The couplet Father and Child from Gwen Harwood explores ideas of power and oppression. Barn Owl, the first poem portrays the effect of authority and the destruction that can occur when people are oppressed. In Nightfall Harwood examines how equality and mutual maturity can develop serenity and harmony. Due to these underlying concepts of authority and rebellion the couplet can be viewed through a Marxist perspective and it examines the effects of autocracy. Although Harwood was never publicly Marxist through her criticism of oppression it is possible to believe that she held similar worldview to that of a Marxist standpoint.
In the beginning of Barn Owl the reader witnesses the child, “a horny fiend”, attempt to escape the oppression under her father “who is robbed of power by sleep”. Although there is no pretext given for the poem the reader can assume that she seeks to escape her overpowering father. In order to free herself from her father’s authority she needed to become the “master of life and death” by demonstrating her authority over the innocent bird. Harwood’s metaphor of the levels of authority with the father highest, followed by the child and ending with the bird reflects a non-communist society in which people are in social classes. Similar to a Capitalist culture, ultimately it is the working class, in Harwood’s metaphor the owl, who suffers under the persecution of those in higher social classes. Ultimately these ideas of power and authority cause destruction and suffering.
Nightfall, the second poem in the couplet exhibits a shift in authority, where the father and child are equals. The child, now an adult has experienced the world and views her father’s authority as “ancient innocence”, no longer seeking to rebel, as in the first poem, and instead grieves the loss of her “stick-thin comforter.” As she reflects on her father’s life, she describes his “marvellous journey”. These comments are words of commendation and respect a clear shift from Barn Owl, where she seeks to reb. The peaceful death described by the words “your night and day are one”, contrasts the “obscene” and “cruel” murder of the owl in Barn Owl. Ultimately Harwood reflects on the idea that equality provides peace.
Harwood never out rightly claimed to be Marxist, however the couplet Father and Child portrays underlying ideas similar to that of a Marxist worldview. Throughout both poems Harwood repeats words often associated with power and a capitalist society such as “master”, “wisp-haired judge”, “exalts” and “king”. The ending of both poems are also similar as they both end with a death.
Although the death of the owl was horrific and tragic and the father’s death was peaceful, it is death all the same. Perhaps by repeating concepts of power and death Harwood is trying to draw the audience to a connection between both. She may be outlining the idea that an attempt to seek power and authority can lead to a death which “no words, no tears can mend”. This can be interpreted as critiquing a society in which power and influence are the goals, not seeking relationships or community.
Father and Child is a representation of the influence of authority. In Barn Owl the audience witnesses a cycle of oppression where the weakest individuals are victims. However, Nightfall exhibits a shift in authority as the father and child are equal leading to peace. Throughout the entire piece the author repeats ideas of power and authority subtly questioning the value of a society where control is the ultimate goal, not the nurturing of relationships and the development of a community in which all people are treated as equals.