PostHeaderIcon An analysis of the writings of Gwen Harwood

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Born Gwendoline Nessie Foster on 8 June 1920 into a self-sufficient family that was full of music, philosophy, religion and language, Gwen had many early influences in her childhood that were clearly going to have an effect on her later life. Gwen's family had strong connections with music and it became a very important part of her life, causing her to aspire to become a musician. Gwen's grandmother introduced her to poetry and she began to write her own in the 1950's. Soon after, she learnt the German language to establish a wider reading of poetry and involve the language in her own works. Gwen married a linguist named William Harwood in 1945 and then moved around the Southern parts of Tasmania where she lived until her death in December 1995. Although she never felt a true sense of belonging to Tasmania, she was able to draw an amazing amount of inspiration for her poems from any beauty the landscape and surrounding environment contained. (Emma J, 1998).

Harwood can be seen to draw inspiration from her lifelong influences, primarily music and her childhood. She was trained as a pianist and organist and spent a portion of her life as a music teacher and an organist at the All Saints Church of England in Brisbane. Harwood had a great attachment to music and expressed most of her thoughts on it through her fictional character, Kröte. "Professor Kröte is a talented European pianist who finds himself in a shallow, stuffily conservative Australian town where he is forced to earn a living by giving music lessons to indifferent pupils...a character in her later poems. She obviously liked Kröte, who was an excellent means of voicing her own passion for music, her contempt for dull materialism, and her hilarious debunking of pretentiousness." (ABC Poetica, 1999). She describes an experience of music through 'A Music Lesson' where Kröte has to put up with a troublesome pupil. "'Playing begins inside your brain. / Music's much more than flesh and bone. / Relax, and listen. If you strain / your muscles here and here contract. / You get a stiff, unlovely tone.' / His pupil says, 'Is that a fact?' / She plays the passage louder, faster; / indeed deliberately tries / to infuriate her music master." (Harwood, 2001, pp.124-125). Kröte provides a way for Harwood to express her knowledge and passion of music into situations that a musician would experience in real life. Italian terms, compositional devices and her much loved fugue make an appearance in most of her poems that possess a slightly musical tone. Harwood even wrote a poem 'To Music' that is obviously directly inspired from music and almost talks to it, "music, fitting yourself to any language, / at home with love and death and revolution. / Music, made from the very air we breathe, / with us from everlasting, always new, / in throats, in guts, in horsehair and wooden bellies. / Sleeping for centuries in forgotten scores," (Harwood, 2001, p.233). She loved all aspects of the arts and even though she was unable to pursue an exciting career in music she was able to continue with her poetry and become more mature in her writing skill and style.

In Harwood's final collection of poetry she reveals the magic and consequences of childish acts through empathetic writings. She recognizes how experiences and discoveries during childhood delicately reshape the mind and character of a person. "The Present Tense is her latest book...based on her memories of childhood in Queensland, stories that capture delicately those moments when innocence encounters the mysteries of the adult world and interprets them more perceptively than a more knowing, grown-up observer ever could." (Thorne, 1995, p.15). Themes involving the more miserable side of childhood and children also popped up in various earlier works such as 'Class of 1927' where she reflects on schoolyard memories that portray her as quite a selfish person and describes how she would have done things differently, "give me that morning again / and let me share, and spare me / the shame of my parents rebuke." (Harwood, 2001, p.182). She reflects on a similar situation in the same poem that displays her selfishness, natural attachment to possessions and inability to share as a child, "and knew I could slip in a k / or an i for a y and lose, / but did not, and sixty years / can't change it;" where she won a spelling prize and obtained her "coveted, worthless prize." (Harwood, 2001, p.179).

Harwood also recalls events during her childhood that portray the blissful ignorance a child has and how things can innocently influence can change them. "When I was a small child we lived in the country...and my friend Alice and I had a special cubby under the tank stand...there in which lived the beautiful Queensland green frog, and they seemed to like us, we loved them, and we used to sit under there cuddling them in our hands and talking to one another and listening to the people talking up on the veranda at the back...we had a continual stream of remarkable adult conversation. We did not understand what much of it was about." (Melbourne Writers' Festival, 1992). 'The Secret Life of Frogs' is one of Harwood's most emotive poems and is modelled on her memories of the tank stand with knowledge from adulthood reflections woven into the story to give it a much more mature and significant meaning. As she writes about a frog she is transported back to her experiences in the cubby house at the tank stand and the things she heard. "Its heartbeat troubles my warm hand / and as I set it down I see / two small girls in a warmer land." (Harwood, 2001, p.167). She then goes on to write about the conversations she had heard, especially about the Great War. "We knew about Poor George, who cried / if any woman touched her hair. / He'd been inside a brothel when the Jerries came and started shooting. / (We thought a brothel was a French / hotel that served hot broth to diggers.) / The girl that he'd been with was scalped. / Every Frog in the house was killed." (Harwood, 2001, p.168). There are these vivid memories that she could not have fully comprehended as a child but when she revisited the haunting thoughts with a more learned and mature approach she was able to recreate quite an emotional account of the situations that her own parents had once gone through.

