Motherhood in Gwen Harwood's Poetry

The identity and voice of the central figure within a poem influences the readers view of the world. The symbolic depiction of societal roles from the point of view of a central characters experience articulates social and cultural traditions, allowing the poet to endorse or critique the naturalized values of his or her culture. In her two sonnets, In the Park, and Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day, the Australian poet Gwen Harwood uses the generic conventions of poetry to construct a central persona who, through their voice, conveys the social expectations of women in 1950s suburban Australia.

Both sonnets centre on a mother dealing with the everyday challenges of motherhood and through the use of the poetic techniques of the sonnet form, imagery, irony, tone and symbolism, socially define the mother figure in Australian Culture. The development of the womans identity empowers the feminine voice of the poem to portray cultural values in a way that positions the reader to develop an understanding of the poets world and interrogate Australias patriarchal societys marginalization of motherhood.

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The feminine poetic voice of In the Park, and Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day, describing the burdens of motherly life ironically contradicts the conventions of the Elizabethan sonnet. Instead of a masculine voice professing undying love to a woman, Harwoods ironic gender reversal in both poems, casting the voice as a woman disrupts the naturalized idea of the elegant sonnet woman. In In the Park, this contrast is emphasized by the mothers out of date clothes and spiritual pain thereby encouraging the readers understanding of the mothers hardship.

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It immediately develops the voice of the poem to critique the expectations of motherhood. In Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day, the organized order demanded by the sonnet juxtaposed with the total chaos described in the mothers life challenges the dreamy expectations of maternal life. Both sonnets interrogate Harwoods view of the world, that women in Australian culture are not the domestic objects they are unfairly defined as.

Through the selective visual description of the mother and her world in the park Harwood critiques the social traditions of motherhood, positioning the reader to appreciate the world of the suburban mother. The onomatopoeia describing the whine and bicker, of her children constructs the mood of the mothers life as laborious and burdening. Furthermore, the enjambment of the empathetic tone of the poem continues to point out, as if two kids werent enough, A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt. This striking imagery challenges the romantic glory that society associates with maternity and positions the reader to sympathize with the mundane existence the mother endures. The voice of the text suggests that suburban mothers are unfairly sentenced to a life of aimless patterns.

The juxtaposition of the degrading imagery of the mothers shame and pain in the concluding lines of In the Park with the poetic voices construction of the male figure reveal the extent of the mothers internal torture. The imagery of the man silently judging the woman, but for the grace of god, constructs his character as arrogant and self absorbed. His departing smile and ability to make judgments articulates the naturalized masculine role as the position of action and power. Contrastingly the depiction of the mother, nursing the youngest child, highlights the social tradition of the mother as the carer. The embarrassment shown as she, sits staring at her feet, and the precise pain expressed in the phrase, They have eaten me alive, influences the readers understanding of motherhood as the voice idolizes the womans suffering, portraying the noble sacrifice all mothers make.

The opening octave of another Harwood sonnet, Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day, constructs the voice of the female character as well as portraying the established values of motherhood within the typical Australian family. The mother is framed in her role, framed in the doorway: woman with a broom. She is captured not as a mother or person but as the woman with a broom. This reveals the naturalized ideals of suburban Australia. It is expected that the womans life should be singly devoted to, how to keep your husbands love. The text suggests she is unappreciated as the bright lights of Christmas distort and overshadow all her hard work. The concluding image constructs her frailty and evokes sympathy to the fact that after all this hard work, Shes too tired to move.Whilst the opening octave functions to articulate the social assumptions of the quintessential suburban family and develop the persona of the marginalized housewife, the concluding sextet furthers to use this constructed character to critique the gender roles that shaped her life. The woman dutifully serves her family until she is devoid of energy then moves to question

O wheres the demon lover, the wild boy

Who kissed the future to her flesh beneath.

This question interrogates the role of men in society, arguing that they promise the skies and the stars but dont deliver on their vows. The previous development of the feminine poetic voice is integral in positioning the reader to participate in the questioning of gender roles. The omnipresent yet personal voice positions the reader to admire the womans strength and courage. The alluded to Jesus like martyr figure who sacrifices her life for her family, crowned with a tinsel wreath. Through this representative critique of gendered values the reader is challenged to interrogate their own assumptions of gender after gaining a new understanding of the brutal sacrifice of the suburban mother.

In conclusion, the identity and voice of the central persona in poetry is integral in reading a poem. Such is true for Gwen Harwoods sonnets In the Park, and Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day, whereby the development of the symbolic figure of suburban motherhood enables the interrogation of Australias gendered value system. Harwoods development of the identity and voice of the central persona through the use of sonnet conventions, imagery, irony and tone articulates the cultural and social values of matriarchy in 1950s Australia and positions the reader to understand and sympathize with the internal world of the stereotypical mother. The development of the central figures voice portrays and critiques the naturalized expectations of gender in Australian culture positioning the reader to interrogate his or her own values.


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Motherhood in Gwen Harwood's Poetry. (2016, Jul 30). Retrieved from

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