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Examining The Work Of Gwen Harwood English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1208 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Harwood’s work has always maintained universal appeal in its ability to articulate the indescribable in her dealing with themes that are intrinsically relevant to human experiences. As Strauss describes, Harwood effectively ‘plays with dualistic boundaries, whether they be boundaries between life and death, present and past’ as a means to articulate her ruminations and this is reflective in many of her poems.

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‘Father and Child’ delves into the loss of childhood innocence and consequential lessons on life and death following her confronting encounter.

In ‘Barn Owl’, the persona comes to learn after firing the first shot of her father’s gun that death is an ‘obscene buddle of stuff that dropped, and dribbled through loose straw tangling in bowels’. The violent, graphic imagery evoke feelings of repugnance which highlights the grotesque nature of death, being that of prolonged pain and anguish. Thus the child articulates a deepened understanding of the vulnerability of life, the finality of death, and the sorrow in taking away a life. This horrific perception is contrasted to Nightfall which portrays death as a natural, inevitable outcome that can be peaceful. This diptych structure provides didactic lessons as noted by Hoddinott who praises Harwood’s “ability to interweave past and present as one of her most striking gifts”. In Nightfall, the poet is no longer a child, but has matured and engendered an acceptance of death as part of the cycle of life through the Christian allusion to heaven ‘times promised land’. The metaphor ‘since there is no more to taste, ripeness is plainly all, father we pick our last fruits of the temporal’ recounts the father’s fufilled life and shows that the power of death is superseded by the eternal nature of their memories. The intertextual allusion to King Lear ‘Old King, your marvellous journeys done’ heightens the responder’s awareness of the persona’s increasing self-knowledge about death, the complexities of life and the subleties of her relationship with her father, seen in the juxtaposition of ‘Old King’ with ‘old No-Sayer’. Although Harwood acknowledges the lasting losses of death and the sorrow of change, she also recognizes that in spite of all of this, ‘things truly named can never vanish from earth’. She articulates that memories will surpass the grief and suffering of the fathers’ death as the persona learns to accept the uncertainty of life.

Harwood extends on this exploration of death as an ‘obscene’ experience, by exploring how death is abstract and undesirable yet inevitable in The Sharpness of Death.

The repetition of ‘obscene’ gives her poems coherance as a body of work in her investigation of death. She continues by exploring the intellectual aspects of death as she makes references to philosopher’s suc h as Heidegger to dismiss their theories on life and death as overly intricate and meaningless. This is reinforced through her exclamatory repetition of ‘untranslatable as ever!’ accompanied by a scornful tone which underlines her disdain and frustration over the flaws in their rational philosophical musings over such mystique experience. Additionally, Harwood articulates the transience of life in the final two lines of ‘Nasturtiums’, illustrating the continual cycle of time as the light is gone but still held within the ‘seeds of seeds’. This is an image of continual rebirth of innocence and creativity as life moves on and it is this calm even tone that reflects Harwood’s understanding of life’s changes and eventual end. Her acceptance is reflective in her final bargain, demonstrated through her defiant, imperative tone and direct address; ‘Death I will tell you now…if I fall from that time, then set your teeth in me’. Here, the fierce personification of death shown through its capitalisation accentuates its prevailing power and inexorability. By doing so, she justifies that passionate experiences and fulfilling relationships are fundamental because of death’s inevitable arrival. The unity of the poemy is seen in the cyclic structure as the final part closes the opening deal. As a result, we come to agree with Strauss in descirbing Harwood as a ‘new and distinctive voice’ as the Sharpness of Death effectively delves into the complexities of death in taking us through fearing death to accepting it as both mysterious and inevitable. Accordingly, we acknowledge that it is through a personal joyous affirmation of life that death is defeated.

Likewise At Mornington also explores the universality of human experience through observations of the ephemeral passing of time and the temporal nature of human existence.

Transpiring is the heightened awareness of the value of shared and meaningful human experiences and a firm acceptance of the certainty of mortality. An extended metaphor amplifies this notion that life is full of opportunity for joy and reinvention, ‘…we have one day only one/but more than enough to refresh us’. Like the persona’s realisation in ‘Nightfall’ that memories trascend one’s death, the recollections of this poem underline that all of life amounts to, ‘dreams, pain, memories, love and grief’ and thus life’s transience is supported through expressions of love and friendship. Harwood refers to the pumpkin vine as a ‘parable’ of herself; the lesson intrinsic in each of her musings is that although death is inevitable and permanent, there is some consolation in a life of virtue and fulfilment. The poem’s sense of unity is reflected in its cyclical nature, beginning and ending with the motif of water, symbolic of the flow of water and memory, in addition to the recurring ‘rolling’ motion. Her first reference in the simile ‘rolled like a doll’ portrays her childhood innocence in her perception of invincibility, believing that she ‘could walk on water’. Towards the conclusion, the water becomes a metaphor for death ‘when I am seized at last and rolled in one grinding race’ suggesting her acknowledgement of deaths’ power and her own mortality. The reflective, reverent tone indicates her acceptance of death, captured in the simile, ‘like light on the face of waters that bear me away forever’, depicting death as peaceful and serene. As Hoddinott comments, this poem eloquently ‘traces the losses occasioned by time against the power of memory to keep alive the illumination of moments that renew the world’. Accordingly, as responders we also come to accept the inexorableness of death and appreciate the importance of memory to retain life’s richness.

Harwoods’ exploration on the significant ideas of death is evident throughout many of her works and it is through her investigation on this universally complex human experience, does she generate worldwide appeal.


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