Poetry of Gwen Harwood: Exploring Social Customs and Ethics

Topics: Childhood, Life / Pages: 7 (1690 words) / Published: Oct 1st, 2011
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



References: to the Old and New Testaments of the bible, strengthen and explain the importance of religious faith in protecting human beings from a fear of death. In addition, the central metaphor of the trellised pumpkin vine as a “parable” of the persona’s self, relates to their own journey of seeking spiritual enlightenment. My close passionate engagement with the poem, TV, has been affected by its portrayal of the misery that mortality brings, which resonates with my own life experience. As a young person fearing death, I value the way Harwood abstains from skeptic portrayals of mortality, but provides me with a vision of transcendence through memory and the notion of an afterlife. In this poem, the “violets” are a powerful symbol of life and death as coexisting features of the human condition; while these “melancholy flowers” are “frail”, in that single flowers will die, they are robust perennials that will also renew. The use of such an image strengthens my tolerance of death in the face of wistful yearning. The time signifiers that formulate the poem in its cyclical structure: “It is dusk...dusk surrendered pink and white” depict an astute recognition of time that is contrasted with the foolishness of the child who “cannot grasp or name [time]”. In her declaration of religious values, Harwood may be considered as acting against the amplification of the modernist contestation of the religious metanarrative in a postmodern era. The referral: “into my father’s house” can be symbolic of the Holy Father and his guidance in the child’s dark experience. This consolation offered by religious faith in a world of flux is not only consistent with a religious perspective, but with my neo-romanticist perspective also, providing me with an ongoing attraction and value towards Harwood’s work. Harwood’s poetry resonates deeply with me as it continues to endure the tests of time. Her capacity to refashion the everyday with greater importance is apparent in her poems FC and TV which both investigate individually ideas of transience, endurance, finality and the ability of the memory to link the past to the present and so inform the future. Not only in her thematic interests does she attract a wide range of readers, but the poetic techniques she uses alters these concepts to make ideas that are familiar become profound.

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