Gwen Harwood, Critics Essay

This module requires students to explore and evaluate a specific text and its reception in a range of context. It develops students’ understanding of questions of textual integrity. Students explore the ideas in Gwen Harwood’s poetry through analysing its construction, content and language. They research others’ perspectives of the poems and test these against their own understanding and interpretation of the text. Question: In your view, how have poetic techniques been used to reveal memorable ideas in Harwood’s poetry? Poetry is an expression of emotions.

Communication of time and relationships are conveyed through many of the poems composed by Gwen Harwood. Factors contributing to her success as a poet through the decades relate to her themes and the universal symbols. ‘At Mornington’, ‘Mother Who Gave Me Life’, as well as ‘Triste Triste’ all express the emotions within Harwood’s life and show how time is intricately interwoven to relationships. Through these inter-textual factors a network of memorable ideas are collaborated to make a magnificent opus that has stood the test of time.

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Time is a recurring theme within all Harwood’s poems, which expresses the changes through the life of the poet, and the emotive experiences that contribute to finding oneself. This enables the poet to create a visual timeline for the readers and gives evidence to the success of the poems throughout the decades by having relatable themes. Changing of the tense in each stanza, explains a change in time and train of thought, as from the childhood past and the present thought.

Harwood’s ability to establish language that moves ‘from the present to the past tense, but also brings the past back to life’ are continually bringing us ‘back to the shadow of death, standing over the passing of time’ as Professor Stephanie Trigg explains in her book, Gwen Harwood1. Time is notably displayed within the poems, ‘At Mornington’ and ‘Mother Who Gave Me Life’ through techniques such as connecting words, metaphors and tense of the writing. Connecting words serve to expose the tone change within the poem of ‘At Mornington’, and through this technique we can see the movement of time in the poem, especially from child to adult.

A graphic layout is constructed, by using connective words to express the progression of time. The structure of the stanzas is critical in the determination of the portrayal of time zones. “They told me that when I was taken…I remember believing as a child, I could walk on water. ” “This morning I saw in your garden. ” The fragile and unreliable nature of memory is indicated through the first stanza as the voice is of a passive tone that suggests the lack of control that the poet experiences with the event.

The second stanza acts as the transition from the past memory into the present tense and change in tone of the poet in the third stanza. Connecting words are used in each stanza to establish the flow of time and contrast the past with the present emotions of the persona. ‘Mother Who Gave Me Life’ expresses the death of the persona’s mother and her emotional perseverance through this time. A visual timeline is developed through the second and third stanza as Harwood recreates the notion of generations through a metaphor to express the evolution process on Earth. Backward in time to those other/bodies, your mother, and hers/and beyond, speech growing stranger…bones changing, heads inclining…guileless milk of the word. ” The generations of her family over time are being represented by the tracing of evolution, which leads the readers to believe that she has a strong connection with her mother. This time stanza also alludes to the cycle of life within each generation of family, as well as the strength of maternal love between women in the family, as only women are portrayed within the blueprint of time Harwood creates.

Each poem delivers an emotive text that has a continuing success in reception due to the universal factors that are recognizable and relatable to all due to the concepts of emotive experience over time and the ways in which they evolve. The theme of time is explored through a personal articulation within the poems to divulge the family culture and its relation to time. Family cultures are seen to be gender orientated as the memories shown are divided into maternal and paternal categories, and these familiarities between the personas provide an insight to the development of time in a life.

Religiously, both poems display an innuendo towards faith and religion, although they contradict through the display of the extent of the beliefs. ‘At Mornington’ alludes to a reference of childhood’s unfailing optimism, which is prominent in the poem with the referral to the walking on water that symbolises Christ and his holy abilities. The certainty and faith in religion is expressed as a young adult with a reference to the garden that can symbolise the Garden of Eden. Mother Who Gave Me Life’ contrasts with ‘At Mornington’ as the religious allusions are portrayed particularly in a more negative aspect and this contributes to the concept of movement of time in Harwood’s poems, as it is written her older years, and she disregards the pull of faith in religion. This is seen in the expression of the faith in generations of evolution, “your mother, and hers… speech growing stranger” as she creates a visual timeline with the audience to express people in general and their ideas through time and the ways in which they change.

In the religious reading of these poems, it is obvious that Gwen Harwood ties two ends of the faith spectrum with the link of time, as she portrays each in the eternal sense of the earth; the eternity of God, and the billions of years of Earth’s evolution. In these poems we can see, through the technical use of language devices of tone and tense of the poet’s voice in the poems, connecting words and metaphors, the changes that time prompts in relation to physical ages and in memories and ideas that develop and morph into a final philosophical settlement.

