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Gwen Harwood “Father and Child” Essay

The poem “Father and Child” by Gwen Harwood shows Harwood’s father teaching her the concepts of life and death, from when she is a young child in “Barn Owl” up to when she is around forty at the time of his death in “Nightfall”, coming to accept the idea that life is not never-ending. In part one called “Barn Owl”; she has learnt to accept death as a component of life. The persona of the poem experiences a loss of innocence with the discovery of the tragedy of death. Before shooting the owl, the child believes they are the “master of life and death,” with the noun, “master,” reflecting the power that the child feels and the ignorance that the child has about the nature of death. This description of the child is later contrasted in the fourth stanza, “I watched, afraid by the fallen gun, a lonely child who believed death clean and final, not this obscene bundle of stuff.” The emotive term, “afraid,” represents the change in the persona’s attitude after being exposed to the harsh reality that is mortality.

However, the rhyme and last line “what sorrows in the end, no words, no tears can mend” releases an element of inexpressible sadness that she has towards the death of her father showing that although she accepts death, it still upsets her as it did in “Barn Owl”. Father and Child” Nightfall” is more metaphorical and symbolic suggesting a more mature persona like an adult. The poem represents a human’s journey over time of learning to mature and accept death. The poem “Father and Child” explores the reversing roles of fathers and children’s roles as time goes on. Nightfall” is more metaphorical and symbolic suggesting a more mature persona like an adult, and is about a child grown to adult age spending time with her father before he dies.

The symbolism of the imagery presented through the poem is of the passing of time, this is shown in words like “temporal”, “transience”, “late”, “night and day”, “grown” and “ancient”, this represents the ageing of the father and child and emphasises how they have grown both physically and mentally. The use of the word “angel” in “Barn Owl” suggests the closeness of the father-daughter relationship. Also the line “I leaned my head upon my father’s arm, and wept,” shows the caring and comforting nature of the father. However, “Nightfall” shows the childish nature towards her father starts to disappear and that she has developed great respect for her father. This is first implied through the phrase “Father and child, we stand in time’s long promised land” which shows they have a united front facing death together.

This is further emphasised through the rhetorical question of “Who can be what you were?” showing the appreciation for her father, as she recalls her father’s “marvellous journey”. Also, the use of direct speech from the father asking, “Be your tears wet?” is an allusion to Shakespeare’s play “King Lear”, where King Lear asks this same question to his upset daughter Cordelia on his death bed, this is where King Lear discovers that Cordelia was the only child that truly cared for him, suggesting that the persona has been faithful in caring for her father up until his death. “Old king” is a similar allusion again implying that the persona appreciates her father’s life thinking it was great and it needs to be treasured. “Nightfall” is suggesting that although loved ones pass, it is important to hold the memories shared close; so spiritually, they are never really gone even though physically they have passed.

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