That the Science of Cartography Is Limited
by Eavan Boland
In this poem, we've got Art battling it out with Science, and Representation throwing fists at Experience; these are some age-old debates, with lotsa great thinkers stacked up on each side. But who does the speaker of this poem fight for? Well, the first thing we notice about the speaker is that she's a contemplative gal.
She carefully attends to the world around her, noting the "fragrance of balsam" (2) and the "ivy and scutch grass" (9) that has overgrown the stones of the famine roads. Furthermore, she connects these personal experiences to big ideas, as she ponders the meaning of maps and the relationship between her own life and her nation's history—how, "in 1847, when the crop had failed twice / Relief Committees gave / the starving Irish such roads to build." "Such roads" as the one she is traveling right now, in the poem.
However, our speaker is also a scientific thinker, as we see in that title, "That the Science of Cartography is Limited." She sets up the entire poem as a proof of this idea. And as we read, we see that our speaker takes in the world as a scientist does. She senses, remembers, gathers facts (like those recounted to her by her boyfriend about the famine roads), and uses all of this experience to test theories about the world she lives in. Specifically, that maps aren't all they're cracked up to be.
So is the speaker more of an artist, or a scientist? Does she believe more in representation or direct experience?
When Art Met Science
We have to admit, the speaker is pretty good at playing scientist. By the end of the poem, we're totally convinced that the science of cartography is limited. No more relying on maps of the Irish countryside for us. We'll make sure to see and smell everything the next time we travel there, and to study up on our history books in the meanwhile.
But many people think cartography is a science, and the speaker clearly believes this practice has its limitations.
Plus, the speaker writes this poem as a kind of reparation for what maps of Ireland have failed to capture. She proffers us this tale of Irish famine roads, in the form of a poem, as a way of drawing attention to the tragedies of the nation's history, and the difficulties of Ireland's relationship with Britain. So clearly, she doesn't think representation is all bad; art can give voice to what science elides.
Thus, we think the speaker is meant to serve as a kind of middle ground between science and art, between representation and experience. She knows the pros and cons of both. She's totally cool with letting us use maps to navigate the roads of Ireland, so long as we've got her poem in our pockets—and a whole lotta historical learning in our heads.