The violets’, ‘A Valediction’ and ‘Sharpness of Death’
Gwen Harwood poetry deeply explores many aspects of the human experience. In ‘The Violets’ her poetry explores the passage of time. That the passing of time is inevitable and brings about loss and change. This poem explores the nature of memories and the role they play in finding solace for this loss. ‘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.
In ‘The Sharpness of Death’ Harwood explores the nature of love, life and death, and the relationship between each. Harwood highlights the extreme contrast in ones perception of love, life and death when influenced by either philosophy or poetry. In ‘The Violets’ Harwood explores the inevitable nature of passing time, that this passing gives rise to change and loss. The inevitability of the approach of death in the poem is seen through the figurative language and simile of sunset images ‘the melting west stripped like ice-cream’ symbolic of the inevitable approach. The connecting image of the violets are used throughout the poem ‘frail melancholy flowers’, ‘spring violets’ and ‘gathered flowers’ these images act as a metaphor representative of the stages of life. Each image is representative of high and low phases of life and ‘gathered flowers’ is suggestive of the end of life. The persona questions this passage in the direct speech and rhetorical question ‘where’s morning gone?’ reflecting the complexity of the concept of passing time, the early years of life, the innocence of childhood and ignorance is seen in the monosyllabic suggesting the impermanent nature of life ‘the thing I could not grasp or name’.
Thus exploring the inevitability of passing time and inevitability of death. ‘The Violets’ explores the relationship between memories and time. That the memories of loved ones can withstand the tests of time and influence ones understanding of death and therefor life. The structure of the poem is consistent. The indents represent a shift in tense for example ‘ambiguous sky/towards nightfall’ this is suggestive that in order to understand the present emotion we need to understand the context of the memory. The shift between tense is contrasted by the consistency of the eight line stanza throughout whole poem. This presents that the nature of memories as consistent throughout time regardless of the separation of time. The shift in time is representative of the change in ones perception of death as the move through life. The colloquial language and enjambment creates the tone ‘ it will soon be night you goose’ . The tone shifts from sad and melancholy to a resolved certain tone. This reflects the influence that memories have played in deepening the understanding of the individual. ‘The Violets’ explores the nature of memories and the role that they play in comforting one who has experienced loss of change. The image of the violet acts as a catalyst in which she revokes the memories of childhood and her parents love. This demonstrates the dependence one places on finding solace from once the circumstance of the memory is gone.
The nature of the memory is explored and reflected through the enjambment ‘years cannot move, nor deaths disorientating scale distort those lamp lit presence’ the pace is increased as the emotion of the writer accentuates. This suggests that nothing can change or blur the joyful memories that she had with her parents, before time took them away. Thus reflecting memories as a successful means to finding comfort in dealing with the loss of loved ones. Similar to ‘The Violets’, ‘A Valediction’ explores the search for a means to find comfort and solace. Rather than memories, Gwen Harwood uses poetry itself to provide solace from the loss of loved ones. The rhetorical question; then if I need a lullaby, Good Doctor Donne will you attend?’ associates poetry with a comforting image of a lullaby. Reference to the physical book ‘The Oxford Donne’ offers a tangible image associated with comfort as well as turning to the book throughout life to find comfort ‘ached with aches from adolescence’ and ‘leaps from underlining into my flesh’. This is suggestive of the role that poetry can play in one’s life, giving comfort and deepening understanding of life.
Harwood in ‘A Valediction’ examines how physical and spiritual loves are important aspects of life. The two have contrasting features yet complement each other. The contrast is represented by the direct quoting of Lou Salome and St.Theresea. Lour Salome represents the image of physical love ‘weather I kissed Nietzsche on the Monte Sacro I find I do not now remember’. Compared to St.Theresea who died young and faithful and demonstrated immense dedication and love for God. Harwood by the use of rhetorical question ‘dear ladies shall we meet halfway between sanctity and liberation?’ reflects Harwood’s understanding of the importance of both forms of love, spiritual and physical. Harwood explores the enduring and comforting nature of love. Literary allusion and reference to John Donne’s poem ‘The Sunne Rising’ and title ‘A Valediction: forbidding mourning’ introduces into her poem the idea of Donne’s metaphor of the compass. This represents the idea that love can endure despite physical distance. This assists in forming and understanding of love. The defiant tone in ‘my lover will come again to, my body to its true end will give him joy’ shows her content in still having spiritual love to provide her with love when physical love is taken by death.
Harwood deepens her exploration of love in ‘The Sharpness of Death’ Harwood explores the relationship between love, life and death. Death is presented as an inevitable facet in the human experience. Harwood directly addresses death personifying it. The use of colloquial language ‘that’s your way with us women’ and the rhetorical question ‘leave me alone you will?’ humorously engenders the speakers playful and familiar voice when dealing with the most significant and feared aspect of human experience. It is feared because of its inevitability. Harwood litristically paints for us the concept of life and love. The finite nature of life is represented in section 3 with the light image in the simile ‘light like a noble visitor stayed with us briefly’. This fleeting nature of life is again seen in the image of death approaching, once again Harwood employs the light image ‘that ray of descending light.’ This is contrasted with Harwood’s concept of love as infinite, the assonance of ‘seed of seeds of seasons’ and sibilance ‘countless seasons blossom’ demonstrate the cyclical nature of love, with no end. Both philosophical and artistic based perspectives respond to the questions associated with life, death and love.
Harwood as poet represents the artistic perspective and presents to philosophical perspective in an unfavourable light. She aligns the complex and formal voice of philosophy with the playful one associated with poetry. The philosophical allusion of ‘Heidegger’, ‘Wittgenstein’ and ‘Gods Desin’ requires an elevated level of knowledge to interpret and understand. The playful voice of poetry is seen the colloquial rhetorical question ‘that’s your way with us women’. Harwood argues that poetry offers a more genuine outlook on life, death and love than philosophy. That the philosophical response is ridiculous, seen in the analogy ‘philosophers…know that knives are sharp, but prove…there’s no such thing as sharpness’. This reflects her view that philosophers construct theories to answer questions rather than seeing proof of personal experience. Her disapproval of the philosophical approach is highlighted in the contempt tone seen ‘but proves with complex logic there’s no such thing’. Gwen Harwood through her poetry presents death as an inevitable aspect in life. That love is the everlasting aspect in the both finite life and death. That with love life is fulfilled, death accepted and the nature of both unveiled. The triumphant tone ‘Death I will tell you now’ shows her resolved understanding to the everlasting transcendent nature of love. This nature of love is established in the metaphor and religious allusion ‘my love and I stood in the roofless chapel’. Gwen Harwood thoroughly explores the concepts of life, death and love in ‘The Violets’, ‘A Valediction’ and ‘The Sharpness of Death’.