Harwood also approaches childhood with a more pessimistic outlook when giving the point of view of a mother in 'In the Park' where the exhausting and all-consuming task of bringing up a child is described. The obligation a mother has to her children causes her to pour life and love into them. The last line of the poem "They have eaten me alive" shows the physical and emotional drain that children can place on adults. The reflections Harwood had of childhood and her earlier life never seemed to affect the assuring way that she had of contemplating and approaching death. "In this book death is never far from the surface of her poetry, no matter how sparkling with fun and intellectual games that surface may be, and this gives the added poignancy to the occasion of the book's publication." (Thorne, 1995, p.15). Harwood was able to comfortably confront age and mortality knowing that things in the bigger picture would continue to move on after her death. "I've never had any identity crisis at all in my life, there's always been a place for me to grow into; even if it's the next in line with the Grim Reaper close, it's been there waiting for me." (Melbourne Writers' Festival, 1992). Although death was a recurring influence in Harwood's poetry, it never seemed to cause her discomfort or uncertainty of herself or her future even after her diagnosis of cancer ten years before her death.

"Harwood was an intellectual, a well-educated woman with interests in many spheres. For instance, she was well versed in religion, and had a life-long interest in philosophy. Harwood often uses images from the natural world to convey philosophical themes and questions about life and death." (O'Reilly, 2002, p.38). Ludwig Wittgenstein, a specialist in the field of linguistic analysis, was Harwood's philosophical hero. He had quite a different approach to languages and she was fascinated by his style of thinking and writing. He was the inspiration for many of her poems and she felt she could clearly relate to him on a philosophical and personal level, referring to his writings, quoting him and involving him as someone who should be pondered upon in several of her poems.

Gwen Harwood's poetry has an immense amount of herself poured into it. Countless numbers of her characters and stories come from her personal experiences. Her poetry has an uncanny ability to describe human experiences and capture true emotion. Harwood has received many awards and several honorary doctorates for her skill as a poet and librettist and is one of Australia's most accomplished writers. Her writing constantly displays her ability to fill poems up with occurrences that readers could easily receive and comprehend. Although no well-written poem should exactly portray the experience that inspired it, Harwood had extremely accurate communication skills that allowed readers to familiarise themselves with the writing and feel the mystery of the story told in each poem. Her poetry is able to create exciting settings and is often delivered in short statements that stimulate and involve the reader. Harwood humbly spent years developing this ability, not for fame or recognition but because she loved it.

Gwen Harwood was published under at least four other names and was able to make words form into anything and anyone she wanted them to. She was able to draw inspiration from an endless amount of imaginative sources and create engrossing poetry that is a reading experience, making the person reading it feel as if they were part of the poetry. She had achieved the art of entertaining, informing and enlightening readers and has produced countless pieces of literature that appeal to almost anyone. The significant messages in her poetry evoke a range of emotions and create a lasting impact in the reader's mind, which is why it is such a success today.

Reference List:

ABC Poetica. 'Gwen Harwood - The Kröte Poems' in Radio National - Poetica, (30 August 2003)

"Emma J". 'Biography of Gwen Harwood' in written > articles, (24 July 2003).

Harwood, G. Selected Poems. 2001. Australia. Penguin Books.

Melbourne Writers' Festival. 'Gwen Harwood in conversation with Stephanie Trigg' in Festival 2002, (29 August 2003).

O'Reilly, S. Gwen Harwood. 2002. Australia. Science Press.

Thorne, T. 1995. 'A poet bows out with style.' Examiner. (21 October) p.15.


Hart, K. Review of Harwood's The Present Tense in eReserve (PDF document) of the University of Tasmania Library. (17 August 2003).

Lofthouse, A. 1982. Who's who of Australian women. Australia: Macarthur Press Books.

Comments (8)Add Comment
written by ShengDaFlashPro, March 21, 2010
stupid englorish
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
wtf, Low-rated comment [Show]
this bitch be trippin', Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Student, September 15, 2010
Thankyou, great analysis very helpful smilies/smiley.gif
written by Kim, July 18, 2011
I was wondering who wrote this so I could site it in my bibliography for an assessment.
written by Daniel BONINO, October 23, 2011
Is there anybody who can confirm that this quote from a poem of Gwen Harwwood is correct " Words can never say as music the unsayable grace that leaps like light from mind to mind " and where is it taken from.
Merci beaucoup


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