Poetry creatively captures human experience, emotion and nature. Gwen Harwood employs a range of literary and poetic techniques such as imagery, religious allusions and personification to demonstrate the universality of concepts such as loss, death, memory and childhood. Through this, Harwood’s poetry to creates clear and strong perceptions of the continuity of experience and provide permanence to these transient elements of humanity.
In ‘Triste, Triste’, Harwood explores the core themes of post coital sadness and the contradictory nature of the physical and spiritual realms that are created by the human body. These aspects all pertain to the human experience and growth of oneself. That is, the physicality of the skeleton, or frame, and the intellectual and creative importance of the brain as a muscle. The meaning of the word “Triste” is sad and mournful hence the repetition of this word in the title is indicative of Harwood’s reflection on the loss of inspiration. In the first stanza, a yearning and apparent need for ongoing physical passion in the continuous “space between love and sleep” presents the notion of sleep and its ironically nurturing qualities for the mind and the body despite the idleness of the body during this time of restoration.
The phrase furthermore provokes the reader to reflect on such moments in their own life, and to reflect on “space” with renewed significance and how important it is for the brain and the self. Harwood describes this process as a “prison”, “eyes against shoulder keep their blood black curtains tight… body rolls back like a stone.” Parallels are drawn between the ideal that the imagination is a separate entity and the separation between the physical skull and its place for the brain to reside, the brain resembles the imagination or factory of creativity. The poem makes specific and clear biblical references to the Resurrection through imagery furthermore providing to the creative self, as it is aligned with the Christ, walking “to Easter light”. The necessity of the escapism and discovery of spiritual intensity is strongly reinforced. In addition to the biblical references, divine imagery is implied through the ‘Angelic light’.
The continuing use of personification and imagery encourages the reader to value the indistinct moments of passionate afterglow as opportunity to liberate the imagination. Harwood creates distinctiveness between the divine light present in the second stanza along with the “darkness” of tangible “sleep and love” through her use of enjambment and repetition which draws attention to the ending of imaginative inspiration. In the last stanza, Harwood recombines the spirit with the corporal self which ultimately conveys the necessity of intimacy physically and the evanescence of imaginative passion. Additionally, the physical self along with the emotional self, are brought together as one entity which cannot exist without the other thus they possess equal importance and value, despite having separate functions. Throughout the poem Gwen Harwood reinforces the paradox that implies that extreme pleasure must coincide with extreme pain.
In addition to her references to loss and sadness, Gwen Harwood amalgamates various elements of human experience through the reflection of memory as a primary theme. The importance of memory is expressed through harmonizing various layers of an individual’s life and their shared experiences to create a wholeness that reconciles one with the finality of death. This concept is expressed through common themes of childhood, friendship and loss allowing her ideas to rest strongly with the reader. ‘At Mornington’ is a reflection on mortality, and the value of memory in terms of appreciating life. The thematic concerns of loss and grief unravel through the first stanza. The persona describes her relationship with her father and establishes him as a protective figure through her pondering of childhood memories.
This motif of water is representative of serenity, peace and reflection which is furthermore established through the personification of the “wave” which was “caught” and “rolled”. Harwood distinguishes the finality and formality of death, which is conveyed in the poem through the dull imagery, the durability of “marble and granite” gravestones with the fragility of memory, “fugitive as light” to convey the gravitational stance of human life as opposed to the perceptions of experience that we choose to retain in our memory. A connection is made between memory and loss as they are both products of the past and Harwood uses this to reflect on the significance of valuing the present. This is furthered through the “the wholeness of this day” shared between two friends.
The poem is established through Harwood’s memory of her early childhood when she “leapt” from her father’s arms into the sea. She views her childish persistence, evidently through the repetition of “the next wave”. This concept is again reinforced through the blue brain referencing water and the sea with an underlying commentary on the qualities of water and childhood alike. This concept of childhood memory is later referenced in Harwood’s image of pumpkins “rising…in airy defiance of nature”, a metaphor for her constant trials against the inevitability of death and emergence in “the fastness of light”. The tone of the poem becomes reflective as the persona and her friend ‘stand in silence amongst the avenues of the dead’, which creates a need for solace and comfort.
The silence of a dead human being is furthermore referenced through the image of the skull as it resembles the result of death. Reflection is regarded highly throughout ‘At Mornington’ hence the ongoing reference to silence is important as relfection requires silence and tranquillity. The innocent belief that defying gravity ‘was only a matter of balance’ is reflected in the persona’s present longing to transcend the gravity of death ‘in airy defiance of nature’.
The idea of memory is furthered through the use of a dream whereby the persona begins to reconcile transient life with death. The raw and accentuated emotion of the poem turns sober reflection where the persona ‘thinks of death no more’ but is able to confront death through the experience of ‘dreams, pain, memories, love and grief’. From dwelling on mortality emerges a serenity and acceptance inspired by unifying the inescapability of death with an acceptance of human nature and an appreciation of memory and friendship.
Likewise, in her poem “The Violets”, Harwood blends the emotion of grief with a reflection on memory in order to achieve a state of reconciliation. The first stanza depicts a “melancholy” setting where “frail” violets excite the persona’s recollection of a poignant childhood experience. Harwood’s adult grief is mirrored by her juvenile outrage at the time which had been “stolen” from her, and like death, the loss of time is irreplaceable.
However the child is ultimately “reconciled” by the “sweetness” of the persona’s parents, depicted through Harwood’s use of domestic, homely imagery of the “long hair” and “wood stove”. There is a conviction in “years cannot move” that conveys a sudden awareness that memory’s “lamplit presences” can in times of despair, be as real to individuals as the present, and so a source of solace. The idea of there being consolation in loss is one that will resonate with readers searching for relief, and the lingering “scent of violets” shows the longevity of memory and conveys it as eternal, continuing the presence of those physically lost.
Gwen Harwood explores and delves into the themes of time, death, childhood and loss which are all intrinsic to human experience. She effectively employs a range of poetic and literary techniques to explore transience, finality and the imperative role of memory.
Courtney from Study Moose
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