Barn Owl

“Daybreak: the household slept”
- Simple narrative, frank wording
- The colon suggests that memories are being documented and filed
- Memories are part of a series or collection, just like the poem is

“I rose, blessed by the sun.
A horny fiend”
- Interesting wording in that ‘rose’ will remind some readers of the flower, and ‘horny’ of the thorns
- Suggests that the child is about to grow or mature from a significant experience
- The personal pronoun of “I” immediately precedes “rose” to show that the child is, in a sense, associated with the youth, delicacy and vulnerability of a blossoming rose in the sunlight
- Linked to the devil, wickedness, corruption, and an agent of Hell
- Alarming juxtaposition between the angelic child and the wicked brutality of their act
- Foreshadowing

“Let him dream of a child
Obedient, angel-mild”
- A conceding, almost patronising tone to show that the child has power over his/her father, even if it’s only momentary

  • The father is “robbed of power by sleep”. The child gains power from holding the gun, a phallic symbol of male dominance. The father-child role is reversed.
  • The onomatopoeia “swooped” helps readers identify the owl, giving it life and distinct character to make the murder seem that much more brutal.
  • “Urine scented hay” is an example of realism, making the scene more vivid for readers. The experience of the child is a universal metaphor for all children’s’ struggles, so the reader is invited through examples of realism to reflect on their own experiences.

“master of life and death,
A wisp-haired judge whose law
Would punish beak and claw ”
- Becoming a “master” as opposed to a mistress. Feminine qualities are being sacrificed.
- Contrasting the innocence of the child to the brutality and cruelty of the act
- Demonstrates the vulnerability and impressionability of all children (the sex of the narrator is never mentioned)
- Reflects children’s desire for identity and a grasp on maturity
- “beak and claw” is an example of synecdoche

“My first shot struck”
- The shortness and abruptness disturbs the rhythm

“a lonely
child who believed death clean
and final, not this obscene”
- The child’s belief in the simplicity of death is shattered
- The narrator’s idealised understanding of death is corrupted, leaving them disillusioned and emotional lost (“lonely”)
- Harwood suggests that gaining maturity is a lifelong endeavour, not an autonomous act
- The child experiences an epiphany

  • “Bundle of stuff” and “wrecked thing” are unspecific and inexplicit references to the owl. This emphasises the child’s disillusionment and distorted perceptions of reality.

“I saw
those eyes that did not see
mirror my cruelty”
- The owl can no longer see the cruelty of humanity, but the child poignantly realises that s/he has lived a misrepresented reality (a clouded “mirror”), one where death only seemed simple and clean
- A child’s innocence is tainted by experience. This is a significant part of individuation and constructing meaning from our experiences
- Reflects humanity’s preoccupation with, and ultimate ignorance of, death.
- To iterate the finality of death, three stanzas dwell on the owl’s demise.

  • That the father gives the child the gun to end the owl’s suffering demonstrates that the child still needs guidance, even if they attempt to resist it. But s/he cannot reverse what has been done. Thus Harwood implies that we cannot regain innocence once knowledge has been acquired.

“I fired”
- The rhythm is disrupted
- Sombre, simple narrative
- Dramatic immediacy and abruptness

  • Eyes are meant to have the ability to see beyond imposed realities. The child’s belief in a clean, simple and peaceful death is shattered by what s/he witness. There is a slight reversal of fortune, in that the child takes away the owl’s sight by killing it, while his/her clearer understanding of death reveals disturbing realities, ultimately leading to disillusionment.

“daylight-riddled eyes”
“those eyes that did not see”
“blank eyes shone”
“owl-blind in early sun”

  • The owl is a symbol of wisdom and, in some cultures, of dreams and inverted realities. This is because an owl sleeps during the day and becomes active at night, the complete opposite of human behaviour.
  • The gun is a phallic symbol and demonstrates the child’s eagerness to mature. Because the child’s gender is never made explicit, his/her experience can be considered a universal metaphor for the struggles of all children to grasp maturity, independence and power through an act rebellion.

Rhyme and rhythm:
There is a consistent rhyme scheme (ABABCC). This reflects the simplified living of the child; the controlled, tamed, confined domesticity of their life. Thus their act of rebellion is an attempt to defy the constraints of authority imposed by the father.

But the rhythm becomes unsteady in some instances. This reflects the child’s youth and inexperience, their unsettling epiphany and the brutality of the owl’s death.

- Short, simple sentences dominated by monosyllabic words reflects the child persona; innocence and simplicity
- Compare this to the language in ‘Nightfall’, which is more subdued.


