Through a critical study of Gwen Harwood’s poetry, the responder’s personal response has a significant effect on their judgement towards her poetry. In The Sharpness of Death, Harwood explores the inexplicable link between life and death, as well as the value of memories in response to the inevitable passing of time. Similarly in At Mornington, Harwood accentuates the value of appreciating life to overpower death and the importance of memories to lessen the effects of time passing. These aspects, which reoccur throughout Harwood’s poetry are universal, timeless, and prevalent to human existence and society. As a result, Harwood’s poetry has been able to endure varying contexts and continue to captive and create meaning for readers. The varying interpretations of Harwood’s work influence the judgement of responders to both the individual poems, and Harwood’s poetry as a whole.
The Sharpness of Death explores differing perspectives on death and its irrefutable link with life, encouraging contemporary readers to question their value of death and develop a judgement on the poem and Harwood’s poetry as a whole. Part one of the poem establishes the personas desire to bargain with death, through the demanding tone that is used to address it, “Leave me alone.” For the contemporary reader, this highlights the desperation to evade death, something many modern responders are able to identify with. As the poem continues, Harwood renders the philosophers attempts to undermine death through analysis, as meaningless. The use of the oxymoron “complex logic,” highlights the futility of this act, suggesting that death cannot be explained, only experienced. This challenges the value of attempting to understand death for the responder as even those considered the most intelligent living, cannot provide sufficient answers. As the poem continues, the importance of life, rather than explanations, to overcome death is explored.
The personification of blossoms in the line, “blossoms to hold the light that’s gone,” highlights for responders that the beauty of life, as represented by the blossoms, needs to be appreciated and understood in order to come to terms with the darkness that comes after death. The final part of the poem returns back to first person, giving the poem a cyclical nature, common in Harwood’s poetry. This depicts to audiences the cyclical nature of life and the subsequent inevitability of death. In the final two lines of the poem,“If I fall from that time, then set your teeth in me,” the negative imagery depicts the persona’s view that only when she has lost the fulfillment that comes with life, will she be able to accept death. This creates a positive judgement for the responder, depicting that their fear of death can subside if their life has been lived with joy. The exploration of the connection between life and death throughout The Sharpness of Death, encourages responders to challenge their perception on the connection between to two.
The response of audiences towards The Sharpness of Death, brings up questions in relation to the value of memory in response to the passing of time, inevitably impacting upon the judgement of the contemporary reader. In the second part of the poem, “I hope he found some light beyond that field of black everlasting flowers,” the positive connotation of light highlights the power of memories in overcoming the darkness that is death. For responders, this leads them to accept that their memories are what will alleviate them from the effects of times passing. This image of black flowers is juxtaposed by the description of the Nasturitums in part three of the poem, “Purest of colours, how they shone.” The metaphor of the flowers depicts the power of positive memories to overcome struggles that have been faced as time has progressed. The personification of light where Harwood says, “light like a noble visitor stayed with us briefly and moved on,” emphasises the power of memories which often fade as time goes on.
This encourages the contemporary reader to consider what their prominent memories are and thus, consider how their perception of them has changed over time. The rhetorical question, “How would you ever know me now…unless I brought these flowers,” enhances the idea that it is remembered past experiences which enable us to draw a connection between the past and present. For the contemporary reader, this accentuates the value of memories in appreciating life, a consistent theme of Harwood’s throughout her poetry. The sexual imagery in the final part of the poem, “my tongue sang with his juices,” depicts the strong influence of memories in relation to love in giving power to accept death, when the passing of time is over. This places death in perspective for responders, as being only one aspect of life, with memories and friendship enabling people to transcend it. Throughout The Sharpness of Death, Harwood’s exploration of the power of memories in accordance with the passing of time influences the responder’s perception to a large extent.
The connection between life and death is further accentuated through Harwood’s poem, At Mornington, which, similarly to the The Sharpness of Death, challenges readers to develop a judgement towards this inexplicable connection. The first part of the poem depicts the fearlessness and uncertainty of childhood, deriving from a lack of understanding of death. In conjunction with this, the simile, “was caught by a wave and rolled like a doll among rattling shells,” suggests the powerlessness of the persona to control her direction in life, at a stage where there was no understanding of death. This concept has been experienced by an array of responders, and thus impacts upon their judgment to a large extent. The metaphor which Harwood uses to describe the graveyard the persona is standing in, “avenues of the dead,” emphasises that everything in life is temporary, with death being the only definitive part. This asserts to the contemporary reader that death does not need to be focused upon as it is certain. Therefore life which is temporary and changing, should be valued.
In the second last stanza, “We have one day, only one, but more than enough to refresh us,” the repetition of one highlights the power of even a small part of life being able to assist in overcoming the struggle that thought of death places upon our existence. As the poem progresses, the persona is able to develop a changed perspective on death. The irony in the line, “at your side among the graves I think of death no more,” highlights the personas acceptance of the cycle of life as a result of the strong friendship they have developed, enticing readers to do the same. Water is used as a powerful motif throughout the poem, highlighting the persona’s acceptance of the inevitability of death, in particular, “waters that bear me away forever”. This encourages the contemporary reader to also accept this inevitability in order to appreciate their own life. The response of readers to the value of life in accepting death throughout At Mornington, has a significant impact upon their opinion as it is a concept that is universally experienced and understood.
In accordance with The Sharpness of Death, Harwood’s At Mornington, encourages audiences to develop a judgement in regards to the value of memories in response to the passing of time. The poem begins with Harwood’s memory of her early childhood where she “leapt” from her father’s arms into the sea. The alliteration to introduce this, “They told me,” highlights her lack of personal memory of the uncertainty of her childhood and the need of others to reinforce this memory. For many responders, the uncertainty of their childhood was not realised until adulthood, allowing them to appreciate Harwood’s poetry as relevant to their lives. The high modality to describe her memory of believing she could walk on water, “Indeed I remember,” depicts the prominent memories of the innocent child. This brings responders to consider that while the memory of invincibility is strong, the sense of invincibility itself has been lost as time has progressed.
The motif of water is also continued, this time referring to memories, “on what flood are they borne.” This metaphor highlights that memories are able to cross the boundaries of time, thus emphasising the importance of them to responders who are experiencing the effects of times passing. This motif is continued in the fourth stanza, “There is still some water left over.” This depicts to the contemporary reader that even when time seems to have reached it’s end, memories still retain the ability to bring back the sense of abatement attached with them. In the final stanza, the metaphor, “rolled in one grinding race of dreams, pain, memories, love and grief,” highlights that memories are attached to varying emotions and are apart of the race that is life, where the inevitable end is death. This causes readers to consider the importance of the varying memories within their life, to make the journey to the end worthwhile. Through the appreciation of memories in response to times passing throughout At Mornington, responders are able to identify with Harwood’s poetry and thus develop a significant association with it.
Throughout Harwood’s poetry, in particular, The Sharpness of Death and At Mornington, a variety of universal and timeless concepts are explored, sparking varying responses from responders. In both these poems, the connection between life and death, and the value of memories in response to the passing of time is explored. This exploration by Harwood is one that can be related to by a variety of readers, influencing these readers to a large extent, to develop a judgement towards Harwood’s poetry as a whole.
Courtney from Study Moose
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