths, the hallucinations of cultural unity [...] which have maimed Irish writing' (The Weasel's Tooth, 1974) and prompts her to question the authority with which myth been endowed by her predecessors and contemporaries.

What Boland does carry over from Yeats in her classical revisions is an awareness of how powerful, elite poetic conventions and themes might be subverted and used to express personal themes and subjects often excluded from poetry. She also appears to be influenced by the humility with which Patrick Kavanagh's anti-heroic verse employs epic and divine references to illuminate the rural Irish landscape, especially in her poem ‘The Making of an Irish Goddess' and, to an extent, ‘The Journey' (The Journey, 1987; Outside History, 1990). Indeed, in Kavanagh Boland appears to identify a close parallel, with Horace, for whom she developed an affection whilst still a student of Latin, and the interplay between urban and rural, political and personal, which both Kavanagh and Horace explore through their poetry, are also recurrent features in Boland's work. When looking for female poetic influences, however, Boland seems most influenced by American poets such as Adrienne Rich, to whom she often refers in her own articles and prose (e.g. Boland 1997:23), particularly in her subversive treatments of myth.

Inspired by the example of these poets Boland gradually develops a subtly subversive fusion of genres and mythologies, using classical mythology to offset the authority of prevalent Irish literary modes and destabilise the emblematic use of female imagery. Early poems such as ‘Athene's Song' and ‘O Fons Bandusiae', (New Territory, 1967; The War Horse, 1975) betray an attraction to the aesthetic and formalistic aspects of classical literature, perhaps instilled via the formal learning contexts in which, as her poems recall, she gained her first encounters with Latin texts. However, despite their formality, these poems reveal insights into the early development of Boland's larger themes of gender and nationality, and also the techniques of genre subversion which later characterise her classically themed poems.

What gradually emerges is Boland's consciousness of how the alien, but authoritative stance of classical source might be used to articulate a sense of cultural, literary and even political estrangement 'in a country where no Roman occupation ever happened,' (Boland 1995:76 ) thereby linking the major themes of her poetry. From a postcolonial perspective she is able to consider the impact of an ‘invader' language on two levels, from Latin to English and from English to Irish contexts. As a result, there is a duality which characterises her stance towards the classical material, for although she recognises 'a sense of power' in the ancient language and its associated mythology, in poems such as ‘The Journey' and ‘The Making of an Irish Goddess' she also emphasises the inadequacy of myth to accurately describe personal experience and suffering. [3]

Ultimately Boland rejects the authority of both mythologies, as we see most clearly in ‘The Making of an Irish Goddess', yet in other poems myth remains a powerful and poignant way of articulating loss and memory. It is this mode of speaking which often emerges in her later classically themed poems such as ‘The Pomegranate' and ‘Love', particularly through her repeated references to book six of the Aeneid, from which she draws the metaphor of poetry's power to imagine, but never to fully trancend, a bridge between past and present.

Olga Broumas

Olga Broumas use of Greek mythology in Beginning with O often stems from Homeric epic (featuring characters such as Circe, Calypso and Thetis) as well as a broader knowledge of Greek myth and culture. These poems feature alongside others inspired by fairytales (such as ‘Rapunzel', a response to Anne Sexton's poem of the same name) and therefore Broumas' concept of myth should be perhaps be understood in the broader sense of 'stories and structure of feeling that are culturally hegemonic' [4], although her attachment to Greek myth, as I have stated previously, has specific cultural connotations which stem from her nationality and upbringing. This is further demonstrated by her combined references to ‘fellow' Greek poets Sappho and Odysseas Elytis in ‘Sappho's Gymnasium', which incorporate Broumas and her co-author, Begley, into an ecstatic poetic tradition spanning the centuries.

Unlike Boland, Broumas is very conscious of writing from within a female mythopoetic tradition, clearly identifying her chief poetic influences, for instance in the poem ‘Demeter' (Beginning With O, 1977) which pays homage to Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Wolf and Adrienne Rich. Later works such as Sappho's Gymnasium also acknowledge her debt to male poets such as Odysseus Elytis and W.S. Merwin and perhaps indicate a change of perspective on the purposes of mythopoetic discourse. Therefore, whilst her relationship to myth is often highly personal and often incorporates autobiographical detail, her keen awareness of changing poetic traditions and patterns of influence, invites the reader to acknowledge the intertextuality, manipulating our perception of texts ancient and modern.

