Time and Memories Essay
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Gwen Harwood’s poetry has provided me and hopefully you with some great wisdom and insight into our lives. Today I will be making meaning from the texts “At Mornington” and “The Violets” by Gwen Harwood. I am here, as a seventeen year old student, giving my own response through the analysis of the themes “Memory” and “Childhood to Adulthood”, the techniques which support them and through the application of psychoanalytical readings to her poetry. What we will see is that there are links present in what the composer is trying to say and in the critical interpretations of her poetry.
Memories make the individual understand who they are, wouldn’t you agree? Without them we would just be robots. For example, just this morning I remembered a childhood memory of India. I remembered that everyday I would try and reach the light switch which always seemed so far away. Before I knew it, I could turn the light on and off with ease.
It was only this memory that allowed me to reflect that from as young as a child I had been trying to reach things much higher than me. Who here could imagine not having any memories of their childhood?
In the poem “At Mornington” by Gwen Harwood the fragility and nature of memories is questioned while it is concluded that it is through memories that one can accept death. The composer often uses the structure of her poetry to create meaning. For example, “At Mornington” is completely written in free verse, which means the composer’s thought process is allowed to be flexible supporting how memories suddenly come about. Let’s face it; memories do not exactly follow a rule… They just come, sometimes with or without a trigger.
This is exactly the case in “At Mornington” where the composer is left with an unexpected spark of memory while she stands with her friend on the parents’ grave. The composer describes this spark through a simile comparing this behaviour of memories with ‘light in a sea-wet shell’. The ‘light’ in the ‘sea-wet shell’ refers to the numerous colours produced when the light is focused on a common sea-shell. This to me means the childhood memories that we suddenly come across are diverse and in a way colour our lives.
The most important message in this poem is the finality of death, and the role memories play in accepting it. The composer thinks of death ‘no more’ when she thinks of her father and more so the time spent with her friend. I can see the time with her friend metaphorically meaning the ‘peace’ of this day. This is the ultimate ‘peace’ for the composer as she approaches that inevitable death. I know you do not want to think of death right now but it is inevitable, and it is always assuring if memories are on our side.
When I am older and nearing death, I can cling onto that nostalgic memory of reaching higher to reach the switch, and I can even tell my kids about it. There are many ways poems can be interpreted, there is my personal view but there are also other macro views. There is the Christian viewpoint that would argue that the memories of her father refer to God, and it is the memories of him that allow the composer to confront death because fathers as we know are a source of comfort, and in this case the fathers represent the ultimate father: God.
However I do not have a strong Christian background, and I would rather see things through a psychoanalytical approach. In addition, I believe a psychoanalytical perspective applies better to the themes of Harwood’s poetry as the psych and its effect on the persona is explored. A psychoanalytical perspective would argue that memories are used to come to terms with the present psychological state. For example, the memories of her friend and of her father impact her to think of death ‘no more’. More so, light imagery is recurringly used to represent memories.
For example the light refracting on the shell can be seen as a representation of the vivid and enthralling memories the persona experiences. This theme of “Memory” is similarly explored in the “The Violets” where a past memory helps support the present action which is of picking violets. Just like in “At Mornington” structure is used to create meaning. Memories are separated from present experience through indentation. This allows me to clearly distinguish between the persona’s present and the persona’s memories which actively support the present. There are some truly great memories that will influence us forever.
For example, as I do my HSC I keep referring back to the memories of us in India and how hard my parents worked to get us to Australia. This is the sort of memory experienced by the persona, and she also explores how these memories or ‘lamplit presences’ will never die, even as time passes. These ‘lamplit presences’ are listed to the responder through the use of punctuation, notably the colon. The colon creates pause for the responder and this pause prepares us for the final comforting memories. Furthermore ‘years cannot move’ these final memories.
If you stop and think about it aren’t those important memories everlasting? In the poem violet flowers are repeatedly mentioned from the title to the end where a ‘faint scent of violets drifts in the air’. What meaning can be made from this? Well, these violet flowers symbolise remembrance and the past, which is what the whole poem is about. As she thinks about the present, where the mood is somewhat ‘melancholy’ she nostalgically remembers a past event that ultimately contrasts the present joyless mood leaving a scent of violets which are associated with memories in the air.
Enough of my view of things lets explore what how this can be seen psychoanalytically! The most important aspect to be mentioned is the use of memory to support the present. This is similar to “At Mornington” where memories of the past can be seen to impact the present but the only difference is that in “The Violets” it is more that memories have helped her deal with the present issue of time. In addition, light is used again as a symbol to represent memories. In this case it is the image of the lamp in ‘lamplit’ just like the refracted light referenced to memories in “At Mornington”.
