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That the Science of Cartography Is Limited

That the Science of Cartography Is Limited

by Eavan Boland

Lines 1-4 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

-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.

  • Ah, so the title leads right into this first stanza. The title and first stanza of the poem are actually one complete sentence, as well as one complete idea.
  • And what's that idea? Well, that maps can't tell us everything. Sure, they tell us where forests are, but they don't allow us to smell the balsam wood of their trees. (Unless they invent scratch-and-sniff maps, which would be totally awesome. Unless there's a landfill by your hometown...) Maps may give us the geographic outline of the forest, telling us where it starts and ends, but they don't allow us to experience what it's like to be in that forest. And as we read on, we'll find out that there are a lot of other things that maps leave out.
  • The speaker ends this stanza by saying that the experiential inadequacy of cartography is what she wants to "prove." Put on your science hats, nerds: the title is a hypothesis, and the rest of the poem is a proof of that hypothesis.
  • This quasi-scientific setup actually tells us a lot about the speaker of the poem. It tells us that she's into logic and empiricism. She's a scientific thinker. She notices the world around her—the "fragrance of balsam," for example. She's a focused lady, and she's open to a sensory experience of the world.
  • Oh, and by the way: sometimes a tree is not just a tree. The cypress tree is a symbol of mourning that's been around for thousands of years. It shows up everywhere you might find people mourning over the death of their loved ones—in poetry, and in real-life cemeteries.
  • So we've got some pretty heavy foreshadowing with "the gloom of cypresses" in this poem: thar be mourning on the horizon, mateys.