The theme of this poem is the exclusion from history of those who have been voiceless and forgotten, the casualties of war, colonisation and, of course, women who for so long were denied status and recognition because of their gender. Boland rebelled against the mythisation of Irish history: the songs , the ballads, the female icons of the nation, the romantic images. Myth obscures the reality, manipulates history. It is outside real, lived history, a remote, unchanging image, a false construct. Outside History begins with a recognised truth:
There are outsiders, always. These stars –
These iron inklings of an Irish January,
Whose light appeared
Thousands of years before
Our pain did: they are, they have always been
What is clearly established in these opening lines is a sense of the cosmos and the planet earth, the universe and the little world of human nature. Poem seven in the Outside History sequence is called “We Are Human History. We Are Not Natural History” and Boland is making such a distinction here. The life of the stars is immense. They are natural history. Paradoxically though they appear unchanging and are symbols of eternity, their illumination is thousands of years out of date when it reaches us. Ironically it is the light that is an illusion: the darkness is real. Their presence now is conveyed in images, “iron”, “Irish January” which suggests cold and distance presences, which contrast with the human history, the particular, “our pain”. Pain may refer to human suffering in general or how the Irish have suffered throughout history.
Boland’s voice here is a collective voice; she is speaking for the Irish people. As a woman also Boland may see herself as someone outside history, but here she is also saying that she has chosen to become part of human history. The stars are outside history, they do not get involved:
They keep their distance. Under them remains
A Place where you found
You were human, and
A landscape where you know you were mortal.
The “you” of line eight would seem to refer to all of us beneath the stars, but perhaps more significantly it refers to the people of Ireland, the Irish in their landscape. It could also refer to the mortal, the individual, the woman who knows pain and suffering.
In the central stanza, Boland speaks of “a time to choose” and what it seems she is choosing between is the stars on the one hand and the human story or history, on the other. The decisive line, “I have chosen”, marks a turning point in the poem. Boland explains the direction she is taking:
Out of myth into history I move to be
Part of that ordeal
Whose darkness is
Only now reaching me from those fields
Those rivers, those roads clotted as
Firmaments with the dead.
The choice presented to the poet ‘between them’ refers to the choice between the mythic world of the stars [traditionally used as symbols of timelessness] and the real painful world of history.
In this poem, Boland is possessing a past which she did not know. It is her past, a painful ordeal, and, in the act of writing the poem, she is finding a voice to honour the silent voices of the past.
The imagery of the stars and their light, which has been travelling for thousands and thousands of years becomes an image of darkness travelling through time from Ireland’s past. Boland sees the light of the stars and is aware of the darkness of ordeal and pain; she has chosen to write about human history, not natural history.
The details of “fields”, “rivers”, “roads”, suggest countryside and the clusters of dead on the road suggest the Irish famine. Boland, in the lines “ clotted as /firmaments with the dead”, has effectively taken the language associated with the stars of stanzas one and transferred the image to the human story which is of greater interest to her now.
The closing stanza once again uses “we”:
How slowly they die
As we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear.
And we are too late. We are always too late.
The poem began with a reference to “our pain”; then Boland spoke of how “I have chosen” and “I move to be part of that ordeal.” She returns to an inclusive voice at the end, indicating perhaps that she herself may once have felt that, as a woman and a woman poet, she was outside history, but that she has now entered into history. The poem has focused on Irish history and on the need to know and remember it.
The tone in the final lines is one of pity, helplessness and deep regret. The poem remembers “that ordeal”, those dreadful deaths on the roads. They are dead and dying and cannot be saved. This is coupled with a sense of collective responsibility, indicated by the shifting from the singular ‘I’ to the plural ‘we’. It is as if the poet has accepted a responsibility, metaphorically speaking to the dead, by recognising that there is a need to redress the wrong that has been done to all the countless dead whose lives have somehow been forgotten and unexpressed., All Boland can offer are words of comfort when it is too late, and the repetition in the poem’s last line
And we are too late. We are always too late.