“Lived or dreamed”

- Suggests ambiguity and the fallibility of memory

“Father and child”

- Emphasises intimacy and a private relationship

“Time’s long-promised land”

- Death is inevitable and inescapable

- Implies that the afterlife, the spiritual plane, is an entirely different dimension of human existence

Images of fruit and growth: “season that seemed”, “ripeness is plainly all” and “fruits of the temporal”

- Evokes the ideas of our vulnerability to nature and aging

- “ripeness” reflects the fruition and culmination of life and all that we achieve in it

- Biblical allusion to Eve’s disobedience. Rebellion is also explored in ‘Barn Owl’.

The narrator addresses their father formally: “Father, we pick our last...”

- He still has authority by dint of age

- There is an exchange of power that takes place, just like there is in ‘Barn Owl’.

“Who can be what you were?”

- Rhetorical question

- The child speaks to the father, but Harwood indirectly refers to the reader. She prompts us to reflect on their own experiences with our parents; the sacrifices, frustrations and joys shared. Harwood explores so many aspects of the parent-child relationship in her poetry that she cannot expect one defining, universal answer.

“Stick-thin comforter”

- The father has been weakened by the forces of nature alone

- This is a conflicting notion. The father is extremely frail but still offers his child comfort. The role of the parent is thus cemented as enduring and immortal. It is not the father’s physical presence that the narrator will remember, it is the experience of reciprocated love.

“Far distant suburbs shine

With great simplicities”

- The rest of the world is placed at a removed distance so the father and child can enjoy the precious moment in peace

- All external influences from the world fade away as they centre themselves in a private universe, and the world’s worries are momentarily suspended from their minds

“Your passionate face is grown

To ancient innocence”

- Harwood uses antithesis to explore opposites (father and child, rebellion vs. submitting to authority)

- Life is now full of simplicities for the father. He is wise and “ancient”, but with much life experience he has achieved a calmness and balance of temper. This is reflected in the rhythm of the poem.

“Let us walk for this our

As if death had no power...

Or were no more than sleep”

- The symbol of time and the theme of power

- Harwood questions death as a permanent state

- Allusion to Shakespeare’s work

“Things truly named can never

vanish from earth. You keep

a child’s delight for ever

in birds, flowers, shivery-grass –

I name them as we pass”

- Things never disappear from our memories if we are able to recognise and identify important parts of our childhood. We use childhood experiences to deal with adult situations later in life

- Our individual growth is reflected in the growth of nature

- Our memories bring us “delight” when we reflect on them, and we can identify (or “name”) aspects of our past that have attributed to who we are

“Your marvellous journey’s done

Your day and night and one”

- A harmonious union of light and darkness

- A comforted sensed of finality

- Light represents transience and change in Harwood’s poetry, and darkness represents confusion, finality and death. Day and night symbolically becoming “one” suggests that there is balance achieved in old age, where we can station ourselves at a removed distance and reflect on our “marvellous journey”. Compare this to ‘An Impromptu for Ann Jennings’.

The “white stick”

- The father uses this to navigate his way through the metaphorical “path” of life

- This echoes the “stick-thin comforter”. The cane gives direction, just as the father gives his child support and comfort.

“home with the child once quick

to mischief, grown to learn

what sorrows, in the end,

no words, no tears can mend”

- Repeated caesuras (pauses) adds a sense of delay and reluctance to recognise the reality of death

- The narrator comes to “learn” and understand the inevitability of death, and the fact that they no longer need to prove their independence

- Melancholic tone – longing, reflecting, missing the experiences


  • Time

Readers get the impression of constant movement and change, not only in nature but in the father and child too.

“sunset exalts its known

symbols of transience”

“let us walk for this hour

as if death had no power”

  • Nature

- Growth of nature reflects the child’s growth. Elements of nature stimulate memories

  • Light (as well as night and day)

The poem is set at twilight as a dramatising device to explore the uncertain, shadowing space between memory (illusions that are manifested in the mind) and reality.


There are many allusions to Shakespeare’s tragedies:

- “Be your tears wet?” is a direct quote from the play ‘King Lear’, where the eponymous character questions his daughter Cordelia. This reinforces that the child is in fact a female.

- The parallel between death and sleep echoes Lady Macbeth (“the sleeping and the dead are but as pictures”) and Hamlet (“to die; to sleep; no more”)

- Shakespeare also presents death as inevitable in these plays.

- In King Lear, the king moves from a state of delusion to awareness (just as the father does!)

Rhyme and rhythm

The pace is slower than ‘Barn Owl’ to demonstrate the calmer, more controlled atmosphere. Life and death are contemplated and considered with much more seriousness as a life is about to end – no more personal or universal discoveries are to be made (unlike the child’s growth in ‘Barn Owl’). The slow pace reflects the calmness and control acquired by both the father’s and child’s experience.

Subdued tone – hesitation in facing the reality of death

The rhyme scheme is the same as ‘Barn Owl’. The common ABABCC rhyme automatically connects the two poems, and it can be inferred that the father and child are the same in both poems.