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There is a fine line between life and death. Although the human flesh lives wholly in the present, his or her spirit often transcends time and place to draw upon other experiences, especially those of the past. From a study of Gwen Harwood's "The Sharpness of Death" and "Triste Triste", it is suggested that the only way to attain a more tangible connection with this past, is to be released from life by death. Therefore, life and death are not seen as conflicting entities, but rather, as the ebb and flow of a tide. Traversing between life and death is a spiritual journey that enables individuals to find an ultimate sense of fulfilment which may be otherwise prevented solely in life. Thus, until they have experienced death in some way, the human nature relies solely on their experiences of life in the flesh.
Through the dramatic monologue in the first stanza, Harwood personifies death a condemning tone employed when negotiating with death to "take one day for each day that I've wished to die. Give me more time that was never long enough," reinforcing the notion that death is consciously acknowledged by all of us.
In the second stanza, Harwood employs intertextual allusions to renowned poets such as "Rilke said song was Dasien" and Heidegger who described death as "the ultimate situation" portraying their attempts to encapsulate the meaning of life and death. The metaphoric suggestion by the persona that Heidegger "found some light beyond that field of black everlasting flowers" expresses Harwood's cynicism signifying the transience from life to death. This highlights the dilemma faced by humans whilst caught between life and death. The use of contrast between third person throughout most of this stanza with first person in the other three stanzas emphasises the lack of confidence in the philosophies proposed by such thinkers who thought to encapsulate such concepts of human nature.
In stanza 3, the assonant "seed of the seed of countless seasons" and metaphoric "blossoms to hold the light that's gone" signify the continuity of life, the seeds carrying the metaphorical light of life in it and passing it down to the next generation. This contrasts with the plaintive tone expressed in the rhetorical question "How would you ever know me now if I came to your grave ... unless I brought those flowers", the further biblical allusion through the "ray of light descending", used in conjunction to suggest that the vibrancy of the one's existence originates from a heavenly source, that is the spirit as distinct from the flesh and purporting that to some extent, such spirituality provides a tangible link between life and death.
The personification of death as a sentient and recognisable embodiment is reiterated in the last stanza, the persona demanding that "if I fall from that time, then set your teeth in me", suggesting that death does not creep upon a person unawares nor painfully, but rather, is a resignation of the first stage of our existences, life.
In "Triste Triste", Harwood extends the relationship between life and death by encapsulating the tensions between spirituality and the limitations of the earthbound, metaphorically through the stages of 'love and sleep', which can also be doubly represented as the transition between, respectively, duty and freedom. This is used to represent that the freedom of one's soul is tempered by the personified heart that 'mourns in its prison', a burden of responsibility. The poem encourages us to consider the difficulties composers face trying to balance craft and existence through a Romanticist interpretation, symbolised by the constant struggle to free spirit from the flesh.
This allows the poem to appeal to a wider audience, as the reader is enticed to engage with the universality of the humanity of the heart. The imagery provides further significance to the creative self aligned with the Christ's Resurrection, walking "to Easter light" as a means of liberating.
Further, there is a sense of regret at the fleeting nature of imagination that permeates the poem. The repetition of "Triste, Triste", denoting sadness, connotes Harwood's lingering reflection on the loss of inspiration. The metaphorical physical imagery of the body as "fallen instruments" recalls the reader to the physical state. Harwood contrasts the divine light of the second stanza with the "darkness" of tangible "sleep and love" using enjambment and repetition to draw attention to the ending of imaginative inspiration. The temporal being is therefore incapable of venturing into the world of the spiritual, "walking above", wherein lies the tension between the flesh and the spirit, and accordingly, between life and death.
Attaining the higher level of existence through the afterlife's 'unbearable light' is therefore futile and made possible only through death, which marks the delineation of flesh and spirit. In recognising the inextricable nature of this relationship, the complexities of humanity in terms of such concepts are realisable through Harwood's extensive use of contrasting light and dark imagery, such as "to unbearable light" and "darkness of sleep and love".
Harwood's poetry can be considered as having contextual relevance across both time and space, encouraging us to revel in the values of kinship and tranquillity with both the temporal and the metaphysical of one's being as defences against the arbitrariness of fate and the irrepressibility of time. Her extensive use of literary forms that I have mentioned, particularly through the repetition of Christian ideology in Triste Triste and dramatic monologue and personification of death in Sharpness of Death, serve to crystallise the textual integrity of Harwood's moralistic values. The language Harwood employs is so mired and intertwined in textual allusion that her poems self-propagate such idealisms.
The Sharpness of Death and Triste Triste are therefore slightly varying ways of expressing thematically similar existences beyond the constraints of life in the flesh. In life, the spirit is caught within the confines of the flesh, with no means of shedding its grounded shell and journeying elsewhere. The release that is experienced with death, however, enables the human spirit to come to terms with all its past, present and future pleasures, wherein the former boundaries have been disbanded. Coming to terms with this is the focus of the personas in both of these poems and Harwood invites us, the reader, to think of human nature in a similar fashion.