Within the poems, the theme of relationships is obvious, and enduring in their presentation and reception. Reception of the theme can be universal in its themes and issues, as every person has had a parental figure within their lives and the roles in which they play throughout the life of a child. ‘Mother Who Gave Me Life’, as well as ‘At Mornington’, each expresses deep meanings of loss and family relationships in the ways they withstand over time. ‘Triste, Triste’ expresses a loss and deals with a melancholy guilt, lthough this relationship differs to the previous poem in the sense that it portrays an intimate and personal affiliation. ‘At Mornington’ shows love between father and child, through metaphors, and motifs of one specific object, water. The water embodies life of her father, and throughout the poem Harwood progresses from childhood, to adulthood. After his death, she can accept his death as the water represents him. “A pitcher of water between us…drinking the water. Then as night fell, you said/’There is still some water left over. ’” Symbolism of creating memories with her father is shown by the sharing of the pitcher of water.

The reference to the water left in the pitcher, symbolises even after he is gone there is still some of him left over in her, in the literal genetic sense as well as the memories of her father that are triggered by water. Further through the poem, water becomes a metaphor for the memories of her father, and their refreshment to her pain of his passing. ‘Mother Who Gave Me Life’ exhibits the legacies and the pain of a mother and daughter bond. The poem reflects upon the changes in attitude towards a mother from the daughter. Linen is used as a motif through the poem and through metaphors, to show the different emotions about Harwood’s mother. The Sister said, when she died/She was folding a little towel…saw your face/crumple, fine threadbare linen…a lamp on embroidered linen. ” Each stanza where the linen is mentioned provides us, as the readers, with a visual timeline of her mother’s lifetime and the constant position she held within Harwood’s life. From the folding during her death represents her devotion to her duty, to the fine, threadbare linen that is thoroughly worn to show her physical appearance as an old woman until the legacy of her mother is permanently embroidered on the linen.

The repetition of folding symbolises the numerous memories of her mother which have been compressed or ‘folded’ into such a small space of her grave. A contrasting relationship can be seen in the text ‘Triste, Triste’, as it refers to an intimate and sexual relationship that conveys emotions of melancholy guilt. The poem serves as a double entendre by comparing the rising and crucifixion of Christ with the climax of a sexual act. This metaphor explores the emotional turmoil between following religion or love. Body rolls back like a stone, and risen/spirit walks to Easter light. ” A simile is used to portray the release of the spirit from imprisonment at a crucial moment, in both the religious sense and also in the climatic sexual reference. This comparison exposes the emotional relationship the poet has to both her religious devotion and her love, but the conflict that arises between them leaves her with a guilty experience through performing such an act of disrespect to her faith in religion.

A family hierarchy can be observed through the two poems, as in the historical age in which Harwood wrote her poems, the gender roles within society can be clearly determined, with her father’s role within the family life, as the ‘bread-winner’ and earning the money. Simple home life with her father is sparse within her poems, while memories of expeditions and holidays are prominent within ‘At Mornington. ’ Gender roles in her life contributed to the views of her mother throughout the poem, ‘Mother Who Gave Me Life’, as the typical roles within the woman’s life was house work and responsibility of the family and the house.

This social expectation provides Harwood with comparisons between her mother and linen as it was common for them to be linked to one another often. ‘Triste, Triste’ contradicts the relationship themes presented in the poems, ‘At Mornington and Mother Who Gave Me Life’ as the genre of relationships changes from a family link to a sexual connection between the poet and another persona. The social aspects that link to ‘At Mornington’ and ‘Mother Who Gave Me Life’ within the texts are the gender roles placed on people, and the strict conservative nature of these people.

The tone in the ‘Triste,, Triste’ is surprisingly not gender specific, and strives to equalise both male and female emotions and behaviours after a sexual act. Originally, the poem was published and signed under the pseudonym of Walter Lehmann, as the intimate nature of the poem conflicted with the social acceptances during the 1960s and 1970s, especially if it had been written by a woman. ‘This reticence may have derived from a conservative anxiety about a woman’s desire and sexuality and the fearsome social implications if such passionate poems could be proven autobiographical – a possibility that still aunts their reception. ’, Professor Trigg2 states in relation to the poem’s reception throughout the ages, and in compliance with the gender context within the society of her poems publication. Historically at the time of ‘Triste, Triste’ and its publication, a woman writing of such intimate and controversial comparisons and metaphors, would have prevented acceptance of the poem, thus the use of ‘Walter Lehmann’, her pseudonym to get as much works published and recognised.

Each of these poems create a memorable idea of emotional expressions and the universal symbols that all can relate to, through the use of techniques of motifs, similes and metaphors to express the theme of relationships. Poetry is an expression of emotions. Through the language techniques utilized and successfully presented, Harwood creates poems with integrity which resonate the memorable ideas of her life experiences with the themes of relationships and time.

Continued acceptance and positive reception from critics, such as Professor Stephanie Trigg, have contributed to the success of her texts, and the themes embedded within, to translate life, Gwen Hardwood’s personal life in particular, into words. ‘At Mornington’, ‘Mother Who Gave Me Life’, as well as ‘Triste Triste’ all express the emotions and experiences within Harwood’s life and show how the concept of time, relationships, desire and religion can all be inter-related and through these inter-textual factors a network of memorable ideas are collaborated to make a magnificent opus that has stood the test of time.

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