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Analyse the ways Gwen Harwood has prompted you to understand and respond to great and provocative ideas in her poetry. Make detailed reference to 3 poems. Gwen Harwood’s body of work skilfully portrays provocative ideas which stimulate understanding and engage with readers. Harwood’s poems ‘The Violets’, ‘Sharpness of Death’ and ‘Father and Child’ are key ideas which are representative of the transition from innocence to experience, the transience of time and the inevitability of death.
Due to the universality of these ideas, they are engaging and they resonate with contemporary audiences. Thus, these poems have prompted me to gain an understanding of the concerns explored throughout all of Harwood’s poetry. Harwood’s ‘The Violets’ evokes a strong response in the reader of the persona’s transition from innocence to experience and the transience of time through her use of natural imagery. References to light and dark throughout the poem mirror the persona’s transition from childhood to adulthood, evident in the repetition in “Ambiguous light. Ambiguous sky”.
This marks the shift from day to night, but also foreshadows the persona’s progression into adult maturity and acceptance that time is transient. Allison Hoddinott’s idea that time is the persona’s “enemy” enhances my understanding that the persona has had an ongoing conflict with the transience of time. Hoddinott’s idea is displayed through the metaphor, “stolen from me those hours of unreturning light”. The melancholy tone of the passing of time depicts the child as having a sense of ownership of time which has been irrevocably lost, highlighting that time is something which cannot be regained.
Therefore, Harwood uses natural imagery in ‘The Violets’ to express an acceptance of the transience of time, and hence the persona shifts from the innocence of childhood to the maturity of adulthood. Harwood’s use of personification and tone in ‘Sharpness of Death’ persuades readers to identify with the reality of death. In the first stanza, the speaker directly addresses death to portray her dislike towards it. This is evident in the use of imperative tone in “Leave me alone. ” The use of a caesura further emphasises the speaker’s strong dislike towards the changeable nature of death.
The speaker pleads “Give me more time for time that was never long enough”, which reaffirms the unpredictability of death and also reflects the transience of time. An acceptance of death is expressed in the final stanza, in which the speaker truly understands the reality of death. The speaker describes a memory of her relationship with a former lover, and immediately following this description she asserts that if these memories of love are put aside, then death can “set your teeth in me”. Here, the use of imperative tone and graphic imagery suggests that the speaker accepts that death is unavoidable.
Therefore, in Harwood’s ‘Sharpness of Death’, Harwood creates a sense of immediacy between the speaker and the reader which allows readers to engage with the reality of death. Harwood’s two part poem ‘Father and Child’ connects the two ideas of growth from innocence to experience and the confrontation with mortality. In both parts of the poem, the speaker’s transition from childhood to adulthood is evident as he/she is forced to face the reality of death. In ‘Barn owl’, Harwood presents the child as innocent because he/she is unaware of the consequences of killing of the barn owl.
Hoddinott’s view that the child’s cruelty is a part of “the complex journey through the adult world of experience” provides a valuable insight into these key ideas because it is through the confrontation with death that the child gains experience and understanding. The speaker’s confidence at the beginning of ‘Barn Owl’ is signified because the owl is initially objectified as the speaker’s “prize”. This metaphor facilitates the speaker’s act of killing the owl, as it significantly diminishes its importance.
After the killing, the tone becomes regretful in the line “I watched afraid by the fallen gun, a lonely child” to illustrate the child’s understanding of the enormity of the death. The emotive language reinforces that the child is solitary and responsible for the action. This is highlighted through the use of rhyme in “I saw those eyes that did not see mirror my cruelty” which highlights the complexity of the child’s journey into adulthood. Hence, Hoddinott’s view is clearly evident as once the child kills the owl, he/she begins to understand the complexity of death which is an inevitable part of life.
Therefore, Harwood’s ‘Barn Owl’ has permitted me to synthesise the ideas of gaining understanding through the confrontation with mortality. Furthermore, in ‘Nightfall’ Harwood evokes the reader’s engagement in these provocative ideas through the portrayal of the mature relationship between the father and child after forty years. A reversal of power roles between the father and child who is now an adult is evident in the metaphorical description of the father as “stick thin” which depicts his frailty and need for guidance.
Harwood’s allusion to Shakespeare’s King Lear in “Old king” displays the persona’s respect towards the father. The adult accepts the father’s death as he has reached a “season that seemed incredible”. This natural image is symbolic of the adult speaker’s accepting outlook towards the father’s age. Additionally, the reference to nature in the fourth stanza, “sunset exalts its known symbols of transience,” personifies the sunset which is symbolic of decline. The sunset represents transience, and this transitional period marks the persona’s progress from innocence to experience which accompanies decline and aging.
Therefore, it is evident that the speaker acknowledges the father’s death in a positive manner, as Harwood links death with beautiful images of nature. Moreover, the speaker’s melancholy tone reveals a sense of understanding of death, “the child once quick to mischief, grown to learn what sorrows, in the end, no words, not tears can mend,” expressing an acceptance of death through the maturation of the child into an adult. Therefore, Harwood’s ‘Father and Child’ explores the ideas of progression from innocence to experience through the confrontation with mortality.
Harwood’s ‘The Violets’, ‘Sharpness of Death’, and ‘Father and Child’ have significantly enriched my understanding of the great ideas of the shift from innocence to experience, the confrontation with mortality, and the transience of time. These ideas are separately examined in ‘The Violets’ and ‘Sharpness of Death’, but they are collectively portrayed in ‘Father and Child’, in which the transition from childhood to adulthood is a result of the confrontation with mortality. Since these ideas are timeless, readers are able to engage with the poems and understand Harwood’s poetry.
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