Ekphrasis and ethics in the poetry of W.B. Yeats and Eavan Boland.
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Smith, Bethany J.
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This study argues that W.B. Yeats is an important poetic precursor for Eavan Boland, and particularly for her sophisticated engagement with the age-old subgenre of ekphrasis, in which a poem responds to a work of visual art. I explore how both poets explode the boundaries of poetic form and ekphrastic tradition to re-imagine ekphrasis not as an abstract rivalry between modes of representation, but rather as an ethical encounter between the poet and the work of visual art. The openness and fluidity of such encounters for Yeats and Boland affirm the dignity of individuality and re-frame ekphrasis as a mode capable of the aesthetic and ethical creativity necessary to respond to the political and social exigencies of twenty-first century Ireland. For both poets, the aesthetic and ethical possibilities that arise on the boundary of voice and vision parallel the transformative potential of other threshold spaces between public and private life, the city and the country, Ireland and Britain, and even life and death. Despite Boland's outright rejection of Yeats's ideas about a unified Irish nation and cultural tradition, she continues his poetic legacy of exploiting the liminal potential of ekphrasis to re-imagine Ireland as a community bound by common loss rather than by common suffering and injustice. Ekphrasis is a response to suffering, but the work of both poets argues implicitly that a poem does not itself heal the actual wounds of body, mind, or spirit; rather, it mediates the healing process by keeping questions open, resisting the violence of closure. Boland's ekphrasis develops distinctly from Yeats's as it responds to concerns unique to her place as a woman poet, engages the dynamic of empathy between a speaker and a work of art, and explores intensively the relationship between individual and communitas. This study ends by affirming ekphrasis, in its potential for re-imagining aesthetic forms and ethical relationships, as a viable mode for the future of Irish poetry.