Harwood Essay

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The very nature of poetry as being open to interpretive readings means that the poetry of Gwen Harwood can change with time and place, thus exploring the social customs and ethics affecting the contemporary audience. Her poems “Father and Child” (FC) and “The Violets” (TV) both reflect her context of the 1960s and 1970s, a period in which social activism had a major effect on the values of the presiding culture. The poems reveal Harwood’s characteristic voice that surpasses the barriers of time and inspects universal issues that are relevant to all.

In FC, I have embraced a neo-romanticist perspective due to Harwood’s portrayal of the individual and their world, which I view as the author’s response to the social instability caused by the Cold War, along with fundamental cultural change. Harwood’s eminent theme in FC is the loss of innocence as one leaves childhood. In the first section of this descriptive poem, the speaker depicts their childish, younger self, drawing on the binary opposites of “fiend” and “angel” to portray deliberate misbehavior: “A horny fiend, I crept out with my father’s gun. Let him dream of a child obedient, angel mild.” Here, the image of the gun becomes a symbol of the father’s dominance which the child attempts to disrupt. In the line “master of life and death...whose law would punish beak and claw”, the use of synechdote which diminishes the owl to a “beak and claw” underlines the youth’s reductionist, childish inception of the entirety of another’s identity. Here, the exposure of the child to nature is represented as catalyzing a heightened awareness of the self, which is consistent with my vision. There is duality in Harwood’s relationship to feminism, an important ideological thread in the context of the 1960s and 1970s. While her portrayal of the female experience opposes patriarchal stereotypes in some respects, in others she reproduces a traditionally gendered outlook of the world which might be seen as a response to emerging ways of thinking. The perspective that as the child “fired” she patriarchally loses her femininity is conflicting with my neo-romanticist interpretation, which involves the child’s loss of youthful innocence.

In AM, I have embraced a neo-romanticist perspective due to Harwood’s portrayal of the individual and their world, which I view as the author’s response to the social instability caused by the Cold War, along with fundamental cultural change. Harwood’s eminent theme in AM is that of maturation and the power of the memory to revitalize the persona. The shifts in tense throughout the poem are symptomatic of the persona’s aim to use their past experiences to fully value the present, and welcome the offerings of the future, exemplified in the discrepant references: “they told me” and “I remember”. The way in which a single rudimentary event can precipitate a flood of memories and their related emotions is represented in the motif of water: “On what flood are they borne, these memories of early childhood”. Here, the exposure of the child to nature is represented as catalyzing a heightened awareness of the self, which is consistent with my vision. The recount of the memory: “I leapt from my father’s arms...like a doll among rattling shells” captures richly the danger to which the child unintentionally exposes themselves, with the impulsivity implied in the verb “leapt”, capturing the irrationality of the child. A critic might denounce Harwood for advocating patriarchal ideology in portraying a father figure as defensive and educative. This point might be legitimate if the father were depicted as penal or hostile, but as his acts could also be formulated as nurturant, one might dispute that Harwood is actually challenging reductionist images of the male.

TV is representative of Harwood’s work, as it investigates the nature of memory, especially its ability to reinvigorate the persona who is experiencing a form of privation or period of transition into which...
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