Gwen Harwood’s poetry is steeped in Romantic traditions and is underpinned by humanist concerns. My personal interpretation is that Harwood’s poetry engages readers through its poetic treatment of loss and consolation as well as its exploration of universal themes about human existence and the processes of life.
Harwood’s poetry validates the consoling influence of childhood experiences upon adult development evident in ‘At Mornington’ which explores one sense of loss and consolidation experienced in the cycle of life from birth to death. Harwood explores one transitory nature of life in her lyrical poem ‘The Violets’, revealing the way in which memory can illustrate past experiences that will resonate in the present offering consolation.
Furthermore Harwood’s poetry is characterised by an over-arching existential quest for meaning and consolation as experienced through her exploration of love in ‘A Valediction.’ Whilst the notion that Harwood’s poetry engages readers through its poetic treatment of loss and consolation resonates with my own interpretation of her poems, readers are also engaged through Harwood’s exploration of universal truisms.
A contemplation of human existence and one way in which one cycle of life is characterised by loss and consolation as a pervading theme throughout Harwood’s poetry. In ‘At Mornington’ past, present and future experiences are united through the poems fragmented structure and poetic treatment experiences of loss of naivety and consolation in order to encapsulate the cycle of life characteristic of one human experience. Furthermore, Harwood uses biblical allusions “secure in my father’s arms” to convey the universality of human existence, engaging the reader.
The poem begins in the persona’s past with her childhood innocence and naivety, which is conveyed in her belief in her own invincibility. “I remember believing as a child I could walk on water.” Harwood’s use of biblical imagery evokes the idea of Jesus walking on water and the consoling effect this had on the speaker’s childhood self, to represent her naïve, childish outlook.
This water imagery becomes a sustained motif. The speaker draws on the image of the “flood” on which “memories of early childhood are born” through a contemplative tone of spiritual replenishment as she “stands among avenues of the dead,” engaging the reader through the poetic treatment of both loss and consolation. In accordance with the Romantic tradition, the speaker acknowledges the restorative capabilities of the natural elements conveyed in the image of a “pitcher of water” which becomes a metaphor for replenishment and revitalisation.
As the poem shifts to the present tense, the reader is further engaged as the persona finds herself in a graveyard and coming to terms with the death and loss of a loved one. The persona comes to a peaceful acceptance of life’s transience and her own mortality as she acknowledges the inevitable passage of time “that brings us to that time of our lives where our bones wear us” offering her a sense of consolation.
The poem concludes with a projection into the future, with the existential tone “no hand will save me” evoking the realisation that death and loss is one inevitable end of the cycle. Harwood’s poem ‘At Mornington’ engages readers through its poetic treatment of loss and consolation and the way in which these themes recur throughout the cycle of life.
Harwood’s poems elucidate themes of memory and recollection, highlighting the way these transcend time, death and loss and eventually offer consolation. In one nostalgic poem ‘The Violets’ the speaker revisits a seminal childhood experience that affirms adult perspectives and engages the reader by identifying the importance of memories of filial love in sustaining the adult self, providing consolation. The child’s naïve question “Where has morning gone?” emphasises the power of dreams to distort time and evokes the speaker’s sense of loss. The child’s loss is countered by the memory of her parents’ unconditional love.
The use of enjambment creates a sense of continuity as the violets transport the speaker back to a time when she was lovingly comforted, thus continually engaging the reader. The maternal image of the mother who “dried my tearful face” and the visual image of “stroking, golden brown hair” conveys the tenderness of this memory. Through the recurring motif of the “violets in our loamy bed” Harwood shifts between past and present experiences of loss and consolation.
Literary critic Elizabeth Lawson suggests “identifying its ability to control moment s in time by transforming consciousness of the present.’ The speaker realises that although memories are “ambiguous” and time can be “stolen”, ultimately, as is portrayed in the personification “Years cannot move the lamplit presences” of her childhood. The poem concludes with a final natural image of “the faint scent of violets drifts in the air” conveying the persona’s awareness that the memories of her parents’ love transcends the power of death. In ‘The Violets’ Harwood’s poetic treatment of loss and consolation through the motif of the violets engages the reader on an emotional level.
The theme of love and its permanent, passionate nature resonates within Harwood’s poetry, engaging readers through its poetic treatment of the experiences of loss and consolation associated with love. Similar to ‘At Mornington’ which expresses one cycle of life and the acceptance of its inevitable processes, ‘A Valediction’ expresses the journey of maturation through reflection that leads the speaker from adolescent sentimentality to an appreciation of the enduring nature of love.
The intertextual reference to John Donne in the poems title foreshadows the exploration and poetic treatment of the experience parting from a loved one and the emotional repercussions of this loss. The persona’s adolescent sentimentality is evoked through her ritual of seeking solace in her anthology of Donne’s poetry.
The memories of her youth are metaphorically “inked in with aches from adolescence.” Harwood explores the nature of love in her representation of two significant female figures and it is from their contrasting reactions to their experiences of love that informs the persona’s more mature perception of love and loss. One the one hand, Harwood gives representation Salome, whose indifference to the grand passion of love is conveyed in the flippant tone of her comment “whether I kissed Nietzche on Monte Sacro I find I do not now remember.”
On the other hand, Harwood depicts Saint Therese, a nun who dedicated her life to selfless love as conveyed in the sentimental tone of her comment “when I love it is forever.” Harwood’s juxtaposition of these women’s perspectives on love highlights the folly of both ideals and consolidates the persona’s understanding that it is rationalism and moderation that offer the most valued appreciation of love.
The persona’s direct address “dear ladies shall we meet half way between sanctity and liberation?” conveys her awareness that there should be a balance between disinterest oversentimentality. The poem concludes with an idyllic scene that encapsulates the persona’s sense of contentment and maturity beyond her emotional angst. “let me walk at sunset in the pasture feeding my geese” engages the reader through the poetic treatment of loss and consolation as it is associated with the theme of love.
Modernist poet Gwen Harwood adheres to the literary conventions of the Romantics in her anthology of poems, employing poetical devices and form to give expression to the themes of loss and consolation as well as other timeless themes. Harwood continues to engage readers through her exploration of universal themes of human existence evident in ‘At Mornington’, ‘The Violets’ and ‘A Valediction.’