Dublin- born Katharine Tynan was a popular and immensely productive writer, active from the 1880s to 1931. She published over one hundred novels, eighteen collections of poems, journalism, autobiography and many short stories. Like Ellen O’Leary, she was an enthusiastic nationalist and active champion of the Irish literary revival. However as with O’Leary, we find something of a contrast between Tynan’s activity in male spheres of public life, and the idealisation of traditional female roles in her writing, work which also emphasises devotional Catholic themes.
‘Any Woman’ (1911)
The poem was originally published in the1911 collection New Poems under the title ‘The Mother’ and was frequently anthologised afterwards, later as ‘Any Woman’. What similarities can you find between this poem and 'A Legend of Tyrone' (which can be found in our previous article on Ellen O'Leary)?
I am the pillars of the house;
The keystone of the arch am I.
Take me away, and roof and wall
Would fall to ruin me utterly.
I am the fire upon the hearth,
I am the light of the good sun,
I am the heat that warms the earth,
Which else were colder than a stone.
At me the children warm their hands;
I am their light of love alive.
Without me cold the hearthstone stands,
Nor could the precious children thrive.
I am the twist that holds together
The children in its sacred ring,
Their knot of love, from whose close tether
No lost child goes a-wandering.
I am the house from floor to roof,
I deck the walls, the board I spread;
I spin the curtains, warp and woof,
And shake the down to be their bed.
I am their wall against all danger,
Their door against the wind and snow,
Thou Whom a woman laid in a manger,
Take me not till the children grow!
For similarities, perhaps you noticed that like O’Leary’s poem, ‘Any Woman’ is in the form of a ballad. It has four-line stanzas or quatrains, with a strong, simple pattern of rhyme and rhythm. So both poems would work well set to music, though you might find Tynan’s more like a hymn than a folk-song as you read it through.
Then both poems seem to celebrate the mother as a strong, idealised figure- ‘I am the pillars of the house’ - who is able to protect her children and create a nurturing home.
As for differences, you might have noted that ‘Any Woman’ does not tell a story, but rather catalogues the qualities that the speaking woman possesses. In contrast to ‘A Legend’ there is no particular setting in place or time, or sense that we are entering a world remote from our own. Tynan has no concern here to convey a sense of Irish ‘otherness’ in the language which avoids dialect, Gaelic words and colloquialisms.
Though there is no explicit reference to Ireland or Irish culture, the critic Donna Potts has argued that Tynan’s poetry consistently draws on ‘two powerful symbols in Irish Catholic culture: Mother Ireland and Mother Mary’ (Potts, 2000). Given Tynan’s frequent personification of Ireland itself as an idealised mother, we could argue that she is still representing a distinctive Irish female identity but more indirectly than does O’Leary.
Ways of reading – gender and identity
One effect of Tynan’s style as discussed above is to suggest that there is something universal and unchanging about the role of women-- an idea implicit in the title itself, ‘Any Woman’.
Do you find the woman’s viewpoint in the poem limited and confining? Or do you read the poem as a positive statement about female power and endurance? Find a few points to support either interpretation.
The six stanzas organise the argument of the poem into clear, compelling points- without the woman there is ruin, cold and loss; with her, love, warmth, safety and moral order- ‘No lost child’. The speaker makes a series of powerful metaphorical statements to assert her absolute physical, emotional and spiritual importance to the family - ‘I am the pillars… I am the fire… I am the house…’ The woman is self-sufficient and there is no sense of patriarchy (male control of the family).
In the last stanza the woman epitomises physical strength- a ‘wall against all danger’. She does humbly pray for the safety of her family, but in terms that emphasise female power - Jesus is addressed as ‘Thou whom a woman laid in manger’. So the imagery of the poem ultimately links Any Woman’s power to sustain life with the power of the Virgin Mary herself. In this sense, the poem can be read as a celebration of women’s creativity and autonomy.
On the other hand, you might have felt that the speaking woman is not a particularly human figure at all. She is compared with a series of physical objects and abstract values. Does this pillar, fire, wall, ‘knot of love’ have an independent identity? It seems that all individuality is erased by the woman’s role in the home. This is after all, ‘any woman’.
While we might acknowledge that there is some truth in this idea that motherhood involves loss of individuality, the important point is how Tynan portrays this process. If we were less sympathetic to the vision of the poem, we might find that Tynan’s poem draws on oppressive stereotypes to enforce an unrealistic idealisation of women’s experience. There is no ‘right answer’ here- it all depends on how we respond to the poem at a given reading. This ambiguity is an important characteristic of poetry, and you will notice it again if you listen to the discussion between Angus Calder and the third poet we look at in the last of these articles, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.