Out of the early, revisionist approach, which typifies many of the poems in the ‘Twelve Aspects of God' series in Beginning With O, via more introspective poems such as ‘Woman with Child' (Soie Sauvage, 1979 ) Broumas develops an increasingly intuitive, abstract style in which substantial mythic paradigms fall away. When Broumas does return to myth in the collaborative work ‘Sappho's Gymnasium' (with T. Begley 1994) it is to combine the allusive, detached imagery of the Sapphic fragments with snatches of Elytis and evocative, disconnected imagery and syntax. In this way, the classical reception is explicitly portrayed within a much wider spectrum of poetic intertextuality, whilst simultaneously intimating a diachronic process which connects the poets back to their 'Preumbilical eros preclassical brain'. Reference to the ancient source therefore enlarges the collaborative process through which Broumas and Begley allow their authorial voice to become dispersed.


In this very brief overview, but primarily through my analyses of individual poems by Eavan Boland and Olga Broumas, i hope to have demonstrated that classical referents constitute a significant aspect of how the poets identify with and against the culture they are writing for. There is a duality in manner that each poet approaches classical mythology, for whilst both feel an intimate connection to classical literature, they also challenge mythic authority, using this device to represent a process of breaking with old traditions and forging new ones, particularly in relation to gender and their role as poets. Most interestingly, from a reception studies perspective, their poetry demonstrates a keen awareness of the unique role that classical receptions can play in the construction of identity and their poems very often stage a deliberate intervention within this field, in order to disrupt established modes of mythic discourse. Though their response to myth is often reactionary, the powerful structures which they represent are allowed to remain, to speak for a sense of history, memory, anger and belonging, though as readers we are made to reorientate ourselves in relation to familiar themes and subjects.

Areas for Further Research

My research into the poetry of Broumas and Boland and their respective influences suggest that it would be useful to take the wider research on female poets back a decade or so and examine the work of figures such as Muriel Rukeyser, May Sarton, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich. The influence of Rich, through her prose work, as well as her poetry, is difficult to overstate. In particular, her essay ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision' can be seen both to represent and provoke a widespread, predominantly feminist, challenge to the hegemonic currency of myth, or more specifically, the contemporary values with which it has been equated.

To take a broader view, the research suggests that these confessional poets (amongst whom we must also acknowledge Sylvia Plath) represent a crucial link in the chain of classical reception which can be traced through to later 20th century poets such as Broumas and Boland. They can also be seen to bridge, or perhaps mediate, later 20th century perceptions of modernist references to myth. Specifically, the revisionary treatment of religious, mythic and folk paradigms by poets such as Rich, Sexton and Plath constitutes a direct challenge to distinctions of genre and register in poetry and establishes a contemporary poetic discourse in which myth is used to explore and challenge accepted social and literary values.

Whereas a poet such as Louise Glück can be seen to perpetuate this mode of writing in the later 20th century (perhaps losing stylistic impact in so doing) (see Gluck 1996), others, such as Broumas and Boland adopt aspects of their predecessors' approach, whilst moving away from overtly confessional aspects of style. One potential avenue for further research would, therefore, be to this relationship in greater detail and to investigate the relationships with modernist poets of the earlier 20th century. There is perhaps also much more to be learnt about the role that classical receptions have played in the poetic discourse on sexuality gender and in the development of ‘lesbian' poetic modes. Whilst existing scholarship by Ostriker, York and Grahn surveys the significance of female mythopoetic writing in this field, there is little which specifically addresses the value of classical allusions, within the wider nexus of mythic, religious and folk references (Ostriker 1982; York 1992; Grahn 1985).

A further consideration which needs to be born in mind is the issue of how the modern poems might inform our reading of ancient texts. On the whole I concur with Charles Martindale's model of reception studies, which recognises that we are, in fact, unable to read the ancient text without being influenced by the history of its reception (Martindale 1993). However, there are distinctions to be made between how academic analysis charts these histories and how practisingpoets situate themselves in relation to both classical and subsequent literary traditions. One way of investigating the impact of this dichotomy might be to chart significant shifts in modes of reception, within poetry, against parallel trends in academia. In the case of female poets this could be done via comparative analysis of feminist thinking, for instance, in both literary and academic spheres, thereby complimenting existing surveys within the field of classics (for example, Zajko 2008 and Rabinowitz & Richlin 1993).

