Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Poetry

The Shadow Doll by Eavan Boland – a close study

What the poem is about? In as few words as possible:

“The Shadow Doll” by Eavan Boland is a poem that highlights the oppression felt by a woman as she is about to get married.

The basics you will need to know: (what you should be considering when you’re writing)

  • In.Victorian times, a shadow doll was used as a mini-model to measure the bride to be’s dress. It would usually have been sent to the her by a dressmaker with a mini replica of her wedding dress and it was usually encased in a glass dome.
  • 3 line stanzas.
  • Use of imagery and symbols.
  • The importance of the title.
  • Tone – helpless, hopeless…

Questions you should be considering when writing about your response to this poem:

  • How does Boland’s poetic style help to emphasize the plight of the bride to be?
  • How well does Boland describe the differences between the past and the present?
  • What image of marriage is Boland projecting?
Here are some mini responses I have written to the poem which answer some of these questions and give my personal reaction to this poem – hope it helps! Remember that all the poetry questions are personal responses, you’re not writing an academic essay, so it’s crucial to give your opinion! Don’t be afraid of the first person pronoun.
A VERY general personal response (to give you an idea of the main points of the poem and this kind of thing is what you might think after your FIRST reading of the poem)
“The Shadow Doll” by Eavan Boland is a poem that portrays the oppression felt by a woman as she is about to enter into to the life-constraining vow of marriage. This poem evoked both sympathy and empathy in me for the fragile and trapped bride-to-be. Boland’s ability to create a simplicity of image makes this poem accessible to all. In the opening lines of the poem she says “they stitched blooms from the ivory tulle to hem the oyster gleam of the veil”. Immediately, I get the impression that the dress is of a fine and delicate quality. This is an extremely effective metaphor, as it elucidates the woman’s purity and virtue. From the poem’s opening, Boland presents the woman as an innocent being.
Boland describes the doll as “porcelain” and upon reading this, I feel an enormous sense of sympathy for the bride. The fact that Boland uses this word highlights the woman’s vulnerability and fragility – showcasing her to be a person who could potentially be easily damaged. The powerless of this bride-to-be is evident when Boland says “under glass, under wraps”. The imminent life long vow of marriage fills her head with dread, but she must remain “discreet” and dutiful – suffering and oppressed through the trials and tribulations of marriage. It’s hard to ignore the heartbreaking sadness within these lines, as the suffocation and helplessness is perceptible.
In my opinion, the most effective lines come in the last stanza, when she says “pressing down, then pressing down again. And then, locks.”  This is a powerful image as not only can we see the pressure that is being forced upon the woman, but the short and abrupt final line exemplifies the finality and seemingly treacherous vow of marriage. It’s worth observing Boland’s clever use of punctuation in these lines as well. She employs the comma in a very clever way – not only does it make us slow down as we read these lines, but I feel that it also shows how this pressure is being dragged out, slowly and painfully. The comma makes us stop and think about the woman’s plight.
I think that “The Shadow Doll” by Eavan Boland is a moving poem because by using the clever metaphor of a porcelain doll, encased in an “airless glamour”, she paints a picture of an innocent and obedient woman, summoned to a life of entrapment and suppression which is encapsulated through the vow of marriage. This poem evokes sympathy and empathy within me, both of which are juxtaposed with melancholy and despondency, as Boland’s view of marriage is a bleak and harsh one, but at times, a chillingly accurate one.
How well do you think Boland evokes the differences between the past and the present in this poem? (This is a good thing to think about in relation to relevance)
In “The Shadow Doll”, Eavan Boland displays a mastery of language, which in turn creates evocative and powerful imagery. Through this effective imagery, she highlights the differences between the past and the present. The bride-to-be’s view of marriage, is in many ways the antithesis to a twenty first century bride’s outlook on her big way. “The Shadow Doll” is a highly emblematic poem, in which the “porcelain” figure is used as a metonym to showcase something much bigger – the entrapment of a woman about to enter into marriage. The  fragility of the bride-to-be is evident when Boland says “the shadow doll survives its occasion”. Immediately, we are made aware that the woman is vulnerable and something like surviving a marriage is seen to be an achievement. The idea that she is “under glass, under wraps” further speaks to the imprisonment of this woman. This negative and bleak view of marriage which pervades and dominates the poem is something of an alien concept to most modern day brides. The difference between ‘now and then’ is perfectly captured through Boland’s sombre tone and use of imagery.
In Victorian times, the shadow doll was used as a mini model on which the bride’s dress could be tested on and sent to her as a sample and any alterations would have been done on the doll. Despite her comparison being years old, Boland uses the doll as an emblem of oppression, as the doll which is an inanimate object is representative of the woman’s lack of voice and freedom. The woman, like the doll appears throughout the poem as a passive figure – nowhere in the poem does she appear active or willing. Boland says that she is trapped in an “airless glamour” and after reading these lines, the suffocation felt by the woman is blindingly apparent. The bride-to-be is a human, which distinguishes her from the figure, however, her powerlessness and helplessness equate her to “The Shadow Doll”. Like Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, the theme of this poem is something that can be applied to anyone who has felt or still feels a similar plight- despite a very specific subject matter. Boland’s image of a young person who is suppressed by a more powerful force than herself, transcends generations and is unquestionable relevant to a modern day audience.
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Hope that helped folks! If you have any other poems you would like to do a close reading of, or any Hamlet soliloquies you would like explained in specific detail, then drop me a comment or tweet me (@JamieTuohy). I’ll try and get them done as soon as I have a chance and a break from the endless college work!!
Happy writing,
Jamie.
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