Gwen Harwood’s poetry endures to engage readers through its poetic treatment of loss and consolation. Gwen Harwood’s seemingly ironic simultaneous examination of the personal and the universal is regarded as holding sufficient textual integrity that it has come to resonate with a broad audience and a number of critical perspectives. This is clearly evident within her poems ‘At Mornington’ and ‘A Valediction’, these specific texts have a main focus on motif that once innocence is lost it cannot be reclaimed, and it is only through appreciating the value of what we have lost that we can experience comfort and achieve growth. Gwen Harwood’s poetry explores the reality of human existence, utilising a number of personal experiences in order to impart meaning onto the responders.
The poems, At Mornington and A Valediction, explore countless thematic concerns including the loss of childhood innocence, comprehending mortality and maturation of individuals. Utilising a regular variation of tense, between past and present, and her own personal relationships with others, Harwood’s poetry provokes an appreciation of the past, and reinforce themes, which highlights their universal significance. Within the beginning of the poem At Mornington, Harwood explores a childhood memory, at “the sea’s edge”, in order to highlight her apparent childhood strength in her naïve belief that she could defy nature by “walking on water/it’s only a matter of balance”, only to be saved by her father.
This nativity is reinforced in the parable of the pumpkin, which grew upwards in “airy defiance of nature”. The biblical allusion with the attempt to walk on water reinforces the blind faith and innocence of the child which is contrasted to the personas self-awareness and acceptance of her own mortality, “at the time of life, when our bones begin to wear”. This childhood recollection can be deemed as the commencement of her acceptance of death; however it is only upon self-reflection on this experience as an adult that the persona can come to a complete acceptance of her own mortality, as portrayed in the simile “the peace of this day will shine/like the light on the face of the waters”. Similarly encompassing this experience is night owl, in which the child persona is blind to the nature of death, regarding herself “wisp-haired judge…the master of life and death”. Gwen Harwood’s poetry is steeped in romantic traditions and is underpinned by humanist concerns.
Throughout Harwood’s poetry there is a continuing theme where human existence is characterised by loss and consolation. Like At Mornington, A Valediction explores the importance of the balance between physical and spiritual love. Harwood explores the nature of both form of love and how each is needed to develop ultimate love. Harwood suggests that poetry can offer comfort and deepen the human understanding of life and love. This is portrayed through the use of sarcasm, rhetorical questions, direct speech, allusions, metaphors and imagery. This poem presents the basis on which the sorrow of physical separation can be transformed into joy this is evident within “my lover will come again to me, my body to its true end will give him joy” and depicts the emphatic tone and confidence in which her husband will return and is presented through future tense. This reflects on the interrelation between flesh and spirit in love and the necessary mix of the spiritual if love is to survive physical separation. Harwood’s A Valediction raises the idea that as humans we change and develop over time with a new sense of maturity and contentment with life. In this poem Harwood speaks about a farewell as she alludes to past poem by John Donne.
However, she moves from a literal experience and memory to pensive reflection in order to create a contrast between the younger and older character. This is used by writing about movement from the past to the present and including its effect on the future. The varies of tense further highlights the changes over time as she focuses on the dualities of self and the universal emotions.
In my thoughts, Harwood’s poetry engages readers through its poetic treatment of loss and consolation throughout relationships as well as its exploration of universal themes about human existence and processes of life. Harwood’s poetry validates the consoling influence of childhood experiences upon adult development evident in both At Mornington and A Valediction where they both explore one sense of loss and consolidation. Harwood cleverly includes personas with their own feelings and anxieties to outlook on the present and future and the power of memories held with past relationships. Relationships link within Harwood’s poetry as throughout life she experiences suffering and includes her personal voice and life within the story of her poem.
In conclusion, Gwen Harwood deals with the constant relevant issues of loss and consolation by the enduring power of poetic treatment of age and youth. In my opinion, on the most profound of universal truths, there is no certainty in life and we must deal with events and situations as we encounter them. Harwood’s poetry distinctly presents a slight difference throughout exploration of the relationship between age and youth, which has greatly shaped my own understanding of these specific effects. Her unique and personal manner allows the responder to not only form a deep empathy with her words, but also to critically consider one’s own life and experiences.
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.’