Remember when we were playful children? It was the free time of our lives, not chained down by assignments or by the commitments at work. But as we age we somewhat lose that playful phase and enter one of maturity where careers, education and most importantly future of life comes into light. The composer talks about “At Mornington” how as a child there is the notion of invincibility and naivety but as an adult there is the realisation of death. ‘I could walk on water’ is what the child persona thinks, and I knew we thought like that too.
I remember thinking as a child that I could be like Superman. The use of personal pronoun ‘I’ is used to create meaning. How might you ask? Well, I think it creates a personal voice in the poem and illustrates to the responder that is her experience of childhood she is talking about. The persona reflects this childhood memory when she is an adult ‘while we [they] stand, two friends of middle age’. I can see that structure is used here significantly as the use of first person ‘we’ draws all of the audience in to think about growing up, to middle age.
Can you image what we will be like when we are at middle age? I think we will have changed dramatically. This is the case here as the composer juxtaposes the childhood notions of life with the present notion where they are beginning to age. What I can say here is that as children we would think of many things, for example I would think I could fly, but as we change from children to adults we begin to see things differently and sometimes notice the change. Now I have gravity and aerodynamics as a young adult in my head, sharply changing my ideas about my aspirations of superman.
The persona in “At Mornington” feels invincible as a child but this is changed when she is reflecting as a middle aged adult. Again a Christian reading could be applied to this poem where the child walking on water is an allusion to Jesus further highlighting the composer’s faith. But that is as far I can go; my personal context limits me from exploring any further. Therefore we could see it psychoanalytically where childhood to adulthood demands for the psyche to change.
For example as a child she sees herself as invincible but as an adult she is made to adjust her psyche so death is accepted. A psychoanalytic reading would also see the child walking on water as a move from childhood to adulthood because as she walks on water her life and psyche of naivety progresses to maturity and of self realisation. The theme of “Childhood to Adulthood” is also explored in “The Violets”. It is an autobiographical poem, which deals with the persona’s view of various aspects as a child and as an adult.
This is very similar to “At Mornington” where the persona reflects how childhood notions have changed as she has matured into an adult. However, in “The Violets” it is more a contrast of how she used to see things such as the flowers as a child and how she sees them later as an adult. It is probably the toughest transitions in life, from a child to an adult don’t you think? Understanding of the world is refined and childlike views of the world are replaced with the truth. The truth is often complex, and sometimes I wish I could just think like a kid again.
This is demonstrated in a paradox used by Harwood. As an adult ‘melancholy’ flowers grow in ‘ashes and loam’. ‘Ashes’ refers to dead or the bad soil, infertile whereas ‘loam’ is the soil full of life. How can this flower grow in both? It tells me that as an adult things are much more complex and an essential way of looking at things has been lost. This is contrasted when the composer introduces us to a memory of childhood. The violets are in their ‘loamy’ bed, and it suggests that as a child they could be seen as simply flowers of spring and a source of comfort.
Furthermore as an adult the word ‘melancholy’ is used to describe the atmosphere and it is again different to the mood created as a child of happiness. The mother laughs at the child persona as she questions about breakfast in the afternoon. ‘Laughing’ connotes a positive mood, reiterating the fact that childhood was a much happier time than adulthood. Who wouldn’t want to go back to their childhood days and play all day and live the simple life? Punctuation is structurally left out in ‘Ambiguous light. Ambiguous sky’ which to me emphasises the uncertainty in adulthood.
Without the full stop the sentence is not complete and demonstrates that as an adult not even the night and day cannot be distinguished. A psychoanalytical reading would see this melancholy experience of the adult as longing for the experiences of a child. As a child the experience is the complete opposite, it is of happiness, and it is that experience that the composer finally gets, when remembering her childhood. Also the adult gains understanding about some uncertainty through a childhood experience.
The positive memory of the mother laughing in the composer’s childhood also allows acceptance to occur. That laughing supported the uncertainty she had as a child and even the present uncertainty about adulthood. I think children’s thoughts are the most flawless in the world no matter how wise one gets Just by making meaning from two of Gwen Harwood’s poems “At Mornington” and “The Violets” I have received immense personal knowledge that I will never forget. I came see that “Memory” is a wonderful thing, and without it we would be nothing but some senseless dummies.
I and hopefully you see that “Memory” in both the poems has the power to influence, impact and appease the present. This is the same with the discussion of “Childhood to Adulthood” where I was certainly reminded of my childhood days when I read the poem. Childhood gives us great views, but they are taken as we grow older such as I faced that I cannot be superman. Memories and our Childhood will always stay with us, and I thank Gwen Harwood for making me realise that. We must remember what she told us about life – it is‘only a matter of balance’.