Further thoughts on methodology

During the process of research, the most persistent issue to arise, especially when selecting poems for analysis, was the question of when and how we ought to make qualitative judgements about the poet's work, both as a collection and from poem to poem. Whilst there is a necessity to provide some assessment of the poet's originality, influence and literary standing, the imposition of aesthetic value judgements can easily compromise the study of reception.

For example, it was with some hesitation that I selected Eavan Boland's O Fons Bandusiae, a translation of Horace's Ode 3.13, for analysis. On first reading the poem seems (to me at least) somewhat laboured and lacking the metapoetic flare of the source text. Nevertheless, the poem offers a valuable insight into Boland's appreciation of the classical poet and his techniques of genre-subversion. It was also possible to discern a parallel in Boland's reaction to both Horace and Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, which is carried beyond the point at which the classical material can easily be identified as a model within Boland's corpus. For instance, in the much later poem ‘How We Made a New Art on Old Ground' [5], allusions to the classical have all but disappeared, although a fleeting reference to ilex trees 'half in, half out/ of shadows falling on the shallow ford' betrays a Horatian influence. In short, by overlooking the aesthetic shortcomings of O Fons Bandusiae, it was possible to observe a very revealing pattern of reception and to gain a richer understanding of the fusion of traditions.

Before deciding to focus on the work of Boland and Broumas I initially considered, as an alternative method of approach, selecting a particular mythic character or classical trope and tracing the various receptions through poetry. However, this aim will readily be achieved in the future via the database in allowing users to search for thematic devices and make their own connections regarding issues of intertextuality and reception. The selection of poems represented on the database could facilitate this type of cross-referencing, by deliberately offering a variety of perspectives on recurrent themes and motifs.



Blau DuPleiss, R. 2007. ‘H.D. and Revisionary Mythmaking', in Davis, A. & Jenkins, L.M. (eds) 2007:114-25.

Boland, E. 1974. ‘The Weasel's Tooth.' Irish Times, 7 June 1974.

Boland, E. 1995. Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time. London: Vintage, 1995.

Boland, E. 1997. ‘Letter to a Young Woman Poet.' American Poetry Review 26/3:23-27.

Brearton, F. 2003. 'Poetry of the 1960s : the 'Northern Ireland Renaissance' in The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, ch. 6, ed. M. Campbell. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Bristow, J. 1992. Sexual Sameness: Textual Differences in Lesbian and Gay Writing. London and New York: Routledge.

Davis, A. and L. M. Jenkins (eds). 2007. The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fulford, S. 2002. 'Eavan Boland: Forging a Postcolonial Herstory', in G. Hooper and C. Graham (eds) London: Palgrave Macmillan, 202-21.

Grahn, J. 1985. The Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbain Poetic Tradition. San Francisco: Spinning Sisters Ink.

Glück, L. 1996. Meadowlands. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press.

Hardwick, L. and C. Stray (eds). 2008. A Companion to Classical Receptions. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hooper, G. and C. Graham. 2002. Irish and Postcolonial Writing: History, Theory, Practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Koolish, L. 1984. ‘Splendid Deficiencies'. Women's Review of Books, 1/5:10-12.

Martindale, C. 1993. Redeeming the Text. Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ostriker, A. 1982. ‘The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking.' Signs 8/1:68-90.

Rabinowitz, N. and A. Richlin (eds). 1993. Feminist Theory and the Classics. London: Routledge.

Villar-Argaiz, P. 2007. Eavan Boland's Evolution as an Irish Woman Poet: An Outsider Within an Outsider's Culture. Lampeter Ceredigion: Edwin Mellen Press Ltd.

Rich, A.1972. ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision'. College English, 34/1:18-30.

Snyder. J.M. 1997. Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho. New York: Columbia University Press.

York, L. 1992. ‘Constructing a lesbian poetic for survival: Broumas, Rukeyser, H.D., Rich, Lorde', in Bristow, J. (ed.), 187-209.

Zajko, V. 2008. ''What Difference Was Made?': Feminist Models of Reception', in L. Hardwick, and C. Stray, (eds), 195-206.


[1] Snyder 1997:150 notes the Sapphic allusion contained in this reference.

[2] See especially Boland 1995 ch.4. My analysis of ‘The Latin Lesson' lists the poems which combine classical and pedagogic references.

[3] The Journey, 1987; Outside History, 1990 – see also my analyses.

[4] Rachel Blau DuPleiss' characterisation ‘myth' in the work of poets such as H.D. and Adrienne Rich (2007:117).

[5] Code 2001